The Dark Knight (2008; Directed by Christopher Nolan)
The reinvention of Batman as a morally-ambiguous anti-hero for a morally-ambiguous time continued with The Dark Knight. As in its predecessor Batman Begins or the less-worthy trilogy capper The Dark Knight Rises, Chris Nolan’s starkly realist interpretation of the Caped Crusader has its unquestionable strengths and its nagging weaknesses. For one, it’s oddly paced, set forth in a spiking series of mini-climaxes, after half of which the film could well have ended. This movie doesn’t flow so much as thrust and parry, and it’s a strange and sometimes tiring experience.
Performance-wise, even if all of the actors aren’t hitting every note perfectly, they are at least working hard to play real people rather than comic book caricatures. Caine, Freeman, and Oldman are solid if generally unremarkable in basically stock roles, Maggie Gyllenhaal may actually be slightly less engaging than Katie Holmes as the same character (I am stunned, too!), and Aaron Eckhart is upstaged by his makeup in the late stages of the film. It’s astoundingly cool makeup, mind you, but still. Christian Bale, however, is at his most phoned-in here; he’s a cipher, lacking any of his usual sneaking subtexts, which is disappointing given his abilities as an actor.
But, of course, this is Heath Ledger’s movie. This is the kind of performance that seals the near-legend status that his unfortunate passing already hinted at. Unlike Jack Nicholson’s scenery-chewing Joker, Ledger’s is a vicious, unpredictable, deeply twisted freak, a self-professed “agent of chaos” who gleefully adds an “s” to the front of “laughter” when given half a chance (but still slips in some snide humour here and there). Always a trickster figure, here the Joker takes those inherent possibilities to the extreme, posing large-scale philosophical quandaries to his bat-shaped nemesis that risk hundreds of lives in the process. The influence of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke is often apparent, but at times Ledger’s Joker is aligned much more closely with another Moore creation, “V” from V For Vendetta. An anarchical situationalist whose violent, criminal demonstrations always have deeper points about morality (or the lack thereof), he’s also always many steps ahead of the authorities and seems to operate with impunity and with an unexplained infinite reach, to say nothing of the fixed grin and the fondness for explosives.
The Dark Knight‘s Big Moral Questions only really carry any bite when the Joker poses them, however. Ledger’s mercurial trickster takes the heavy-handed statements about good and bad, moral and immoral that Bale, Oldman, and Eckhart are saddled with and twists a knife in them, all the while asking, “Why so serious?” His skewed role (along with the occasional badass action beat, when Nolan relaxes his editing finger long enough to show us one) suggests something more uniquely corkscrewed and less ponderous than the movie’s “heroes” are able to provide.
And yet the Joker is also allowed to question his own purported role in this morality tale, pointing directly at his own essential unreliability even as an agent of violent deconstruction of social order: “Do I really look like a guy with a plan?” Nolan had tended in his Batman films to throw around open-ended questions of moral philosophy while offering no remedies to the ills depicted, outside of some vaguely fascistic appeals to duty-bound male power. But in Ledger’s Joker, he finally had a figure whose willingness to upend and mock the very tenets of morality allowed him an out from the thorny answers he was so skilled at dancing around. No wonder that same figure was the element that audiences seized upon most enthusiastically, and remains the notable feature of the film that deserves to be best remembered.
The Avengers (2012; Directed by Joss Whedon)
The Avengers is not told by an idiot, but it is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But that nothing is nonetheless everything. What Marvel and Joss Whedon’s grandiose, overstuffed airborne beast of a superhero ur-movie signifies is the feverish daydream of an American mass culture entirely unmoored from the necessitous advantages of signification. It is epochal, in its way, for its times. But that is not to say that it is, in the narrowest sense, good or bad. It stamps such distinctions into the dirty earth. As a film, it does not seduce or persuade or convince. It tramples.
To kvetch so about The Avengers’s lack of underlying meaning is to be a hopeless bore. So let’s be hopeless, though hopefully not boring: for all there is to recommend it, I cannot. Or rather, there isn’t any point in recommending it or not, which is the exact problem. The Avengers is not merely post-criticism (this concept might sound like a good thing to many, but then it sounded pretty good to Stalin, too). It is – in its elaborate, all-encompassing, inevitable dominance – post-ideology. Slavoj Zizek said in a recent television appearance that ideology functions even if you don’t believe in it, but even this gnomic inverted-donut Slovenian Marxist-Lacanian logic is no match for The Avengers. Thought crumbles in the face of its enormity. Faith is not even in the conversation. It’s pointless to even criticize it as a simple overblown corporate product, although it is one. Its fundamental commodification explodes, reconstitutes itself from the energy of the blast, then implodes until nothing is left to grasp onto. It is a mystery, wrapped loosely in an enigma, reclining on a bed of money, oysters, and looted art, inviting us puny mortals to lick its toes. And who are we to say no?
