Saturday, May 10, 2003

We'll just keep talking about X2 until the Matrix sequel comes along

A loyal reader weighs in on X2, then I respond. Warning: This post, unlike my first post on the film, is chock-full of what people call "spoilers." If you're one of the handful of people who haven't seen this film yet, you may want to stop right here.

The letter: I just returned from seeing X2 and thought I would jot down some ideas.

1. The movie can clearly be interpreted as the mutants being gay. Why won't they accept us? Can't we just get along? Wouldn't the world be a better place if we all loved each other? The fact that some mutants can pass as human is similar to the whole gay issue. Unless a guy is wearing a feathered boa or dressed as Marilyn Monroe we all look pretty much alike. Of course some of the mutants don't look like us, they look like -- well, they look like mutants. So maybe they are not gay, maybe they are black. Maybe they are gay black guys. It's hard to tell.

2. Another possible theme is eugenics. If in the future it is possible to improve the species by selecting certain genes then we can create improved humans.(See the movie Gattaca.) Will there be resentment from those of us whose genes were left to chance? Will we be able to compete against these enhanced humans? Is this a step we should welcome or avoid?

3. Another theme is power corrupts. Magneto has the power and he sure doesn't want to get along. He wants all humans dead. Stryker, on the other hand, wants all mutants dead because his son was born gay or mutant or black, well he is just different.

4. If you think of the mutants as a powerful opposing force, another theme could be that there are always groups that we can make peace with and those who want only war.

In summary the movie contains a bunch of diverse themes that don't really hang together in any rigorous sense. Thus my comment that it's just a comic book, but a really good one.

Tim's response: The first point refers to the "liberal-tolerance" preachiness that I think permeates the entire "X-Men" franchise. "Mutants" are different from mere "humans," but humans must learn to tolerate differences within their greater society. But the message of tolerance -- deeply condescending, yet superficially applicable to present-day "issues" like race or sexuality -- falls apart with point four, because many of these "mutant" humans pose concrete, non-metaphysical threats to other individuals.

The villains Stryker and Magneto seem most interested in the prospect of eugenics, in the sense that both attempt to kill all persons who don't fit their genetic profile. This ties points two and three, in a way. Still, I'm not sure that the film truly believes that power corrupts: Professor Xavier is the most powerful of the "mutants," yet he is depicted as basically benevolent.

I'm not convinced he is, though. The film's set of signifiers indicate that we should approve of Xavier and disapprove of Magneto, and in this respect, the exchanges between them represent a false dialectic. Xavier and his fellow teachers constantly advise their "mutant" students to conceal their differences. The "good mutant" Storm rebukes a child who sticks out his tongue -- not because the gesture is rude, but because his tongue is forked. And Xavier stages a full-blown intervention when the student Pyro attacks a bully, telling him, "The next time you feel the urge to show off, don't." (In other words, whatever you do, don't fight back.) Magneto, on the other hand, does not advise fellow "mutants" to hide. He seems genuinely curious about Pyro's unique abilities, and tells him, "You are a god among insects. Never let anyone tell you differently."

It's no accident that the imperious Xavier is headmaster of a "school for the gifted." Any intelligent, "gifted" student in a typical public high school can tell you that their teachers often required them to repress their intellectual gifts for the sake of some greater, metaphysical "collective good." By the same token, many Gay students are encouraged, even commanded, to conceal their budding sexuality (even though their Straight colleagues are under no such proscriptions), because many school administrators believe the presence of openly Gay students would disrupt the classroom community. In the end, I suspect WWF wrestler The Rock best expresses Xavier's educational philosophy: "Know your role and shut up."

For my part, I wish that, when I was a teenager, I had met more people who told me that my abilities and my feelings were worthwhile, not because they might be of service to others, but because they were part of me and I was worthwhile. Magneto's crypto-Nietzschean mention of "gods among insects" may not be quite this ideal message, but it's much, much closer than Xavier's stifling ideology. In the long run, radical individualism seems healthier than self-effacing "duck-and-cover" accomodationism, and it certainly takes less of a psychological toll on the individual involved.

