Amoeblog

What Do You Call A Commercial That Sells Only Itself? The Fall (2008)

Posted by Charles Reece, May 23, 2008 03:08pm | Post a Comment
The opening credit sequence to Tarsem Singh's The Fall looks like a Calvin Klein ad: shot in black & white, pretty and elliptical, a dead horse is pulled out of a river with a crane attached to railroad bridge.  And, boy howdy, the critics don't much like the film!  It received a 58/100 from both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes.  Without exception, every negative review mentions the commercial and music video background of Tarsem (as he is credited). That's a cudgel that's been used on Ridley Scott, David Fincher and other directors coming out of the commercial video world, often with good reason.  For example, Se7en wasn't much more than an overly long Nine Inch Nails video. The problem isn't that commercial and video works lack craft or aestheticism (as they once did), but that their instrumental value as shills for products culturally diminishes any value they might otherwise have as art.  Iggy Pop once asked rhetorically what did it matter how he used his songs so long as he initially created them for himself.  Well, is it possible for anyone under 50 to watch Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras' meditation of time and memory, Hiroshima mon amour:


Without having the experience diminished by having seen tons of Calvin Klein ads like the following?


Resnais' visual style has been corrupted -- maybe not forever, but for as long as ad agencies continue to rip him off. Thus, as long as Tarsem continues to blow his aesthetic load during the commercial breaks for Lost (its viewers being the target audience for the type of commodities his visuals sell), his films will be taken about as meaningfully as "Lust For Life" or Moby's entire oeuvre.  Still, it takes a lot of skill and knowledge to make something that looks and plays like this:


Or this:


It's just a shame that a director who's spent his time studying Tarkovsky, Parajanov and, judging by that last example, To, had to start off commodified -- pre-packaged and easily consumable.  The degree to which Tarsem's been a success at commercials and videos -- that is, left his mark on their stylistic evolutions -- is the degree to which any importation of his style to his films will make them seem ad-like.  And since The Fall was largely self-financed, Tarsem seems to be a pretty successful commercial director. That ain't a good thing for filmic art, but it's a better job than most if you can get it.

One doesn't have to be a social determinist about all of this. Tarsem's aesthetic (wide-angled, symmetrical shots of exotica in crisp black & white or saturated colors) can be separated from the commercial connotations of its originary sources.  There's nothing more intrinsically ad-like about his style than Resnais'.  Unfortunately, the present milieu often makes it easier to experiment in ads than in more traditional outlets for film and music (Nick Drake didn't find success on the radio, after all), so any filmmaker with a proclivity for formalism might be better served (make a living) by commercial video, where a premium isn't placed on plot-driven narratives.  Such a filmmaker can learn to create effects (e.g., emotive, cognitive) with his images alone, rather than having them service the mechanics of a plot (e.g., what does this image mean?).  It is, however, difficult to separate the style of such images from the way it was formerly used.  The form feels like product placement where someone forgot to insert the product.  Commercialism corrodes everything it comes into contact with.


What's most intriguing about The Fall is the way Tarsem took what his critics saw as the portentous bloat of The Cell and made the kitsch work for the story this time around.  A not particularly gifted storyteller, Roy, spins a clichéd fantasy for a little Romanian girl, Alexandria, while both are convalescing in a Los Angeles hospital in 1915 (he has a broken back and she, a broken arm). The fantasy is a less imaginative variation on the idea used by Alan Moore for League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, where a version of Zorro leads an multicultural team of specialists (including Charles Darwin) on a mission of vengeance against the nefarious Governor Odious to save the beautiful Sister Evelyn. The ostentatious visuals represent the provincially limited imaginations of Roy and Alexandria. Yeah, they're kind of empty, but that's because they're an interpretation of the story-within-a-story that's being told.  Thus, this sort of comment completely misses the point:

Tarsem seems to have remained interested only in image-making for its own ends. There is never a sense that The Fall exists for any reason besides simply being something nice to look at.  [...] For a film that wants to present itself as extravagantly dazzling, there is something thuddingly familiar and bland in its vision.  -- Marc Olsen

