Whistle and I’ll Come to You

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Without a voiceover track Whistle and I’ll Come to You is a series of discrete actions presenting what its narration on paper would describe exactly, meaning that it is a lot like a mundane realist silent film where scenes cut to scenes with no apparent logic or semblance of narrative progress. Adding to this, scenes open with actions such as making the bed or eating, and they only end when the bed has been made or the food has been finished. It is sort of like the La Monte Young piece where a butterfly is set loose in the room and the musical performers finish the performance when it decides to leave, but rather than an organic indeterminacy, it feels like we are perpetually waiting for the action to stop so we can get closer to finding meaning within the film. Michael Hordern plays Professor Parkin less like an intellectual caricature as critics argue, but like a soon to be madman with his intellect in a state of collapse. He builds a wall around himself with unintelligible ramblings and when he is confronted with having to talk to another human being it is like he is shambling through his brain’s dusty library trying to find the right tattered document with which to respond. It is actually painful. In the Romantic tradition the mad inhabit rational and non-rational worlds simultaneously, and Whistle and I’ll Come to You uneasily navigates different spaces of isolation, unease, and encounter- the hotel, the beach, the graveyard. These sites and the objects found within them are topochrons, containing multiple time-periods all at once. The near-madman Parkin stumbles like a reckless child through these areas, and emerges not covered in spiderwebs but ghosts from malicious and uncertain histories. The film’s stuffy formalism is constantly undone by its lack of clarity with regard to the significance of the content of its stuffy formalism, like a mathematician writing their formulae immaculately in the sand as the tide draws near. All of its polarities are upset, not in order to draw us in and make something real, but to keep us at a curious distance. It has this polite British quality that makes its madness all the more inscrutable. Something in it lingers there after the film finishes, suggesting we think about it some more, if we have the time of course. This mundane yet otherworldly quality results in something remotely, impossibly nostalgic, as though something in us read it or dreamt it or watched it once well before we were born, something left over from somewhere else.

Scooby-Doo

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There is something impossibly alluring about the promise of a film that brings together Buffy the Vampire SlayerFreaks and GeeksScream, and I Know What You Did Last Summer, reimagines some of their faces as the Mystery Inc gang, and invites them to a private island that is also an island resort and also an island resort slash faux-Voodoo theme park hotel. The idea of the theme park might evoke the image of an amusement ride which is on a track and goes straight ahead, blowing past painted halls and automatons which shriek Look Out! through voice boxes, and ends in a satisfying crescendo through turbulence and water splashing. This is a fitting analogy for the conventional narrative act, as well as the experience of watching a film, but Scooby-Doo (2002) is too messy to be truly analogous to the efficiency of a theme park ride, and the gang do not indulge in the rides’ thrills, but instead work ‘behind the scenes’ to expose what is fake-real and what is real-real. The film is less about fun than it is about geographies and human behaviour in and around spaces dedicated to fun, the question of how to behave sincerely, and the search for truth within a simulated reality.

Outside of Scooby-Doo directly, it is unclear whether the average theme park visitor believes in what they are seeing, or whether they enjoy seeing what is blatantly artificial. Eco believes that theme parks offer a perfectly safe vision of the natural world which people find comforting, while Baudrillard argues that people find their very artificiality comforting as it makes the world outside of the theme park seem comparatively real. The fact that the gang are not on the island to partake in the thrills and luxuries it has to offer, and are in fact there to expose its mysteries, marks them as outsiders with the ability to view things from a critical distance. They will board the rides to begin the investigation, but only so that they can better see the mechanics of the illusion. We as viewers enjoy witnessing the process of the gang tearing down the curtains, because then we are able to see something that we believe is real. We the viewer, and the gang, fall into the Baudrillardian trap. The formula of Scooby-Doo the cartoon is the repetitive unmasking of illusions because the cartoon believes that we can uncover the truth behind simulation and performance. The film is more sceptical. Lillard is perfect as Shaggy, and it is also good to remember his turn in Scream where his character cannot tell if he’s been stabbed, or is pretending to have been stabbed, and whether or not he is dying, because that is precisely the vibe of this film.

Scooby-Doo revels in layers and layers of artificiality. The faux Voodoo designs of Spooky Island are a horrific extension of the mid-century retro-gazing Hawaiian shirts and tiki culture that made their way into popular culture in the mid to late 1990s. The film problematises the ironic-affectionate nods to last century’s appropriation. Tiki culture emerged in the post-war period with the rise of leisure travel, where a growing tourist class could bend the Orientalist project to exploit the Pacific. 19th century Orientalist artists used colours, fabrics, and sexuality to lure the viewer into a hallucination of the Other world’s slavery, hudud, and tyranny. The Oriental world became alluring and dangerous, and the viewer’s own very real world of slavery, capital punishment, and tyranny felt for a moment positively far away. The difference here is that while Orientalism was built on western imperialism’s fear and curiosity of eastern imperialism, tiki culture makes the Other submissive- this is your hut for the weekend, this is your cocktail. For all that the songs of Martin Denny might appeal for their kitsch value, debates in the 21st century still take place over whether or not cultural appropriation is harmful to the cultures being mocked and stolen from. The discomfort stirred by the film is just as pressing now as it was in 2002.

The most distressing thing about Scooby-Doo is that the indigenous people have all disappeared.

Where have they gone?

The fact that Spooky Island is a private island and not just a resort slash theme park is important, as it locates this unreality within a non-space. On the way to Spooky Island people forfeit their standard (i.e. ‘real’) modes of behaviour in order to adhere to non or alternative hegemonic modes of behaviour on arrival. The trivialities and pressures of the ‘everyday’ go away, and so to does the individual’s everyday self who is taught to overcome or endure said trivialities. The self and her behaviour are no longer regulated by a community or society that she sees herself as a part of, or responsible to. The private island is a zone outside of existing hegemonies, and outside of traditional modes of accountability. Whatever might seem utopian about this promise is undermined by the fact that the private island exists to benefit and sustain itself, and as such we must consider what we are leaving behind on arrival, and who this works for. We think of a private company. Who runs the company and for what, is for the gang to uncover. Without the shackles of responsibility, we expect to see pure humanity on this island, just the same as we see pure capitalism when companies escape regulation. Family, community, and friendship are all cast as the negatives of the old world, our old selves, and on Spooky Island we are reborn as Free Individuals. Spooky Island is a neoliberal utopia, and Scooby-Doo reminds us that pursuing ego over community (‘freedom’ over accountability) results in more insidious, usually internalised forms of oppression, as well as destructive behaviours abroad.

We see pre-revolution Cuba’s “bordello for Americans” reappearing in centres such as Barcelona and Venice. The Arran movement is notably protesting by cutting bus tyres and holding placards in front of beach views, while Barcelona and Venetian City Councils have introduced bans and restrictions on ‘sharing economy’ businesses such as Uber and Airbnb. As with Spooky Island, there was likely a pseudo utopian angle to this (is)land of ‘freedom’, but now the cultural, economic, and infrastructural cost has become too great. Commentators have been frighteningly quick to resort to abusive colonial pathologies such as You’re trying to get rid of us, but you need us! on seeing these places attempt to have more say in how things play out. The question before was who or what Spooky Island’s neoliberal paradise works for, and the answer when looking at Uber, Airbnb, and the travel industry, is capital itself. Of course the impact of the invisible is always devastatingly physical. Uber drivers exploit themselves and force others into a race to the bottom, Uber the company dodges tax, and Airbnb pushes renters out of their own cities. Barcelona and Venice want to ensure that unlike Spooky Island, their citizens do not disappear.

