Man of Steel (2013; Directed by Zack Snyder)
Probably the most consistently satisfying feature of Zack Snyder’s lavish re-launch of the Superman franchise is its impressive, insistent bigness. From the extraterrestrial pinnacles and shimmering organic technology of Krypton in the prologue to the epic architecture-smashing demi-god fisticuffs that occupy the movie’s later acts, Man of Steel does not leave its overweening enormity to chance, nor does it reconcile its problematic implications. So impressive in scope is Man of Steel that its motions towards a more intimate soulfulness and character-based emotional integrity feel rote and underheated.
This impression of the film as a thumbnail sketch of the sort of epic superhero origin story its scale aspires to is further supported by the unconventional, nonlinear nature of its narrative construction and pacing, at least in the first hour. The backstory of Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill) is imparted in contained, tenuously-connected vignettes, moving back and forward in time and space. His birth and escape as an infant from dying Krypton, enabled by his forward-looking parents (Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer) and nearly prevented by the grim super-soldier General Zod (the ever-intense Michael Shannon), might be the purest science-fiction-style telling of Kal-El’s alien beginnings ever committed to film, all operatic drama and CGI bombast and high-flown technobabble uttered to floating robot servants.
Further flashbacks depict his adoption by the rural Kansan couple (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, both wonderfully naturalistic) who found his pod after it crashed to earth and his gradual process of growing up and coming to terms with his superhuman abilities and their social consequences. Young-adult Clark becomes an introverted Wolverine-esque drifter, laying low at his plain-spoken adoptive father’s counsel, working on fishing trawlers and in northern small-town bars under fake names as he tries to conceal his godlike powers. He occasionally fails to adequately normal up, saving oil rig workers from fires, chivalrically trashing a waitress-fondling jackass’ freight truck, and pushing his foundering school bus out of a river as a teenager.
It’s a version of Superman tailored to contemporary tastes, which tend to privilege heroes of all stripes that are moody, introspective, reluctant, and flawed. Clark begins to lose some of his hermit tendencies when a Kryptonian scout ship is found encased in Arctic ice and a hologram of his alien father informs him of his off-world origins and provides him with his iconic suit as a physical embodiment of his inheritance. A more public emergence is forced upon him, however, by two figures. First, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams, a much better casting choice than she’s ever allowed to prove herself to be) traces him back to the Kent family farm, discovering his secret identity before he even properly has one. Then, in a more dire development, General Zod and his eugenicist followers are led to Earth by the lost son of Krypton’s activation of the frozen ship.
Zod demands that Kal-El turn himself in to the General’s custody. After a long night of the soul (which includes a blithely unironic confession to a priest that includes some blatant Christ-figure framing of Supes in front of a stained-glass window depiction of Jesus), he does, only to discover that Zod plans to terraform his adopted planet into a new Krypton. This process won’t be a pleasant one for humanity; a dreamworld nightmare vision of Superman slipping beneath a sea of human skulls prefigures the genocidal likelihood, and the New York City proxy Metropolis bears the brunt of the initial destructive power of this endeavour.
The inter-Kryptonian punch-ups and related widescreen action setpieces that this conflict deems necessary are impressively staged, conceivably “badass”, and shot with Snyder’s rare sense of corporeal clarity. But they are largely without moral consequence, even when they belatedly become openly about morality. The sheer inevitability of the romance between Clark and Lois is also not effectively rendered into a rapprochement that is not telegraphed or rushed. Cavill, though gorgeous and equipped with a triangulated masculine physique that appears nigh-on impossible, seems faintly ashamed by the Byronic hero Superman that David S. Goyer (writing the script with a story assist from Dark Knight trilogy auteur Christopher Nolan) places, Atlas-like, on his shoulders. He does better giving subtle humanizing colour to the classic stand-up all-American superhero, working with uncomplaining dedication to render this Superman as less of an übermensch, as the film would generally have it.
When Superman’s internal struggle externalizes, Man of Steel is undeniably entertaining blockbuster gristle. But the audience’s doubts grow as Clark Kent’s diminish. Without much investment in or engagement with the considerable comic-book cult around this foundational superhero to go on, it’s hard for me to say how Man of Steel rates as an adaptive text. This Superman is certainly not as resistent to large-scale collateral mayhem as the morally upright protector of humanity has tended to be; great swaths of both Smallville and Metropolis are laid to waste as he awesomely fights off his Kryptonian foes. Certain details of his Kryptonian origins and his Kansas upbringing (especially the manner of Jonathan Kent’s death) have shifted slightly, it seems. And of course Lois being in on Clark’s secret identity before it’s even required is a pretty massive canonical change whose dramatic implications are likely to ripple out into sequels, where her collaboration in protecting his secret might prove more narratively rich than a bizarre inability to recognize the square-jawed overman behind the thick nerd glasses.
The übermensch stuff is pretty resilient, though, and merges uncomfortably with the Christ poses (there are some literal crucifixion tableaus, the stained-glass visual association, the wandering in the wilderness, the trope of the saviour sent from above, and knowing references to his age of 33, to name just a few). Smashing a surveillance drone does not make this conception of Superman any less of an embodiment of authoritarian elitism; Christopher Nolan is creatively involved here, after all. Although his two father figures, on Krypton and on Earth, diverge on how this incredible boy should approach his inescapable specialness, they converge on the undeniable impression that his superiority would make on inferior beings. He will resemble Nietszche’s shining ideal of enlightened man, of that they agree. How the world will handle his example is less certain. How Man of Steel handles his example is made clear enough: Superman stands apart from humanity but ever above it. Man of Steel is this Superman’s movie, sure enough. It stands above humanity, and far too apart from it.
