Monthly Archives: June 2013

Man of Steal

The S stands for Hope. Shope. S'hope.

The S stands for Hope. Shope. S’hope.

Man of Steel, the movie that dares not speak its name, uttering the S word only once[1], opens in a CGI sci-fi universe reminiscent of Avatar.  No giant Smurfs, but plenty of bizarre creatures and vaguely cloud-forest images.  Russell Crowe shows up, reprising his weird fake English accent[2] from Les Mis but now playing a Jedi, including requisite Prequel Mullet, and before long the movie looks like Star Wars by way of Alien, a kind of PG-13 HR Giger, biomechanical but desexualized, down to the Kryptonian asexual reproduction, even as everything on Krypton also looks like a phallic symbol.  (They’re obviously sublimating their sexual frustration.)

Cute little Kryptonians!

Cute little Kryptonians!

Then Michael Shannon shows up, and you know he’s a bad guy because of the shape of Michael Shannon’s head.[3]  Krypton blows up on cue, Kal El is launched in another phallus, and before long, Clark Kent is a grownup on Earth—33 years old, a portentous age that the movie does not fail to point out to us.  Then we’re in X-Men territory, as the heavily muscled and even more heavily chest-haired[4] Henry Cavill drifts, just as heavily muscled and  equally hirsute Hugh Jackman did as Wolverine over a decade ago, trying to understand his place in the world, the charm on his necklace again his only clue.  Cue “Seasons,” the depressing Chris Cornell acoustic grunge song from the movie Singles, as the Artist Formerly Known as Superman swipes a conveniently flattering flannel shirt from a clothesline and hitchhikes to the next identity a la David (not Bruce) Banner in the TV show The Incredible Hulk.  If only the movie played that music instead:

The movie is cut with flashbacks to young Clark’s childhood, where, rather than having super abilities, he’s treated, and behaves, more like a child with disabilities. It’s an interesting metaphor that the movie doesn’t do much with—Smallville, the TV show, did it much better.  Ma and Pa Kent show up, although Kevin Costner’s Jonathan isn’t what I associate with the role. Rather than teaching Clark to celebrate who he is and always do what’s right, he warns him that he has to hide his true self.   Again, shades of X-Men, which I always read as a reversal of the Superman story. While classic Superman is a wonder of assimilation, cheered and welcomed by humanity for his differences, the X-Men are feared and suspected for their differences, and in Man of Steel’s revision, Superman is not only an alien but alienated.

Christopher Nolan co-wrote and produced the film, and he brings his rebooted Batman sensibilities to the project—Superman is dark and brooding, not just orphaned, like Batman, but orphaned twice, by both Jor El and Jonathan Kent.  Before long, General Zod’s mean-shaped head is back and threatening to TAKE OVER THE WORLD, at which point the movie takes its cues from War of the Worlds, down to the giant tripods, and Cloverfield and other 9/11/2001-infleunced films, all shaky handcams and masses of people fleeing the dust, wreckage, and debris of falling buildings.  Meanwhile, a Transformers-like cityscape CGI battle ensues for, I don’t know, like an hour.  Superman wins! Yay! And kisses Lois Lane, even though Metropolis looks like it was hit by a hundred 9/11s.  No matter. In the final scene, the Clark Kent we know and love—glasses!—shows up in a miraculously restored Metropolis (although it took over a decade to put up a single new tower in Ground Zero), and we’re ready for the next adventure.

Quick! Sneeze on them!

Martians! I mean, Kryptonians!

Look.  I don’t want to be a jerk here.  But I took my boys, ages 11 and 15, to see this movie, hoping for—for what?   The way I felt when I saw Superman with Christopher Reeve, I guess. Or Star Wars, or Indiana Jones, or the many movies that I can honestly say felt like a formative childhood experience.  I’m not one to wax nostalgic.[5]  And there’s nothing exactly wrong with the picture, as the discrepancy between the fan ratings (largely positive) and critics’ reviews (negative to lukewarm) suggest.   But in borrowing from, let’s recap here, Avatar, Star Wars, Alien, X-Men, Hulk, Smallville, Batman, War of the Worlds, Cloverfield, and whatever I left out, director Zak Snyder and Nolan seem profoundly embarrassed by Superman himself.  Superman thrives on the dramatic irony of Clark Kent’s nebbishy persona, the one that Reeve did so well, the one that is as absent here as Superman himself is.  We know who he really is, and we’re special for it.  But there is no Clark Kent here, and no Superman.  Nolan’s Batman movies got to the core of that character, a man pushed by tragedy to the brink of psychosis, living in a noir nightmare, neurotically and impotently trying to avenge and atone for his parents’ deaths.  But Superman is not Batman, and Man of Steel does not get to the core of Superman.  In trying to reboot him, it abandons what I liked about the character–his contrasting personas, his simplicity, his good nature, his fun.    It should be awesome to be Superman.  We don’t need to learn that [spoiler?] he himself is somehow responsible for luring Zod to Earth, or [spoiler x2?] not saving Jonathan, that he struggles with who he is, that humans fear him.  (The only human who used to fear Superman was Lex Luthor.)  In the end, Man of Steel is a perfectly adequate summer special effects extravaganza.  It is not Superman.  Which is a shame.

