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Unexpected Item in Reaction Area I – Rushing to Director

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.

Rush posterIn 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.

Rush raceLike 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?

Hunts Laudas

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.

Rush crash

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Top Ten Directors – Part One

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?

Spielberg

 

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.

ET

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

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.

Avner

Movies on Mentality

Poster 1   Poster 2

SPOILER WARNING

A couple of films in 2013 have been concerned with mental health, in different but interesting ways. The first was Side Effects, directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Scott Z. Burns, who previously collaborated on Contagion. Like that earlier effort, Side Effects takes a clinical approach to its subject, presenting its themes and narrative through a cool, detached aesthetic rather than drawing the viewer in through an arresting style. This proves to be appropriate, as the film becomes not an in-depth, probing expression of mental illness, but a conspiracy thriller that fails to engage and carries some troubling subtext about mental illness as well as gender and homosexuality. Conversely, Danny Boyle’s Trance begins as a glossy crime film but becomes steadily more convoluted and psychological. While not explicitly a film about mental illness, Trance is certainly about the mysteries of the mind.

Side Effects boasts a palette that is both clear and at times sickly, suggesting the oppressive atmosphere of contemporary urban life, which can be depressing. This is a topic ripe for cinematic exploration, which I will discuss in a future post relating to Drive and Shame. In Side Effects, it is not entirely easy to see why Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) would suffer from depression. Her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) returns to her after serving a prison sentence for insider trading, she has a decent job with a very supportive boss and an equally supportive mother-in-law. Why then, does she attempt to hurt or even kill herself and end up seeing Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) and being treated with anti-depressants?

Side Effects

Initially, this appears to be the point: depression is not something to be easily explained by external stimulus. Emily suffers from something debilitating and real, but very hard to be understood by someone else. Jonathan describes depression as “the inability to construct a future”, which would have been very interesting to see on screen. Jonathan is sympathetic and, as the plot develops, insightful as he investigates further, but the film not only fails but actively avoids a cinematic representation of clinical depression.

This is not necessarily a problem, as the film also suggests criticism of the pharmaceutical industry and the conflict doctors encounter between care and commerce. Frustratingly, these issues are touched upon and skirted over, as a change of direction takes the viewer into a different sort of film, conspiracy thriller rather than mental health drama. Yet this thriller element is unengaging once it is revealed, largely because of a lack of thrills. Jonathan’s life is steadily disassembled, but he never seems panicked or more than fairly frustrated. This is not down to Law’s performance, but the script’s disinclination to get under the skin of who is, it turns out, the film’s protagonist, as well as the director’s unwillingness to express his mental state. Soderbergh is more than capable of taking us inside his characters’ heads, such as Terrence Stamp’s grief-fuelled anger in The Limey and George Clooney’s confusion and wonder in Solaris, or even the disillusionment of Michael Douglas and the doggedness of Benicio Del Toro in Traffic. Indeed, Side Effects is especially disappointing as it is lower than Soderbergh’s usual standards, the director following the writer’s swerve into mundanity and a deeply problematic final plot twist.

In my review of Skyfall last year, I commented on the problematic gender relations that film presents, effectively culminating in a reassertion of patriarchal power. Women do not belong in espionage, except as secretaries, is a persuasive reading of Skyfall. It was minor enough in that film not to spoil it for me, but in Side Effects the sexism and homophobia is rather more distasteful. The eventual revelation that Emily has been involved in a cunning plot/salacious relationship with her former therapist Dr Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is narratively dull for being both reductionist and lazy. Furthermore, to have a pair of scheming lesbian lovers behind everything is somewhat offensive: Men, beware of women getting together, they might tear things down for you, could be construed as the message of the film. Jonathan’s eventual triumph over Emily is more than him getting his life back: it is a reassertion of patriarchy far more disturbing than that in Skyfall. Skyfall may discredit women, but Side Effects condemns them.

Perhaps cinema is not capable of truly expressing a mental state that is acutely individual, and Side Effects expresses the ineffability of mental illness. I have heard accounts from people who suffer from depression but never really understood how it feels. As a film ostensibly “about” mental illness but ultimately far from it, Side Effects has the unfortunate effect of cheapening this serious social issue by replacing depression with deception. As a narrative device, this feels like a cop-out, the film abandoning what was initially moving and disturbing in equal measure, to fall back on cliché. The film feels like a missed opportunity, but maybe it never had much chance in the first place.

