Archive for Man of Steel

Batman v Superman: Brawl of Jaundice: Some Thoughts

Posted in comics, criticism, movies, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2016 by drayfish

batman-v-superman-trinity

[SPOILERS, obviously, for Batman V Superman…]

As is no doubt already evident, I was not a huge fan of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.*

Beyond that, there’s probably not much else that needs to be said.  It’s been a few weeks since its release.  The initial rush of the film’s critical panning, and the reactive rush of its defenders (usually accusing reviewers of being shameless Marvel fanboys involved in some grand conspiracy  concocted by Disney and funded by the illuminati), has, for the most part, subsided.  At this point the film can be judged on its merits…

And it’s a train wreck.  People can see well enough for themselves what a stain this film has been on the DC universe.  Admittedly there is fun to be had in this flop, but it requires work.  If you can somehow divorce yourself from what a sophomoric hit job it does on three of the most iconic characters in modern history (Wonder Woman escapes this dumpster fire with the most dignity by virtue of being largely disconnected from the plot), it is actually kind of hilarious.

Not intentionally, of course.

There’s not a single successful joke or moment of levity in this whole turgid squall of unconvincing CGI. But it does take one of the (literally) stupidest plots ever conceived and treats it with such unearned gravitas and self-seriousness that it is impossible not to be amused. It’s like watching a Dumb and Dumber sequel directed by Werner Herzog.

‘This is all super deep and heaps philosophical and stuff,’ it pouts, before Lex Luthor jitters his way into frame, starts spouting gibberish, and the whole thing reveals itself to be based on an unfinished Power Rangers script.

The film even, ironically, ends up offering a better description of itself than any of its enraged film reviewers managed:

It’s an exploding jar of human pee.

If it only weren’t so interminably boring that kind of self-destructive numb-nuttery could be respected.  But the film simply is what it is: exactly all that director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer are capable of producing.  They threatened as much with their tone deaf, moronic Man of Steel, and they followed type here, leaning in to their own failure with an obstinate, unearned arrogance.

Countless articles have already agreed on the same handful of points.  Yes, Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor was a twitchy Max Landis/Mark Zuckerberg caricature, insufferable to watch and unfathomably ridiculous in his motivations.  No, none of the characters had any emotional or psychological coherency.  Of course the film doesn’t follow through on any of the trite, pseudo-philosophical concepts it name-checks in its opening half.  The fights were a grey mush with cartoon physics.  The editing was disjointed.  The dialogue stale.  The pacing baffling.  Zack Snyder’s juvenile fetishistic objectivism infected every frame of film.  And yes, its best attributes, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and Jeremy Irons’ Alfred, were sidelined to make room for two-and-a-half interminable hours of watching a pair of narcististic, asshole psychopaths beating on everyone in sight because they are both too stupid to have a conversation that would literally clear up the entire plot in a sentence.

And if you make the mistake of trying to scratch the surface of the film’s meandering tangle of inane plot logic, you simply tumble down a well of idiocy from which there is no escape.  Why did Luthor try to get Superman all riled up about Batman if he was just going to kidnap his mother anyway?  Why did Luthor create an unstoppable killing machine?  Who did he think would be able to stop it once it killed Superman?  Why did Luthor …in fact, why did Luthor do literally anything he does in this film?  Literally.  Why did Wonder Woman think she could steal back a digital picture?  Does she not realise how computers work?  Why is phantom Pa Kent stacking rocks on a mountainside?  He can’t be a memory, because he tells Clark a story that he had never told him before, so either Clark is just hallucinating some meaningless nonsense, or he’s talking to a ghost.  Does this universe have ghosts now?  And ‘Save Martha’?!  On and on and on and on and on…  Down the rabbit hole of stupid lazy narrative contrivance.

Similarly, there is no point dipping into the slew of incredibly ill-conceived ‘think piece’ articles that arose in the wake of the film’s simultaneous bad critical reception and mammoth opening weekend.  Anyone trying to argue that the ‘age of the critic is dead’ or that ‘fans don’t care about quality’ is just wilfully peddling redundant clickbait.  The reason for that momentary disparity is – and was at the time – painfully clear.  Fans have been clamouring for a Batman and Superman film for generations – there is a reason why the World’s Finest comic crossovers have always sold out.  But that doesn’t invalidate the cinema score of B, and a second week record drop off in ticket sales of 69% when it was facing no competition.  The result is clear: the film’s initial monster box office prove that the idea of this film, not the film itself, drew people in.  Sight unseen it broke box office records; once the audience got a look they rejected this mess completely.

But despite all this, I did want to share some of the thought that occurred to me as I watched this thing unfold.  Not because I think they are particularly insightful or original, but because this film led me through a rollercoaster of realisations, some hopeful; at least one truly horrifying. So what follows is a kind of reverse director’s commentary (because it is the director I am frequently commenting upon)…

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IMAGE: ‘Yeah, hi.  We get the messiah imagery, Mr Superman.  Thanks.  Can you please just save us from drowning now?’

About ten minutes in – once the flashback within the fantasy within the dream sequence had already strangled the script into incoherency – I became aware of something that actually helped me let go of a lot of my anxieties.  I realised, all at once, that neither Batman nor Superman actually appear in this movie.  And I mean that literally.  There are characters labelled ‘Superman’ and ‘The Bat’ that show up, characters that wear vaguely similar (if gothed-down) costumes, but even if there were a way to bring this up on a charge of copyright infringement, the case could ever be proved.  Because nothing else of the history of the Batman and Superman characters remain.  Every defining characteristic has been jettisoned so as to refashion them into the most derivative ultra-hardcore-awesome version of them possible.

Here, Superman mopes and abandons the world because he doesn’t like it when humanity asks him to please stop crushing them like bugs.  Here Batman kills and uses guns.  Here the death of his parents didn’t inspire him to try and prevent others from ever having to feel that same pain; it instead taught him to become a sociopath:

‘I bet your parents taught you that you mean something; that you’re here for a reason.  My parents taught me a different lesson.  Dying in the gutter for no reason at all.  They taught me the world only makes sense if you force it to.’

This narrative is, I realised, just an Elseworlds edition, written by an angsty eleven year old.  What, it asks, would it be like if Batman was a murderous, mutilating lunatic, hypocritically exploiting the death of his parents as an excuse to indulge his every urge for wanton mayhem because awesome?  What if Superman was an aloof ubermensch, bored with the world and training himself to ignore its pain, who just wanted everyone to leave him alone for like five minutes, dad?!  Geez!

In a move that serves as more of a commentary on his own psyche than anything that these icons have ever represented, Snyder – either profoundly misunderstanding the characters, or just not giving a damn because it looked superficially ‘cool’ – has hollowed out both figures into the narcissistic power fantasies of an entitled, self-righteous douchebag.  You can almost hear the echo of teenage Snyder’s inner monologue moaning about how hard it is to be rich and powerful when everyone expects you to succeed.

At this point, around a third of the way through the film, after Metropolis and Gotham had been geographically established to be one city, I was becoming more and more surprised at exactly how much latitude DC and Warner Bros. had given a hack storyteller like Zack Snyder to cripple the world-building of their cinematic franchise.

To use just a couple of the several examples that present themselves during the film: Snyder decided that it would be hilarious to take the character of Jimmy Olsen – in the history of the Superman story, traditionally Superman’s loyal ‘pal’; overeager, if accident prone cub photographer – and immediately put a bullet in his head:

“We just did it as this little aside because we had been tracking where we thought the movies were gonna go, and we don’t have room for Jimmy Olsen in our big pantheon of characters, but we can have fun with him, right?”

He thought it would be fun.  You know – like a psychopath.

And it struck me how absurd, and obtuse this decision was.**  Because to non-fans watching the film Olsen appears as just some random CIA operative, killed as a display of hostility.  The only people for whom this ‘joke’ lands, therefore, are those who are fans of these characters and their histories.  To a fan – and only to a fan – the ‘joke’ is that a pivotal component of the mythos they love has been unceremoniously slaughtered for no reason.  His death is not shown to have any unique impact upon any of the characters in the movie.  It’s not done to make a point about sacrifice, or heroism.  He’s just killed because, ha ha, you liked him and probably expected more.  (Also, if you like Mercy Graves, Luthor’s assistant, don’t get too attached either.)

Snyder’s ‘gags’ consist of weaponising the history of Superman against the people who love it the most.  What the viewer loves and recognises is used to hurt them.  On a textual level it is analogous to the way Luther is later shown baiting Batman with the death of his parents, or ghoulishly blackmailing Superman by kidnapping his mother.  Snyder aspires, apparently, to be like the unhinged jag-off he places as the antagonist of his hysterically buffoonish plot.  And to his absolutely-no-credit, he succeeds.

His botched characterisation of Batman too shows a similar contempt for the future of the franchise.  Because although having Batman indiscriminately use guns and murder criminals might be cool in the short term (‘Wow, he set that guy on fire!’ ‘Whee, he crushed that guy’s face with his car!”), it immediately undermines any future appearance of the character.  Not only does it make him boring – any moron can grab a gun and run into the street to kill someone; what makes Batman extraordinary is that doesn’t resort to his enemy’s cowardice – it also means that in future there is no reason not to kill Joker or Two Face.  Given that he has now proved himself willing to kill innumerable common street thugs (and knowingly brand them so that they can be killed by other people later) he cannot suddenly become precious about murdering his rogues gallery.  The next time the Joker turns up in a film and Batman doesn’t immediately kill him, he will look like a hypocritical fool.  And I don’t say that happily – I never want Batman to be judge, jury and executioner – I am merely pointing out that by this idiotic film’s own logic, his character has tipped over into a realm of murderous vigilantism from which he cannot return.  They’ve either made him a boring killer, or a hypocrite.  Either way, he is to become the mass-murdering, gun-toting, fascist head of this universe’s now thoroughly compromised ‘Justice League’.  And that’s not the origin story of a team of ‘heroes’, it’s Dick Cheney’s dream journal.

Batman v superman MARTHA

IMAGE: ‘Well my dad’s name wasn’t Jonathan, SO YOU DIE NOW!’

Later, I would be even more shocked to recognise the wealth of source material that DC had allowed Snyder to burn off.  Not only does he waste The Dark Knight Rises’ battle between Superman and Batman, but the Death of Superman story also gets worked over in a ‘surprise’ third act ‘twist’ (honestly, calling this a ‘twist’ is such a ludicrous capitulation to this story’s gormlessness that it beggars belief, but whatever).  Rather than allowing Snyder to take a swing at one adaptation of an iconic story as he sought to set up their future franchises, for some reason they let him strangle two at once.

The Death of Superman, in particular, is a controversial storyline.  It’s not that beloved, but it is famous.  It’s iconic.  More importantly, it’s a storyline that could have been used to great effect in a larger arc of movies, something built to over multiple films that would have been enormously impactful and bold.  Instead, it was turned into a weird narrative Hail Mary at the end of an already overstuffed film, robbed of all of its gravitas.  It simultaneously removes all stakes from both Superman’s death (instead of the world losing a Superman that they admire, everyone is just freed the headache of having this super-powered alien stomping around their major cities) and his inevitable return (once it becomes clear that he can just die and come back from the dead arbitrarily, what future stories can threaten him?)

And it probably goes without saying that the clumsy setup for the larger DC universe was underwhelming.  Crammed into the lead up to the title fight by way of an unnecessary cameo by Wonder Woman (don’t get me wrong, I liked Gadot’s take on Diana Prince, but she had no reason to be in this plot), the best the film could concoct was a USB filled with trailers for Warner Bros.’ upcoming cinema releases?  Suddenly Lex Luthor, the inept bad guy whose greatest success was sneaking a jar of piss into a government building, has proved himself so bad at his job that he actually gathered together and named the members of the Justice League, just cause?  He even gives them logos!  Just like shoving Gotham and Metropolis across the bay from one another; just like making Batman a murderer because it’s cool; it’s narratively expedient (read: lazy), but shrinks this universe into a series of hackneyed conveniences.

