Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Exterminating Angel--Bunuel Review #7

The Exterminating Angel (1962)--5/5

One of Bunuel's most potent films and one of the most challenging to pin down in a review. Exterminating Angel follows a group of bourgeoisie unable to leave a dinner party... for a month. At first social niceties prevent them from leaving--everyone else is staying tonight, so shouldn't we? But it quickly becomes apparent after the butler serves breakfast that there is something else keeping them trapped there. People approach the threshold of the adjacent dining room and start to cry uncontrollably, the men try to reason their way out, eventually they all turn to religion. One group of women even try some aberrant sorcery with parts of a chicken. Eventually they all despair and several commit suicide. This film is so perfectly calibrated that you can chart the characters' devolution by gradual changes in their mannerisms and costumes--at first, the host and hostess consider chastising a couple of men who remove their tuxedo jackets, but by the end everyone is dressed down in clothes that look like dirty rags and engaged in plots to kill each other hoping to lift the curse.

This is apparently the only Mexican production that Bunuel had complete control over and, as such, it shines as one of the three or four masterpieces of this period (Los Olvidados, Ascent to Heaven and Simon of the Desert are also good candidates.)

The Exterminating Angel is a close cousin of Bunuel's other black comedies about the upper crust, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and L'Age D'Or, but where a lot of elements of those films play as comedy, a lot of this film is just black. L'Age D'Or is completely wild and irreverent, the film of a younger man excitedly yelling "fuck you!" at bourgeois society, and Discreet Charm is the film of an old man, happily ensconced in art houses and cinema canons worldwide, picking fun at his old adversaries. Exterminating Angel is Bunuel coming off his first international success in years--Viridiana, which won him the Palm D'Or at Cannes in 1961--and using that success to conduct a methodical, even etymological, study of vicious third-world bourgeois, who he'd then been living among for more than ten years. It's as if these bourgeois characters were a colony of fire ants, headless without a queen, or sheep lost on a rocky precipice without a shepherd, doomed to suffering and death because of who and what they are by some surreal-absurdist form of divine vengeance, which may only be a metaphor, as the closing sequence suggests, for a popular uprising. As is characteristic of Bunuel's best Mexican films, this film is brutal, disaffected socially-conscious art.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Current Cinema: Avatar, Kick-Ass and Questions of Film Ethics

Avatar (2009)--1/5
Kick Ass (2010)--2/5

What do I mean by "film ethics"? In a sense, I'm referring to the politics of a film. Not just in the sense of whether it can be classified as "liberal" or "conservative" or "left" or "right," as those distinctions are fairly arbitrary. In a sense, I think of ethics as being a higher, more idealistic form of politics--a way of discussing something and trying to understand the implications, assumptions and mythology of a work and--importantly--whether these are things we should accept or reject. And I would like to discuss these two films without resorting to a purely academic analysis, devoid of taste or concern for the art of a work and rooted almost completely in sociology. In fact, I don't think it's appropriate to discuss film ethics separately from film aesthetics. It's too soulless to discuss art from a purely ethical position--it's essentially a preachy and narrow way of understanding art and it deprives the artist of their identity as a creator and the art of what makes it most enjoyable--but it seems extremely naive to try to discuss aesthetics without any concern for ethics.

Critics approaching Avatar from what they consider a purely aesthetic position might say, for instance, as I actually read on Rotten Tomatoes, that the experience of watching Avatar in 3D can be compared favorably to what it must have been like seeing King Kong in the 1930s. I will always remember my moment, watching Avatar myself in 3D, that I saw a burning ember literally pop out of the screen at me, seeming to land right on my glasses, and being amazed. Can I discuss that moment from a purely aesthetic point of view? It was, well, pretty cool--someone surely spent millions of dollars and an enormous amount of time making that moment happen.
But once I mention the enormous expenditure of time and resources for that moment, I can't help but think of other moments of formal beauty in other films I've seen recently that cost much less to produce--the traveling steadicam shots through the outdoor maze in Kubrick's The Shining, which I saw on the big screen recently, or the numerous moments of formal beauty in the slow motion, over-saturated color sequences in Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood For Love. Honestly, I was more impressed by the experience of seeing Stanley Kubrick's epic horror film on the big screen for the first time, scratched print and all, than I ever was by Avatar. But that's a purely subjective judgment--other people might not have been impressed by the Shining at all and find it boring (it is thirty years old, for Christ's sake.) But--and this is as "purely" aesthetic as I care to be--Kubrick's steadicam shots are intimately wedded to his narrative--the boy is running from his axe-wielding murderous father and the camera is frantically chasing yet consistently and disquietingly not shaking as it follows boy, conveying, I think, the persistent insanity of his father--and this, to me, is the ultimate aesthetic triumph of them. The barely comparable moment of formal beauty in James Cameron's film has little more narrative justification than, well, there's a fire in the scene.

