King Arthur: Legend of the Sword [2017]

It is axiomatic in my critical writing that a work should be taken on its own terms as much as possible, and I try to then understand given it succeeds, what meaning the thing conveys. This is a very difficult criterion to use when encountering works that are themselves explicitly remakes of older films, explicitly re-imaginings of previous source material, or explicitly meta-textual in some way. With versions of King Arthur, there emerge a range of, if you like, Sacred Cows – Merlin, Excalibur, Mordred, Guinevere+Lancelot, the round table. Films that try and use just parts of the legend are often not that successful, or end up feeling like they used the key names as a ploy for telling an unrelated story. And in the specific case of Arthur, they’ve got to project their identity strongly enough to overcome one of the foundation texts of English, L’Morte d’Arthur, and one of the most widely seen and adored satires, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Guy Ritchie’s film, unfortunately, runs face-first into most of these challenges. It’s not quite as dire as King Arthur [2004], but there’s a lot that the film does to undermine itself, creating a narrative that’s semi-coherent at best. The challenge, in a way, is explaining why I still somewhat enjoyed it – an admittedly emotional rather than rational response. As I always say, the starting rather than the ending point for engaging with a film.

I think the way to approach the film is not as a fantasy epic or quest at all  – nor as some critics have done, as a tale of the criminal underworld. I think the most productive way to think about it is as a superhero story. Seen as a super-hero origin story the outline plot begins to look familiar: ambitious boy of unassuming (apparent) origins acquires power and must learn to use it before facing a powerful villain. The scenes in Londonium which otherwise seem like off-cuts from a medieval Ritchie caper flick then start to make sense as the small-scale testing ground for the powers he needs. Vortigern has the usual supervillainous interest in obtaining some ultimate weapon, and so on.

If this reading is right, the bigger question becomes one of how we interpret fictions. What is it that makes a super-hero version of Arthur the Arthur that we need right now, compared to the gritty world-weary commander from 2004, or the naive dreamer of 1967, or the wonder-struck idealist of 1963? Just as importantly, why doesn’t this Arthur need most of those trappings, so essential for 500-odd years since Malory? I think the answer comes down in a way to the capstone of this film: the formation of the round table. Arthur is king partially because of his birthright, but mostly by the assent of the other knights – that’s why the table is round, in order to give equal voices to all those sitting at it. Arthur may be king, but that makes him first among equals, and of course, famously he is not the best knight – that’s Gawain, nor the most noble, that’s Percival, and so on. Recent TV versions have emphasised Merlin as a central driving character, eschewing the notion of royalty as centrally important, but what Ritchie’s Arthur has instead of magical powers is a reliance on his close group of allies.

Despite enjoying it, and thinking that it touches on some really interesting ways of thinking about Arthur, I have to admit that the logical and structural problems with this film are immense – by the way it establishes its own expectations I think it’s pretty clearly not a whole-hearted success. I can’t quite call it a failure though. Deeply flawed, but nonetheless interesting.

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Atomic Blonde [2017]

Atomic Blonde belongs to a male-dominated genre and aesthetic, not only dominated, but almost explicitly anti-woman. Women exist in this genre space almost purely to get “Fridged“, rescued, or indifferently used by the hero in furtherance of his aims. The big, perhaps only, exception in a male-led film has been Ilsa Faust [Rebecca Ferguson] in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation [2015], a rival of Ethan Hunt’s [Tom Cruise] who effectively does every feat of daring he does, rescues him when he fails, and defeats him in a chase – I very much want to see a Mission Impossible film headlined by her with an entirely new team. Before that there have been a tiny handful of female-led films like Haywire [2011], Salt [2010], The Long Kiss Goodnight [1996], and The Assassin [1993]. The rarity of a female-led spy action film makes gender the elephant in the room when thinking about this film, an elephant that the film itself is very aware of, because it needs to walk a tight-rope of expectations. A female hero in the Bond vein can’t use her sexuality the way Bond does his, because of Mata Hari; yet she must demonstrate or perform her sex, or end up a  effectively male with breasts. The Long Kiss Goodnight made this kind of dynamic explicit by pitting the spy identity against the mother identity, while the others have generally opted to lean away from the spy as a sexual being. Atomic Blonde takes my supposed dichotomy and destroys it as the limited and retrograde error of thought it is. Continue reading

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The Fate of the Furious [2017]

The response to the film by critics was by-and-large “it’s bonkers and doesn’t care”, which is critical short-hand for “I didn’t understand what this film was doing or how, but it seemed to appeal to the (stupid) masses”. Consider for example, Kate Muir’s hot take:

Oh what a cheery, trashy car crash of a movie we have in Fast & Furious 8, which does, once again, exactly what it says in the instruction manual in the glove compartment.