The final season of Breaking Bad was widely hailed as a cultural event, but it’s far from the series’ peak-level material, sacrificing thematic cohesion and sociopolitical applicability for neat narrative closure via shocking violence. This should not be surprising to dedicated viewers, as the show had been migrating from the study of a moral decline with social critique elements to a New West gangster noir with Bryan Cranston’s iconic anti-hero Walter White as the morally and physically doomed Caesar figure. With some questionable turns and vaguely unsatisfying conclusions, it’s not certain that Breaking Bad ended with the accumulative power that its complex and intriguing saga retained for four previous seasons.
The fifth and concluding season of the show follows hard on the heels of Walter’s assassination of his meth lord boss Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) in a retirement-home bombing. This act frees him from Fring’s increasingly oppressive control over him and his meth-cooking, allowing Walt to collaborate with longtime partner Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and Fring’s erstwhile jack-of-all-dark-trades Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) on their own operation to manufacture and distribute Walt and Jesse’s trademarked blue-tinted, nearly 100% pure product.
This stream of the narrative represents the continuation and indeed the culmination of Walt’s economic progression from responsible penury to dangerous entrepreneurial dabbling in the drug world to wage slavery in a major shadow corporation to final big-dog status at the head of a major operation. Breaking Bad did once find time to consider the harsh social costs of meth use and addiction, but has long since dropped the subject for the violent twists of a gangland storyline emphasizing the constant taking of masculine measure. Even the critique of American health care that was foundational to the show’s concept has long since faded, though it did bubble up again in the third and fourth seasons with Walt’s drug earnings secretly funding Hank’s recover from a cartel hit that Walt directed his way. With these themes slipping into the background, Breaking Bad‘s most thorough and absorbing theme in its closing hours was unquestionably its expansive dark-mirror metaphor for the vagaries of American capitalism.
Deprived of the state-of-the-art meth lab in the basement of a laundromat owned by Fring (Walt and Jesse burned it to cover their tracks after Fring’s death), our non-heroes strike a deal with a pest control business to take their new lab mobile. Cleverly setting up their equipment in houses quarantined for fumigation, the cooks make their product and get out with the homeowners none the wiser. The exterminator cover brings in a new accomplice, a deceptively clean-cut American kid named Todd (Jesse Plemmons) who becomes ever more inculcated in the business and brings a chilling, uncompromising unpredictability and dangerous associations to bear. He’s instrumental in a daring train robbery to acquire a new methylamine supply (a suspenseful caper that may well have been the season’s high point), as well as a shocking murder to keep it secret. His associations come in handy when Walter decides to off the Fring’s toughs in prison that Mike has been paying not to testify to the feds (after Walt semi-accidentally offs Mike).
Todd’s menacing Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen) and his white power gang prove that the extermination business is not just a cover, but quickly move beyond Walt’s ability to control them. They back the tightly-wound Lydia (Laura Fraser), Fring’s former methylamine supplier, in a massacre to take over the blue meth’s distribution arm, and then kill DEA agents Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) and Steve Gomez (Steven Michael Quezada) in a desert shootout that frees Walt from custody but also relieves him of most of his meth-trade millions and condemns the long-suffering Jesse into meth-cooking servitude for the gang. All of this precipitates a climactic endgame that brings Walter, his family connections sundered, his cancer returned, his meth empire out of his hands, to a desperate encounter with his deferred fate.
The shattering of Walter’s family bonds happens, ironically, after he attempts to retire from the business that made him rich but also morally crippled him. The turning point is somewhat controversial for being a bit too slight: over at the White abode for dinner, Hank finds a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in the washroom signed by murdered meth lab assistant Gale Boetticher (David Costabile) to “W.W.” This single drop overfills the cup of Hank’s suspicion, and he realizes that Walter White is not merely Gale’s lab partner but also “Heisenberg”, the shadowy mastermind of the meth trade that he has hunted for months on end. It’s a neat little device, and a flashback to a conversation that Hank and Walter had about the true identity of W.W. (Boetticher scrawled a similar dedication in his lab notebook) cinches the connection. But it is odd that this detail sets Hank after Walter rather than other seemingly more telling ones.
Walter’s wife Skyler (Anna Gunn, coming into her own in these last episodes) stands by him when his true nature is exposed, to an extent; she’s so deeply implicated in his money laundering scheme that to do otherwise would be to self-incriminate. But after Hank’s death, which Walter does not claim credit for but does not effectively deny engineering either, all ties are cut. Walter is relocated by an agent of Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) to a cabin in snowbound New Hampshire, and even his once-worshipful son Walter, Jr. (R.J. Mitte) won’t engage with him or accept his attempts to send money. At this low ebb, Walter sees his former friends and scientific business partners Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz (Adam Godley and Jessice Hecht) on Charlie Rose disavowing his role in the founding of their lucrative firm, Gray Matter.
This last insult, this erasure of the greatest achievement of his respectable life, spurs Walter into a final acceptance of his achievements in the meth underworld. In his final meeting with Skyler, he finally admits to her that he did it all not for the good of his now-broken family, a rhetorical feint he constantly returned to in justifying his actions, but for himself, for his pride, ego, and sense of masculine self-fulfillment.
This is the thematic message that resonated most strongly as the credits rolled on the series finale, of a mutated modern form of capitalist competition that can only be effectively conquered by circumvention of the rules of society and of basic morality. The message itself is shared with many recent notable American TV novels, from The Sopranos to Boardwalk Empire to Mad Men to The Wire to Deadwood and beyond, no doubt. Breaking Bad was a narratively absorbing, cinematically-scoped, character-driven drama that explored well-worn themes of contemporary American society and culture. If it stood out from the other television luminaries mentioned, it was on the basis of its particular approach to those visual storytelling elements rather than any unique or groundbreaking thematic or metaphorical incisiveness. Breaking Bad had a tone and an aesthetic vision all its own, but not necessarily one that placed it above all others.
