Thursday, June 12, 2014

#20: Soldiers of Future Past: Marvel superheroes vs. American security measures


Posters by Paolo Rivera and Ben Whitesell.

"This isn't freedom. This is fear."

Two of this year's movies with Marvel superheroes feature men displaced from their time, fighting against extreme preventive security systems: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Marvel Studios) and X-Men: Days of Future Past (20th Century Fox). The former hearkens to the paranoid mood of '70's conspiracy thrillers (furthered by casting Robert Redford in a key role), while the latter actually travels between 1973 and a bleak near-future. Both adapt older comic book storylines and feature a destructive climax set right in Washington, D.C (including major occurrences in the Potomac). Though blockbusters (like all other groups of movies) vary in cinematic merit, they often respond to popular needs for escapism and hope while confronting more-or-less disguised modern fears. The conflicted mood of the American 1970's lives on in these speculative struggles for hearts and minds.

Steve "Captain America" Rogers, a symbol of WWII's "Greatest Generation," slept in ice through that war's aftermath, and through the ensuing Cold War and the "hot" Korea, Vietnam, and First Gulf wars. Post-WWII decisions and conflicts were responsible for pushing the modern American military-industrial complex into motion. The character name and title "Winter Soldier" calls back to the actual Winter Soldier hearings held for American military atrocities committed during the Vietnam War and the Afghan and Iraq wars (information via problematize). In the film, the Captain and his allies have to stop the mobilization of a product of those escalated tensions and arms races: a roving security system named Project Insight, operating as a tool of the homeland defense organization SHIELD, that would immediately assassinate any person considered a threat.

Wolverine is sent to the last day of the Vietnam War, in which the United States is unabashedly declared the loser. Mystique rescues several mutants serving in the US Army from medical experimentation, recalling historical experiments performed upon soldiers and prisoners. Those experiments, carried out within government tents and camps, are the secret projects of the Trask corporation. Mystique's rescue effort is one part of her mission: to kill genius industrialist Bolivar Trask as revenge for the deadly experiments he ordered upon members of her species. Yet the whole plot of Days of Future Past concerns the prevention of Mystique's assassination of Trask, which in one timeline triggers the sale of mutant-killing Sentinel security robots to the US government.

Both films center on convincing others of the truth of one's cause. Those fighting alongside Captain America can only guess at the devastation of Project Insight, and choose to object based on principle. Wolverine, however, has lived through the nightmare Sentinel future and can speak not just through ideals or comparison to previous horrors but through personal testimony. In contrast to these appeals to individuals, the "threats" targeted by these systems are determined by groups: genetics in X-Men, or any hint of activity deemed subversive in Captain America. Even The Hulk, Bruce Banner, is considered a target. One could say that at least the Sentinels stick to a set program of killing all mutants and mutant-spawning humans regardless of personal opinion; while names fed to Insight can be added or withdrawn depending on the wishes of those in power. Once in operation, Project Insight and the Sentinels are automated systems that shoot upon suspicion, taking no prisoners. They lack the will to allow a target to prove non-threatening or redemptive intentions.

Characters are also turned into weapons against their will. Mystique unwittingly brings about the termination of her species, not just through her action of killing Trask, but through the capture of her body, whose shapeshifting ability is used to make the Sentinels adaptable to any attack. The Winter Soldier, in turn, is brainwashed and physically transformed, frozen when not in use as a destructive tool to "shape the century." His memories and sense of self are repeatedly erased to maintain his status as an emotionless weapon, so much so that he attacks people he previously recognized and cared about.

