Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Social Contract

(Spoilers for "Man Of Steel," but if you think a movie like "Man Of Steel" can be spoiled, you're probably an idiot)

In “The Man Of Steel,” the latest joyless superhero blockbuster, our title gladiator purposely catapults a similarly-powered villain through a gas station, causing a massive explosion. It’s one of several moments when Superman’s pummeling of a villain takes precedence over anything else onscreen, an ongoing event that eventually leads to Superman continuing to rain haymakers down on evil Zod as the 9/11’ing of Metropolis occurs in front of him. I’ve heard many bend over backwards to justify this, in a way that’s begun to make me physically ill. I suppose there is now some sort of Social Contract in these films, the acknowledgement that every building that topples is empty, and/or each faceless death should be meaningless.

Of course, the idea that might-makes-right has been keeping audiences coming back to see blockbusters for a couple of decades now. The contemporary version of these fans seems to feel that a little collateral damage is acceptable, as long as the bad guys get theirs, a concept likely borrowed from a real life refusal to admit that armies worldwide, including Americans, produce sickening collateral damage almost weekly (maybe more?). It recalls a conversation I had with a peer about a special ten minute presentation of footage for “White House Down,” yet another recent mass-destruction blockbuster. The plot was unclear to me (I hadn’t seen the footage) so I asked him how the villain had accomplished enacting such violence against the White House, suggesting, “Did he use unmanned drones?”

Amusingly, his response was, “No, no, nothing science fiction like that.” If there wasn’t more evidence that the stomach-turning truth of violence had surpassed the darkest hints of our imagination, that was it. As if an unmanned drone would be “science fiction”: the acceptance, and approval, of films like “Man of Steel” seems rooted in the idea of something like a predator drone being largely approved by general audiences. It may slaughter civilians, and it may pose a threat to our security, but as long as we get the bad guy, what’s another civilian wedding party or two? Hell, even the name “Predator Drone” sounds like a badass tentpole blockbuster starring Taylor Kitsch, Rhona Mitra and Idris Elba.

Amusingly, I saw people arbitrarily drawing the line when criticizing this aspect of “Man Of Steel,” pointing to another similar blockbuster in “The Avengers” in suggesting how such a thing is done “right.” This doesn’t seem to be a notion that critics are pursuing, but let me note ALL FACELESS DEATHS IN MOVIES ARE BAD. Perhaps these films are therapeutic in dealing with our feelings towards massive disasters like 9/11, but that day was over a decade ago. The current generation is not getting therapy out of the visual of skyscrapers coming down, but rather enjoyment. These pictures are not only finding a way to commercialize death (the villain in “Man Of Steel” is flat-out murdered in a way that falsely suggests it was the hero’s only option) but to dehumanize audiences into becoming borderline sociopaths. I’m not certain what’s more appalling: that “Man Of Steel” one-ups “The Avengers” in its violence and off-screen death toll, or that “The Avengers” allows this to happen while its characters are lightly tossing around quips and gags. When the dust has settled, Tony Stark cracks a joke about schwarma, and no one stops and realizes they’re likely surrounded by thousands, maybe millions of corpses.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

White Culture

 Full disclosure: this article is coming from the perspective of a young, middle-to-lower class Hispanic who was never been to California or Asia, and lives in New York City.

I recent sat through Sofia Coppola’s slick, fascinating “The Bling Ring” absolutely horrified at what I was watching. This true story about a group of young culture vultures who broke into the homes of celebrities they worshipped, proceeding to jack their possessions, is as vivid a picture one will make about cannibalism. It was as if I was specifically watching the original “Dawn Of The Dead,” but this time from the perspective of the zombies. Commercialism was all that mattered to these Gucci-clad criminals, and the illusions therein; the protagonists of “The Bling Ring” want to become their single-named heroines, like Paris, Lindsay, or Audrianna (from… “The Hills”? Not my scene), and so they consume every tangential element, whether it were paparazzi photos, glitzy designer brands, or eventually their own prized possessions. Startling that a certain socialite mentioned above (additional Google hits are not necessary) agreed to participate in the film, allowing them to film the insides of her house, a portrait of narcissism that, to these identity-less youths, is like a haunted house of mirrors.