Source Code (2011; Directed by Duncan Jones)
In the opening minutes of Duncan Jones’s Source Code, the camera sweeps above Chicago and its environs, tracking the progress of a commuter train from the metropolis’ suburbs into its core. The arterial transportations network of roads, tracks, rivers divides the great sprawling metropolis into a grid, something resembling a circuit board of a computer or a large-scale rough model of a human brain. An insistent, suspenseful musical cue, like a Hitchcock score for the iPhone age, thrusts and parries in the speakers.
Flash to the familiar face of Jake Gyllenhaal, asleep against the window of the closely-watched CCR train. The darting scan motion of his eyeballs as he awakes indicates clearly that he perceives something is not right with his surroundings. He doesn’t recognize them, doesn’t know the pretty young woman (Michelle Monaghan) sitting across from him speaking to him with flirtatious semi-intimate familiarity, doesn’t recall the faces of the regular commuters in his car. The woman (he eventually discovers that she’s named Christina) keeps calling his Sean, even though he insists that his name is Captain Colter Stevens and he flies helicopters for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. The ID in his wallet supports her position, and a glance in the bathroom mirror does as well: the face reflected back to him is not his own. Just as he’s beginning to find his bearings, however, a fiery explosion rips through the train, killing him and everyone else on board.
Following this irresistible suspense-film setup, Captain Stevens awakes in a cold metal capsule, something like an old lunar module with even more basic technology. He’s strapped down and disoriented, and a military officer named Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) is speaking to him from a video screen, feeding him a playing-card-centric recall code. Goodwin and her boss Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) are unwilling to give Stevens any details on his situation, simply repeating that he is on a vital mission and must identify the person who bombed the train in order to save more lives from an imminent terrorist threat. He is “sent back” to the train again and again, each time with only eight minutes to track down the bomber, but Stevens chafes at being kept in the dark about the nature of his situation and tries to work it out on certain passes rather than attempting to ID the culprit.
Goodwin and Rutledge finally, reluctantly debrief the soldier, revealing that he was badly wounded in a copter crash and kept barely alive by their secret military agency. They have connected his brain to the mostly-dead cortex of Sean Fentress, a run-of-the-mill teacher who was one of the victims of the Chicago train bombing that same morning but whose physical and mental profile is a match for that of Stevens. The final eight-minute stretch of Fentress’s life as stored in his memory banks is referred to by Rutledge as a “source code”, which can be accessed and interacted with by Stevens as many times as is necessary, but (as far as Rutledge is aware) cannot be changed. Stevens cannot save Fentress or Christina or anyone else on that train, but he can do whatever is necessary to discover who blew it up before the suspect detonates a dirty bomb in Chicago that could kill millions.
Certain facile reviews upon Source Code‘s release dubbed it a sci-fi thriller version of Groundhog Day, and while that gets at the essentials of the concept, it doesn’t do justice to the cleverness or the tenacity of its dramatic tension (Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train and Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express are also reference points, and The Manchurian Candidate is given a nod with the card-related mental programming). Stevens’ actions alter the unfolding events in the source code each time, but it resets like a tape at the end of each eight-minute period, with only Stevens remembering what happened in that run-through. Ben Ripley’s script plants seemingly incidental details in the opening run through the code that Stevens follows on later runs, clues that are rabbit holes to alternate realities. A tote bag, a cell phone, or a lost wallet can all be portals to tangential possibilities. Source Code is not fiendishly complex, but it requires some mental exertion to keep up, always a welcome feature of a genre piece of this type.
This is ideal material for Gyllenhaal, who excels at being adrift in unfamiliar surroundings onscreen and finding his way gradually, awkwardly, but eventually asserting himself physically over the situation. He has good chemistry with his dual female foils, with Monaghan’s Christina ever game for his seemingly impulse schemes as “Sean” and Farmiga’s iron facade of officiousness incrementally penetrated by his dogged pursuit of answers. Wright is a little more baroque, with Rutledge’s evasiveness, scientific arrogance, and unexplained, symbolically obscure use of a crutch to move around his facility. There are plenty of mediocre supporting actors, as well as a couple of odd cameos, including Russell Peters as a comedian on the train and Scott Bakula’s disembodied voice as Stevens’ father.
The direction of Duncan Jones, behind the helm of the acclaimed cerebral sci-fi effort Moon and David Bowie’s son, vacillates between inspired and workmanlike, but the often electrifying, imaginative writing redeems any artistic hiccups. If the film falls short in reaching the goals it sets out to achieve, a considerable spoiler is required to discuss it. If what you’ve read thus far sounds of interest and you haven’t seen Source Code, stop reading now and ignore the last paragraphs.
If you’re still with me, here’s the thing: when Stevens succeeds in preventing the bombing, saving the life of “Sean”, Christina and everyone else on the train, the limits of the source code are transcended. Despite Rutledge’s assurances that Stevens cannot go beyond the eight-minute limit of the system and that the technology does not contain a kernel of possibility of changing the past, that’s exactly what ends up happening. Source Code is speculative fiction and it’s a classic imaginative leap. I get where Ripley and Jones are going with it, it’s not an ineffective twist in the narrative, and it’s nicely metaphorized visually by a closing visit by Stevens-as-Sean and Christina to Anish Kapoor’s beguilingly mirrored public sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park, the Cloud Gate.
But there’s little offered up to explain how a repeating loop of linked consciousness between two men’s minds overleaps mental boundaries into altering actual reality. The technical details of the source code device are left fuzzy, but this climactic turn is almost too fuzzy, too speculative. It outstrips even the softly-defined rules of this fictional frame by a margin that may well be too great, and credulity is duly strained. But do feel free to give this otherwise strong film a try, and see if you find yourself in agreement.