Bafflingly, Warner Bros. and DC allowed a film to be made that leaves almost no wiggle room to build a future universe.   While Marvel’s long-term storytelling gradually thread individual stories into an expanding whole until The Avengers burst through the screen, Batman v Superman tries to immediately barf a universe into existence at once, and fumbles it on every level.  Narratively.  Thematically.  It paints future directors and artists into corners from which they cannot escape.  In their kneejerk response to the catch up to the Marvel franchise, DC seems to have allowed Snyder free reign to burn down their enterprise before it is even gets started.

By the time Superman helped armed terrorists get away by smashing up Batman’s car and the two ‘heroes’ were shoving each other through buildings, it became clear to me how utterly Snyder had even missed the point of each of the graphic novels he was ‘adapting’.  Snyder, in countless interviews, has bleated on and on about what a fan of comic books he is.  They are his source material, he claims.  His bible.  He has actors read them on set to help achieve the vision of the original work.  But it became clear that had he actually bothered to read any of the material from which he was stealing his aesthetics, he would have noticed the innumerable, direct contradictions in his plot points that bastardise the spirit of the original texts.

Snyder has repeatedly justified his presentation of the Batman character by citing Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, a story he said shows Batman drinking and killing and using guns.  But even a cursory glance at the source material reveals every part of this statement to be factually wrong.  The retired Bruce Wayne stops drinking when he becomes Batman again.  His no killing rule doesn’t waver – he cannot even bring himself to kill the Joker.  That becomes the whole point of their final conflict, Joker kills himself just to ‘win’.  Batman uses rubber suppression bullets in is Batmobile (honest).  He even makes the opposite argument about using guns himself.  In a pivotal moment of the story Batman holds up a firearm and states unequivocally to his forces: This is the weapon of the enemy.  Of cowards.  We don’t use these.  That’s right: even the gristled old fascist, secessionist nutbag Batman of Frank Miller wont resort to the weapon that slaughtered his parents.

dark knight rises guns

IMAGE: The Dark Knight Rises by Frank Miller, which Zack Snyder totally read.

Similarly in the Death of Superman – a pretty dumb story, frankly, but one that is illustrative of what makes the character of Superman great – the point was not that Superman is so stupid he blindly runs in and gets himself killed by a storming rock monster.  It’s that he is willing to literally be the last one fighting.  The fact that in Snyder’s contrived ending Superman ignores Wonder Woman’s help – she who could have gone in and stabbed Doomsday with the kryptonite spear without dying immediately – is just another sign of how woefully myopic Clark is in this version.

It has always been obvious that Snyder is not the ‘visionary’ his advertising material declares him to be, but rather a mimic.  For years he has been humoured for taking comic book panels and slavishly recreating them on film.  His 300 and Watchmen films were in good part just live action restagings of the original books’ imagery (smothered with grain and sepia filters).  But that’s not adaptation.  At the very best it is translation.  In another context it would be plagiarism.  It’s certainly not evidence of someone with a vision, but rather a person who has to ape the work of others to make up for their own shortfall in creativity.  What is surprising, though, is that the decisions he makes in Batman v Superman show that despite his apparent adoration of all the pretty pictures, Snyder clearly never bothers to read the words coming out of the character’s mouths.  He takes a comic book medium too often unjustly accused of superficiality and, by transporting them to the screen actually does just turn them into empty pictures.

And all this made me realise, as I watched the myriad ways that the DC universe was collapsing in on itself, that Batman v Superman might very well be the most cynical, spiteful film ever made.  It hates its characters.  It hates its own world, and goes out of its way to undermine any subsequent worlds that might be built upon its ashes.

Most of all it hates you.  The audience.  The viewer.  Anyone foolish enough to want to go on its gaudy, wilfully asinine journey.  It clearly thinks that you – that I, that all of us – are stupid.  It does patronising things like telling us – multiple times – that there are no civilian casualties in the smouldering wreckages of Metropolis and Gotham, and it actually believes its audience is obtuse enough not to question that logic***.  It runs trailers for the perpetual forced franchise it wants you to invest in amidst a single film that has already descended into unintelligible drivel.  It alters the characterisations of its heroes to make them actively moronic and thuggish.  Thomas Wayne takes a swing at his mugger, endangering his wife and child with his pigheaded heroics.  Batman is tricked by Lex Luthor into behaving like a narrow-minded goon.  Superman is a self-loathing blank slate.  Mythic, complex characters are stripped of all their poetry and grace as Snyder’s inane, nihilistic, masturbatory slurry takes everything good, or original, or unique about these characters, and turns it into the same shallow, washed-out slow motion show reel he has been making for the past dozen years.

Batman-v-Superman-filming-Superman-rescues-Lois-Lane

IMAGE: Why does no one appreciate my super city-destroying powers?

And it was around here, in this cascade of bad will, that I had the darkest, most horrific realisation that has ever flittered through my mind.  Truly, I am about to utter words that have rocked me to my core.  Watching Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman, I thought to myself:

I wish this had been directed by Michael Bay.

That’s right.  Michael goddamn Bay.

You have no idea the amount of loathing I had for myself at that moment – but it was true.  Watching the man who had shown such contempt for Superman in Man of Steel get his hands on Batman too – seeing Snyder turn another character defined by their compassion and moral fortitude into facile grimdark slurry – it broke me.  As did knowing that he was about to get his fingerprints on Wonder Woman too.  Having the ‘motivational’ speech of the film, Pa Kent’s ghost/dream/whatever speech to Clark on the top of a mountain for no reason, be yet another reminder that trying to be good, and trying to help others only ever ends in disaster – I just snapped.

I thought to myself, has there ever been a more asinine and adolescent vision of heroism in the history of film?  In the history of narrative?  Why, I wondered, is Zack Snyder telling these stories if heroism for him is just a gigantic pain, where the hero hates himself, the people hate him, and nothing is motivational or aspirational; it’s all just a ridiculous power-fantasy where the guy in the cape just spends his time moping because everyone doesn’t love him unconditionally enough?  I was watching my favourite characters, and the whole DC universe around them, mutate before my eyes into a dreary, cynical mess in which heroism is not just actively discouraged, it must be constantly reiterated as futile; an enactment of Ayn Rand’s objectivism in colourful spandex, superficial and selfish and vile.

It was a bleak world view so puerile and oppressive that I started to realise: literally the only thing this film has going for it is spectacle.  I realised that Warner Bros. have allowed Snyder to sacrifice the heart of their franchise for empty pyrotechnics.  They wanted to do Transformers business: ragingly success films largely devoid of character and plot, that function purely to move from one expensive spectacle to the next.

And if that is what they want, I realised, they should just get Michael Bay.  I realised – feeling a swell of revulsion as I said it – that I would easily rather have Bay direct a Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman film than Zack Snyder.  I would actually prefer his signature cheesy, brutal, obtuse filmmaking style over all this unearned nihilistic posturing.

Because then, at least, you get your spectacle.  Whatever else you might think of Bay – and I don’t think much – the man can film explosions.  But more than that, his weird fetishism for Americana – his obsession with soldiers portrayed as gods on earth, with hot apple pies and American flags waving – would, albeit clumsily, actually speak to some of the themes of these characters.

Bay, in spite of himself perhaps, would present a Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman that were symbols of hope.  It might be a very childish vision of hope – and of truth and justice – but you would certainly get your ‘American way’.  It might look, in cinematic terms, like a child’s crayon drawing, but it would at least capture the thumbnail sketch of these heroes with some neat looking flames thrown in for good measure.  (On second thoughts, you might want to get someone other than Bay to direct Wonder Woman or things could get disturbingly pervy. )

Snyder, despite being equally juvenile in his output, is the complete opposite of Bay’s spirit.  In his efforts to set up a ‘cool’ alternate universe, in which truth and hope are ignored, while never actually deconstructing or examining those ideas, what he actually reveals is that he and his universe are devoid of vision.  You cannot even enjoy the pretty pictures then, because they become representative of nothing.

So thanks for that Warner Bros.  You made a film so bad that I would actually welcome Michael Bay getting his grubby, baby-oil slathered fingers on my favourite iconic characters.

I need a shower.

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IMAGE: The best thing in the movie; barely in the movie

But this brought me to my final realisation.  It’s now the end of the film; the characters have waved at a CGI monster on a green screen for twenty minutes, and I have watched Superman arbitrarily die  …and  felt nothing.  I, who at twelve years old fanatically bought every comic leading up to the death of Superman.  I, who stood in place (it only felt right to stand as I read that issue), stunned as I opened that final fold-out page and saw him slump back dead into the dirt.  I, who ridiculously bought into the hype that he really was gone, and felt genuinely haunted by what I had just read.  I watched that story enacted on the cinema screen, and felt nothing at all.

And if that moment had so little effect on me, I can only imagine how miniscule the impact must have been for average viewers who had no such adoration for the character.  It got me thinking.  About the second week skydive in ticket sales for this film (which puts it in the category of Green Lantern and Wolverine: Origins)****, about the critical backlash (it remains pinned at 28% on Rotten Tomatoes), about the horrid word of mouth.  I wondered if it was this emptiness of spirit, symbolised by this hollow ending, that audiences have been rejecting?  The lack of genuine ideological conflict in the clash between these two characters – so contrived that it can be resolved by a piece of comic book trivia?  Martha indeed.  Because once you’ve seen the only thing that Snyder can offer – the spectacle – there is nothing to return to.  No aspiration.  No joy.  No subtext.

Snyder has traded on eighty years of good will and audience investment in these characters.  He has taken figures that have built mythologies and made them unrecognisable, emptying their narratives of meaning.  And now that  Warner Bros. and DC have tried to build a world upon a foundation of nihilism and cynicism, without replacing the elements of  that universe that they let be desecrated, all that is left is a universe devoid of substance.  Nothing for an audience to return to, to mull over or take inspiration from.  And if heroes don’t have morals, or ideals, or identifiable struggles, if they are all just CGI splash and grating sonics, they fade instantly.  Their films die near immediately at the box office.  They themselves dissolve near immediately in the mind.  Once the spectacle is consumed, it instantaneously fades.

And that made me, amidst all of this despair and mess, cautiously hopeful.  Because this film’s relative failure – initially buoyed by the hopes of an audience that were dashed upon seeing the final product – is a harbinger of the failure that awaits the DC cinematic universe if they follow the patented Snyder brand of dreary, superficial mediocrity.  And since Warner Bros. cannot afford to risk a repeat of this scenario – audiences are less likely to fall for this trick again – that doesn’t look so likely as it had before.

To end on a happier note: it’s for this exact reason that so many viewers have become fixated on Gal Gadot’s smile.  Wonder Woman’s flash of excitement is the one thing that shines bright amidst this turgid, dreary mess of a film.  Because that smile implies joy.  It implies hope.  Amidst all this droning CGI carnage, that one movement the lips implies a depth of character – or at least just another layer to a character – that is lacking everywhere else on the screen.

And what that suggests to me is that Warner Bros., if they have the clarity to see the audience reaction for what it is – unbridled excitement for the film, and complete disinterest in what Snyder and Goyer presented – it could signal a fundamental redirection for this universe.

And the signals are there that this could already be happening.  The upcoming Suicide Squad has now gone back for reshoots to bump up its character interaction, something sorely missing from Snyder’s film in which Superman and Wonder Woman do not even speak; the director of Aquaman, James Wan, has already distanced himself from Snyder’s oppressive, joyless tone.

But as the film finally sputtered to an end after several tedious fake-outs, I realised that even if none of these dreams come to fruition, even if in two years Zack Snyder is still turning Justice League into a seven hour joyless, glowering dirge, at least I still have The Flash and Supergirl to watch – shows that aren’t embarrassed by joy and inspiration.  Shows that actually like their own characters, and respect their audience, and that are comfortable enough in their skin not to need to pose and posture and misquote philosophies they don’t understand just to sound cool.

And with that I fired up the Supergirl/Flash crossover episode again, and happily lost myself in a world where superheroes still have something worthwhile to say about life.

flash and supergirl

IMAGE:  So much better than anything in this film it’s embarrassing

* If you want to hear my opinion of the glowering, dour sociopath that was Snyder’s Man of Steel, read here.