There is nothing intrinsically imaginative, exotic, or escapist about any geographical space- all of this all comes through human mythologisation and projection, and then physical performance according to these imaginary values. An early scene in Scooby-Doo has one group of tourists arriving at the island, and another group leaving it. The leavers arrange themselves in an orderly line having been conditioned to do so, and display mechanical and aggressive characteristics to best suit ‘the real world’ to which they are returning. At first it seems that the arrivers are behaving naturally and that these mechanical leavers have been brainwashed, but the film calls into question the naturalism of both groups. Later the gang find a room used for brainwashing demons into behaving like those of the arrivers’ camp. All behaviour is coded- nobody ever really arrives at or leaves the theme park. The resort is the beacon of compulsory fun and compulsory relaxation, and vacationers become tyrannical infants as they abuse resort workers, demand food that they cannot provide for themselves, and bask in the extravagances that come with forgoing agency for the promise of luxury. The vacationers dance to Sugar Ray and stuff their faces at buffets, and literally forfeit their souls to an invisible demonic power. The promise of indulgence and freedom becomes the bait to turn these people into slaves who in their own eyes are masters. We remember what dictates the rules of, and owns this island without regulation, and without culpability. People are not supposed to behave like baby tyrants, and people do not want to recklessly exploit whatever and whoever they come across either. We want to know each other empathetically, and we want to encounter things with the purest intentions, but something is always mediating these exchanges. The promise of freedom for the individual was always a trap; capitalism benefits from individualism as we become weaker, more suspicious, and crueller on our own.

Scooby-Doo dramatises attempts at searching for the truth, the real, and the sincere within the theme park of late capitalism. The film is built on layers of artificiality, because finding these things is a difficult, if not impossible task. The gang get onto a ghost ride which leads to three different fates, each real- and not fake-dangerous. The point here is that there is no difference between simulation and reality. One of the main villains is a luchador, the man in the mask who performs theatrics for a crowd that loves the spectacle although they know the match is fixed. Rowan Atkinson acts good but is bad and is a machine controlled by Scrappy Doo who is actually devouring souls to become a for-real monster. The demons cannot be unmasked, because they are actually real-real, except for when they act like humans through observing coded human behaviours. Daphne bumps into a man practicing Voodoo in one of the island’s faux Voodoo huts and calls him out for using a supermarket chicken instead of a live one. It is unclear whether any of his rituals work, because rather than sticking around to find out she misinterprets his straightforward advice (Don’t go there) as a complicated web of deceit. Velma is that Baudrillardian park-goer that peers behind the curtain to find the truth- she is convinced that solid detective work will expose the ‘real’ sitting behind the ‘fake’. Fred is a meathead who fits into the knight/damsel dichotomy with Daphne until Daphne decides that she does not need to be rescued any more, dissolving his use. Daphne’s rejection of what is expected of her makes her one of the film’s heroes. Shaggy and Scooby unlike their colleagues believe in the illusions of the theme park and have no fixed method for unpacking its surfaces. What this means is that they must perpetually act in the present, taking simulation and reality as one and the same thing. What allows them to endure is their inability to tell the difference, as well as their belief in friendship and family. The private island asks them to remove their masks, to remove the shackles of ‘the real world’, and to become Individuals, to which Shaggy responds “It’s just, materialism’s not really our bag, man.”

Films tend to be sceptical about the possibility of ever escaping the cultural theme park. Danny Boyle’s The Beach satirises the hubristic ‘authentic traveler’ who looks for non-tourist spectacle through familiar colonial frameworks, and the ‘cultural tourist’ appears in Peele’s Get Out, boasting in full sincerity that he likes to ‘collect culture’. The ending of Snatched points to a potential kind of empathy, but this feels like a way of apologising for the violence and destruction within film that came before it. The party tourist arrives on Spooky Island for a sick weekend of Sugar Ray and all-you-can-eat buffets. Change the wallpaper from Spooky Island to Thailand and they’d hardly notice; it’s just decoration on an amusement ride any way.

Scooby-Doo does not offer a straightforward path out of this because it thinks that we are too entangled in the late capitalist theme park to just get up and walk away. Everywhere you look inside the film, is artificial. It puts forth a potential utopia but reminds us that it has been built on one of history’s missing pages, and that we must eliminate the power structures that hide behind the promise of freedom. And that is the thing- it sounds cynical, but it believes very much that we can improve things for ourselves and others. It is a strange nightmare film that calls for the decolonisation of space, a rejection of cultural commodification and appropriation, and an emphasis on personal and economic accountability in the service of community.

Blackhat

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“In the 19th century mankind had come to terms with space, and that the great question of the 20th was the coexistence of different concepts of time.” The story goes that the advent of the railway did not so much alter as entirely shatter and reconstitute humankind’s perception of space-time. Anyone over a certain age can empathise with this- the question in the 21st century is what qualities can be ascribed to space-time now that the speed of the railway seems positively quaint. Now that we believe in instants. Collateral and Miami Vice were already 24/7 cinema- the former exists through the night and the latter runs through day and night indifferently- they foreshadowed Blackhat’s ostensible collapse of spatio-temporal frames. This is the post-fordist nightmare of constant performance, with a more recently dystopian constancy of ‘connection’. Time is homogenous. Time has been globalised. There is only one time and that is Real-Time. Miami Vice’s time was an unstable barrage and the humans in it had to either keep up with it, or grab hold of something. When they tried hard enough, they stopped time. Operating entirely within real-time, Blackhat a decade later rules this out as an impossibility and changes the question to: how can we disappear?

We mythologise connectivity as ethereal, ubiquitous, sublime, and we for some reason shut out of our minds images of data centres and server farms, and the environmental, human, and infrastructural costs of the perceived intangible. We talk about information and the knowledge economy. We want these things to become holy. The computers that run computers and the servers that run servers and the spaces that run non-spaces: this is gravity. The (predominantly coloured) hands caught in the photocopier of the not ‘product’, but emphatically abstract ‘service’ Google Books- Andrew Norman Wilson’s ScanOps, is gravity. Blackhat too announces itself by making this visible. A nuclear plant explodes, triggered by someone who is physically remote. The command that triggers it is impressively fast, but it is not instant- we see the process of information as it travels. It is not obscured by The Cloud- it follows a chain of cause and effect, which is the rule of our physical world. There is a limit to the magic: gravity. What we perceive as instant is movement at hyperspeed. Blackhat breaks the metaphor and desecrates the symbol. Time, money, and movement- these are reified. Eerily, the physical in turn desires to become abstract.

Jonathan Crary asks for a future without barbarism and where post-humanism is not the solution. Whatever one’s opinion on the matter it is clear that we are already hybrids. We are only fully activated when we are connected to others remotely through devices that we keep on our bodies and which we grow anxious in the absence of. Some see this as a form of addiction, but it seems obvious enough to most that our hybrid-state is a social and professional expectation, as well as an existential one. We need these devices in order to perceive and participate in real-time. We see ourselves abstracted and reconstituted in information appearing elsewhere, in spaces we cannot physically inhabit. This is obvious- it goes without saying. Abstraction is connectivity. Hathaway performs a physical disappearance by altering the refresh time of someone else’s GPS, and not with a choreographed chase through streets and rooftops. We seem to exist both within the boundaries of, and beyond physics simultaneously. This tension is at the core of Blackhat and Mann’s cinema generally- fragmented, breathless, movement-obsessed, his films are too persistently physical and too romantic to ever go fully abstract, and he is too interested in process to ever share someone like Yuichi Yokoyama’s totality of action.

