Hancock [2008]

Iron Man [2008] was effectively where the modern Super Hero film kicked off, and with it came a certain kind of super-hero story design that I think has found its way into a relatively dead end, and for which I think neither Marvel nor DC have an alternative: the climactic battle. The structure that Iron Man perfected ends with a fight between the hero and their own negative reflection. The further a film can distance itself from this trope the more successful and dynamic that encounter becomes, but in our over-determined over-familiar sense of the Super Hero story it has something of a stranglehold, to the point where Wonder Woman [2017] felt the need to end with that trope despite everything about that encounter running directly against the whole design ethos and meaning of the rest of the show. If you haven’t punched evil in the face, how can you say you’ve really defeated it? This is not an old problem! In fact it’s a problem that Alan Moore already solved with Watchmen [1986], and it’s an indictment on virtually everything in the last decade of Marvel-inspired films that nobody with sufficient creative control to break the template seems to have noticed that. But it needn’t have gone that way, we could have followed Hancock instead, and produced a humanist line of super hero films more interested in character than conflict.

Spoilers follow, for Iron Man, Watchmen, and Hancock. Continue reading

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Revisiting Blade Runner [1992 re-release]

I recently re-watched this in preparation for seeing Blade Runner 2049 (review forthcoming), and judging from my Facebook “news” feed, so have a lot of other people. I’ve been a little surprised to see a quite negative stream of commentary emerging around the seeming incompleteness of it. I’m not sure whether that means “our” reception of films has changed, but for most of my life the default position I’ve seen is that its elliptical qualities are what makes it a masterpiece. Mark Kermode summed this up on his blog recently by arguing that it was really amazing that even the two directors couldn’t agree on a central structural conceit: is Deckard a replicant? My answer to that question has usually been a glib one, which is that it depends on which “cut” of the film you’re watching. Continue reading

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An Emotional Response to Lucifer [Episodes 1-3]

Occasionally one encounters a piece of fiction so staggeringly ill-judged as to transgress the border of the misanthropic, the production of which in any civilised society would be an actual crime. I can’t say for certain that Lucifer taken as a whole is such a fiction, but on the basis of the first couple of episodes, nothing would surprise me less. The irony of such a staggeringly awful show is that I can only conceive of it having been made after a talentless producer literally made a pact with Satan. With something so catastrophically miss-formed it becomes hard to know where to begin the reckoning.

For the sake of starting somewhere, the biggest question of purpose I have is: do we really need absolutely everything to be a police procedural? It absolutely boggles the mind that given the Prince of Darkness as the lead character, the best thing they could think of was making yet another “weirdo assists police” show – in the last few years we’ve had The Mentalist, Castle, and basically Blacklist and Elementary. More broadly, there must be 50 police procedurals on TV at the moment. It’s been renewed for at least a third season, so there must be an appetite for it, but then again, MacDonalds is trying to open an outlet in near the Duomo in Florence so… The crimes they investigate in the first few episodes are also beyond mundane; at least Castle opened with an inventive gimmick or two.

Cliche veritably permeates every aspect of the show – there’s a kind of sparky dislike from the lead woman detective over the godawfully annoying enforced side-kick… do you think they’ll end up falling in love? I’d bet my eye teeth they end up together. The unpopular ex-husband reeks of “going to turn out to be corrupt” too. So far in the first couple of episodes there’s no sign of the overly-tough boss with a secret heart of gold, so there’s at least that. That sense of “not even trying” extends to all the jokes about how nobody believes he’s the devil, or that he’s immortal. It’s not that there isn’t a vein of something interesting there, but this show just seems content to gesture off to the side and say “and if you want a good joke about that, tell it yourself”. Poor DB Woodside didn’t get that memo, I think, doing his best to bring a bit of menacing gravitas – but some random angel threatening Lucifer with some unspecified penalty… it just doesn’t have any emotional heft to it. It’s like two children endlessly repeating “I know you are, but what am I?” Nobody cares, alright, just SHUT UP!

More serious is the blatant, absolutely ridiculously in-your-face creepiness of the overt sexualisation of everything.  Lucifer’s schtick is basically mind-control to induce sexual desire. Luckily Game of Thrones has come along to raise the bar on disturbing rape culture to an unattainable height, and this is marginally less freaky than the Almighty Johnsons, so that’s a win? But put it this way, Tony Soprano was about the worst human being to headline a TV show until Breaking Bad, and even he didn’t start trying to sleep with his therapist for 3 or 4 seasons. There’s obviously some studio exec somewhere who thinks you can just lather sex all over a show and that’ll make it edgy and fun, but if so, they’ve face-planted by trying to do a sex comedy line while hanging onto a kiddie-friendly rating – kids find sex hilarious, dontchaknow, better make sure they can tune into this!