Time: 55 minutes  


[1] “Superman.” What S word did you think I meant?

[2] Usually British accents come easier to Aussies and Kiwis.  Not so Crowe.

[3] Michael Shannon will make phrenologists of us all.

[4] I will admit that I was happy to see the chest hair.  I’m not only a member of the Chest Hair Club for Men; I’m also its president.

[5] Or wax anything. See: chest hair.

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The Three Movies that Traumatized Me

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For some people, it’s Bambi.  For my brother Al, it was ET and Pee Wee’s Playhouse—he must have had a psychic intuition about that Pee Wee Herman guy.   But everyone can look back on childhood and recall—sometimes fondly reminisce, as I suppose I do —about the Movies that Ruined Their Lives.  (In the comments, go ahead and mention the movies that traumatized you. It’s fun!)  It’s not that I hate the movies or think that they’re bad.  As Facebook would say of my relationship, it’s complicated.

1) The Shining

shining

I remember the day that Brendan, Michael, and I watched The Shining at Irving’s house, I guess at some point in elementary school.  Irving had the only VHS and, obviously, most neglectful parents.  I think they were going through something.  Supposedly, kids figure everything out and know what’s going on, but I was a confused, oblivious child.  Danny, the boy with the title’s power, seemed roughly our own age, and when he talked to his hand decades before talk shows would emplore people to do the same, and called his pointer finger Tony, then spoke in a raspy voice as Tony, it didn’t seem funny, or campy, or kitschy, or cheap.  It was fucking horrifying.  So was the “REᗡЯUM” in lipstick on the bathroom door, which spelled out “MURDƎЯ” in the mirror, something that at 10 years old (maybe?) I DID NOT SEE COMING AT ALL.  And that was nothing compared with the terrifying twin dead ghost girls.  Like regular twins aren’t scary enough.  And of course, the Naked Lady in the bathtub, who begins as beautiful (not that I noticed; see: oblivious) and turns into a shrieking, droopy-breasted  hag as she chases Jack Nicholson down one of the million hallways in the film.  The later scenes, involving Jack going crazy, hacking poor Scatman Crothers to death with an ax, and subsequently menacing and attempting to murder his wife and child, had little effect after the powerful childhood magic of Tony,   REᗡЯUM, the girls, and especially the Naked Lady.  Either that or I had no more unconscious recesses left in my brain the ruin.  As Psycho must have done for a previous generation, The Shining made me scared to go anywhere near a bathroom for, like, a year.   And for many years after, Michael and I would yell “Naked Lady!” to each other, a phrase which for other kids may have evoked laughter, or titillation. Bur for us it was like screaming Boo! Times a million.

I watched The Shining again about a decade later. I was an English major in college and wanted to see what all the fuss in my head had been about.  This time, the movie was hilarious, a black comedy about writer’s block and isolation, less about Danny and bathrooms than Jack Nicholson’s madcap persona and the ridiculous haunted house conventions that had been beaten into everyone’s heads a hundred times by then. A hotel built on an Indian burial ground? Really?  I laughed at the film, at Jack, at Jack’s stupid, frozen face at the end, and myself, for misreading the movie so badly.

the_shining_ Jack frozen

And then I watched it again about six years ago.  I was teaching a class about conspiracy and paranoia in literature and film and wanted to pair Diane Johnson’s excellent, underrated novel The Shadow Knows with a movie.  And it was scary all over again, for new reasons. This time, I hardly saw anything supernatural or monstrous about it.  Instead, it seemed a harrowing psychodrama about loss of masculinity and domestic abuse, the not- at-all-funny ways in which women and children are most threatened by, most likely to be murdered by,  husbands and fathers,  supposed protectors and providers.  Without society or any kind of social arrangements, Jack has nothing to keep his rabid unconscious in check. I was disturbed all over again.  Maybe I wasn’t as oblivious as I thought as a child.

