Tag Archives: action cinema

Avenging The Avengers, Part Two

Critical Disconnect

Shattering Bifrost in Thor

The claim that the superhero genre is not inherently moronic, implicit in my first post on The Avengers, is still a contentious one, even after not only some 35 years of modern superhero movies, but also 30 years’ worth of “Hey! Comics Aren’t Just for Kids Anymore!” headlines in the popular press. The association of superhero comics and children is one reason why comics have such a tenuous First Amendment status, and that’s just one of many gripes indie comics publishers have with men and women in tights. No matter how many ambitious writers attack the genre, the indie comics intelligentsia has refused to grant superhero comics any legitimacy. That indie comic creators and journalists resent the superhero comic is understandable, given how dominant that one genre is, but their intellectual disdain for it has always struck me as parochial and blinkered.

I congratulate those of us who think about movies for a living for having got past genre-prejudice decades ago; what is dismissing an entire genre but mere cultural politics? (Haven’t any of these people read Bourdieu?)

Yet even if any given classical Hollywood genre gets its due, that doesn’t necessarily mean a contemporary one will get the same. The superhero film gets less respect from film critics than the comics do from literary critics; worse, in fact, in that few film critics display any recognition that anyone anywhere might possibly take superhero narratives seriously. A lot of this has to do with literary bias operating on various levels. Contemporary film critics still have little regard for action films, or other sorts of predominantly visual cinematic forms. As Jack Smith put it, “Film critics are writers, and they are hostile and uneasy in the presence of a visual phenomenon.” Dialogue scenes they understand; visual style they do not; spectacle they are actively hostile towards. Then it’s on top of that we have to add in a distrust of the source material, seeing it as the most crotchety Comics Journal scribe does: puerile wish-fulfillment fantasies for acne-scarred boys of all ages. Both the indie-comics proselytizers and most movie reviewers share a bias to literary naturalism, and the sight of costumed heroes against the backdrop of the outlandish spectacle endemic to the genre preempts any notion of bringing any real critical acuity to bear. Andrew O’Hehir, in his “Will Superhero Movies Never End?,” provides an ideal example of this: “the pretense of mythic grandeur can’t stand up to the fundamental teenage-boy, men-in-tights silliness of the whole enterprise.” In one swipe, O’Hehir dismisses the movie under examination, without ever looking closely at it, simultaneously waves away literally mountains of serious work in the genre, and congratulates himself for doing so. In this context, sweeping, reductive generalizations and willful ignorance are put forth as proof of the fact that he is a mature adult and fans of the film must not be.

What could anyone possibly find silly about this picture?

When they actually do talk about the film, the harshest critics of The Avengers end up falling back on clichés about blockbusters that have been circulating since the 1970s, and which have been substantially discredited in serious film scholarship. This is what I want to write about here: it’s banal and obvious to claim that film critics are out of touch with mass tastes; not necessarily wrong, but not necessarily salient, either. (Plus, O’Hehir is waiting for it, having tried to preempt anyone who would “render any and all detractors as pipe-smoking William F. Buckley squares, defending a nonexistent Establishment.”) It’s a bigger problem when critics are out of touch with scholarship on film, and because of intellectual and taste prejudices are unable to adequately engage with the film under discussion.

For some, the continued rude health of the superhero film goes beyond “professional cross to bear” into “psychological torture.” Every summer sees another film critic bemoaning the continuation of the genre, even as a) the general moviegoing public persists in ignoring Bela Tarr or Jafar Panahi, and/or b) the studios continue not to mount saturation releases for the likes of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia or The Mysteries of Lisbon. Really, this is one of those things that reminds one of the continuing relevance of Andrew Sarris: in critics at the Chicago Reader, LA Weekly, and the Village Voice, as much as in any long-forgotten curmudgeons of Sarris’ day, we see the lingering shadow of the “forest critic.” “It is the system he blames for betraying the cinema…. Somewhere on the western shores of the United States, a group of men have gathered to rob the cinema of it’s birthright. If the forest critic be politically oriented, he will describe these coastal conspirators as capitalists. If aesthetically oriented, he will describe them as philistines. Either way, an entity called the cinema has been betrayed by another entity called Hollywood…. The forest critic cannot help wondering what would happen if these buildings [movie theaters] were consecrated to what he considers to be genuine art.” The issue is not whether or not more people should see films by Tarr, Panahi, Ruiz, or Ceylan- of course they should. When Dan Kois wrote “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables” for the New York Times Magazine, his diatribe against having to watch art films, complete with sideswipes at the snobbery and/or hypocrisy of those who profess to genuinely take pleasure in them, others were quick to rush to the defense of demanding cinema, as well they should. When it comes to the reverse, though- to defending the superhero movie or other blockbusters against critics who seem as unable to come to grips with them and what they are trying to do as Kois is with Tarkovsky- we are left with shrill internet crazies who not only don’t make particularly persuasive arguments, but tend to confirm the worst stereotypes of fanboys and philistines. The problem with Kois’ piece in the first place was it seemed to reassure people that they shouldn’t have to make an effort to understand things, and that people who claimed to were probably just poseurs anyway. But understanding what’s going on, what to look for in Hollywood films, that takes a bit of work too, even if they don’t demand it of you as part of the admission price.

To understand superhero movies, to judge them on their own merits and flaws rather than to wish that they were doing something else entirely, to see what is or is not interesting in a given case, requires an openness and willingness to approach them on their own terms. To quite a few critics, though, everything about The Avengers is to be tolerated at best, bemoaned at worst, and mistrusted above all.  As the culmination of a corporate strategy that has been playing out since the first Iron Man, branded as such right in the title (Marvel’s The Avengers), it got read as a corporate property but not as a film (a political economy reading rather than the poetics it deserved). With at least two more major superhero franchise entries to come in the Northern hemisphere’s summer season, the discontent of these critics has spilled over into an active resistance to eating your cultural nom-noms, with The Avengers taken in some quarters as symptomatic of larger, darker trends.  For A.O. Scott,  it is proof that while the superhero movie is  still “in a period of commercial ascendancy, [it] has also entered a phase of imaginative decadence.” Predictably, Scott praises the dialogue scenes (at which Whedon is undeniably gifted), but doesn’t recognize that the climactic action scene completes the character drama without relying on that dialogue. The unified, coordinated actions of the team as they fight the Chitauri (and the end-credits shawarma-eating, cruelly denied to audiences in my part of the world) resolve their conflicts more elegantly and cinematically than dialogue ever could, showing a fully functioning “family” at last (it’s actually rather sweet on one level). But for Scott, the battle scene is one of “grinding, hectic emptiness,” marked not by what is in fact extraordinarily elegant staging and camerawork, notable for its clarity as well as its kinetic impact, but instead by “bloated cynicism.” In fact, the accomplished craft that has gone into such a scene would seem to indicate anything but cynicism- rather, a sincere effort to make an action scene that is satisfying on multiple levels- but the very idea of talking about an action scene in terms of “levels” would already get me laughed out of Lincoln Center.

The cynicism Scott finds, though, indicates a kind of incredulity that runs throughout a number of The Avengers’ negative notices: they can’t believe that anyone put any genuine artistic effort into this thing, and they can’t believe that any viewer could genuinely, thoroughly enjoy it. Stephanie Zacharek writes, “The idea, maybe, is that people already love Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk and Thor so much — like, so, so much — that all a filmmaker really needs to do is put them all into a big stock pot filled with elaborate set pieces and some knowing dialogue and he’s golden. And maybe, given the heightened-lowered expectations of movie audiences, that really is all he has to do: It’s possible to have looked forward to a movie all year, to enjoy watching it, and then to have completely forgotten about it the following week.” Scott Foundas asks of the enthusiasm for The Avengers, “is that the sound of genuine excitement or merely relief?” For O’Hehir, audiences don’t enjoy the film, they “yearn to believe” it’s enjoyable. You are deluded, for you have convinced yourself you are having a good time; but, so he tells us as he continues the most condescending passage I have read in film criticism in quite some time, to him, “it’s my job — and, I guess, my inclination — to stand outside those tidal currents and view these big spectacles dispassionately.” Audiences aren’t willing to do this, he thinks, and that must be why they like this movie. “To praise the movie lavishly, as so many people have done and will continue to do, basically requires making endless allowances. It’s really good (for being a comic-book movie). It’s really good (for being almost exactly like dozens of other things). It’s really good (for being utterly inconsequential).” At one stroke, O’Hehir dismisses comic books, movies based on them and the sensibilities of the audience for them; they are fannish apologists carried away by their childish enthusiasms, whereas he is able to bring a mature, objective eye to bear upon such farragoes. O’Hehir most obviously manifests what runs just a millimeter further from the surface in Zacharek and Foundas, a version of the “No true Scotsman” fallacy: no audience of clear-eyed grown-ups could possibly enjoy The Avengers, and therefore….

