Tag Archives: Hollywood

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.

“Drive”: Memory Lane

It’s fitting that Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive has come out in the last quarter of 2011. For the last few months, there has been another of those periodic bursts of writing about nostalgia and retrospection in arts and entertainment reporting. A lot of this has been about this season’s major network attempts to copy Mad Men, but without all that angst and arthouse pacing: The Playboy Club (unwatchable, and thankfully canceled after four episodes) and Pan Am (appealing mostly for Kelli Garner and her spy plots, and its distinctly Schlamme look and feel, for some of us sparking nostalgia for The West Wing). If either show is of any actual interest in this regard, it’s that both shows played less on shared cultural memory than on viewers’ “nostalgia” for things they did not and mostly could not experience. Elsewhere, nostalgia is again a current topic in pop music criticism thanks to Simon Reynolds’ Retromania(which will deserve its own blog entry once I’ve read it, I’m sure), an inquiry into why pop music, still so intuitively associated with Now-ness (at least by critics), has come to be so wrapped up in its own history. Though Reynolds’ book centers on pop culture, and pop music specifically, the term “retromania” is a handy one for describing the proliferation of contemporary cultural artifacts, at all levels and in all media, that fetishize and seek in part to recreate the cultural objects and forms of the past, not only referencing specific predecessors but often entire, otherwise moribund aesthetics and traditions.

In writing of contemporary Hollywood, David Bordwell refers to a pervasive sense of “belatedness,” an awareness of film history that is an ever-present burden young filmmakers respond to in a variety of ways. In film criticism, though, nostalgia and “retromania” do not seem to occasion much consternation at the moment. Critics spend more time on other ways Hollywood relies on the past: recycling, remakes, sequels, etc. That’s because some forms of cinephilic nostalgia have simply been accepted by now, present not just in popular, mass entertainment but in The Canon. Allusion and referentiality were pressing issues from the rise of the international art cinema, and by now are accepted elements of the art film arsenal. European films (in particular) referencing older films, whole genres, and specific obsolete aesthetics (film noir, the MGM musical, etc.) have always been widely respected, and French film in particular has returned to this again and again since the 1960s, from the nouvelle vague to Resnais’ and Ozon’s attempts to call forth dim cultural reflections of French theatrical traditions, and most recently to things like The Artist.

It’s true, though, that in popular cinema this sort of thing has been more suspect, largely depending on whether it’s a Hollywood film doing the alluding, or a film from anywhere else. No-one ever objected to John Woo shamelessly ripping off Sam Peckinpah and classical Hollywood melodramas, largely because at the time HK seemed such a revitalizing alternative to current Hollywood fare. As ever, whatever Hollywood is up to at a given moment is the Bad Object, and in the ‘90s HK cinema was taken up as gloriously Other, representing kinds of cinematic pleasures Hollywood was taken to have abandoned. The mere fact of being Asian has benefitted HK’s status as a Good Popular Cinema, just as Cantopop and j-pop have been embraced by Western fans who would stay well away from music anything like that insipid if sung in English.

Retro-Hollywood fare made in the U.S.A. has always been much more contentious, especially if it comes out of a major studio. Initially, the film-consciousness of the ‘Movie Brat’ generation was taken as signifying the intelligence and playfulness of their films by contrast with the squareness of Love Story, Airport, and the like. But in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, self-conscious referentiality was only one strategy among many American directors took from Europe. By the beginning of the 1980s, the ascent of Lucas and Spielberg were making blockbusters awash in such referentiality just as more formally challenging kinds of Hollywood art filmmaking were beginning to founder. As a consequence, this kind of nostalgia began to garner critical responses from writers who accused such directors of knowing plenty about movies but nothing about life (see, for example, James Monaco’s American Film Now, 1984).

