My contempt for the Bond formula has been extensively chronicled, especially my blame against Goldfinger for starting it all. It was thrilling, therefore, to see Casino Royale go in another direction, a very “back to basics” version of the franchise that was reminiscent of even earlier entries in the series, Dr. No and From Russia with Love. In those films, action, plot, and character were balanced precariously, yet perfectly. And in Casino Royale, that balance was brought back; Bond was suave without being a superhero, the political context was intact without being a punchline, and the stakes were high enough without a muddled plot.
Skyfall went somewhere else. It is unlike any other Bond film in the rest of the franchise. It literally is something else. And James Bond is someone else. At its core, it resembles 1995’s GoldenEye and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, but I’d hesitate to call such a comparison disingenuous because the former is one of the best Bond films, and certainly Pierce Brosnan’s best entry, and The Dark Knight is one of the strongest superhero films in recent memory. It’s that tone of morbidity of the latter, and its re-envisioning of its character, which seems to inform how many perceived what some might call The Nolanization of James Bond. Read the rest of this entry »
The Men Who Weren’t There: The Unreliable Narrator and His Effect on Audience’s Perception of Reality and Truth in Neo-Noir
This essay asks how first person narration in the genre of neo-noir affects the audience’s perception of reality, particularly in the films Memento and American Psycho. In both films, the narrator plays a pivotal role in influencing the structure of the story. With a brief examination of film noir, its aesthetic origins, (the classic cycle beginning with The Maltese Falcon [John Huston, 1941]), and the transition to neo-noir. I then examine the films Memento and American Psycho and briefly justify their place in the neo-noir canon.
Memento’s protagonist has anterograde amnesia, and his inability to create new memories thrusts the film’s structure into a uniquely non-linear format. Writer/director Christopher Nolan employs a technique where the film is told in reverse, while the protagonist attempts to make sense of the world around him, identify himself as a person, and find his wife’s killer, and all the while narrating his own tragic story. American Psycho’s protagonist is a product of his environment, where decadence and greed reign supreme. Unable to withstand the pressures of the yuppie society, his insanity leads him to murder. The protagonist’s self-awareness presents a nihilistic narrator, whose insanity skews every event in the film to an extent where the audience cannot differentiate between reality and fantasy.
The essay then compares the two protagonists, both in their style of narration and their awareness of their flaws. A certain amount of psychoanalysis is applied to examine the two characters. Through analysis of key scenes in each film and quotations from their screenplays, this essay asserts that first person narration in neo-noir is the driving force in how the audience perceives the way the story unravels and that there is a clear manipulation and exploitation of events within it.
“We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are” (Nolan 226). The closing lines of the complex neo-noir film Memento present the thesis of this essay, with our protagonist questioning his own reliability as a narrator. As Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) narrates his own story, we are presented with the elements of first person narration and the audience’s perception of reality. The presentation of first person narration or internal monologue within neo-noir has a drastic effect on this understanding of truth, altering sequences and twisting the audience’s perception of the story to an extent where all is manipulated. It is narration that drives these stories and thus affects the audience’s perception of truth and reality. Combining the elements of traditional film noir and postmodernism, the “problem” of narration in neo-noir adds complexity to a genre which already explores the intricacy of human nature and the nihilism of American popular culture. Narration plays a critical part in the two films that will be examined. With Memento, due to the character’s own memory fallacies, the narration is not only self-aware but provides a map for the audience as to what is occurring within the film. In American Psycho, the narration allows the protagonist, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) to reveal his own narcissism. Thus, his perception of events within the film shape the entire story, his method being his madness. Within these scenarios, the audience is at the will of the narrator. However, this is noir, a genre that is a nucleus of anti-heroes and human monsters. Both of these films make the same comment on American nihilism and retain the same themes of classic noir: pessimism, corruption, desire, and, of course, darkness.
What is Film Noir?
The cyclical nature of the debates about film noir’s classification within cinema history and its nature as a style or otherwise is as maddening and perplexing as the noir films themselves. Their inherent cynicism and narrative complexity are what make these films fascinating. The very argument, as simplistic as it seems, is whether noir is a style, genre, or movement. “Film noir [….] is a fabrication” (Bould 2), its very existence an enigmatic odyssey into the bleakness of the American soul. Because much of the debate around noir is whether or not it qualifies as a genre, it is best that genre be defined within a cinematic context. Genre is defined as “semantic approaches that catalogue ‘common traits, attitudes, characters, shots locations, […]’” (Bould 6, Altman 1999:219). Trying to define noir may be futile, as Bould concludes: “Film noir, like the femme fatale, is an elusive phenomenon: a projection of desire, always out of reach” (Bould 13). Regardless of what noir actually is, its elements are instantly recognizable.
Coming from the term Série noire, a series of Marcel Duhamel crime novels from 1945, noir was coined to describe these kinds of hardboiled novels in pre-WWII France in “right wing press vs. left wing culture” periodicals (Bould 15). This term would then be used to describe the novels of Dashiell Hammett, used by Nono Frank in 1946. The first film critic to use the term film noir was Jean–Pierre Chartier, labeling Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944) and Lost Weekend (Wilder, 1945)) as film noirs. He described them as “pessimistic, misanthropic US films” that were “driven by a logic of sexual desire that the public simultaneously required them to suppress” (Bould 15).
The genre’s aesthetic roots are in the German Expressionism movement with The Cabinet of Dr. Cagliari (Wiene, 1919) (Bould 26) with its tilted angles, oneiric set design and chiaroscuro and its realism taken from the French, from such films as La Bête Humaine (Renoir, 1945), where “poetic realism diffuses such energy […]” (Bould 35). Its sinister stories are taken from the hardboiled crime novels and Hollywood gangster movies of the 1930’s. In essence, aesthetically and stylistically, noir is an amalgam of established genres that revitalized certain elements to wipe off the shiny veneer of truth and sanity in American cinema and culture.
While noir began with The Maltese Falcon (1941), the last film of the noir cycle is Touch of Evil (Welles, 1956). Shock Corridor (Fuller, 1963), would launch the sub-genre of neo-noir. The clearest difference between classic noir and neo-noir is that the latter is completely self-aware and self-reflexive in its nature. However, the classic elements noir have made classifying a film as neo-noir overly simplistic. While there would be more authentic neo-noir films like Chinatown (Polanski, 1974), other films would be too easily defined as neo-noir when they were only distantly related to the genre, like Kill Bill (Tarantino, 2003).