** To be clear, it was only after reading the credits that I realised murdered photographer was Olsen, but the meaninglessness and callousness of that death, so early in the picture, had been weighing on me the whole time, proof that Snyder had happily refused to learn anything about the criticism Man of Steel had received for its cavalier brutality.

*** Presumably Snyder’s feelings were hurt when people criticised the gleeful collateral damage of Man of Steel, but he could only be bothered paying the most glib lip service to that complaint.

**** As I type this during its third weekend after release, the film was beaten outright by critically panned Melissa McCarthy comedy The Boss.

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‘Don’t You Know Who I Am?!’: A Look Back At The Year of the ‘Selfie’

Posted in art, criticism, literature, movies, music, stupidity, television, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2014 by drayfish

[Firstly, this is a big one, and it sprawls pretty quick.  You might want to bring a snack and call your loved ones before taking it on.  It is also overflowing with spoilers.  I shall try not to spoil anything in the first few words of any paragraph, so if you can be bothered to read on, just skip past whatever texts you don’t want to see mangled through the lens of my wholly subjective nitpicking.]

tearaway selfie

IMAGE: A Tearaway Selfie (Media Molecule)

Phase the First: Wherein I Try To Get All Self-Reflexive And Fail

It’s always foolish to try to sum up an entire year as being ‘about’ one thing.

People do it all the time, of course.  Articles get written.  Cheesy montages get rolled out in news broadcasts.  YouTube even compiled a ‘What Did 2013 Say’ clip (presumably alongside its weekly ‘Most viewed cats falling into sinks’ list).  Whenever an untrammelled January rolls around everybody gets lost in a wave of nostalgia that invariably leads to a lot of tortured attempts to squeeze the newly concluded year into a neatly digestible oneness.  Usually this is achieved by referencing some pithy term or title that’s seen to capture the whole.  The preceding twelve months are suddenly labelled the year of the ‘Twerk’, or the year of the ‘hashtag’, or the year of ‘the Doctor’ (I want to go on record as saying that last one is completely legitimate)*, and once this revisionist summary is offered, everyone nods, files the year away, and prepares to watch the whole cycle unfold again.

Yes, it can too often be merely cheap pabulum used to fill up slow news days as the holidays descend, or the arrogance of a commentator presumptive enough to try and force their subjective experience of the world down the throat of their audience, but it remains the product a larger imaginative exercise at the heart of our communal experience.

See, we humans like to categorise, to segment.  We make lists, we put things in conceptual boxes.  It’s why we have terms like ‘This thing is the new black…’ or ‘This thing is the best thing since sliced bread…’ (which has really never seemed that gigantic a leap in design innovation to me, but whatever).  Millennia ago we decided to start subdividing the inexorable passage of our mortal lives into incremental beats.

We invented calendars, seasons, and years, and seconds.  We called this process ‘time’, and it helped us put things into all sorts of useful explanatory categories:  socially we had the ‘Renaissance’, the ‘Dark Ages’, the ‘Roaring Twenties’; privately we had our ‘tweens’, our ‘mid-life crises’, our ‘golden years’.

(Later we would even invent a magazine that we also decided to call ‘TIME’, and even it started getting nostalgic and naming people ‘Person of the Year.’  See?  We can’t help our little selves…)

Everything had a label, everything had a place, and these classifications helped explain one period’s relationship to everything else in the continuum: Romanticism was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution; the paranoid anti-government sensibility of The X-Files gave way to the pro-security, cowboy morality of 24; the Teletubbies and that freaky glowing baby head in the sun gave way to whatever tweaked out cocktail of amphetamines conjured Yo Gabba Gabba.

But despite being a natural impulse of our communal efforts to wrangle a rational shape onto the indifferent, chaotic maelstrom of the world around us, it is still foolish to presume that any period in time can be one thing.  Indeed, it’s asinine to think that the multitudinous panoply of human experience – a miasma of social, political, and ideological concurrence, each impacting upon one another in incomprehensibly complex, intricate ways – could ever be reduced to some pithy catchphrase, wrapped up with a trite little bow.

You’d have to be an idiot, so drunk on your own arrogance that you were wilfully blind to reality, ripe for embarrassment and derision…

…And can you imagine if that clown tried to publish such a redundant retrospective in February?

Ha.  Ha Ha Haaaaaa…

Ha.

So anyway:

2013 was all about the Selfie.

Calvin-Hobbes

IMAGE: The exquisite Calvin and Hobbes ‘selfie’ by Bill Waterson

Phase the Second: Wherein I Explain Myself – While Taking Petty Pot Shots At Celebrities I Will Never Meet

I mean, I must be right, no?

After all, if I was to use the most hackneyed tactic of the lazy debater, I would just jump straight to a dictionary definition – and this was the year that the Oxford Dictionary declared ‘Selfie’ (the act of taking a photograph of oneself and uploading it to social media) as their word of the year.**  According to Oxford, given the ubiquity of the practice (visible in the popularity of websites such as Instagram and Vine) and the explosion of usage for the word itself (which they claim has risen 17,000% in the span of one year) ‘Selfie’ best encapsulates the cultural zeitgeist.

(It is also the dictionary definition of the unspeakable horror haunting the dreams of anyone subjected to yet another one of Geraldo Rivera’s bids to put his job description in perpetual inverted commas).

So, as summaries of 2013 go, I think it’s an entirely fitting choice – though not, perhaps, for the reasons that might at first spring to mind.

Sure, if one chooses to view it uncharitably, the word can appear to be a searing indictment of a culture descending into narcissistic excess.  In a year in which Miley Cyrus followed the same tired routine of nearly every pop starlet before her  and tried to ‘rebrand’ herself as a sexualised adult in the most predictably derivative way possible (Twerking!  Naked video clips!  Tongue photos!  …Can anybody even get through reading the words ‘Miley Cyrus’ and ‘controversy’ without having to stifle a yawn anymore?), in a year where Justin Bieber adamantly hoped that Anne Frank would have been a rabid fan of his, and Shia LaBeouf disappeared up his own …ego, revealed to be a egomaniacally deluded serial plagiarist, it may seem that the word ‘Selfie’ is a fitting label for a culture too concerned with celebrating the vain and self-involved; a society so obsessed with itself that simply the act of existing, possessing a face, and having the capacity to sign up to a social media account, is enough to warrant celebration.

But dig deeper than this rudimentary cynicism, and the act of taking a ‘Selfie’ offers a far more fitting metaphor for the state of contemporary culture…

After all, this is a year in which the western world has been in a constant interrogation of the nature self-hood; a year in which our news, our entertainment, our politics, all meditated upon the notions of privacy, individuality, and identity as arguably never before.  2013, it turns out, was posing for a ‘selfie’, and the result, as we uploaded it to our facebook accounts (which had just removed the option to make your account ‘Private’ in its search engine) was a spray of contradictory emoticons that are quite revealing to explore…

Insert Face Here

Phase the Third: Wherein I flatter myself to think that the NSA would give even half a damn about this blog

In the news, identity – it’s mutability, it’s sanctity, its currency – was repeatedly at the forefront of many of the stories that dominated the headlines.***

The year was littered with bizarre stories of pseudonyms and squabbles over the ‘true’ identity of some of the world’s most prominent figures.  Whereas in most years it would be difficult to know what to do with the information that the ‘real’ Richard III had just been discovered under a car park, or to make sense of why the western world should stop to observe the otherwise unremarkable birth of a healthy baby boy (a boy who, before his fontanels have even closed, had the weight of a wholly ceremonial British aristocracy placed upon his shoulders), but in 2013, it all seemed to make a deranged sense: this was a year obsessed with identity; about who you were and where you were and what (if anything) that meant.

The year began by exposing the ease with which identity can be fabricated.

In January, Manti Te’o, football player for Notre Dame, was revealed to have had an entirely fictional girlfriend.  Te’o had played an heroic year of football, seemingly in the shade of the death of both his grandmother and his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, on the same day.  It was believed that Kekua had ‘died’ the previous year, having suffered complications from her leukaemia – but was revealed later to have all been another ugly example of someone being ‘catfished’.  To take Te’o ‘s account of the story after the deception was revealed, he had believed that he was dating a woman in a long distance relationship, but was shocked to later discover that she was actually just the product of an extended prank being pulled by a man named Ronaiah Tuiasopo.

The revelation created all manner of embarrassment and confusion, but what this strange incident best illustrated – as people tried to pick through the contradictory details that had appeared in the public record over the past year – was the way in which real and fictional people had become inextricably blurred in the media’s account of Te’o’s rise to prominence.  Indeed, whatever Te’o knew of the deception, the way in which the media, in their hunger for myth-making pathos, helped calcify a false identity into ‘truth’ was something quite extraordinary – some biographical articles had even romantically described the details of their first flirtatious meeting, where apparently, against all conceivable logic, they locked eyes, and were drawn into the gravity of each other’s gaze.

Although under very different circumstances, ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner also found his bid for New York mayor scuttled by a personal controversy rooted in false identity.  Attempting to return to politics after being disgraced two years earlier by the revelation of his salacious online proclivities (is that the most round-about way ever to say that he was sending people photographs of his penis?), Weiner had been attempting to run for mayor under the pretence that he was a changed man, one who had made mistakes, sure, but who had learned from these failures and put them behind him.  He was returning to public service more honest and self-disciplined.  In truth, Weiner had continued to engage in multiple texting affairs, and when this conflict in his image was exposed, it was in the form of a whole other identity: the alias ‘Carlos Danger’.  Weiner did continue on in one of the most weirdly antagonistic, sometimes petulant runs for office ever – getting into verbal confrontations with voters, mocking reporters for their accents, flipping people the bird after his concession speech – but the cognitive dissonance between the identity that he wanted to present to the world, and the one that he shared with people over the internet (the one that he had seemingly named after watching a poorly dubbed Mexican telenovella) proved too great, and his chances at victory evaporated.

On a far more serious note, this year saw the return of one of the most heinous cases of ‘mistaken identity’ in recent history.  In June, the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teen, by George Zimmerman, a self-appointed ‘neighbourhood watchman’, returned to the headlines when Zimmerman was brought to trial (the incident itself had occurred the previous year).  Zimmerman was eventually acquitted of all charges brought against him, with Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws cited as a primary reason for the not guilty verdict, and the outrage in response to this apparent racial discrimination (seemingly Martin could be suspected of being a criminal, be stalked, accused, and then killed,  because he committed the ‘crime’ of wearing a hoodie while black) erupted again.  The prejudice that Martin had suffered, both at the hands of Zimmerman and in some parts of the media in the aftermath of the shooting (semi-conscious moustache-hanger Geraldo Rivera, stated that Martin’s decision to wear a hoodie was as much to blame as Zimmerman for the incident), was seen to be a grim reflection of the experience many African Americans and minorities still face in contemporary society.  The protestor’s rallying cry ‘We Are Trayvon Martin’ (and later ‘We Are Not Trayvon Martin’) therefore became both a reclamation of identity and a potent statement on the universal suffering caused by bigotry.

Trayvon Martin

IMAGE: US Protests Over Trayvon Martin Verdict (Reuters)

As the year drew to a close, squabbles over identity, and how best to categorise a person’s life continued on, often in the most asinine of ways.  The passing of Nelson Mandela was met with several critics bickering over whether he should be remembered as a beacon for hope, forgiveness and change, or as a ‘terrorist’; and not even Santa  Claus was immune, dragged into incoherent disagreements over whether or not he was white.  Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly took the time to indignantly insist to her audience that Santa was indeed Caucasian, thank you very much – no matter what a Slate article by Aisha Harris might have playfully mused.  Kelly later claimed that she was trying to inject ‘humour’ into her broadcast (something one might argue is already impossibly redundant for a show on Fox), but her declaration that ‘for all you kids watching at home: Santa just is white – Santa is what he is‘ seemed far more spiteful and territorial than it did festive and jolly.  (Although, to be fair, she makes most everything sound that way.)