In the annals of fandom, there are Star Wars nerds and there is everyone else, in diminishing scope of impact and importance. The object of their impassioned mixed affection and frustration is more commercially successful and culturally penetrating than Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings, Doctor Who, Alien, James Bond, or any other major film-based subculture. Even the deeply-rooted superhero comics milieu that pre-dates all geek film properties doesn’t quite measure up to Star Wars geek culture.
Since it inspires such focused devotion from its acolytes, the creative influence of George Lucas’s original space-fantasy trilogy is also unparalleled in contemporary American culture, sparking not only homemade internet creations like Troops or Star Wars Gangsta Rap or the brilliant Star Wars Uncut project (about which more in a moment) but also corporate-funded products from the likes of artists as diverse as Kevin Smith, Seth McFarlane, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and J.J. Abrams (whose longtime open fandom finally got him the dream gig of directing the new Star Wars sequel trilogy for Disney beginning in 2015).
But the fandom is not uniformly of the positive variety. Indeed, as is pointed out in an insightful soundbite in the course of Alexandre O. Philippe’s comprehensive documentary examination of the Star Wars fanbase’s alternately worshipful and spiteful relationship to the universe’s steward Lucas, it is often a badge of honour for fans of a certain product to be able to prove the intensity of their devotion to that product by openly hating it. Star Wars fandom is nothing if not consensus-based; once an opinion gains intertia among the base, it’s nigh-on impossible to keep it from becoming almost universally accepted.
This would seem to be an appropriate tendency considering the nature of the core formative experience of Star Wars fans. As profound as the shared experience of the original trilogy is for fans who first saw it as children, they all basically experienced it in the same way. Every film is ideally open to audience interpretation, but the notable thing about Star Wars as a cultural phenomenon is the lack of variance of interpretation among its legion of fans. They tend to love the same things about Lucas’ creation, and so they mostly hate the same things about it as well.
The consensus opinion can be summed up thusly: the first Star Wars film in 1977 (now referred to as Episode IV: A New Hope) was a revelatory experience to those who saw it in theatres (especially if they were young boys), the rest of the so-called “original trilogy” (comprising Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi) satisfactorily completed the saga (to some extent), and fans filled the void left by the absence of further sequels by purchasing mountains of official merchandise. With accelerating advances in computer-generated imagery, Lucas elected to first re-release “special editions” of the existing films with re-mastered sound and image and a series of CG additions (which did not always go over well) and then to return to the Star Wars universe he created and profited from with a prequel trilogy, beginning with Episode I: The Phantom Menace in 1999. Greatly anticipated by longtime Star Wars fans, the prequels were critically panned and savaged by the Original Trilogy generation for dozens of egregious missteps at the least and for violating their childhood dreams at worst. Though they did get better and it’s possible that children might have enjoyed them, the prequels were a forceful end of innocence for older Star Wars fans, a rupture of the charmed relationship between the universe’s creator and his cohort of lifelong devotees.
The People vs. George Lucas, despite fandom’s will to consensus and the film’s courtroom-ish title, does not cling to a single perspective or argument concerning the sometimes antagonistic trajectories that fans and creator take to Star Wars. Just because most fans of Star Wars have the same basic experience with the films (the ones they liked and the ones they didn’t), that doesn’t mean that they cope with that experience similarly. Not every fan goes the “George Lucas raped my childhood” route, although that deplorable catchphrase is mentioned, along with other similarly-pitched analogies to child and domestic abuse that betray the callous insensitivity of a largely homosocial fanbase. Just as much blame is apportioned to fan expectations and to the passage of time, and there are appearances by relative apologists for Lucas’s errors, or at least by devil’s advocates who agree that he blew it but don’t agree that he owes the fans a pound of flesh for doing so.
But George Lucas does absorb some shots. It wouldn’t be an accurate portrait of this ongoing relationship if he didn’t. The usual complaints are dutifully dragged out and discussed, scanning like an accounting of artistic atrocities for Star Wars geeks and like an indecipherable code to the uninitiated: Greedo Shoots First, the Star Wars Christmas special, midichlorians, Vader’s “Nooooo!” at the end of Revenge of the Sith, and, of course, Jar Jar Binks. Theories are offered for the turning of the space worm, most convincingly Lucas’s insistence on total creative control over his work after his pre-Star Wars run-ins with interfering Hollywood studios, which has led to a creative isolation that has left him out of touch with not only the expectations and tastes of his fans but of the larger culture as well.
The most interesting aspect of the love-hate conflict, as I have examined in the past, is the question of ownership of Star Wars as a cultural object, as a cinematic mythos, and what Lucas’s additions and alterations to the popular text jive with fandom’s engagement with and understanding of it. Legal copyright dictates that Star Wars belongs to Lucas (or, now, to Disney; the documentary feels incomplete with the subsequent sale of rights and the promise of new Star Wars films constantly in one’s head). He may do with it as he pleases, even if what he does changes the terms of his fans’ emotional investment in the product, not to mention its constructed meanings.
The fans do have a voice, though, a role in the continued construction of the Star Wars myth. The documentary is quite enjoyable as a flood of (sometimes witty, sometimes just petulant) opinions on the ins and outs of that myth; the section detailing the elation and then deflation that characterized the fan reception of The Phantom Menace says nearly all that needs be said about that painful turning point in the fandom’s history (it doesn’t say nearly enough about the film’s old-fashioned and offensive racial stereotyping, I think, but judge for yourself; video is below). But The People vs. George Lucas is at its best when it shines its spotlight on the participatory culture of Star Wars fandom, typified most clearly by the deluge of internet videos expanding, critiquing, and parodying the canonical material. The aforementioned Star Wars Uncut is the most consistently employed example, particularly being utilized by Philippe to fill visual gaps left by the expensive-to-license clips from the Star Wars films.