Somewhere in LA there are a group of people who all thought this was a good idea and worked really hard to make it happen. That absolutely boggles my mind. It’s not fun, it’s not clever, it’s not sexy.

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Man with a Movie Camera [1929]

For my studies this year, I’ve watched in the order of 50 films, and the best of them is probably a 1929 silent pseudo-documentary called Man with a Movie Camera. It was made by a guy who got his start in newsreels and who was apparently a reasonably ardent communist. Some accounts of the film position it as advocacy for the communist idea of progress, but my impression from nearly a century away was that it’s more general celebration of urbanization and mechanization: man as a perfectly harmonious and functioning part in a structured society.

In that light, it could be read almost as the light-universe antithesis of Metropolis’ dystopia. In Metropolis one part of humanity is enslaved to machines who facilitate the comfortable lives of the minority. Metropolis constructs this as the “hand” and “head”, which will be yoked together an made into a less horrific enslavement by the “heart”. Lang posits a society where hierarchy persists, basically nobility and peasantry. For all that the evil robotic agent provocateur is defeated, and the real “heart” restored, this represents an evolution of the hierarchical system into a more perfect form rather than a disruption of the system. The real mediator between the slaves and masters remains machinery, of which the robotic Maria was just the most subtle version.

Man with a Movie Camera‘s more positive vision shows no hierarchy. Human workers aren’t shown in service to the machines, they’re shown as parts in a continuous chain of production. As both exist in series, there’s a kind of equivalence between a person and a machine – neither superior, neither expendable. The workers in Man with a Movie Camera are all shown as happy, and the mechanistic function they fulfil in the factory is then shown as the model for other behaviours. For example, in a scene of people swimming, each of the line of swimmers executes the same precise movements in pretty much the same time – they are machine swimmers, not spontaneous swimmers. It’s therefore still a film about a total integration, a sublimation of humanity’s spontaneity into the orderly operation of machines, but a happy one.

Both films remain strikingly modern and relevant. I think that we are probably still mediating the technological crisis that motivates the films: will machines free us from hierarchical societies or will they reinforce those structures? One micro example for me is the self-checkouts at super-markets. When I buy fresh fruit and vegetables I usually avoid them and use a human-operated lane, because they are much quicker at weighing and looking up the items than I am. Metropolis tells me that those workers are in service to the machine, facilitating its functions for my benefit. Man with a Movie Camera tells me that these are parallel operations, a symbiosis that uses the wider capabilities of a human as well as the precise calculating functions of a machine.

This kind of optimistic view of progress is encoded purely visually. I think Hitchcock would have recognised it as “pure cinema”, where the use of cutting, continuity editing, and montage (if those are different things) creates a meaning that requires no explanation. It is a visual delight. I’ve watched it with several different soundtracks and in every instance my awareness of the music has completely faded, leaving just a visual spectacle. It’s a work of absolute genius, which sets out to, and successfully does, prove just how sophisticated film is as a pure medium in its own right, not dependent on concepts borrowed from earlier art forms.

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Guardians of the Galaxy, vol 2 [2017]

For the past few months I’ve been having a slightly awkward conversation which, broadly, goes something like this:

“Did you see that new Guardians of the Galaxy film eh? What great fun, best thing since sliced bread.”

“I did see it, but it rather bothered me actually.”

“You monster, hating a film featuring the strongest women and female-oriented storyline in the Marvel cinematic universe!”

“Actually, that is what rather bothered me – I can’t believe it got away with being so monstrously misogynist.”

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol2 somehow got away with using the most appalling gender tropes – not only got away with it, but got praised for just the opposite. I’ve almost been starting to doubt myself the last few times I’ve had this conversation – maybe it’s all in my head, maybe I’ve flipped over into a painful acuteness or over-sensitivity. I don’t think I’ve yet found someone who sees things my way after I’ve advocated for it, so even on the basis of insufficient sophistry it’s a bit saddening. It’s Scott Pilgrim versus the World all over again.

Continue reading

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Reflexivity in Remington Steele

Remington Steele was a lightly comedic detective procedural from the early 1980s. It had two gimmicks – front and centre is the conceit that Remington Steele is a fraud, an invention of the real detective, Laura Holt, who was not being taken seriously in the private investigation world because of her gender. Laura did all the real detection and puzzle solving, even as the greatest enigma eluded her: just who was that tall blue-eyed stranger who’d insinuated himself into the role of Remington Steele? Steele brought the second gimmick, which is that he would always try to solve their cases by finding a movie with an analogous plot. It’s a strategy which has fascinated me for virtually my whole life, and was in large part what lead to my interest in classic movies. I’ve never specifically looked for a film on the basis of it featuring in an episode of Remington Steele, but it did make classic movies accessible and familiar in a helpful way.