MASSIVE SPOILERS FOLLOW – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED

That said, cinema has proved itself adept at simulating the mind, especially dreams. This is demonstrated in such works as The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, eXistenZ, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Mulholland Dr. and Inception. These simulations may not be entirely recognisable – I doubt anyone ever had a dream as cogent and organised as those in Inception – but filmmakers utilise techniques like the cut, fade and dissolve, as well as the ability to construct fantastical landscapes, to present something on screen which is akin to dreaming. Even films that do not take place within mindscapes, such as Avatar, reference dreaming in their aesthetic. Of particular note is Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, which features sequences within a character’s hypnotic trance, much like Trance.

I’ve written previously on Danny Boyle and the excessive style he often applies to his films, with varying levels of success. Trance suits his style perfectly, as Simon (James McAvoy) has a fractured mind, and the handheld cinematography and discontinuous editing that were distracting in Sunshine and Slumdog Millionaire serve to express the character’s mental state. Furthermore, Trance offers no aspirations, or pretensions, of social conscience or engagement with serious issues. It is a slick, dynamic genre film, a neo-noir directed by someone at the top of their game. Boyle’s skills as a director have been demonstrated across a variety of genres and media, and Trance serves as the ideal project for him to run wild. Doubtless hypnotherapists and psychoanalysts will decry the film’s inaccuracies and many a viewer may doubt its plausibility, but none of that stops Trance from being an engaging ride which displays Boyle’s characteristic visceral thrills.

Boyle is an intensely dynamic director who truly utilises the moving element of moving pictures. Trance is doubly dynamic as it is both a crime thriller with some brutal action sequences and a psychological thriller which expresses confusion and disorientation. When Simon visits hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) and is placed into hypnotic trances, we are taken into the trances as well. Sometimes the trances are clearly delineated from the rest of the action and other times less so, but stylistically the film becomes increasingly erratic and unreliable, as Simon becomes increasingly confused. Trances mix with memories, fantasies and events bleed into each: a key shot (also used in the trailer) is repeated, of Simon tapping glass while light shines upon it, a beautiful encapsulation of our protagonist’s status, seeing something he is unable to reach. But is this a memory, or a hypnotic suggestion? And is the difference between what happens to us and what we believe happens quite so clear?

As the film progresses, the viewer is presented with alternatives to the original set-up. Simon is our point of identification, the film’s protagonist who addresses the camera directly in the opening sequence, explaining (with a clear sense of irony and barely disguised contempt) an auction hall’s “policy” for dealing with attempted robbery. He is quickly injured in such an attempt by Franck (Vincent Cassel), inviting our sympathy further. But quickly we learn that Simon is not all he seems, as he was Franck’s inside man, but he remains a victim as Franck’s gang tortures him for information that he cannot remember. The introduction of Elizabeth at first seems like assistance for Simon, but she becomes an active partner in the plot, and something else as romantic (not to mention dangerous) liaisons develop between her and Simon as well as Franck. Similarly, Simon transforms from oppressed victim to borderline psychopath with explosive moments of violence, eventually subduing Franck who becomes a victim. By the final scene, Simon has become monstrous and very different from how he originally appeared, while Elizabeth’s duplicity (along with her motivation) has been exposed. If we have an identification point, it is with Franck, a helpless victim whose (almost miraculous) escape is cause for celebration. Our loyalties and expectations are confounded and rearranged, as fractured as Simon’s mental state and the film’s method of presentation.

Trance’s great strength is to play games with its narrative expectations, generated both by its genre and its early narrative. Simon is less heroic protagonist as psychotic villain, demonstrated by his re-emerging violence. There is a hint of this at the start of the movie, as Simon’s voiceover mentions several times: “Do not be a hero” – indeed, he is far from that. Furthermore, Franck is less villainous master thief as the patsy duped by Elizabeth. And Elizabeth is far more than romantic interest, as she fills the role of the femme fatale, but ultimately proves to be a former victim who turns a dangerous situation to her advantage. Franck becomes our point of identification by the end of the film, as Elizabeth is left all-knowing but unknowable. Simon knows that he was duped and used, as does Franck, but Franck is left with the option of remembering or forgetting what he knows. As are we, since the film ends on an ambiguous note, reminiscent of The Prestige and Inception, Boyle (like Nolan) leaving us hanging because, in the end, we “want to be fooled”. Screens and panels are prominent throughout the film, including panes of glass like those mentioned earlier, paintings, and tablets (product placement ahoy!), which add to Trance’s meta-cinematic conceit, drawing parallels between Simon and Franck’s investigations and the viewer’s consumption of the film. We don’t want to forget what we’ve seen, so we don’t see Franck take that option. But then again, he might