His first solution is to turn those who can not just observe, but control and manipulate ‘the intangible’ (i.e. the flow of information, the access to hybridised potential (activation), currencies) into superheroes and supervillains. Information is data, the economy is information, the internet is connectivity, currency is hypothetical, a signifier pointing to an empty space, weighing more provided it stays that way. ‘The body of Our Saviour shat but Our Saviour shat not.’ The seductive power of these things lies in the fact that they are simple but impenetrably abstract- signs signifying metaphors. You open the door and there is nothing there- the absence makes it holy. The internet doesn’t want to be real, and capital wants to be, except when it wants to become knowledge. Then it’s the hands in the photocopiers and the children in the cobalt mines. Blackhat rejects all claims to holiness. Hathaway and the blackhat don’t teleport, they travel at hyperspeed. They control the power of movement, they change the tides, they break systems of power. They exploit the symbols. It seems like black magic, but it’s not, it’s all belief. Seemingly borders don’t exist for them, and so we return to the question of how to describe time and space when this is the case. People afraid of post- and trans-humanist futures cite science fiction dystopias as worst-case scenarios for the place of traditional moralities and human rights. Most audiences look to superheroes instead (Civil War, Dawn of Justice, The Dark Knight). Are they ‘beyond good and evil.’ Returning to the image of the 19th century train- Mann’s cinema so often feels futile- these super-people know how to catch the train but they can’t drive it and any way there’s still the train. ‘Things go wrong. The odds catch up. Probability is like gravity: you cannot negotiate with gravity.’

The movement in it could not be described as anything other than sublime, but it’s made weird by the fact that we’re shown the mechanics of such movement. The gravity of the symbols, of those misnomers information, capital, cloud, connection. The director has always been about process and Blackhat is no different. Similar processes in The Fate of the Furious belong entirely in the realm of magic- we sit back as Cipher and Ramsey cast spells, summoning bizarro visualisations that show how we can transcend space-time. Blackhat on the other hand has the audacity to show us command lines! I said we abstract ourselves in order to inhabit spaces we physically couldn’t, but the truth is that we hybridise ourselves to interpret these spaces in ways that make sense to us. Does talking about these things demystify or remistify them? Blackhat does both. Like Miami Vice the film ostensibly rejects metaphysics, but its intimate approach to death shows the director in a different place this time around. That one was so obsessed with life that it framed death as just an absence of life. This one is about ghosts, but also about making the abstract physical. It’s conflicted.

Between these two films came Public Enemies and in Public Enemies we see spirits leave bodies. A year earlier, in a very early episode of Breaking Bad the director establishes two timelines- one with two men scrubbing globules of a dead person’s skin and guts from the floor, and another with one of these men musing on how only 99% of the human body can be accounted for chemically. This kind of thing would never again be picked up on in the show. Blackhat is similarly ambiguous- ‘real-time’, against its nature, slows subjectively so that we can stay with a woman as she blinks her final blink. The film against metaphors erects a skyscraper as a tombstone. Is the person just the sum of what they do before they become deactivated? Or does death activate them to reach their true potential as skin and gut globules? At a distance Mann’s cinema could agree with either of these positions, but we know that its power lies in that inexplicable 1% where people hold on against the very machinery of his cinema. And he’s as excited as we are when they shatter the frameworks that he builds. There’s this grimness visualised, this Deleuzian nightmare of time, and this post-fordist nightmare of performance and teleology, and there is always gravity and fate, but there is this faith that we will eternally try to even for a second transcend these things.

Wind River

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“You’re looking for clues, but you’re missing all the signs,” says Renner’s Cory hired by Wind River Indian Reservation for his tracking skills, to Olsen’s upstart FBI agent Jane. Something in us says Cory will out-FBI Olsen and continue to out-track those living in the reservation until he brings them all closure. The rugged and compelling Cory traverses social and racial boundaries, says ‘we’ and ‘us’ when talking to the impossibly dispossessed, displays the coldness and compassion integral for survivalism, is haunted by his past, tells Native Americans and women what’s what, and threatens to make Wind River feel like last century’s revisionism. Native American Chip rightly calls Cory out when Cory tells Chip to sort his shit out and make something of himself (“the only thing Native about you is your ex-wife”), but this is framed as Hard Truth rather than empathetic muddiness. Defining Wind River by its white saviour narrative is reductive, but we are also aware at every beat who wrote and directed it.

Cory’s place as saviour seems warmly accommodated by the film, but there are places where the film would make more sense dramatically were it not for his inclusion. Did someone insist Sheridan write him in so that this film about a female FBI agent investigating murdered and disappeared Native American women would still feature a white male protagonist? There are other places where Wind River‘s seams show as well. Sheridan paces the film with a relentless kind of ambience which is at once punchy and fearful, but in its most critical moment he goes against this and dissolves its tense immediacy for a show-all flashback. Everywhere else his writing displays a trust that the viewer is keeping up, and indeed anyone paying attention already internalised the horrors of the mystery implied to gut wrenching ends. We cannot criticise it for presenting sexual assault as banal or titillating (as with something like Game of Thrones), but it is still gratuitous. This flashback feels in so many ways tacked on, and is detrimental to all of the film’s pathos over the missing.

Sheridan as a first time director already understands how to articulate his writing cinematically, and crucially understands when style is necessary and when function will suffice. This cannot be said of his dialogue, which when not functional (when it is functional it is excellent) is occasionally so loaded with portent that it is distracting to the majority of the actors. Early on Julia Jones’ Wilma is expected to go from mundane conversation to wall-shaking ellipsis as though that is an easy task, and Graham Green is asked to get there from wryly comic. Olsen is spared from this altogether as she is tasked with simply advancing and reflecting on events, and Renner is fed Carverian and Eastwoodian one-liners to scrunch his expressive potato forehead over. “Out here, you cannot blink, not once, not ever.” “Out here you survive or you surrender.” etc.

I’m not a viewer that laughs at a work’s self-seriousness, but there are scenes in Wind River with a tonal ambiguity that makes it unclear how we are supposed to feel. In one such scene Cory finds Martin (Gil Birmingham) sitting under a tree with his face painted, and Martin says that it is his Death Face. Cory asks him what this means and Martin shrugs and admits that he has no idea what it means. The theatre erupts with laughter. Anyone still laughing a second too long misses Martin adding that in the way of indigenous mourning practices “I don’t know… there’s no one left to teach me.” This line will haunt me for a long time, and I am still undecided whether it was a serious line in a fun scene, or whether the whole scene was meant to be serious. Either way it is a symptom of the whole film being over-written. Similarly Nick Cave and Warren Ellis have likely produced a good record using Wind River as an excuse, but their pieces inserted into the film are over-scored and make the images seem overwrought. An interior scene will end and we are thrust into the white hills, and wincing we feel cold, but then there enter strings and a husky spoken-word performance.

Plastic grime is cinematic candy for me but it should not be used for Wind River‘s subject matter. Luckily Sheridan brings a sincere heavy handedness that bludgeons the viewer’s emotions in the right way. This is important because over and above this plastic grime Ben Richardson’s cameras feel as though they are leering at the houses of Wind River’s inhabitants. While they avoid outright poverty tourism there is still something fetishistic about the way they lap up one particular interior. Richardson really wants us to see graffiti on an internal wall, missing floorboards covered by rugs, and a bin being used inside as a fireplace. He licks his lips at signifiers of drug-addiction and hopelessness. This kind of thing was okay in something like True Detective season one because the interiors belonged to made-up hillbilly cultists, but Wind River is a real place inhabited by real people. Richardson’s work avoids being as cynically awful as something like this, but one wonders whether that comes down to a number of scenes shot inside family homes which the cameras are therefore disinterested in.