It was around this time, 1982, that Noël Carroll published “The Future of Allusion,” still one of the best essays on the aesthetics of the New Hollywood, even if his conclusions were arguable. Carroll’s essay does a convincing job of outlining the factors encouraging a mainstream Hollywood cinema rife with allusions, and his idea that such films communicate on two levels at the same time has always informed the way I think about such films: that they engage a general audience with straightforward genre narratives, and hail a cinephile audience with references to films from across the history of the medium. By contrast, one may argue, as Jim Collins does in “Genericity in the Nineties: Eclectic Irony and the New Sincerity,” that genre films built around allusions and pastiche are responding to the state of contemporary culture and society just as surely as genre films have done from any other era; in this case, to the media array that saturates our daily lives. I think that’s valid, but actually the strongest objection I have to Carroll’s essay is to the idea that films incorporating allusion have an “inorganic” meaning appropriated from their sources (and critical interpretations of those sources) rather than an “organic” one developing through the internal workings of the films themselves. It’s hard to see how Blow Out and The Conversation could be said to lack a thematic development discernable to those who may not have seen Blow Up, and in fact I’d tend to argue that the DePalma and Coppola are far stronger films than the Antonioni (in fact, I think that’s Antonioni’s worst, most smug and out of touch film).

In one sense, it is of course the case that allusions can and do function as vehicles imparting meanings to the film that makes them (among all a given film’s other strategies). Moreover, the charge that a film reliant on them may only achieve a depth of meaning through them clearly does apply in some cases. Super 8, for example, has been both celebrated and condemned principally on two counts: how one feels about an homage to mid-70s/early 80s Spielberg; and how successful J.J. Abrams is at recalling the pleasures of Close Encounter of the Third Kind and E.T. No comparable degree of attention has been paid to the ways in which Captain America: The First Avenger is indebted to Raiders of the Lost Ark, especially in it’s action scenes, not only because they obscured by its being “Yet Another Superhero Movie” but also because its allusions to Spielberg are largely stylistic rather than narrative. In other, rarer and more extreme cases, though, a film utilizing allusion as a central strategy may not make much sense without correctly perceiving that the allusions and their sources. I would disagree with Carroll that The Conversation and Blow Out qualify here, but surely few would dispute that a degree of genre knowledge is a requisite for comprehending the hyper-stylization of Kill Bill.

I would argue that Drive is exactly one of those films, a film that must seem empty if not unintelligible to those who don’t have the cinephilic knowledge to perceive it as in large part an homage to Jean-Pierre Melville, Walter Hill, and Michael Mann. It is a film built around the nostalgia of a certain kind of film geek for those films, to the point of fairly being labeled retromaniacal. Yet if Reynolds’ book is the logical conclusion of grumblings about ‘record collector rock’ in the UK music press for years now (ramped up by Britpop in the ‘90s), film critics have no such complaints about Drive. This may in part be because the film has a genuine European pedigree thanks to its director, Nicolas Winding Refn. This is not Refn’s first English language film, but it does seem to be the first American film anyone can remember (no one ever mentions Fear X), and he has become something of a critic’s darling thanks for the most part to the Pusher trilogy (both Danish-language films), Bronson (British), and Valhalla Rising (a classic ‘europudding’: a Danish director, a Danish lead actor who never speaks, a cast otherwise made up of English actors, in a film set in England and… somewhere else). Part of this is because of the particular kind of film for which Drive embodies an ardent nostalgia: the low(ish)-budget, violent, exaggeratedly-silent tough guy crime film with a cool, hard surface sheen. So much film geekery is informed, more or less directly, by the Manny Farber discourse on such action-oriented fare that its cred as ‘termite art’ comes already embossed on its metallic exterior by virtue of its generic/critical positioning even before consideration of the specifics of the individual case. I would argue that this is one reason why Drive rates a 79 on metacritic by contrast with Contagion, which rates a respectable 70. Though Contagion is a more ambitious, innovative, arguably far more accomplished film, it seems too overtly respectable for some, too much a social problem film to get the same sort of cinephilic blood pumping, as if it’s a Stanley Kramer, and no-one now wants to look like a Bosley Crowther in sticking up for it.