Inarguably, the most glaring example of this new concern with identity surfaced at the midpoint of the year, however, with the revelation that the United State’s National Security Service was no longer only tasked with targeting potential security threats, but was methodically spying on foreign leaders (such as Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel) and routinely gathering the mass telephone, email and search data of all of its own citizens.

The scandal broke after Edward Snowden, a previous CIA employee contracted to the National Security Agency, became alarmed by what he was seeing at the NSA and decided to expose what he believed was a massive systemic overreach in their intelligence gathering operations.  He gathered together sensitive documents, and taking a leave of absence, leaked them to the press, subsequently fleeing into hiding where his passport was revoked, he was charged with espionage, and was sought by the US government for extradition and trial.

The central program with which Snowden took issue was labelled ‘PRISM’ (because all of this didn’t sound enough like a Bond film plot already…)  It was a system that gathered together into one database the user information and online content of any person who had any contact with the services of several major American companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Google.****  Emails, phone calls, Skype chats, browsing histories, documents, all were seemingly available for perusal; and given that the only requirement for accessing this private information was a ‘three-hop query’, which meant that it could monitor the information not only of a suspect, but of anyone who might have had contact with that suspect, and then anyone who might have had contact with them, and then anyone who might have had contact with them.  It was like a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, only with less eighties nostalgia and more potential for invasive governmental overreach.  (Also, it made that town from Footloose look positively anarchic by comparison.)

It was now possible for people to be implicated and scrutinised not because of who they were, or who they associated with, but because they might once have had contact with someone who knew someone who knew someone…  Singular identity risked becoming so dispersed as to be meaningless at a time in which, ironically, a system had been designed to isolate the individual from the cacophony of the crowd.

In the process of bringing PRISM’s existence to light, Snowden’s own identity became currency as he traded obscurity for international notoriety.  He effectively became a human Rorschach Blot in the process – a ‘hero’, a ‘traitor’, an ‘anarchist’, a ‘patriot’, all depending upon who was describing him.  Meanwhile his revelations prompted a fierce, worldwide debate about the appropriate balance to strike between personal liberty and communal safety, between America’s proclamations of valuing freedom of speech and thought, and a potentially overriding duty to public safety.

The world has, of course, been witness to debates such as these in the past – the fallout from the McCarthy hearings and their hunt for communists being but one such example – but never before has the scope been so wide, nor the potential for personal invasion so absolute.  Consequentially, Snowden’s revelations have sparked a philosophical quandary that continues to rage, and it is proving itself to be one that has far-reaching ramifications for the heretofore uncharted landscape of cyber identity in a borderless digital age.

Edward Snowden

IMAGE: Edward Snowden (The Guardian)

Phase the Fourth: Wherein I Talk About Authorship …Sort Of

In 2013 the world of entertainment was likewise obsessed with identity at every level of the communicative chain: characters scrutinised their selfhood as never before, authors used the truth of themselves as another narrative tool, even audiences were compelled to consider their own place in the way texts make their meaning.

Perhaps most notably, the year saw the unveiling of a new generation of videogame consoles.  One of these new platforms however was almost sabotaged by issues of identity before it had even launched.

There were many nails in the coffin of Microsoft’s original tone deaf and aggressive design policies for their new Xbox One – when the phrase ‘#dealwithit‘ is inextricably linked with your product you can probably surmise that there is a corrosive disconnect between company and consumer – so to select one blunder amongst their cavalcade of PR missteps made would be all but impossible.  Certainly one of the most publicised though was the ‘always on’ requirement of the Kinect peripheral.  Microsoft were demanding that people who wanted to buy their console had to also purchase the Kinect (it came bundled with the machine), a camera and microphone attachment that remained constantly connected to the internet, that was capable of reading intricate body behaviour and recognising speech, and which the owner was never allowed to switch off, cover, or disconnect from Microsoft’s servers.

No doubt convinced that they could weather the birthing pains of entertainment’s shift toward all-digital media (or so they thought), Microsoft were insisting upon this intrusive requirement (amongst numerous others), because they knew that identity itself is profitable.  After all, regulating the sale of a game to an individual’s nametag stood to make far more money than allowing that person to own the game without restriction (to sell or pass it on to others); being able to monitor how many people were in a room about to watch a downloaded new-release movie had a potential for further revenue; collecting data on each individual member of your audience’s entertainment habits allowed the dashboard advertising to be more effectively targeted to their specific interests.  Identity was currency – a guaranteed future earner after the initial sale; and by better understanding who their audience were (and retaining complete control over what and how they consume), they stood to be far more profitable.

But coming as it did in the immediate wake of the NSA spying scandal, amidst accusations that several prominent companies – including Microsoft – were willingly supplying the Prism program with information, to many this promise of compulsory intrusion into one’s private space seemed rather distasteful.  The expressionless, unblinking eye of the Kinect suddenly became the symbol of a rally against the company’s other proposed draconian policy changes: the licensing  rather than the ownership of games; the alienation of the indie market; the requirement to always play online; the inability to lend or re-sell games; the start button demanding that you to sacrifice three kittens to a golden altar of the Master Chief’s head, etc.

xbox one kinect lens

IMAGE: Xbox One Kinect Peripheral: ‘Look Consumers, I can see you’re really upset about this.  I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.’

Thrust into the public’s consciousness, the Kinect and the Xbox One became a referendum on the right to preserve one’s identity (their gaming and viewing habits, their personal information, and even their personal space) from corporate exploitation, and Microsoft watched as it was voted on by consumers in real time – even before the point of purchase.  Pre-order sales floundered, pre-release press turned sour, and when Microsoft’s only reply to the concerns of its audience was to have the (not surprisingly now replaced) head of their Xbox division, Don Mattrick, petulantly tell them that they had to either except these impositions or just keep buying their old last-generation machine the mood became even darker.

Eventually, when it was clear that their closest competition, Sony, was romping away with victory, simply by treating their customers as adults who could decide for themselves how to use the products they owned (ironic considering Sony’s own controversy with a similar, but less invasive issue on the PS3), Microsoft was forced to walk back every one of their policies in response to the ‘candid feedback’ of their fans.

In a different way, identity was also at the heart of several of the year’s biggest literary scandals.  In Australia, two award-winning poets, Andrew Slattery and Graham Nunn, were revealed to be serial plagiarists, rather shamelessly trying to elevate their own name by stealing from the work of others.  Only after their works had been revealed to be Frankenstein’s monsters of unattributed, verbatim quotation did either of them attempt to explain them as pieces of ‘pastiche’ – until that moment they were happy enough for people to read it as the sole product of their singular imagination and labour.  Thankfully, the exposure turned out to be the puncturing of some rather inflated egos rather than a validation of their eleventh hour claims of uncredited ‘homage’.

In the world of popular fiction, an anonymous tip off to a reporter exposed J.K. Rowling as the real author behind the nom de plume ‘Robert Galbraith’, author of The Cuckoo’s Calling.  Although anyone’s sceptical spider sense would have suspected that this leak came from the publishing company itself, who stood to make millions in the fallout – alongside the poetic symmetry of the book being titled after a ‘cuckoo’, a bird that deceptively lays its eggs in another bird’s nest – the outing was subsequently revealed as a slip up with lawyers.

cuckoos calling

IMAGE: The Cuckoo’s Calling cover (Little, Brown & Company)

The fact that Rowling had a pseudonym was ultimately nothing surprising.  Having penned the blockbuster Harry Potter series, the author faced a daunting level of expectation and scrutiny for any future projects (just as her first post-Potter book, A Casual Vacancy, had received), so shedding her identity must have been enormously freeing.  The book could live or die on its own merits – or at least be read fairly by the lowered expectations.  Unfortunately for Rowling, what happened next was not very surprising either…

‘Robert Galbraith’ had been introduced to the world as a retired military police investigator who had decided to pen his first fictional novel, and the result was a critically well received but moderately selling work of crime genre fiction.  Whatever his next book was going to be was looked forward to with a small but growing anticipation.  However, once Rowling’s name was in the mix, not-surprisingly, the work blew up.  Stock ran out, reprints flew into production.  A novel that had done little more than be commended as an admirably solid first attempt was suddenly a sensation, with readers combing through the pages looking for clues and grammatical tells.

Whether or not Rowling’s intention was to reveal Galbraith’s true identity in future (again: ‘cuckoo‘), for now it was torpedoed, and the curiously tenuous interrelationship between audience and author was vividly exposed.  Rowling’s masquerade had allowed her a restorative creative refuge that enabled her to speak to the reader in a wholly unique, more intimate way, with no preconceptions or expectations weighing down their discourse.  With that mask stripped away, the cache of her name proved enormously successful for the sales of the book and garnered her plaudits from those who had been duped, but it ultimately undermined her intent.  The story is by no means a tragedy (again, she was commended for her skill, and her publishers are hardly crying), but it was a curious reminder of how an artist can feel trapped by their own public image, and how success can be so enmeshed with personality.

On a smaller scale (by in my opinion far more tragic), one of my personal favourite podcasts, Yeah, It’s That Bad, was seemingly undone by the need to preserve their anonymity.  Yeah, It’s That Bad was a marvellously improbable product, one that consistently defied expectation in order to create something fantastically enjoyable, and, ironically for a show built around the premise of reviewing bad movies, refreshingly unique.*****  Indeed, if you were tasked with writing down a list of all of the most clichéd elements that any derivative amateur podcast always seems to contain, what you would end up with is a bare bones description of what Yeah, It’s That Bad, in essence, turned out to be: A bunch of guys (check), sitting around together talking about a bad movie (check), reviewing what they had just seen while cracking jokes (check).  And yet…

Yeah Its That Bad

What elevated Yeah… (besides its brisk editing and deceptively high production value) was the hosts’ appealing chemistry.  Joel, Martin and Kevin each had distinct personality, and had clearly known each other for years, giving them a natural rapport that was inviting rather than alienating.  Unlike the innumerable other pale imitations that littered the field of crappy-film-reviews, they weren’t simply reading off pre-written gags, no one was calling-in on a temperamental Skype connection; they were three people, sitting around a table, involved in a conversation – one that was brightened by their quick wit, penchant for exaggeration, and ability to build upon each others’ observations.  There was no pretention, no forced guffaws, and they treated both their subject matter and their audience with respect.

In contrast to a podcast like How Did This Get Made? which begins with the presumption that the film being watched is garbage and thus a cheap punching bag, the hosts of Yeah… all clearly shared a genuine love of art and film (and the pleasures of a cheesy film done right), and were legitimately interested in debating whether the material they had viewed was unjustly maligned.  Consequentially, amongst the jocularity, there was thoughtful discussion of narrative conventions and cinematic pitfalls, the diminishing returns of anodyne sequels, the scourge of the Mary Sue, problems with pacing and characterisation – their analysis of the film Sucker Punch (a piece of cinema that I found grotesque) remains one of the most interesting and considered that I have yet encountered.

But best of all for those who decided to follow these three on their journey, Joel, Martin and Kevin understood radio as a theatre of the mind, and knew how to propel and expand upon a comedic riff without tipping over into lazy catchphrase.  By the time the show was brought to its premature end the ‘Yeah It’s That Bad Headquarters’ was said to be an orbital satellite circling Earth, Dennis Quaid, doyen of contemptuously wooden acting, was the patron saint of a swollen congregation of actors who phoned in their performances having barely wiped the craft services lunch from their mouths, the Beef-O-Meter was a meticulously calibrated gauge of an actor’s hotness (the Rock almost broke the scale), Joel’s never-ending quest to ‘follow the money’ was reaping damning results, and the Twilight films were one mumbled, dead-eyed Kristen Stewart performance away from killing them all.

It was an adaptive production, one that evolved with the needs of its audience and the benefit of the discussion (even the podcast’s name and premise weren’t locked in for the first handful of shows as they found their rhythm).  They took fan requests, they invited feedback, they grew and honed and streamlined; but the one feature that they maintained, that ultimately turned into their Achilles heel, was their anonymity.  It was never a secret that they were using fake names – indeed, it was repeatedly cited, without fanfare.  They weren’t industry insiders, or famous faces, or gossips with dirt to dish, they were just three friends producing a free program, who weren’t interested in becoming famous if it meant impacting upon their daily life.

