Tag Archives: Christopher Nolan

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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Why is the Second Movie Always the Best One?

Batman II

What The Dark Knight poster should have looked like.

Despite that it needs no wordplay to be turned into its inevitable porn version, The Dark Knight Rises—subject of my last blog—simply cannot compete with its predecessor, The Dark Knight.  And I think at this point it’s a truism that the second of the series is, in general, the best.[i]  The best of the Star Wars movies is The Empire Strikes Back. The best of the Lord of the Rings Movies is The Two Towers.  Spider-Man was great; Spider-Man II is better. X-Men is great; X2 is, if not better, pretty spectacular in ways that X1 was not. The same can be said of Terminator and Terminator 2. Most people prefer Aliens, with its almost unheard of 100% Rotten Tomatoes approval, to Alien (with its mere 97%)[ii]. Toy Story II is better than I and III. Few people have seen Mad Max, but everyone knows Mad Max II: The Road Warrior; Silence of the Lambs was technically a sequel to some movie that I didn’t see and am too apathetic to even Google.  Even going back to the Cambrian Age of sequels, the 1970s, Superman II is better than the original, and Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan far surpasses Star Trek: Look, It’s a Movie Now, which I do not remember at all.

A sneaky way to get the word “Two” into the sequel. Yet Three Kings is not the next movie and is an entirely different film. Hmmm.

Yes, these are all genre movies, but so what?  I’m sorry that Citizen Kane II: Rosebud’s Revenge, was never completed at the time of Orson Welles’s demise, when he died of embarrassment after voicing the original Transformers movie.  (Its non-sequels, Transformers I and II, mess with my title, as they are equally terrible.) 

But even the best of the non-superhero, non-sci-fi Godfather movies was still Godfather 2.   Why?

The second film, the first sequel, especially when envisioned as a trilogy, tends to be the deepest, darkest, and most adventurous.  Screenwriting conventional wisdom says that it’s the middle of the story that’s supposed to be the hardest part to write.  The opening sets things up, the ending wraps them up, but how do you take the characters from their dramatic situation’s conflict to their ending’s resolution?  It’s why so many movies feature the long chase scene in the middle—they’re running from the beginning to the end.

But in the second film, you can see how well writers and directors do when they are freed from what turns out to be the tyranny, the narrative straightjacket, of beginnings and endings.  Every beginning is the same: establish characters. Establish situations. All well and good, and as Americans we seem particularly obsessed with origins.  But there’s not a lot of room for creative maneuver.

The end provides a little more room. There’s happy—conflict resolved! It all worked out! There’s sad—conflict resolved, but a character, or the relationship, died! There’s bittersweet—a character, but not the main one, and probably a dog, died, but the main character learned a valuable lesson!  There’s the non-ending ending, and the recursive we’re back at the beginning ending. 

But the middle! Ahh. The middle is the sweet, sweet cream between the hard cookies of beginning and ending.  And it’s made of pure, delicious conflict.  

Take Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s opportunity to shine.  He tried to shake the narrative shackles of beginnings and endings in Memento, and came close.  He later figured out a way to use frame devices and plots in plots to mess around with beginnings and endings in Inception.  But Dark Knight allows him to take the narrative gloves off and provide nothing but climaxes for two and half hours.    Unlike Batman Begins, Dark Knight Rises, and most adventure movies, DK completely eschews the three act structure or even the Aristotelian conventions of plot and action.

Get your mind out of the gutter, people.

It’s a cliché, but Dark Knight’s narrative arc really is like a roller coaster–build up, rush down, build up, rush down, repeat.  The opening establishes the Joker = up! Then there’s a party or something = down/building up. Batman flies in Hong Kong to capture that guy = up!  Then lots of other stuff with equal signs and ups and downs that’s kinda boring in summary (read it here if you want to, although Wikipedia does not supply the equal signs) but that includes what feel like multiple false endings and climaxes again and again—Bruce is gonna reveal his secret! Lt. Gordon is dead! (For a while.) Batman’s gonna kill the Joker! But he can’t! He captures him! But the movie isn’t even close to being over—the Joker escapes via that horrific scene with the cellphone in that guy’s stomach! Then Rachel gets killed and Harvey Dent becomes Two Face! God, I’m getting out of breath, and I’m just typing.  Then Joker threatens to blow up a hospital! Then he DOES blow up the hospital! Then the hostages are dressed as clowns and Batman has to fight a whole SWAT team to stop them from killing the wrong people! Then there’s Two Face, then the Joker, andthenBatmansomemore, and Gordon’s not dead but Two Face is going all Sophie’s Choice on Gordon and his family, then Two Face is dead and Batman is all running away and he like takes the fall AND THE TWO NOTE SOUNDTRACK MUSIC GETS LOUD AGAIN—Daaaaaaaa! DAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!—AND IT’S SUDDENLY OVER! Also, somewhere in there Joker makes a pencil disappear and also creates another Liar’s Dilemma by giving those two boats detonators that may or may not detonate their own vs the other one’s boat, and I don’t even remember when that happened and Wikipedia forgot about it but IT WAS THERE.  