Critics have certainly spotted Drive’s fetishization of its sources, whether they like what Refn’s done with them or not , but they never question its legitimacy, perhaps because by virtue of being Danish, Refn is allowed to carry on the history of European directors cutting quasi-art films from the cloth of Hollywood genre film . Some of this comes out in their genealogies of the film’s hero, known only as the Driver. Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post lists Steve McQueen, Lee Marvin, Ryan O’Neal (she doesn’t say so specifically, but she means Walter Hill’s The Driver), and Robert DeNiro; Peter Travers in Rolling Stone mentions Alain Delon in Le Samouraï and Alan Ladd in Shane; Roger Ebert, Delon and Clint Eastwood (“the Man with No Name”); Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Time, Delon again; Rene Rodriguez in the Miami Herald and Anthony Lane in The New Yorker, Eastwood again. Some of those reviewers and others, though, see that Refn’s pastiche here extends much further. Lane is quick to pick up on Refn’s debts to The Driver, as does J. Hoberman in The Village Voice and Jaime N. Christley in Slant. Rodriguez writes that “the movie balances the pulpy action of pictures such as Point Blank with the sleek style of vintage Michael Mann. The soundtrack is made up of Europop songs and synthesizer music: Even the opening credits, done in a hot-pink scrawl, invoke the 1980s.” (In interview, Refn has admitted stealing it from Risky Business; The A.V. Club ) Travers directs viewers to “watch for comparisons, especially to films of the Seventies and Eighties that pulsate with a synth score. Think early Michael Mann (Thief) and William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. Driver is a loner, suggesting Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï,” though he also says that to play “name that influence” would be “a disservice to Drive, since Refn, like Quentin Tarantino, has the gift of assimilating film history into a fresh take carrying his DNA.” For him, Drive is “pure cinema.” Shawn Levy in The Oregonian notes the Thief debt as well, while characterizing Refn’s movies rather nicely as balancing“ arthouse beauty with grindhouse violence and a macho sensibility in a way that recalls a mix of, oh, Terrence Malick, Brian DePalma and Michael Mann.” Jessica Winter in Time writes that Refn “is a child of the 1980s. For him, To Live and Die in L.A. and the collected works of Michael Mann are sacred texts to be restaged.”

And so the net of references grows wider. In the New York Times, A.O. Scott notes a debt in story but not style to Sergio Leone (I think he’s exactly wrong here, in at least one important respect: Refn’s and Leone’s films are marked by the use of deep focus), but mostly he too sees the film’s roots in the early 1980s. In a rather nice turn of phrase, he writes that Refn’s film recalls “the atmospheric masculine melancholy associated with Michael Mann,” as well as another auteur/genre film drawing deep from the Euro-well, Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo. Hoberman, who headlines his review calling Drive a “Retro Thrill Ride” (which fits in all sorts of ways), explores the 80s-isms, and the Eastwood-isms, in some detail:

Drive is nominally set in the present day, but the 40-year-old director elects to emphasize the retro—or rather, to evoke the period of his adolescence, synthesizing Miami Vice’s languid dissolves and neon-limned dive bars, Blade Runner’s nocturnal skylines and floating overhead angles, Top Gun‘s slow dollies, and MTV-friendly lyrical montage interludes. Time stands still! The action is set to a near-subliminal LinnDrum, and the soundtrack is awash in mournful, exalted, romantic techno-pop. Doling out his lines in an adenoidal whisper, Gosling is an understated hero in the Eastwood-McQueen tradition—almost ridiculously so: His trademark toothpick is a diminished equivalent of the raunchy cheroot Eastwood gnaws in his spaghetti westerns.

In interview, Refn himself points to Pretty in Pink, but this seems mostly to the kind of gnomic, fundamentally obsfucating self-marketing that a certain kind of director thrives on (like the Coens claiming not to have read The Odyssey, or David Lynch claiming not to have been influenced by other films, only by living in Philadelphia).

What critical debate Drive has engendered rests around whether all its alluding is in the service of anything worthwhile. Stephanie Zacharek compares it to Two-Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point, (presumably based on the car fetishization here since it has little in common with either film) before rhapsodizing, in the most overtly Paulette-ish terms I’ve seen lately, that her “youngish” colleagues (which I find discursively revealing as well as Kael-y; if you don’t get it you’re too old, presumably) were as “over the moon” about it as her (the kids today, they’re always talking about being “over the moon” about things). Zacharek is prepared to admit that “No one is claiming Refn has invented a new language; it’s just that he uses the vocabulary so well — he’s got the right tools and the right touch. This is a mechanic who can make an engine sing.” Those who demur, of course, do so just on this point. David Edelstein writes in New York that “Without the extreme violence, Drive would be a lifeless rehash of such self-consciously existential thrillers as Walter Hill’s The Driver and Michael Mann’s Thief ….” Scott, whose take more closely echoes my own on the film’s overall affect, calls Drive “a prisoner of its own emptiness, substituting moods for emotions and borrowed style for real audacity.” Hoberman puts a somewhat more positive spin on much the same point, concluding: “It’s a machine, but it works.”