Neo-noir takes the themes established by classic noir and builds upon them, exemplifying post-modernism. In classic noir, there is the protagonist that suffers from the problem of identity. Neo-noir adds a twist, like a temporal memory problem, making the character deeper and, in a way, more representational of the American male in the modern world. With neo-noir, the same American nihilism that was prevalent in classic noir is thrust into the contemporary culture filled with materialism, consumerism, technology, and a post-modern use of the styles that influenced today’s cinema. Neo-noir literally means new blackness, the kind of darkness audiences cannot help but explore.
Memento: Telling the Story Backwards
Christopher Nolan’s Memento revolves around a man in search for his wife’s rapist and murderer. However, when the film begins, it seems that he has already found the perpetrator. The immediate beginning, however, reveals the unique and iconic structure of the film. The protagonist, thus far unnamed, is holding a photograph as it undevelops and fades into bleak whiteness. His environment rolls backwards, as if the film were played in reverse. With this minimal amount of information, the audience begins its journey to truth and the murky state of what is real with the protagonist, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce).
The film cuts to Leonard sitting on his bed in a hotel room. Unlike the previous scene, which was in color, this scene is saturated black and white. It is in this scene that the narration begins and Leonard starts to establish himself and, less reliably, identify himself as a person. With noir and neo-noir’s themes of identity, Nolan’s protagonist, it seems, must start from scratch, as he begins, “So, where are you? You’re in some motel room” (Nolan 106). This is not explained, keeping the viewer in the dark as to why Leonard must explain and establish himself with such anonymity. The anonymity of the person is articulated metaphorically when Leonard says, in respect to the room, “It’s just some anonymous room” (Nolan 109). Leonard then begins to explicitly speak of himself: “You know who you are and you know kind of all about yourself” (Nolan 2:37).
This abstruseness in structure and narration makes this film qualify as neo-noir. The film’s protagonist, Leonard Shelby, suffers from a condition where he is unable to make new memories called anterograde amnesia, this having been caused by the same assailants guilty of his wife’s murder. There are now two factors that skew the way the story unfolds, as told subjectively from Leonard’s perspective: first, the story is subjectively told from Leonard’s point of view, and second, he has the “condition” he refers to innumerable times. However, Nolan utilizes another element: Memento is told in reverse. Memento is iconic for its unique non-linear narrative, in that all of the color sequences are edited in reverse with the black and white sequences working as interstitials. Similarly from Leonard’s perspective, the black and white sequences are seen in a linear format. With these three obstacles, astute attention paid to the film is paramount.
While a subjective and non-linear/linear narrative is uncommon, the viewer is not distanced from Leonard at all. Leonard’s narration makes the film a personal diary for himself. The narration brings in the audience closer to the character and the film, making it so that his journey to self-identification and exploration into his wife’s murder is just as much our passage.
The narration is not always present, but is included in key moments. For a while it is included primarily in the black and white scenes, but once Leonard begins speaking on the phone with someone shrouded in anonymity, that conversation narrates his background for us, explaining who Sammy Jenkis is. Thus, the narration switches to that of the uncertain temporality and is called into action when an instinct berates Leonard’s consciousness during the color sequences. When he reads the back of a Polaroid photograph (which acts as a clue) it is as if he is reading this evidence to himself. The film’s climax is technically its beginning, and just before Leonard kills the man he thinks killed his wife, he tries to make sure he is right by reading the back of the polaroid of the man is he is about to kill: “Don’t believe his lies. He is the one. Kill him” (Nolan 107). The cold tonality of those words reflects the complete conviction of Leonard, who does not always understand he cannot trust himself. Nor can he trust anyone else, including the film’s femme fatale Natalie (Carrie-Ann Moss), who uses Leonard for her own bidding. He cannot remember, even when she is perfectly explicit about her intentions. He cannot trust anyone, not even himself.
The film’s real climax is where it is revealed that Leonard has already avenged his wife’s death, and that Teddy, the most suspicious man in the film, is actually a cop. Narration plays a critical role in this climax. Teddy tells Leonard his entire history, that Sammy Jenkis never existed, that his wife’s assailants were caught, and that he has been going around town killing other people because Teddy is a corrupt cop who pitied him, and decided, with Leonard’s condition, he could make some money on it. Leonard is shocked, and in his madness, writes on the photograph of the man who just told him the truth: “Don’t believe his lies. He is the one. Kill him”. He slumps into denial, and Leonard performs his monologue:
“I have to believe in the world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there. But do I? Do I believe the world’s still there? Is it still out there?! Yes. We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different.” (Nolan 225-226).
This monologue is critical, as it explores the ideas of identity and its main purpose in the film noir genre. It taps into the existential layers of the genre, deconstructing the American antihero in a species of film which is known for its crimes and misdemeanors. The film’s philosophical aspect relates to Locke’s Problem of Identity, or whether memories actively create a person (Smith 2007, 35-44). Because Leonard is only left with the memory of his wife, he has transformed into a monster. Every time he closes his eyes, it will be as if he has to wake up from something else, with no memory of what just occurred. Leonard, as much as he knows that “we all need mirrors”, has no mirror he can use.
The way the film unfurls, the story’s structure is reliant on Leonard. Though the narration may flow in and out, the audience is always at his bidding. Nolan compared the narrative structure to a “Mobius strip”, the impossible shape that twists and turns in a serpentine way, with no discernible beginning (Spicer 2007, 59). Like the Mobius strip, Leonard cannot discern his own beginning; only what he thinks is his inception. His narration, personable\ and worthy of empathy, seems to be completely responsible for the audience’s trust in him. Even at the genesis of the film, while he is narrating a montage of his routine, he says, “You kinda have to learn to trust your own handwriting” (Nolan 110). He says this as a way to establish a system, some sort of semblance of sanity. But he cannot. He cannot even trust his own handwriting.