It’s an exhausting but brilliant movie. When I saw it in the theater, my wife’s contact lens actually fell out of her eye because she had not blinked for so long. It felt like it was never gonna end, in a good and a bad way, and I felt shaken by it for at least a day.  

And if you prefer, you can use Kurt Vonnegut’s plot graph.  He’s less interested in charting the action than in the character’s good of ill fortune.  In this case, Batman has nothing but ill fortune from beginning to end.

Batman Begins and then Dark Knight Rises are more narratively conventional, because they have to be.  BB, as the title straightforwardly tells us, begins the Batman myth once again, if with some revision.  DKR works hard to pull together the loose strands of BB and DK, so that the Ra’s al Ghul and Harvey Dent plotlines connect.  DK, though, is nothing but middle.   You can say the same things about many of the movies I listed in the opening—freed from the necessity of telling, or in many cases, retelling, the foundations, and freed from the need to wrap the story up in a tidy closing bow, those movies can provide murky thrills without any final sugarcoating—Han is frozen in carbonite, Luke gets the worst news of his life and is symbolically castrated by his new father, and the Empire has, um, struck back.  The Fellowship has separated and, individually, faced to worst fight of their lives—but they now realize that the worst is really still ahead of them.  Godfather II—and, perhaps amazingly to say in the same sentence, Spider-Man 2 and X2—use their predecessors to deepen what we already know about the characters, or develop what previously were mere glimpses of backstory, or to provide dramatic irony for the audience, as when Ripley is ASSURED by that dickhead Paul Reiser that there are no such thing as aliens, or in Terminator 2, to pull disparate and unlikely continuities together in satisfying compositions.

Every summer it’s the same movie critic’s crisis: originality good, sequels bad.  But when critics lament yet another summer of sequels, they’re missing the vast narrative possibility that lies in the middle of things.    

Time: 90 minutes! I really need to get my time back down.

[i] I am not counting cash-in made for DVD retreads, so don’t throw, say, Lion King II: Simba’s Pride back at me, OK?

[ii] For the record, I prefer Alien. So much for my title.

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The Many Masks of The Dark Knight Rises

Here is Tom Hardy, who plays Bane in The Dark Knight Rises:

A mouth!

I had no idea that I knew the actor from Inception and Warrior.  Yes, there’s the new bulk, the shaved head, and the costume. But mostly, I didn’t recognize him because of the headgear.  And the mask has raised the ire of two of my favorite movie critics.  Anthony Lane writes in the New Yorker that “Bane wears a crablike mask over the lower part of his face—a disastrous burden for Tom Hardy, whose mouth, sensual and amused for such a tough customer, is his defining feature. Via this device, Bane declaims his bold, anarchic sentiments; at least, I think they were anarchic. Given that I could make out barely a third of them, he may well have been reciting from ‘Clifford the Small Red Puppy.’   

And in Slate Dana Stevens laments “the film’s disappointingly uncomplex villain, the bald, hulking, pitiless arch-terrorist Bane, as played by Tom Hardy.”  She continues:

 Hardy obviously put an enormous amount of work into preparing for the role, bulking up his body and developing a strange, swooping voice that promises to give rise to a thousand late-summer Bane impersonations. But the choice to clamp a leather-and-metal mask over 60 percent of Hardy’s face for the entire movie means that, for all practical purposes, the actor’s diligent iron-pumping was in vain. Since we can’t tell whether the person producing that sound actually resides in that body or not, Nolan might as well have cast an already-huge body double and just had Hardy dub in the voice. Most of all, though, the mask is a mistake because we never get a good look at Bane’s face. With nothing to work with but a pair of darting eyes, Hardy can’t endow Bane with motivation enough to make him more than a generic bogeyman.

Of course. It makes sense. And yet, I can’t help but think that Bane’s mask makes a perfect visual and symbolic foil to Batman’s cowl—and scowl.  This blog entry’s opening image, one of the most common promo shots, depicts the contrast and symmetry perfectly: Bane’s face is a kind of negative, a reverse mirror image, of Batman’s; what is exposed on Batman—the mouth, the jaw, the chin—is concealed on Bane.  Batman’s head and eyes are disguised, whereas Bane’s are open.  Batman’s guttural voice is an affectation; Bane’s is the real result—in a major revision of the comicbook character—of the mask he cannot remove without dying.  When we first meet Bane at the beginning of the movie, he is hooded, but removing one mask only reveals another.  Covering the mouth, even more than the eyes as the source of his humanity, forces Hardy to act entirely kinesthetically; together with Batman’s costume and mask covering 95% of his own body, the choreographed fight scenes, seemingly graphic, instead become a version of Japanese Noh drama, where the masks themselves embody the characters’ distinctiveness and personalities, freeing the actors to use their bodies, rather than their faces, as their sole vehicles of expression.  When Bane finally breaks Batman, his final humiliation is removing Batman’s mask.  In doing so, he does not reveal Batman’s true identity—he takes it from him.