For his part, at least Jim Emerson  admits a personal bias: “I generally find it difficult to care about superheroes and the movies that franchise them.” His gesture of largesse to audiences who do is to quote Leonard Maltin on the Captain Marvel serials having been made for 10-12 year old boys, who naturally excused them a few of the more egregious faults. For anyone else, The Avengers doesn’t have much to offer, and certainly not for serious students of the cinema: “My own hunch is that it’s not going to be subjected to much in-depth critical analysis. Not of its aesthetics, anyway. Somebody might write about how it changed the movie business (if it does), or study the mythology of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” or examine the technologies used in making it, but they’re not going to study the filmmaking, which is serviceable but little more.” Foundas isn’t paying any attention to the aesthetics at all, it would seem, for him to write that hiring directors from TV, like Whedon and J.J. Abrams, “is bringing us a lot of movies that look and feel like big-screen television.” A consideration of TV’s budgetary restrictions and consequent avoidance of large-scale action scenes, the extent to which the stylistic lines between TV and film have been blurring since the 1960s, Whedon’s and Abrams’ indulgence in specifically cinematic techniques precisely in order to mark their films as distinct from their televisual work (the former’s camera mobility, and most overtly the latter’s crush on lens flare), and the sheer scale of their films, all render this the single most absurd sentence written about the film.

Even O’Hehir is willing to grant that Whedon is “one of the most experienced storytellers of our time,” not for his directing but for his writing, for the TV shows he created, produced, and in large part wrote. You would expect more attention to be paid to the writing, then- to his distinctive dialogue, to his working out here of themes to do with quasi-family groups linked by shared responsibilities- but because this is an action-oriented blockbuster, writing is presumed to be, if not irrelevant in the first place, then rendered so by the emphasis on visual spectacle. As when Scott bemoans the way the cleverness of the dialogue is slammed repeatedly into the ground much as the Hulk does to Loki (“Puny words!”), so ultimately the foundation of the harshest criticism here is that leveled at action- and spectacle-oriented cinema in general, and right from the get-go. Zacharek sees it as a film that has “has forgotten that the whole point of reading comic books is for story and character development.” For her, this isn’t any more narratively sophisticated that boys playing with dolls: it’s “a kind of G-8 summit for action figures who have finally been allowed out of their cellophane boxes. They do action stuff, then they talk a little, then they do more action stuff.” The reason the movie is so forgettable, in her estimation, is that action so dominates story that it rips the story apart: “The picture is broken down into narrative chunks that ultimately don’t tell much of a story – what you get instead is a series of mini-climaxes held together by banter between characters.” And banter is not the same as character development. (The thing is, and I know this is a tangent, I can’t help but noting how wrong she is about Black Widow; she writes that “she’s quickly relegated to the superhero back burner,” when in fact she is nearly as much a focal point as anyone else here.)

Foundas echoes Zacharek’s complaint that The Avengers is forgettable: “After two-and-a-half hours of world-threatening chaos and world-saving derring-do, you leave the theater satisfied, but without so much as a single memorable image (or idea) lingering in your mind.” It’s a diagnosis of the film’s problems by way of short-term amnesia: the action so overwhelms any sort of actual storytelling for him, he is unable to remember whether it was there in the first place. O’Hehir, too, is left unsatisfied by the barrage to which he has been subjected: “in trying to cram in enough plot and back story and increasingly incoherent action sequences for at least three summer movies, Whedon never finds a confident or relaxed narrative pace, and the results are exhausting, a picture that pushes three hours and feels like five.” The sensory overload preempts any possible coherence or unity or felicity of storytelling. Rick Gruen is perhaps most explicit in claiming that spectacle robs the film of narrative sense: “Of course, so does the budget and, like every self-respecting blockbuster, this model comes with the expected 3-D bells and CGI whistles – all the costly stuff that is guaranteed to put the lavish into the spectacle even as it seems, inexorably, to drain the sense from the plot and the interest from the characters. Expected too is the result: a kind of sterile opulence or, if you prefer, a magnificent emptiness.” These aren’t even really films anymore, says Emerson; “as we’ve been saying year in and year out about certain kinds of fantasy-action-science-fiction blockbuster attempts since the late 1970s, they’re more like amusement park rides (and they eventually become those, too) than movies.”

This formulation- the narratives fall apart, so these are not movies but rides- is one that has been leveled at blockbusters for nearly 40 years, going back at least as far as Jaws. Writing on the preceding decade for American Film, Morris Dickstein excoriated the post-Jaws blockbusters as “money machines” made with “heartlessly slick technique.” In American Film Now (1979, rev. 1984), James Monaco called it “the Bruce esthetic”: “The Bruce esthetic is visceral- mechanical rather than human.  Films like Jaws that fit it are machines of entertainment, precisely calculated to achieve their effect- at the box office as well as inside the theater.” For the next 20 years, these ideas ping-ponged through both journalistic and academic writing on contemporary Hollywood. Richard Schickel complained in 1989 that “what we get… [in these films] is not narrative as it has been traditionally defined, but a succession of undifferentiated sensations… there is in fact no authentic emotional build-up, consequently no catharsis at the movie’s conclusion.” Because spectacle so dominates the aesthetic of these films, “we are left without consoling coherences of old-fashioned movie narrative, left with anarchy, picking through the rubble it leaves in its wake, wondering what hit us.” Mark Crispin Miller kvetched in 1990 that “today’s American movies work without or against the potential depth and latitude of cinema, in favor of that systematic overemphasis deployed in advertising and all other propaganda.” Peter Biskind opined in 1990 that Lucas and Spielberg had attempted to return to classical Hollywood storytelling, but that “the attempt to restore traditional narration had an unintended effect- the creation of spectacle that annihilated story. The attempt to escape television by creating outsized spectacle backfired, and led to television’s presentational aesthetic.” (Here too invoking television seems at least as much to do with television’s lower currency as with any actual resemblance between TV and blockbusters.) Of course, reviews of individual films rehearsing this old saw are numberless.

Academics took much the same line. For example, in an essay which appeared in Jon Lewis’ 1998 New American Cinema anthology, Fred Pfeil claimed that the classical model of narrative development has been “superseded…by the amnesiac succession of self-contained bits and spectacular bursts.” Timothy Corrigan wrote in 1991’s A Cinema Without Walls that the contemporary blockbuster featured an “extraordinary exaggeration of narrative incident, character-images, and technical form to the extent that the excessive quality of these elements usurps any motivational significance.”  In an essay whose title, and that of the book it appeared in, speak for themselves- “Twenty-Five Reasons Why It’s All Over” in Jon Lewis’ anthology The End of Cinema As We Know It (2001)- Winston Wheeler Dixon described what’s been happening as “the collapse of narrative.” Descriptions of narrative fragmentation have featured heavily in writing by Thomas Schatz (in Film Theory Goes to the Movies, 1993), Justin Wyatt (1994), and James Schamus (in the Contemporary Hollywood Cinema anthology, 1998).

In the popular press, Blockbuster (2004) by one-time Sunday Times critic Tom Shone has been the only serious counter to critical orthodoxy (though the downside is that he doesn’t seem to care at all for art cinema; why do critics persist in thinking there is an inevitable divide on that score?). But in academic film studies, few who engage in the serious study of contemporary cinema still maintain the argument that the blockbuster is hopelessly fragmented anymore. In the same 1993 volume as Schatz, Jim Collins argued that the likes of Schickel and Miller were stuck in 19th century notions of the well-made realist narrative, and that “these technophobic denunciations of media ‘overload’ never even begin to address the distinguishing features of recent popular narratives,” namely that the semiotic excess should be seen as attempting to grapple with that of media-saturated contemporary life. In The Way Hollywood Tells It, David Bordwell showed that while contemporary Hollywood pursues variations on the formal and stylistic paradigms of the classical period, it is still a storytelling cinema, and one in which familiar narrational patterns and devices still hold. Warren Buckland (first in the same volume as Schamus, then in a 2006 monograph) has shown that Steven Spielberg, in many ways the exemplar of the modern blockbuster, nonetheless makes consistently canny use of techniques of narration. While Bordwell reminded us that blockbusters are by no means all that Hollywood makes, Geoff King gave us a sustained look at the interplay, and specifically the interpenetration, of narrative and spectacle in the blockbuster. Quoting Rick Altman, he pointed out that there is no opposition between narrative motivation and spectacle: “Decide which spectacles are needed, then make it seem like they are there for internally motivated reasons.” Hollywood has been doing that for ever. In contemporary cinema, King argued, “The ‘excessive’ quota of spectacle is a source of pleasure in its own right, and one that merits attention as a distinct component in this kind of film. It is rare, however, for spectacular audio-visual display to be unleashed more than fleetingly in Hollywood without bearing some relation to narrative dynamics.” Spectacle needs a narrative armature to have any impact; narration can be deployed alongside spectacle; and, what is an action scene but a culminating moment in a dramatic conflict between a goal-oriented protagonist and an antagonist?

Generally, academia has a reputation as lagging behind the popular press in paying attention to cultural developments. Partly that’s because it takes us a lot longer to get a piece published. When we do, though, there’s at least a chance some of us will get it right, because we’ve had the time and inclination to think about it carefully. It’s been 37 years since Jaws came out, and in that time academics have come a lot closer to the mark on the modern blockbuster than almost any critic has.

