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Yearly Archives: 2013
As may be apparent to regular readers of this blog (nice to see you both), I am something of an auteurist. I am drawn to films by directors whose work I have previously enjoyed, and tend to credit the positives and negatives to the film director. One director whose work I have consistently enjoyed is Ron Howard, including Apollo 13 (1995), Ransom (1996), A Beautiful Mind (2001), Cinderella Man (2005), The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Angels and Demons (2009) (yes, I like Dan Brown’s work, deal with it). When Howard’s latest film, Rush, came out this year, I was interested on the basis of his involvement. Positive reviews from Total Film, Empire and the BBC strengthened my interest, and when I saw Rush I absolutely loved it. It was gripping, funny, compelling, at times horrifying and immensely visceral, which is one of the chief pleasures of cinema for me.
In terms of the subject matter, I should have had no interest at all, because Rush is about motor racers and I have zero interest in sport. But the interesting thing about sports films is they generally are not really about the sport at all. Is Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980) about boxing, or the descent of a man plagued by self-loathing? Is Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2004) about boxing, or the relationships between damaged people? Is Ali (Michael Mann, 2001) about boxing, or resistance against prejudice? Seabiscuit (Gary Ross, 2003) is more about rising above the misery of the Great Depression than horse racing, The Mighty Ducks (1992, Stephen Herek) and Cool Runnings (Jon Turteltaub, 1993) are about camaraderie rather than ice hockey or bobsledding, and Run, Fatboy, Run (David Schwimmer, 2007) is far more interested in personal redemption than it is in running. In keeping with this tradition, Rush is about the obsession that drives its central characters, James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Nicki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), and the relationship between them.
I’ve seen all these sports films, and enjoyed them despite the prominence of sport in their narratives. The main reason I don’t enjoy sport is that the spectator, whether in attendance at an event or watching a telecast, is at a distance from the action, and I like to be close. I do enjoy professional wrestling, but that is scripted and individual matches are part of ongoing storylines, therefore more a drama series than a sport. I have enjoyed the odd boxing match, such as Lennox Lewis VS Frank Bruno in 1993 and Bruno VS Tyson in 1996, but even these are at a distance, unlike the boxing matches of Ali, Raging Bull and Ron Howard’s own boxing biopic, Cinderella Man, which bring the viewer into the ring, on both the delivery and receiving end of the blows.
A similar technique is used in Rush, as director Howard, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill create an intimate sense of involvement in the races. This is achieved through extreme close-ups of the pit stops, in which we see the replacement tyres and machinery used on the cars, as well as very rapid editing during the actual racing. Cameras mounted on the cars hurtling along at breakneck speed place the viewer in the position of the driver, aided by the extraordinary sound design. This is Rush’s greatest strength, allowing us to experience the thrill of high octane racing and emphasising the danger, much as a battle scene or a chase also throws the viewer into the action.
Like Cinderella Man, Ali and Raging Bull, but unlike the other films mentioned above, Rush is a true story (as far as any film can be). As a result, the events portrayed in the film are public knowledge, especially the rivalry between Hunt and Lauda, well known to fans of F1. I saw Rush with a friend who is a big fan of F1, so he knew the results of the various races and the twists and turns in the rivalry, while I did not. Despite our different levels of knowledge, we both enjoyed the film immensely, as an engaging, thrilling character drama. This was itself surprising to me. I’ve written before that character isn’t a major source of pleasure for me in cinema – I am interested in the plot and the events – what will happen next is usually the paramount question for me when watching a film. Interestingly, the one point in Rush when I lost interest was during the final race in Japan, when Lauda abandons the race because the weather conditions make it ‘too dangerous’. Hunt has been behind up until this point and Lauda’s withdrawal enables Hunt to win. I lost interest because I didn’t care who won – the drama of the film was always the rivalry between the two, and Lauda neutralised that rivalry. None of the other racers were identifiable as characters, so it was really Hunt just competing against the odds. Without the rivalry, there was less tension and therefore less drama.
Prior to the final race, however, Rush offers plenty of tension both between Lauda and Hunt and within the men themselves. The different approaches used by each man to build their racing profiles are gripping in their contrast – Hunt the playboy, indulging in alcohol, drugs and sex as much as racing, with his support team essentially stroking and maintaining his ego; Lauda the calculating professional with no regard for others and a machine-like commitment to racing. When Hunt loses his sponsorship and is unable to race, his psychological disintegration is apparent, crumpled into a heap with toy cars and a whisky bottle, and his unforgivable treatment of his wife Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), telling her to ‘Fuck off to New York, darling. I’m sure there’s an eyeliner or a face moisturiser that needs your vapid mush to flog it’. Yet Lauda is more interesting because of the humanisation that his association with others enables. Lauda tells Hunt at one point that Hunt is both responsible for injuries Lauda suffers, and for inspiring him to recover and get back into the race. Furthermore, the relationship Lauda forms with Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), whom he eventually marries, creates further tension between his calculating ambition and his emotions. Who does Lauda has the closest relationship with – Marlene, Hunt, or racing?