And it does. If Drive targets a specific type of film geek who grew up on laconic, quasi-existentialist, moody, hyper-stylized crime films, it hits its spot with accuracy, precision, and power. Much of its pleasure is based in the way the narrative, characters, and iconography call up the whole tradition in which it’s rooted. As in The Driver, 1978, the main character in Drive (Ryan Gosling) is a professional getaway driver for low-end heists, a professional who is the best at what he does and who operates by a strict code; in this case, though, his work as a movie stuntman adds another layer of self-consciousness. In The Driver, O’Neal’s character never seems to feel much of anything or anybody, with one exception, and it is that exception that nearly destroys him: The Driver attracts the attention of The Detective (Bruce Dern) who finally goads him into taking terrible risks. The only emotions here, then, are the ones that grow out of this masculine rivalry: overtly, pride bordering on hubris; latently, envy. In terms of its emotional wellsprings, then, Drive is more consonant with The Driver’s source material, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï, 1967. There, an assassin hesitates to shoot a beautiful female singer who can identify him as a killer, and breaking that rule leads to his death.

Michael Mann, and Refn following him, takes this twist on the noir– a bad man brought down by a good woman- into more openly emotional terrain. In Thief, 1983, Frank (James Caan) is a criminal who abides by a specific code, but he also dreams of another life, and falls in love and starts to form a household with Jessie (Tuesday Weld). This makes him vulnerable, and that vulnerability leads to his doom. His dreams of suburban contentment with Jessie end up in direct conflict with his ability to maintain his freedom; he cares about Jessie and his straight life too much, which he realizes to his dismay, until he is forced to torch it all so that he can get out from under the thumb of mob-boss Leo (Robert Prosky). In Drive, the Driver is doomed from the moment he falls in love with Irene (Carey Mulligan), and tries to help her, her son Benicio (Kaden Leos), and her ex-con husband Standard (Oscar Isaacs) out of a jam. In both, then, the criminal is made vulnerable by his feelings for an innocent woman (not a noir-ish femme fatale) who represents a kind of life the protagonist can never have. This leads him to violate his code, and from that point on the end is unavoidable.

Like Ryan O’Neal’s Driver, but quite unlike Caan’s Frank, Gosling’s Driver is distinguished from those around him by his avoidance of speech. Michael Mann’s characters have been less prone to verbalize their thinking in recent years (Miami Vice, Public Enemies), but from Thief through to Heat, 1995, they were actually quite talkative when it came to their dreams, their flaws, and their personal codes. This is not to say that they were always honest with themselves and others, strictly speaking, but they tended to have a well-rehearsed-sounding set of goals and dicta. By contrast, Gosling’s Driver has only the tale of the scorpion and the toad, which he has made into an emblem through the golden scorpion stitched onto the back of his jacket. With their Driver, Gosling and Refn hew more closely to Hill and O’Neal just as Hill and O’Neal stayed true to Melville and Delon in Le Samouraï, except for the degree to which Irene raises emotions that the Driver can’t control. Gosling’s performance is far more nakedly emotional and conflicted than either Delon or O’Neal, yet apart from a kiss in an elevator, the Driver never consummates his feelings for Irene, and seems genuinely to want to help Standard (whereas a noir protagonist surely would contrive to betray Standard so as to have Irene to himself). It is both his altruism here and his laconic affect that so call to mind Eastwood’s Man with No Name (Leone’s innovation with anti-heroes might be thought of as putting a Melville character against a Western backdrop).

The hero’s near-silence in Drive is also becoming a Refn characteristic; One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) in Valhalla Rising never speaks a word, having a scruffy child interlocutor who may or may not represent him truthfully. Refn has spoken in interviews of eliminating as much backstory and dialogue for the Driver as possible: “I love the language of silence. Like the character in “Vanishing Point” who is essentially also very existentialist in his silence. The great heroes are always more silent, from that to the Man With No Name to The Samurai and Shane. There’s a mythology. The man who’s always more silent is always the one who’s unpredictable.” (Gossip Central) The same kind of self-consciousness that informed the choice of stunt-driver as sideline (note that this can be found in James Sallis’ source novel) informs the psychological make-up of the character, according to Refn and Gosling, so that their Driver is not only a silent-type in the tradition of le Samouraï and the Man with No Name, but appears deliberately to be modeling himself on them. Gosling: “I think he’s somebody who’s seen too many movies. He’s confusing his life for a film, and he’s made himself the hero of his own action film. He’s just kind of lost in the mythology of Hollywood.” (The A.V. Club) One rather suspects that for Refn, at least, the notion that the Driver actually thinks of himself as a movie character is essentially an alibi for his indulgence as a filmmaker in a favorite character type. After all, as he says about the adaptation process, “I just picked and dissected everything and put the elements back into my fetish. I’m a fetish filmmaker.” (Gossip Central)