Researchable Questions, or, “Almost Exactly Like Dozens of Other Things”?

One thing that both the positive and negative coverage of The Avengers has in common is that few see much worth commenting on, at least not in the film itself (as opposed to, say, The Avengers as Industrial Phenomenon, or The Avengers as Critic-Proof Movie). To some, it does its job extraordinarily well, to others it doesn’t, to still others that job doesn’t deserve any respect to begin with. The end. But I think there is more to be said about it than that, and certainly more than I can say here. Yes, its production and marketing deserve a full-scale exegesis, but there are textual questions too.

For instance:

-What about The Avengers as a Joss Whedon film? Once Marvel set it in motion, this juggernaut has been barreling towards us, fueled by truckloads of cash and seemingly unstoppable. That’s the political economy view again. But here’s another view (the auteurist view, maybe, or even just the neo-formalist view): there was no reason it had to be particularly good. It is, though, and a great deal of the credit for that has to go to Joss Whedon, the writer-director. Whedon is already a fascinating case of contemporary transmedia authorship; how does The Avengers fit into his work? Certainly family dynamics have been at the heart of all of his television work- Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse– just as they are in The Avengers. He has spoken of this as his chief interest in making it: “These people shouldn’t be in the same room, let alone on the same team — and that is the definition of family.”

Themes of family in The Avengers: from estrangement…

…to union.

Nor is that the only recurring element; as Keith Phipps notes in the most perceptive review of The Avengers I’ve read (and, yes, the most enthusiastic), “other recognizable Whedonisms arrive intact, including a distrust of authority that extends to the ostensible good guys and an unfailing ability to switch between effervescent lightness and wrenching emotion.”

What is and isn’t distinctively Whedonesque in The Avengers? Besides his writing, how is he developing as a director of performers and a visual stylist? Compare this to any of Michael Bay’s Transformers films, and the clarity of the action scenes is striking- and well-suited to a team film, where the relative positions of each member are crucially important. Indeed, that clarity, firmly within what the “Intensified Continuity” style, makes The Avengers an interesting case for anyone writing on contemporary film style. It is even something even some critics recognized, like Joshua Rothkopf: “The action scenes—blissfully easy to follow—are where Whedon makes the giant leap into the big leagues.”

Ultimately, where the film is most successful, and here deserving of study, is the way it balances, sometimes toggling between and sometimes bringing together, spectacle and narrative. Richard Corliss writes of this when he says that The Avengers aims not for “transcendence,” only for “the juggler’s skill of keeping the balls smoothly airborne. At that it succeeds.” Phipps, too, singles this out: “The Avengers is big but graceful, carefully balancing small character moments with action scenes that stretch from the New York pavement to the sky and beyond.” He goes on: “Remarkably, given that sprawling cast of characters, everyone gets their due. Yet compelling as each character is in his or her own right, the real pleasure comes from the unstable chemistry of putting them together.”

-What about The Avengers and serial narration? It is nothing new for series films to carry on plot elements from one film to the next, but The Avengers is a complex piece of serial narration, the last element in a series that crosses at least four other franchises (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk; but I would happily go to a Black Widow/Hawkeye movie, too), each of which had their own stories to tell. As a first entry in a separate series cutting across the others, the elements of continuity were not so strong in The Avengers as in The Lord of the Rings, but far more so than, say, James Bond. More episodic than the former and more serialized than the latter, The Avengers felt like the series finale of a TV program balancing episodic and serial narration. Scholars of TV narrative and scholars of film series should have quite a bit to talk to each other about here.

-As when Scott speaks of “imaginative decadence,” O’Hehir sees the superhero film not just as exhausting, but exhausted: “It’s a diminished form that has become formula, that depends entirely on minor technical innovations and leaves virtually no room for drama or tragedy or anything else that might make the story actually interesting.” But I would argue the exact opposite, that the superhero film has now reached maturity, becoming a stable paradigm that can sustain films as divergent and idiosyncratic as Iron Man, The Dark Knight, Kick-Ass, Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers.

Kick-Ass

Iron Man

Thor

From the hyperbolized realism, ultra-violence, and black humor of Kick-Ass, to the looseness and incorporation of improvised character moments of Iron Man 1 and 2, to the combination of Shakespearean theatricality, high-fantasy world-building, and lavishly stylized production design of Thor, the superhero film has achieved as broad a range as its generic constraints (action, spectacle, costumes) will allow, and as rich a body of possibilities as any in contemporary studio cinema. There is much more to be written about how this form has developed and been varied since Superman in 1978.

O’Hehir says that “Right up to the end of The Avengers, I carried with me the faint hope that this really would mark the conclusion of this particular epoch-spanning series of hyperinflated comic-book spectacles.” For me, though, it was quite the opposite. I’m going with Phipps (who maybe I should also say was my videostore clerk when I was in Madison) on this one instead: “just as Star Wars helped bring the dreams of science-fiction fans into the world at large in the ’70s, in the years since X-Men, the distinction between fans and general audiences has gotten thinner and thinner. Maybe that’s what happens in a golden age. “ If this does continue to be a sustained Golden Age for the superhero movie, though, it’s still probably too much to hope that the line between scholars and critics will get thinner too.

References:

Peter Biskind.  Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998

David Bordwell, The Way Hollywood Tells It:  Story and Style in Modern Movies  (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2006)

Warren Buckland, Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster, NY: Continuum, 2006.

Jim Collins, Hilary Radner, and Ava Preacher Collins, eds., Film Theory Goes to the Movies, NY:  Routledge, 1993.

Timothy Corrigan, A Cinema Without Walls: Movies and Culture After Vietnam,  New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991.

Morris Dickstein. “Issues.” American Film, December 1979.

Geoff King, New Hollywood Cinema:  An Introduction, NY:  Columbia University Press, 2002.

Jon Lewis, ed.,The New American Cinema.  Durham: Duke University Press, 1998.

Jon Lewis, ed., The End of Cinema As We Know It: American Film in the Nineties, NY: New York University Press, 2001.

Mark Crispin Miller, ed., Seeing Through Movies, NY: Pantheon, 1990.

James Monaco, American Film Now.  NY: New York Zoetrope, 1984.

Steve Neale and Murray Smith, eds., Contemporary Hollywood Cinema.  NY: Routledge, 1998.

Justin Wyatt, High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood,  Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.

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Avenging The Avengers, Part One

I have seen The Avengers twice so far, and both times it made me happier than any blockbuster has in quite some time.

Given the amount of money it’s made and that it enjoys a 69 on Metacritic, with 3 major reviewers giving it 100 and two more giving it scores in the 90s, it might seem churlish to spend any time criticizing its critics (like those fans of The Dark Knight who were indignant that Armond White brought down its Rotten Tomatoes rating, even though at this point White isn’t worth taking seriously enough to bother with). Of course, the Samuel L. Jackson/A.O. Scott Incident makes it worse: if responding to critics makes even SLJ seem silly, then it’s probably not going to be a very good look for anyone (though, granted, it would be worse if I had been paid millions of dollars to be in the movie).

I’m going to do it anyway, though, not so much out of fanboy dudgeon as to tease out a few issues around the film and its reception.  In doing so, I’m going to bring up some points raised not just by reviewers, but also by friends I’ve spoken about the movie with, namely my friend Kyle. Kyle is not at all hostile to the film- he quite liked it overall- but he raises questions about the position of these films with relation to realism and fantasy that are worth taking a moment to think about. I am also going to tease out a few more issues based on my reactions to it as a reader of superhero comics and as an observer of contemporary Hollywood cinema.

In this first post on The Avengers, I want to address issues around fantasy and reality in the fictional mode of the superhero film, drawing on my ongoing conversations with Kyle. In the second post, I will look more closely at critical response to The Avengers, and end by pointing to a few things about it that I don’t think have received enough attention yet. So with all the usual warnings about SPOILERS being AHEAD (not very specific ones, I don’t think) out of the way, let’s start with the realist, the fantastic, and…

Fantasy/Reality/Spandex, or, Crawdads Over Manhattan!

Kyle quite liked The Avengers, as I say, but he also had some issues with it in terms of the plausibility of the way its central conflicts were played out; at least some of where he is coming from I suspect has to do with his research on videogames and the military-entertainment establishment, which has fostered an interest in military tactics- an unhealthy one, I’d argue, after seeing how distracted he got by tactics, or the lack thereof, in this case.

In Kyle’s defense, his objections aren’t quite so silly as, say, scoffing at the idea of a man who turns into an invulnerable green rage monster.  They are more to do with how conflict is constructed and played out in the genre- not just superhero films, but franchise blockbusters in general; specifically, what he sees as certain weaknesses in the way the central conflict plays out. These are to do with the choice of antagonists; specifically, Kyle objects to the fact that the villains seem to be “depicted in the most idiotic way imaginable.” He’s not talking about Loki, he’s talking about the armies of interchangeable goons, the “entirely killable shock troops of apparently low intelligence” zooming about randomly shooting at people. Is this the best plan they can come up with, Kyle asks: “kill off all 7 billion humans by zapping them 3-4 at a time?” Why don’t these invaders try out some proper tactics- cutting off communication, say, or taking some minimal steps to disable any human response before it can begin, striking at some seat of power rather than zapping passersby?