What's wrong with creating "something nice to look at?"  It seems implicit in Olsen's objection that commercial films have to be narrative.  But Tarsem's film does have a narrative, which all the pretty images serve.  He uses the "extravagant thud" of his images for at least two purposes: as a commentary (often ironic) on the ideas and notions of his two main characters and as a fantastic filter for the narrative realism (the main story of the relation between the storyteller and the girl).  An example of the former is how Roy's story of wigwams, peace pipes and squaws is contrasted with the images of India where a warrior loses his love at the hands of Odious. An example of the latter purpose is the central story arc:  Roy is a jilted lover who's been paralyzed by a movie stunt gone wrong and wants to die. Since he can't rise to get enough morphine to kill himself, he uses his story to con Alexandria into stealing him the medicine. Odious is the Rudy Valentino-lookalike actor who stole Roy's actress girlfriend from him. After a failed suicide attempt and Alexandria injures herself trying to get more morphine for Roy, he begins to slaughter all the heroes in his story while she lies bed-ridden and sobbing, pleading with him to save them.


The Fall reminds me of two other recent films, Pan's Labyrinth and Tideland, both of which put the big lie to the notion of fantasy as escapism -- that fantasy exists to help us run from the brutal dictates of reality. It doesn't take Lacanian psychoanalysis to understand that fantasies are often more defined by what they omit than what they depict. Tideland -- Terry Gilliam's return to form and one of the best films of recent years -- was reviled upon release because it's the most direct of the three about the relation between reality and fantasy. It  turns the reality of pedophilia, drug addiction, child abuse and death into a fantasy before your eyes by filtering it through the concepts of a little girl. For example, she falls in love with and kisses a mentally handicapped 20-something male, neither possessing the moral concept coming from adult authority that would normally prohibit such a relation. In Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, another little girl finds the fascism of 1940s Spain tolerable by recasting it in a fantastic struggle between good and evil. Reality catches up with her, but she goes out believing she's a princess being taken away to a magical kingdom. Similarly, when Alexandria is pleading with Roy to save the Zorro-like Red Bandit, which is Roy's stand-in, reality is making itself known. The difference between The Fall and these other two films is that, here, the little girl (and not just the audience) becomes aware of the repressed reality that's structuring the story.

Both fantasy and realism help us deal with reality by conceptually reconfiguring blunt reality in a manageable form. Both deliver reality, just in different ways: fantasy, indirectly, and realism, directly (at least, in terms of intent, but confer Paul Haggis' Crash).  It occurs to me that the viewer of Tarsem's The Fall is in a position somewhat akin to Alexandria's: trying to ignore the reality of his commercially encumbered vistas in order to enjoy his tale.  However, if one can find meaning in the neon folderol of New York and Tokyo as cinematographers often do, why not in Tarsem's slick exotica?  At least he's not selling anything this time around.


Truth through advertising.  Bruce Nauman's One Hundred Live and Die (1984)

COMMERCIAL IRONY MAKES ME FEEL LIKE AN AMERICAN

Posted by Charles Reece, May 10, 2008 11:11pm | Post a Comment
Continuing with my plan to see one summer blockbuster per week until the bitter end (we'll see how long I can last), I saw the Wachowski Brothers/Brother and Sister's Tolkien-inspired epic tribute to 70s' butchered anime, Speed Racer, this weekend.  As Eric B. and I were discussing, if you could turn the screen upside down, it would like an experimental film, something along the lines of Stan Brakhage's 1991 film, Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse:


But with the more vibrant colors of the 70s cartoon series (a bowdlerized version of Tatsuo Yoshida's anime from the 60s, Mahha GoGoGo):


Although Time's critic Richard Corliss proclaims the new film "the future of movies," I have some hope to the contrary, as allegorically alluded to in this scene from auteur producer Roger Corman's Death Race 2000 (another film that Speed Racer resembles):


Just think of the geriatric sacrifice as a stand-in for classic filmmaking.

Hegemonic Fantasies Make Me Feel Like an American, Part II: Iron Man

Posted by Charles Reece, May 4, 2008 08:48pm | Post a Comment
Just look at all that merchandising and sequel potential!

I have a special relation to the Iron Man comic; it was my first.  Due to Uncle Skeeter giving me issue 52 as a Christmas present, I developed a lifelong obsession with the graphic narrative form (i.e., it made me a comics nerd, but never this nerdy).  Despite the ablative effects of my high school years, in which I temporarily replaced my adolescent recreational addiction with one of a more illicit kind, I still remember that comic, due to a picture of me clutching it by a Christmas tree.  So, I guess it's a combination of nostalgia, the (more often than not) sobriety of adulthood and the promise of no Ben Affleck that keeps me going back to shitty Hollywood adaptations of superhero comics I rarely read these days.  Thankfully, Iron Man the movie is pretty good.

