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Monday, May 11, 2009

Psychology is for Bourgeois Pigs: X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

I had a revelation while watching X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Bad films are better than good films. Of course, they’re not better than great films, by Antonioni, Godard, Wenders, Kusturica, Lynch, Fellini, as well as the films whose greatness slips by most critics consciousness: musicals and all six Star Wars films. But they’re better than good films, usually because they are free of the tired virtues of good film.

Which brings me to action and suspense, chills and thrills. Here I have a surprising list for you:
Great films: X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Speed Racer, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the Watchmen, Iron Man, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Ang Lee’s Hulk, Batman Returns
Mediocre films: Bourne whatever, Independence Day, The Dark Knight, Munich, Mission: Impossible, The
Professional, Eagle Eye, Patriot Games, Daredevil, blah blah blah, the list goes on: if it’s called ‘suspense-thriller’ or if it looks or feels realistic, it SUCKS.

It sucks because films aren’t realistic. None of them. The closest thing to a realistic film is Andy Warhol’s Sleep or Richard Linklater’s Slacker. Pacing and plot—those are unrealistic concerns. Good dialogue and good acting? Unrealistic. Everyting about film is unrealistic, but apparently because the camera APPEARS to capture real human beings, capture material reality in some way more immediate than written text, we think ‘realism’ is a useful criterion. Indeed, the lack of realism in a Wolverine action scene or dialogue is less disturbing than Scorcese’s The Departed, where cops act just a little too punch-happy and are a little too emotionally involved with their criminals. “A little too”, in this case, is more problematic than ‘a lot’.

My least favorite kind of realism? Psychological realism. Yawn. Of course this is all that the discourse on screenwriting, directing and acting has become, especially among American film critics. I’m not interested in adducing what might be so psychologically complex about my films. Wrong question. I’m not defending the empty psychological content of these films—I’m praising it. I’m not asking for more ‘complexity’—I’m asking for less. This may be news to those who grew up in the eighties—the worst decade modern man has ever faced—or beyond, but complexity in film is established in lighting, framing, separation shots, music, etc. Dialogue and plot are mimetic crutches for novels (even novels have moved beyond them, in many cases!)

So please don’t bore us here in Diceland with your discussions of Jonathon Nolan scripts. Let’s look at some of Roger Ebert’s language in his Wolverine review: “His utterances are limited to the vocalization of primitive forces: anger, hurt, vengeance, love, hate, determination. There isn't a speck of ambiguity.”
There are two problems with psychological realism (1) It’s not possible in film. (2) it’s not desirable almost ANYWHERE.
(1) It’s not possible because cause and effect, human motive, the role of emotions in decision-making, trauma, language, epistemology in general—all of these elements are barely able to be addressed adequately in massive tomes by Immanuel Kant, Henri Bergson, James Joyce or Marcel Proust, which take a minimum of 10 hours, in my experience, to get through. A film is two hours long, at least one hour of which—especially in an action film, takes place without words. So please, enough of your aspirations to psychological complexity in dialogue and character development. What you are better served doing, and what Wolverine or Star Wars Episode I do, is emptying the dialogue of psychological ‘content’, and replacing it with suggestive images, allegories, epigrams. Likewise, dispense with character development and simply access epic, mythical, or even modern themes (not characters), that draw their complexity not internally from the mere two-hour film, but externally from the vast array of texts they reference. Wolverine does this well. To begin with, like any good comic book adaptation, it does not seek to be self-contained, but rather contains a multitude of references to the comic book canon, as well as the previous three X-Men, films. To those who want to go to any movie without needing to read/see other texts, I say: they make films for lazy people like you. Go to them.

Why, for, example does a person turn bad? Unlike the Nolan brothers, director Gavin Hood doesn’t aspire to a fatuous ambiguity (Batman) or to convenient, rushed character drama (Harvey Dent). We just get the bare facts: Logan (Wolverine) is raised by a kind father and mother; his half-brother is raised by a violent drunk father. As for the rest—we get to imagine. We get to imagine the connection between a violent father and a man who makes friends with rats in prison (again—just an image, not a piece of dialogue), or a man who allows the government to become his surrogate father. The writers and director understand these character formations require novels, not film dialogue, so they simply present the situation and let you add what you know from the various sphere of allusions: Myths, suggestive costumes and weapons, camera angles that resemble other mythic film moments, etc. Wolverine, hypercool badass, recently voted favorite comic book hero of all time, derives his name not from the ‘action movie’ qualities of a wolverine, but from a native American myth of unrequited love. The New Yorker’s Dave Denby calls the film nothing but action, since “the story….is meaningless, and the emotions in the movie are no more than functional.” Like many Denby wants to be force-fed their meaning via dialogue. We don’t need it. Just meditate on what you’re seeing: Wolverine is self-healing, and at one point we find out anesthesia doesn’t work on him. It’s up to us to form our own ‘substance beyond the action’ by thinking about what that means, as we watch him undergo the painful experimental military-medical procedure. (For example, how it subverts the self-help version of self-healing, which involves anesthesia.)
Or meditate on the angles: shot from above of Wolverine holding a dead body, looking up at the sky in anguish. This shot is occurs no less than three times: first with his father as a boy, then with his lover, then again with his lover. The repetition is ingenious because the first time, he (and we) think she’s dead, and she’s not. His trauma is enormous. It is a film trope that we are familiar with—both the shot and the plot. The second time however, she really is dead, and yet he is not anguished, for he has lost his memory and no longer knows her. In these repetitions lies the difference between derivative film and subversive creativity. Let’s check with Ebert again: ‘Nothing here about human nature. No personalities beyond those hauled in via typecasting. No lessons to learn. No joy to be experienced.” No lessons to learn because the loss of memory subverts the trope of ‘character development’, and this subversion is underscored by the final instance of the repeated framing’s containing less meaning for Wolverine than the first two, as well as by Wolverine’s final line: “I’ll find my own way”. Those looking for clever lines miss the profundity of this line, because they forget that it’s all about juxtaposition—where the line appears. It appears just after he has forgotten everything. The implication is that the individualist loner hero that Wolverine embodies, par excellence, is the product of forgetting who one loves, which community one belongs to, one’s own family and history. To wit, capitalism. Our very reasons for loving Wolverine are interrogated.

