Saturday, May 17, 2003

More blog rolling on X2:

I usually don't respond directly to criticisms, because if I'm not careful I get a bit snippy. If I seem that way here, please know that it's unintentional, and that the unwieldy English language has got the better of me yet again.

JW of the blog "Forager" and Seablogger have expressed some disagreement with my interpretation of the "X-Men" universe. Both are very thoughtful and much more knowledgeable than I, thus well worth reading. Still, on one point I take mild exception: Both characterize my argument as basically stating that "X-Men" is about civil rights.

I don't think I ever made quite this point myself. My basic claim was that the series preaches a left-liberal variation on classical-liberal tolerance, and that this variation simply doesn't work. True, the classical-liberal ideal of tolerance is the basis for civil rights, but it's also important for other political issues (the war on terror, for instance).

In my initial post on X2 I did note that at least on the surface the comic seems to be an allegory on racism, which I suppose could lead to the "civil rights" argument. My critics' main objections, however, lay with the following passage:

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.

Because of this passage, my reading has been reduced to the statement that "X-Men is about civil rights." The assumption here is that if Gays respond so favorably to the comic, it must mean that the comic reflects a Gay civil rights agenda. Now, from my perspective as a former Gay rights activist, it doesn't seem that way to me at all. The fact that Gays -- and especially Gay men -- have appropriated the comic indicates to me precisely the opposite (that "coming out" scene in X2 notwithstanding). Frankly, the Gay rights movement has been a notoriously lousy sell among Gay men; we'll march naked in the parades and attend the big parties, but we don't seem much interested in politics or legislation. The appeal of Gay rights has always lain more with straight parents, traditional minorities and standard-issue liberals, not Gay men themselves.

Yet civil-rights groups have, I think, either ignored or rejected the comic's ideology, perhaps because if viewed as a straightforward allegory on either racism or civil rights, the comic is deeply problematic. After all, if civil rights were the point of the X-Men franchise, then its overall moral would be something along the lines of "Go slow." This would place the "X-Men" comics, films, TV shows, etc., so squarely and irrevocably on the wrong side of history that they would have lost their audience by now. (As James Baldwin wrote, when William Faulkner famously instructed Southern integrationists to "Go slow," what he really meant was, Don't go.)

Still, JW and Seablogger have convinced me that one important clarification is in order, which, alas, you'll have to take my word on. The mention of "difference" in the above passage did refer to Derrida's famous pun on "difference" and "deference." Because my computer can't speak French, I couldn't put the all-important accent over that first e. Trust me when I say it's supposed to be there.

The bottom line: Inasmuch as my critics contend that the comic reflects a basic crisis in contemporary left-liberalism, I'm much more in agreement with them than they acknowledge. My disagreement, with JW at least, is that he claims X-Men "deals with" this crisis, while I think it embodies it. I hope I've made that point at least adequately in my own posts, as I discuss the films' ideological incoherence and the radical incompatibility of "mutant" and "human" agendas. (On a separate note, this might also explain the importance of X-Men as contemporary left-liberal myth. From a structural-functionalist perspective, the social work of myth is precisely to embody crises and contradictions, containing them through formal narrative rather than logical argument.)

Next up: More mythology with Matrix: Reloaded (yes, I've seen it -- as by now has half the country), and the style-over-substance Down with Love. Speaking of Down With Love, I can't fathom why anyone would wish to remake stale sex comedies from the undisputed nadir of American cinema. Here's hoping it's not as pointless as it appears.

Update (1:00 a.m., 5/18/03): It's not. Until the final reel, when the feminism gets too glum and heavy-handed for comedy, Down With Love is terrifically campy fun, with exuberance and style to burn. If you want to laugh so hard that your sides ache, go see it. I'll write more about it soon.

Update #2 (11:45 p.m., 5/20/03): Dirk Deppey of The Comics Journal not only understood my point, he improved on it. Magneto was right, indeed. And why don't more mutants have those anti-Xavier helmets?

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Tim's "Sight and Sound" Poll: Rashomon

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

A woodcutter enters a primeval forest, and wanders into a maze of light and shadow. As he walks, the camera tracks and swirls around him, moving from a long panorama to a close-up, then back to a panorama within a single traveling shot. People who see this for the first time often wonder how the shot was accomplished Here's how: The camera moves back and forth along a straight track, swiveling as it goes, while the actor playing the woodcutter walks not straight ahead, but in a swooping sideways S curve that parallels the camera rail, turns toward it, crosses it, and finally circles around it. The upshot is that the camera appears to move around the woodcutter, because the woodcutter is in fact moving around the camera.