In my opinion Winter Soldier is the better film, and it better distributes character agency. Characters Nick Fury and Natasha "Black Widow" Romanoff have more definite arcs for their stories, and the film shows more than tells when portraying relationships such as the friendship between Steve and Sam "Falcon" Wilson. Days of Future Past relies more on declarations of relations and scraps of cast chemistry moments. The film gives the appearance that Mystique has a stronger individual role. Her mission is her own, not commanded by Xavier or Magneto. Their quest to stop her harmful misstep, however, arguably crosses over into physical and mental coercion. Kitty Pryde, the heroine of the source story in the comics, spends nearly all of the movie in one position to guide Wolverine's journey. Previous major character Storm and other female X-Men get scant lines and a few bursts of action before dying. Keeping in a deleted scene with Rogue might have slightly improved matters, but I think the core story could have been told with more significant female presence and less obvious plotholes. I agree with this discussion of the erasure of female agency in the film, although I consider the romantic triangle to be Magneto-Mystique-Beast and the ideological triangle to be Magneto-Mystique-and (Raven's adoptive brother) Charles. Winter Soldier also has meaningful roles for more than one woman (though, among other things, Maria Hill's ambiguous heritage isn't portrayed), and has two African-American men in leading roles. Days of Future Past, which places a stronger emphasis on the variation of possibilities in humans and mutants, has one major female role restricted to sedentary support, while the other's agency is curtailed. The mutants in the future may be diverse, but are sacrificed --sometimes twice-- before the white leads.

SHIELD director Nick Fury may not reveal all the motives of his orders to his operatives in The Winter Soldier, but this spy necessities vs. transparency conflict is discussed during the film. Captain America and his friends only use violence when necessary, setting their words forward when possible to try and convince others to choose a side or get to safety. For example, in one scene, Steve asks his potential attackers if they wish to leave the elevator before he starts fighting. Even unnamed SHIELD agent extras are allowed to make choices of their own free will, a contrast to the psychological binding of the Winter Soldier. Charles Xavier, on the other hand, invades people's minds in order to push into Mystique's mind. What could have been clear choices on Mystique's part become ambiguous, since Charles' actions appear more like forcing her hand than simply persuading through suggestion. Yes, the fate of the world is at stake. For a time, Charles actively suppresses his powers with drugs, because the bombardment of others' thoughts and experiences compounds his emotional pain at the loss of students. However, more demonstrated awareness of the invasive nature of Charles' powers upon others would have been welcome.

While The Winter Soldier sets its imaginary homeland security organization versus an imaginary Nazi offshoot, Days of Future Past paints the actual American military and Nixon administration complicit in the villainous scheme. Winter Soldier's infiltration is run with the primary purpose for "peaceful," all-controlling reign of a master "race," though it may use business interests and physical coercion for those carrying out its tasks. Within the Marvel Universe, SHIELD's infiltration is shocking, for while SHIELD was portrayed as a morally gray organization, it often aided and recruited the superheroes we root for. Outside the Marvel Universe, Trask courts the US government's dollars for both business and personal conviction, selling security through fear of a mutant master race. Days of Future Past may place this at the feet of those working under an unpopular president, but it doesn't allude to real world implications and then sidestep them through fictional quasi-government bodies.  Still, these are mainstream films in which any intended or unintended critique of the real world is masked, allocated a safe minimum of space, or balanced for popular tastes and/or status quo. Mystique's rage must be stopped, with relatively little punishment for humans who have or might have been involved with mutant deaths. Steve Rodgers' rage fuels the campaign for a complete takedown of any connections with the possibility of corruption, but while a few Congressmen fall, the CIA is shown in a positive manner in the concluding montage.

A surprising note from both films is that, at crucial moments, the heroes choose to become vulnerable. At times when they could have continued to use lethal force, they realize that major aggressors have been defeated or kept at bay. Final victorious beatdowns or shootouts, the displays of dominance celebrated in most action films, are shunned.  The heroes choose to lay down arms, giving what remains of the opposing party an opportunity for agency they might have been denied (the Winter Soldier) or denied (those trapped with Nixon)-- the chance to decide what happens next.  