The Uncut project, if you’re unfamiliar, is the brainchild of Casey Pugh, who split A New Hope into 473 15-second segments and put out a call for fans from around the world to craft and submit the scenes to be cut into a fan-made version of the film. It’s remix culture at its simplest, its most surprising, and its most epic. Uncut has everything from amateur camcorder video shot in garages and backyards to sophisticated animation sequences to scenes recreated using cats, alcohol bottles, paper bags, and ferrets as “actors”. It’s a supreme collaborative act of defamiliarization, alternately endearing, impressive, hilarious, and surreal. Nearly everyone with even one eye on pop culture knows A New Hope quite well, yet in this version you never know precisely what’s coming next. And if a certain segment doesn’t work for you, you’re mere seconds from the start (and the end) of the next. It shares A New Hope‘s expert construction and approximates its fresh-eyed creativity as well as anything under the title of Star Wars can, at this juncture, be expected to.
Now, of course, we can expect to come at Star Wars with something resembling fresh eyes again, thanks to J.J. Abrams, Disney, and George Lucas’s not inconsiderable greed. As was tangentially mentioned, The People vs. George Lucas might be comprehensive in its examination of three decades of fraught fandom and shifting cultural profiles, but it was completed before the most recent twist in the tale, which casts many of the theories presented about Lucas’s perspective and his relationship to his intergalactic creation in a very different light, if it doesn’t contradict them entirely. Involved in the new films as a creative consultant only, Lucas has nonetheless claimed to exercise guru-like control over the boundaries of his universe, telling the filmmakers that his creation spawned what they can and can’t do and still hold a claim to Star Wars. Even as his world-famous cinematic invention passes largely out of his hands, Lucas won’t entirely relinquish his grip on it. It’s obvious that the opinionated Star Wars geeks of The People vs. George Lucas would nod knowingly at this latest development. Just George being George, after all.
Regular readers of this blog may have registered a noticeable silence as concerns the headline-making scandals of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford as of late. The absence of writing about the latest round of nonsense from the Ford circus might indeed appear to be in inverse proportion to the avalanche of media coverage in recent weeks. The burst of revelations (videotaped crack cocaine use, drunk driving, sexual harassment allegations, lies and more lies), clownish Ford brothers antics (Rob bumping over a female councilor in the chambers while his brother Doug confronted hecklers, his mayoral powers and budget being removed by lopsided council votes, a SUNnews show that was cancelled after a single episode) and ridiculous statements (Rob dismissing the cunnilingus-related harassment accusations with graphic language and by crassly claiming that, as a married man, he “gets plenty to eat at home”, Doug telling CNN that the embattled mayor is “the white Obama”, the Mayor comparing the council-voted reduction of his powers to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait) has been run into ground in mainstream, online, and social media all around the world, and has provided nightly fodder for American late-night comedians.
To a certain extent, this radio silence on the subject of Ford was a matter of long-promised principle. I’ve mostly said all that needs to be said about the man, his noxious politics, his counterproductive policies, his off-putting cultural associations, and his inflamed rhetoric. Nothing that’s happened in the past weeks changes these opinions, and if anything it deepens and broadens their applicability. Admissions of crack use and other evidence of misconduct and erratic behavior doesn’t really change the core problems with the man as a public figure. This tendency to avoid further discussion was also likely fed by the maelstrom of media attention and the heaving surplus of opinion pieces on the continuing Ford debacle. Why simply be one more voice in the crowd, echoing not only other voices but my own as well?
But is there not something more profound lurking behind the unwillingness to engage with the significance of this public mess of a mayor, I began to wonder? There might well be, and if there is, it might be this: what’s the point of thinking and writing about a subject that is so defiantly resistant to thinking and writing? Rob Ford has aligned his public image so thoroughly against the intellectual imperatives of the liberal-humanist tradition, made himself the personification of “common sense”, “gut feelings”, and other manifestations of Colbertian “truthiness”, that the traditional public discourse of the written word cannot dislodge him from his perch.
The central material function of the opinion piece (if it possesses one beyond the public edification of its author, that is) is to consider, to argue, to persuade with evidence, logic, and insight. Such a piece assumes that it’s part and parcel of a basic civil exchange of open, honest discussion that engages problems and is at the very least a lightning flash in the collective brainstorm for solutions. But the firewall approach of Ford Nation, the extreme epistemic closure of the self-contained conservative ideology of resentful blame, righteous victimhood, and unshakeable certainty of purpose stymies these lofty aims of the thinkpiece. It has no room to maneuver, no space to exercise its mental gymnastics. Or, rather, it has all the space and time in the world, but goes unacknowledged by its subject and unchallenged by the anti-Ford choir it preaches to. The sheer amount of writing on the subject of Rob Ford doesn’t help this case either. How do we sort through it, separate the wheat from the chaff? If everyone is thinking and writing about Rob Ford, is anyone?
This analysis should be unsurprising, being as it is a pretty clear diagnosis of the realities of the echo chamber in political discourse in our time. But there’s another angle to the shortfalls of the thinkpiece in the context of Rob Ford: Rob Ford himself. He doesn’t avoid or deflect the criticism, the diagnoses, the condemnations so much as absorb them, process them almost instantly, and make them elements in what we can call (hopefully not pretentiously) his growing public legend. He’s a blackhole of discourse, drawing in all surrounding matter that could threaten him and cosmically digesting it into oblivion. But it’s an oblivion that he loves, and that serves him well.