  2. The Fly

fly_poster

Not the 1950s Vincent Price classic, although I did see and love that movie as a child. No. In 1986, a few years after The Shining, I was at an in-between movie age and faced a choice: to see the Transformers (the cartoon movie that no one wants to talk about these days, featuring Orson Welles’s last role. Ah, cruel fate), or David Croneneberg’s remake of The Fly.  Later in life, I’d grow to love many of Cronenberg’s films.  Jeff Goldblum/Seth Brundle’s revolting and horrific transformation—no easy head-switcheroos here; the way   Brundle snaps a man’s wrist arm-wrestling in a bar; the way the mutated Brundle-Fly uses his fly vomit to disintegrate a man’s limbs; the way Gina Davis’s push dislodges Brundle-Fly’s jawbone and with it, his last vestige of human resemblance; Brundle-Fly’s like-nothing-else-ever appearance at the very end, after he accidently goes through the teleporter alone, failing in his Shining-esque plan to use the machine to merge his own DNA with Gina’s and their in-utero child, and how he points the gun at his own head but in his hideously deformed state can’t pull the trigger and Gina has to do it for him. OH MY GOD.  I can’t believe I ever saw another movie again. Or slept again.  Or had children.  But YOU WILL NEVER GET ME IN A TELEPORTER.  This plot summary was written from memory and without IMDB or Wikipedia.  Although I have not seen this movie in over 25 years, its images are burned into the internal plasma screen of my psyche.  Unlike The Shining, I do not expect to see The Fly again.

3. The Elephant Man

elephant-man_poster

Now, here’s the catch: not only have I not seen the Elephant Man since I was a child; I NEVER saw The Elephant Man. Although I added to my Netflix queue over a year ago in a failed attempt to cure myself through immersion therapy.  Which counts for something, I guess.  Even before The Shining, I saw a short clip of The Elephant Man on TV.  The clip I saw, which, again, I remember vividly although it was over three decades ago, features John Merrick, as he was known in the film, wearing a pillowcase over his head and fleeing a mob, which rips his mask off only to shock themselves into stunned murmurs.  Suddenly emboldened, Merrick bellows, “I am not animal! I am a man! A human being!” before collapsing from the exertion.  Then I saw a Ripley’s Believe it nor Not (or something like that) episode featuring Elephant Man reenactments, although the disfiguring makeup was far cruder than the film’s and, if I remember right, kinda purple. No matter. I become obsessed with The Elephant Man, reading all I could about him while strenuously avoiding any pictures of him, or John Hurt in the movie, which was not easy.  Even at the time, I had no idea what I was scared of.  Was I going to run into him somewhere?  I was kind of scared that I would, although obviously the odds of, say, being killed by Jack Nicholson were far greater.  Would I turn into him?  Um, no.  I didn’t know what I was scared of.  I still don’t, although the fact that I felt terrorized and traumatized by the clip is, as far as I can ascertain without having actually seen it, the exact opposite point of the film itself, which seeks to re-humanize, rather than dehumanize, the Man, not the Elephant.  I should really watch it.

But I won’t.

Honorable Mention: Snoopy Come Home.  In 1976, Snoopy, one of my childhood loves, ran away from Charlie Brown. Or something like that.  Did he run away, or was he left behind? Was it a misunderstanding? If you need to know, go check Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snoopy,_Come_Home , which, unbelievably, has a significant entry on it. I haven’t seen this one again and don’t plan to.   And unlike the others, I hardly remember it.  Call it traumatic amnesia. All I know is that Snoopy was gone for like an hour and a half, and everyone is crying and crying and crying those big Peanuts teardrops from the sides of their eyes like water hoses, and then five minutes before the end, after everyone gives up, Snoopy Comes Home and it’s all OK.  Well, Charles Schultz, it WAS NOT OK.  The ending could not fix the feelings of loss that, when I close my eyes and psychically look back, I may not have yet gotten over. 

Time: one re-traumatizing hour.  

 215px-SnoopyComeHome

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