All of these relationships are fractious, both in terms of Lauda and Hunt’s intense yet respectful rivalry, and the dangers of racing. This was the most impressive aspect of Rush for me, the vicarious experience of living through these intense lives, given extraordinary edge by the incredibly dangerous races. It would not be unreasonable to conclude from Rush that F1 racers are mad, as the film does not flinch from showing the mangled bodies and lost limbs that result from crash. Most compelling though, is the horrific crash in which Lauda’s car catches fire, leaving him hideously scarred and with scorched lungs. The scene in which Lauda’s lungs are vacuumed by the insertion of a metal tube down his throat (while he is conscious) is extremely uncomfortable to watch and helps convey the extraordinary commitment of these men.
The fact that these men are racers is somewhat beside the point, as both are motivated by something not necessarily tangible. Hunt does mention the appeal of living on the edge, the emotional high of risking everything for the sake of an electrifying win. Lauda is less explicit – the most we get is a sense of differentiating himself from his family. Both Lauda and Hunt mention the other careers they rejected in favour of racing, and the film explores the consequences of their mutual choice. Howard’s film therefore conveys both the adrenalin rush of F1 racing, and its devastating price.
For Part Two of our tour through my favourite filmmakers, I turn to that great divisive figure who attracts adoration and revilement in equal measure; he who has pushed the boundaries of film technology and created some of the most indelible images of recent cinema history; he who has been the target of great scorn and derision for his crass and offensive cinematic crimes against humanity. I refer, of course, to David Cronenberg. Sorry, wait, David Cameron. No, no, that’s wrong – James Cameron. Got there in the end.
James Cameron is probably the director whose work I enjoy most consistently. It is very hard for me to pop in a DVD of any Cameron film just to watch a bit of it, because I end up watching more, and more, and before you know it I’ve watched half the film (more if the scene I particularly wanted to see was early on). I think this is central to why I love his work – the flow of images and continuity is so fluid that I want to be carried along with it. For me, that is one of the chief joys of cinema. Cameron has (not unreasonably) attracted much criticism for his simplistic plots, archetypal characters and (apparently) bad dialogue, suggesting that he is not a sophisticated writer of stories. He is, however, a superbly cinematic storyteller, demonstrated by his constantly roving camera, smooth editing and highly detailed mise-en-scene. As I’ve mentioned before, plot, character and dialogue are not major concerns for me – I am an intensely visual cinematic consumer and if the visual elements work for me, I am a happy viewer. I won’t say that Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in Avatar is a three-dimensional character, or that Jack Dawson’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) line “you’re the most amazingly, astoundingly, wonderful girl, woman, that I’ve ever known” is the height of romantic poetry (but then again, Jack isn’t exactly a poet, he’s an uneducated street artist, so at least his dialogue is consistent). But these are not problems for me – Cameron makes absolutely gorgeous films that explore themes which interest me, including gender, vision, technophobia/philia and age-old questions of identity and humanity.
Picking my favourite Cameron film would be tricky, and I have posted on both Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009) previously (twice in the case of the latter), which I adore and admire in equal measure. Therefore, if I were to introduce a newbie to a Cameron film, where to start? Despite his prominence, Cameron is hardly prolific, having directed only eight films in a career spanning over thirty years. Nor is he happy just directing, as Cameron has written all of his films and produced most of them as well, as well as editing a few. As his career has progressed, the budgets as well as the box office receipts of his films have expanded exponentially, and this has led to sometimes justified descriptions of his films as baggy, bloated and excessive. This started with The Abyss (1989), and continued through Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), True Lies (1994), Titanic and Avatar. While Cameron’s films have steadily progressed in terms of technological innovation and jaw-dropping spectacle, it is easy to be cynical about such grandeur. Therefore, as introduction to Cameron’s oeuvre, I would pick the film he regards as his debut, having disowned Piranhas 2: The Spawning (1979). The introduction Cameron film is, of course, The Terminator (1984).
Shot for a mere $6.5 million, The Terminator is a lean, mean entertainment machine, that delivers blistering action sequences and a stark, tech-noir vision. It is also unremittingly bleak, which also makes it unusual in Cameron’s oeuvre. From The Abyss onwards, hope and optimism is a recurring theme, and even Aliens (1986) is a (just about) successful survival story. But in The Terminator, there is no escape, the trope of relentless pursuit extending beyond the eponymous cyborg. Brad Fiedel’s electronic score continually returns to the ‘Terminator Theme’, its percussive bass line ostinato expressing the relentless advance of omnipresent technology. Most tellingly, the theme returns in the final scene of the film, after the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) has itself been terminated. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is really the central character, around whom the entire narrative revolves, pursued across time by both the cybernetic assassin and her saviour/lover Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). But even after their deaths, Sarah left with John Connor growing inside her, the relentless pursuit continues, the Terminator theme playing as Sarah drives towards storm clouds. These represent the coming apocalypse, the war between humans and machines which is still coming, relentless and unstoppable. Subsequent instalments and Cameron’s career may have provided more hopeful futures, but The Terminator remains as pitiless and remorseless as its eponymous character, truly the nightmare that won’t end.
