Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Archives Project: STL #2

Title: Summer Movies
Description: STL #2: Summer Movies and Guilty Pleasure: Hulk smash, motorcycle blowup, etc etc etc
Date: 3 July 2003
STL #2: Summer Movies and Guilty Pleasure: Hulk smash, motorcycle blowup, etc etc etc

I didn't go to a summer movie this weekend. I resisted the shiny baubles currently being dangled in front of me, called this week T3: Rise of the Machines or Pirates of the Caribbean: The Pearls of Peril. At least one of those titles is wrong, but for some reason subtitles are in vogue this summer. (They add the illusion of complexity to the one feature of the movie which least needs it.) I stayed away not because bombastic spectacle or time-tried plots offend me (they don't) but because I'm full. I'll probably see one or two of the big summer actioners, but after Hulk and Charlie's Angels in consecutive weeks, and X2 and The Matrix Reloaded a little while before that, I've lost my appetite for the particular pleasures of the summer blockbuster.
Not that each of these movies were to my taste in the first place. Of the four I mentioned, two were pleasing, one was pleasing and possibly even 'good,' and two were pretentious, boring, and bad. So in this early wrap-up of summer movies, I want to investigate what makes this type of movie pleasing or good, and think about that frequently-invoked category of "guilty pleasure" of which the popcorn movie is the paradigm.
The first summer movie came out in May. That is to say, the first summer movie came out in spring. Our need for more and bigger not only mandates that sequels of a certain kind of movie are inevitable, as are the themed junkfood and decorated umbrellas which accompany them, but that the marketing season will expand as well. If the Stanley Cup is in June, why not start "summer" in spring break? The movies imbibe excess as an aesthetic—more, bigger, longer. Not that any of this is necessarily bad; quite the contrary, excess is at the heart of guilty pleasure. Think of the first Matrix--everything is available to our heroes at any time. Not even the constraints of gravity apply. Yet in the sequel, excess does not obtain to innovation. Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker was right to observe that the sequel seems as stale as Matrix XIV (subtitled "The Consolation of Philosophy" maybe?) Both movies have their advocates, who will long and fruitlessly argue the significance of each scene. I refuse to get involved in these discussions for two reasons: a.) I took Phil 201: Intro to Knowledge and Reality a long time ago, and b.) the presence of Keanu Reeves undercuts intellectual pretension (if ever there was an argument for killing the messenger).
I expected more at the level of spectacle. Opening with the best stunt of the summer, Carrie-Anne Moss's motor cycle number, was a good sign, but the fact that they recycled this scene later in the movie a more telling one. The other scene that lingers in my mind is the 'sexy rave' in the underground city, which I remember as silly and irrelevant. That doesn’t leave much to credit this movie, and whatever goodwill I had left was gnawed away by sitting through the long credits and the accompanying bluntly spastic music, just to see a trailer for the final installment.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The first movie of the season wasn’t the sequel to The Matrix, but to X-Men. While I am conversant in the many of the sources of The Matrix, like P.K. Dick’s Valis and Hong Kong movies, I am intimately familiar with X-Men lore. The great tragedy of my early life was that I began reading X-Men just a little too late, a few months after the Dark Phoenix saga. This story existed as the myth behind the myth, a narrative of beauty and power, sacrifice and love, and something about outer space, which I learned in bits and pieces, secondhand. Therefore, the final scene of X2, following Jean’s death, of the shadow of the Phoenix moving on the water, gave me chills. But it is not solely the gratification of this geeky-insiderness (and after years of being outside, a lot of geek culture has become mainstream) that I found so pleasing about this movie. While maintaining the swift simplicity of a comic book script, the fine acting actually creates a sense of humanity lacking in The Matrix. Unlike that movie, the audience (or at least my wife and I) actually cares what happens to these people.
The movie that X2 is most compared to is Ang Lee’s Hulk, because it too derives from a 1960’s Marvel comic. I never got into Hulk comics (or the TV show), because even at a young age I could tell that while the Hulk may have symbolic value, his capacity to get into interesting situations was limited. Getting out of situations he was even more limited, as he inevitably resorted to smashing. In fact, for a time, Marvel comics made the Hulk rational and green at the same time, but that’s clearly cheating. Still, going into the movie I was hoping that the talented director would make something interesting out of the material. And “interesting” it was, in the multiframe technique as well as the content. One of the NPR reviewers said that this wasn’t a bad super-hero movie, it is a bad tragedy. All I know is that I had a miserable time. I think Lee misread the myth of the Hulk, which is discussed (among other topics) at the Comics Journal Discussion Forum. In brief, the Hulk as mytheme compounds teen angst with nuclear paranoia. A few commenters on the forum insightfully suggested that an early 60's period piece could have engagingly tapped into this aspect. In Lee's version, the Hulk is strictly "the monster inside," not enough to support the aspiration to Greek tragedy.
And a note regarding the appearance of the green giant himself. To enjoy a spectacle, you need to be able to suspend disbelief. There’s nothing “awesome” about watching a bunch of green pixels toss around the image of a tank. Keeping in step with the aesthetic of excess, this Hulk is about twice as big as the comic book Hulk. I’m not saying the Hulk didn’t look "real" (that would be stupid), just that he stuck out like a green thumb.

Or if you aren't going to suspend disbelief, then foreground it like Charlie’s Angels, which bears the appropriate subtitle Full Throttle. There’s really nothing to say about this movie—kung fu, babes, pop culture riffs. It’s critic-proof because it’s utterly transparent: I never forgot this was big dumb fun. The wire-work looks like wire-work, and the gratuitous cheesecake is unapologetically gratuitous. Even Cameron Diaz’s eyes are an obviously computer-enhanced super blue. The plot—forget about the plot. The movie doesn’t achieve the humanity of X2, but it isn’t trying to. I had a big smile all the way through it, but really can’t remember what happened in it two weeks later. This is what I guess I’m supposed to feel guilty about, but I wish the marketing wouldn't try to redeem the movie with this strong-woman-feminism pitch. Like Emily Nussbaum said in her NYT review, "Learning about feminism from CA is like learning about WWII from Hogan's Heroes."
The movie I did see this weekend may have been a summer movie once, in Hong Kong, in 1995. The first of many "Young and Dangerous" movies is about young triads (gangsters) growing up together and seeking revenge for their mentor. Like the movies I’ve been talking about, it relies on speed and flash for its effect, and in some ways it’s probably the guiltiest pleasure of all. But, like a lot of HK movies, one or two scenes transcend the rest. Nam, the coolest and prettiest gangster must crawl down a gauntlet of the gang he’s been expelled from, to suffer a beating in order to pay homage to his deceased mentor. At the end of the line, a senior gangster gives his head a final, gentle push. (I used to have a theory that the main difference between HK and Hollywood action is that the former is about the human body in extremis while the latter is about property damage.) While there’s a lot to put up with, like howlingly bad subtitles, embarrassing sexism, and simply incomprehensible humor, Young and Dangerous offers up several of these "moments out of time," as Film Comment used to say. Its technique, of overlaying a manga style drawing over a freeze frame, emphasizes this tendency. It’s one of the best things about film, how as Dick writes in Valis "the symbols of the divine initially show up at the trash stratum." If the four American blockbusters could offer me a few moments like that, I probably wouldn't be so tired, or feel one bit guilty.