In other words, Kyle asks, why are the villains so weak? Surely if the villains were stronger, so the conflict would be stronger, the threat to All of Planet Earth! scarier, the suspense more engaging. How can such idiotic invaders be truly threatening, he asks? And if they aren’t, if we don’t feel Earth is properly imperiled, how can we properly be awed by the prowess of our heroes? If the invaders are so unsophisticated in their battle plans, why do we even need Earth’s Mightiest Heroes™? Why can’t a regular old run-of-the-mill battalion or two do the trick? For him, the movie cheats its way around this by having the military be extra-ineffectual: Why is it ONLY the Black Widow’s bullets work, not those of any of the police or National Guard?  In fact, Kyle says, “contemporary hardware would be able to deal a pretty hefty blow to these invaders, even the crustaceans. Mind you, Manhattan would be demolished. But Earth would probably fare just fine.” The Avengers, though, are meant to represent, and be capable of, more; they are “Earth’s last hope- the only thing standing in the way of annihilation and/or slavery. So if the enemy doesn’t pose that kind of threat, then the importance and (ultimately) awesomeness of the Avengers is diminished.”

In one way, this is a fair point: what Kyle is suggesting would at least make for an interesting variation on this sort of narrative. If the military were shown to be highly competent in their response to the invaders, and were still overwhelmed, then the case for the Avenger Initiative is made all the more persuasively. It will be interesting to see how Joss Whedon or whoever ends up writing the sequel manages to deal with what from the outset seems like a very similar kind of threat (from Thanos, Marvel’s blatant Darkseid ripoff- he’s the big scary dude smiling in the end credits). At the same time, of course, one might also respond in this way: Write yer own damn movie! This film had quite enough to accomplish in its 2.5 hours without getting into any cat and mouse thrust and parry on the part of the heroes and villains- it had to bring that team together in the first place, to draw out the conflicts among them but also give them a credible reason to work together. Indeed, as in any team narrative from The Dirty Dozen to Friday Night Lights, the central conflicts are really within and between the members of that team. That has certainly always been true in the comic: fundamental ideological conflicts between team members is what powers the Justice League (recent writers have highlighted deep divisions between the worldviews and approaches of Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman, in particular) as well as some iterations of The Avengers (see for example the Marvel Civil War storyline of a few years back, where Captain America and Iron Man ended up on opposing sides in a conflict over the Superhuman Registration Act; one mini-series playing out this storyline was called Avengers Disassembled). This is not only the nature of these narratives, it is where their potential power lays: in allegorizing the ways that groups where the members all share basic goals must nonetheless always negotiate and renegotiate what unites and what divides them. There is room in there for nuances and complexities that narratives about conflicts between outright foes cannot incorporate. There are a lot of resonances to this premise, particularly around the ways in which it allows for an exploration of family dynamics; I’ll come back to this in part 2.

But Kyle is also touching on a larger issue here, because his argument is that live-action comic book movies are nodding to realism while continuing to operate on the most blatantly fantastic comic book logic, a logic that is never much bothered about the credibility or plausibility of the threat. For Kyle, this is having it both ways, and in the end, effective fiction has to choose one or the other. The retort that superhero fiction has never shown any inclination to do so before may not be enough; a problem is a problem, maybe, whether its in the source material or no. But I would go further: I would say that this is the power of the genre. Yes, superhero narratives, as a genre, have always had contemporary urban life as nearly central to its iconography as men in capes, and so the realism/fantasy binary has always been in its DNA. This might be a contradiction, but on the level of form it’s the central contradiction the genre negotiates, just as Structuralist critics argue that genres exist as rituals to negotiate ideological contradictions in a given culture (law and order versus individualism and the struggle for material advancement in the gangster film, for instance: both valued in the culture but hopelessly at odds).

That constant mediation between realism and fantasy is why the superhero form has established a space in which fantasy can operate in the midst of everyday life. Stories keep one foot in relatable experience, yet the fantasy components allow for broad figurative strokes that can render that experience in vivid metaphorical terms, melodramatic terms that render not just specific anxieties but the subjective, life-and-death emotional experience of them. It is far too simple to read these simply as stories about wish-fulfillment, adolescent wish-fulfillment at that, as those unfamiliar with them tend to assume. Indeed, as the genre has matured (along with the aging of its readership), whatever psychic struggles a given hero experiences has taken center-stage because exploring those is more narratively productive, more engaging to long-time readers, and more resonant with a wider range of life-experiences than wishing you were strong enough not to have to give your lunch money to the bully. In fact, the form embodies melodramatic structures that not only allow superhero comics to deal with specific thematic concerns in specific storylines, but that enables the superhero narrative itself to allegorize aspects of the experience of contemporary life: speed, technology, alienation, sociality, power, etc. This is not only what allows ambitious writers of all sorts to impart depth to their tales of the spandex-clad, but also what gives the superhero story an inherent and powerful surrealism (people like Grant Morrison really push this aspect of it). Nor is any of this specific to the comic book as opposed to the comic book movie; for one thing, given the nature and scale of the events on display in The Avengers, I would argue that Joss Whedon is quite conscious of that surrealism, and most certainly that figurative dimension. One gratifying aspect to the success of the superhero movie for a longtime geek like myself is to see how widely these narratives can resonate.

None of that is to say that the edifice would collapse if writers paid more fealty to military tactics, admittedly. But as in fantasy, it isn’t just that there is a ready alibi to any contraventions of reality the writer feels suits the narrative in any given moment- although that too- but also that the strength of the superhero genre is that it can bypass such details (for details they are) to get to the heart of whatever matter is in front of it. From a dramatic point-of-view, its true that more smart villains (as opposed to smarter villains) would be a twist. For his part, Kyle is willing to take on board the idea that the genre is built around negotiating fantasy and reality, and that therefore a certain level of verisimilitude and detail is left aside; he maintains that what is specifically being ignored in this instance depletes the potency of both the bad guys and the good guys.

For me, though, at the end of the day, if you are second-guessing the hordes of outer-space chariot-riding skull-faced goons in The Avengers, you might be paying attention to the wrong thing- even if its not the fact of them but the fine-grained specifics of what they’re up to.  If you run out of subtext to think about in the battle scenes, you could pay attention to the style- the emphasis on spectacle and the interplay of the realist and fantastic components give filmmaker a tremendous amount of room to experiment with visual style. Or just look at the surrealism of the mise-en-scène, as enabled by the fantasy mode: you are watching a city where enormous crustaceans are swimming through the air. Embrace the defamiliarization.

Kyle, of course, isn’t convinced, and the question he asks is still an important one: “what is the EMOTIONAL raison d’etre of a film like [this] one? And does it accomplish this through amping up the fantastical, or by grounding it?” Neither, exactly, I say: instead by threading the needle between the fantastical and the grounded. How firmly it sutures you will vary, though, and in the next post I will talk about some critical responses to The Avengers from some awfully resistant viewers.

To be continued.

Steven Soderbergh Is Better Than You Think He Is

(Even If Haywire Isn’t)

Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, Haywire, was released at a high point of media interest in the director, thanks to widespread reports on the news of his retirement from film directing at the ripe age of  49- in his prime, in fact. Even if we grant some inclination to critical generosity on account of this, a Metacritic score of 67 is pretty remarkable for an action film, and a laudable result for a director working in the genre for the first time; despite isolated action scenes in earlier films, Haywire is Soderbergh’s first extended foray into the genre. So it was newsworthy when, a few days after it opened, it received a Cinemascore audience rating of D+. Adding injury to insult, it opened in 6th place at the U.S. box office, and to date has grossed just $15 million (IMDb chart 27 January 2012), against a budget of $23 million.