I tend to view this single shot as a metaphor for what happens in Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon. The film possesses a deceptive visual simplicity, which conceals an equally deceptive complexity. Nothing -- not even the style -- is ever precisely what it seems.

It opens with a traveling priest, sitting under a ruined city gate to keep out of a driving rain. He says to himself, "I just don't understand." He is pondering a murder investigation which has just occurred, and which, he tells us, may ultimately destroy his faith in humankind. We gradually learn the details: A man has been killed, his wife violated, and a bandit captured. The priest saw the man and his wife traveling on a road through the forest; the woodcutter discovers the body (or at least, that's what he claims at first). All accounts of the crime agree that the bandit violated the wife. But was it rape, or was the act consensual? And was the killing a suicide, a crime of passion, or a cold-blooded murder?

At the inquest, the three accounts of the event differ so radically that no one can piece together a coherent history. What's more, these discrepancies cannot be explained away by mere self-interest -- for the bandit, the woman, and the dead man (who speaks through a medium) all confess to the murder. Since the characters appear to choose a deliberate course of self-destructive action, we can only guess that there must be something inscrutable at work, something in the deep recesses of the human psyche that cannot be told, but can, perhaps, be shown.

To the executives at Daiei Studio (who approved the film because it could be made on the cheap), the script seemed avant-garde and baffling. I can almost imagine them asking, "You want to do a flashback within a flashback?" In theory, one flashback at a time is difficult enough to follow, but multiple flashbacks can turn the simplest story into a hall of mirrors. Even in the wildest, most weirdly fragmented American films noirs, studio writers and directors seemed to agree, however tacitly, that this way madness lies. But Rashomon feels so simple, so clear, so uncluttered visually and verbally, that only on the second or third viewing does one become aware of the film's complex, multilayered narrative.

What really distinguishes this film is its use of false flashbacks. Other directors were experimenting with false flashbacks at the time; Alfred Hitchcock used one in his 1950 film Stage Fright, but dismissed it as an unsuccessful experiment. Kurosawa, on the other hand, uses no fewer than five false flashbacks (technically, flashbacks-within-flashbacks) in Rashomon. The only flashback in the film that does not prove false is the priest's, but because he does not witness any part of the crime, his testimony is irrelevant.

Kurosawa's false flashbacks represent a doubly radical gesture, because the attitude throughout world cinema at the end of the 1940s was that cinema had a duty to Truth. Italian neorealists like Luchino Visconti (whose 1942 Ossessione inaugurated the movement), Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica cultivated a documentarian ethos in their films, one which reflected their shared belief that cinema should reflect social reality. Even some American films -- mostly B movies, but not always -- got into that neo-realist spirit, with nonprofessional actors and urban location shooting. (Since the neo-realist movement was closely linked to left-wing Communist agitprop, it didn't last very long in the States.) Still, whether a film was the product of neorealists, the noir mavericks, or classic-Hollywood studio directors, it always presented the camera as an arbiter of objective truth. If filmmakers disagreed about what the truth was or ought to be, they still believed that the camera ought to be faithful to it. Characters may lie -- that is, their words may lie -- but the camera as objective eyewitness must be ever true.

Until Rashomon, that is. In this film, the camera takes a radically different role -- not as a witness to truth, but as an expression of a character's voice. The camera shows us precisely what the characters describe, no more and no less. It is selective, and because the selection is a function of the subject, it is also subjective. This film raised the earth-shattering possibility that cinema could deliberately lie to us -- that it could distort truth as easily as any other form of storytelling.

It's tempting to speculate that Kurosawa's experience in postwar Japan could have led him to this pessimistic conclusion about narrative cinema. Certainly when we look at blatantly propagandistic films from Germany, Russia, or the United States, it's fairly easy to notice film's immense power to fabricate or distort events. With Japan's brief and devastating transition in less than a decade from imperial power and dictatorship, to subject nation and democracy, Kurosawa must also have had a radical sense of uncertainty -- a sense that the social order and all the old verities were pretty much up for grabs.

Yet we can't pin these characteristics of Rashomon entirely on the postwar Japanese mood, for the same pessimism and sense of uncertainty are present in Ryunosuke Akutagawa's 1922 short story "In a Grove," the main source of Kurosawa's film. Still, the film transposed the story's epistemological uncertainty to the cinematic image, adding yet another level of possible deception. We know that what we hear or what we read is no longer identifiable as true; it is subject to revision at best, falsification at worst. Now we can't believe what we see, either.