This dismissive tone suggests that what the film does is unplanned, haphazard, and that it’s a by-the-numbers recipe-book at the same time – a paradox. I think the inference we’re supposed to make here is that it’s the beans on toast of movies, the simplest possible thing in the world. The contempt for what is a superbly crafted story object is very disappointing and as usual, speaks far more to the predilections of the critic than the quality of the product. Of course, I know better – why else bother posting my knowledge on the internet?

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The Circle [2017]

Often when I read a negative review about a film, I’ll eventually come to the conclusion that the reviewer brought their own agenda to the review rather than coldly evaluating the work in its own terms. How valid that is as a strategy is up for debate, but I think one useful way of thinking about that decision is to look for precedents and familiar story patterns – genre. The Circle isn’t exactly a genre piece, but it is explicitly about the function of social media and its intersection with surveillance, and hence connects to a range of other similarly-interested films recently, and broadly with a major area of civil concern right now. Facebook and its analogues know a truly terrifying amount about us, both in terms of what we explicitly tell it, and in that we share information using it as a medium even knowing that every keystroke is recorded somewhere. A film about this topic, by its mere existence, posits an investigation of the phenomenon beyond the obvious facts of it that are well known to virtually everyone. Despite any good intentions I may have about letting the film speak for itself, it’s inevitably actually just a contributor to a much wider discussion that’s going on around me.

As usual, spoilers follow.

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The work of the Critic ™

A long time ago Hulk posted a scathing review of The Amazing Spiderman, and I had a riposte, and I find myself now having to come back again to defend Spiderman: Homecoming from his “criticism“. His basic problem is that this new iteration doesn’t show Peter growing or changing – let me tell you, as a long-term reader of the comics, growth and change are tiny and incremental because the bulk of what happens is about showcasing the implications of being Spiderman, not of becoming Spiderman or of Spiderman fundamentally changing what that means. Put it this way – Spiderman is not Hamlet. Once again, I cite Robin Laws’ work on “Iconic” versus “Dramatic” heroes, and the necessarily different narrative structures that surround those approaches to character.

So what? I disagree with Hulk, he disagrees with Marvel, what’s the point of rehashing all of this? For me, the point is the larger question in play, which is what the heck a critic is “supposed” to be doing in the first place, and whether Hulk (or I!) is doing that. And I think there are two main aspects to what we should be doing. Continue reading

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The Simple Art of Melancholy

The question of just what “Film Noir” is has plagued discussions of the genre since its retrospective creation by French critics in the 1950s and 1960s. As the term pertains to “Hard Boiled” detectives, whose presence was a clear signifier in early film noir, the formal distinctions have always been weak. I think we tend to fall back on Chandler’s dismissive summary of the differences between “realism” and “Cheesecake Manor” to frame how we divide Marple from Marlowe. Chandler famously picked Hammett as the true origin of the hard-boiled school, out of all the pulp writers publishing alongside Hammett he was picked as the “Dean of the Hard Boiled School”, and that reputation relies heavily on cross-promotion of Hammett as himself a real detective. This assessment of “realism” can’t sustain any kind of detailed scrutiny, as Hammett is definitively wrong on a number of matters in his non-fiction essays on the craft of detection.

My research into Dashiell Hammett ended up focusing on the ways in which he re-purposed the “classic” formal structures of detective fiction as practiced by the likes of SS van Dyne, Agatha Christie, et al, and enshrined in the rules of the Detection Club [1]. Raymond Chandler was fond of “doubling” his mysteries, so that a crime in the deep past was usually the key to solving a crime in the present – a technique also favoured by one Agatha Christie. Hammett’s career can be seen in some ways as as gradually succumbing to the lure of the formal approach, because Red Harvest and The Dain Curse use detective tropes without meaningful use of clues, the defining genre feature [2], while The Maltese Falcon uses clues to power a melodrama, before The Glass Key features a classic whodunit to motivate its gangster drama, and The Thin Man is actually a perfectly conventional whodunit.