This is quite a change from the norm for new releases of action films, a genre more typically characterized by disdain from critics but enthusiasm from audiences . Why have viewers been so disgruntled by the film? This reaction is not dissimilar from that of those who were upset that Drive isn’t more like The Fast and the Furious. Drive and Haywire don’t have much in common, it’s true, but there is this: neither film is fish, and neither film is fowl. These are not conventional Hollywood action films by any stretch, yet they both have far too much action to fit into the indie/arthouse category they have so much in common with otherwise. Drive, if anything, is easier to get a handle on; its violence comes in short bursts in between long, dreamy interludes studiously recreating the existentialist cool of early Michael Mann. It’s European/arthouse credentials are therefore clear, both in the tone and in the referentiality. Haywire is comparatively action-packed, without the overtly arty pacing or lingering psychological ambiguities of Drive, and without the reverence for old movies. If Drive is fundamentally an arthouse homage to straightforward action and crime films of days gone by, then Haywire is an action film first, but one in which Soderbergh draws on “indie” aesthetics to subvert expectations. The ending is not exactly ambiguous, but it is open enough to be off-putting to action devotees; the narration is legible, but the chronology is non-linear; emotions are downplayed; and the conflict is conveyed in terms that avoid the Manichean overstatement that often feels endemic to the genre. Soderbergh is not parodying or denigrating his chosen genre framework, though; this film is never condescending to the action film, and one is left with little doubt that he could pull off a more straightforwardly commercial film if it wasn’t for the probability that doing so would bore him to tears. If Drive exemplified certain recurring traits of its director, Nicolas Winding Refn- an interest in the laconic, in wide-angle lenses, in violent masculinity- then Haywire, too, is clearly the product of a director who works repeatedly with particular collaborators (here, Lem Dobbs and David Holmes), who shies away from overt, heavily-underlined emotional manipulation, and who has a distinctive, if pared-down and functional, sense of composition and rhythm. Too, Soderbergh’s abiding interest in process, especially in recent work, is clearly visible here.

Even if, like Ocean’s 11, Ocean’s 13 held back some key information for the sake of the punch-line, compared to 11 and 12 it verges on the exhaustive in its elaboration of the team’s interlocked strategies for revenge. K Street focused on the how’s of lobbying to the point of completely ignoring any intelligible ongoing story. The Girlfriend Experience, likewise, eschews linear storytelling in favor of a study of the economic, physical, psychological and emotional exchanges in sex work, a film that is more essay as narrative. Che avoided the epic romanticization of the conventional biopic (and, indeed, the scope of biography) in favor of a detailed study of two revolutions, one that triumphed and one that failed miserably, so as to examine the process of revolution in all its variables and contingencies (leading troops, jungle fighting vs. city fighting, mobilizing political discourses, etc); in that sense it, too, has an essayistic quality.

Contagion generated considerable suspense from a rigorously grounded delineation of a pandemic, its ripple effects, and the range of responses to it, but at the same time, its harshest reviews came from those who seemed to expect something far weepier and more melodramatic, an updating of the Irwin Allen aesthetic that Soderbergh studiously avoided (…like the plague! boom!).

Haywire spends far more time on how Mallory first eludes and then tracks her antagonists, escapes from Dublin, and figures out what’s happening to her and how to fight back- on the processes of espionage, and indeed of fighting, as kinds of work- than it does generating a deep empathy for her.

This need not have been quite such a stumbling block to the film as it turned out to be, but in the event a lack of feeling for Mallory renders the film curiously unengaging. Why this happens goes to the heart of why Haywire fails, but also to what makes this a Soderbergh film, and so to why Soderbergh is so important and so valuable, and why Soderbergh is so frequently misunderstood and underrated, even by critics and cinephiles: he is the most restless, rigorous, and probing experimenter in American narrative cinema today. Nothing characterizes him as a director more than that.

Contemporary action films are largely exercises in fast editing, close framing, and incessant camera movement, whether harnessed to realism (the Bourne films) or to lavish spectacle (Michael Bay). At it’s best, such films are exercises in movement and rhythm played out through editing and cinematography as much as through performance, staging, and stuntwork, and much of the fascination of these films comes from the experience of them as visual music. While audiences have evidently embraced this aesthetic, critics and scholars haven’t, and people ranging from David Bordwell to Matthias Stork have instead called up HK or “classical” cinemas to demonstrate the range of options that other action cinemas have draw upon in contrast to their contemporary-Hollywood Bad Object. In Haywire, Soderbergh attempts to marry the naturalism of the Bourne films with the performer-driven staging and stuntwork of Hong Kong, doing so by casting an actual mixed-martial-arts fighter as the hero, rather than a Matt Damon, say, an actor whose limited abilities require felicitous framing and cutting to impart the illusion of realistic yet physically impressive action. This allows him to stage fight scenes in long takes, and predominantly in long shots, and still achieve exciting results. If at first the pacing and framing seem flat, there is a steady build such that later scenes are as dynamic as anything being made in Hollywood, even as the phenomenal integrity of the profilmic action is maintained (that is to say: the filming respects the reality and continuity of the action unfolding in front of the camera). The problem with casting an athlete, though, is simply this: she can’t act. Worse, she has little or no charisma. This is why stars work so well in genres like this: the film need not develop character in detail, or even do much to make us care about the heroes, because we already know them and care about them from other films. The presence of the star is a kind of storytelling shorthand, because they bring their whole persona to the film, and we bring our knowledge of that persona from all the other films we’ve seen them in. Gina Carano has no such advantage here, and given Soderbergh’s lack of interest in building up the character psychology (which would have been another kind of departure from action film convention, and evidently not the one that interested him), given that we don’t know her, given that she brings none of the things a professional actor can… well, the film does recover from it, but only progressively. As it goes on, our sympathy for her is elicited bit by bit: by reactions to her and the situation from characters we do respond to (be they for her or against her), played by people capable of provoking an immediate viewer response (Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, and Antonio Banderas are instantly repellant; Channing Tatum is likable; Michael Douglas effortlessly calls up an ambivalent response that makes us more nervous for Mallory; and maybe most critically, we care about Bill Paxton within seconds of his first appearance, and that Bill Paxton cares about her makes us care about her too); by our deepening sense of her plight as it develops; and from a direct, brute response to watching bodies in peril. If I was more and more invested in Carano’s Mallory as the film went on, the fact that I didn’t for so much of its length rendered it impossible ever to care very deeply.

Haywire may not completely work, but it does indeed serve as a reminder that there are a whole range of things action films can do beyond what Hollywood does with them now most of the time, and that there are more things to be tried. It’s a failed film for all its virtues, but a fascinating experiment, just as one might say of The Good German (an adaptation of classical Hollywood style in the service of a bleak narrative that is more ‘70s paranoia thriller than film noir) or The Informant! (a nearly unclassifiable film that wrongfoots expectations at every turn and throws any notion of tonal consistency out the window: is it a character study or a thriller parody, or both? a docudramedy, perhaps? seriously, what is it?). That in so many ways it breaks from the game as it is played today is part of why audiences don’t know what to do with it, just as people so often have trouble getting a handle on Soderbergh’s oeuvre in general. What is he? What kind of films does he make? Most directors of his caliber have a more recognizable, idiosyncratic approach (Wes Anderson, for instance, but even P.T. Anderson). Soderbergh’s idiosyncrasy, though, is his uncategorizability. This resistance to pigeonholing is such that even those who recognize the sheer range of the films he makes can’t seem to figure out who he is. For casual, mainstream spectators, Soderbergh is a name known, if at all, from Erin Brockovich and the Ocean’s films, a maker of smooth but a bit off-beat entertainments. They might have liked Contagion, but Che and The Girlfriend Experience baffled them (if they stumbled across them at all), and Haywire left them cold. Closer observers, including a lot of his fans, often like some kinds of films he makes, but not others, and thus look back to some moment in his past career as a touchstone, as a revelation of some “true” Soderbergh underneath all the restlessness. One set of fans lionizes the serious-but-entertaining social problem filmmaker of Erin Brockovich and Traffic, and for them his recent films, for some even including Contagion, are either too cold or too obscure. Another takes him as an indie director who dabbles in mainstream genres, their perception of Soderbergh rooted in Out of Sight and The Limey. Haywire makes sense to them, but Contagion, Che, and The Girlfriend Experience didn’t appeal. I would argue, though, that to understand Steven Soderbergh, you have to understand Schizopolis: you have to understand that Soderbergh is at once an experimenter and a formalist. Schizopolis is as far outside the mainstream as any contemporary A-list director has ever gotten, but it’s not a Romantic burst of free expression, it’s not an improvisation, it’s not a Godardian jazz solo of a movie. It does not, to recall Kerouac’s description of postwar jazz, follow “free deviation (association) of mind into limitless blow-on-subject seas of thought.” It is free only in that Soderbergh crosses boundaries and departs from convention. He doesn’t ignore the normative, though; rather, he violates it at every turn, systematically, rigorously exploring all the different ways restlessness, lust, and marital and professional ennui can be depicted in visuals and dialogue. If Lost Highway reeks of being a wallow in David Lynch’s post-divorce rage, bile, and confusion, Schizopolis is a very different kind of divorce movie, one made by a director who turns his emotions into fodder for a series of formalist cinematic games.

This does nothing in itself to counter those who charge that he is cold, but it could also be said that the more lightly he touches on emotions, the more powerfully one senses them coursing under the surface. Schizopolis is hilarious and playful throughout, but a deep despair is there too. For that matter, Contagion was for some of us more moving precisely because it didn’t shove emotions in our face, allowing us to find them ourselves. That said, others found parts of the ending maudlin, but frankly, letting the daughter have her prom was the least Soderbergh could give us as an emotional bone, and certainly the succeeding “Day 1” segment introduced a far more chilling note at the film’s close. Haywire’s emotions are as buried as Mallory’s, so much the cool-headed professional as she handles her predicament, but there is no sense of what’s beneath the surface because Carano is not capable of conveying the sorts of depths that made Damon so compelling in the Bourne films. Still, I could be open to the counterargument that, for procedural fans, for spy-movie fans, this makes it a purer hit of the drug. The bigger pity of it for me is that since his efforts to make The Man from U.N.C.L.E. have fallen through (since George Clooney dropped out, Soderbergh moved on and Guy Ritchie is now attached), I can’t see a project in his immediate (pre-retirement) future where he can put the lessons learned here to use in another action film (though who knows what sort of film The Bitter Pill is going to be).