American Psycho: Vanity and Insanity
Based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, the equally divisive American Psycho does not immediately strike one as neo-noir. It is less of a noir pastiche compared to Nolan’s Memento, but the film is able to attain a certain naturalistic feeling of film noir without the distracting self-awareness. American Psycho is deadly satirical of the yuppie consumerist culture of the 1980s. Instead of the Red Scare being the source of social anxiety, it is rather failure and alienation in yuppie culture. The social anxiety is less of a political motivation, but the motivation of a generation to be greedy, vain, and self-indulgent. This consumerist point of view is stressed throughout the film, and mirrors the American nihilism and apathy the same way that classic noir did, but with the appropriation of materialism. Its dark, cunning protagonist would make this film classified as “criminal noir”.
Patrick Bateman is a man who, underneath the layers of “Valentino Couture”, “water-activated gel cleanser” and “exfoliating gel scrub” is no human being (Harron/Turner 8). He is a mad man, one whose insanity drives the entire film and its plot. His internal monologue shares his apathetic and vain personality, revealing the paltry depth of his humanity.
A product of the 1980’s culture, Patrick Bateman is fully aware of his “flaws”. He fully admits that he may or may not be sane. Over a montage of his daily routine, focused on physical beauty, he says, “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping you […] I simply am not there” (Harron/Turner 8). With this in mind, the film progresses, with Bateman intermittently commenting on his life, like a stream of consciousness.
The method of introduction, sentient of his insanity, obtrudes the viewer into a world where there is no strict dichotomy of reality and fantasy. The viewer thus shares the inability to discern reality with Bateman. Only in a few moments is there a hint of some boundary between reality and fantasy that is demonstrated to the audience. While at a night club, Bateman tries to pay for a drink with a ticket, but the bartender says that they are not valid anymore and asks him to pay the price for his beverage. When she turns away, Bateman, talking to her but facing a mirror, he says, “You are a fucking ugly bitch, I want to stab you to death and then play around with your blood” (Harron/Turner 8). She does not notice this and it is as if the disclosure had never happened. However, in terms of definite contrasts into Bateman’s ability to perceive reality, this is the only pronounced indication that the audience is given until the end of the film.
The comments that Bateman makes about his coworkers and life are the same kind of mundane and pedestrian remarks others make. From being deathly envious of a coworker and his ability to get reservations at an expensive restaurant to his irritation at his betrothed’s insistence on getting married, Bateman’s internal monologue epitomizes the subjectivity of narrative storytelling. Everything he says is from his perspective and influences the way the audience perceives the world around him.
Bateman, though, seems to show some vulnerability in the film, which suggests a social commentary relevant to the era. Already driven by madness, the pressures of society seem to drive him insane. When asked by his fiancée why he cannot simply quit his job, he answers honestly, not only for himself, but for everyone around him: “I… want… to… fit… in” (Harron/Turner 13). His vain mentality is explained by the culture that surrounds him, in that the standards and expectations are unattainable without extreme stress.
American Psycho is not a proto-typical neo-noir, and seems more characteristic of horror, with its sadistic violence and generous amount of gore. However, the film’s inherent pessimism, satirical cynicism towards yuppie culture, and fatalism for its protagonist makes it a veritable qualifier for the sub-genre. After murdering Paul Allen, Bateman goes to his apartment to create his alibi. The narration in the scene begins like the archetypal criminal in classic noir. However, it regresses to Bateman’s typically narcissistic thought process. He says, “When I get to Paul Allen’s place, I use the keys I took from his pocket before the disposing of the body. There is a moment of sheer panic when I realize that Paul’s apartment overlooks the park and it’s obviously more expensive than mine” (Harron/Turner 30:14). Bateman is so blinded by greed that he can barely keep his focus on the murder. His purblind attitude towards everything is essential to understanding the plot of the entire film.
Patrick Bateman has not killed anyone. He has not even killed Paul Allen. It was all in his imagination. That does not mean he is sane. He manifests his blood lust in books with drawings of the murders he thinks he has committed. His sanguineous fantasies are just as much as ours as they are his. His blood lust is an addiction one that layers itself so that Bateman’s world is then deemed incomprehensible.
The morbidity of the film is one defined by the world that the protagonist lives in, an amalgamation of fear, desire, lust, and greed. Bateman’s awareness of his mental state is clear from his formal introduction, making his apathy for it all the more terrifying. Even if the film works as a confession, he admits “[…] there is no catharsis” (Harron/Turner 94). His entire perspective is non-compos mentis, poisoned to where he is unable to discern between reality and fantasy. This juxtaposition of self-awareness and lack of awareness of one’s environment deliberately misleads the audience’s understanding of what is happening. Bateman’s character is illustrated with complexity; his madness is imbued with every frame of the film. After all the events of the film, even he admits, “I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing…” (Harron/Turner 94). Everything that has happened has only opened a door into his mind, even though, it really has not happened at all.
Leonard Shelby and Patrick Bateman: Two Narrators, Two Problems
Memento and American Psycho explore the noir-esque element of first person narration and its unreliability and effect on audience perception of truth. The methods of narration that Leonard Shelby and Patrick Bateman employ are similar, yet different. While both films are considered examples of neo-noir, they do not utilize narration the way that classic noir did. Generally, classic noir featured a narrator who told his story with narration and flashback, as the narrator himself tried to make sense of the events to make a coherent story. However, both Leonard and Bateman’s narration is more in the style of stream-of-consciousness, narrating what is occurring to them at that moment, as opposed to what has happened in the past. (Hollinger 1996, 243). Classic noir “[…] most often contain weak, powerless narrators who tell a story of their past failures or of their inability to shape the vents of their lives to their own design” (Hollinger 1996, 243-44).
Both narrators continue the tradition in that they are unreliable, but the difference between Leonard and Patrick is in the why. Leonard is a man who cannot trust himself because of his inability to do so. His ability to lie to himself and change the progression of the story is increased by his mental condition. Patrick Bateman, however, is just insane. He has the full mental capacity to tell the truth to himself, but refuses to, because he is completely blinded by the yuppie culture he thrives in. His insanity is not only a product of his own perversions, but also of the culture. At times, the consequence is that Bateman at times can be honest and objective about certain scenes, where Leonard is living a lie to the extent where it completely affects the entire film. Despite his temporal limitations, Leonard remains just as guilty as Bateman, as the self-delusion he creates is an act of deliberation rather than an accident of his condition. This aspect is where the two characters relate to one another in an unusual way; both are able to lie to themselves and to continue to live their lives, where they have no qualms with their actions.