I recently had a conversation with a friend about recent films that we had different responses to, Kick-Ass 2 (Jeff Wadlow, 2013) and The Wolverine (James Mangold, 2013). I found both of these disappointing and my friend thought they were alright. In the case of Kick-Ass 2, my fellow conversant knew that it would not surprise or shock them like the first, and that the only way it could have done would be to change the style of the film. Therefore, the film was enjoyable as an extension to the first, but nothing more. The absence of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) was felt, and my friend commented that the story did not have enough suspense, unlike Matthew Vaughn’s original.
Both of us agreed that Hit Girl/Mindy McCready (Chloe Grace Moretz) was the best thing in Kick-Ass 2, so for me, it was disappointing that she was underused and spending time becoming a ‘regular girl’, only for her to abandon that and re-embrace Hit Girl. It is a common trope in superhero narratives that heroes renounce their super identities (see Superman II [Richard Lester, 1980], Spider-Man 2 [Sam Raimi, 2004], The Dark Knight Rises [Christopher Nolan, 2012]), but it tends to be more traumatic and a crisis of identity. Had Kick-Ass 2 focused on that element, it would have been more effective, even as an identity crisis within high school. High school is fertile ground for dramas about identity and finding oneself, so a high school action comedy about Hit Girl would have a lot of potential.
Unfortunately, with Mindy/Hit Girl side-lined, Kick-Ass 2 lacks not only suspense but emphasis, wavering between Dave Lizewski/Kick-Ass and his ongoing ambition, as well as Colonel Stars and Stripes’ (Jim Carrey) Justice Forever band, and the increasing villainy of Chris D’Amico/The Motherfucker (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). The film therefore lacks focus and a coherent theme, essentially trying to play off the original’s feature of having superheroes swear and get badly hurt. But in Kick-Ass, that was a point rather than a gimmick. In Kick-Ass 2, it’s just a gimmick. There are some good sequences, including the final battle and indeed most scenes involving Mother Russia (Olga Kurkulina), and I liked the suggestion of a romance between Mindy and Dave, but overall, the film felt lightweight and uncertain of its meaning.
It used to be the case that sequels were never as good as the originals. Superhero films especially buck that trend, with Spider-Man 2, Blade II (Guillermo Del Toro, 2002), X-2 (Bryan Singer, 2003), The Dark Knight, maybe even Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer (Tim Story, 2007) improving what came before. Sadly, it seems that Kick-Ass 2 is what we used to expect from sequels.
The Wolverine is another matter. The X-Men franchise has been very patchy, at its best striking a balance between personal dramas, thrilling action and wider ramifications. The wider ramifications was the major missing feature from The Wolverine, as it is the most intimate and personal film of the franchise thus far. Director James Mangold has a talent for intimate, down-to-earth drama, whether that be the biopic melodrama of Walk The Line (2005) or the terse psychological thrills of Identity (2003). The Wolverine demonstrates that he can still deliver the necessary action spectacle (although perhaps that should be credited more to second unit director, editor and the special effects team), but despite the bullet train sequence and the final battle with Silver Samurai, The Wolverine is remarkably unremarkable, because there seems to be little reason for what is going on. It is essentially the further adventures of Logan, revisiting an old friend, making new ones including a requisite new romance, and I was left thinking ‘So what?’ The spectral presence of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) was unconvincing, and the most moving moment was Logan’s early communion with a wounded bear. It could have been refreshing to see Logan more vulnerable, like those mentioned above it is an instance of the superhero losing their powers, but the trope of him having to adapt to being hurt was not given enough variety, swiftly becoming repetitive.
To make matters worse, the villain of The Wolverine was very uninteresting, Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) little more than a mutant riff on the vicious beauty, which was done far more interestingly with Mystique (Rebecca Romijn/Jennifer Lawrence) and Emma Frost (January Jones) in previous installments. Perhaps if she had been in a position to fight Logan herself, like Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu) in X-2, it might have been interesting, but instead she is far from a worthy adversary. The final clash between Wolverine and Silver Samurai was flashy but felt more like an obligation than an organic development, while the sudden reappearance of the bone claws was overly convenient.
