Film Fight Response No. 1 (Over Breakfast)

Thanks, pal, for ruining an otherwise lovely time at the movies.
Thanks, pal, for ruining an otherwise lovely time at the movies.

Good morning, Kim.

I should have known I’d wake up today to find three entries from you. It takes a special kind of cruelty to sucker punch a man first thing in the morning – before he’s had a chance to meditate, no less – with a three-entry attack, but you are apparently possessed of such cruelty.

Which goes a long way toward explaining why I like you so much.

But enough flattery! This isn’t Film Flatter; this is Film Fight! (We all remember what happened last year when the Chronicle tried a Film Flatter blog. To this day, I get angry letters from the Episcopal Church ... and I still can't put weight on my left leg.)

First, I just want to say that we’re not inventing the wheel with this Film Fight idea of ours, unfortunately. As much as I’d like to think we are, the idea is almost as old as movies themselves. I’m reminded of Pauline Kael and Penelope Gilliatt’s legendary battles in the early Seventies over whether or not Warren Beatty’s being naked made a movie worth seeing. Kael claimed it did, while Gilliatt, ever the contrarian, argued that it really did. That battle raged for months - over the telephone, over drinks at 21, in William Shawn’s bathroom – before Kael famously won the argument by pushing Gilliatt down the stairs of the New Yorker offices and then sleeping with her husband.

Let’s hope our battle doesn’t come to that.

Though I don’t make any promises.

I want to start by saying that I’m not writing off an entire genre of film as a concept; I’m writing off an entire genre of film as a reality. I have no doubt superhero movies could be great; I’m simply saying that they haven’t been yet. I may be a cynic and a naysayer and grump and a grouch and an irredeemably crotchety bastard, but I’m no pessimist. The first half of Batman Begins, for example, had me believing for the first time that I may just be watching a superhero movie with real human emotions and real human struggle and a real sense of dramatic possibility – Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne is wracked by shame and guilt and a sense of impotency resulting from his parents’ murder, and he responds to that guilt and shame and impotency by driving himself to ever-rising heights of self-discipline and self-loathing. Which seemed like a perfectly human response to grave childhood trauma, the same way Bruce Wayne becoming a drunk and a womanizer and a writer – like Henry Chinaski in Factotum, say – would have seemed like a perfectly human response to grave childhood trauma.

So things were good. Then, all of a sudden, Cillian Murphy put on that ridiculous Scarecrow mask and started spewing his crazy-serum everywhere, and suddenly I was right back in my living room in third grade, watching Batman reruns on television - Bang! Pow! Blah! Everything human went out the window, everything a person could actually relate to, and all that was left was what a person could drool over: jet-black tank-cars; impossibly expensive gadgets and poisons; special effects that would make George Lucas’ head spin. All fucking cool! All fucking badass! All the stuff fan-boy dreams are made of!

But so what? 150-million-dollar kitsch is still kitsch; it’s just more expensive. And at some point, Batman – just like every other superhero movie I’ve ever sat through – inevitably descended into the muck of capitalist adrenaline porn. Now I have no problem with capitalism, adrenaline, or porn, but when a movie throws out what makes it identifiable in the mad quest to make itself desirable, when the point of a movie becomes not to watch the movie but to want the things in the movie you’re watching, then you’ve crossed a line into pure covetousness, pure consumerism. You may as well flip through a Sharper Image catalog for two hours.

(The interesting thing is that since you can’t obviously buy what’s in these superhero movies, what they end up selling is consumerism itself: the urge to want, the desire to have; the thrill that comes from reaching out and almost touching something shiny and loud and bold and expensive. They’re selling … buying.)

Kim, you bring up the basic bedrocks of the superhero movie: the boy who stumbles onto his own power – either through luck, fate, ingenuity, or some kind of psycho-therapeutic-transference exercise – and goes on to use that power in service of a cause bigger than himself. And you’re right. Those are the bedrocks; that’s the formula. And that formula is so sound, so secure, so firm and fixed in our culture that moviemakers need only touch on those bedrocks briefly and perfunctorily before we give them clearance to throw story, emotion, and plausibility out the window in a wild rush of specially effect action sequences that should – let’s be honest – require no justification … because they are, really, the thing people paid to see, no matter how much they protest that it’s story they’re looking for. I have no problem with archetypes and myths (and there’s no way I’m letting you drag me into an argument where I have to deny the value of Hamlet; though bringing up the fact that Ethan Hawke once played him would be a good opening point to make). The problem is when movie studios and producers cynically pay passing tribute to those archetypes and myths to supply the absolute bare minimum of a storyline to trick their audiences into a false sense of substance, so that when all those CGI whirlwinds and explosions start cluttering up the screen, viewers won’t notice that there was really no substance there to begin and that there was never supposed to be … and then, of course, those viewers can go home and say something like, “Yeah, but this time they finally got it right. The superhero in this movie has a heart and emotions and psychological difficulties and is therefore a … real … live … boy.” And everyone feels better about themselves. (Waddya know? Turns out film fighting is a nice way to start the day.)

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