In a characteristic moment of propagandizing, Doug Ford has recently referred to his mayoral sibling as “the most honest politician in the world”. Strictly speaking, this is not remotely true; both Ford brothers have told many provable and publically contradicted lies and mistruths (whether or not Rob smoked crack is only the most sensationalist of them), to say nothing of the various assertions and convictions they have expressed that are contrary to observed reality. But in a subtly differing meaning of the word, the line is absolutely true. Rob Ford is “honest” in the same way that, say, a medieval peasant toiling for 14 hours in the fields is honest, wearing his pains and personal dramas in his fleshy, open face. “Frank” is perhaps a better adjective, as is dispenses with endless vagaries of objective truth. Ford Nation might prefer “real” or “authentic”, but these terms are likewise fraught, as Andrew Potter told us.
“Frank” works fine, and encapsulates how Ford will let fly with disarming truths and absurd, brazen lies in equal measure, without the classic wily politician’s instinct for whether what he says will help him or not. That same frankness, heavy and blunt as a cudgel blow, defeats the exquisite consideration of the thinkpiece, knocks it off balances, all while Ford transforms its surviving barbs into new pieces of armour. This may serve to explain this otherwise disgraced mayor’s strange resilience, despite any number of slings and arrows that would have felled a politician with more self-regard and a more robust sense of shame.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010; Directed by Mike Newell)
Following onscreens titles spewing platitudes about destiny and lives linked through time, a credulous voiceover reveals the setting for this inadequate offering from the Disney/Jerry Bruckheimer action-adventure blockbuster factory: Persia, “a land far away”. Presumably not a land far away from, say, Persia, but it’s half a world away from the middling American imaginations that concocted this half-baked Orientalist adaptation of the Arabian-themed video game series.
This is a quasi-fantastical, roughly medieval Persia similar to the one featured in the games (most obviously the recent quadrilogy of wall-hopping, puzzle-solving, scimitar-swinging entries from Montreal’s Ubisoft). Persia is a vast empire that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush, and is ruled by the wise and just King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup). Advised by his shrewd brother Nazim (Ben Kingsley), the aging Sharaman has handed control of his armies to his three sons, the youngest of which is Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal), a wily but empathetic orphaned urchin from the streets of the capital that the magnanimous king adopted and raised as his own.
Now grown to manhood, Dastan is a daring and reckless athletic warrior; while his brother princes take sober counsel over whether or not to besiege the holy city of Alamut, he’s engaged in a bareknuckle boxing match. In the eventual assault (Nazim conveniently produces a shipment of illicit arms captured leaving Alamut for Persia’s enemies, convincing the princes to attack), Dastan distinguishes himself, clever and acrobatically breaching a side-gate and heading off a large counterattack by the Alamutians that leads to the Persian capture of the city with minimal bloodshed.
But the famous victory is only the beginning of Dastan’s trials and tribulations. The capture of Alamut is the opening chess move in Nazim’s Machiavellian plot to seize the throne of Persia. He next frames Dastan for the murder of the king with the gift of a poisoned prayer robe, driving the adopted son into flight from his fellow princes. Elder heir Tus (Richard Coyle) becomes the new ruling monarch and puts a price on the head of his apparently seditious sibling; it was Tus who suggested that Dastan gift the poisoned robe to their father, and so it’s him that Dastan suspects of masterminding the coup. With Dastan on the run, the new king and Nazim begin searching beneath Alamut for the forges that made the swords, the proverbial smoking gun of the city’s treachery.
Dastan soon learns from the princess who presides over Alamut’s holy relics (Gemma Atherton) that it’s quite likely they’re after something else, however. Before fleeing into exile, Dastan comes into possession of a gilt dagger with mystical powers to turn back time. The magical dagger becomes the object of pursuit for Dastan, Nazim, and Princess Tamina, with the power to change the past, to destroy the world, or to prevent either option hanging in the balance.
The quest takes Dastan and Tamina through generic mainstay settings such as desert dunes and oases, Arabesque urban marketplaces, the frosty highlands of the Kush, and to a climactic, time-travelling showdown over a subterranean hourglass containing the titular temporal sands. There’s a drawn-out and lame attempt at comic relief involving a shifty sheik (Alfred Molina) with purposely anachronistic libertarian views who runs an ostrich-racing racket in a secluded valley. “We run races on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” he tells Dastan, although properly speaking, Persians don’t have Tuesdays and Thursdays, but then who’s counting (except, you know, Persians)?
If you’ve got even half a brain in your head, there’s barely enough here to convince you to count, either. The dialogue alternates between stilted, high-flown nobilityspeak and tone-deaf misfired humour. The plot meanders along in the wake of the dagger’s travels, without particular dramatic impact; a cleverer filmmaker than Mike Newell might have made better narrative use of the dagger’s time-rewinding powers, but once the tantalizing ability is established, it’s not used again until the last act.
The protagonist Dastan is characterized as a physically gifted lout with a heart of gold, but even in his robust simplicity he’s far too trusting of his devious vizier uncle (“Don’t trust him, Jake! He’s Ben Kingsley!”) and too quick to blame his bosom brother for their father’s assassination. The action is frequent but uninspired; only the acrobatic bursts are at all memorable, the Errol Flynn/Douglas Fairbanks wall-climbing and rooftop-hopping acts of derring-do that were such a giddy feature of the gameplay of The Sands of Time and that translate well to the screen when they’re allowed the room to do so.
Gyllenhaal has spent some time in the gym in order to be able to embody such an athletic Persian beefcake, no doubt, and his bashful boyish grin is worth a hundred action-hero one-liners on the rare occasion that it’s appropriately employed. But this just ain’t his scene, and in between his displays of consummate professionalism, his faint embarrassment is palpable. Kingsley is better than this menacing villainous foreigner stuff, but it’s been a while since he’s done much else so maybe he’s really not. Atherton is lovely and her character’s sacred guardian role doesn’t quite conform to the usual gender clichés (though it doesn’t upend them either). But the rom-com pas-a-deux with Gyllenhaal, the “she hates him but then learns to love him” nonsense, is more conventional and burdensome to the charm of both actors.