If these issues seem tenuously drawn or overly theoretical, it’s because a traditional critical dissection of the film’s cinematic parts cannot avail us in comprehending the excessive lack before our eyes. By all the terms by which we ought to understand the movies, The Avengers is a wild success. Presaged by no less than five previous superhero films, it represents an ambitious culmination of the translation of comic-book storytelling form into motion pictures, for good or for ill. If Whedon has no particular style worth pointing out as a filmmaker, then he gladly indulges in destructive visual fantasies of gigantic scope like a good Hollywood sport and a well-versed comics fanatic. In particular, extended action and battle sequences aboard a secret security agency’s flying aircraft carrier (your tax dollars at work, America!) and in midtown Manhattan are grand and exhausting exercises in violent vision.
Additionally, because this is Joss Whedon working from his own script, every character banters fluently in Whedonspeak, which is sometimes amusing in its witty inertia but just as frequently oddly defamiliarizing and capable of pulling us out of the moment. And The Avengers exists in nothing but the moment, ultimately, so allowing the audience to be yanked out of it doesn’t work out in its favour very often. Whedon’s cadre of actors are happy to meld into the larger picture and grab at their own moments here and there. Robert Downey, Jr. and Mark Ruffalo have some nice beats together as Tony “Iron Man” Stark and Bruce Banner (the Incredible Hulk may never catch on with audiences in his own flick, but is compelling in small doses here and gets one of the best gratuitous violence gags with Tom Hiddleston’s villainous Loki), and Chris Hemsworth’s buff Thor is a magnetic, laconic delight again. Most of the other actors fill the eye-candy role (although Jeremy Renner needs a non-action role or two but quick to avoid career stagnation) and serve some useful function in the plot, which, for all of its reliance on a shiny MacGuffin (the Tesseract, or something), is very much constructed with interlocking intentionality.
By any measure, then, The Avengers was a triumphant commercial success and is perhaps an aesthetic one as well, at least in its given context of cryogenically-preserved eternal male adolescence. But if this exquisitely-mounted pile of absorbing emptiness qualifies as a success, of what use can the term be to us anymore? This movie represents “success” in the post-millenial sense that has given us hedge-fund billionaires and reality-show debutants and very nearly President Mitt Romney. It’s not that The Avengers itself is terrible; it’s just that, in its undeniable accomplishment, it embodies a particular economic, cultural, and social context that is terrible. “Terrible” in the anachronistic meaning of great, imposing, and irresistible. Alternately, one could employ “awesome”, and not in the sense that the word was used by the movie’s fanboy target audience, which it seems to have thoroughly conquered. The Avengers, as its smug, snobbish demigod villain does at one point (in Germany, of all places), invites us to bow down to its superiority because that is our nature as pathetic humanoids. Unable to fathom disappointing the film in all its impressive glory, we obeyed. And perhaps that says as much about us as it does about the movie.
Persepolis (2007; Directed by Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud)
Visually inventive, cleverly pitched, intermittently funny and heartbreaking, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis was always a graphic novel that seemed to demand a fleshed-out filmic treatment. Since Satrapi herself, with an ample assist from animator Vincent Paronnaud, provides it, questions of fidelity in adaptation are rendered moot.
Certainly, no other filmmaker could have aptly brought a story so personal as Satrapi’s auto-bio-graphic novel to the screen. Furthermore, it wouldn’t have looked nearly right without Satrapi’s own unique black-and-white cartoon style, dominated by strong lines and rigid geometry but occasionally bursting playfully with delightful curlicues and peculiar flourishes redolent of Persian art history.
For the most part, Satrapi’s film is witty, affecting, and hefty with political currency. The vocal minority still echoing the stubborn neoconservative drumbeat for pre-emptive war against Iran would be well-served to see it and consider well. Nonetheless, it loses itself at points in its meandering second half. Much as the second installment of the graphic novel could not match the potent sharpness of the first, the last act or two of the film adaptation slips into personal indulgence and only near the end finds its way back to the hermeneutic potency of the opening section in Iran.