“The Bling Ring” isn’t confrontational or violent or as transgressive as a similar youth-gone-wild film, the recent “Spring Breakers.” But the film has the same sort of lived-in familiarity with both the milieu of these characters and their casual, toxic shorthand. One moment that I can’t shake is the knowingness of Taissa Farmiga’s work, as a member of these cashmere-collar criminals who places self-celebration over all potential avenues. In one scene, she finds a gun in one of the invaded homes and immediately twirls it around, shoving the pistol right in the face of hapless accomplice Israel Broussard. Her aggressive half-joking machismo isn’t as notable as the fact that she’s brandishing this firearm as a fool would, into the face of the most vulnerable member of their crew. Obviously bothered, he quietly protests, but when she continues, he delicately but forcefully places his hands on her to separate them. In the middle of her hateful boasts, she responds angrily, interrupting her braggadocio with an entitled, “Don’t touch me! Get your hands off me!” These angry demands keep getting peppered through her jokes as she continues to aim the gun in his face, oblivious to the fact that she’s committing a grave violation. For her, it’s her own boundaries that are most important, followed by her own amusement, and then maybe your boundaries. Maybe. Doubtful.

What struck me was that “The Bling Ring” comes across as the portrait of a small subculture of rich, white kids in the Hollywood suburbs, and that among their celebrity targets, none are of mixed race. Subtly interjected into this film is roughly the same cultural suggestion as “Spring Breakers”: it’s okay when it happens to people like them, but you get the sense the hip-hop loving kids in “The Bling Ring” would never dare rob a black or Hispanic celebrity (one girl is Asian, but she lacks a cultural identity of any type). Whereas attacking a black target in “Spring Breakers” was essentially stepping it up a notch, there’s the sense that the kids of “The Bling Ring” don’t take their crimes seriously (once spotted on the news but not arrested, they continue their spree unabated) because it’s happening to the likes of Orlando Bloom. They are the establishment, and so are we: we are all bulletproof.

Thankfully, “The Bling Ring” made me feel like an outsider, as I’ve never given a second look to these types of celebrities, and I’m decidedly in a different tax code than these kids. But it also made me consider cultural identity, specifically theirs: is this a film about a subset of “white culture”? The term “white culture” always seems to crop up in problematic statements of entitlement and coded hate, but it’s as real a concept as “black culture” or “Asian culture,” and just as abstract. And it made me think about what films were reflecting white culture, and if this is a concept worth plumbing: to identify “The Bling Ring” as white culture, one need only look at the racial makeup of the cast, and to what they aspire. This is a specific, fairly ugly side of that culture, but is it specifically relevant to a certain demographic? Granted, the surface-level themes of the film lend themselves to a more universal reading, but this is a film that courts the identification with a “white” identity. As if it wasn’t enough that the only significant minority character in the film is passionate about the lives of white celebrities, there’s the fact that “The Bling Ring” is the latest from director Coppola, who has made a career out of observing the ennui of disenchanted rich whites.

Of course, perhaps to look to the cinema for a true representation of ANY realistic culture may be folly, particularly in the warmer seasons of escapism. Usually you have to move into the arthouse for such a thing, which is where you’ll find “Before Midnight.” The third film in Richard Linklater’s series dealing with the ongoing romance between an American writer and a French… woman has garnered rave reviews from critics, though Linklater’s three films are stripped-down, talky, European art pictures in nature, but without the style or intellect implicit: both Ethan Hawke’s restless raconteur and Julie Delpy’s erratic, maternal neurotic are obsessed with talking themselves into circles, usually in self-important attempts to be clever and/or cute. I’ve always had a problem with these films, given that they’re based around the certainty that the audience likes these two, but I’ve found the films occasionally honest about relationships, and charmingly free of gimmickry and plot contrivance.