Overall, The Wolverine felt lightweight, nothing attached to what was going on. For me, the X-Men films have been most enjoyable when the stakes are high, which they have been previously:
X-Men – the irradiation of the world leaders
X-2 – the death of all mutants and, subsequently, the death of all humans
X-Men: The Last Stand – the ‘cure’ for mutation
X-Men Origins: Wolverine – more personal, but still a campaign against mutant-kind
X-Men: First Class – the Cuban missile crisis and World War Three
The Wolverine – dying man wants to live forever and will steal Logan’s ability to heal so that he becomezzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
The stakes of The Wolverine are too low and, therefore, the film lacks drama. Ironically, the biggest problem with The Wolverine is the best thing in it – the mid-credits sequences featuring Professor X and Magneto. I had read that Patrick Stewart was going to cameo, but I was not expecting Ian McKellen to show up as well. In addition, the foreshadowing of Trask Industries is another nice detail, demonstrating economic storytelling and raising expectations. I eagerly anticipate X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer, 2014), combining the elements established in earlier instalments into something both new and familiar. But when the best thing in a film is a scene with no connection to what went on before, then the film as a whole is clearly doing something wrong.
Only God Forgives is an extremely ‘arty’ film – languorous and deliberate, seemingly opaque, potentially pretentious. It has very little plot and even less characterisation. The visual palette largely consists of prolonged takes in long shot, capturing both cavernous and intimate spaces in deep focus, as performers walk, reach and turn their heads or even their eyes in extreme slow motion. This emphasises the placement of Julian (Ryan Gosling), Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) and the other characters within the highly expressive mise-en-scene, which is really the star of the film. It may seem strange to praise the scenery, but Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up to Drive is more concerned with mood than plot and character, and the film expresses theme through a visual composition of set design and colour scheme that positively throbs with meaning.
Multiple viewers and critics have lambasted Only God Forgives or at least advised caution upon seeing the film, especially due to its lack of sympathetic or even engaging characters. Such characters are not unusual in Refn’s films, as the eponymous character of Bronson is psychotic and Gosling’s Driver is inscrutable and blank. This conceit is taken further in Only God Forgives as the characters are largely cyphers, expressive of the underlying forces that bleed into the slow motion and mise-en-scene, particularly the extensive use of red light that led at least one reviewer to describe it as film rouge rather than film noir.
A recurring topic on this blog has been characterisation, and whether it is essential for audience engagement. When I hear the criticism “I didn’t care about the characters”, I often ask “What about everything else?” and am met with blank stares, as though I had asked if you enjoy conversations with yoghurts. In the case of Only God Forgives, I appreciate that the lack of characterisation is a noticeable absence in the film. As Julian, Gosling takes the strong, silent type to a new level, having only 22 lines of dialogue in the film (about the same as Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator). When he speaks, it is almost a painful effort, as though he is reluctant to express himself. Most of his lines are monosyllabic, and the only time he expresses strong emotion his shout turns into an almost childlike scream. This is reminiscent of Gosling’s last role, Luke in The Place Beyond the Pines, who displays childlike naivety and, in one scene, screams like a petulant infant. In both cases, the high-pitched scream undermines the power of the character, Gosling’s voice contradicting the poise of his physical presence.
Despite his “Photoshopped” physique, Gosling is not an especially large man, yet he is capable of conveying significant gravity through his remarkable screen presence, but writers/directors like Derek Cianfrance as well as Refn play with this presence, undermining it with losses of control, such as the scene in Only God Forgives when Julian screams at his preferred prostitute, Mai (Rhatha Phongam).
Crystal is rather more talkative, having several amusingly filthy speeches that suggest the strained relationship between her and her son:
[To Mai]: And how many cocks can you entertain with that cute little cum-dumpster of yours?
And what with Billy being the older brother and having a bigger cock… Julian’s was never small, but Billy’s was… oh, it was enormous!
Julian’s lack of reaction to his mother’s unflattering comparison between him and deceased brother Billy (Tom Burke) indicates that he is used to taking Crystal’s abuse, not reacting, and largely following her instructions. Yet even in his obedience, Julian is a disappointment, Crystal taking charge when her son does not measure up to her expectations following Billy’s murder. The viewer can get a sense that Julian’s own identity was largely ignored by his family, and his tightlippedness is a symptom of a childhood in which he was seldom if ever heard.
I interpret this character detail but there is little evidence to support it. The lack of character detail however did not prevent my engagement with Only God Forgives, because I have great fondness for film stylistics. The long takes, highly designed mise-en-scene and overwhelming soundtrack constituted an immersive cinematic experience for me, and the people moving within it were, literally, part of the expressive scenery. And while dialogue is sparse, the film is anything but quiet. Since Inception, many soundtrack composers have favoured the use of a booming sound, referred to by some as BRRRRRRRAAAAAWWWWRWRRRMRMRMMRMRMMMMM!!! In Only God Forgives, the soundtrack doesn’t boom – it roars. Various scenes begin with a strange roaring scream that emphasises the impending danger and the underlying menace that permeates the entire film. Earlier in the year, I described Man of Steel as using the trope of swelling – Only God Forgives is a constantly throbbing film, not because of a constant sexual presence, more a throbbing sense of scarcely-contained violence. Violence is a recurring theme in Refn’s work, as demonstrated in Bronson and Drive, but whereas they focused on violent men, Only God Forgives depicts a violent world, in which the cypher characters are merely manifestations or even conduits for the violence that constantly throbs and sometimes erupts.