But it does find its way back, to its credit. Like Satrapi herself, Persepolis is drawn away from its heritage, but eventually finds its way back to the place it belongs while simultaneously realizing that, sometimes, finding your way home is ultimately impossible.
Thor (2011; Directed by Kenneth Branagh)
Thor answers a question that no one had ever asked nor had even thought to ask: what the heck would a Marvel Comics movie directed by Kenneth Branagh look like? The answer: pretty much like any other Marvel movie or any other Kenneth Branagh movie, only perhaps more so. It’s an aggressively competent potboiler, an extremely silly film that accepts and even embraces that inherent silliness and often thrives due to that key choice. Thor is pure pulp and knows it, and it’s therefore hard to begrudge the predictability of the entire enterprise.
The enterprise kick off in the New Mexico desert at night (you know you’re in a comic-book movie if the opening shot features a subtitle identifying the remote setting), where a team of atmospheric science researchers track a storm of odd and alarming characteristics. Careening their science-mystery van at unsafe speeds in pursuit of the disturbance, they run smack into the form of a man. Who is this man? No man at all, some lengthy flashback exposition tells us, but a god: the resident badass of the Norse mythological pantheon, in fact.
‘Tis Thor (played by blond Aussie beefcake Chris Hemsworth), and he comes not from the land of ice and snow, but from the impossible sci-fi enormity of Asgard. We are soon shown this expansive place, rendered by the CGI designers as a glinting landscape of sheer-faced monuments and pulsating Nintendo lighting. Every scene on the rainbow bridge to the Bifrost portal out of the realm (and there are a few) leaves one expecting a Mario Kart to squeal by at any moment, hurling turtle shells and/or banana peels at the self-serious beings carrying out contentious conversations out on the multicoloured tiles.
Thor, you see, is not quite self-serious enough for the king of Asgard, wise, one-eyed Odin (Anthony Hopkins, who slums it with such benign gravity). The All-Father is Thor’s specific pater as well, and postpones and then entirely suspends his son’s anticipated ascension to the throne. This is in response to the young hammer-wielding hothead’s guerilla assault on Jotunheim, the perpetually dim land of the dire Frost Giants, with whom Odin has forged an uneasy truce that seems much more advantageous to the Asgardians than it is for the dour and nasty giants (who are admittedly not all that gigantic). Thor is banished for his hubris and stripped of his all-smashing hammer Mjolnir, leaving the computer-generated stage to his scheming younger brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who finagles his way into a semi-permanent regency when Odin falls into one his apparently frequent deep sleeps (Asgard evidently has no clear constitutional guidelines to govern such contingencies) while plotting to eliminate his anointed brother once and for all.
This brings us back to New Mexico, where there are fewer imposing Space Vikings bandying about medieval-romance pronouncements but more plucky scientists chasing atmospheric anomalies. Lead plucky scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, who slums it with less benign gravity), aided by her mentor (Stellan Skarsgård) and her intern (Kat Dennings), trundles the unconscious Thor off to the hospital, leading to a few amusing fish-out-of-water moments that tend to be related to smashing (coffee cups, hospital rooms, you get the picture), as well as to how freakin’ hot the ladies think he is.
At the same time, Mjolnir lands elsewhere in the desert, leading first to a redneck tailgate-party version of The Sword in the Stone and then to the descent of the shadowy government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. and the cordoning off of the perimeter around the mythical hammer. Thor catches wind of the arrival of his trusty phallic extension and lays out some agency muscle-men on his way to reclaim it, but of course, his redemption will not be quite so easy. It will involve learning the virtues of not only violence, but of wisdom, self-sacrifice, and, of course, love.
Thor repeats the thematic mainstays of most Marvel silver-screen adventures, but don’t fret; it repeats the elaborately destructive fight sequences and the irritating attempts at topical humour of those previous products as well (just as Iron Man tossed off a MySpace reference a year after MySpace ceased to be cool, Thor drops some iPod and laptop jokes as if they were both just invented). There’s also several instances of manipulatively saccharine score cues (by Patrick Doyle, who is capable of better) trying to coax audience emotional identification from incongruous moments. Am I really about to get choked up because Thor can’t lift his hammer, or because he’s facing his sure-to-be-temporary doom at the hands of a fire-spewing guardian robot, just because the sympathetic strings say so? Additionally, the combination of outlandish, impressive design and stiff epic solemnity produces Asgard as a setting of simultaneous overwrought baroqueness and stilted boredom. The visual ludicrousness undercuts the performances, too, as actors like Hiddleston and Idris Elba (as Heimdall, the guardian of the world-bridge) strain to be taken semi-seriously beneath towering horned helmets of deranged Gigerian grandeur.