Frankly, I can't reconcile this critique of the film from a "mutant" perspective with my earlier critique from a "human" perspective -- which brings me back to the main point of the earlier critique. The individual-vs.-others conflict is resolvable in the real world because of the classical-liberal doctrine of tolerance. Yet that doctrine holds only if an individual's presence doesn't lead to a concrete infringement on my own person or property. If you're Straight and you live next door to me, your being Straight won't affect me, and my being Gay won't affect you -- and if you believe it might, you're probably not as Straight as you think. If, on the other hand, you have bubonic plague, SARS, or some other highly contagious, potentially fatal disease, your presence next door affects my life very much, and I can't simply tolerate it. Thus, tolerance in the real world has its limits.

The problem with the "X-Men" franchise is that it claims liberal tolerance should have no limits whatsoever. This is a recipe for suicide, not freedom.

Wednesday, May 07, 2003

Tim's "Sight and Sound" poll: Citizen Kane

This is Part VIII of an ongoing series. To read Part VII, click here.

No film before or since has managed to make quite as much out of lighting and shadows as Orson Welles's Citizen Kane. As with Jacques Tourneur's Cat People a few years later, the secret isn't in what Welles shows, but in what he doesn't show. A mansion's great hall is comprised of a warehouse-like soundstage, a couple of props and a single source of light. A library's cavernous reading room and a political rally are presented in the same manner. The nursing home where Joseph Cotten smokes furtively is evoked with rear projection, as is a lush, tropical landscape late in the film where the protagonist picnics with his second wife. (In that landscape you can even see a flying pterodactyl, left over from the stock footage Welles used to create the shot.) All of these things give Citizen Kane the feel of echoing grandeur and empty magnificence. Yet the film cost only about $800,000 to make, no more than a typical "A-picture" of the time.

Of course, Citizen Kane is anything but typical, employing all the resources of a Hollywood studio (RKO) to create its illusions of wealth and power. It's no accident that Welles got his start in Expressionism, apprenticing at Dublin's famous Gate Theater and directing for the WPA. Every trick in a stage director's playbook, and even a few tricks not yet in wide use, gave Welles's films that trademark "black-chenille-and-rhinestones manner," as James Agee called it. In Kane, concealed camera wipes switch from shots of full-scale sets to miniatures and back again, giving the illusion of one continuous movement through an enormous space. Gregg Toland's famous "deep-focus" cinematography, which also emphasizes spaciousness, proves on closer inspection to be the product of special-effects shots, projections, and false-perspective sets. Welles employs more stock footage to show the exotic spectacle of Kane's mansion, and in order to duplicate the well-weathered look of an actual newsreel, he and cinematographer Toland actually dragged film footage across the RKO studio lot. Deliberate dissolves and unusually low camera angles gave the film a "visible style" that was anathema to classic Hollywood cinema. Previously, only German Expressionism and Soviet montage theory had striven for such self-conscious technique, and neither dared to use it for its own sake, as Welles did.

Yet the razzle-dazzle fakery has a point. The subject of the film, a millionaire news magnate played by Welles himself, is full of his own razzmatazz, and the film basically consists of one anonymous reporter's quest to discover what lay beneath all that bluster. The reporter leads us to believe that his inquiry hinges on the dying Kane's last word -- "Rosebud" -- which might, perhaps, provide some greater insight into Kane's multi-faceted character. Jorge Luis Borges gives the best possible summation of what follows: "Overwhelmingly, endlessly, Orson Welles shows fragments of the life of the man, Charles Foster Kane, and invites us to combine them and reconstruct them." The effect is like contemplating a series of postcards, or any random accretion of images and articles -- not a plot, per se, but the raw materials by which one might construct a plot, if one chooses. Welles's staging, with its formal, geometric placement of actors and long scenes uninterrupted by "cuts," reinforces the meditative qualities of memory.

Andre Bazin, godfather to the French New Wave, was especially impressed with the stability of Welles's visual field, preferring his cool, distant two-shots and flowing camera movements to more typical "champ-contre-champ" (literally, "field-against-field") montage-driven editing. Although Welles's later, low-budget films -- Chimes at Midnight being the best example -- would employ this style of editing quite extensively, montage is not particularly important to the artistic strategy of Kane. Montage suggests the dynamic clash of images and ideas; Kane, a film about memory, relies more on the sense of stasis.