Even without narcotics, the Iron Man comic is pretty forgettable.  I only remember a few of his villains: The Mandarin, a Fu Manchu ripoff who wore a specially powered ring on each of his fingers; the Unicorn, a technological foe who shot repulsor beams from his forehead; the Viet Cong, dreaded communists who envied his capitalist knowhow and freedom (aka surplus leisure time); and the bottle, which took something like a 120 issues before it became a problem.  Mainstream entertainment isn't allowed to mock other nationalities anymore -- at least not explicitly -- so the Mandarin was out as a villain for the movie.  However, fearing foreign ideologies is still in fashion.  Only problem is that communists make better capitalists than classic liberals do these days, so Red-baiting wouldn't hold much cachet.  Ang Lee's The Hulk demonstrated that most people don't go to see superhero films for an analysis of domestic problems, so alcoholism will have to wait for a subplot in the turgid third installment.  And a guy who shoots beams from his forehead would probably look pretty stupid on the big screen, giving the screenwriters and production designers migraines trying to come up with some phony explanation for why his head doesn't snap back when he fires. 

Back when we were seeing communists in every bush, Iron Man served as a fantasy to supplant our fear of losing dominance in the world.  Not to be outdone by James Bond -- Ian Fleming's nostalgic fantasy for the fading British empire -- Tony Stark did everything better.  He slept with hot foreign girls and then discarded them (or, at least, it was implied to the degree that the Comics Code Authority would allow), played with fancy gadgets and traveled all over the world fighting the villainous Other.  Only, Stark was the gadget, and didn't need Q or the government, since he was an independently wealthy industrialist inventor, too.  His dalliances and battles were with the superpowerful.  And he got to travel throughout the universe, not just the Earth.  Talk about overcompensating for fear that your 13 inches just ain't big enough.  That's why, when Marvel gave the character his own comic in their Hollywood-ready line, the Ultimate Universe, they got sci-fi author and part-time right-wing nut, Orson Scott Card, to write it.  I haven't read Card's Ultimate Iron Man, but I bet his conservative Mormon outlook tends to frown upon the pathetic aspects underlying Stark's personal vices, and not the striding-around-the-gym-locker-room-with-your-dangling-dong metaphor that is the central focus of the character.

Not being one to shy away from America bashing, Scottish writer Mark Millar was more than willing to explore the darker parts of the fantasy with his realistic take on the the Avengers in the Ultimates ('realism' meaning here the updating of former implausibilities in a fantasy so that they seem more plausible to a contemporary audience, only to have them become implausible once again to some future audience -- cf. method acting).  Millar recognized that if Iron Man was to have any sort of realistic relation to our world, he'd have to be a tool of the military industrial complex.  The Ultimate Stark was shown making realpolitik compromises, taking orders from military officials, and establishing plausible deniability when some of the Utlimates' fuck-ups caused collateral damage (such as the Hulk eating people in NY).  Not being able to suppress his own humanist desire to see the best in people (or, rather, people's fantasies), Millar re-establishes Iron Man's essential heroism by having him reject military and government interference.  The Ultimates become independent agents, but only with the aid of Nick Fury's SHIELD.  Individuals serving the military industrial complex might be bad, but democratic values are safe in the hands of an ultra-secretive organization working outside our system of checks and balances.  The implausibility of the fantasy returns earlier than Millar probably intended.

What director John Favreau and his arsenal of screenwriters give us is Millar's paradoxically liberal humanist take on a character who's fundamentally a not-so metaphorical expression of American supremacy via technological force.  All that's left of the Cold War fear embodied in the Mandarin and Viet Cong is Orientalism and the name "Ten Rings" for the Afghan bad guys.  Only grips and corporate copyright holders fear communist countries nowadays (ripping is not a victimless crime), but everyone is afraid of terrorists. The events over the past 8 years supply the film with its realistic gravitas (recall the definition above). Thus, when Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is captured and waterboarded by the Ten Rings in order to get him to build a WMD that will allow them to take over the region, we're supposed to think of multiple you-know-whats, or at least have them resting right below the entertainment module in our brains. 