The story was left necessarily vague (and I freely admit that the following account may be riddled with inaccuracies), but for those who followed the drama in the show’s final weeks, it was heavily implied that an online blogger had discovered who the three leads of the podcast actually were, and was going to reveal their names to the world.  Why anyone would want to know this completely irrelevant information, or what it’s exposure would even achieve, was left a complete mystery.  Those already familiar with the program had no interest in who these people ‘really’ were; those unfamiliar would care even less.  The trio therefore appealed to the blogger not reveal their identities, but apparently the idea that someone would not welcome fame was too much to comprehend, and the blogger intended to do so anyway.

But their anonymity wasn’t a bluff.  It wasn’t some playful game that they were inviting their audience to participate in uncovering.  Even in such a whimsical and mischievous format their privacy was a necessity – ironically, it allowed them to be more open with their fans, to carve out a space in which they could speak honestly and engage freely without impact upon their occupations or personal lives.  So the damage was done.  One blogger’s desire to publish a scoop that no one wanted, revealing identities that were irrelevant anyway, destroyed the very thing that they were misguidedly trying to intrude upon.  And with that, identity was shown to once again have a price – even for a free podcast.

Yeah Its That Bad Fan Art by Dan

IMAGE: Yeah It’s That Bad fan art by ‘Dan’

Phase the Fifth: Wherein I Get Pissy With Man of Steel Yet Again

The content of much of 2013’s entertainments seemed obsessed with identity too, exploring and overanalysing humanity’s sense of self.  Iconic characters were scrutinised, reintroduced, redefined.  Famous figures were repeatedly dismantled, separated into their constituent parts, and reconstructed.  It was a year of origins, and tales of stripping characters down to their core, the results of which were sometimes highly profitable, at other times incoherent trash.

Lara Croft spent the beginning of the year being re-birthed into the world in Square Enix’s Tomb Raider reboot, a bombastic origin story (which, despite a few issues, I enjoyed a great deal, actually) that had her both physically and metaphorically doing battle with the weight of her already established legend.  Alongside the shift in genre – from the straight 3D puzzle platforming of the old to the rollicking, sometimes horrifying, survival action of the new – a design that literally has the player participate in growing her skills up from rudimentary quick-time-events into the assertive, capable adventurer that we remember – the story seems to play out a meta-narrative of fighting against the weight of Lara’s past as a videogame idol.

tomb raider lara croft

IMAGE: Tomb Raider (Square Enix)

In the fiction, Lara is stranded on an island in which a tribe of homicidal worshipers are devoted to an ancient demigoddess that they are trying to revive in a new body.  As a metaphor for the foreseeable backlash of fans who wanted a straightforward remake of the old game, the imagery is particularly potent.  This crazed armada of zealots (seriously: despite this island being presented as a mixture of LOST and Gilligan’s Island it is like Spring Break for unhinged sociopaths) are trying to wholesale resurrect the idealised female figure that they adore – but as Lara exhibits, that creature no longer belongs in this fiction.  Instead, literally fighting her way out of the shadow of that history, Lara manifests the franchise’s new female protagonist: a resourceful, plucky, weathered young warrior, eager to do a bit of archaeology if people will stop trying to bury a hatchet in her face for five minutes.

When she stabs the reanimated statue of the demon that would seek to reclaim this world, it explodes in an eruption of pixels, the sun only then breaking through the cloud cover to restore life to the land.  Lara’s existential quest of self-discovery is finally at an end.  The ethereal power and beauty of the dead queen is never disputed, but the act of clinging to her memory so slavishly is shown to result only in stagnation, disappointment and decay.  Lara sloughs off the expectation of the old to resurface as something familiar, but new.  What exactly that turns out to be awaits to be seen in future instalments, but for now I am certainly looking forward to following the journey.

(I should also briefly clarify: I am in no way exaggerating when I use the word ‘re-birth‘ in describing this reintroduction of Lara Croft.  Replay that opening sequence in which Lara has to scramble and claw her way out of a cave that is convulsing and collapsing around her, only to emerge into the world wet, and crying, and blood-smeared, and the game creator’s intent to show how ‘A survivor is born‘ becomes quite (perhaps rather too) overt.)

Batman: Arkham Origins, as the name implies, likewise tried to embrace the possibilities of a prequel – although a cynic might suggest this was more an attempt to disguise a filler entry into the franchise by a B-team of coders, rather than a crucial addition to the overarching narrative.  Proving to be by no means a bad game – the foundations upon which it was built are too strong – it’s narrative does seem a little overstuffed with first meetings and introductions, attempting to cram the seedlings of an entire mythos into the span of a single evening gauntlet.

Batman Arkham Origins

IMAGE: Batman Arkham Origins (Warner Bros. Games Montreal)

This promise to dig into the core of Batman’s identity was so central to the game’s theme that even its advertising slogan was intent on calling it out.  ‘Your enemies will define you’, it declared – a potentially dangerous gambit for a narrative is so riddled (not a pun) with players from Batman’s B and C level rogues gallery.  Clearly this was actually a reference to the predictable reveal of the narrative’s actual big bad, and the establishment of their yingy yangy brand of co-dependent mental instability, but until that moment, Firefly, Copperhead and Black Mask are some pretty weak tea that don’t say much of the man behind the cowl.  …But again, perhaps that was ultimately the point.  Until Batman’s true antagonist emerged he was just going through the motions.

In cinemas, Man of Steel – one of the most divisive pieces of mass market entertainment of the year – was an attempt to likewise re-establish an icon, to explore the identity of the ‘man’ behind the legend of Superman.  …I say ‘attempt’, of course, because all it ultimately managed to offer was Zack Snyder’s biggest budget version of the same tediously adolescent nihilistic torture porn he has been reproducing ad nauseam throughout his career.  The fact that he managed to turn one of fiction’s most hopeful, inspirational figures into a mopey, selfish, irresponsible manchild, with an unchecked messiah complex, is so grotesque that (if it appeared in any way that he’d done it intentionally) it might almost be interesting; but the sycophantic way that Snyder depicts the perennially idiotic people of Earth unconditionally loving our new alien overlord, despite his wanton destruction, despite his psychotic mood swings, despite becoming an unapologetic law unto himself, makes the whole film crumble into a lazy, emotionless void of themeless, characterless carnage.

…I did not enjoy the film.  You probably couldn’t tell.

Iron Man 3 (which, going by the reaction on the internet, I alone on Earth seem to have liked), bucked the prequel/reboot trend to actually advance a plot, but even it did so by still choosing to break down the character of Tony Stark (yes, in a way a little too reminiscent of Skyfall …and The Dark Knight Rises …and The Avengers …and The Care Bear Movie, probably), and rediscover the man beneath the suit (…or the several hundred progressively inferior suits, as the case may be).  It even flashed back to the years before Tony had learned to take responsibility for his actions, fashioning a proto-antagonist, apparently of his own making, that he had to overcome in the present to reclaim his life.

Iron-Man-3

IMAGE: Iron Man 3 (Marvel/Disney)

No doubt the year’s most baffling attempt to explore this theme of selfhood came (predictably) in the form of a misguided film adaptation of a classic novel.  The Great Gatsby, a story that gnaws at the impossible fantasy of ever knowing the truth of another human being – what motivates them, what drives their every action, even in spite of themselves – was turned into a fidgety music video that mostly chewed the scenery and hyperbolically bloated every moment of subtly that gave the original work such lean, haunting grace.  Instead of a melancholy character’s reflection upon a defining, if inexplicable time in his personal history, we had Nick Carraway going insane and desperately writing the book from within an asylum.  Because that adds… well… absolutely nothing, besides being mawkish and stupid.  But hell, why not?  We’re already filming in cinema’s most pointless 3D, with dance routines that feel like acid trips, and a whole recreation of Long Island that looks like a surreal day dream slapped together by the work-experience kid at Industrial Light and Magic – so go nuts.

the great gatsby

IMAGE: The Great Gatsby (Warner Bros.)

It’s a great shame, though, because if director Baz Luhrmann had not turned the narrative into a shallow cartoon, it could have been a chillingly prescient summation of the themes of identity, presumption and self-delusion that have echoed throughout this year.  Had the film managed to capture the glistening nostalgia of Gatsby’s unattainable dream, or the suave facade that obscured his ineffable truths, it could have had much to say.  Instead all it exhibited was how hollow a film can become when its creators repeat the same mistakes its characters do: Gatsby puts on a big display to get Daisy’s attention and consequentially gets chewed up in the maelstrom of her and her husband’s vapid recklessness; Luhrmann, mistaking spectacle for substance, does much the same, overburdening his work with gaudy tricks and distractions that eventually smother its central, sober conceit.

‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’

Well he was right about one thing.  The audience certainly felt beaten.

In the land of television, show runners, like filmmakers, seemed obsessed with returning to the formative years of familiar characters, reintroducing them in unfamiliar contexts under the presumption that this interrogation of their genesis would somehow reveal something new.  Hannibal invited viewers to experience the reptilian grace and gastronomical proclivities of Hannibal Lecter before he got all orange jumpsuit-y in Silence of the Lambs (and yes, I know that Red Dragon was a prequel too).  Meanwhile, anyone who ever wondered what Norman Bates got up to in the years before his mother became the world’s most judgemental rocking-corpse could watch Bates Motel and live out the excitement of seeing an awkward pubescent boy turn inexorably into a sex-crazed sociopath (arguably something most already are).

Dracula tried to recast fiction’s most flamboyant, dead-eyed bloodsucker (no, not Robert Pattison; the other one) into a newly industrialising London, deciding that the best way to capture the inconceivable menace of a character who necessarily remains in the shadows of a novel shrewd enough to reveal him only in glimpses and half-truths, was to slap him in the centre of a serialised melodrama that revolved around him, that attempted to explain his motivations, and that stripped him of his portentous obscurity.

Almost certainly the year’s biggest television event however (aside from a certain rouge wedding), was the conclusion of Breaking Bad, a show that offered one of the most compelling, absorbing depictions of a human journey descent into moral compromise and abject evil.  Vince Gilligan’s Faustian descent was so deeply invested in questioning its protagonist’s fractured identity, and the consequence of his incremental conciliations, that it ran to its conclusion with the focal character’s darkly ironic demand ‘Remember my name’ resounding through every scene.  Whether anything really was left of Walter White beneath the overwhelming monstrosity of ‘Heisenberg’ haunted the show’s final episodes.  Was White still the man he believed himself to be?  Was he the sum of his crimes?  Are we our intent or our action?  Are we what we hope to be, or the legacy others write for us?

Breaking Bad

IMAGE: Breaking Bad (AMC)

Phase the Sixth: Wherein I Explain What This Tedious ‘Phase’ Conceit Is All About

At the end of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (spoiler warning for a century-old novel), the heroine Tess has been killed – seemingly sacrificed to the whim of a hostile universe that has finished its sport with her.  Meanwhile, her lover, Angel Clare, is ironically punished by the author for his earlier abandonment of Tess with the suggestion that he will now go on to marry her younger sister, having promised Tess in her final moments that he would do so.  Initially it seems like a strange penalty.  Earlier in the book Angel had been mortified that the young, virginal beauty he had fallen in love with, having been the victim of a sexual assault, had already borne and lost a child, so in theory he has now been ‘rewarded’ with exactly what he desired: a younger virginal beauty, more divine than even her deceased sibling.  Indeed, Liza-Lu is described at this point as:

‘a tall budding creature – half girl, half woman – a spiritualised image of Tess, slighter than she, but with the same beautiful eyes.’ (p.488)

But the clear, lamentable truth that hangs over this conclusion is that of course Tess cannot be so easily replaced, cannot be substituted.  Clare gets what he once wanted, but it will forever be the most vivid reminder of the irreplaceable individual he once callously rejected.