Side Effects and Trance provide an interesting demonstration of genre versus “quality”. Side Effects makes gestures towards engagement with a serious social problem but fails to deliver on its promise. Trance presents itself as a straightforward genre piece, but imbues that genre with engaging twists, a highly expressive style and meta-cinematic moments. This is the great opportunity genre has provided filmmakers with for decades. John Ford famously “made westerns”, westerns that have been read in many different ways. Danny Boyle and Steven Soderbergh have both worked in a variety of genres and demonstrated their respective styles in a multitude of contexts. Soderbergh tends to present his action from a distance, whereas Boyle does not so much draw the viewer in as grab them by the eyeballs and yank them into the diegesis. Both methods are effective, but with Side Effects, the script turns away from its “quality” elements into “lowlier” generic elements, and the style is too uninvolved to compensate with any great tension. Not that there is anything wrong with being generic, as demonstrated by Trance, but if you’re doing a genre piece, be up-front about it. Side Effects’ transition could have been more effective if the thriller element were better handled, but without that, it feels lazy. Trance, however, is imbued with a mischievous energy that dazzles and delights in equal measure. This makes Boyle’s film far more satisfying, and also a more interesting and persuasive expression of the mind on screen.

Trance

Awards Predictions Part Four: Directorial Diatribe

Kathryn-Bigelow-001

The Oscar race is well underway, and the winners are hard to pick because of the spread of nominations and the surprising omissions, as well as the results from other events.  At the Golden Globes as well as the Producers Guild of America awards, Argo picked up Best Picture, while Ben Affleck was awarded Best Director by the Directors Guild of America.  Normally this would be a strong indicator of a Best Picture gong at the Oscars, and if so, it would be the first time since Driving Miss Daisy in 1989 that a film wins Best Picture without being nominated for Achievement in Directing.

I confess a slight affront at being 60% wrong in my predictions in this category, and it’s an interesting set of nominees.  I predicted that the nominees for Achievement in Directing would be Ben Affleck for Argo, Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty, Tom Hooper for Les Miserables, Ang Lee for Life of Pi, Steven Spielberg for Lincoln.  Of these five, only Spielberg and Lee have been nominated.  The omission of Affleck is very surprising, particularly after him being honoured at the Golden Globes, the PGA and the DGA.  I confess to having no idea why he was overlooked.  Another surprising omission is Quentin Tarantino, as, like Argo, Django Unchained is nominated for Best Picture as well as well Best Screenplay, Original for Django Unchained, Adapted for Argo.  After all the honours heaped upon Amour, Michael Haneke’s nomination for Directing is less surprising, but the presence of Benh Zeitlin and David O’Russell is remarkable, and perhaps indicative of how impressed the Academy voters were by, respectively, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Silver Linings Playbook (or, to be more cynical, how impressed voters were by the awards campaigns of the films’ distributors, Fox Searchlight and the Weinstein Company, respectively).

Perhaps Kathryn Bigelow and Tom Hooper have been left out because, had they been nominated, it would have been for the first film each of them made after winning the Oscar, for The Hurt Locker and The King’s Speech, respectively.  Maybe this counted against them, as Academy voters were unwilling to nominate either for consecutive films.  The King’s Speech may still be fresh in the memory, too fresh for voters who wanted someone new.  Having seen Les Misérables though, I did not find it that well directed, as the different elements of the story were connected rather limply, with insufficient directorial thrust to unite the narrative and thematic strands.