Sexuality is part of the throbbing violence, as the film’s sexual events demonstrate violence in sexuality – Billy’s murder is retaliation for his rape and murder of a sixteen-year old girl, and Julian’s session with Mai involves him being tied to a chair while she touches herself. The scene implies that Julian’s own sexuality is eruptive and violent like his brother’s, so he has himself physically restrained in order to prevent an incident.
No such restraints are necessary for Chang, who is presented as a manifestation of punishment for the guilty. If only God forgives, Chang is the Angel of Death, there to arrange the meeting. Chang speaks through perfectly applied action as well as verbal lessons that he delivers with his brutal sentences. These sentences are the film’s striking scenes of violence, which are hideous both in their brutality and in their foreshadowing. Chang’s very presence exudes danger, and his slow, deliberate drawing of a concealed sword throbs with portent. Nor is the sword for show, as limbs are lopped, ribcages slit and throats pierced. The precise application of violence is presented in exquisite detail, including the agonised screams of Chang’s victims, the slow, almost balletic sprays of blood and the lingering shots of the bodies mutilated by Chang’s actions. Whereas in Bronson and Drive, violence erupted suddenly and without warning, it is a constant undercurrent throughout Only God Forgives, the mood of the film leaving the viewer in no doubt that violence will erupt – the only question is when.
The one unconvincing element of Only God Forgives is the karaoke scenes, when Chang sings to the police. The scenes are not necessarily incongruous, indeed they maintain Chang’s celestial status by giving him an angelic song. The karaoke even makes sense from a character perspective, as this is the way Chang unwinds. But tonally, the scenes interrupt the grim menace of the film as a whole, coming across as simply odd and therefore jarring in an inscrutable and frustrating manner. But as the whole film is inscrutable and frustrating, perhaps that is the point.
Karaoke aside, Only God Forgives is a treat for the cineaste, because of its highly expressive visual composition. Every scene, whether it is Julian examining his fists, Crystal smoking in her hotel suite or Chang drawing his sword, displays exquisite visual detail that throbs with meaning. It is also reminiscent of the work of other directors, much like other films by Refn. Bronson is similar to A Clockwork Orange, and I described Drive as the best Michael Mann film that Michael Mann did not direct. Only God Forgives is what might have happened if Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and David Cronenberg collaborated on a film. The sense of something lurking beneath the surface, expressed through the lighting and production design, echoes Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Blue Velvet, while long, static takes of corridors are reminiscent of Kubrick’s The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut.
The eerie beauty of shots depicting bodily injury echo Cronenberg’s work such as A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, especially in a surreal and disturbing scene in which Julian finds the corpse of his mother, executed by Chang, and touches the bloodstained ruin of her abdomen. It is as though he is looking for a way back into her womb, a return to the only place he might have felt safe and wanted. Refn may not have consciously sought to emulate these directors, but his film does suggest their stylistic and thematic concerns.
This lack of explicit meaning may explain both the positive and negative reactions to Only God Forgives. The slow motion, excessive design, lack of character, plot and dialogue, leave an absence into which the viewer can place their own understanding. I have suggested background features of Julian, but these are speculative and drawn from my own interpretation of the events onscreen. Minimal onscreen background can suggest style for style’s sake, Refn concentrating on hyperbolic lighting, set design and cinematography to compensate for a lack of story. But it also allows more interpretation on the part of the viewer, requiring us to fill in the blanks. Mainstream cinema is intensely plot driven, with character development generally integrated into that of the narrative. Arthouse cinema, typically, operates in contrast to mainstream conventions of narrative and style, and Only God Forgives certainly offers this contrast. It can be argued that it goes too far into being ‘arty’, but the minimalist plot and cypher characters allow for the film and viewer to work together in creating meaning, rather than meaning being explicit. This is not to suggest that those who found Only God Forgives frustrating are incapable of deciding on the meaning of a cinematic text for themselves, but highlights that this film has particular pleasures for those who enjoy filling in the blanks as to character background and the implications of expressive style.
These pleasures made Only God Forgives a great experience for me – it is intensely cinematic and a treat for those who enjoy cinematic features, techniques and tropes. This is not to say that only those with my background and taste (a pretty narrow demographic) will enjoy the film, but it demonstrates the particular pleasures that can be found in films that eschew the mainstream elements like detailed plot and rounded characters. Only God Forgives is not an easy film to love, but I came away with a lot of love for it.
If you’ve been reading my blog regularly (ha ha), you may have noticed a pattern emerging: I am an auteurist. I believe in the theory that you can interpret films, and credit their strengths and weaknesses, to the individual(s) credited as ‘director’. It is a highly problematic critical approach, as it sidelines other creative personal such as producers, writers, actors, editors, cinematographers, set designers, and the army of personnel responsible for putting a film together. Industrially, it doesn’t really work. Critically, it provides a useful reading strategy for linking different films together, and even a cursory examination of the films directed by [insert name here] are likely to reveal similarities.