All of the faces of the Dark Knight movies have been masks.  The face of Harvey Dent—Two Face—is crucial to the new film, in that Gotham is presented only with his good side, his dark side hidden, an omission that Commissioner Gordon and Batman consider a necessary fiction but one that inevitably is revealed.  Two Face is like Bane, a reversal of Batman’s face, but divided exactly vertically rather than horizontally. His perfect split represents both his fractured psyche and his Manichaeism, a division that proves unstable within himself as well as Gotham.  

Bane’s mask-in-a-mask revelation was also used to introduce Heath Ledger’s Joker in the previous movie—one clown mask removed to reveal another beneath it.  But unlike Batman, even unlike Bane, who gets a few seconds of backstory revealed in the end, the Joker has no secret face, and no secrets.  His mask is his face and his face is his mask; he is exactly as he appears to be as well as a complete walking fiction.  He is his own shadow, his own mask.

And what I thought from the advance images to be Catwoman’s mask turned out to be her goggles flipped up onto her head, the only whimsical, lighthearted mask in the film. Cat suit and cat burglar aside, Selina Kyle of Dark Knight Rises is not the comic’s Catwoman at all, not even in name, as “Catwoman” is never said.  She wears a the thief’s domino mask seemingly to hide her self, but we discover that the one thing she truly desires is to be free of her identity, not to protect it at all.

But what lies behind Christopher Nolan’s mask?  What is his political ambition?  His artistic aspiration for the films seem clear enough: big sound and bigger spectacle.  But Batman himself, like the Riddler, remains an enigma: a hero and an anti-hero; a cautionary tale of unchecked, out of control ego—Super Ego!—but also the need for order; the 1% given everything but also the self-made man; a right-wing borderline fascist or a left-wing critique of same. The film blows up Gotham City, looking more like New York than Chicago this time around, continuing the previous film’s imagery of 9/11. Police officers are trapped beneath rubble; we see a geographically vague Middle East and detention centers.  The film seems to reference the War on Terror, Occupy Wall Street, the language of homegrown class warfare and New World Order conspiracy, symbolic pits with real walls to be scaled, the French Revolution, Kafka-esque (or Lewis Carroll-esque?) courts, a Fight Club-like Project Mayhem no longer content to blow up empty buildings, and a genuine allusion to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.   But what does any of it mean?  

Now that Lucius Fox has granted Batman “The Bat,” a great chiropteran hovercraft, we finally have a way to begin grasping the Dark Knight trilogy’s political import: it is a series of what Claude Lévi-Strauss coined “floating signifiers,” and what Roland Barthes amended to a “floating chain of signifieds”—that is, like a mask itself, it means exactly, and only, what people see in it, whether everything, or nothing.  And now, in the aftermath of the July 20 Aurora, Colorado, mass murder, the cinematic gunfire, mayhem, bloodshed, and masks (shooter James Holmes wore a gas mask during the massacre and had a Batman mask in his house when police searched it) inevitably take on darker new meanings.

Unfair?  Of course.  But Nolan’s brand of sustained ambiguity, something I am usually so quick to celebrate, has its own dark side.  

Here’s William Butler Yeats’s poem, “The Mask”:

Put off that mask of burning gold

With emerald eyes.”

“O no, my dear, you make so bold

To find if hearts be wild and wise,

And yet not cold.”

“I would but find what’s there to find,

Love or deceit.”

“It was the mask engaged your mind,

And after set your heart to beat,

Not what’s behind.”

“But lest you are my enemy,

I must enquire.”

“O no, my dear, let all that be;

What matter, so there is but fire

In you, in me?”

Like Dark Knight Rises, it too is an exercise in sustained ambiguity, in the challenge of determining desire or deceit, who is a lover or an enemy, and what is or isn’t behind the mask.  It seems to mean a lot of things, or, if poetry isn’t your thing, nothing.  Yet one meaning that I take from it is the notion that we need to stop worrying about what’s behind each of our masks—that the face we put forward is our real face, even when it is just a mask.  It sounds nihilistic, like the Joker. But it’s also, in many ways, all we really have. So perhaps Nolan’s sound and spectacle are all there is.  

And they’re enough.  

Time: 90 minutes. I knew this was going to be a long one before I started.

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