However, both men make the choices to lie to themselves, and thus remain unreliable narrators. Leonard asks himself, “Do I lie to keep myself happy?” (Nolan 224) This is a true statement for both Leonard and Bateman, but the latter does it deliberately in a sociopathic way. Leonard’s motivations are for solace and personal fulfillment. Memento is an example of a “neo-noirish revenge film” (Schmidt 13), where its main narrative purpose is for the protagonist to seek revenge. American Psycho is what one could consider a “criminal noir film”, where its protagonist is less of an antihero and more deliberately a villain. The film’s main goal seems to seek the opposite of redemption, and acts as a seduction of the viewer to the dark side. With narration, this allows Bateman to almost personally entice and seduce the viewer. The styles and uses of narration intensify the film, making each moment seem more personal and intimate. Whereas American Psycho deals with the identity of a generation, Memento deals with the identity of one man. This affects the viewer’s empathy for the character, in both positive and negative ways, and sends the narrative structure, and viewer’s ability to perceive reality, careening off the edge of conventionality to a point of no return.
The medium of film has always been able to reflect social atmosphere through characters and stories, film noir and neo-noir often acting exemplary models. The genres reflect the seedy darkness of American humanity. However, what make noir and neo-noir unique is the ambiguity that illustrates the classic archetypes: the antihero, femme fatale, and villain. Often, no character is the de facto good guy. As classic noir transitioned to neo-noir, the ambiguity was intensified with more graphic depictions of the sinister stratum of fear and loathing in the United States. The films Memento and American Psycho continue the neo-noir aesthetic and utilize voiceover to critically affect the narrative structure. The films exploit the subjectivity of the narrator with the interpretation of events. With Memento, the film’s protagonist is unable to create new memories, thrusting the viewer into a spiral as the film is told in reverse. This narrator is unlike any other, one who cannot even trust himself. In American Psycho, a film satirizing yuppie culture, Patrick Bateman views the world in a deathly nihilistic lens. His narration is able to portray his abilities to see the world in both an objective way, in observing his culture, as well as one blinded by madness and consumerism, the culture he so astutely observes. Narration is the driving force of both films, shaping the audience’s perception so that each film is understood as entirely subjective from the protagonist’s point of view, thus shaping the audience’s perception of reality. There seems to be no clear dichotomy between fantasy and reality, especially when both narrative styles seem to be a stream of consciousness. What is critical to both of these films is the audience’s ability to separate reality from fiction. Narration adds a very personal element to the films, in that the audience can never truly distance themselves from the characters. Thus, trusting the protagonist is vital, but proves almost foolhardy by the end.
While one character may inspire empathy, the other inspires repulsion. Yet both of these characters, holding the audience at their mercy, reflect the nihilistic American soul, presenting an unsatisfied and disturbed persona of a post-WWII people, all executed with a sinister framework.. In neo-noir, there is no light; there is only darkness.
American Psycho. Dir. Mary Harron. Perf. Christian Bale. LionsGate, 2000. Blu-ray.
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In my last review, for Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby, I mentioned that I am occasionally guilty of having such loathing for a director, or someone of that ilk, that I will go into their film with a closed mind. Mind you, that doesn’t happen often, but it does happen once in a while. Surprisingly, I went into Man of Steel, the new Superman reboot, with a fairly open mind. Or rather, an apathetic and ambivalent one. Despite being directed by another one of my least favorite people, Zack Snyder, responsible for such putrid work as Sucker Punch and 300, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Or I didn’t really care one way or the other. Granted, by the one trailer I had watched months ago, the one touting Christopher Nolan’s involvement, I expected something thoughtful. Not necessarily because of Nolan’s part in the making of the film, but more because it has been the latest trend of rebooting superheroes to be more grim, contemplative, existential, etc. Therefore, it shocked me that my fairly neutral expectations were thrashed and destroyed, as if Superman himself had torn them apart. And not in a good way.
As with all reboots of the last decade or so, Man of Steel frames itself as an origin story, attempting to delve into Krypton, the origin of both Superman and Clark Kent, and Superman’s father situation. Thus, the plot results in Kent’s quiet, yet noticeable presence on earth, saving people left, right and center, and General Zod’s desire to capture the ever present Superman. General Zod was at one point the head of Krypton’s army, for the record. Meanwhile, Lois Lane is saved by a mysterious someone and is determined to track down the origin of her savior.
Man of Steel, perhaps at its core, feels like a poorly written lead in to what could be something far better. Like the bad TV movie that works as a prequel to the “fair to serviceable to maybe even good” TV series. Think Star Wars: The Clone Wars, that terrible 3D animated movie that ended up giving way to a pretty great animated television series. Well, at least we can hope. So much of the film feels like setup and so little of it feels like plot or anything worth really caring about. This, I feel, is screenwriter David S. Goyer’s fault, as well as co-story writer (but not screenwriter) Christopher Nolan’s fault. While watching the film, I could not believe that Nolan had anything to do with the story of Man of Steel, so I assumed that Goyer, who worked on Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, had written the screenplay alone (which he did, and it really shows). That Nolan was certainly a part of the story process causes me internal tension; I really like his Dark Knight Trilogy and I think it is, for the most part, a well told, well executed contemporary appropriation of the character. For some reason, that translation was not as smooth for Superman. In terms of Goyer’s screenwriting, the stakes, though they are allegedly high, never feel it. I had a very hard time caring about what was going on, not because I am not a Superman enthusiast, but because there seemed to be very little actual plot. Although one should be able to sum up a plot in a few sentences, it’s actually quite hard to do with Man of Steel. Not because a lot is going on, but because you have to wrack your brain to remember if anything important happened anyways. Uh, was there a McGuffin? I don’t remember. And why was Zod doing this again? Huh?
Again, it was disheartening to see Nolan having a story credit, because it meant that he had to share some of the blame for how poor the story was. Goyer alone can take credit for the lousy dialogue, the bad exposition, and the fact that even simple ideas to the characters within context either don’t make sense or are not applied or appropriated in a logical way. (Remember that “terraforming” line? That dumb mistake could have easily been remedied by just having another character ask that question.)