It’s an absence symbolised by the description of Liza-Lu’s unsullied perfection.  Tess, in contrast to her sister, was flawed, marked by a physical blemish that once enraptured Clare.  Earlier in the novel, when he first becomes smitten with Tess, she is described thus:

‘How very lovable her face was to him. Yet there was nothing ethereal about it; all was real vitality, real warmth, real incarnation.  And it was in her mouth that this culminated. Eyes almost as deep and speaking he had seen before, and cheeks perhaps as fair; brows as arched, a chin and throat almost as shapely; her mouth he had seen nothing to equal on the face of the earth.  To a young man with the least fire in him that little upward lift in the middle of her red top lip was distracting, infatuating, maddening.  He had never before seen a woman’s lips and teeth which forced upon his mind with such persistent iteration the old Elizabethan simile of roses filled with snow.  Perfect, he, as a lover, might have called them off-hand.  But no — they were not perfect.  And it was the touch of the imperfect upon the would-be perfect that gave the sweetness, because it was that which gave the humanity.'(pp.208-9)

Already a story fundamentally concerned with the nebulous nature of identity – Tess Durbeyfield’s life is tragically upended when it is believed that she is actually a descendant of the d’Urberville line of ancient knights – the conclusion of the novel reveals itself to be a condemnation of Angel’s earlier sanctimonious judgement.  For Angel, Tess proved to be an idea – a fantasy upon which he could project his own longing.  Upon discovering the truth beneath his pretty lie he fled, only later realising his mistake.  Consequentially, the truth of that mistake will haunt him the rest of his life.  He failed to see the woman beneath the image until it was too late.

Because we are all our ineffable faults and flaws and failures, all marked by our history.  And the way we carry our imperfections define us – just as Tess, resolute, carried her maddeningly imperfect lip.

In this, the beginning of a new millennium, our popular culture seems to be depicting us all in a burgeoning state of adolescent self-awareness, already striving to learn the lesson that Angel Clare ignorantly missed.  Whether a reaction to the fears of terrorism and global war that have hung over the 21st century, or a natural progression of our growth into a more immersive digital age, modern culture has seemingly reached a point of necessary personal reflection.  We’ve turned the lens back upon ourselves, saturating the world with an onslaught of pop-cultural ‘selfies’.  But it’s not quite the narcissistic act of self-aggrandisement that it might at first appear.  Instead it is an attempt to try and make sense of ourselves and our circumstance, to define who we are and what we believe in, through introspection and self-analysis.

Sometimes it is as all-encompassing as dissecting the invasion of a clandestine global spy program; sometimes it is wondering why Batman never used those shock gloves again in the following games.  We might be grinning inanely into a camera; protesting unjustifiable personal tragedy; playing with our audience’s expectations with a false persona; or dressing up our paranoias in superhero theatrics; in any instance, the questions remain universal: it is a meditation upon who and where we are, and what all of that means going forward.

What are those indefinable imperfections that give us our humanity, and how can we best preserve them in the daunting, unknowable age still to come?

tess of the durbervilles by D A Wehrschmidt

IMAGE: Tess of the d’Urbervilles illustration by D.A. Wehrschmidt

* On the plus side, previous, artificial attempts to name the year (such as ‘The year of Luigi’) are excoriated by the reality of lived experience (revealing instead ‘The year of people-are-still-releasing-stuff-on-the-Wii-U?’)  …Sorry.  That was a cheap shot.  I still love you, Nintendo.

** Apparently the origin of the word ‘Selfie’ is Australian, having been traced back to an Australian forum post (in which a young man took a photo of some damage he had done to his face while extremely drunk) in 2002.  As the Oxford summary states, we ‘Strayans do like to add ‘-ie’ to the ends of words – barbie, cossie, sickie, freebie, pressie, symbolic interactionismie (okay, that one’s less popular).  So let’s all take a moment to acknowledge that we have a young, drunk ‘Aussie’ to thank for this year’s expansion of the English language.  You’re welcome.  …Now please forgive us for Baz Luhmann.

*** And yes, I said ‘Headlines’, so let’s just take it as read that I am going to be shamefully skipping many of the most tragic and genuinely significant global events, such as the ongoing conflict in Syria and the massacres in Egypt – after all, that is sadly what the news media far too frequently seems to do.

**** It was also the year that Katy Perry released an album called Prism, which caused a different kind of rightful public outcry.  I’m being facetious, of course, but just so that it doesn’t seem like I’m taking a lazy pot shot at a recording artist that bores me desperately (I am), here’s a fun bit of trivia to justify the snark: Perry’s new record was literally banned here in Australia.  Not because of the content of the music (that would require there to be content – BAM!), but because she had woven living seeds into the album’s paper sleeve.  The idea, I believe, was that you plant the album and it would grow into flowers.  Unfortunately for Perry, the flowers are listed as a biohazard here in Australia (so are her lyrics – BAM BAM!), meaning that listeners can’t take her advice and bury her latest album underground (no matter how much they may want to after listening to it – And it’s a Hat Trick!)  …I want to take this opportunity to apologise to any Katy Perry fans reading.  I really don’t know what just got into me.

***** You can read a lovely elegiac summary of Yeah It’s That Bad that catalogues its hosts, its format, and its demise here.  Vale Yeah It’s That Bad.  In a world of weak weak weak men, you did good.

The Phantom Drone: Prelude To A Rant…

Posted in comics, criticism, movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2013 by drayfish

Seriously, I am about to rant in the lead up to another, equally tedious rant.  If you loved Man of Steel, have an understandable hatred for futile whining on the interwebs, or just generally care for your own mental health, I suggest you don’t bother reading the following post. 

The TLDR version is: other people liked Man of Steel – and that’s fine.  I resoundingly did not enjoy it (which is also fine, by the way) – but I foolishly tried to analyse why, and almost lost my mind in the process. 

This is that story…

man of steel general zod

IMAGE: General Zod from Man of Steel (Warner Bros.)

I made a mistake.

Two months ago, the granddaddy of all super heroes, the original man-in-the-tri-colour-onesie – Superman – returned to cinemas.  It had been decades since the Richard Donner vision of the prototypical comic book champion was so watered down by his progressively inferior sequels that the franchise had faded into a mockery of itself.  A new millennium had come upon us since the (thankfully) stalled Kevin Smith/Tim Burton/Nick Cage ‘dark’ re-visioning of Krypton’s son, Superman Lives, was jettisoned into the whispers of movie studio lore.  And it has been years since Bryan Singer (leaving the X-Men franchise to collapse in on itself under Brett Ratner’s profoundly mediocre directing*) had seen his resurrection of the saga stalled with a lukewarm (to hostile) audience response.

Superman had certainly lived on in comics (been killed and reborn, had his powers altered and gotten married), and he had thrived in the phenomenal animated Superman and Justice League programs (executive produced by Bruce Timm who likewise helmed the groundbreaking Batman: The Animated Series**), but it took until this year for Kal-El to return to the silver screen in Man of Steel, a big budget spectacle designed to reintroduce the Superman tale to a whole new audience, restarting the narrative from the beginning.

I was warned ahead of time that this version of the tale would probably not appeal to me – that I might, in fact, get quite angry at this depiction of the character.

I didn’t listen.

But that’s not the mistake bit.  Not yet.  The mistake comes later.

‘Pish-posh,’ cried I, when I heard their cautions.  ‘Why, adaptation is the lifeblood of all mythologies that seek to remain valid!  It is the responsibility of each new generation to re-contextualise the elements of these adventures to speak to their own experience!  Ergo, the details will change, the tone will fluctuate, and the familiar will be remade anew!  Forsooth!  Egads!  Harrumph!’

Flinging my martini into the fireplace, I then repositioned my monocle, bid everyone a good day (‘I said, Good Day, sir!’), and clambered up onto my penny-farthing, to pedal as swiftly as I could to the nearest moving-pictures show and pay for a ticket – keen to discover for myself how this new-fangled Superman was rejuvenating the stuffy and old with a fresh perspective.

…Okay, to be honest I wasn’t quite so philosophical.  While I desperately hoped that the film would deliver a rollicking, triumphant and introspective journey (Superman is a character that can frequently be dismissed as cheesy or old-fashioned, but I legitimately believe him to be more important in our current cultural climate than he ever has been) there had been some major warning signs hanging over the production that gave me pause.

Namely, Jack Snyder.

To put it mildly, I am not a fan of Zack Snyder’s work.  To me it has consistently been the very definition of cinematic style over substance – and considering that I’m not really a big fan of his perpetually washed-out-metallic-sheen aesthetic either, there really is really very little to endear me to his canon.  I know many loved the film (and I am glad for them) but beyond its faithfulness to the source material’s bold visuals (and near-fetishistic masculinity), I saw little to love in 300.  The Watchmen likewise perfectly recreated the page layouts of the comic, but its characters and symbolism fell flat (again, just my opinion).  And the less said about what I consider to be his grotesquely misguided (and mystifyingly tone-deaf) ‘feminist’ treatise Suckerpunch, the better.  So far his filmography has seemed to me to be stylistically thumping but narratively scattershot; emotionless, inhuman, and lacking anything that even vaguely resembles subtlety, character depth, cohesive narrative, or the capacity to linger in a moment of meaningful quietude.

Having said all that, however, I legitimately went in to Man of Steel hoping to be surprised.  Under the presumably watchful eye of producer Christopher Nolan, the man who rescued the Batman franchise from Joel Schumacher’s neon fever dream, and the screenwriting potential of David Goyer, who (sure, while he also wrote Ghost Rider) collaborated with Nolan in the Dark Knight trilogy to turn it into one of the most diverse, multifaceted explorations of terrorism yet committed to film, there was every reason to believe that this could be the project that would give Snyder the guidance he needed to finally evolve as a storyteller.

Similarly, I am not some slavish fanboy of the old films (so however the following criticisms may sound, they truly do not come from a ‘They did it better back when…’ place).  I know that to many this will sound like heresy, but aside from Christopher Reeves’ masterful shape-shifting double-duty playing both a mythic god and a bumbling country boy, I find little in the original films worth salvaging.  Superman’s 4 and 3 are cheap (really, really cheap) goofy kitsch; film 2 (no doubt due to its drama behind the scenes) feels slightly schizophrenic in tone (and what was with that cellophane symbol Superman Frisbees about?); and even the original (admittedly the best of the bunch) is at times plodding, contains that mystifying anti-musical number when Lois sing-speaks ‘Can you read my mind?’ in her head, and most egregiously of all, is marred by possibly the laziest piece of deus ex machina drivel ever committed to film in the narrative’s climax, as Superman spins the earth around the other way  to turn back time (!!?!!).***

And while I’m not a pure hater of the Superman Returns – it did attempt to recapture some of the wonder of Donner’s original – Singer’s soft-reboot never quite carved out an individual identity beyond its almost-plagiarising homage.  …Not to mention that, when looked at objectively, Snyder’s vision of Superman was both a dead-beat dad, and something of a creeper.  I’m almost certain these two lines of Lois Lane’s dialogue were cut, last minute, from the theatrical release:

‘Wait, is that someone floating outside my window x-ray visioning into my most private family moments?  Oh, no. It’s just the guy I used to date – a dude who dumped me, ran off, and was leading a double life so elaborate it was like he was two different people…’

‘Hold on, has someone sneaked into my house so that they can leer over my sleeping child like a psychopath?  …Oh no, it’s just an omnipotent, moody alien with boundary issues wearing skin tight lycra.  It’s fine.’

So while it may not sound like it, when the house lights of the cinema went down, I truly was eager to believe – given the subject matter of the narrative and the pedigree of its actors and producers – that perhaps both Man of Steel and its director could ultimately soar…

…I was wrong.

But again: this too is not the mistake of which I speak.  That’s still to come…

No doubt many others did and continue to enjoy Snyder’s take on Superman a great deal (in fact, I know they have; I scarcely remember a time I’ve seen such vitriol directed by supporters of a film back at those who criticise it), but for me it was a resounding miss.  Indeed, a completely baffling miss.