To this end, I’ll be writing a series of posts that discuss my ten favourite directors, and particular films of theirs. I won’t necessarily describe their ‘best’ films, because neither I, nor anyone, is qualified to say what is or is not better than others (although that doesn’t tend to stop people). I will describe my personal favourites of their oeuvre, and also what I think are the best introductions to their work. By introduction, I mean that if you wanted to show someone, perhaps with very limited exposure to cinema, a film that best expressed the work of this particular filmmaker, what would it be?
As a starter, I discuss possibly the most accomplished filmmaker there has ever been – Steven Spielberg. I know, I know, the epitome of mainstream Hollywood, very middle-of-the-road, safe, conservative, blockbuster, lowest-common denominator, etc., etc. I disagree, to an extent. Spielberg has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to deliver emotionally and intellectually engaging cinema across a range of genres, working with different writers and actors, always delivering distinctive films within the parameters of commercial Hollywood production. Spielberg is a master manipulator, which is a loaded and problematic term, but need not be seen as negative. Cinema is intrinsically manipulative, and the most effective filmmakers are those who are most skilled at manipulating their viewers. Spielberg is not only a master at this, but open and unashamed about it. If you don’t want to be manipulated, don’t go to the cinema.
Examples of Spielberg’s powers of manipulation pepper his films. The concealment of the shark in Jaws, represented by underwater POV shots, the scream of victims and the eternally ominous score, create a sense of malevolence. The approach of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, such as the concentric ripples in cups of water and the steady stalking of the velociraptors, create nerve-shredding suspense. The precise balance over how much to show in Schindler’s List, some scenes capturing the sheer brutality of the Nazis with unflinching starkness, while others cut away but leave the viewer in no doubt about what took place. The steady passage through the eponymous Terminal, as our protagonist learns of the political shifts in his country on various TVs, literally chasing the changing channels for more information, draws the viewer into his anguish. And, of course, the carefully developed relationship between a little boy and a walking turd from outer space, which has been drawing tears out of viewers for thirty years and is likely to continue. While young Henry Thomas can certainly claim some credit, Spielberg’s careful timing and focus on the details of this relationship give E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial its glowing heart. The film charms and moves in equal measure, such as when Eliot is taken away from the dying E.T. who reaches out and calls to him with heart-wrenching anguish.
E.T. is the best introduction to Spielberg’s oeuvre. It captures the sentiment and emotion, the pain and heartbreak, the humour and humanity of his cinema. It demonstrates Spielberg’s unparalleled ability to capture exquisite moments on camera and assemble them into compelling and dramatic wholes. But I’m a more bloodthirsty individual so it isn’t my favourite. No, I’m not referring to the bloody hell of warfare in Saving Private Ryan or the incredible cruelty of Schindler’s List, nor even the body-chomping of Jaws or the human puree of War of the Worlds. My favourite Spielberg film is Munich.
Munich contains a great deal and suggests so much more. As a thriller, it is incredibly gripping and psychologically disturbing, partly because Spielberg can deliver suspenseful sequences as good as anyone, and also because it shows the banality and horror of intimate murder. The Israeli athletes are attacked with discordant, bloody clumsiness. An unarmed, naked woman is shot in cold blood and dies slowly and painfully. An attack on a Palestinian safe house by Mossad forces veers between vaguely comical identification and merciless execution. It is an unflinching look at death and killing that pulls no punches, making it more compelling and shocking, in my view, than Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.
Politically, Munich has been described as Zionist and as an overly sympathetic view of Palestinian terrorism, but neither of these accusations are fair. Munich presents an extremely balanced view of the conflict, for some viewers, so balanced that the drama is undermined. Perhaps taking a more definite stance might have delivered something more forceful. But I think the balance is key to the drama, because seeing the perspective of the Mossad agents and, in one bravura exchange between Avner (Eric Bana) and Ali (Omar Metwally), that of Palestinians, adds to the film’s impact. We see how the perspectives affect the people on the frontlines of this never-ending escalation of violence, a point underlined in the film’s final, chilling image of the World Trade Center, emphasising the escalation and wide-ranging impact of this conflict.
The film also works as an investigation into the philosophy of revenge. Is revenge justifiable, in any sense? How far do notions of humanity extend when they conflict with political expediency? The Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen), expresses an extremely problematic position when she says ‘Every civilisation finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values’. These ‘compromises’ also operate on an individual basis, as the Mossad agents question the validity of what they do and the impact of their mission takes its toll. It takes a toll on the viewer as well, as the film’s unflinching focus on the ugliness of the mission, combined with a sense of hopelessness and a lack of triumph (for all the protestations of ‘celebrating’ from Steve [Daniel Craig]), can leave one drained and exhausted by the time the credits roll.
I would describe my experience of seeing Munich for the first time as traumatising, and on repeat viewings, it remains a very powerful and unsettling watch. One of Spielberg’s least appreciated films, but my favourite and one of his best.