As much as I admire ambition, ambition in and of itself does not a good movie make, and Man of Steel is no exception. Again, like Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Man of Steel takes a slightly “throw ideas at the wall and see what sticks” way of attempting thematic exploration. It comes off even worse than The Dark Knight Rises, not only in the way that too many things are thrown at the wall, creating a lack of thematic cohesiveness, but that none of them stick. You have ideas about Superman’s deep loyalty to his parents, but then it’s never explored. Superman’s’ loyalty to mankind? Not explored. The freedom of choice in an individual’s future? Not explored. Adoption and what that does to one’s childhood/personal life? Not explored, only briefly, insensitively hinted at. (Speaking as an adopted child, I was kind of offended at this.) Carnage in the real world and its real world repercussions? Not explored at all.
This last one puzzled me. It does not surprise me at all that the film should employ 9/11 imagery; that’s what these new, brooding superhero movies do in order to make them contextually relevant. But the film doesn’t actually make the environment within the film anymore contemporary than Richard Donner’s 1978 film with Christopher Reeve. Yes, both Smallville and Metropolis are clearly in the modern world. There’s modern technology. And there’s even product placement. (I’m currently waiting for an ad telling me to buy the Nikon D3S, the camera that Lois Lane uses! And then gets smashed!) But none of the surroundings do so much as to make that texture of the setting like a real, modern place. The closest it comes to ever achieving that is an ominous message from General Zod that is sent via television: it’s static-y, the tracking is off, and a couple people whip out their smart phones. But what does that say about the people of this universe? Pretty much nothing. What Nolan was able to do with his Dark Knight Trilogy was to make Gotham City an “anywhere metropolitan area” that doubled as one that was distinctly set in a pretty specific time bracket, with its politics, technology, villainy, and, yes, its hero. But the Dark Knight was also able to transcend time and, while taking on the role of a rather Right Wing iconography, make his hero relevant regardless of setting. Man of Steel fails to do that. He is stuck in a limbo. Looking at just the setting, you wouldn’t really be able to distinguish it from any other time. This seems to be less of a comment of the “Good Ol’ American Way” (which would be kind of Superman-like), the jingoistic notion that the United States is some sort of rural area that remains nameless, and more just lack of texture and substance. Its 9/11 imagery, through the loudness of its sonic qualities and its blatant compositions, is the only thing that is “contextually relevant” in the film, but none of the rest of the film actually justifies this or backs it up. Instead, we’re left with a gross, unsettling image of destruction, and a whole lot of irresolution and lack of closure. The question is: is that the fault of Goyer or is it Snyder?
I don’t care for Zack Snyder. I don’t care for his cinematography. I don’t care for his pseudo-feminist ideas. I don’t care for the fact that he needs to use slow motion in everything. I don’t particularly care for the fact that he had to drain his best film of political subtext. I think he’s serviceable, but he is certainly not someone I would watch for pleasure. Sort of like Tarsem Singh in a way, he’s a visualist, enchanted by the image so much that he sometimes (or kind of often) forgets that the image must contain context and meaning that adds to the whole. His compositions are sometimes very nice, very entrancing, but they’re good in small, maybe music video sized portions. A two and a half hour film? Not so much. That said, Snyder’s direction for the film wasn’t inherently horrific, but neither was it particularly good. The trailer (which, I know, is an arbitrary bar to compare to) presented Man of Steel with the cinematography and “tone poem-ness” of Terrence Malick, and, to be quite honest, I wouldn’t have been surprised if that was the direction he would have gone in: everyone loves copying Malick. But, Snyder didn’t go the Malick route; he went the “I don’t own a SteadiCam, so I’m going to walk around and occasionally compose somewhat nice screen grabs, but never create a fulfilling or terribly consistent aesthetic” route. Even the action sequences, which are deliriously edited, lack the necessary cohesion that it takes to make a great action film. Snyder’s work here is neither breathtaking nor abhorrent and instead settles into the forgettable, which is a disappointment. Even the grotesque videogame aesthetic of Sucker Punch was at least memorable, even if it wasn’t very “good”.
The purpose of a reboot is ostensibly to garner a wider audience while retaining the built in fan base. That may mean that you have to build from the ground up, but with the brooding, thoughtful superhero films of late, from Iron Man 3 to The Dark Knight, character construction and illustration are at the top of importance. It is such a disappointment, therefore, that the characters seem so flat throughout the film. Henry Cavill may be distractingly handsome, a man so masculine that not even his new super suit can contain his chest hair, but he lacks the real charisma and pathos that this kind of reboot calls for. That may be asking a lot, but Cavill, at times, plays Clark Kent like a hotter, but more wooden Christopher Reeve. What made Reeve’s performance interesting, regardless of the camp tone of the film, was that his was able to very easily transition from the affability of Kent, the vulnerability of Kal-El, and the decisive power of Superman. When Cavill is able to do any of these things or ever bring his own to the character, it isn’t with the same assurance or confidence. It seems almost self-conscious. It feels like he knows he’s playing Superman, making him question his instincts. (Cavill is also distractingly handsome, but I think I already mentioned that.)
Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner play Superman’s fathers; the former is Jor-El, Superman’s biological father, and the latter is Jonathan Kent, his adopted father. Despite their presence in the film, the paternal relationships of Superman are actually poorly executed. There’s less of a give and take between Clark and his dad and more of a series of flashbacks (very poorly integrated into the narrative, making the structure rather confusing and, again, inconsistent) of Mr. Kent lecturing his son about how he has to hide his powers and whatnot. It doesn’t get much deeper, which makes the relationship feel much shallower than it should. Meanwhile, Russell Crowe is fine, if not memorable, as Mr. Exposition Man. It is from him that we get the most backstory, which kind of makes his place beyond the first half hour of the film rather unnecessary. Instead, they build his “consciousness” into the story. Sort of like Old Ben Kenobi.