The epigraph which reports that the number of murdered and missing Native American women goes unreported by non-tribal authorities (and this after the film dramatises the fact that assault against Native American women tends to be committed by white men and thus sits outside of both tribal and non-tribal jurisdiction) was met with a collective gasp in my theatre briefly interrupting a long stretch of tears. Does it matter that Cory’s inclusion drags Wind River through white saviours and the lows of the well-meaning but retrograde western revisionism of half a century ago? At this point it is obvious that Sheridan has avoided miserablism and created something for all its flaws, provocative if not outright (and necessarily) didactic.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

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Lanthimos at a certain stage realises that the film’s lobotomised dialogue and line delivery (“You’ve not touched your fries” “No” “May I ask why?” “Because I like the fries the most. I’m leaving them until last” “Oh right. I often do that as well”) familiar to those who saw The Lobster will only get him so far, so looks back to Dogtooth for advice in familial cruelty to at least run the audience through the perfunctory squirms and nervous laughs which that entails. We might commend the director for opening up and thus complicating The Killing of a Sacred Deer‘s narrative to the extent that on paper it could seem like a conventional thriller. In Dogtooth knowledge is factional (parent/child), but in The Killing of a Sacred Deer each individual knows something unique, lacks clarity on something specific, and has their own desired outcome in the film’s stakes. There is consequently a maturity to the way that information reaches the viewer- Lanthimos carefully controls when we can learn something, when we’ll stay in the dark, how to lead us to an idea, and when to deceive us.

The trick then is once again farce played straight; to invest only in surfaces. We might care for Martin’s mission as a dispossessed individual suffering at the ‘beautiful’ but shaky hands of the elite, and we might note the gendered rivalry between husband and wife’s respective professional fields, but the director is adamant we take all of this at face-value instead. We understand that it is about facades, and that normalcy is uncanny, and that we are meant to be provoked, but I don’t understand how we are meant to be offended by such a self-important shrug. Pauline Kael once remarked that the sex and violence in Kubrick’s films feels like a physics professor trying to make dick jokes. Lanthimos has taken this not as criticism but encouragement and so a better analogy for him might be an accountant making dead baby jokes. With his breakout film Dogtooth the director used this Euro Arthouse formalism as a hell that his characters desire to escape, and cinema itself became the tool to break away. The most interesting thing about The Killing of a Sacred Deer is that it has become the director’s desire to use cinema to smother the viewer in precisely this stuffy film language.

I am not above Lanthimos’ brand of detached cruelty, but I take issue with it being presented in such a bored and irritatingly smug way. The cameras draw attention to their always attractive formalist compositions and movements, and the atonal and dissociative cleverness of the sounds can’t help but let themselves be known as well. The heart surgery that opens the film is the director meeting his detractors who describe his cinema as clinical. Of course its imagery is not horrific but literally surgical. This is not criticism- this is everything Lanthimos wants the film to be. The charm is in the precision, I suppose- nothing can be said about this that Lanthimos did not have at the front of his mind at all times during its construction, and which cannot be deduced from just once yawning through it.

Knight of Cups

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The further you go the less you know

Cold hearted but with a desire for something more, and Malick’s most deliberately unresolved in the way of answering that call. The Romantics two centuries ago flew terrified from the Industrial Revolution and advocated the nourishing qualities of the natural world as a necessary antidote to the Boschian nightmare of technological advancement and dehumanising capital. Malick’s cinema is often characterised as a cinematic continuation of this Romantic spirit, but he has always problematised this relationship with humans rejecting or even abusing Eden, going blind or finding this nightmare wherever they go. Knight of Cups might be his most complicated take on this yet.

Both complimenting and criticising the film for its ethereal prettiness ignore the way that it interrogates its own imagery. I could barely watch To the Wonder as it felt so similar to the bank and insurance advertisements that had already begun to mimic the voiceovers and low splendour of The Tree of Life. With that earlier film Malick had inadvertently set the template for the New Old Aesthetic; a pseudo-rustic evocation of a pre-modern past that conceals its technologies while looking technically pristine. It is not strictly used in bank ads- some images in The Tree of LifeTo the Wonder, and Knight of Cups are strikingly similar to ‘soul searching’ travel photography. Knight of Cups is bold because it recognises this as an aesthetics of domination, of cynicism, and of kitsch. Its ‘natural’ images are strictly relegated to psychological spaces and not representations of the outside world. A question that has persisted in the field of landscape for as long as landscape has been a field is whether humans can ever experience the world without arranging it according to an aesthetics of domination (hence repetitive visual tropes making their way into centuries of painting and photography). Malick in Knight of Cups argues for the first time Possibly not.

The New Old Aesthetic’s more subdued images, which do not feature the proxy of experiencer with their back turned to the viewer (to indicate worldliness), appear like wallpapers selected through a Google algorithm for pleasant but vacuous representations of the natural world. Technically accomplished, aesthetically conservative, kitsch. The link between travel and information technologies is that both allow certain individuals (and certainly not those for whom borders mean death), to transcend borders- they promise physical transience through physical contact, and that the individual has the world’s cultures and peoples and vistas right at their fingertips. They have the cash and the belief in freedom to be liberated from home, they become fragmented as moments of ‘experience’ facilitated by the world as Other. In Knight of Cups, Malick lets them have vistas and then shuts them off- these ‘natural’ spaces are just reflections of ego. Things have never been simple in his films, but have we ever before looked out to the hills or the ocean and felt so empty? This Malickian beauty is hollowed out- it’s dead appearing in front of us.

Conversely the ‘party’ and ‘modernity’ sequences use the language of the ‘Malick algorithm’ which suggests that there is something that we aren’t noticing. The cameras roam and speed and slow time as if trying to break away from us. They leer with the eye of a predator, they celebrate, and they grow bored. These are less explicitly interior than the ego-spaces of the natural world, because they run into the issue of there being other bodies and other egos in the same space. Whenever the narcissistic voiceovers fall away, we return to the story of the knight of cups, and we are told that everything is a sign of what you are looking for. It’s not about ‘going’ anywhere but realising what’s already been sent for you. The cameras pay no attention, and want to elope. Rick is told to look for the light in others, and that there is beauty in everything, but he corrupts this sentiment and soaks up the light of others to leave them extinguished. He is a vampire who leaves the world cold and blue. Because the film is Rick it has an alienating attitude towards women which it does not advocate (in fact it criticises it), but offers no alternative to. Because Malick sets himself, and us, the task of empathising with the vampire who would say What do you mean? I love women if confronted, he threatens to lose his audience in the hand-holding. In his films we are taught to look for haptic moments, where people run their hands through grass and collect mud up to their ankles, but in Knight of Cups all of the touch is in Rick smothering women’s faces.

Malick defended himself in 1973 against critics suggesting that Badlands condescended Kit and Holly, by saying that our sincerest utterances often come across as cliches. Knight of Cups is laden with cliched imagery, but it also recognises that some aesthetic tropes don’t carry universal sincerity (they are rather culturally-learned ways of seeing and arranging the world around us). Which leads us to the question of what the world would look like without this teleological will. Rick is criticised for neither wanting to be in a marriage (the world) or outside of it, which in an exchange embodies the film’s existential and aesthetic predicament (it’s Malick so they’re the same thing). Knight of Cups suggests avenues in both specificity (to break the cliche) and spontaneous hyper-cliche. When the director breaks from the Malick algorithm (now equated with Rick’s flightiness) he does so with essay studies of architectural spaces and sudden bursts of ungraded digital family video. In the former the world’s impressionistic strokes suddenly clarify into something with a sense of permanence, and in the latter we see the ‘moment’ as it might actually be- too immediate for the experiencer to begin breaking down and shaping.