One reason why Soderbergh’s experiments are so satisfying to a viewer like me, a bit of a formalist myself, is the palpable sense of setting out cinematic problems and carefully working through solutions. From this he gleans a body of methods  used to tackle different problems in subsequent films, thereby in turn generating yet more solutions. His filmography sees him systematically and progressively take up challenges, push the approaches he takes to their limits, and apply those lessons in ways to perpetuate the learning process. Schizopolis freed him from the more schematic, limited formalism of earlier films in ways that allowed him to achieve a looseness that enlivened Out of Sight; the (deceptive) sense of looseness and temporal play of that film were taken much further in The Limey, which was at once more intricately structured (reminiscent of Resnais in its non-linearity), and yet more attuned to the nuances of mood and moment. His sense of how to introduce a sense of mood and contingency into a highly structured work helped him find new, fresh notes in the much more mainstream Erin Brockovich. And so on. Consider how far he’s come as a cinematographer from the first films he shot as “Peter Andrews” to now, and how far he’s come as an editor since he started cutting his own films as “Mary Ann Bernard.” This is not to take the old auteurist line that each new film by a canonical director builds on the previous in an ever-ascending arc of greatness; like all ambitious directors, Soderbergh has stumbled along the way. But there is a sense of forward motion and steadily accumulating mastery in a career dotted with films where all the lessons seem to come together to produce genuinely sublime results. Solaris is one, an unusually lyrical film for him that is a culmination of his experimentation with subjective non-linear narration, and of his attempts to find his own particular union of genre and art cinema.

Che is another, utilizing both an understated, documentaristic realism (the depiction of revolution not as epic, heroic narrative but as a gradual, day-by-day, inch-by-inch trudge) and a systematic, highly patterned formalism (the whole series of stylistic and formal contrasts in the diptych construction) to their extremes.

Looking back to and ratcheting up the network-narrative stratagem of Traffic, combining it with a keener focus on process and a broader sense of social interconnectivity, Contagion was another high-point.

Haywire isn’t a high-point, really, but apart from the performance issues (which admittedly were fundamental to the whole design), it is a beautifully-made genre film, and one that throws up new avenues to explore, should Soderbergh wish to. He may or may not do so in the few films he has left before he steps away from directing films, but I don’t think anyone doubts that he will return to filmmaking in time, and that when he does the lessons he’s learning now will be put to good use. For someone who has moved forward with the restlessness he has demonstrated, it seems appropriate that one gets the sense that he feels exhausted. He has spoken of running out of new ways to make films, of wanting to take a break because he cannot figure out how to jump to another level; for instance, in a recent Film Comment interview, he spoke of not knowing how to do some of the things with visuals that David Fincher or Terrence Malick do. He may not feel he has the stylistic facility of Fincher or the poetry of Malick, but the elegance and precision of so much of Contagion and Haywire (especially when compared to the often-leaden overstatement of Kafka and The Underneath) suggests that he’s selling himself a little short, that in fact there are plenty of moments where he can and does approach the level of Fincher. Of course, Malick is doing another sort of thing entirely, and in finding himself wanting by comparison, Soderbergh is holding himself to an awfully lofty standard. That may not be the best thing for his peace of mind, but viewers have reaped the rewards from Soderbergh constantly moving forward, constantly raising the stakes of the game he’s playing.  Wherever he sets his sights when he does come back to directing, I don’t think I’d bet against him.

Defending Hollywood

On the 7th of November, 2011, in a now-infamous entry on his blog, Frank Miller let loose a startlingly vituperative, borderline psychotic rant on Occupy Wall Street, calling those participating in the most promising political movement in contemporary America “a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness,” “clowns” who “can do nothing but harm America.” Choosing not to burden the few fans he still has with any actual thinking, he spewed out a lot of puerile puns- calling OWS a “movement” only in the sense of “bowel movement”- and accusing those protesting of hurling “garbage” that- get this!- would play into Al-Qaeda and their various Evil Islamicist pals’ unceasing attempts to Destroy America.

The absurdity of all this, not least from a writer/artist who used to take a notably anti-corporate line back in his ‘80s heyday, is so crashingly obvious that Miller’s original piece is barely worth commenting on. Where does one start? With the overall meanness, the small-mindedness? The cocaine-fuelled rantiness? The paranoia of a man stuck in 9/12-mode, when it ought to be clear that unregulated corporate capitalism has done more harm to the world in the last 5 years than Al-Qaeda has in the last 10? Best to just shake one’s head and move on, trying to forget the Dave Sim-like mental decline of a man who used to be one of the most important figures in modern comics. Miller deserves nothing more than some vigorous jeers on social media, and he got that, but unfortunately (not for him, for us) he also got novelist Rick Moody writing a piece for The Guardian taking Miller’s rant not as the barking of a lunatic but as a smoking gun, a peek behind the curtains into the politics of the whole of Hollywood and comics both.

Moody’s piece, published on the 24th of November, is titled “Frank Miller and the rise of cryptofascist Hollywood.” What Moody is training his sights on here is the notion that Hollywood, seemingly a provider merely of entertainment, actually peddles propaganda. Feel free to take a moment to let the crashing obviousness of that sink in. After all, it came as something of a shock to Moody to realize this (when he was in his early 30s!) while watching Under Siege, and he still seems to be reeling from it almost 20 years later. “Before Under Siege,” he writes, “I had a tendency to think action films were funny. I had a sort of Brechtian relationship to their awfulness.” Some of you must already be thinking, why even bother engaging with an argument put forth by someone so condescending as to characterize the IQ of an entire genre in one reductive swipe? You’re right, of course, but let’s press on. Like many a person gripped by the force of a revelation, he now seems to find political allegory everywhere. Gladiator, for instance, is an allegory about… wait for it… George W. Bush’s candidacy for president; he concedes that neither Russell Crowe nor Ridley Scott are American citizens (I’d be inclined to double check that, actually; I think it’s a fair guess they have a pretty secure immigration status), but it doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that the film went into production in 1999 , before W. was on the culture’s radar. “Is it possible to think of a film such as Gladiator outside of its political subtext? Are Ridley Scott’s falling petals, which he seems to like so much that he puts them in his films over and over again, anything more than a way to gussy up the triumph of oligarchy, corporate capital and globalization?” Let’s pause a moment to consider this. Consider that in this last interrogative, what is at best a fringe interpretation of the film is blithely assumed to have the status of fact. Consider, too, that this interpretation depends not only on an easy one-to-one relationship between contemporary politics and the narrative, but also on the idea that Gladiator is a celebration of Roman oligarchy and political succession. One would, then, expect the coronation of Commodus fulsomely to be celebrated in the film; in fact, most viewers perceive Commodus as the villain of the piece.

For Moody, a whole series of sweeping generalizations follow, to him seemingly so patently obvious as to hardly require evidence or logic to support them. Most action film stars of the 80s and 90s- and therefore their films- defend “a conservative agenda,” and/or justify vigilantism. Likewise, the more recent superhero adaptations are marked by a “moral framework that is just as simplistic as in action films, if not more so, and the triumph of the social order is just as violent, and just as relentless….” Less enlightened viewers may be distracted by that seductive opiate of the masses, CGI, but once you peel back a layer of spectacle, the politics are glaringly obvious: “Might is right, the global economy will be restored, America is exceptional, homely people deserve political disenfranchisement, and so on.” Thus he returns to Frank Miller: for Moody, the politics of Miller’s online rant are of a piece with the politics of Zack Snyder’s adaptation of 300 (a common interpretation of the film is that the Spartans are Americans and the Persians stand in for the whole horde of contemporary Middle Eastern devils gathered to thwart us; but arguably the film is if anything a classic case of Hollywood’s studied ideological incoherence, such that the film may be read almost as easily with the Spartans as Iraq/Afghanistan and the Persians as Americans- who, after all, invaded who?).  But this film, so truly hysterical in so many ways (homoerotic? homophobic? both?), is taken to be typical, not in any way exceptional. And here’s the rub: it typifies not only all of contemporary Hollywood product, but also all of comic book politics. In his single most odious sentence, Moody writes that “At least comic books themselves are so politically dim-witted, so pie-in-the-sky idealistic as to be hard to take seriously”; this is some small advantage given that movies are so much more insidious. Nowadays, “in the Marvel and DC era of Hollywood,” movies are always either “self-evidently shilling for large corporations (with product placement) or militating for a libertarian and oligarchical status quo (which makes a fine environment for large, multinational corporations).” If you aren’t part of the solution, whatever that may be, Moody thinks you’re part of the problem: “Paying your $12.50, these days, is not unlike doing a line of cocaine and pretending you don’t know about the headless bodies in Juarez.” So, the “hard right, pro-military” politics in Miller’s online rant aren’t only accounted for in his own work, or those of his adapters, but in fact in comics generally and “in the larger project of mainstream Hollywood cinema.” American movies, too, “agree” that “war against a ruthless enemy is good, and military service is good, that killing makes you a man, that capitalism must prevail, that if you would just get a job (preferably a corporate job, for all honest work is corporate) you would quit complaining.” Comic-book adaptations have “so degraded” cinematic art that what was once a “humanist” form now can do little but repeat the platitudes of the 1%. “Whatever mainstream Hollywood is now, Frank Miller is part of it.”