In the case of Bigelow, however, she may well have also been left out due to the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty.  Suggestions have been made that the film affirms the use of torture as a legitimate method in the War on Terror.  This has not stopped the film being nominated for Best Picture, Original Screenplay and Actress in a Leading Role, so if Bigelow has been snubbed for a nod, that seems rather unfair.  I don’t like to reduce this topic to gender, but perhaps Academy members did not want the same woman to be up for the award again.  There may be other female directors worthy of Oscar attention, but they are not in evidence.

Interestingly though, Bigelow’s snub supports an auteurist understanding of film.  If Zero Dark Thirty does valorise torture, then Bigelow is being credited as responsible for this meaning, rather than screenwriter Mark Boal who, along with Megan Ellison, shares producing credit with Bigelow.  Using the director as a reading strategy works both ways – if the film is good, or worthy of approval, the director gets the credit.  If it is bad, or morally questionable, then the director gets the blame.  Regardless of Mark Boal and Megan Ellison’s involvement, Bigelow has been left out of the category where her particular talent or skill could be rewarded.  Boal put the torture scenes in the script, but is Bigelow more responsible for these scenes because she shot them and (one assumes) decided not to edit them out of the finished film?  There is no way of knowing exactly why Academy members voted the way they do (waterboarding would hardly be appropriate), but it is tempting to imagine that they might have been put off honouring Bigelow specifically because to do so might appear to be an endorsement of the controversial stance she is being credited as having.

The writer Naomi Wolf has compared Bigelow to Leni Riefensthal, whose most significant contribution to cinema was the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1935).  I find it significant that both Riefensthal and Bigelow are both women, and for them to present such topics as Aryan supremacy and torture can be read (from a particular perspective) as aberrant and perverse.  24 is criticised for its depiction of torture, but creator Joel Surnow has been called a neoconservative rather than a Nazi.  While D. W. Griffith can be described as outrageously racist because of the politics in Birth of a Nation (1915), criticism of him can be tempered by the context in which he was raised and indeed in which he made his films.  Perhaps Bigelow does not have Griffith’s excuse – she is an independent filmmaker in the 21st century, she should know better, because we do.  Don’t we?  Also she’s a woman, so for her to present torture as anything other than hideous and completely unacceptable is very very wrong.  Isn’t it?

Other films have turned an explicitly critical eye upon the use of torture in the War on Terror, such as Rendition (Gavin Hood, 2007) which presents torture and indeed the detention of terror suspects as pointless because of the lack of evidence for the initial suspicion.  One purpose of film, and indeed all art/entertainment (they are ultimately, the same thing), is to pose questions for debate, but the manner in which these questions are posed can be as controversial as the questions themselves.  If not presented as outright condemnation, is it approval?  If Bigelow (combined with Boal and Ellison, the various performers, cinematographer, editor, etc) presents torture as part of the CIA hunt for Osama Bin Laden, within the context of other investigative methods, is that necessarily approval?

I wrote last year on the expectations that are generated by marketing and hype.  Awards season brings out other responses and expectations – after all, Best Picture nominees we might expect to be great, and they frequently are not.  Serious accusations during awards season are nothing new, and I imagine Kathryn Bigelow was prepared for a backlash against her film.  I am yet to see Zero Dark Thirty, but I already have multiple ideas about the film, what it might mean and what to look for in it.  Wolf’s argument that Bigelow will be remembered as “torture’s handmaiden” seems over the top, but perhaps she has a point.  Check back for my response to the film.

Continued Assembly Expected

There is some lamentation over the dying art of film projection, as digital projection becomes the norm.  Recently I saw a perfectly projected old print of Thief (Michael Mann, 1981), which did highlight for me the pleasures of viewing something physical, complete with scratches and flickers.  I also recently saw Avengers Assemble (Joss Whedon, 2012) twice, and each time beheld a (seemingly) pristine digital copy that was fresh, bright and clear.  There are advantages both ways, but Avengers Assemble lends itself extremely well to digital projection.  Over the past thirty odd years, superhero movies have gone from bright (Superman) to dark (Batman) to bright (Batman & Robin) to dark (Daredevil) to bright and dark (Iron Man, The Dark Knight), depending on the franchise.  While Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros. take Batman to ever darker depths of derangement and depravity, Marvel has gone the other way and kept its heroic exploits light-hearted, while not skimping on the action and avoiding the dreaded pitfalls of campness that can so easily be fallen into when your arc reactor fails.