As I said, smart directors of these heroic narratives work on allegory (not irony and ambiguity, as in The Dark Knight or The Incredible Hulk. This is incidentally why, contrary to near-universal opinion, Ang Lee’s Hulk is superior to both those films). Here the loss of memory is an allegory for what is most horrific about American identity in general, and more particularly identity under the aegis of revisionist nationalism and jingoism (since it is the government who removes his memories). The work is there for you to do: what does it mean that this girlfriend turns out to be both the trickster and the moon-lover from the Native American myth? What does it mean that a liar is ‘a credit to your [mutant] species’? What is the significance of the facts surrounding a simple image—Wolverine’s heart flatlining: he is underwater, part of a government experiment, having his bones replaced with an indestructible metal alloy, he wrongly believes his love is dead, etc,etc.
Coupled with memory, the film’s other tragic allegorical tragic loss—language—renders it truly chilling. The treatment of language is yet another brilliant move by the filmmakers. They make the character Deadpool a clever, wise-cracking (and sexy) swordsmith, as per comic book canon. It would be interesting enough that his humor is fresh and slightly surreal in the action-scene context. He is a good ‘character’, by our fetishistic critical standards. As such, you’d think the creators would make sure they get a lot of use out of that mouth. Instead, they have his mouth sealed shut, and this time the father-government allegory is explicit—his father, who does it to him, works for the government, a government that must concern itself “with all threats, foreign and…domestic.” Indeed, after another Deadpool joke, irreverent of heroic action discourse (the kind of discourse that defines the cinema of life as practiced by U.S. government), his father tells him that he would be the perfect warrior if he didn’t have that mouth on him. Memory and language—perhaps the most precariously human of elements, both destroyed. How could there be ‘nothing here about human nature’? What Ebert meant was there is nothing here of Hollywood psychology. Again, the depth is in the surface: Deadpool masters the use of two swords, but then against his will has them fused to his body, as his retractable bones. His humanity is reduced when he no longer masters weapon but is turned into one.

The real issue critics are having, as Nietzsche might argue, is with life, not the film. (Speaking of Nietzsche, one hero fights with playing cards. That's my kind of hero.) They don’t like when a mere action film reminds them that our narratives of progression and character development are forced and false. (If they do get a film that reminds them of this, they need it to be ‘subtle’ and ‘complex’, like No Country For Old Men, so that they can distract themselves cooing over nuanced acting and nuanced dialogue). They don’t like the mere ‘primitive forces’ Ebert speaks of—therein lies the function of our ‘nuanced’ dialogue and acting. Denby’s right—the emotions are indeed just there to set up the next fight. If only he took the step and realized that is our national and personal pathos, as well, and it’s a simple patriarchal relationship at the base of it. One expertly (un)presented in this film. As for those bored with actions scenes, I was pleasantly surprised by how little action there was. More importantly, I love action scenes—they give me a chance to process what I just saw, perhaps to write. If I watch two hours straight without processing, I lose half of it. Action scenes are so useful! They fund the movie (since most people are paying for those scenes), and they allow me to ‘put down the text’ and think a bit. I’m telling you, friends, you don’t have to watch movies as you were taught to. Or, as Mary Poppins sang to me last night, “anything can happen, if you let it.”


Vanessa said...

Oh yeah, oh yeah, yes yes yes.

Ebert also missed the discussion of morality embedded in the relationship between Wolverine and bro, and wolverine and gambit. There are so many questions being asked about the inherent-ness or learned-ness of moral understanding. It seems it's possible, according to Wolverine, to have morals without memory. Maybe not without language. You must be able to suss out a situation (ie use language) but you don't have to have an identity tied to it (ie use memory) to make a decision about how it is best to act.

Anthony Cristofani - The Sacred Dice revolutionary salon said...

Yes, I could have written about the surprising frequency of good lines, but that just sparks a neverending fight with people who adduce their favorite scriptwriter or actor. My point is that this 'discussion of morality' you speak of plays out in ways people seem unable to read, because of the rigorous compartmentalization of our genres and the corresponding interpretive techniques that are built-in.

The Sacred Dice - A Revolutionary Salon

The Sacred Dice is a salon of musicians, scholars, poets, sound sculptors, activists and artists of all kinds committed to art that is committed.  That could get us committed (to an asylum).  That disdain's art for art's sake and artists who have no idea why they do what they do.  We know why we do what we do--to create and celebrate community in a country still stuck in capitalist fantasies of individualism.  If you want in, you're in.  If you want out, don't worry--you already are.