Friday, August 30, 2013

#19: By the Flashbulb's Bright Glare: Ace in the Hole (1951) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957)



Ace in the Hole (directed by Billy Wilder) and Sweet Smell of Success (directed by Alexander Mackendrick) were brought to 1950’s screens by A-list talent, many of whom were hounded or haunted by the blacklist. These films’ vile protagonists wield quips and cunning as acid-tipped daggers in wars of influence. We are taken to locales of American legend: the Wild West and The Big Apple, where individuals became heroes and communities arose from dust and squalor. Yet New Mexico’s and New York’s caves and canyons are where these characters of ambition come to dupe or be duped, where care becomes a carnival. Born from the land of opportunity, these pictures drip with cynicism and self-disgust, enduring as two of the nastiest Hollywood creations made from and against the media machine.





Picture sources: here, here, and here.

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P.S. Make it a triple feature with Wilder's Sunset Boulevard as a starter!

P.P.S. I also wrote a post about my five favorite classic cinematographers (including Success' James Wong Howe) at YAM-Mag, and posted some favorite TV and movie soundtrack tracks in this Youtube playlist

Thursday, May 9, 2013

#18: Sinister Nature: Hannibal, Utopia, and Les Revenants (The Returned)


Three gorgeous and compelling “genre” TV shows exhibit extraordinary elements irreparably transforming ordinary worlds: Canal+’s enigmatic zombie drama Les Revenants (titled The Returned for the UK), Channel 4’s conspiracy thriller Utopia, and AXN/Gaumont/NBC’s investigative procedure-serial Hannibal. Their simmering, striking style melts into substantial experiences unlike most offerings on any screen.

Top stag and later mushroom images from Cleolinda's recaps.
Past and present, real and unreal bleed through dream imagery in environments conquered by color. Les Revenants subtly shifts into visual modes that are distant, heavily shadowed, framed, or otherwise cut-off— fostering unease through a perspective simultaneously voyeuristic and withholding, painterly and disturbing. Utopia, whose plot centers on a graphic novel manuscript, features stunning hyper-saturated shots of nature and buildings. These shots give a macro- or micro- view of proceedings and surroundings, with people obscured or not even in sight (a trait that gains plot significance). Hannibal’s brutal “Brueghelian beauty ” especially affects one of its main characters; who finds it increasingly difficult to separate the acts of viewing, understanding, and becoming. The bursts of violence in all these shows is heavily stylized, but their cruelty or sudden viciousness are presented as horrifying beyond — or because of—  their shocking elegance.


Another factor that distinguishes these surreal-leaning shows from other TV programs: their original, evocative soundtracks. Moodiness and odd flourishes heighten scenes with tones ranging from ethereal to menacing. My favorite track this year is “Meditative Chaos,” featuring the voice of Kim Neundorf, from Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s distortion-heavy Utopia soundtrack. Scottish post-rock band Mogwai composed atmospheric tracks like “Wizard Motor” for Les Revenants by watching scenes with some English-language description and translation before scoring. Brian Reitzell’s soundtrack for Hannibal sneaks and slithers before heavy beats and many an operatic crescendo. Pulses echo the ticks of a metronome, or a stalker’s steps.



Humanity is haunted and hunted. Scattered through these shows are the dream-stag and murder displays of Hannibal, Mr. Rabbit and the illustrations in Utopia, and the titular animal and human Revenants. Powerful images and personalities are presented as more than human, breaking past the civilized everyday into realms aligned with the primitive or supernatural. Living and dead, flora and fauna, blend in inhuman assemblage. Lines between opposing forces split and fuse in a kaleidoscopic array of allegiance and morality. Particular shots further suggest a further melding of diabolical and divine.



What is surprising about these shows is how they extend this dissolving duality to the basic physical and filial elements of existence. Inserts of gentle, pastoral nature are later revealed as omens of murder and decay. From Utopia’s pharma-food conspiracy to the cannibalistic killers of Hannibal and Les Revenants (and stirrings of feral behavior in the zombies of the latter), the vital and personal act of eating is tainted. Kinship bonds arise through cannibalism and trauma in Hannibal, mourning and survival in Les Revenants, and alternating paranoia and vulnerability in Utopia. Each program centers on survival through formation and fracture of individual and group identity. Yet which of these bonds are fabrications of manipulation and pressure? What bonds are genuine? Les Revenants, Utopia, and Hannibal bring to our screens three narratives that explore the hopes and fears of trust: in others, in oneself, and in one’s reality.