Now, anyone who happens to get some pleasure from Hollywood films is likely to be inclined to be hostile to all or part of Moody’s ravings. In fact, if you either watch studio films or read comics, you are likely, as I do, to find Moody’s rant nearly as cretinous as Miller’s. Neither are especially hard to pick apart, either. One could point out that it’s a bit of a stretch to see Frank Miller as “part of” mainstream Hollywood: there are all sorts of reasons its unlikely that Miller has had a particularly profound influence on contemporary Hollywood politics; the one film he made on his own was a disaster; Robert Rodriguez appears to have abandoned plans for Sin City 2, and no other adaptations of his books seem to be anywhere near the boil.  But ultimately, Moody is after much bigger game than Frank Miller. I won’t spend much time defending comics, except to point out that a condemnation of comic book politics ought to at least address the origins of the superhero in the mythology of the golem that the Jewish creators of almost every major character drew upon, and the fact that like the golem, the superhero traditionally fights for the underdog as much as he does for the status quo. But how does one defend Hollywood, in the context of its politics? Should one, in fact? It is certainly the case that seeing a movie is not in itself a politically effective form of activism, and perhaps in that sense, sure, more comparable to snorting lines of coke than to doing anything to stop drug lords in Juarez killing people. An infinitely more sophisticated version of what I take to be Moody’s point here is taken up by the likes of Jonathan Beller in writing about cinema in terms of the attention economy (grossly simplified: how capitalism colonizes your attention, and thus solicits your tacit quiescence, through media). But as I understand it, that’s more about how cinema circulates as a cultural mode, how movie-watching functions in a broad sense, than it is about the political content of any individual film. When it comes to that, Moody is surely right about SOME films; it doesn’t get much more pro-military than Transformers, a film designed as a shill for at least one corporate entity (Hasbro). However crude his sense of politics is from the get-go, it seems to me that the key question lies in the validity of the generalization.

Certainly, one response to Moody might be the old reactionary, ultra-conservative line about Hollywood liberalism, but any reasoned response is likely to shift from the general to the specific, to question how applicable Moody’s claims actually are. For instance, one might point out that a condemnation of Hollywood politics ought to begin with a recognition of the number of times that the baddies are corporate suits. Of course, as with the gangster film, in such cases a systemic critique can be avoided by depicting EvilCorp as an aberration, a perversion of the capitalist pursuit of wealth by those who ignore the values of community and law and order. The many, many films where the baddie is a politician or military officer similarly show the antagonists as aberrations, but because the case here is complicated by the fact that said baddie is actually a part of the system, there’s at least a bit of room open for a holistic criticism of the establishment. Here and there, too, a blockbuster attacks corporate capitalism or the American government in ways that don’t give orthodox ideology any easy way out, at least if you are willing to grant that Hollywood’s most subversive statements are almost always clothed in at least some layers of allegory and metonymy. Avatar may be racist, but it is also unequivocally critical of corporate and military collusion in economic imperialism. This last summer, Rise of the Planet of the Apes had audiences cheering for the apes to win their liberation from (and revenge against) the humans, basically cheering on the end of civilization. Whether you took it as an allegory of management and workers, or colonizers and colonized, or, most directly, masters and slaves, it was a clearly pro-revolution film. It was also a movie celebrating collective action rather than individual achievement, just as we might say of A Bug’s Life or even the Ocean’s trilogy.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes might be something of an aberration, just as Syriana was in getting audiences to root for a terrorist bombing at its climax. But most Hollywood films, even the blockbusters, don’t have conservative politics as such, nor the leftist inverse: they are purposely incoherent in an attempt to bypass criticism from any quarter, to provide contradictory evidence to fuel a response to any such criticism, and to provide plausible deniability to avoid conflicts around their carefully designed marketing strategies and release patterns. Superhero movies demonstrate this quite well. X-Men: First Class might come down on the side of Charles Xavier’s message of pacifism, tolerance, and peaceful change rather than Eric Lehnsherr’s violent resistance, but it still shows the mutants ruthlessly betrayed by the country they fought to save. The Dark Knight shows a city where a vigilante is needed to protect threats to the status quo, but ultimately rejects not only the surveillance technology Batman uses with no regard for civil rights, but even the idea of vigilantism. Then too, though people like Moody tend to slide from criticizing blockbusters to criticizing all of Hollywood as if those are coterminous, in fact it needs to be remembered that not all Hollywood product fits into that category. As much attention as blockbusters receive, there are still medium and low-budget films released by the majors, and in all kinds of categories, and even now some of them are made as much to garner prestige as to make a killing at the summertime B.O.- and that’s leaving aside the amount of television production the studios engage in.

My response to Moody- looking for individual cases that escape or complicate easy generalizations- is a time-honored one, the one taken by perhaps Hollywood’s most influential defender, Andrew Sarris: to look not at the forest, but at the trees. By insisting that critics look at what differentiates Hollywood films via attention to the individuals who make them (one in particular, of course, the director, but the idea of looking for marks of individuation through the creative worker has broader applicability) rather than the larger narrative and generic patterns (and clichés) that characterize Hollywood cinema as a whole, Sarris and other auteurists managed to shift the whole terrain of film analysis: to paying attention to the fine grain of textual details, and also to subtext, to the notion of looking for what a film “Is Really About” whatever the story (and whatever the overt politics). Whatever debates arise around the idea of looking for a single Creator in a collaborative medium, the salutary impact of auteurism on film studies derives from the fact that they didn’t just claim high-art status for movies in general and Hollywood in particular, they also made a claim for the validity of close, detailed studies of cinematic texts. But if that was a clear gain for all film scholarship, the auteurists opened up whole new realms to explore for students of popular cinema in particular. Auteurism at its birth is nothing if not a high-art way of looking at mass-culture objects, and by looking closely finding a level of artistry equivalent to or more satisfying (because more subtle, more veiled) than the more overt pretensions of the art cinema that announces itself as such. At the same time, critics of auteurism tend to get as caught up in polemics as Sarris himself; however much Sarris courted controversy by defending Hollywood, a sympathetic reading of his key essays (“Notes on the Auteur Theory 1962,” “Towards a Theory of Film History”) reveals much more modest claims than opponents attribute to him. No-one claims that every Hollywood film counts as art in an evaluative sense (as Sarris tended to use the word, however much the very idea of film authorship is caught up in a discursive shift in the use of the term “art” from an evaluative to a descriptive sense), nor that every director is an auteur: the auteur director’s strength is a function of the weaknesses of others, those who do not or cannot reshape and personalize their material.  As a defense of Hollywood, auteurism actually requires a willingness to dismiss most of its products at the same time as it requires a willingness to pay some degree of attention to all its products.

The auteurist demand that Hollywood be taken seriously and studied closely has been influential almost beyond the calculation of it, on journalists prepared to recognize that Hollywood is or at least has been capable of producing art, on academics carving out terrain for teaching and research, on filmmakers hoping to do personally significant work inside the commercial system. Yet in reportage and opinion on popular culture, debates over Hollywood’s capability of producing art are renewed every few years. Sarris and others may have convinced people to at least pretend to appreciate John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock, and influential reviewers like Pauline Kael may have helped to alert moviegoers to the likes of Altman, Coppola, and Scorsese in the 1970s, but since the studios renewed their commitment to the blockbuster in the late 1970s, critics and even scholars have tended to take as jaundiced a view of Hollywood as was ever found pre-Sarris. The auteurists may have convinced people to take classical Hollywood seriously, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to the contemporary period.

Time plays its tricks, for one thing: when people think of classical Hollywood, even the most knowledgeable tend to think of Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, of Casablanca and The Awful Truth and a handful of other classics that taken together represent only a small percentage of the studios total output from the ‘20s through the ‘50s, for most of which time they put out over 4 times the number of films they do now. Few outside of the most hardcore scholars and buffs grapple with the studios’ run of the mill fare from this period. Even people who know that Hollywood produced an enormous amount of twaddle in the classical period can forget that in the slew of ads for Jack and Jill or New Year’s Eve. To say that Hollywood made more great films in 1939 than in 2009 may be right, but arguably the percentage is not far off, especially once we factor in “independent” films distributed by boutique divisions of the majors.