Which brings us to the villain, General Zod. A week later and I still don’t remember what exactly his deal was. (Just kidding.) In actuality, there just wasn’t enough plot for me to care what his deal was. Zod was neither sympathetic enough to grant the audience an emotion turnaround, not villainous enough to make his truly despicable. Instead, Michael Shannon, who shines in Take Shelter and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire gives us an over the top performance that seems better fit to the 1970s film than the attempted grittiness of this new one. It isn’t funny, exactly, but you can see the crumbs on the side of Shannon’s face from the scene he just chewed.
The real problem here is the women in the film, in that they do nothing and/or are reduced to bimbos. Even sweet Amy Adams is given nothing to work with for Lois Lane. I may not know a lot about the Superman universe, but what I do know is that Lois Lane is a tough character. She has a masculine vibe about her which she “needs” as a journalist. She’s driven and determined and not really subservient. She’s even won a Pulitzer, as Adams proudly proclaims. But Adams is given so little to do in the film, besides playing the beleaguered journalist looking for the man who saved her. She doesn’t seem like the hardcore, motivated character that Lois Lane is supposed to be. She receives a lot of help from men, and her character ends up lacking depth. The rest of the females are either helped by men, ask questions that people in their position should know, or make funny, but very vapid comments. The rest of the cast, from Christopher Meloni to Laurence Fishburne, also suffer from this lack of depth, if not from the casual sexism of the script.
So, while the film might be well animated, it is also very loud, maybe unnecessarily so. Such forced loudness caused me fatigue and boredom. I’m not sure which is worse. But sound for sound’s sake does not, again, add sonic texture to the setting or the story. It’s just loudness.
Its ostensible goal is somewhat achieved: there’s a new Superman movie and it will bring in new audiences. But its loftier goals of something thoughtful, interesting, and full of depth are never attained. Snyder, Nolan, and Goyer even fail to make Superman contextually relevant, instead making the film kind of faceless, save for the gross use of post-9/11 imagery. What we have here is something loud and brassy, and if that’s what people want, that’s fine. But the attempts something higher than that, the only thing that comes of it is complete carnage.
This essay was originally featured on VeryAware.com.
Even though they may seem to be of the same species, the same kind, even the same ingredients, there is a world of difference between bright, almost jovial look of an M&M and the dark, distinctly grittier and bolder taste of a square of chocolate with the flecks and dustings of cocoa throughout its center. They both taste good, and even though they are essentially the same thing, they are so fundamentally different that they serve different purposes. M&Ms are for fun. They’re pretty looking, not very serious, and appreciation is rooted in fun and good humor. That square of cocoa, however, is bolder, leaving a certain tingle on your tongue, the cocoa dust either causing you to run for a glass of water or making you salivate even more. It is, honestly and blatantly, more serious in nature. Is it possible to enjoy both? Certainly. But they are different nonetheless.
The same can be said of Tim Burton’s approach to bring Batman to the screen and Christopher Nolan’s vision. Burton’s candy coated, expressionistic techniques are fun and closer to the older comics. Nolan’s gritty psychoanalytic revisionist take is bolder and more real. They both have their merits, however. Burton’s two films, BATMAN and BATMAN RETURNS, were major successes, as were Nolan’s two films BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT. Their content, thematic approaches and style, however, differ in dramatic ways, each one suiting a particular mindset.
Tim Burton is well known for his distinct visual style, one that is very reminiscent of expressionism. His sets, props, even characters rarely resemble what they are modeled after and instead are heightened to a point of disbelief. It works for his Gothicism that has been imbued in his work from the beginning, even with PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE. With his first Batman film, BATMAN, filmed at Pinewood Studios in England, and his Gothic/Expressionist style would once again take the center stage. His Gotham City resembles less the metropolis of New York or Chicago, but the Metropolis found in Fritz Lang’s titular silent sci-fi masterpiece. His buildings and his architecture are dark, tilted, almost seedy and crooked in nature. The sets that inhabit the Gotham City in both BATMAN and BATMAN RETURNS almost seem to be the manifestation of the crooked villainy within Gotham. Even Burton’s cinematography, which occasionally takes on the tilted and jarring angles of Carol Reed’s iconic noir THE THIRD MAN, oozes an expressionistic style, in a way that realism is pushed onto the back burner in favor of something more exciting and fun. Burton’s color scheme, however, remains as dark as Batman’s cowl. Greys and blacks permeate the entire film, again recalling that of film noir.
Despite its noir-ish stylings, the tone of the film is light hearted, clashing against the dark expressionism that Burton utilizes. It’s cartoonish. Both BATMAN and BATMAN RETURNS present a tone and style that is deliberately a juxtaposition of the dark villainy and the cartoonish fun that was a part of the Batman comic in the 1960s. It almost seems like a contradiction on Burton’s part to have something as dark, even sadomasochistic as Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman slink into frame in a very dominatrix-esque suit and then hiss comically at Batman. But that contradiction and clash of tone and style is exactly what Burton seems to be going for. His two films seem to be more of an accurate representation of the comics, thus recalling flair for snappy dialogue and action sequences that seem like they were paneled from cut to cut.
Burton’s presentation of the characters is just as cartoonish as the tone of his films. Less Gothic in nature than SWEENEY TODD, but less comical in style than BEETLEJUICE, Burton balances both, tight wire walking between silliness/action of the comics and the drama/darkness of Burton’s traditional style. The two manage to compensate for one another, neither element outweighing the other for too long. Between Batman and his rogues, though, they maintain the same unbelievable twistedness of some of the early incarnations. Jack Nicholson’s Joker is campy, and it seems that the Joker is definitely aware of how campy he is. Perhaps his self-awareness (the only character in both films that seems to be that self-aware) is another part that makes Nicholson’s Joker so insane. Nicholson’s Joker emblemizes the campiness of Burton’s films, as well as the dark expressionistic tones. He’s campy like Cesar Romero, but he’s dark and insane like Dr. Caligari. Danny DeVito’s Penguin is the epitome of the weirdness that seems to have always been a part of Batman’s rogue gallery. He seems to be a fairly traditional villain with a fairly traditional motive. What he does have that the others do not is his look. You would never expect a penguin to be so nasty and conniving. And Selena Kyle, otherwise known as Catwoman, is the archetypal femme fatale that brings the series’ film noir connections full circle. She is at once profoundly irresistible and utterly repellent. She’s Barbara Stanwyck in polyester.