For Malick since The Tree of Life there has been a belief in the emancipatory potential of time-imagery and of material specificity, which is in direct contrast to the broad strokes of conventional cinematic languages. Memory is favoured over action-experience, and the individual rememberer over the relatable heroic agent. In Knight of Cups the director (rather than the character) exists wherever the cinematic spell is broken. Although the film makes sense as a system of conflicting cinematic languages, a lot of it remains visible as sketches and transient data. Favouring process over product is markedly contemporary, as for example The Life of Pablo and Blonde stand by a similar ethos. I am all for this new ugly digital Malick and essay film Malick, and wonder how long it will be before he tries a Pablo and uses a streaming service to roll out an ever-changing mess of edits, re-edits, and retakes. I am hoping that soon he will also have the confidence to dismiss the ‘womanising asshole’ from their role at the centre of these films (which should in turn liberate the female characters from abstractions to be worshipped by said assholes?).

I thought while watching To the Wonder that the director had already achieved everything he needed to with The New World and The Tree of Life, but having seen Knight of Cups this is blatantly not the case- we are now a long way from 20th century Malick. Those who have said that Knight of CupsThe Tree of Life, and To the Wonder are a trilogy have me thinking that I at some stage should revisit To the Wonder, but also I am more intuitively drawn to the pre-trilogy Malick for his genre subversions and directly sensual film language. With these pre-trilogy works all the viewer needed was their eyes- a very basic knowledge of cinema was an added bonus. These new ones are at once surface-heavy and densely academic, which means that I always feel like I lack the tools to properly see them. Knight of Cupsthough leaves me cold in a good way- it is chilling and haunting and it calls for us to come back and find what we lost there.

Dunkirk

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“Dover?” “Dorset.” The boat goes past and we see that its name is Moonstone. Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone tells a relatively straightforward story in a complicated way, or establishes a mystery and leads the reader to so many red herrings that they give up thinking that they could deduce the answer through paying attention to evidence-finding. For Collins, as it would be for Chandler, the telling of the thing is infinitely more significant than any answers that might be drawn from its scenery and character sketches. And for Collins, as with Chandler, we read their works for the joy that the telling brings us rather than the satisfaction of where we end up. Fans of Nolan appreciate the way that he tells a story; they liken his films to puzzles. Nolan’s detractors find that if they are puzzles, then they have pieces missing or are not particularly well thought out (or visually interesting) any way. Collins could tell a story in a straightforward way and was skilled enough to experiment, while Nolan tends to struggle with telling even the simplest stories. With Dunkirk, the story is simple and its conclusion is history. Unlike Nolan’s other works, a Collins-esque shifting of time and perspective is employed not for the sake of problem-solving cleverness, but to achieve a sort of pure terror and pure cinema beyond the narrative at hand.

The trailer features the disembodied ticking of a clock, and this ghost clock makes it into the film as well. This ticking as well as the first leaps in narrative-perspective have the viewer considering whether the two things have been combined so as to alert us to the clockwork tidiness of this narrative conceit, or as a way of manipulating the viewer’s heartbeat such that they, like the characters, feel perpetually out of time. Nolan has always desired clockwork efficiency in his films, hence his characters’ laughably non-human expository dialogue and jarring geographical rifts, but his films tend to achieve the opposite. In Dunkirk the pieces do not fit, because there is no clever ‘moment’ where these stories overlap due to things actioned by each thread’s protagonist. We search for ways that they might overlap as the film plays out, but in true Collins fashion we are denied seeing the pieces fit. Nolan goes against what we expect of Nolan and refuses to turn war into a narrative puzzle. Without the clock signalling clockwork, and without the narrative threads signifying puzzles, we are made to feel hopeless and out of time, hopeful ‘against all odds’, and heroic against the clock. For the most part jumping from hopelessness to hope to dogfights alleviates the pressure of caring too much within any given thread, and has the ‘war is hell’ film playing out but framed by traditional depictions of heroism. Whether this is a cop-out or a legitimately humanistic move is down to each viewer. It is possibly both, particularly with this alleviative quality, but at times Nolan uses this fragmentation to arrive at something more distressing than a single perspective could offer, repeating the imagery of a bombed minesweeper for a constantly replayed trauma reminiscent of the final act of Man of Steel.

When Nolan loses the humanism and heroics of ‘The Sea’ and ‘The Air’ he does so by cutting so ruthlessly between these and ‘The Mole’ that we are given an abstracted kind of chaos that the Nolan of The Dark Knight could only have dreamed of. The desire was there in The Dark Knight but the director was too inept to stage simple cause and effect in his films, much less convince us that his film’s messiness was in any way intentional. In Dunkirk, there is no mistaking that he has become a competent conductor of images. We can see him with his baton believing that he is conducting a Romantic symphony, but he, editor Lee Smith, and Hans Zimmer know only assault. Dunkirk reaches heights where it is a thrash metal approximation of the idea of Shostakovich; a confusing symphony of pain that physically whitens knuckles and has the viewer’s head spinning.

This assault begins on a tangible scale- the first bomb we see dumps sand on Tommy, and the second dumps water. From this we know what we are in for- an elemental, rather than human flogging. The tallness of the IMAX frame works for the abstractions in the film as Nolan’s figurative compositions tend toward peculiar or inexplicably awful– here they are as ill thought out as ever but the subject of the frame has changed, and hand-held cameras convince us that it’s all supposed to look spontaneous any way. Many scenes remain which remind us that Nolan is attempting yet again to make Good Serious Cinema, and critical reaction once again says he’s done it, but the film’s obnoxious merits sit away from this. Those of us who do not like his films are met with something different here, and while it is tempting to call his attempts at pure cinema non-Nolan, it seems that he achieves this through doubling down on everything Nolan: Zimmer’s self-parodying intrusive scoring, Smith’s nonsensical shot-by-shot, perspective-by-perspective edits (the anti-Cloud Atlas), Nolan’s Serious Artist anxiety through an unusual belief in Big is Better. They are red-faced and intoxicated in their enthusiasm for what they are doing, and their belief in each other, and what they have produced is an unbridled chaos which for the first time has been stoked by a sense, ironically, of control.

These are some merits which can be found in a film with as many issues as one is willing to notice, or as is the case with the majority of viewers, ignore, but what is sad is that the film’s first 20-30 minutes belong to a work which does not need to be justified with ‘so loud it’s transcendently loud’ (which might be the reason I prefer it to almost everything else he’s made?). The dialogue-free early scenes do not feel as though they are working to establish the stakes of the film, or to provide spatial and human context for its future noise symphony, but like an uncomfortable, delicate film that will variously float and crash down without any logic that can be given to the viewer. Tommy grips a leaflet trailing down from the sky and it is the only kind of of touch that we get in the film. Of course people hold onto ladders and climb into boats, but they become abstracted into ideas of life and death rather than being people holding onto and climbing into things. And so early on there is this one moment where the elements are not the embodiment of a Hans Zimmer ‘drop’, and a person is just a person. This is a feat- in the past there has never been touch in Nolan’s films because they have never been grounded anywhere.