Thursday, January 10, 2013

#17: Camera as Enabler: Man Bites Dog (1992) and Chronicle (2012)


 Man Bites Dog (C'est arrivé près de chez vous, "It Happened in Your Neighborhood"), directed by and starring Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, and Benoît Poelvoorde; unfolds through the footage of a documentary production crew who have selected a hitman as their subject. A reason for filming gruesome murders turns into an excuse for criminal collaboration.

Chronicle, directed by Josh Trank, tells its teens-with-superpowers tale through constant obsessive or automated video documentation. The joy and troubles of newfound abilities takes an Akira-lite path towards destruction.

These are ultimately stories of villains, either sympathetic or charismatic. The camera becomes another channel of power. Recording and performing for an audience amplifies the protagonists’ control (or lack of control) over life and death. Both main characters try to turn themselves into legends, to reach beyond their lower-middle-class situation and become an “apex predator.”

Neither film is subtle, and a few jumps and plot holes are more obvious because of the films’ overall tight control. Females are simply plot devices compared to the male characters. Yet the format inherently acknowledges perspective limitations. Man Bites Dog manages to be both brutal and incisive in its shocks and whiplash morbid humor. Chronicle is notable for how it expands the “found footage” subgenre by transforming the camera into eyes, an extension of self, a witness, even a spirit medium.

“Found footage” movies ask the audience to accept that not only is the fiction on screen “reality” for the characters, but that this fiction has the appearance of fact. One could say that extreme aspects reassure the viewer that what is happening on screen is not real; of course no one dies like that, of course there are no superhuman powers from outer space. However, the movies still ask, what if it is real? What would you do?

The two films discussed here explicitly show the materials “used” for shooting — low-budget film for Man Bites Dog, digital video for Chronicle— to ground their concept. More than similar films, they activate the possibilities of their format. Through most of Chronicle, many viewers hope for the better welfare and possible redemption of the character whose often hand-held perspective guides much of the movie. Man Bites Dog implicates and horrifies both viewer and filmmaker for their fascination with the sensational. At which point will a viewer decide to tag along for the ride? At which point would a viewer step back? Either way, they’re still watching.




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For further reading, check this critique of the socioeconomic dynamics in Chronicle, as well as the AV Club’s New Cult Canon post on Man Bites Dog.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

#16 - 2NE1's "I Love You" MV (2012) and the films of Josef von Sternberg

Late at night, trying out different Korean music videos on cable OnDemand, I noticed something. It is not influence I'm suggesting or exemplary work I'm praising. There are simply some similarities I wanted to compare.



Solitary scenes of longing are standard fare in music videos, but the concentration of those scenes in this video reminded me of aspects of the work of director Josef von Sternberg.

The four young women that comprise the pop group 2NE1 are kept separate for much of the song; lounging, searching. Their gaze is constantly angled, examining themselves or reaching elsewhere. If they face the camera, it is rarely sustained. These looks at the camera are often partly in shadow, at a diagonal, fleeting in motion, supported by shots of other members of the group, or through a mirror; sparsely distributed through the video until they climax in raid brighter-colored montage.




Outward excess is shown through a gaze both poetic and voyeuristic. One member's dance faces an empty armchair, while another is turned inward, a personal movement. There is an audience in mind, if not present. The group's usual hypersaturated palette, and extreme assemblage of high fashion would not be out of place in the casino of The Shanghai Gesture



Josef von Sternberg was shameless in exploiting "foreign" stereotypes to create his idealized, often depraved, settings for desire. "I Love You" is from an Korean group and presumably filmed by an Asian director whose name I could not find. It uses many locations and objects exotic in design if not in use: the lighthouse shown below looks like a prop from a silent film, and one sensual gesture of brushing past hallway doors is quiet but memorable. 