Some critical affront was taken upon the film’s release concerning its Orientalism, its flirtation with Middle Eastern stereotypes, and its employment of Caucasian actors as putative Persians. Although the appeal to an audience’s collective sense of far-flung exoticism is (un)pure Old Hollywood, Prince of Persia treads lightly around anything resembling contemporary politics. The plot turns on classic dynastic power plays and Shakespearean throne-seizing schemes, and nothing resembling the political or social issues of modern Iran or the Arab world are analogized in the film (nor should they be, as this is a silly and unsubstantial exercise).
And even though the world of Prince of Persia encompasses matters of faith and holiness, the exact parametres of these questions are not made explicit. The Alamutians are characterized as “pagans” by one of the princes, but the Persians also treat the holy city with obvious reverence and King Sharaman has no qualms about donning what he believes to be the prayer robe of its patriarch, if more as a trophy than as a token of faith. The pagan line, the location and the period, and brief reference to “the Creator” would seem to point towards the Persians being Muslim, but no symbols or practices of Islam are visible. Even the most roundabout suggestion that a Hollywood action hero might be a Muslim must have made Disney executives leery.
But maybe they should have allowed themselves to be less leery. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time smacks of imposed compromises but also of ill-conceived creative notions. Its direct source material, though “only” a video game, jumps off from its Arabian Nights genre inspiration into richer veins of atmosphere and excitement. The film echoes the time-freezing effects of the game in fleeting showcase moments, but simply does not tell a story that is as good or as involving. With its enslavement to blockbuster convention and to a plot of royal succession intrigue, The Sands of Time proscribes its potential affect by being too much of a movie when it might have captured a wider imagination if it had trusted its gaming heritage a bit more implicitly.
The Lone Ranger (2013; Directed by Gore Verbinski)
The most unfortunate thing about the bellyflop that The Lone Ranger took at the box office is that it may lead to a reactive proscription by a skittish Hollywood of the budgets and creative freedoms of the film’s director, Gore Verbinski. Helmsman of the initial Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, the American remake of The Ring and Rango, the fantastic, loopy, Oscar-winning animated deconstruction of the heroic tropes of the Western, Verbinski is one of the most consistently inventive and intellectually-tilted directors working in Hollywood’s blockbuster field today. Even a consensus failure like The Lone Ranger displays feverish creativity, technical acumen, and self-reflexive intelligence in not inconsiderable amounts.
Honestly, though, fuck the consensus. Although The Lone Ranger is certainly no roaring success (it’s likely Verbinski’s weakest effort since the second Pirates film), it’s no more a failure as a film than any number of aesthetically equivalent blockbusters that were far more profitable. It’s pretty fun at key moments (especially opening and closing train chase sequences), and addresses (and redresses) some of the central myths of American westward expansion circulated in the cultural discourse by classic Hollywood Westerns. Like Rango, the movie provides a homage to the influence of these seminal films while offering a learned, progressive pushback against their less savoury implications, in particular their symbolic erasure of Native American peoples from the continuing story of the United States of America.
Verbinski and his screenwriters (Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, the Pirates scribes, had their original, werewolf-featuring screenplay rewritten by Justin Haythe) were perhaps embarking on a nobly doomed exercise with The Lone Ranger. Seeking to adapt a cumbersomely old-fashioned cowboys-and-Indians property that never ventured far beyond its basic genre elements into a post-colonial atonement for the ill-acknowledged crimes of Caucasian-American settlement of the West and into an impressive, action-packed summer tentpole release is a surefire ambitious folly of massive proportions. Throw in Johnny Depp in redface as a character synonymous with the unsettling noble savage archetype and you’re baiting disaster to take a swing at your kisser.
But, as Verbinski managed to accomplish in Rango, even the tiredest of generic tropes are prefaced by knowing, self-reflexive commentary. Depp’s Tonto first appears in a 1930s travelling carnival’s Old West museum, posing as a living statue next to taxidermied bison and grizzlies, a label below his display cube reading, “The Noble Savage in His Natural Habitat”. Tonto relates his adventures with the Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer) to a young boy dressed as the legendary cowboy hero, who probes his tale with doubts à la Fred Savage interrupting Peter Falk’s reading of The Princess Bride. The narrative framing and the pre-emptive demarcation of the terms of the trope serve to mitigate its discriminatory implications, but only so far. Furthermore, Tonto’s reproduction of stereotypical enactments of decidedly non-authentic Native spiritualist practices are dismissed by his fellow Comanche tribesmen as not reflective of their culture but of only his personal soft-headedness. This aligns well enough with Depp’s performance, which, despite his likely-dubious claims of Native-American ancestry and “adequate” pronunciation of words of the Comanche language, follows his favoured thespianic method of layering physical quirks and personality eccentricities onto unreliable trickster figure characters.
Tonto’s quasi-spiritual oddities (which include a dead crow headpiece which he repeatedly attempts to feed birdseed to) are focused around his personal quest as a younger man in 1869 for vengeance against white men who have perpetrated a grievous wrong against his people, namely fearsome outlaw Butch Cavendish (the gloriously filthy William Fitchner) and ruthless railroad magnate Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson). Chained inside a train car next to Cavendish in the film’s serpentine kickoff sequence, Tonto’s attempt to eliminate what he believes to be a malevolent “wendigo” spirit in a human body is interfered with by the titular protagonist in his pre-masked state as a buttoned-down future Texas District Attorney named John Reid, who happens to be returning west on the same train. Our first glimpse of Reid plays hyperbolically on his putative squareness, as we’re lead to believe that he’s a plain-dressed Protestant evangelical flipping devotedly through a Bible (his “bible” is John Locke’s Treatises of Government).