Batman himself, and the playboy Bruce Wayne, played by Michael Keaton, seem like late era Sean Connery as James Bond, but with more sensitivity. He is handsome, wisecracking, and Kim Basinger can’t resist him. What Burton does not do, however, is make his Batman hefty or over emotional. Rather than make the audience strain, Michael Keaton’s Batman is a relatively simple guy. There’s less of an internal conflict regarding the secret identity in Burton’s Batman, with more concentration on Batman defeating the bad guys. And fun is exactly what the audience has.
What Burton’s films do is tap into the character, not bothering to establish an origin story, or even giving the character much weight, in a very lighthearted way. Burton is able to manifest the darkness of the series without it being overbearing. His films are theatrical representation of the comics.
But, as most heroes do, Batman evolved in order to best reflect the social anxieties. James Bond did it. Iron Man did it. Every hero does. And yes, Joel Schumacher’s films were arguably campier than the 1960’s TV series, but jump to 2005 and you get an entirely new breed of Batman. In a post-9/11 world, a campy and light approach to the character won’t cut it. Not only does the tone of the series change, not only do the motivations change, and not only does the entire presentation of the universe and the people that inhabit it change, but Bruce Wayne himself gets a revisionist makeover, seemingly starting from scratch in BATMAN BEGINS and continuing in THE DARK KNIGHT.
Christopher Nolan is a man who likes his protagonists enough to give them a reason to live. In FOLLOWING, MEMENTO, and INSOMNIA, his leads all deal with heady internal conflicts that make his films darker and enrapture the audience even further. For Batman and Bruce Wayne, he and David S. Goyer, established an origin story that is stronger than most origin stories that have appeared on the screen. Concise though it is not, it is a morbid, psychoanalytic approach to the character. This is an approach that gives the hero palpable, realistic fears and motivations for Bruce Wayne to become the Dark Knight of Gotham City. More than before, the dialogue carries the same punch that the action has, and the action has the same emotional weight as the dialogue. The characters matter as much as the tone. Christian Bale portrays Bruce Wayne and Batman with grit and vulnerability. He’s still pithy, but not clownish. He’s sexy and eligible, and he’s also a badass. And he is able to perfectly convey the layers within the character, all in one scene, all in one moment.
Nolan’s Batman Trilogy may take place in Gotham City, but this Gotham is the real world where danger is very real and possible. The mobsters that live in the seedy underbelly are kind of like the guys in GOODFELLAS, as opposed to the romanticism of the other mobsters in the Batman universe, which might be more comparable to THE GODFATHER. Its Chicago/New York look, again, presents a new kind of realism. This kind of realism is even applicable to the police station and the way that the government is set up in this universe. Before long, you forget that you’re in Gotham City.
The realism that Nolan gives the series is best represented by the villains that exist in it. The mobsters are ready to embezzle and whack people off, of course. But, first up, you have the Scarecrow (aka Dr. Crane, played by Cillian Murphy) and Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson). The former is a psychotic doctor who employs various drugs to kick his victim’s phobias in to a point where it incapacitates them; the latter was at one point Bruce Wayne’s martial arts mentor. Both villains represent something that Wayne/Batman must overcome. The Scarecrow is the manifestation of all of Wayne’s fears (including bats, in this revisionist history) and Ghul, the overcoming of the past. Nolan manages to apply the microscope to nearly every facet of his films, and whatever character or piece of the universe is analyzes, it all relates back to Batman himself. The way that both the Scarecrow and Ghul are able to exploit Batman and make them extremely vulnerable make both villains unique to the film franchise. In THE DARK KNIGHT, a fallen political hero takes the form of Harvey Dent, who becomes Two Face. He plays loss and revenge with a coin, by chance. This symbolic answer to the public’s perception of vigilantism is striking.
Let us not forget the biggest bad guy of them all: the Joker. Heath Ledger’s legendary portrayal brings a sense of insanity, fear and socio-political awareness that accentuates the realism in the series. Heath Ledger’s maniacal Joker, who has no reason to create chaos other than for chaos’ sake, is the answer to domestic terrorism in the United States. Yes, villains, including the Joker in Burton’s films, have threatened the people of Gotham City, and the various pieces of architecture, but in Nolan’s Batman, these attacks feel more personal and more frightening. The Joker’s obsessive need to constantly counterpose everything that Batman stands for, even in a way where he shakes Batman’s footing and confidence as a hero, makes the portrayal one of the best in cinematic history. Ledger’s Joker is like Alex from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE plus Charles Manson multiplied by Nicholson’s self-awareness. What the Joker offers, besides a very yin and yang symbiotic relationship between him and Batman, is a veridical threat. Their relevance to contemporary, post-9/11 society is all the more obvious with the inclusion of the Joker. He is the perfect nightmare.
What I often find surprising about Nolan’s Batman films is that Nolan is able to handle an enormous scale incredibly well. More used to his calculated, character driven small films like MEMENTO and THE PRESTIGE, he is able to handle large set pieces, explosions, and the like in the Batman films like a pro. He is able to convey the adrenaline rush of any big budget director, but with a coherency and style that is often lost in the process of other blockbusters (ahem, Mr. Bay). It’s a spectacle, both visually and emotionally.
Christopher Nolan appropriates Batman’s timelessness in a very specific frame of thought, making the impending and inevitable violence and fear more real. He gives the characters depth; he gives his protagonist fears and desires. Taking inspiration from many a different comic, including ones by Frank Miller, Nolan’s revisionist take on Batman is new and powerful. Nolan makes Batman less a character from comics and more a human being.
Burton’s films have just as much merit, with their fun visual style and general lighter tone. Their exploration of a Gothic and expressionist visual style counterpose with that lighter tone. Most representative of the comics that existed prior to darker graphic novels, both BATMAN and BATMAN RETURNS have their place in the franchise as a nostalgia filled, retro joyride. Nolan’s films will remain just as memorable for their unique approach for character drama. The films are dark because the atmosphere that they were created in is dark. BATMAN BEGINS, THE DARK KNIGHT and, soon, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, will become indelible in both Batman and cinematic history, just as Burton’s before them. Though the two auteur’s approaches are fundamentally different in tone, style, setting, and presentation, you have to admit: it’s just two dances with the same devil in the pale moonlight.