Shortly after this Tommy is made to run down the street, climb a fence, and duck behind something, and this is the most spatially coherent thing Nolan has ever filmed. This tight coherence is riveting as we’re glued just behind and around him at close proximity, and the streets and gardens feel labyrinthine. He walks out onto the beach and the frame empties out and we feel for a split-second as though we can breathe again. This feeling does not last long for we notice that there are meticulously kept lines of soldiers from the dunes to the sea, facing forwards, out to the grey horizon. Pictured in mock-Western widescreen is this performance and belief in order, and when the beach is bombed everyone scrambles away before returning to the well-ordered lines, unlucky bodies just off to the side. It is pointedly a glitch in an artificial intelligence. We are still with Tommy who does not know where he is supposed to be, or even if he is supposed to be. It sounds prosaic, but this is all evocative of when you forget to adjust your clock for daylight savings and arrive at school late and you see everything appearing as it should, but minus you, and so neither you nor it seem right at all. It feels as though you have walked into another dimension.

This small-scale discomfort within a large-scale illogical system is powerful, but of course those involved forfeit it on the path of loud spectacle. In a review for The Guardian Andrew Pulver rightly shrugs off critics’ obsession with finding their next Kubrick (as tediously persistent as rock critics still trying to find ‘the next Dylan’ in anyone with a guitar), agreeing with Peter Bradshaw that where Kubrick had the ability to know when to stand by a decision, Nolan opts for big announcements over that other director’s sense of disquiet. Pulver then goes on to compare Dunkirk to the great pacifist film Paths of Glory. I am not a big fan of Kubrick, but this comparison is distressing. It might well be the Paths of Glory of the Saving Private Ryan ‘great war film’ canon, but that is not saying much. The noise symphony that Nolan et al. manage to stir is not war any more, and any claims to it being ‘like war’ are outlandish- this is big shouty cinema from mainstream cinema’s second loudest voice, and its formal achievements should be quickly severed from everything outside of the film object. This is the only possible way to enjoy the film, and that is because it is only half as bad as the alternative (it is still making spectacle of suffering, and makes us as irresponsible as any of art’s smug formalists). There is a bold, disquieting short-film at the start of Dunkirk, and there is a scene with a newspaper two hours later which subverts the patriotic voiceover and wraps that thread up. This suggests that on a level Nolan knows that, looking at his idols and then at himself, he’s not quite there yet. It is undoubtedly a film to watch at an IMAX theatre, but that’s because it is in the IMAX that the film is most spectacular. It is not a ‘classic’- I would dispute that it is even a war videogame. Once the spectacle clears it’s just noise.

Batman Begins

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Duller but more openly confused than The Dark Knight, ‘fear’ is the topic to be explored in Batman Begins (the characters verbalise this every ten or so minutes) and Nolan looks first at Batman and then the War on Terror and shrugs. He finds too many contradictions comparing terror to military retaliation, vigilantism to fascism, violence to violence, to pick sides. What could be more apt for a Batman origin story than leaving these contradictions exposed? “Criminals thrive on the indulgences of society” says Ra’s al Ghul to Batman who we know is in full agreement except not quite. Both agree that they should stay in the shadows and employ fear to terrify the populace, and that the corrupt and powerful are to blame for the world’s ills, except that Ra’s al Ghul kills the poor (i.e. those who are neither corrupt nor powerful) and Batman just beats them up.

The film never clarifies whether it the poor, the rich and powerful, or ‘liberal society’ that Batman and Ra’s al Ghul are holding to blame. At one stage Rachel explains that the bad guys “keep the bad people rich, and the good people scared”- the good people being Bruce Wayne’s rich dad and the bad people being rich criminals. You can feel Nolan wishing that Bruce Wayne could be re-written as working-class to make his rage more straightforward. Similarly you can feel the director wishing that making superhero movies about good and evil in the wake of 9/11 didn’t have to be so complicated. Ra’s al Ghul advises Bruce Wayne “You have to become a terrible thought… a wraith… you have to become an idea!”, and later Bruce Wayne to Alfred “As a symbol I can be incorruptible… I can be immortal.” Why? Because “A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification. He can be destroyed, or locked up. But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they cannot stop you, then you become something else entirely.”

Batman and Ra’s al Ghul have many things in common, the main thing being their pursuit of the power of ideology combined with a scared population. Ra’s al Ghul’s plan is to “watch the city tear itself apart in fear.” He is a terrorist triggering a crisis situation, “the word is panic.” Batman’s solution to this is to use fear and ideology to combat fear and ideology, to initiate a State of Emergency. He becomes “a terrible thought… a wraith.” He becomes what he fears so that he can spread fear through Gotham. The difference between hero and villain is unclear. Presumably if you’re “good people” then you have nothing to worry about. The problem is that nobody in the film knows who or what a “good person” looks like. The distressing analogy here to the War on Terror is made more obvious in The Dark Knight when Batman declares a “war on terrorists,” and we see the Joker along with members of the criminal world having a meeting to figure out how to respond to this. We see what this looks like to the citizenry in Dawn of Justice when Clark Kent visits Gotham and an old African American man tells him that he’s too scared to leave the house lest he run into “the demon.”

Nolan is too ambivalent here to weigh in as explicitly as he does with the followups. And as with the followups it is not his politics which spoils the film (as much as I am opposed to what he says through film) but his deficiencies as a director. Explicitly jingoist films such as Rambo II and Rocky IV are among my favourites because they are well made films, and we as viewers can oppose whatever politics the director had in mind when making the work. Of course Batman’s and Ra’s al Ghul’s talk about doing the dirty work because “corrupt bureaucrats” won’t is some bland fascist Dirty Harry shit, but there are ways around it. The film’s first proper scene is Bruce Wayne in Bhutan fighting some guys in a mud-pit. Zack Snyder is often criticised for his OCD editing, but the much heralded Christopher Nolan is unable to coherently film a bunch of idiots hitting each other in the face in a mud-pit. Arrhythmic edits break actioned cause from effect, and all of the shots are close-ups, which adds to the confusion. We don’t know what is happening except that people are yelling and stuff is moving and there is mud.

With this in mind we fear that once the film is in motion Nolan will not be able to visually tell the story that needs to be told. Of course he employs the regular videogame cutscene verbal exposition that even fans acknowledge is not so great, but the greater problem in Batman Begins is that the film is never actually inmotion. Rather it is a long progress-montage loaded with flashbacks loaded with progress-montages. It is more a Last Time on Dragon Ball Z recap than it is a film. I am struggling to articulate why Man of Steel works as an origin story and Batman Begins is such a drag, even though Man of Steel has similar problems on paper. Both films employ in media res and extensive flashbacks, but Batman Beginsexplains the action so thoroughly through flashbacks that it quickly feels like backtracking. This feeling is likely due to the fact that Batman Begins flashes back to a time that is not far from the ‘present’, which convolutes the narrative. Man of Steel operates on the level of ‘ideas’ discussed throughout Batman Begins which gives it a hopeful, grandiose tone that counterintuitively makes it feel more intimate and human. It flashes back to a number of different scenes all from different periods, which link lessons learned then to what is happening now. Here, all Bruce has is imagery from the day he fell down the well. Clark is pained by the death of his father but he understands how and why he died, whereas Bruce’s best memory of his dad is the overtly Nietzschean “Why do we fall?” “So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” True, Bruce is traumatised (hence the repetition) and Clark isn’t (hence the warmth), but Man of Steel finds more humanity in a more unknowable figure and lets memories build rather than stagger momentum.