Digital projection aided the brightness of Avengers Assemble, rendering a clear, crisp image that would not benefit from a third dimension that dims the image (both of my viewings were in 2D).  Within all this brightness, there was ample visual room to admire the production design and smooth cinematography, including director Whedon’s fondness for long complex takes.  For earlier instances of this directorial signature, see the introduction of the characters in Serenity and various sequences in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel (especially “The Body”).  In Avengers Assemble, a superb long take during the climactic battle features all of our heroes laying their own signature smacks down upon the invading alien army.  From Captain America’s (Chris Evans) spinning shield to Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) tech-arrows, Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson) fists and feet to Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) lightning bolts, Iron Man’s (Robert Downey, Jnr.) repulsor rays and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) being, well, smashing, all are contained within a single dizzying take that dives and swerves through New York in a perfect demonstration of the visceral thrill of cinema.  Orson Welles would be proud.

Aside from the energetic style, other Whedon trademarks abound, including the intertwining of humour with the action and the plot.  Indeed the single most memorable aspect of the film may be its humour, from Tony Stark’s quips to Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) sardonic comments, Bruce Banner’s slightly bumbling jokes and Steve Rogers being at a loss in the modern world.  Best of all is Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) determination to not only conquer the world, but to do it in style and have the last laugh (reminiscent of Whedon’s earlier villains such as Spike, Angelus, Mayor Wilkins and Glory).  Grand clashes between heroes and villains can seem perfunctory or even little more than generic fulfilment (such as the anti-climactic battle in Iron Man), but Loki’s plan to lead an alien army to take over Earth, motivated by his own bitterness at being cast out of Asgard and jealousy of his brother, not to mention a divine superiority complex, provide a suitably meaty character trajectory, not to mention a cruel wit that sparks superbly with Tony Stark’s wryness and the Hulk’s bluntness.

Whedon also utilises his strength as a writer and director of ensembles, demonstrating how wise a choice he was for this potentially most unwieldy of blockbusters.  As well as the five super-powered stars, we have super-skilled spies Black Widow and Hawkeye, Nick Fury, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and Phil Coulson (Gregg Clark), and there’s even time for Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard).  Despite varying screentime and limited space for character development, it never feels that anyone is just there as dressing or collateral damage – each character, sequence and plot point fits neatly into the film’s rich and engaging tapestry.  If the previous Avengers instalments were sometimes underpowered, spending too much time on the origin and/or too little on the plot, they served to build a strong foundation upon which this builds.  The scale of S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters is impressive yet functional – not only is it a grand display of diegetic and non-diegetic technology, it forms an impressive location for much of the drama.  One of the best scenes is an argument between the principal characters that steadily escalates, Whedon and his editors Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek cutting precisely between the participants to escalate the tension, yet keeping a key event hidden until the reveal; meanwhile, events outside increase the stakes for the viewer as well.  Similarly, the final sequence strikes just the right balance between superheroics, pyrotechnics, humorous comments and character interaction, from the bemused to the deeply emotional.

Despite the potential problems of amassing these different elements, Avengers Assemble never fails to engage and entertain.  It is, in many ways, a magnificent achievement to have struck the right balance and maintained pace and tone throughout.  It may lack the troubling and thought-provoking elements of The Dark Knight, or the intensity of the inter-personal battles in Spider-Man 2, but it marshals its characters, plot, style and execution into a marvellously entertaining whole.