Many of the videos of 2NE1 are designed to create glamorous, bizarre yet fun worlds for school-age through pop-loving-adult fans. Both bodies of work strive to conjure escape in flickers, to embrace opulence and ridiculousness in impermanent forms.

As stated near the beginning, the slower songs of 2NE1 and other musical acts usually feature one or more people staring, in frames easy to mold towards whatever lyrics are being sung at the moment. What struck me about this video was how it indulged in languor.

Females in von Sternberg's films often slink and recline, and even in the relatively more realist silent The Docks of New York, key moments feature the heroine lying in bed. "I Love You" has been discussed as a typical song about obsession, another trait common to characters in von Sternberg's films. The women of 2NE1 and von Sternberg's heroines are presented lingering within their emotions, unsettled even in their dream worlds, restless but held back until the right moment for the direct gaze.




Tuesday, September 18, 2012

#15: Korean Interiors: I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK (2006) and The Housemaid (1960)




Characters in Park Chan-wook’s I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK and Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (Hanyo) are confined to stylized spaces that illustrate states of mind. The comedic color film I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK has possibilities expand through the characters’ breaks with reality, while those in the melodramatic black-and-white The Housemaid are further trapped by their extreme emotions. Both films have one moment where the reality of the situation intrudes, a critique of over-sentimentalizing mental illness (Cyborg) or acting as a voyeur (Housemaid). Cyborg or Housemaid, the lead female characters’ minds are especially powerful and, especially for the male characters in the films, impenetrable.



Sunday, April 29, 2012

#14: The Socio-Economic Network: Kekexili: Mountain Patrol (2004) and Gommora (2008)

Investigations into economic exploitation are adapted for semi-fictional drama in Lu Chuan’s Kekexili (Mountain Patrol) and Matteo Garrone’s Gommora.



Kekexili, which depicts events in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of Tibet, has drawn criticism for portraying the Chinese government as a benign authority. (See here and here for more information.) The director attracted similar comments of fulfilling Chinese propaganda aims with his masterful movie about the Rape of Nanking, City of Life and Death.

Roberto Saviano, the author of the vital muckraking work upon which Gommora is based, is still under police protection since publication of the book, which exposes the worldwide reach of the Camorra mafia and the stranglehold it maintains in and around Naples.



Though events in the plot may be as unforgiving as the mountainous landscape, Kekexili makes gritty heroes out of the Tibetans who give up their time and lives in order to save the Tibetan antelope from poachers. There is much less Hollywood-esque heroism in Gomorra, where the compromises and hypocrisies reach further into even the most well-intentioned person’s actions. The apartment structure at the center of the intertwining stories looms as an ominous structure of community decay.

Some have found Gomorra too bleak and overpopulated with characters to maintain interest, while one romantic subplot in Kekexili halts that film’s otherwise expert control of pace. Chuan also admitted that he could not find a satisfying answer amongst research notes and interviewees for why the protagonists are so committed to their task.





Kekexili’s cinematography brings forth all the color and majesty of the Tibetan highlands, pulling in tighter for character moments and very polished in its overall style. Gommora’s visuals tend towards desaturation in its more intimate and immediate look. The many accounts of Saviano’s book are distilled into several storylines connected by neighborhood and Camorra entanglement. A Chinese connection even appears with one clothes factory plot. “These Chinese know how to cook,” says one surprised Italian character, whose attitude towards the foreigners grows more amicable after food and work. Mealtime also establishes a deeper connection between the Chinese reporter and the Tibetan protagonists of Kekexili, but this a universal trope that can be found in films from any country.

What these films share most in common is a potent and damning critique of how increased worldwide demand for goods is met through pervasive exploitation- of Tibetans as well as the endangered antelope species in Kekexili and the people of an entire region in Gomorra. None of the characters in these films ever have the chance to witness escape from these situations, though hope may be given to the audience through post-movie research or concluding on-screen text.