It's difficult to imagine the fractured narratives of B crime pictures (also known as "film noir") without Citizen Kane. Films before this one generally told continuous stories in roughly chronological order. Nothing -- or at least, nothing in the cinema -- could have prepared audiences for Kane's radically disjointed narrative. Here, truth ultimately depends on the teller, so our intrepid reporter picks up as many different versions (or revisions) of the central character as there are witnesses. The picture of Kane we acquire from Walter Thatcher's written autobiography is very different from what his college pal Jedediah Leland tells us. In turn, Leland's vision of Kane differs from his business associate Bernstein's, or his second wife Susan Alexander's. None of these people are lying to us. Nor is the camera lying, for that matter. All onscreen events are presented in a recognizably objective fashion, and nothing the camera shows us is explicitly contradicted or repudiated. But in all of these disparate accounts something vital seems missing, something that would allow us -- and the reporter who serves as our surrogate -- to identify the essence of Kane's character.

We are led to hope that this vital thing might be "Rosebud," and in the film's final minute we see this object of desire at last. It proves a crushing disappointment -- nothing more than a child's sled. The reporter never finds this artifact, so the identity of "Rosebud" is information to which only we, the audience, are privy. Ironically, far from resolving the many conflicting narratives of Kane, "Rosebud" simply throws them into further confusion. And this last bit of knowledge is lost as unthinking workers consign the sled to the flames.

Now, more than sixty years later, "Rosebud" is a cultural in-joke, and the film's most innovative formal characteristics (overlapping dialogue, tilted cameras, non-linear narrative) have become commonplace. Yet Kane still has the power to rattle and unnerve, to keep us disoriented and unsettled. Borges explains the reason as well as anyone ever has or could: "In one of Chesterton's stories ... the hero observes that nothing is so frightening as a labyrinth with no center. This film is precisely that labyrinth." We can't say we haven't been warned. After all, the film's opening shots pan down a chain-link fence to a sign that reads "No Trespassing." This touch seems a bit of playful ballyhoo, as if Welles were enticing us to taste the forbidden knowledge of a Charles Foster Kane. In the finale, when we see this sign again, it is an existential statement: "No trespassing," not because such a thing is forbidden, but because it is impossible. The insight we seek is denied us; our inquiries have been thwarted at last. Not only does the labyrinth have no center, it may not even have a way in.

Citizen Kane can be classified as a "realistic" film, inasmuch as we can presume the camera records onscreen events accurately and faithfully. The next film in this series, Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, will take the epistemological uncertainty of Citizen Kane directly into the cinematic image, so that the motion-picture camera can convey as much ambiguity and untruth as the characters under its purview. Welles isn't quite so radical in Kane, but he's definitely leading us in that direction.

Roger Ebert considers Citizen Kane the greatest film of all time, and as much as I would hate to claim any movie as the best ever, he makes a very solid case for this one. The recent 2-disc DVD edition from Warner Brothers would be worth owning even if it only contained his audio commentary. So for the film's fragmented narrative, its self-conscious style, its theatrical grandeur and epic scope, the Bernard Herrmann score (his first and possibly his best), and too many other reasons for me to list fully here, I've placed Orson Welles's Citizen Kane on my ten-greatest list.

Tuesday, May 06, 2003

X2 and the Limits of Tolerance

If films like X2: X-Men United herald the death of cinema, at least the cinema is going to leave a good-looking corpse.

Frankly, what I admired most about the first X-Men movie was its relatively modest scale. It set up a diverse cast of wacky characters with efficiency and even a bit of flair; in this respect, it had all the virtues of a respectable sitcom pilot. Moreover, the film learned a lesson from The Ox-Bow Incident, or any number of John Wayne westerns: If you can't write three-dimensional human beings into your story, the next best thing is to have a lot of two-dimensional stock types. This way, even though these types don't have interior mental processes of their own, they at least have each other to interact with. Call this a "Sims-screenplay" approach to character.