Akutagawa's story ends abruptly with the dead man's testimony. In contrast, Kurosawa chooses to close his film on a note of hope. Some critics have seen this as a cop-out, a false moment in an otherwise bleak indictment of humankind. Ultimately, I don't feel that way, if only because I believe Albert Camus's dictum that at the very least art ought to give us a reason not to kill ourselves. And if truth and reality are ultimately beyond our reach, and if we humans are perversely compelled to lie even when it is not in our best interest to do so, then foundationalist philosophy is ultimately a sham -- along with all of the certainty that goes with it. Can you, gentle reader, live with that? And if you can, how do you do it? Of course, you could just go ahead and kill yourself, as Akutagawa did. But for Kurosawa, who I find (along with Satyajit Ray and, in a very different way, Federico Fellini) one of the most intensely life-affirming filmmakers in world cinema, suicide is just a bit too easy.

Instead, Kurosawa focuses on action and moral choice. The characters in this film may not know truth from falsehood, and perhaps they can never know. But when the woodcutter hears a baby's cry, he does not abandon the child, or rob it (as a man has already done before him, and as the woodcutter may have done to the dead man in the forest). Instead, he chooses to bring the child home and raise it. The point is fairly clear: Even though this woodcutter, as one who shares in the human condition, cannot know truth or reality, he can at least know goodness and act on that knowledge. That the woodcutter may act partly out of shame does not diminish the nobility of his action, and the priest claims that it might even be enough to restore his own flagging faith in humankind.

Still, Rashomon must ultimately be seen as a question, not an answer -- and as with most moral tales, the question boils down to: What, in this situation, ought one to do? Rashomon attempts to provide a provisional answer in simple altruism, but the answer feels unsatisfactory to most viewers because it is so obviously provisional. In this case at least, I think this answer is preferable to no answer at all, because it points toward a theme which Kurosawa would explore in his future work. His next great film, Ikiru, would address the basic question of morality in more depth, coming up with a less provisional answer. Yet even in his final film, Madadayo (translated, "Not Yet"), he's continuing his search.

I mentioned in one of my earliest posts that I created my ten-greatest list from films which I see as foundational. Few films have had a greater influence than Rashomon. First and most obviously, when cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa pointed his camera directly into the sun, thus producing the first deliberate use of lens flare in motion-picture history, other directors copied the idea immediately. More than half a century later, it's become such a staple of cinematic language than even animated cartoons and CGI effects reproduce lens flare for greater "realism." Never mind that lens flare is a product of the camera and not the naked eye, and thus in an absolute sense it's about as artificial as you can get. The point is that lens flare signifies realism.

Many contemporary films are either a remake of Rashomon or so close to one that Kurosawa could legitimately claim co-writer's credit. Still, there is only one acknowledged American retread that I know of, a mid-1960s Western called The Outrage. But uncredited homages include documentaries like Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line and fiction films like thirtysomething creator Edward Zwick's Courage Under Fire. (Alas, both of these films ultimately give us an authoritative truth, rather than leaving us to ponder the larger human condition; they are detective stories, not meditations.) However, the greatest impact of Kurosawa's philosophical stance has been not on our films, but on our legal system. Even today, lawyers and judges will speak of "the Rashomon effect," in which multiple eyewitnesses to the same event offer radically different, irreconcilable accounts of what happened.

For taking epistemological uncertainty into the cinematic image, for changing the role and position of the camera, and for exploding our naive belief in the power of cinematic narrative to present objective truth, I've placed Kurosawa's Rashomon on my ten-greatest list. Next in this series comes a much more postmodern concoction, a film about film entitled A bout de souffle.

Monday, May 12, 2003

Blog Rolling

Seablogger has taken up the X2 gauntlet, by noting that X-Men villain Magneto is Jewish, and that his character may indicate the comic's latent left-wing bias against Zionism as well as individualism. (Scroll to the fifth paragraph for the real meat of the essay.) I'm not sure that I buy the argument entirely; I hold that the "X-Men" series reflects conventional left-liberal ideology, not Chomsky-esque radicalism. But Seablogger's objection is legitimate. This is well worth a look, folks.

Sunday, May 11, 2003

More movie reviews: Russian Ark, Better Luck Tomorrow, A Mighty Wind, Identity

I've seen several films over the past few weeks, many of them quite interesting. So why have I spent so much time on the latest "X-Men" movie? Because you, gentle reader, are more likely to have seen X2 than the films I'm about to review, and thus you're more likely to read my posts and give me interesting feedback. Still, three of the films reviewed below are more entertaining than the usual fare of comic books and kung-fu fighting. If you can find these movies, see them. You'll thank yourself for it.