Illogical, over-wrought, weirdly tonally jarring; the makers of the film seemed to hit every cliché in the narrative with over-earnest pretention, but simultaneously remained almost belligerently ignorant of the subtext they themselves were ordering the audience to embrace.  Between the incongruous religious allegories, the hackneyed terrorism analogies, the completely nonsensical way it cannibalised its own mythos rather than communicate a coherent plot, the whole thing seemed to thrash about wildly, a cluster bomb of clichés.  Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Even the action, which I have heard many people celebrate, struck me cold – eventually leaving me utterly, stupefyingly numb.  Sure, there was spectacle (after all, aside from Singer’s more restrained vision, this is the first time special-effects technology has been at a state where the guy in the cape can really let fly with the ‘splosions and feats of strength), but after about fifty unbroken minutes of it, the carnage tipped over from breathtaking epic clash to indulgent, meaningless noise.  I do recall involuntarily shaking my head as the film gormlessly telegraphed Superman’s decision to slaughter his enemy, but even then, I felt almost nothing.  The whole thing seemed like little more than a CGI tech demo, with cardboard cut-outs of beautiful people danced in front of the screen, and dialogue so stilted it was like placeholder notations for a second draft that never came to be.

And so, when I left the cinema I was surprised to find that I wasn’t, as my friends had warned me, angry.

In truth, I was mostly just bemused.  Sure, part of that was probably just a product of being stunned by the film’s aimless sensory overload.  That final hour really does wear you down.  Indeed, through some kind of unnerving magic, it becomes a hyperactive tantrum of punching and crunching so monotonous that the countless deaths it depicts actually transmogrify from horrifying to utterly boring.  But overall, between the hysterically rampant product placement, the creaking script, and the asinine allusions the film was ham-fistedly trying to employ, it was all far more humorous than aggravating.

Yes, there was the immediate vulgarity (that many others have already cited) of Superman arbitrarily killing his enemy and having the narrative implicitly celebrate it – but even this was handled in such a clumsy way as to become absurdly comedic, an act of scriptwriting laziness more than any kind of moral statement.  After all, Superman had, until that point, been nonplussed to watch countless people crushed and blown up and stomped on (often as a direct consequence of his own blind fury) – but suddenly, in the final ten minutes, Zod threatens a family escaped from an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue and he is so tortured that he both snaps Zod’s neck (mortal damage that he has magically been unable to do before that very second) and rears back to unleash a Darth Vader-style ‘Nooooooooo!!!’ scream to the heavens?

To give Snyder the benefit of the doubt for a moment, he may well have been thinking of Superman’s reckless and willingness to resort to murder in his first outing as a hero in the terms of an origin tale such as Spiderman, where Peter Parker had to start by being irresponsible (let the mugger go) so that he could learn to be responsible in future (to stop other innocents like Uncle Ben dying as a result of his apathy).  Sure, it would still be the laziest of possible resolutions (aside from spinning the Earth back around the other way, of course), but Snyder might have been thinking that by indulging such extremes you can later cobble together a tale of heroism and moral fortitude out of remorse and redemption.  You know – like Spiderman’s guilt…  Except, of course, that Spiderman didn’t personally gun Ben down.  He didn’t plunge his hand through his chest and shout, ‘Responsibility!!!’ into the sky as lightning crackled overhead.****

But I digress…

No, ultimately the whole of Man of Steel felt too tacky and self-indulgent to get mad about.  From the derivatively mopey emo tone they tried to slather over every scene (even though there was never any specific reason offered for why being superhuman, good-looking, popular with the ladies, and awesome, should be such an onerous drag); to the endless expositional pontificating by poor Kevin Costner’s (apparently suicidal) Pa Kent;  to the embarrassingly insincere attempt to manufacture pathos by ripping off the origin stories of other heroes.  The whole thing seemed to be so desperately trying distinguish itself – to shout ‘This isn’t your grandma’s Superman!‘ – that it collapsed over into a weirdly joyless farce.

Nonetheless, when I got home from the cinema, I decided that the whole experience should not be for nothing.  There had to be something worth talking about in the shambolic mess I had just witnessed…  The film certainly seemed to want to say something, even if it kept contradicting itself and indulging all of its laziest impulses.

And here comes the mistake bit…

Hmm, I thought.  That messiah stuff was kind of weird.

That fundamental contradiction between the sacrificial analogy the filmmakers were ponderously trying to draw and their character’s own behaviour, seemed so preposterous, so juvenile, that I decided to write a short, playful response to it.

And that was it.  That was the mistake.  The white rabbit had scampered by, and the moment that my fingers touched the keyboard to start unpacking that obnoxiously irrelevant Jesus imagery I was tumbling down a nonsensical hole that felt like it stole weeks from my life.

man of steel dream sequence

IMAGE: Dream sequence from Terminator 2 Man of Steel (Warner Bros.)

Suddenly, all those once-humorous contradictions started piling up.  The aimless, artless, facile equivalencies the film tried to evoke, all while belligerently ignoring the implications of its own message, steadily began overtaking me, started rubbing me raw.  Now it wasn’t just the Kal-El-is-Jesus comparison (which, to be fair, was stolen from Donner’s film, Donner just handled it far more elegantly), it was the clumsy endorsement of Nietzsche’s notion of the ubermensch; the exploitatively cowardly sensationalising of 9/11; the terrorism analogies that ironically embrace rather than discredit the use of ideological horror; the pretentious hypocrisy of all the film’s rote philosophising about ‘restraint’ (they even throw in a Plato reference, despite going on to wholesale contradict everything Plato was arguing); the way that the empty rhetoric of ‘hope’ and moral fortitude that gets vomited up in stilted dialogue but never validated by the plot; the complete nonsense of having characters drone on and on about what Superman is ‘meant’ to represent, only to then show him embodying the complete opposite of these qualities at every significant moment…

I tried to remain rational, tried to stay as detached, and objective and analytically unbiased as I could manage – but a strange gravity kept pulling me in.  Perhaps it was the realisation that, despite what people who scoff at comic books might think, super heroes have a substance, have an inspirational mythos that they carry with them; and to see it so callously maligned kind of stung.  Perhaps it was irritation at the film’s faux-philosophical self-satisfaction, despite the fact that even it didn’t seem to know what it was saying.  Whatever it was, I found myself spewing out a tedious analytical screed so lengthy it felt at times that it would never end (I literally checked the word count at one point to find, with horror, that I was already over eight thousand words in) all while trying to comprehend a film that I had previously sloughed off as inordinately expensive B-movie cheese.  (Not to mention that here I am doing it all over again…)  At times, when I allowed myself the egotism of such hyperbole it felt like I had spent more time thinking about the plot and its themes than the film’s creators ever had – and then that thought (petty as it was) got on my nerves too.

There is a Phantom Zone in this film (though they don’t call it that), where time and space are immaterial, where the void swallows you whole, where logic and physics are meaningless.  It is a prison, one that Zod gets thrown into for being arrogant enough to question the social order – the Kryptonian council who want to pretend that things are great, and that no one need worry about any of it.  In scratching the surface of Man of Steel’s themes I shared Zod’s fate; I felt I had stared into that same abyss.  It was an impossible, immaterial vacuum, where images at first appeared to have substance, but remained disturbingly, nonsensically one dimensional.  Where words like ‘honour’ and ‘hope’ and ‘sacrifice’ were hollowed out and stripped of context, but still flaunted in a vain display.  It was an act of analysis that, of I’m honest, left me feeling peculiarly grim – something that I most recently remember feeling when trying to discern the ‘feminist’ message of Snyder’s repugnant Sucker Punch.

The result of this foray into critical madness – following Snyder’s Kurtz into a superhuman heart of darkness – can be found on the PopMatters journal website: ‘A Man of Steel That Sinks Like Lead’.  If you are particularly self-loathing, you can inflict it upon yourself there (although I will probably republish it here sometime in the future).  Upon its publication it was immediately torn to shreds by fans of the film as being needlessly nitpicking and of taking the film too seriously.  ‘It was just a film’, seemed to be the overwhelming catch-cry.

And although I did (and do) say to those commentators that my experience is in no way meant to discredit their interpretation – that I am glad for them that they enjoyed Man of Steel, I just did not share their point of view – perhaps there is some truth in what they say.  After all, it was long, and exhausting, and frankly I feel only worse having written it; and like the film itself, there is an inescapable stench of futility hanging over the entire enterprise.  The people who love the film will continue to love it no matter what (and they are more than welcome to it); meanwhile the people who hate Snyder’s vision will no doubt find nothing within my screed they have not already noticed themselves.

As I look back on this little purge of mine, I realise that the word that keeps resurfacing is ‘Indulgent’ – and I think that’s where I personally land on Man of Steel.  To me, it is the exemplar of lazy and indulgent filmmaking, in all of its gaudy excess.  It gratifies only the most fleeting of superficial desires for bombast and spectacle; its characters are no more than mouthpieces to advance the most flimsy of plotlines; it wallows in adolescent nihilism; it affects subtext in order to ape significance but follows through on nothing it evokes; and it shamelessly trades on the good will of its predecessors, offering nothing new to an audience itself.

But there was one further indulgence that I hadn’t considered: that of my own unwillingness to just walk away.

After all, I don’t like writing long, boring, tracts of criticism that dig for meaning and come up empty.  It’s a chore that, believe me, is even less fun to write than it is to read.  So why – when there have been plenty of other shallow action spectacles that have pilfered iconography they didn’t understand to ape gravitas they didn’t earn – why was I unable to shake loose of this one when I saw that analytical Phantom Zone open before me?

Perhaps it was some selfish affection for the Superman character, who I felt was being twisted into something unrecognisable; perhaps it was some personal contempt for Snyder himself, and his hackneyed, empty symbolism; perhaps it was just sanctimonious reprisal, petty revenge for feeling that I had been tricked into digging for substance where there was only exploitation.

In any case, whatever it was, it was a mistake.  One that I vow I shall never make again.  I free myself both of the burden of hoping for something better in Snyder’s work, and of tilting at his windmills in critical analysis.  Superman has weathered worse than him, and there are far more substantive texts still out there to explore…

You have no more power over me, Man of Steel.  Do whatever you wish, because I won’t let you plague me any more.

All right.  Good.  Now that all of that is out of the way, let me move on with my life and get back to checking the internet blog-o-sphere to see what’s going on in the world.

Let me just click on this first link here and –

Hmm?  What’s this?  The next Superman film is going to have Batman in it?!

Wait.

…Snyder is going to do Batman?!

And played by Ben Affleck!?!?

Oh, gods no…

No…

Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in.

Sigh.

All right.  Fine.  You win.

Just let me kneel down on the ground here and…

NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!

man of steel scream 600x338

IMAGE: Emotions from Man of Steel (Warner Bros.)

* Who used his extraordinary reverse-Midas powers to turn one of comic books fiction’s most celebrated  dramatic arcs (and the gathering propulsion of the preceding films) into a muddled, affected soap-opera, sprinkled with poorly-staged CGI explosions.

** Truly, his smack down with Captain Marvel alone nails every epic note that Man of Steel failed to hit, and the debate over his political and social responsibilities in the Cadmus story arc make a joke of the clumsy military posturing in Snyder’s tale.

*** …Also: ?!??!!!?!!?!!

**** Not to mention that I think it’s fair to say that in superhero terms, committing an act of murder is usually considered to be in the wheelhouse of ‘letting the toddler  touch the stove top’.  It’s enough to just tell them no, and let them figure out for themselves why it was the right thing to avoid.

Swing-and-a-Miss: ‘Feminism’ in Sucker Punch

Posted in criticism, movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2013 by drayfish

sucker punch

IMAGE: Sucker Punch, Directed by Zack Snyder (Warner Bros)

Superficially, Sucker Punch (2011) is an easy film to hate.  Between the maudlin histrionics of the plot, the stilted, tone deaf dialogue, and the glossy CGI pyrotechnics cluttering the screen while signifying little, it appears to be little more than a bombastic, exploitative spectacle.  Loud, voyeuristic, and seemingly concerned with the systematised objectification and abuse of women, upon its release it was savaged by critics who labelled it juvenile, misogynistic, and even hysterically, garishly overwrought.

However, as almost a direct reaction to this overwhelming panning, a select few critics sought to vehemently defend the film, lamenting that no one had taken the time to look beneath the surface of the work.  No one, they declared, had appreciated the irony at the heart of its narrative, the sardonic statement it was making about the exploitation and debasement of women that informs its narrative.