Yet Thor is not an unenjoyable popcorn flick despite its faults, and indeed quite likely because Branagh embraces the inborn corniness of the material with such vim, vigour, and uncomplicated enthusiasm. As brought to semi-life by the stalwart but affable Hemsworth, the Thor we are presented with is a crib-notes version of the self-involved anointed icons that Branagh himself played in the film adaptations of Henry V and Hamlet for which he is likely to always be remembered (to say nothing of his sublime self-mockery as Gilderoy Lockhart in the second Harry Potter film).
Thor, like Henry, must learn to cool his hot spurs, to consider war and then to wage it if need be, to court womankind with earnest words if that is what is required of him. Thor, to be sure, is not Shakespeare, but Branagh (unlike, say, Christopher Nolan) is not under the impression that comic books offer any such deep insight into the human character. They are the frothy quotidian myths of a thin gruel of a post-modern culture, and their relation to the myths of the past is nowhere more evident than in Thor, with its adaptations of Norse mythology. You’ll dig it well enough for a couple of hours, and then mostly forget it a couple of hours later. And now and then, that’s okay.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008; Directed by Guillermo Del Toro)
Taking visual and metaphorical cues from his magnificent Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo Del Toro places Mike Mignola’s cigar-chomping demonic action hero in a stunning and occasionally meditative tale of folkloric magic fighting back against aggressive modernity.
To some extent, The Golden Army is more of the same as both Del Toro’s Spanish Civil War-set masterpiece and his first Hellboy film from 2004, but it franchises and deepens what might have stood simply as a solid one-off comic book film. Ron Perlman’s Red struts his way through more exciting paranormal adventures, accompanied by his hot (in more ways than one) girlfriend Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), sophisticated, logical, and now-lovesick sidekick Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), exasperated government liason Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor), and a by-the-book German ghost encased in a mechanical suit (voiced ludicrously by Family Guy svengali Seth MacFarlane). Del Toro’s action setpieces are clear, concise and elegantly shot; you’re never disoriented, and spatial concerns are always paramount. Perlman is once again pretty great even under his complex prosthetic; he lets rip with the one-liners, banters with friends and foes alike, and emotes when the need arises.
But the comic-book accoutrements are just a framework for Del Toro’s latest beautifully-crafted blend of harsh modernity and fragile mythological fantasy. From the film’s haunted prologue of wooden puppets waging war on forward, the symbolic background of magic hidden beneath concrete is what’s really memorable about Hellboy II, and provides plenty of opportunities for Del Toro and his collaborators to lay down a thick layer of beauty. A sequence in a troll market beneath the Brooklyn Bridge is a feverish expansion of both the cantina scene in Star Wars and Diagon Alley of the Harry Potter films, a complete, bustling world of fantastic monstrosities that passes by almost unnoticed, its mundanity the wellsrping of its magic. The action sequence that extends out of the market is even more striking, as Red wastes a towering beanstalk-like elemental that then sprouts into a delicate green garden in the midst of a faceless New York City street. Even the villain, the pale elf Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), is presented less as a world-threatening psychopath than as a representative of a magical underworld that promises to welcome Red more gladly than the bland post-industrial world of the humans ever will.
Even in a whiz-bang comic-book action blockbuster, then, Guillermo Del Toro manages to craft a thoughtful and poetic film about being haunted by mythological possibilities. That the film is also purely entertaining on its own merits is just the icing on the cake. It all just makes one lament his now-lost vision of Middle Earth for the forthcoming Hobbit films even more. Can you imagine what that might have been like? Watching Hellboy II, it’s sadly clear that we’ll only ever be able to imagine it. But for Del Toro, imagination is everything.
Watchmen (2009; Directed by Zach Snyder)
First things first: this is Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, not Alan Moore’s. Bear this firmly in mind before continuing. As tightly as Snyder skews to the seminal comic by Moore and Dave Gibbons (and he often skews very tightly), this is the work of a cinematic artist with a vision all his own. And it is Snyder’s own personal vision, his deviations from Moore’s work, that makes this film, that gives it its breathtaking wonders and its nagging setbacks. There’s more of the former than the latter by a long shot, but it’s hard to ignore the missteps, ultimately.