Reid is returning home to Colby, Texas (which looks suspiciously like Monument Valley on the Utah/Arizona border), where Cole is supervising the driving of the last spike on the transcontinental railroad. He plans to bring civilized law to the Wild West, as his more rugged Texas Ranger brother Dan (James Badge Dale) has been doing in a more rough and ready manner while he’s been off in the East book-learnin’. Dan married John’s childhood sweetheart Rebecca (Ruth Wilson) and had a son, but there’s still an old frisson between John and Rebecca, who lives on a remote ranch on the border with Comanche country.
Anyway, Dan Reid and his posse ride off in pursuit of Cavendish and his gang amongst the towering sandstone buttes of classic Western movie iconography, a newly deputized John in tow. Ambushed due to the treachery of one of their number, the Rangers are slaughtered by Cavendish and his thugs, and the infamous gunslinger cuts out and eats Dan’s heart, which John witnesses before fluttering out of consciousness. Brutal enough stuff for a PG-13 adaptation of a gentle boy’s adventure serial, but all fairly true to the Lone Ranger’s established origin story down through its many versions over the decades (minus the heart-devouring, natch). It also faces up to the vicious violence that was an undeniable feature of the lawless West and was so often justified and scrubbed up in the genre classics being referenced and deconstructed by Verbinski.
Left for dead, John Reid is found by Tonto. Reluctantly following the lead of a mysterious and distinctly odd white “spirit horse” (which finds its way onto roofs and into trees, eats some scorpions, and generally steals every scene it is in), Tonto nurses the fancy lawyer back to health as a “spirit walker” ally in his wendigo-hunting quest, although he would have preferred his more dashing brother, as a running gag reminds us. Donning a mask at the Comanche’s vaguely-justified request, John sets out to avenge his brother, protect his widow and son, prevent a war between white settlers and the Comanche, and halt a trainload of ill-gotten silver that will finance Cole’s hostile takeover of the railroad.
This setup is even more lenghty onscreen than my non-brief description of it, and the pursuit of Cavendish and Cole sets Tonto and the Ranger along an even longer road of cross-country travel, captures and switchbacks rather similar to the plot construction of the Pirates films. It stretches on largely pointlessly, introducing one-joke supporting characters like Helena Bonham-Carter’s brothel madam with an ivory leg concealing a shotgun and Barry Pepper’s bluff, empty-headed General Custer parody of a cavalry officer. It does build up to the aforementioned climactic, spatially inventive showpiece chase sequence involving two intercrossing trains, which is quite fantastic. Hammer and Depp have some decent comedic chemistry in between the extraneous narrative u-turns. Wilson’s Rebecca flashes some formidable quasi-feminist teeth before being required to revert to the damsel in distress. There are some loopy touches from Verbinski’s vault of surrealist imagination, like vicious, razor-toothed hares that eat meat. And no movie that features Stephen Root in muttonchops exclaiming “My gluteus!” can be entirely dismissed out of hand.
Indeed, what was feared to be The Lone Ranger‘s certain downfall is really its most notable feature. Concerns that Depp’s wacky Indian antics would diminish the historical displacement, dispossession, and borderline genocide of the land’s established inhabitants even further are not entirely unfounded, but this is a film well aware of the crimes of history that places itself firmly against the narrative of progress that buttressed those crimes. The Ranger and Tonto have a little comedic bit where each reacts in his own way to the thought of stopping the construction of the railroad; Reid, despite his upright sense of justice, is all for the steel road, but Tonto, no pure, natural primitive, is dead set against it. Tonto challenges Reid’s unthinking characterization of him as a savage, and the Comanche chief that Reid meets (Saginaw Grant) is wordly and wise in unconventional ways. A literal and symbolic massacre of First Nations is even enacted, as a desperately brave Comanche force charges a U.S. Army detachment only to be mown mercilessly down by a gatling gun.
Unlike Rango‘s meta-commentary on the Western heroic tropes, however, The Lone Ranger‘s evident objections to the deprivations of westward expansion never coalesce around any specific critique. They crop up in symbols and indeterminate crossovers from the elderly Tonto’s storytelling frame, like the candy-striped peanut bag that Tonto takes from the Ranger-boy and later drops into a posse member’s grave. Cole habitually checks a shiny pocketwatch, the precision of the clockface heralding profound temporal and existential shifts as a direct result of technological advancement (it was the railroads, after all, that supplied the need of standardized time). Tonto possesses a similar watch, traded by Cole years ago for information that proved devastating to Tonto’s village. Tonto’s watch is tellingly broken; Chief Big Bear repairs a pocketwatch while telling the Ranger about Tonto’s past. Cole receives a new pocketwatch as a gift of gratitude for completing the railway, while the Ranger declines the same item after defeating the agents of greed and rapine attending the settlement process, implying that his stewardship will skew to tradition rather than forward-moving exploitation.
Like its technical and entertainment elements, The Lone Ranger‘s ideological features are scattershot, unruly, and a little crazy. Such disorder is par for the course in this rambling mess of a blockbuster that only occasionally hits its mark and even more occasionally chooses to feign having a mark to hit at all. Like Disney’s similar folly of the year before, John Carter of Mars, it could be argued that The Lone Ranger failed to connect successfully with a wide mass audience due to the relative lack of popular awareness of its outdated subject material due to its long dormancy in the public imagination. Verbinski’s resurrection of the Lone Ranger myth as a counter-narrative to its long-established ideological support for manifest destiny was a potential stroke of genius that, unfortunately, was hemmed in by so many competing concerns that it only intermittently lived up to its promise. Did The Lone Ranger do well commercially? No, it did not. Does it constitute a creative Dunkirk for the often exciting director Verbinski? Not entirely. Is it far more interesting than its now-calcified reputation as an irredeemable flop will admit? Most certainly.