Hammett’s work was converted into films in approximately reverse order – The Thin Man (1934), The Glass Key (1942), The Maltese Falcon (1931 & 1941), The Dain Curse (1978), and (debatably) Miller’s Crossing (1990). The Big Sleep (1942) and The Long Goodbye (1973) were transmogrified almost without important mysteries included – who killed Owen Taylor indeed [3]? Just as Hammett was singled out as the first “true” practitioner of the Hard Boiled school, The Maltese Falcon (1941) is commonly identified as the first “true” Film Noir. My favourite aspect of thinking about The Maltese Falcon as the first film noir is the way it was constructed in its marketing campaign, as a “story as exciting as his blazing automatics”, which is a great selling strategy for a film in which there is not a single gunshot. The Maltese Falcon is missing, or only has in relatively low levels, many of the key aesthetic and structural features identified as “Film Noir” – so-called “Dutch Angles” are used only a few times, the lighting is fairly mainstream, the good guys broadly win. Yet there is something distinctively different about it.

The lynch-pin of The Maltese Falcon is Sam Spade’s masculinity, his through-and-through toughness, the toughness that allows him to remark of his partners death “Miles had $10,000 in insurance, no kids, and a wife that didn’t like him”. He instructs the repainting of the office door straight away and as Polhouse remarks was “in too much of a hurry to look at Miles’ body”. The sense we get is not of someone whose armour of hope and optimism allows him to overcome all emotional buffets – if anything, quite the reverse, someone so inured to the school of hard knocks that he doesn’t even notice any more. His toughness has a definite quality of fatalism and nihilism, which are the hallmarks of Film Noir. We have a word for this – “Melancholy”.

Chandler will double-down on this aspect of the detective in Marlowe, who constructs his identity through the medium of loss, indefinite sadness, discontent, and a sense that the world is arranged principally to kick men like him in the teeth. It’s a short leap from the melancholic reverie of Marlowe to the resigned determination of the genuinely disadvantaged VI Warshawski and Easy Rawlins, who more properly occupy the role of the outsider and underdog that Marlowe regards as his lot in life.

This makes the sense of melancholy a potentially far more useful tool for understanding the difference in approach between the two great schools of detective fiction, because, as noted above, they are formally often indistinguishable. All detectives question suspects, search for clues, and use “ratiocination” to identify the murderer; not all detectives suffer from melancholy. Holmes, for example, is only melancholic when not detecting, at which times he diverts himself in other vices.

 

[1] Wright, Willard Huntingdon. “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories.” In The Art of the Mystery Story: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Howard Haycraft. New York: Biblio and Tannen, 1928.

[2] Moretti, Franco. “The Slaughterhouse of Literature.” MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 61, no. 1 (March 2000): 207–27.

[3] DeFino, Dean. “Killing Owen Taylor: Cinema, Detective Stories, and the Past.” Journal of Narrative Theory 30, no. 3 (October 1, 2000): 313–31.

[4] Mooney, William. “Sex, Booze, and the Code: Four Versions of the Maltese Falcon.” Literature/Film Quarterly 39, no. 1 (2011): 54–70.

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Kong: Skull Island [2017]

Kong: Skull Island is the kind of film they don’t make anymore: an unabashed pulp tale of spectacle, heroism, exoticism, and a giant frickin’ ape! Except that they still make tonnes of this kind of film; in fact, far, far, too much of it. And I’ve just contributed $16 to that problem. Je ne regrette rien! This is the kind of film that it’s not easy to imagine being taken seriously by a Real Critic ™, and I think the reviews will focus on the aspects of spectacle, especially Kong, and not probe too deeply into the film because it’s a slick lightweight bit of Hollywood mass production. I, conversely, found it a fascinating battleground on various fronts, showing how far some topics have come and how far some topics still have to go. I think too there’s a fundamental problem posed to a film like this, which is primarily about a sense of Awe and Wonder: can it ever succeed as an artistic construct without creating an Other to Exoticise?

If you liked the opening paragraph, there’s more like that with mild spoilers – let’s be honest you know exactly what happens in this film already! – below the line.

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