If the narrative and the central character manifest a fetishization of Melville, Hill, Mann, and others, so do aspects of the film’s style. In one of the best pieces I’ve read on the film, Jim Emerson spots the allusions to The Driver, Thief, To Live and Die in L.A., and American Gigolo, and the “ersatz-Tangerine Dream synth score of the kind so popular in the early 1980s” before arguing that “Emotion, character, story—they’re not so much what ‘Drive’ is interested in. The movie makes fetishistic use of signifiers for those things, but its most tangible concerns have (paradoxically?) to do with dreamy abstractions of color and shape and movement.” That is indeed the movie’s great strength: the sheer sensual power with which Refn deploys his fetishized signifiers. The film is rife with all the iconography of its sub-genre: shots of neon and fluorescent-lit spaces at night, the L.A. River (I lived in L.A. for years, and never once saw the river; pick a half-dozen crime films set in L.A., and you won’t be able to avoid it), down-at-heel diners, garages, slightly shabby apartments, very shabby motels, cheap restaurants, beachside cliffs, and most of all the streets of downtown Los Angeles.

As Emerson points out, the music too is retro-styled. Cliff Martinez’ score in its most propulsive moments recalls Tangerine Dream’s late-70s/early-‘80s soundtrack work, notably for Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977) and Thief (1981), while in its quieter, dreamier moments recalls Brian Eno’s ambient albums from around the same time (Discreet Music, 1975, Music for Airports, 1978, Music for Films, 1978, On Land, 1983). A lush romantic piece by Riz Ortolani from 1971 is used which, with its weirdly stilted enunciation by a singer for whom English is clearly not a first language, seems particularly suited to the reading of the film as about a man obsessed with Hollywood mythology, rather than merely embodying it. Most of the pop/vocal pieces compiled on the soundtrack are even clearer examples of nostalgia and retro fetishism than Martinez’ score. Mostly they are pastiches of ‘70s/’80s Eurodisco, here performed by Kavinsky & Lovefoxxx and Johnny Jewel (under the names Chromatics- a band once but he took them over- and Desire and on his label, itself entirely devoted to saluting Italian disco: Italians Do It Better). These tracks sit alongside a synth-pop tune by “College featuring Electric Youth,” “A Real Hero,” a song with a chorus that includes the line “A real human being and a real hero,” one so deliberately inane it can only be a salute to terrible ‘80s soundtrack pop. That song is also incredibly catchy, of course, and the cold textures of both the score and the Eurodisco go some ways to giving the film its insistent throb.

For all the allusions dotting Drive like the neon lights reflected on Don Johnson’s Ferrari in Miami Vice, beyond the iconography, it is in visual style that Refn is most original, makes his deepest mark on the tradition. For his part, Melville mostly sticks to 50mm lenses as far as I can tell; there’s some depth of field in Le Samouraï, but not much, the focal lengths are never extreme.

Melville’s editing is crisp, as ever, and his camera movements are lithe but used sparingly. Hill follows Melville’s example, but if anything The Driver’s visual style is even more plain and stripped back. He eschews deep focus except for a few shots (e.g., of the Detective and his crew in and around their van), and camera movements are minimized and strictly motivated. In Thief, Mann mostly tends to quite markedly shallow depth of field, often accentuated by very low-key lighting (there are a lot of night-time exteriors here), and occasionally by the use of diffusion.

The one shot in the opening sequence with any real focal depth is also one of the most self-consciously painterly shots:

As the film goes on, Mann uses long stretches of shallow focus done with long lenses, but alternating with short bursts of wide angle shots. At L&A Plating, for example, a notably planimetric shot of Frank arriving at the offices is followed by a wide angle shot of him entering the interior, followed by a shallow shot/reverse shot alternation as he talks to the receptionist, followed by a wide angle shot of Frank going into the boss’ office, etc. In the scene where Frank destroys his own car lot, relatively deep shots show him walking through the lot, but markedly shallow shots show him in his own car as the lot goes up in flames in the background.