I’m excited for Spring Breakers.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I would like to expand on why I’m so fascinated with the film and why I’m excited for it.
– I’m familiar with director Harmony Korine’s work more out of reputation than anything else. I haven’t seen his previous work, except for the Larry Clark directed Kids. So, this being a major departure for him intrigues me. It’d be like Lars von Trier doing a mainstream action movie or something.
– I’m a big fan of the “fever dream narrative”; films whose stories float by with loose connection and cohesion and seem to sometimes only make sense via “dream logic”. Yeah, I didn’t use to be (I blame an unfortunate viewing of Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), but I’ve become sort of infatuated with that kind of style, which certainly can be found in the works of David Lynch and even Michel Gondry (The Science of Sleep, anyone?)
– I’m excited to see young actresses Ashley Benson (whom, I will admit, I’d never heard of), Vanessa Hudgens, and Selena Gomez prove themselves on the screen to be legitimate actresses. Actresses that can carry a film and provide depth and nuance to their characters. Because, let’s face it (concerning at least two of them) how much merit is there really in some of that Disney stuff.
– Jumping off of that, I’m extremely fascinated as to how these girls will not only prove themselves as good actresses, but how they will thus subvert their candy coated kiddie public image and perception. It’s one thing to transition from Disney star into adult roles, like Anne Hathaway and Brokeback Mountain; it’s something else entirely if you’re transitioning into adult roles by starring in a film by the guy who directed Trash Humpers. But, I think this subversion will add to public discussion regarding how long Disney actors can maintain a certain image and what kind of effect that has when they, in essence, grow up. What will happen to their fan base? How will they be perceived after? (I also like that these actresses are doing it voluntarily and with full knowledge of that as opposed to, like, pole dancing at the Kid’s Choice Awards.) These characters, Korine has said, are as aggressive, if not more so, than men who would be in the same position, so, again, there’s some fascinating gender stereotype stuff going on in this film.
– James Franco saying “y’all” and wearing cornrows. ‘Nuff said.
– It’s a look into something I will never participate in. (I’m a prude.)
– The dissection of the American dream, privilege, and desire for immediacy in contemporary culture. I’m a sucker for social commentary.
– All that neon.
– The audience reaction.
- Let me explain. I think this film might have a Magic Mike effect. By that, I mean that the film will completely subvert its marketing campaign. Its ads will show one thing and the film will be something else entirely. And while it will make a lot of money (this is undoubtedly Korine’s biggest film to date), I imagine will garner very, very polarizing reactions from the audience it is being aimed at: teens like those featured in the film (I fall into that demo). I’m not saying that the reaction will be bad, exactly, but I know I will hear peers complain about it. I heard them complain about Magic Mike, that it didn’t have enough guys in it and that it was boring. You may think I am underestimating this age group, but if they can remake Project X and call it 21 and Over, there’s something of an indicator there (it’s not really a remake, I’m just being snarky). Despite the fact that the demographic is pretty easily entertained, they like what they’re comfortable with. They don’t like the unexpected, unless it somehow panders to something they’re familiar with.
- For example, Christopher Nolan has two films that work with this: His Dark Knight Trilogy (let’s talk about the second one) and Inception. The Dark Knight isn’t your average superhero film or your action film because it’s reliant on story and the sociopolitical subtext and the gritty realism and character analysis. But, it still contains some fantastic action set pieces. Inception on the other hand is, while very thrilling and exciting, narratively unorthodox. Throwing that curveball in terms of the way the story is told and the amount of attention that needs to be paid thus was polarizing for some. Confusing, heady, etc. Even the last film of his Dark Knight Trilogy garnered complaints because a) too much talking/slow pace and b) not enough Batman. So, even the most successful films and directors can encounter kind of arbitrary criticism because it’s something that the audience isn’t as familiar with.
- The same could be said of Nicolas Winding Refn’s DRIVE. The contemplative and almost dialogue free thriller starring Ryan Gosling encountered some pretty odd press when a woman in Michigan sued over the film’s misleading trailer. And this is an adult.
- The film, Korine has said, is like “a violent pop song” or an “internet video” with “very little dialogue”. With its loose story and structure and claims of little dialogue, what will fans think of the film? It’s garnered a lot of praise at TIFF and SXSW. But will audiences accept this filmmaker and this film? Selena Gomez says in an EPK, “There’s the movie that we’re making and there’s the movie that the media thinks we’re making.” Damn straight.
- My friends have mistaken me: I’ve talked about this film a lot since the first production still appeared ages ago (was it last year?). I’ve talked about how the guy who did this also did a film called Gummo. I’ve talked about the fact that, while it’s a departure from style, it’s still the same guy. That’s been perceived as me determined that they dislike this film and/or do not go see it. On the contrary, they can go see it. I encourage my friends to see new things. But, like the warning label on a container with arsenic or cyanide, I’m at least trying to prepare them. Granted, I suppose the best tactic isn’t saying “you’re going to hate this film”, but I think I actually started off by saying, “This film isn’t what it appears to be, so don’t go in expecting what’s advertised”. No. I’d rather have them go in knowing what they’re going to see and dislike it, or maybe even like it, than go in just going by the trailers and coming out pissed. It hurts my soul when my friends slam my favorite films. I love when my friends expand their cinematic horizons, open their minds, and see something radically different from what they normally see. But, I don’t love it when their reactions are the stuff of knee jerk immediacy. My point being: Give it a chance, but know what you’re getting into.
- That said, I have to hand it to Korine and his producers for one of the smartest marketing schemes since… Magic Mike. But it might be even smarter because it isn’t only the stars of the film that have mass appeal, but the subject matter (even though I personally find that a tad concerning). It claims to be as bawdy and raunchy as some of the elemental stuff in Animal House, Project X (groans), Road Trip, and a long line of films about irresponsible teens. But what this film has is a weird look at the repercussions (or not) of that irresponsibility; what these kinds of people will do for pleasure and paradise; and forgetting it all once it’s over.
So, that took a long time. I’m pretty psyched for the film. I’ll have to go back to investigate more of Korine’s work beforehand, but “this is what life is all about, y’all!”
Cinema forever, y’all!