What Snyder gets right (and he gets most of it right) is astonishing. The book’s tone of atheistic deflation and the mood of oppressive dystopian alienation is all there, unfiltered. The complicated histories of the Comedian, Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan are presented in their proper order, with the proper level of emotional detail. If the other characters (especially those of the previous generation) get short thrift, then Moore gave it to them first; Snyder gives us enough information to infer more if we choose, but it’s only what we need. The intricate plot is preserved in all its complexity, and proves out the cinematic language of Moore’s (and Gibbons’) comic storytelling even as it feels much stranger and less conventional than your usual film narrative. And, more than anything, the look and style of Watchmen is all there, epic and dingy, dark and glowing, never anything but deeply powerful. Fans of the comic will spot dozens, even hundreds, of images ripped straight from the pages of the original.
The cast does what’s asked of them, and there’s nary a bad performance. Malin Akerman’s Silk Spectre veers close to bad territory, but it’s more the fault of Moore than the actress, who looks the part well enough. He made Laurie into a sexualized object, passed between strong men and forever in the shadow of her parents, a woman with no real life or identity of her own. You can argue that it’s a perfectly fair (if distinctly unprogressive) characterization, but as the main female character, her dependence rings louder than it otherwise would (and this is to saying nothing of her mother, who falls in love with the man who tried to rape her, a choive which can’t make Moore too popular with feminists or anyone else with much of a conscience). Meanwhile, Patrick Wilson makes a decent Dan Dreiburg, and Matthew Goode doesn’t turn Adrian Veidt into a smug Eurotrash villain as I feared he might. Jeffrey Dean Morgan gets at the buried wistfulness behind the Comedian’s smirking nihilism, and Billy Crudup’s voice for Dr. Manhattan is supernaturally resigned (although his scenes as pre-accident Jon Osterman are far better, even a little heartbreaking). But, as most reviewers note, it’s Jackie Earle Haley’s devastating turn as Rorschach that steals the picture. He plays his final scene with a different tone than in the comic, but it’s nonetheless every bit as wrenching.
But, as I wrote earlier, what makes and sometimes nearly breaks this adaptation is the adaptations. Snyder deploys some remarkable imagery that the comic never gives us. His opening credit montage of slo-mo tableaus of the history of masked adventurers is remarkable, recasting V-Day and the Kennedy Assassination and other seminal events with key twists and telling the stories of the previous generation of heroes with broad strokes. The use of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” is a mite obvious, and I would have preferred “Desolation Row”, which is later turned into a gaudy punk punch-up by My Chemical Romance over the end credits (“Times” is a bit short for the sequence and has to recycle some verses and harmonica breaks, so “Desolation” might have been a better time-match as well). But it’s still an excellent sequence that sets the stage perfectly. On the other end of things, the amazing shot that follows Rorschach’s end is transcendent and note-perfect and gains points for being Snyder’s own creation rather than that of Moore and Gibbons.
And the larger changes wrought by Snyder and the writers aren’t so bad either. Hollis Mason’s fate is excised, as is most of his story, and that’s fine by me; the murder of the original Nite Owl always bugged me, coming across as an unnecessary underlining of the brutality of human nature and society in a work that had more than enough of them without the empty killing of a kindly old man. Rorschach’s treatment of a child-killer gives the character a bit more of an active role in his final turn to absolutism, and the comic’s specific turn of events in the scene in question was famously stolen by Saw anyway, so savvy film-goers who didn’t know the book would cry foul.
And, of course, there’s the replacement of the transdimensional squid with devices that replicate Dr. Manhattan’s powers in Veidt’s climactic act of destruction, which I think makes sense from a few perspectives. Without the Black Freighter comic and the extra scenes needed to set up the squid, it would have dropped in out of nowhere, a bugnuts insane idea that worked in the comic (was one of the most indelible images of the comic) but never would have flown onscreen (any attempt to replicate Gibbons’ graphic panels onscreen wouldn’t have gotten by the censors anyhow; that much gore at once is unfathomable, even in an R-rated flick as hard as this). More than anything, though, it’s a 9/11-influenced change, though not in any cop-out kind of way (check the WTC towers looming behind Veidt in his first appearance, if you want those echoes to resonate). Simply put, 9/11 and its political aftermath made Veidt’s masterplan seem quaint; we know that a cataclysmic and deadly attack on New York City will not lead the whole world to lay down its arms and join hands in peaceful brotherhood. And one can hardly argue with making the disaster bigger and more wide-reaching, really.