Indeed, by contrast with the above shot of the lake at the opening, some of the most memorable images are ones with very little depth, images where Mann uses shallowness to memorable pictorial effect, as in the second heist where a magnesium rod is used to burn through the door of a safe, and to provide smoke and sparks that eventually overwhelm all else in the image

…Or here, shallow depth of field in a planimetric composition during a key scene in the burgeoning of Frank and Jessie’s relationship:

Refn and his d.p., Newton Thomas Sigel, though, use wide angles lenses throughout Drive to get a considerable and consistent depth of focus; in American Cinematographer, Sigel speaks of Refn’s fondness for 18 and 21 mm lenses. Moreover, Refn and Sigel exaggerate depth still further with some high but many more low angle shots.

In other shots, Refn and Sigel import some sense of deep focus through the use of mise-en-abîme compositions, framing Gosling within frames, especially in his car.

Not only does Drive differ from its narrative ancestors in its cinematographic choices, those choices also point to Refn’s authorial signature. On Bleeder and the Pusher trilogy, Refn’s style was directed toward a naturalist grittiness, and hand-held camerawork predominated. With Bronson and Valhalla Rising, though, he really gave in to his attraction to deep focus cinematography. Bronson, shot mostly in interiors, uses wide angle lenses that veer almost to fisheye-like extremes, along with low-angle, largely static shots punctuated with a few notable lateral tracking shots.

If Drive is Refn’s Mann film, Bronson is his homage to Kubrick; Tom Hardy’s performance is in the same tradition of theatricalized grotesquerie as Sterling Hayden and George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove, Malcolm McDowell and Patrick Magee in A Clockwork Orange (Bronson’s particular touchstone), Jack Nicholson in The Shining, and Vincent D’Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket. The portrayal of British prisons and urban squalor in Bronson recalls Clockwork Orange, too, as does the inclusion of classical music for a bit of cognitive dissonance; even the scenes of Bronson onstage performing his life for an audience recall the onstage demonstration of the success of the Ludovico Technique.

In turn, Valhalla Rising is Refn’s pulpy version of a Herzog film. Perhaps because he is shooting almost entirely in exteriors, Refn returns here to hand-held cinematography, but retains the consistent, wall-to-wall in fact use of wide angle lenses for deep focus.

In Valhalla, those depth effects have the advantage of enhancing some of the physical action- and this is a film that puts Drive’s vaunted head-smashing right into the shade. But it is also used to create the effect of an ultraviolent cinema of contemplation, and if the film as a whole recalls Aguirre: Wrath of God, in one case Refn pauses on a static shot that strikingly resembles The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

Valhalla Rising

As in Valhalla, there’s a lot of camera movement in Drive, but as in Bronson, those movements are tracking shots. If the tracking shots in Bronson have a Kubrickian bombast, though, in Drive, the Steadicam renders movements that are smooth and sinuous, key to the seductiveness of the film’s images.

How can we think about what Refn is doing with film style in Drive? If the narrative, soundtrack, and iconography of the film fetishize Melville, Mann, and Hill (and Leone, and Schrader, and Friedkin, and…), then the visual qualities achieved through the Steadicam shots, the deep focus, the low angles and the mise-en-abîme shots are themselves deeply sensuous, giving the sense of caressing the spaces and objects in front of the lens, charging and fetishizing the surface of the film itself. And so here is another sense in which Refn accurately can call himself a fetish filmmaker: he fetishizes not only his sources but the very material of the film itself, to the point of abstracting the physicality of this genre narrative until Drive becomes not a crime film, but a dream of a crime film (more even than a fairytale, which it has also been called), whether it’s the Driver’s dream or Refn’s.

There’s a fine line in fetishes, of course, between the sensual and the sexual, as Refn himself highlights. In American Cinematographer, Refn recalls using Kenneth Anger’s homoerotic experimental classic “Scorpio Rising” (1964) as a visual reference, even screening it for Gosling. “Ryan asked, ‘Why are you showng me a movie with a lot of guys working on motorcycles?’ And I said, ‘It’s how it’s shot- the sensual, sexual nature of it, the fetish, the objectification. That’s what we should try to go for.’” Fittingly, the visual elements that Emerson seems most drawn to in Drive brings together aspects of style and sexuality, namely the use of red- “I like the red a lot”- which pops up in scenes between the Driver and Irene, and which the scene in the strip club is awash with. Emerson: “What I remember is the red. The film becomes pregnant with red.”