Well, X2 promises more of what we got in X-Men, and the picture delivers -- dear God, does it deliver! It has the same exhausting, exhausted quality that I've seen in far too many summer blockbusters, where the object is to deliver bigger explosions and more cataclysmic climaxes. As cataclysms go, X2 leads up to a real whopper: If our heroes don't succeed, every genetically mutated human being will die -- and possibly every other human being along with them. In this post-9/11 world, can fantasies of global annihilation really be touted as escapism?

The film has two major assets in trained thespians Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. McKellen in particular seems to know just what kind of a film he's in (or at least what kind of film he should be in), and doesn't take himself seriously for so much as a moment. I could always count on him to mouth campy, sarcastic wisecracks -- many of them, I suspect, ad-libbed -- over any latent absurdities in the screenplay. Stewart, on the other hand, is all gravitas. He could read the phone book in that stentorian voice of his, and make it spellbinding; in fact, he very nearly does so. Both are much better actors than this sort of fare demands or deserves, but I'm glad to see them here anyway.

Other than that, the film has all the qualities of a contemporary action blockbuster. The score is loud and portentous. CGI effects are grossly overused. Fight scenes have an overdone, chop-socky quality. Character development is strictly on the level of an afterschool special. Dialogue is reduced to an exchange of slogans. Interesting plot threads are left dangling in mid-film. Sometimes I can't figure out who just blew up whom, and even more often I can't figure out why.

So instead of focusing on plot, I decided to mull over a philosophical conundrum which the film evades at nearly every turn. The X-Men comics and films all come with a fair amount of preaching on liberal tolerance. Humans and "mutants" need to get along together, they say. This is meant to be an allegory on racism, I think, but if so, it's an incredibly condescending one. After all, precisely who gets to be called "human" in this particular dyad? Aren't all of the characters technically "human," whether mutated or not? And why does no one ever get to speak such a heresy in the X-Men / Marvel Comics universe? These quibbles aside, the comics found an appreciative fan base not among traditional racial minorities, but among Gays, who enjoyed the messages about difference, but really loved sculpted bodies with tights that bulge in all the right places and none of the wrong ones. (You never see a fat X-Man; perhaps "mutants" have an uncommonly high metabolism.)

Still, the main problem I have not just with X2, but with the entire "X-Men" franchise, is that it preaches accomodation and tolerance toward people who are much too dangerous to be left on their own. The young girl Rogue can drain life with a touch; hunk-hero Wolverine shoots knives from his body; teenage boys Pyro and Iceman can burn and freeze anything around them; Storm can make her own weather, including severe thunderstorms and tornadoes; Professor Xavier can kill the entire human race with a thought. Now if I were an unmutated, defenseless human, living in a world of superpowered X-Men, I don't think I'd sleep very well, even with the knowledge that some of these characters were ostensibly on "my" side. Maybe they are, maybe they're not, but they're simply too powerful for me to tolerate them, let alone trust them.

The "tolerance" compact, in a nutshell, is this: If you leave me alone, I'll leave you alone. Now, when human beings acquire too much power over their neighbors, tolerance flies right out the window -- because if you can't leave me alone, I can't exactly leave you alone either. This is why, although we Americans will allow private citizens to own a gun, or several guns if they choose, we won't allow them to have nuclear missiles and powdered anthrax buried in the backyard. Such superweapons exceed any requirement for personal defense, and pose a clear and present danger to everyone else. Thus, any citizen who possesss these things is by definition unable to leave his neighbors alone, and cannot be simply "tolerated."

In a similar manner, hypothetical "X-Men" with powers over weather, over thought, even over life and death on a global scale, are also unable to leave their fellow human beings alone. So I see no reason why anyone, especially governmental authorities, should leave them alone in return.

From my perspective, the entire premise behind X-Men, comics and movies alike, seems fatally naive; its incoherence is apparent even on cursory examination. As we've learned over the past year and a half, liberal democracy is accepting and diverse, but not suicidal.

Update (5/6/03, 9:45 p.m.): A loyal reader writes in to say, "It's just a comic book." Fair enough, and I agree. There's a reason we don't look to comic books or blockbuster movies for social critique. But when a comic book or a film attempts to provide social critique -- even if it's facile, elementary stuff -- I don't think it's unfair to take the thing apart and question it. Perhaps the X2 movie would have been more entertaining had it questioned its assumptions, too.

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