Others are simply so hostile to the blockbuster trade that they can’t or don’t try to understand what it is such films are trying to do. They cannot differentiate a good action film from a bad one because they apply the wrong criteria (cf. Moody’s comments on the stupidity of action films). It is simply missing the point to require an action film to provide psychologically detailed characters as riven by doubts and insecurities as most of us are, or plausibility, or narrative intricacy. By finding the films wanting on such grounds, commentators, even academics, have been lured into mis-describing the films as if they had no psychological causation or narrative to speak of, when even the weakest examples of the genre provide a stable, character-driven narrative armature so as to generate audience involvement with what transpires onscreen. The action film is not about literary values; when it has them, they are perhaps a bonus. Instead, at its best, action cinema embodies things that Hollywood has always been very good at: spectacularizing narrative and narrativizing spectacle, using a wide range of tools in the medium’s arsenal to create audiovisual symphonies that are as close to a “pure cinema” as anything the avant-garde ever produced (not that there is any such thing as pure cinema; cinema’s impurity as a medium is one of its most enduringly exciting characteristics).  Caught up in their notions of literature as the highest form of art and importing those criteria to cinema, lionizing their version of classical cinema and refusing to approach the contemporary on its own aims, norms, and merits, some not only cannot see what’s still being done successfully in Hollywood films, they wouldn’t admit it if they could (much like those Sarris wrote of who found Hollywood a kind of painted lady, contemptuous of her even as they guiltily succumbed to her charms). More than that, they can’t even comprehend those who would defend it.

The reaction to Tom Shone’s extraordinarily eloquent defense of post-Jaws Hollywood, Blockbuster: Or, How Hollywood Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Summer (one of the best books on American film for a popular audience published in the last few decades), is telling, because some reviewers not only didn’t agree with Shone’s arguments, they wouldn’t grant any legitimacy to him or what he was trying to say. Reviewing it for Film Comment, Adam Nayman summed up: “The message is clear: cinephiles, drop your grudges (and that new book on Abbas Kiarostami), put Back to the Future in your Netflix queue, and let the healing begin. Shone’s success in making a halfway convincing argument for this dire entreaty speaks either to our encroaching apathy in the face of Hollywood’s global dominance or the effectiveness of his own affably insinuating soft-pedal critical approach.”

Now, keep in mind: Shone is not saying all blockbusters are awesome sauce. He’s celebrating the very best films of Spielberg, Zemeckis, Cameron, et. al., and being quite tough on the likes of Roland Emmerich while he’s at it. That Shone is far from uncritical should be considered when you’re pondering just how “dire” his entreaty here is. While Shone is snarky about the art cinema, the either/or fallacy here says at least as much about the reviewer’s own prejudices; people consistently, inexplicably write as if it’s not possible to enjoy The Wind Will Carry Us and Die Hard both. (Does that date me? Maybe I should say, both Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Mission: Impossible 4.) Finally, there’s the line about Hollywood’s global dominance. Commerce: this is the crux of the problem. No-one has any trouble compartmentalizing the best films of the classical era from the way studios conducted their business, but without the benefit of time, inundated with current Hollywood and the culture and economics around it, that can be much harder. In fact, perhaps it should be; the business of filmmaking was at least as savage then as now.

Questions of the role of the critic arise: given that Hollywood is a globally hegemonic cinema, what are the responsibilities of the critic? Implicit in Nayman’s review is the idea that the critic should support the underdog, should celebrate cinema outside the corporate-entertainment monoculture, should praise films that do things differently than Hollywood films, all of which seems true and uncontroversial. But for many of the more highbrow critics, it is an extension of this logic to say that the critic should oppose Hollywood hegemony with all their verbal might, and that this means rejecting what Hollywood is in the business of making. Of course our sense of cinema will be impoverished if we only ask one thing of it; does that mean we are obligated to reject that one thing on principle? In an interminably long, pointlessly anecdotal, borderline incoherent review of Blockbuster and two other books on contemporary cinema, Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures and Dade Hayes and Jonathan Bing’s Open Wide, David Thomson (an extravagantly overrated critic, and one who has always been hostile to contemporary Hollywood) has this, and only this, to say about Shone’s entire project: having noted that both Blockbuster and Open Wide talk about the economics of the contemporary blockbuster, he writes, “What is striking (and so disturbing) in these books is the uncritical tone of this business history. Hayes and Bing and Shone seem to say that the way things are going is not just natural, but admirable. It’s a business, after all. You feel that these writers are gently trying to prove their suitability for a studio job. But the gelding of film criticism is part of the larger failure to stand up and denounce the wretchedness of what this complacent business is churning out.”

Hayes and Bing are talking purely about economics in their book, and certainly don’t get into whether or not the films are any good; why should they?  But Thomson assumes every piece of honest writing must denounce said films, either oblivious to Shone’s praise of the best of them, certainly unmoved by it, or unable to comprehend that someone sincerely might like some of these sorts of movies. The mere fact of praising any of them is toadying for Thomson (in fact, Shone did leave his job as film critic for The Sunday Times, but to write a novel, not to be a studio exec). It’s hard to imagine a more willfully obtuse, closed-minded, high-handed, self-righteously dismissive response to a contrary position. Like Nayman, Thomson conflates the process and the product; if we are to resist Hollywood as the culturally-hegemonic corporate capitalist beast that it surely is, they seem to say, we must first reject all that comes from it. It is precisely because English-language film critics today are split between studio shills manufacturing blurbs for posters and New York-based pseudo-intellectuals contrarily promoting the latest from Iran and Romania that few, if any, are reliable guides to Hollywood, which, by virtue of its dominance, its sheer ubiquity, would seem to be a fairly urgent area of inquiry, rather than one that can be merely dismissed.

Academics grapple with similar issues in the study of popular cinema. Postmodernism is supposed to have dissolved the boundaries between high and low culture, but there are plenty of corners of the academy, and not only in English departments, that this paradigm shift seems to have bypassed. The idea of taking Hollywood seriously is still out of bounds for a lot of academics, let alone films based on comic books. These people need to read the opening chapter or two of David Bordwell’s Planet Hong Kong, as good as one-stop defense of popular cinema as I know. They should consider that virtually all cinema is made for some sort of marketplace, be it the multiplex or the gallery, such that all of it is made with some economic considerations in mind; and with those come expectations about form and representation. Even once we’ve dispensed with the likes of them, though, the question remains: What stance do we take to Hollywood? What does one stance or another get us?

One illustrious figure in the field once told a colleague of mine that in his department, Hollywood is taught as “the enemy.” As put, that seems inadequate to me. Certainly, the American film industry is as ruthless and amoral an example of capitalistic economic and cultural imperialism as you can find, and those of us who teach it should acknowledge that. Some will stop there, concluding that to go further in appreciating Hollywood films is to help do the industry’s work, to promote the industry either explicitly or implicitly. But my love for the films, and my estimation of what they can and can’t, do and don’t do means I have a deeper investment in Hollywood cinema than would allow me to leave it at that. It simply isn’t the case that the economics of film production directly determine every formal aspect of the films themselves; Althusser’s notion of relative autonomy is important here, the idea that cultural production is relatively autonomous from the economic base. Making films about superheroes may itself be economically determined, but that doesn’t explain the formal achievements of Christopher Nolan in The Dark Knight, or Sam Raimi in Spider-Man 2, or Kenneth Branagh in Thor. It may be a business decision to put a man in tights in front of the camera, but not, or not directly, how to film him. That Hollywood largely supports the economic status quo may be true, but does not exhaust the subject, even if what counts as a political “subversion” is so disguised as to be unintelligible to most viewers, and Hollywood films so caught up in the larger circuits of capital that the idea that one might have a subversive impact is virtually inconceivable.

The problem is, how to reconcile a healthy suspicion of Hollywood as an economic and cultural institution with a keen, open understanding and appreciation of what Hollywood cinema does (and doesn’t do)? But that’s not the only problem. The fact of Hollywood’s global dominance, the extent to which Hollywood is an oligopoly and the extent to which it has colonized people’s idea of what cinema is, is enough to put the study of Hollywood front and center. But when running a film history class, say, how do you adequately explore Hollywood without marginalizing other cinemas? How do you take Hollywood into account without dismissing it but also without perpetuating its hegemony? It’s true that students often have a reflexive resistance to Hollywood, and that does some of the work for you; merely defending even some aspects of Hollywood cinema can upset their expectations more than any Godard you could show them (maybe not more than “Un Chien Andalou,” though; that eyeball shot gets ‘em every time). But I have no answers for any of these questions. I will never be wholly comfortable spending 6 weeks of a 13-week film history survey class on Hollywood, with only one week each on French cinema (the New Wave), German cinema (the ‘20s), Russian cinema (ditto), Japanese cinema (postwar), etc., but I also can’t figure out how to talk about the world’s dominant cinema in less than 6 weeks. For the other questions, I can only rely on this: cinema, even Hollywood cinema, maybe especially Hollywood cinema, is too complex a phenomenon to be reduced to any one of its aspects, including the business of it.