The explicit incorporation of genre precursors is the kind of highly literate referentiality that we have come to associate with post-modernism. I’ve previously looked at this purely in terms of my emotional response, but now I’d like to probe a little deeper and inquire why the show has adopted this strategy and how it affects the mechanics of the fiction. Why include older fictions? How does it affect the show’s sense of reality? How does it affect the story mechanics? Remington Steele uses film references in a number of different ways, for different effects. It is rare that a film’s plot does actually map perfectly onto the mystery of the week, quite often the film reference applies only to a particular clue or scene, so that the most complexly referential episodes can draw on a half-dozen films. Almost as often, the filmic reference has no real plot significance, but is used as a commentary beat.

What all of these uses have in common is that they provide a commentary on the action that’s unfolding, suggesting a future possible sequence of events, and most crucially, exposing the puzzle-solving process directly. Most detective fiction takes great pains to hide the process of solving a crime from the audience, from mystifying the ability of the detective to collate the clues and arrive at the correct conclusion. However, as Raymond Chandler observed, the clues never actually work once you start to really tear into the details – they are not in that sense “realistic”. What you see again and again in detective fiction is a series of seemingly arbitrary inquiries whose combined purpose is revealed as the story climax, though most televisual detectives keep their inquiries comfortably away from the truly esoteric. Despite Holmes’ dictum that you must have facts before theories, lest you twist your facts to suit your theories, most practical detection works on the more scientific principle of forming a theory and then searching for corroborating/eliminating facts, often culminating in one or more mid-story false accusations, necessary to elicit the crucial fact that will disprove a given theory. This process is at least a little at odds with the old idea that people read detective fictions as a battle of wits with the fictional detective – it’s far more like a magic trick, where I think we broadly don’t want to know how it’s done, we want to be amazed. In fact, the simplest way to solve almost all detective stories is via some or other process of meta-gaming the problem, eloquently summed up by the default position that it’s always the least-likely suspect. The way that the magic trick has to be structured is a little more sophisticated than that – the criminal must usually be someone seen only slightly, usually early in the drama, who appears unconnected to the crime at first glance. That simple rule will solve 95% of television procedurals, because the ergonomics of 40-minute shows means there will only be one or at most two viable candidates. The existence of clues themselves are inherently misdirections. What Steele’s references to films does is short-circuit this logic by directly meta-gaming the mystery at hand inside the fiction, and inviting the audience to do the same. What this referentiality creates then, is an entirely different way of thinking about detectives and detection, a way that is perhaps a little more honest about the way fictions are structured and consumed.

An important consequence of this change is that it directly responds to Chandler’s basic complaint about detective fictions, that they are completely inward looking, interested only in evaluating and solving the very specific problems that they themselves create. We could use Umberto Eco’s useful formulation here of the “closed” versus the “open” text – not that I think he really believes there is such a thing as a “closed” text. By explicitly becoming self-referential, Remington Steele actually opens the text to a wider array of interpretations, because not only do we have the closed system of mystery clues, but the richness of the associations created by the reference. We can use that reference to understand the show, or we can use Remington Steele as a prism for looking back at the original work.

One example is “Vintage Steele“, from the first season. The central mystery revolves around a mysterious body floating in a vat of wine, found during a press conference announcing the expansion of the vineyard. The body has an annoying habit of being stolen and then placed to appear when it will cause maximum disruption, and this habit causes Steele to dub the unknown corpse “Harry”, from The Trouble With Harry [1955], one of Hitchcock’s comedies. The comedy revolves around the burgeoning romance between the not-terribly-grieved widow and a local painter, ultimately ending with a murder turning out to be natural causes and the successful consummation of the romance plot. Because The Trouble With Harry ultimately has no killer, it provides a schema for the incidental action of “Vintage Steele”, but not a conclusion; in fact, Laura is only able to actually solve the mystery after a string of false accusations leads to the last remaining suspect being found guilty, she then reconstructs the crime after solving it. The solution comes before the detective’s ruminations, a major destabilisation of business-as-usual for Great Detectives made possible by the reflexivity of the plot.

Aside from the effect on detection, explicitly referencing The Trouble With Harry allows Remington Steele to adopt a quite macabre plot device within its lightly comic tone through the establishment of that precedent. It’s the kind of navigation of genre conventions which enables Remington Steele to have different tones as required for the narrative. In making the audience aware that the show is aware of its own fictionality, it avoids any risk of being branded “realistic”, and hence any risk of being subject to the kind of critique Chandler delivers. It instead acknowledges the real process we use for watching and interpreting fictions, which is very heavily to use precedent and formula. In acknowledging this, Remington Steele invites the playful participation of the audience instead of trying to fool them, a process which Chandler showed can never be successful without the active goodwill of the audience in any case.

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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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