I recently posted on my top five of the year so far, and placed Man of Steel at number 4. This puts it ahead of Oblivion, After Earth, Iron Man Three and Star Trek Into Darkness as the finest blockbuster I’ve seen in 2013, a film I would describe as swell, and it is a film that swells. This might be a controversial choice, as Man of Steel has been met with very mixed reviews, some disappointed over its treatment of beloved comic book elements (which always happens with adaptations), others complaining that it is too dour and not enough fun, and the standard criticism of blockbusters that plot and character get left behind in the midst of all the destruction and special effects.
For me though, Man of Steel provided everything I want from a blockbuster and a superhero movie. There are others later this year, including The Wolverine and Thor: The Dark World, but the standard set by Man of Steel (as well as Iron Man Three) is pretty high. I have never been as big a fan of Superman as I am of Batman and Spider-Man, because Superman can be too powerful to be relatable – if he is invulnerable, there is no drama. Man of Steel avoids this pitfall of the character, making Kal vulnerable, relatable and human. At the same time, director Zack Snyder delivers enthralling and enveloping action sequences that allow the viewer to experience the thrills and pains of super powers, which is a key ingredient in the superhero genre.
Movie of Swells
The trope of swelling recurs throughout Man of Steel, apparent from the very beginning as Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) gives birth, her screaming and panting swelling along with the music. As we subsequently learn, Kal is the first Kyptonian to have been born this way in generations, so his very existence is a swelling of resistance. Rebellion swells across the opening sequence on Krypton, as Jor El (Russell Crowe) faces the senior council and urges evacuation as the planet itself swells with tectonic forces. The swelling menace erupts as General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a coup, and the sequence culminates with the explosion of Krypton.
Swelling continues as the adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) travels north in search of answers, and his memories demonstrate his swelling confusion and inner turmoil. Man of Steel’s flashbacks echo Batman Begins, with the young adult developing his hero persona through current events, like saving men aboard a burning oil rig, and those from his childhood, such as lifting a school bus out of a river. Finally, when Clark reaches a crashed Kryptonian scoutship and learns the truth of who he is, the swelling of his potential continues through a montage, once again reminiscent of writer/producer Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. The suit that Kal El will wear, the history of Krypton, the philosophy that Jor delivers to him, are all intercut with Kal striding out of the ship, cape billowing behind him, until he stands in the sun and crouches, ready to take flight. His first flight comes one hour into the film (just like “I’m Batman!”), which has been swelling towards this point. When I saw Kal ascend, less like a speeding bullet and more reminiscent of a bolt of light, the hairs rose on my arms as I felt myself vicariously hurtling up with him. The greatest moments in movies are often those that transport us, and for that moment, I felt myself transported with him.
Not that the first flight goes too well, as Kal crashes into a mountain and takes some time getting used to his abilities. This is one of Man of Steel’s great strengths, showing the confusing effect of superpowers as well as their glory. Superpowers are often presented as exhilarating, such as Peter Parker’s discovery of his ability to climb walls and jump great distances in both Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man. Powers can also be presented as dangerous, as in the emergence of Jimmy Logan’s bone claws in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Rogue’s ability to suck energy in X-Men, or the first emergence of the Hulk in both Hulk and The Incredible Hulk. But these are presented as dangerous to the viewer, in the position of a bystander. In Man of Steel the frightening element of superpowers is presented from the perspective of the super being himself. An impressive instance of this appears in an early flashback, as Clark becomes disorientated and scared at school because he can see and hear too much. The scene begins with extreme close-ups of pencils, the edges of desks and other classroom clutter, culminating in his teacher and classmates appearing as moving skeletons. This visual and aural cacophony overwhelms the viewer much as it does Clark, who hides in a closet until his mother Martha (Diane Lane) can talk him out, soothing him with the recommendation to make the frighteningly large world smaller. He may have super powers, but they are no protection against fear.
Man of Steel works for me because it conveys consistently and convincingly the experience of super powers. As Kal grows in confidence, so do we follow his progress. Subsequent scenes of flight are both beautiful and compelling – the tagline for the original Superman: The Movie was “You’ll believe a man can fly”. Man of Steel, oddly, has no tagline, but it could easily be “You’ll believe a man can fly, and you with him”. Not only fly, but fight, as the final act, when Kal battles the forces of Zod, yanks the viewer right into the action. This sequence has been a major target for criticism, described as nothing but mindless action in the vein of Transformers, rendered in such a way that you cannot see what is going on, and with insufficient attention paid to the inevitable death toll of such extensive destruction.