Perhaps more interesting than the film itself, though, is its place within Hollywood production.  Avengers Assemble is the climax of four years’ preparation and development, from Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in 2008, through Iron Man 2 in 2010, to Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011.  The continued presence of the main players is in some ways quite remarkable.  Ever since Superman: The Movie (Richard Donner, 1978) featured the unknown Christopher Reeve, it has been evident that with a superhero as the star, the wattage of the actor playing them need not be blinding.  Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Tobey Maguire and Christian Bale were certainly not unknowns when they were cast as various men in spandex, but they were hardly at the level of Tom Cruise, Will Smith or Harrison Ford (it is worth noting that superhero movie Hancock was marketed very much as a Will Smith picture, as the character of Hancock has none of the fame or cultural capital of Marvel and DC’s characters).  Robert Downey, Jnr., Mark Ruffalo and Chris Evans were also well known, but rarely were they leading men in blockbusters, as demonstrated by Evans’ previous superhero role of Marvel’s Human Torch in Fantastic Four, again as part of an ensemble.  Tom Hiddleston and Chris Hemsworth were virtually unknown prior to Thor (interestingly, an earlier Hemsworth/Whedon collaboration, The Cabin in the Woods, though produced in 2009, was not released until this year, most likely capitalising on Hemsworth’s exposure in both Avengers Assemble and Snow White and the Huntsman).  Yet all these stars lend their combined radiance to Avengers Assemble, accompanied by others of equal if not greater fame.  Samuel L. Jackson has had brief appearances in all but one of the previous instalments, and potential A-lister Scarlett Johansson fits easily into the ensemble, as does twice Oscar-nominated Jeremy Renner (set to be a leading man later this year in The Bourne Legacy).  Most surprising perhaps is (Oscar winner) Gwyneth Paltrow, appearing in a paltry three scenes (only one of which is substantial) despite being able to headline a movie in her own right.  Even more striking is that this trend seems unlikely to stop, as Jackson has signed a nine-picture deal with Marvel (Variety).  Ruffalo has also signed a deal to appear in six further Marvel pictures (The Guardian), so we will hopefully see more of the Hulk in the future, while reports of Iron Man 3 appear on a seemingly weekly basis (Total Film) and Thor 2 and Captain America 2 have been greenlit (IMDb.com).

While stars have stayed, directors have come and gone.  Jon Favreau lasted two Iron Man films before being replaced with Shane Black for the third instalment, and Alan Taylor has succeeded Kenneth Branagh for helm(sworth)ing duties on Thor 2.  No reports yet on a director for Captain America 2.  Despite these different authorial presences, the Avengers films have been remarkably consistent, maintaining the bright tone mentioned earlier and the balance between the far-fetched superheroics and the relatable people who perform them (a poignant moment in Avengers Assemble features Stark and Banner discussing their respective “terrible gift[s]”).  S.H.I.E.L.D. has more advanced technology than actually exists (we assume), making the possible world of the Avengers one that is more heightened than “realistic” superhero films such as the current incarnation of Batman.  The consistency of the films despite the disparate writers and directors raises the question of authorship over the films, individually and collectively.  Avengers Assemble is regarded by some as a Joss Whedon film, which has angered comic book fans who insist it is a Marvel product (In Media Res).  While each film has had distinctive elements from its writer and director, such as Whedon’s trademarks as mentioned above, if there is a franchise auteur the most likely candidate is producer Kevin Feige.  Feige has a producer credit on Marvel movies since 2000’s X-Men (Bryan Singer), and Marvel’s “prexy of production” since 2006, so has overall supervisory responsibilities.  If it is unrealistic to assign singular responsibility for an individual film, perhaps it is easier to consider an overall steering influence on a franchise, viewing Feige as the series auteur, akin to a TV executive producer who oversees each episode to ensure consistency and continuity.

The combination of different influences and considerations (not to mention egos!) involved in the Avengers make it perhaps the ultimate franchise.  As has been written elsewhere (In Media Res), the Avengers movie franchise is not unlike comic book publication, where different titles run in parallel but with crossover.  The scale and success of the Avengers’ ambition can be traced to earlier multi-chaptered franchises such as The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.  Instalments can be consumed separately or cumulatively, with the potential to expand, consolidate and maintain the market.  Viewers who missed Iron Man may see Thor, and then Avengers Assemble, and subsequently come back for Iron Man 3.  Fans of comic books, superheroes, science fiction, action films and blockbusters may watch each instalment at the cinema and then acquire every film upon its DVD/Blu-ray release (I do).  Already Avengers Assemble (or The Avengers as it is known everywhere that isn’t Britain) has collected over $1 billion at the global box office, so Marvel’s business model seems to be working.  In Hollywood, if an idea succeeds then it is worth copying, so perhaps we will see more integrated franchises in the future, parallel storylines as well as sequels that simply continue the same story.  Long-form narratives work well on television, as 24, The Wire and Mad Men (to name but a few) demonstrate.  Films have long been about contained, encapsulated narratives, but Marvel’s The Avengers has demonstrated that there is room for more experimentation.  The development of future franchises will be very interesting to observe.  Digitally projected, of course.