One film critic in particular, Scott Mendelson, went so far as to declare that the reaction to Sucker Punch was a harbinger of our cultural ruin, a kneejerk PC overcorrection that revealed ‘Why We Can’t Have Nice Things…’ (here)*  We, as a mass-market audience, were all too ignorant, and ‘couldn’t see past the surface’ to the genius beneath.  Indeed, in France, Mendelson argued, the film would have been hailed a masterpiece (although from what little I have gleaned it does not appear that it was beloved in Europe, either), but when a ‘visionary’ director such as Zack Snyder releases a film in America, it is unjustly maligned and rejected as exploitative trash.

Similarly, /Film’s Adam Quigley made the bold claim that no one but he had yet seen the true narrative of the film in a video essay literally titled ‘You Don’t Understand Sucker Punch’ (here).  Apparently what the audience didn’t understand (Quigley actually uses the slightly hysterical phrasing ‘prestigious journalists … don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about’) was that we were meant to infer that the entire narrative was bookended by another layer of fantasy, a ‘real’ world in which secondary-character Sweet Pea was being lobotomised, and that everything depicted was all just her dream.

…Why this entirely subjective hypothesis has any impact upon the themes of objectification and sexism at the film’s heart, why layering another needless ‘twist’ upon the several that already go nowhere is impactful, or how one single, fleeting scene with Sweet Pea being threatened by a lobotomy was distinct enough from every other similar sequence that it could distinguish itself as the singular key that unlocks the film’s puzzle, is never fully explained by Quigley.  (Although perhaps he doesn’t bother because ‘critics’ would no doubt be too stupid to understand anyway.)

However, while it is often easy to attack the media for concentrating too much upon the salacious, and for failing to address the thematic meat beneath an artist’s work – as both Mendelson and Quigley do with indignation – in this case, I would argue that to actually take up their challenge, to bother to scratch the surface of Snyder’s work and delve into its psychologically regressive meaning, rather than rescuing the film from condemnation, instead confirms its ugly pretence, and the exploitative sexism it mistakenly, clumsily believes it is debunking.

Before even leaping into the subtext, though, I should be honest and admit that even superficially the film does little to warm me to it.  Personally, I find its hyper-stylised cartoon action so flashy and weightless that it loses all sense of substance, meaning that as a punctuation for character drama it becomes impossible to invest in (particularly in light of the ultimate revelation that it is all just layers of fantasy within fantasy).  Likewise, the glossy sexualisation of the central female characters – reducing them to an amalgam of corsets, miniskirts and porcelain skin – was off-putting rather than enticing, sadly hollowing these women into figurines provocatively posed amongst a CGI cacophony.

But it is in the Russian Doll embedding of realities (with Babydoll descending into her mindscape to find herself, the namesake ‘baby doll’ in the stack) that the purportedly subversive message that critics such as Mendelson and Quigley have applauded is at its most invasive and corroding, where it becomes most evident that Snyder (I hope) did not actually understand how to articulate the themes that he was trying to explore, resulting in an offensively contradictory mess.

Fundamentally, the plot concerns a young woman, nicknamed Babydoll, who is incarcerated in a mental institution after accidentally shooting and killing her younger sister.  Babydoll had been attempting to fend off the physically abusive and sexually predatory advances of her stepfather, but he, unpunished, watches on as she is arrested, and bribes an orderly to forge the signatures that will ensure she is given a lobotomy.  Over the course of the following week, Babydoll finds herself and her fellow inmates taking refuge in the shared fantasy that they are actually trapped inside a bordello, where they must ‘dance’ for the entertainment of their clients.  Guided by Babydoll, who receives instruction from a wizened old man, in this layer of fantasy, the women then regress into a further layer of communal dream whenever Babydoll ‘dances’ to distract the onlooking men, imagining themselves on a quest to gather together a series of totemic ‘keys’ that will ‘free’ them from their entrapment.  These vignettes take the form of something akin to videogame levels – a world war one fight with robots; a samurai showdown; orcs and dragons – and when the item is retrieved the women return to the world of the bordello to continue their escape plan.

Advocates of the film suggest that it can be read as a postmodern feminist statement, because it is in these regressions into themselves that these women find a power that defies the dominance of the men who physically hold them down.  In such a reading, these women are attempting to escape their exploitation at the hands of a corrupted social structure that allows men to dominate the sanctity of a woman’s legal rights and autonomy (Babydoll was committed because she fought back against a brutal rapist, and is condemned to receive a lobotomy to shut her up), a gender politics that allows them to be sexually exploited at will (a kind reading of the narrative suggests that they must ‘dance’ for men’s entertainment; a more accurate reading reveals that they are being repeatedly raped by the orderlies who are running a makeshift slave-brothel), and even a media that reduces them to pretty faces that can kick ass in tight leather and school-girl outfits for the entertainment of a movie-going audience (those in the audience who came to watch Snyder’s film).  They do this by looking deep within themselves for a space that these patriarchal systems cannot touch, and by using the power that they find in this private recess to their advantage.

Now, if the point of this fiction was to argue that there is, ultimately, no way out of this kind of sexist, abusive cycle, then the film would be making a horribly grim, but consistent message.  It would be presenting a searing – if hackneyed – condemnation of a corrupt worldview that needs to change.  But Snyder attempts to go further, suggesting that there is a way to reclaim individual dignity in the face of such cruelty by playing into its expectation.  Sadly, Snyder’s film ultimately posits that women caught in the web of this debasement need to embrace the ‘power’ afforded to them by their imposed sexualisation, thereby achieving ‘freedom’.  It effectively offers a rather nihilistic message about the need for women to utterly abdicate their sense of self in service of survival.

At every level of the descent down the reality/fantasy slide these women are being dominated and defined by men, and must use these fantasies as a refuge (effectively looking away as they are violated).  In order to escape the horror of being raped in the institution, Babydoll descends into the fantasy of a bordello.  When she is likewise sexually exploited there, compelled to dress provocatively and turn men on with her dancing, she escapes this debasement by withdrawing into a series of computer-generated boss-battles, imagining herself and her fellow captives in sexy costumes.  So even here, in her most private depicted space – the landscape of her own mind and imagination – she and her fellow prisoners are shown to be viewed through a sexualised vision.  Snyder yet again reduces them to objects performing aimless spectacle for the gratification of their viewer.  Babydoll ‘dances’ for both the corrupted orderlies and bordello patrons, but also for the conventional movie-going audience who demand their empty, silky set-piece spectacle.

Snyder claims to take us on a journey into their mindscape to show their independence, the private space no man can enter to defile them, but in doing so he performs arguably the most grotesque violation of all: he distorts their inner imaginative space to be subsumed into yet another male-gaze.  Socially, physically, and (thanks to the film’s intrusion into their dreams) psychologically, they are being reprogrammed to believe that there is salvation and autonomy in such an ideological compromise of self.  Sure, they can be ‘heroes’ – they can control their own destinies – if only they will agree to put on the skimpy schoolgirl outfits and pout in the flare of the explosions.  In pigtails, short skirt, and high stockings, carrying glossy cold steel as she is bent into a sexual pretzel of poses, Babydoll becomes precisely what her nickname suggests: an objectified, sexualised infant being trained to behave.

And this, sadly, is evident in the rather vile ending that results.  Not only is there the clumsy patriarchal reinforcement of having these women delivered their ‘salvation’ by a fatherly figure who tells them what to do in each videogame mission (and who eventually appears as a bus driver in the ‘real world’ to carry the one survivor to freedom), but it is revealed that it is only through embracing these multiple exploitations, giving over bodily and psychologically to the hungry leering of both their narrative and metatextual captors, that these women can see their mission ‘succeed’.

Babydoll’s ‘reward’ for acquiescing to the objectification of her captors is to lose her metaphorical virginity in the dream of the bordello, to have her physical sanctity violated by being repeatedly raped and savaged in the asylum, and then to be robbed literally of her mind – firstly embracing the lecherous fantasy of crass commercial culture by playing a sexy ninjette, and then having that private space decimated anyway by being casually lobotomised.  (In the extended cut apparently she also gets to ’empower’ herself by choosing to sexually gratify the doctor who then goes on to literally cut the last vestiges of her independent personality away.)  But apparently all this sacrifice is a ‘win’ because she managed to help one other woman thread this vile gauntlet to be ‘freed’.

Yes, the film posits that men are weak, exploitative, institutionally-cowardly scum, but where it fails is in its suggestion that the only way women can overcome their enslavement is to actually embrace this grotesque misogynist vision of the world wholly, to become (both body and mind) the object that this debased social structure demands they be in the first place.  If they do so, it says, then maybe – just maybe – by being willing to literally sacrifice themself to this self-immolating pageantry, they can thread the leering gauntlet that would punish their autonomy, and a couple of them might find a nice asexual old bus-driver/spiritual-advisor man who can carry them off to safety.

These victims are shown needing to embrace their infantilisation and sexualisation at every level of their being – and, again, were the movie legitimately about showing how barren and wasteful such vile compromise is, it would have fulfilled its rather nihilistic purpose.  Instead, it chooses to reinforce the merit in embracing this kind of exploitation.  Sure, the majority of these women will be emotionally and psychologically indoctrinated to view themselves through the lens of their oppressors, put on display like dolls, raped, killed and lobotomised like so much cattle, but at least one of them might make it through this nightmare …only to spend the rest of her life traumatised and alone in a world still engineered to reward such ritual cruelty.

By making every male in the film a hysterically overinflated uber-villain, and by reducing the women to sexualised beings that must sell themselves physically and psychologically, Snyder might be deriding the whole process of reducing women to objects, but instead of condemning it outright, he (I hope unknowingly) actually reinforces it.  After all, as the narrative progresses, it is only by having these women embrace the fetishisation of mass market culture that the film disingenuously purports to critique that they are even offered an illusion of autonomy.  And it is in that contradiction – positing that there is independence and supremacy in the act of utterly divesting oneself of selfhood – that the film egregiously falls down, creating an equally damaging illusion of ‘feminist’ power by ironically strengthening all of the hateful misogyny that it claims to deride.

To be completely honest, if, as Mendelson declared in his vehement support of the film, Sucker Punch’s aesthetic titillation and reprehensible message are the ‘nice things’ audiences have denied themselves in future because they were unwilling to celebrate Snyder’s misogynistic snuff film as ‘feminism’, I struggle to feel the loss.  Hopefully, more films will arise that show women embracing their strength, independence and sexuality – not because they have been infantilised or patronisingly danced about like action figures, but because they are being rightly depicted as having every reserve of strength and autonomy that any man has – making the ‘novelty’ of a misguided film such as this a thing of the past.

 sucker punch institution

 IMAGE: Sucker Punch, Directed by Zack Snyder (Warner Bros)

* Mendelson’s celebration of the film gathers pace from the backhanded encouragement of ‘In the end, Sucker Punch is a messy, flawed, and ambitious movie that earns kudos for daring to actually be about something relevant and interesting’ in his original review (http://scottalanmendelson.blogspot.com.au/2011/03/review-sucker-punch-2011.html), to ‘it is a severely compromised and messy picture. But it earns points for being about something genuinely interesting’ in follow-up commentaries, to finally declaring it a ‘masterpiece’ by any conceivable standard, a symbol of everything that should be defended and celebrated in Art, ‘a big budget studio picture filled with provocative and challenging ideas …. creating at least three all-time classic action set pieces …. It is everything we say we want from our mainstream entertainments’ (http://scottalanmendelson.blogspot.com.au/2011/06/why-we-cant-have-nice-things-last-word.html).

** Consequentially, I have very real concerns about how Lois Lane – a character who, over the span of her existence has managed to finally shuffle off a good portion of the helpless, naive damsel-in-distress cliché that hung over her in some of her earliest incarnations – will be depicted in Snyder’s upcoming Superman reboot, Man of Steel.  I would hate to see a self-possessed, capable, heroic woman like the more contemporary Lois likewise reduced to a vulnerable waif, reliant upon a man to show her kindness.

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