“You never did learn to mind your surroundings” is the entire film save for the scene at the docks, and particularly in the car chase which is cut with the frequency of a montage (I do not doubt that Nolan is very savvy with film theory and film history), but which does not make sense once the images come together. In terms of even abstract movement, it is not dynamic. The car moves from the right to the left of the frame, and occasionally we see behind it. This is a strange choice given that we are used to seeing movement from left to right, and if it is intentionally disorienting then we still need the occasional reverse direction in order to emphasise this. In the way of visual content, each profile shot the batmobile appears with a different backdrop provided without context, and in some forward-facing shots it busts down gates and enters tunnels. These gates and tunnels are not given any context either- we are not told within a prior shot where they are, which means that like the mud-pit fight we cannot make sense of the filmic space. It is just images happening in front of us.

The film is loud and messy and insane but dull. Because Nolan at this stage in his life understands the strangeness of Bruce Wayne’s quest to become a terrible thought/wraith/idea who terrorises the poor to get back at the liberals and bureaucrats, there are traces of self-awareness and weirdness that make it into the film. My personal favourite is when very early on Alfred picks Bruce up from the airport and says “You look fashionable” which on the one hand reminds us that Alfred is used to seeing him in suits, but on the other paints for a brief moment Bruce as this spoiled rich kid getting picked up by his butler after spending time ‘finding himself’ in a third world country and then leaving because he has the power to do so. That he effectively does ‘find himself’ is acknowledged by Bale with this dumb sheepish grin. When Ra’s al Ghul sets Gotham into panic, we get to see Batman through the eyes of the man from Dawn of Justice– as a demon with glowing red eyes. More fun here occurs when Rachel and Joffrey run into Scarecrow riding a fire-breathing horse and also a Night of the Living Dead convict mob, although as with the batmobile chase the camera just kind of teleports them to different locations without reason. Batman’s own Night of the Living Dead mob try to maul him in the most Romero of ways, but again we are unsure how they managed to get hold of him because Nolan just crashes from Batman standing somewhere, directly into the mob trying to get their maul on.

In hindsight this is small-scale, quaint even, compared to the rest. It is difficult to say whether it is better or worse because the director’s lack of familiarity with the subject matter means that he is not confidently running with it and trying to Say Things at this stage. So on the one hand this makes for a film that is neither as interesting nor as bad as the others, but on the other hand we should never allow incoherence to be so draining, unimaginative, and lacklustre.

Spider-Man 3

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The viewer before encountering a work is torn between killing or worshipping at the altar of Author, and this tension grows stronger when the viewer is tasked with explaining why having seen it, a work did not succeed. It can go either way when the work is good- a work by a genius, or a work of genius? This is splitting hairs! Autopsy on the other hand requires something more considered, but ends up being just as messy. A misstep by a genius? Is that even possible? A deliberate misstep by a genius, then. Or opting for the other tool- a misstep of an artwork, or an artwork that we are reading incorrectly?

Roland Barthes decisively liberated audiences from the tyranny of the artist statement (that thing which taken too seriously pacifies audiences and renders the work dead from the moment it’s conceptualised) fifty years ago, and shortly after Stuart Hall kept Author alive so their take could be included in a larger network of interpretation. The reading of a work thus encompasses both ‘real world’ (authorial) information, and interpretive (creative) work on the viewer’s part. Geniuses rarely exist (and are predominantly a harmful myth), but a good many genius works do. The overlapping of perspective, of intention and interpretation, becomes appropriately messy when one considers that Raimi is probably a genius, and that Spider-Man 3 is boring.

Common readings of the work may well be incorrect, but there also corresponds a ‘real world’ cause and ‘artistic’ effect that is too convenient to ignore. Spider-Man 3 is a studio-ified facsimile of Spider-Man 1 and 2; a gleefully ill-advised reunion episode. Raimi following his notoriously awful experience with Crimewave, was forevermore sceptical of big budget productions where his Authorship could be taken away by those funding the project. In Spider-Man 3 he seemingly forgoes Authorship without a fuss- when the studio demands something, Raimi changes it, and when the studio suggest something, Raimi includes it. In signing off on their every idea he makes visible the demands of working within this environment. The viewer encounters other films which seem coherent and then she later reads of the behind the scenes conflicts involved. In eliminating conflict, Raimi eliminates compromise, and the art-destroying nature of studio demands rises to the surface of the piece.

Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 are brilliant films made with major studio backing, which film-going masses adored. Hardly a ‘misunderstood artist’, Raimi’s contempt is not for ticket-buying audiences but for the forces which condescend and spoil what could otherwise be an amiable balance between artistry and popular appeal. Duplicating the iconic kiss scene from Spider-Man 1 betrays the audience watching the film as much as it does MJ within the film. Wherever money is involved, nothing is sacred. MJ becomes our proxy in the film, and Peter becomes Raimi. Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant responded aggressively to audiences, critics, and studios alike, Scott asking ‘is this more what you wanted?’ and yawning through the rhythms of Alien before getting where he wanted to go. The Velvet Underground’s Loaded is ‘loaded with hits’, which retain the band’s attention to craft. Spider-Man 3 is sort of like both. Raimi gets to a similarly jaded place through praise rather than criticism, having told the story he wanted to tell and then being encouraged to keep running with it, he asks, genuinely confused, ‘is it more drama? More love-triangles? More villains?’ and finally ‘more Raimi?’

On that final point this ‘anything goes’ practice allows for some truly weird shit making its way in- this is not simply a parody of studio perceptions of what audiences want (and of studio interference), but of Raimi himself. The director, through his film, performs as a clown. His success is again proxied in Maguire’s now insufferably confident Peter Parker, a figure who dominates the film’s narrative but is also made to be the least interesting thing about it. Routinely unappealing, he is the director proxy and we have to take his crisis both absolutely seriously, and with a grain of salt.

I miss the old Raimi, chop of the arms Raimi
I hate the new Raimi, the good mood Raimi

The infamous tap-dance is signature Raimi slapstick placed within a mismatched context and has the appeal of someone suddenly behaving completely at odds with the situation, alienating the people around them and making clear that they are not on the same wavelength, like an uncle suddenly getting up and dancing on the table during a serious discussion at a family get-together and responding only in animal noises when people request they get down. Why is he doing this? People are divided- does it signify some kind of torment in the individual that can only be expressed through parodies of joviality, or is the dancer knowingly wanting to make everyone uncomfortable through a kind of disconnected cruelty?

The only superhero films rivalling Spider-Man at the time were the ones being produced by Christopher Nolan- Batman Begins was praised for its appeal to non-comic readers through its Dark visuals, explicitly adult themes, and the grim self-seriousness of its delivery. Hype was building for The Dark Knight which dropped ‘Batman’ from the title altogether, Bale saying ‘this take on Batman of mine and Chris’ is very different from any of the others’. There is no such Serious Film anxiety in Raimi’s series which finds no conflict in handling pop-cultural significance with sympathetic attention to craft. Compare Bale’s and Nolan’s portentousness with the amount of times ‘Spider-Man’ is said throughout the trilogy- Raimi acknowledges and plays with the pop culture god. In Spider-Man a new cinematic language is forged- the director’s already hyper-kinetic styling makes its way into a world of comic frame angularity, rich colours, agility-based skills (perfect for slapstick), and necessarily vertigo-inducing swinging through cities. This is not the place to criticise Nolan’s un-comic, un-cinematic form, but its differences to Raimi can be understood comparing still images from a quick search.