The way in which the aesthetic of the film gets from and gives to the material a distinctly sexual charge points to another of its innovations to the tradition of crime film it glorifies. Elements of sexuality may be there in Le Samouraï, may be clearer still in Thief (and To Live and Die in L.A. and of course in American Gigolo), but are never so visible as Refn has made them here. In this way especially, Drive can be seen as a work of film criticism (as The Man Who Wasn’t There is to the film noir, say, making explicit themes found by critics in the noir at least since Paul Schrader’s wrote about it), detecting sexual themes latent or repressed or simply soft-pedaled in the earlier films, and thematizing them. It is clear here that the Driver’s violence is an expression of repressed sexuality. The red highlights this, from the diner encounter with Irene to the violence in the strip club, the Driver and his victim surrounded by the red walls and naked women.

The film’s key emotional moment makes the nexus of sexuality and violence as clear as Refn can make it: the Driver kisses Irene in an elevator, then a moment later, in the same space and the next breath, smashes in the head of a villain. It’s not that a sexual subtext would be new to this kind of crime film, but Refn problematizes and hyperbolizes it, like a DePalma to Mann’s Hitchcock.

Drive is, then, a contribution to its particular kind of silent-tough-guy, hyperstylized, cool crime film. But what it adds is filigree. It’s a baroque, decadent, intensification of and comment on those aspects of Melville, Hill and Mann that Refn fetishizes, film geek that he is, and it appeals to other film geeks, like me, who share his tastes. But is that enough? For a good genre film, sure; but for a great one? In his review, A.O. Scott concludes by suggesting “that it is, for all its bravado, timid and conventional.” In doing so, Scott faults Refn for not using “genre” as “a bridge between familiar narrative structures and new insights about how people interact and behave.” I can never go quite so far as to criticize a film for not trying to do something it is manifestly not attempting, but I am sympathetic to his concerns. Drive is in no way about any kind of actual, recognizable real life; perhaps it doesn’t need to be, but then, most great films are, at least on some level, however much they rely on artifice to get their ideas across. Certainly this is not a realist film, but on the level of dreams or fairytales it doesn’t say very much either, not about actual people rather than characters. It may give us real emotions, but never anything like a recognizable individual; it is a movie about this tough guy, the Driver, but mainly it is a movie about The Tough Guy, the whole character type the Driver represents.

The silent Driver, so cool and professional and so underestimated, embodies a kind of criminal who appeals to us in books and films (Richard Stark’s Parker character is that type elevated nearly to superhero status), but why is that type so widely fetishized? There’s nothing wrong with being attracted to these kinds of characters, but I think it is worth acknowledging what that appeal is for us, what work it does for our psyches. For myself, I can trace the attraction of this type back to Batman’s appeal to me as a child (and, okay, since, too). I see something fundamentally childish in the appeal of this kind of guy (“bad” or “good” or neither), a guy who lives outside all rules but his own, and who has so much more to him than anyone guesses; who is simply so able, so good at it, but also so deep. It’s a fantasy of being in control, as in Batman, a fantasy that we use to explain and justify to ourselves the feeling that we are outsiders (including, sometimes, the feeling that we are better for being outsiders). It’s romantic, but in Drive, unlike the best iterations of the Batman myth, it doesn’t say anything about us, only about things we fetishize and consume. So Drive can be said to be a postmodernist study of this type of film and this type of anti-hero. But is it simply a deeply self-indulgent film for Refn and Gosling, or an indulgence that can be shared by those of us who share their particular taste-culture? To call Drive a dream may be accurate, but maybe that’s also a justification, an excuse for its own self-consciousness, genre-obsessiveness, and retromania. Taken on its own terms, though, Drive‘s accomplishments are real enough, however modest: it is a sharp dissection of the psyche of this character type, and a powerful piece of genre filmmaking, as well as a powerful piece of filmmaking about genre. To make a film about genre with the feel for it that Refn brings to this, a sense of nostalgia is perhaps not only inevitable but crucial.