I did not have these problems, as not only could I see everything that was going on, I also felt it, the kinetic force of Snyder’s camera, not to mention the cacophonic soundtrack, had me sharing every swoop, collision and explosion. As mentioned above, a key ingredient for me in a successful superhero film is the cinematic expression of superpowers, and Man of Steel delivers both on the intimate scale in the flashbacks, and the epic grandeur of the almighty Kryptonian smackdown. In addition, the stakes of this climactic battle are abundantly clear, as Zod’s mission is to preserve the Kryptonian race, to the extent of terra-forming Earth into a new Krypton. The impact of this mission is illustrated in a dream Kal shares with Zod, in which Earth is re-shaped and Kal sinks into a pile of skulls, this grim horror serving as perfect motivation for the climax.
Man of Steel is not without problems. Shaky cam in the opening sequence is an unfortunate distraction because Krypton is a glorious creation that cannot be fully enjoyed. Also, while the climax is spectacular, it takes too long to get going, initial skirmishes between Kal and Zod’s forces proving to be false starts that become tiresome as they are clearly preludes. That said, these skirmishes do continue the film’s interest in power as disorientating, as Zod and his troops also have to adjust to seeing through their own hands. The alien element of Man of Steel is well-handled, but the early scraps fail to add drama, although it is effective to see Kal getting his ass kicked by trained soldiers.
Once the final battle really kicks off though, it is as spectacular as anything I’ve seen in a cinema this year, rising above Iron Man Three and Star Trek Into Darkness to name a couple (although at the time of writing I am yet to see Pacific Rim). Kal’s desperate attempt to save Lois Lane (Amy Adams), his struggle to destroy the world engine and his eventual return of the Kryptonian ship to the Phantom Zone are all enveloping action sequences, the slightly grainy film quality and detail of the production design and effects creating an absorbing and enthralling cinematic experience.
Best of all is the final clash between Kal and Zod, as Zod fully embraces the power that Earth’s sun imbues him with, mocking Kal with his warrior background while ‘Superman’ was raised on a farm. A true clash of the titans, Kal and Zod’s titanic duel is literally out of this world, as the two hurl each other out of the atmosphere and collide with satellites (amusingly branded as Wayne Enterprises, perhaps foreshadowing a Justice League movie). But the culmination of their clash is a perfect encapsulation of inner and outer conflict, as Kal must kill Zod in order to save innocent bystanders. I had a debate over the importance of this killing, as it seems did the director, writer and producer. For Superman to kill was shocking, as I had never seen that before. Apparently there are comic book stories in which he has killed, but these are outside the accepted canon. Either way, that moment in Man of Steel was superb because it was genuinely shocking. I’ve barely read a Superman comic book, but the film and TV versions I have seen emphasise Superman’s moral compass and restraint. Therefore, seeing him kill someone was a huge surprise and clearly a massive emotional blow, demonstrated by his scream of anguish and collapse into Lois’ arms. We now know how far Kal-El can go, and to have him traumatised makes him all the more interesting.
It is probably no coincidence that the superhero genre has been so embraced in the aftermath of 9/11, and much like Spider-Man, The Dark Knight and The Avengers, the shadow of the infamous terrorist attacks hang over Man of Steel. The devastation of Metropolis is reminiscent of images of New York from 9/11, as buildings collapse and debris falls from the sky. Some have criticised the sanitisation of this destruction – surely thousands of people must have been killed – and while this is valid I think the criticism misses the point. In a crucial moment, Jenny Olsen (Rebecca Buller) is trapped under debris, and Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and Steve Lombard (Michael Kelly) struggle to free her. They are themselves in danger, and indeed they would all have died had Kal not arrived in the nick of time, but the moments of Perry and Steve doing what they can to try and free Jenny is a wonderful illustration of ordinary heroism. Perhaps they have been inspired by Kal’s example, willing to surrender himself to Zod’s forces, or they were already brave and selfless, but whatever their motivation, it is a powerful moment, mixing the terror of the attack with a positive vision of humanity. It is post-9/11 romantic wish-fulfilment, to have a superman come to the rescue, and I find it satisfying because of the recognition and catharsis stimulated by this fulfilment.
I recently had a long debate over what superheroes are ‘doing’, beyond blowing stuff up and acquiring/achieving. I found the argument rather odd, because saving the world, in style, blowing stuff up and taking us along for the ride seems exactly what superheroes are there for. My fellow debater was being unfairly judgemental, I thought, as they seemed to have a sense that superheroes should do something more, but it was unclear exactly what that more would be. In the case of Man of Steel, I think the film is doing exactly what Jor El tells his son – that he will give the people of Earth something to aspire to. Superpowers are not necessarily a blessing, and they are not a prerequisite for doing good and helping others. The young Clark may have the strength to lift buses out of rivers, but one of the boys Clark saves offers his hand to help Clark up when bullies have knocked him down, but he has not struck back at them. Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) sacrifices his own life to save others, including telling Clark not to use his powers to save him. Perry and Steve must use their own strength and resourcefulness to try and save Jenny, and Lois proves her mettle in Zod’s ship with timely advice from Jor. Repeatedly in Man of Steel, heroism is shown to be a choice, not a destiny, and a choice that we can all make. Perhaps, in time, we can all join Kal El in the sun.