Raimi believes/d in the ability of this hyper-comic film language to deal with the kinds of themes Nolan’s films boasted they were introducing to both comics and popular films. It is up to each individual whether they are more or less successful, but either way we find Raimi conflicted, and this dramatised in Peter’s struggling with first dark-Peter and then Spawn. Peter de-parting his hair and flicking it over his eye in a half-hearted gesture to then-fashionable emo is a knowingly dorky dad joke, and when Topher Grace arrives criticising Parker’s work as slapdash and eventually becomes Spawn, the joke is further extended to equate Nolan’s ‘serious film’ aesthetics with teen angst cosmetics. That Nolan’s films are blockheadedly hyper-masculine is crucial- Raimi’s joke is not at the expense of teenagers (his series is one of the great masterpieces of pop-punk cinema) but at posturing adults claiming and obfuscating human issues.

Through highs and lows the film drags and dives, taking on a similarly exhausting structure to Park Chan-wook’s Thirst. Its highs twinkle with saccharine epiphany and then tumble into melodramatic nowheres, to be ignored for long stretches while the film yawns through its requisite narrative diversions. Like Thirst the film through its very structure punishes and picks the audience up as it details the breaking down of a relationship and the crisis that this causes the individuals involved. It is the logical next step in the coming-of-age format that Spider-Man 1 initiated at the beginning of the decade- from knowing oneself to understanding oneself as a plurality, to losing oneself again. It is the formation, the bloating, and the bursting of the ego. There are not enough break-up films which manage this, and there is a similar deficit in music where break-ups are so often painted as simple blue sadness. ThirstSpider-Man 3, and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy all become the ugly, sweaty, slapstick truth of the break-up.

Spider-Man 3 deals with the subject of forgiveness in a straightforwardly human way, and is clearly bookended by a film that Raimi by all appearances cares deeply about. It is tempting to write about Spider-Man 3 as a cinema of alienation, and it is, but it also means more than that. Sandman is the film the director desired to make if a third part was actually necessary, and this is clear from not only the character’s arc and Peter’s arc in relation to Sandman, but in the haunting CGI ‘birth’ sequence which has the intangible grabbing at the intangible and then collapsing into itself, over and over again. It’s a tragic perversion of Bresson’s ‘haptic cinema’ where the viewer relates empathetically and feels the world through hands- here the viewer shares in the cosmic frustration of never being able to take a rigid form (Marko’s inability to become a father for his daughter, or even just a regular citizen following the stigma of incarceration) or ever tangibly hold onto anything.

Wonder Woman

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Queen Hippolyta’s beautifully, weirdly digital-freize-like story of Amazon slave revolt ends when Ares kills all of the gods and so Zeus steps in and apprehends him, leaving the Amazons a sword called the god killer. In Wonder Woman (2009), the Amazon revolt is lead entirely by the Amazons, and so the Amazons alone defeat Ares and his army, and Hippolyta goes against Zeus’ command and kills Thrax, the child she birthed after her rape by Ares. This is an angry, inspiring text, which encourages the audience to stand up to man and god alike to seize her own liberation. Wonder Woman (2017) strips revolutionary anger from the hero and offers in its place the platitude of ‘hope’. It is no Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, but it should have been. It is obvious that a direct-to-DVD animated cartoon can get away with more than a film that cost $149 million to make, but it is disappointing to find within minutes evidence of the kind of compromise that will dictate how Wonder Woman (2017) plays out. Was that cartoon in any way dangerous? Comparing the two might be unfair, but it is a convenient way of seeing what could and should have been.

There is a tension if not outright dissonance between Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and the film that she has found herself in. Diana greets challenges with this kind of gleeful faith, ignoring the idiots and the details around her. For her the War is neither politically complicated, nor loaded with moral imperatives- it is an abstraction; a continuation of a conflict since ancient times where the gods and not our ‘true nature’ manipulate us into doing bad. The Germans, she says, are being guided by Ares, and critically we find the ancient puppet-master on the ‘good’ side as well. In Wonder Woman (2009), Diana arrives in our world and systematically runs into evidence of oppression, responding to it with disbelief and then disdain. This is the world she wants to make better- she is a feminist voice arriving in a ‘man’s world’. In Wonder Woman (2017) she calls out wage slavery as slavery, encounters Chief who acknowledges that ‘the good guys’ actually slaughtered and stole their land from his, and walks blindly into (a male-only) war room. Gadot imbues the character with positivity which the film then undercuts- she is either shown as indifferent or naive.

Two moments stand out as being particularly unnerving. Steve asks how women on an island with no men have heard of sex. We think ‘because they have sex with each other?’ but Diana responds that she has read copious amounts of books on the subject. The scene pays lip-service to being progressive, turning the tables so that Steve seems prudish, but it brings with it an immediate problem as well as a recurring one. How and why has heteronormativity been shoehorned into a world where this would be a bizarre and alien concept? The Amazons were written in 1941 so that they are fundamentally queer, so that no writer could impose normative categories on them, but here in 2017 they are reduced to a male predatory fantasy of an island of virgins (given that same-sex relations are not even an option) waiting for a man to arrive. The Amazon reading of the male as being ‘only necessary for procreation’ does contains echoes of Wonder Woman (2009), but such moments suffocate when we become stuck for the rest of the film with her entourage. At every turn her physical appearance is commented on by one of these people, the paradise turned fantasy for sexual predators comes up again, and even when Diana wins a fight for these men, one of them comments that he is now ‘aroused’. Is it not enough that women have to put up with this shit every day, that a would-be empowerment film is subject to the same casual misogyny? Apparently even when a woman is actually a superhero, she will still have to ‘be cool’ with being treated like a sex object in her own film.

In the other, Steve’s secretary mentions to Diana that ‘not fighting’ and just behaving are ways that women are currently trying to convince men that they should be allowed to vote in elections. At first glance this is supposed to be a humorous counterpoint to Diana- her non-passivity is used relative to the secretary to convince us that she is more revolutionary than she actually is (or if she is, the film certainly is not). At the same time it panders to its presumed audience- a cinema full of people can look back on a time where women were not allowed to vote and think to themselves Things have gotten so much better! Wonder Woman (2009) never settles for this- Diana’s fresh perspective highlights systems of oppression operating today- it doesn’t settle for historical platitudes. The period setting is limiting in itself- Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice allow these decades’ old figures to play out in the present; as a way of us making sense of trauma, barbarism, and the normalisation of exceptional politics. Why are men allowed to explore these things, but women aren’t? Wonder Woman should be chaotic, angry, impassioned, but it’s not. It’s nostalgia politics plus passing mentions of social issues. Diana is figuratively and literally trapped in the past. This was surely done on paper so that her arrival would coincide with the Representation of the People Act where post-war politics began to include suffrage, but Wonder Woman the film seems unwilling to engage female wartime perspectives, much less female perspectives today. We’re shown a ‘man’s world’, and Diana simply acts in it. We do not necessarily need something as on the nose as Trump proxies getting blown apart as in The Final Chapter (although that would be good), but Wonder Woman’s past-ness is too safe to matter. In Wonder Woman (2009), she finds enough oppression in our world that she decides to stay to fight and improve things. She is affected by what she finds- she accuses us of not caring, and challenges us to change this. Wonder Woman (2017) frames Diana as only caring about ‘the big picture’- challenging Ares, fighting old wars, her motivation is ‘love’. Nothing challenging, nothing tangible. What that secretary says about ‘going with the flow’ until things somehow improve is Wonder Woman in a nutshell- it trades in contemporary concerns for ‘things used to be worse’ and ‘women can kick butt too!’ In its quest to appeal, it avoids anything that could scare idiots afraid of feminism.