Still, there are some Snyder originals that don’t knock it out of the park. Though I remain a fan of his style for action-sequences and think they are even more effective here than in 300, he adds one or two that aren’t necessary, and the blasting rock-guitar background can get a bit goofy. And really, he’s much sharper with the sex and the gore and the violence and only skims the surface of the deep wells of moral philosophy running underneath the story; those issues are there, sort of, but their full import is not teased out. Furthermore, we get next to nothing about the Hooded Justice, the mysterious figure who began the whole masked hero thing in this universe. The New Frontiersman is also not set up at all, leading to a few scratched heads when the film ends with Rorschach’s journal in their office. The sex scene is not too good and Leonard Cohen seems a poor choice for booty-grinding. Nixon is turned into a much larger demagogue than he was in the book (if that’s possible, and it’s not really the point). And don’t even get me started on Manhattan’s wang!
These are minor quibbles, but little things add up. Despite the wondrous and potent vision Snyder provides us with, Watchmen doesn’t quite have all of its gears in synch. It’s spectacular and entertaining and mostly as profound as the source material, but there are tiny slips and minute cracks in the facade, when one looks closely enough. The film is very, very good and holds up and even deepens on subsequent viewings, but there are too many smallish nagging downsides to it that keeps it from full masterpiece status in my mind.
Chester Brown is one of Canada’s premier graphic novelists, best known for his so-called “comic-strip biography” of Louis Riel (which I wrote about academically, at great length) as well as more intimate autobiographical works like The Playboy and I Never Liked You. He is also, it turns out, a john, as well as an extremely doctrinaire libertarian. Both of these aspects of his personality are on full display in his latest comic-strip “memoir” of his relationships with prostitutes, Paying For It.
This is a curious and fairly didactic comic book, with none of the epic, compelling narrative sweep of Riel and not nearly enough of its complex, unsettling ambiguity. In a writerly voice that trespasses well into stridency, Brown fiercely defends prostitution on strict libertarian grounds, defining it as a willful transaction between consenting adults upon which currently-prevailing social mores impinge continuously and hypocritically. Brown, a stunningly straightforward and rigid visualist, intercuts stark depictions of sexual encounters with prostitutes with their illuminating pre- and post-coital conversations, and also inserts his thoughts about the issue into his narrative, through thought bubbles, conversations with friends, and most of all through his endnotes and appendices.
Although this closing flood of text , citations and philosophical, moral and political arguments deepens and contextualizes his rhetorical defense of paid sex, it has the same effect that the similarly detailed notes in Riel did, setting up a dichotomy between the instant impact of the comic imagetext and the sober, nuanced arguments of the notes. As it did in Riel, this demonstrates a sense of doubt in the ability of Brown’s chosen type of artistic form to express the political and moral complexities his notes discuss. He can’t make his case entirely through comics, ultimately, so he falls back on words alone.
His case, such as it is, is libertarian in the extreme, privileging individual property rights above all and openly characterizing any infringement of said rights as “evil”. This is in contrast to his response to any and all moral strictures against prostitution, most of which he takes the time to dismiss. The truth is that Brown’s moral and political perspective, to say nothing of the personal eccentricities that lead him to paid sex as a viable option, leaves significant gaps in his thinking. His absolute faith in the free market leaves him blind to its myriad abuses, which do apply to prostitution and will apply even if it is decriminalized and “freed” by capitalism, as Brown hopes.
Still, despite all of these elements hobbling Paying For It, the book’s argument for greater tolerance for prostitution and less morally-bound mischaracterizations of it are brave and laudable. And when he tones down the rhetoric long enough to allow the personalities of his whores (their faces always artfully obscured, presumably for their own protection but also simultaneously reducing their agency and giving impetus to accusations of objectification), they emerge as genuine, intelligent, and unfailingly realistic in their own approaches to the sex trade. Even with all of its libertarian excess, Paying For It is most effective in establishing a tone of fairness and honesty in relation to the politics of paid sex. For that alone, it deserve more than its share of positive notice.