Russian Ark: Everyone agrees that Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark is technically brilliant: This 96-minute film, a tour of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, was filmed in a single take -- making it the longest unbroken shot in the history of cinema. (Take that, Trivial Pursuit.) Some critics have asked if the film really has any substance underneath its flash. I think it does, though to understand it you have to have a sense of what the Hermitage represents. This palace is a vestige of the czars' wealth and power, which the Soviets carefully preserved as an art museum and a historical site. Sokurov's film explores this unique space, with the help of a 19th-century French diplomat who occasionally answers to the suggestive moniker "Europe."

Only a single, unbroken shot can adequately convey the size and scale of the Hermitage. But Sokurov's tour also gives him a chance to inquire what will become of Russia as a national polity, now that the old Soviet Union has fallen. Will it revert to the authoritarian rule of the czars? Will it look to Europe for political guidance? Could Europe provide that guidance if Russia asked for it? This film expresses a deep sense of uncertainty, one which most Americans are unlikely to notice (unaccustomed as we are to political instability), but which is stated here as openly and directly as a film can state anything. Several images in the grand finale resemble the first motion picture footage ever shot in Russia -- a record of Czar Nicholas II's coronation in 1896. I don't know if this was intentional, but Sokurov is such an intelligent filmmaker that I'm willing to consider the possibility.

I have mentioned on several occasions that Russian Ark, not Chicago, should have won the Oscar for Best Editing. No one took me seriously, but I meant what I said.

Better Luck Tomorrow: MTV Films picked up director Justin Lin's debut feature, hopefully in atonement for Jackass: The Movie. It's a shoo-in for year-end top ten lists, but don't let that intimidate you: This is terrific entertainment, with unforgettable characters and an exciting story. Lin has concocted a whodunit of sorts, only you never quite know who's going to do what, and to whom. Young Asian-American unknowns portray high-school honor students who engage in petty crimes, binge drinking, illicit sex and drug use, all to offset the boredom and pressure of being conspicuously high achievers. We never see parents in this film, because, as the protagonist explains, as long as students "make the grade" their parents presume they're just fine. (Parents ought to see Better Luck, if only to find out what those dear little honor students they tout on their bumper stickers are up to behind their backs.)

It looks as though Lin made several major changes in the ending between the film's Sundance premiere and its theatrical release. The new ending is less cynical and more conventional, although it's still plenty disturbing. But I think I would have preferred the film's original, more ruthless appraisal of its characters' choices. Better Luck Tomorrow is rated R, because MPAA policy requires that any film which truthfully and/or insightfully portrays the lives of young people must be placed out of their reach. Take heart, teens, because this movie is well worth sneaking into.

A Mighty Wind: Few things are sadder to me than a bald man with a ponytail. Christopher Guest's new "mockumentary" A Mighty Wind is full of them. Basically, this film attempts to do for folk music what Guest's earlier This Is Spinal Tap did for heavy metal. But, alas, A Mighty Wind labors at a mighty disadvantage: The exuberance and stupidity of metal are riper targets for satire than the button-down mindset of early-'60s folk music. Still, despite some obvious staging and one major lapse in logic (as a friend reminded me, a televised concert would have a dress rehearsal, so that any problem could be resolved well in advance), Wind has more than its share of hilarious moments and spot-on parody. It's funnier, more consistent, and, surprisingly, more poignant than Guest's other self-directed mockumentaries, Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show. By the way, Wind's brilliant title tune contains the most subtly subversive fart joke outside of Melville's Moby Dick. Let's hope Oscar notices it next year.

Last and certainly least, a special dishonorable mention goes to the execrable John Cusack / Ray Liotta B thriller Identity, already in wide release. It starts out as a fun little mystery on the order of The Old Dark House or And Then There Were None. Then, without warning, it turns into precisely the type of psychological mind-game that Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman so recently lampooned in Adaptation. I don't want to review Identity, I want to spank it. Blecch.

Update (11:40 p.m.): A loyal reader writes, "Moby Dick has a fart joke?" No, this loyal reader isn't always the same guy, and yes, Moby Dick has a fart joke. In the very first chapter, Melville writes, "For as in this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim), so for the most part the Commodore on the quarter-deck gets his atmosphere at second hand from the sailors on the forecastle." As Melville maven Hershel Parker has often noted, the "Pythagorean maxim" is a proscription against eating beans, because they will make you fart. Hence the reference to "winds from astern" (in other words, from the back). Now imagine, as Melville does, the highfalutin' Commodore, commander of the ship, standing behind these windy sailors and inhaling their fragrant, second-hand "atmosphere." The thing I love about Moby Dick is that it starts out rude and just keeps getting ruder.

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