The liberal progressive critique is in having all the weapons used by the Ten Rings labeled 'Stark Industries.'  After Stark's capture, the film flashes back to a couple days before, when his playboy insouciance is still intact.  (Proving casting must be a real difficult profession: "We need someone to play a flippant, alcoholic rich guy." "How about a flippant, formerly drunk, rich actor?")  He deals with opprobrious questions from a journalist by sleeping with her.  On his way to Afghanistan to sell a new missile system to the military, he gets drunk with his pal and chaperon, Rhodie (Terrence Howard), while the stewardesses do some pole-dancing.  (Progressivism begins to strain: even though the writers make Rhodie a high-ranking military officer, he's still little more than Rochester to Stark's Jack Benny.)  Stark's drinking and cracking wise with the military brass after demonstrating how his missile can raze a mountain range.  And he's using charm and bravado on the grunts, who are in awe of his celebrity as they escort him back to the plane.  All the privileged arrogance brought on by class and celebrity drops, however, as the Ten Rings slaughter his escorts.  He barely manages to escape thanks to the sacrifice of the soldiers, before catching a chestful of shrapnel.  The last thing he sees is his name on the exploding bomb.

For a summer blockbuster featuring a superhero, that's some pretty potent social critique.  The liberal humanist fantasy comes in when Stark develops a conscience and returns to destroy all of his technology that's fallen into the hands of the Ten Rings.  This is an inherent problem with trying to proffer social critique, with its concerns of systemic problems, by way of the superhero genre, where moral resolution is personal.  Superman can beat the tar out of Darkseid, but he can't punch out poverty.  Thus, the allegory fails, not because -- as suggested by J. R. Jones -- Favreau fails to recognize the irony of having Stark battle his own weapons (what, the weapon labels are too subtle a clue?), but because cultural problems are irreducible to the individuals involved.  If everyone were a billionaire, no one would be rich.  Power requires the powerless; in a world where everyone possessed the same power, no one would have superpowers.  (Probably the best superheroic allegory for power is Mike Baron and Steve Rude's Nexus, an intergalactic hero who extinguishes a star every time he fires a blast from his hands.)  The problem isn't with Favreau's supposed ignorance, but with the genre itself.

Superheroic fantasies depend on the inherent goodness of the hero, which will transcend any structural (e.g., class, cultural, biological) limitations placed on him before acquiring the power.  Even superheroes empowered by the dark arts (e.g., the Demon and Ghost Rider) are so inherently good that they can overcome the influence of Satan.  Stark becomes a hero, because he rejects the rules of the military-industrial game in which he grew up and achieved success.  That game is what allowed him to become a superhero in the first place.  This is why Iron Man makes for a better conservative fantasy than progressive.  Conservatives tend to believe in the unerring goodness of the American system itself, rather than the people within the system.  His heroism is as an expression (I would say tool) of the system.  When he flies off to save a poor Afghan village from being terrorized by the Ten Rings against our military doing nothing, the film's allegory falls into cognitive dissonance.  In the real world, you neither gain power nor keep it by opposing the systemic differential whence it's derived, but by making the differential work for you, playing by the rules.  That's why politicians become more candid and generals more critical only after they retire.

Iron Man sidesteps this aporia of the genre in the third act by having Stark do battle with the film's stand-in for realworld power, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges).  I don't think I'm giving too much away to reveal Stane as the central villain, since he's bald and has a beard.  In one last allegorical nod to reality, Stane kills the Ten Ring terrorists in order to steal the Iron Man designs that Stark had left behind in his hasty escape.  Terrorists are propped up for crass pragmatic reasons, and they're taken down for the same reasons -- our inherent goodness having little to do with it.  Thus, the final battle between Stark and the armored Stane can be seen as a battle between the Imaginary and the Real.  This being the summer movie season, the Real is repressed once again.

Putting ideological quibbles aside (I am a proud American, after all), the writing is smarter than most summer spectacles, the CGI is about as seamless as I've seen and, with the exception of the last one, the battles are excellent.  This is the best of all the superhero films.


Method preparation for Iron Man 3

Hegemonic Fantasies Make Me Feel Like an American, Part I: The Animated Evolution of Iron Man

Posted by Charles Reece, May 3, 2008 08:39pm | Post a Comment
This is a multimedia accompaniment to my ruminations on the film.

Iron Man's cartoons were originally slightly animated cutouts from the comic book. Here he fights a Russian version of himself in a battle that looks like an inspiration for the final one in the movie (with Tony Stark's voice sounding suspiciously like Leslie Nielson's):



To a period when hipness was connoted in cartoons and comics by a mullet (even Superman had one). Stark looks more like a Bollywood hero than Sir Richard Branson:



To the interactive age (which provides the illusion that you're controlling the fantasy):

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