Yet, I can't--and this is where the ethics come in--say that this much more expensive moment in a much more expensive film is worthwhile aesthetically, simply because it was just so goddamn expensive. How can I, who treasure my humanism, and hence, humanity, justify spending the equivalent of the national debt of one or several impoverished third world nations to make this film? And whose aesthetic value is only partial? Is the film world of Avatar itself, aside from the unethical cost to create it, even something I can endorse?

This is where the comparison to King Kong is ironically quite apt--that film deals with a brutish animal from Africa--typically black--who covets and kidnaps a white woman with rape on his mind. When you really think about it--and you don't even have to have seen it, because its turns are common knowledge--King Kong is the white male fantasy of the African-American "threat" to their white women personified in the character of a giant black African ape. And sure, we may be responsible for bringing the ape here, we may even feel sorry for the ape, but he has to be destroyed and the white woman wrested from his clutches. Peter Jackson's recent remake scarcely improves on the original's racist premise.
And Avatar is--despite being critical of the American military--also a damaging white fantasy, even if it happens to be a "liberal" white fantasy. The film is often read in a positive light by absentminded Americans as being a metaphorical story about the tortured history of Native Americans in the U.S. --represented by the aliens here--and the American military's ruthless exploitation of them and theft of their land. But going deeper into the film there are also implications that are more troubling: the whites are able to inhabit fake copies of the alien-natives' bodies and the hero of the story is a white male who inhabits one of these bodies, passes all the tests to become one of the natives, turns the native heroine from a strong independent woman into "his" woman, and becomes the supreme messianic leader of the natives who has been foretold by prophecy! Not only that, but at the end, he forsakes his white man body and fully becomes one of the natives. If this is all metaphor and even myth--and I would argue that it is, in some sense--then I'm freaked out, because, in reality, we have never atoned for our history with Native Americans and we can never really become Native Americans. But we--and I mean liberal-minded whites like myself--do often like to proclaim our respect for Native Americans by mythologizing and idealizing them, even adopting Native art and Native names for places at times in what can be read as an attempt to claim their history and their culture for our own. I'm not arguing that Native culture should not be displayed and celebrated, that Native place names should not be used, etc., but when this popular fantasy of a film is suggesting that we can actually become Native Americans and master their culture to the point that we not only become them, but we are the best among them to lead them, then the myth is really just justifying white racial superiority. It's a feel-good movie for whites to assuage their guilt and reinforce their sense of superiority, moral and racial, not a radical rewriting of history through metaphor in which the Natives come out victorious. I don't think James Cameron is the originator of this myth--it's a common one that I've seen perpetuated in other American films as recently as The Last Samurai--but that doesn't make Avatar any more ethical or aesthetically satisfying.

Oddly enough, despite the public outcry over the film from established and heavily moralistic critics like Roger Ebert, who seemed to have no serious qualms with Avatar, I found Kick-Ass to be less immediately offensive. It was off to a good start in the first half-hour or so when it was taking on the superhero myth and playing with it, especially in the scene where the wannabe superhero Kick Ass tries to stop a couple hoods from breaking into someone's car and gets stabbed and sent to the emergency room. The comedic pacing of this scene is near-perfect and the message--essentially a cinematic deconstruction of the silly, yet probably harmless fantasy of masked vigilante crime fighters--is a much needed injection of reality into the blockbuster superhero movie genre, which has gotten pretty stale as of late. The plotline with 12-year old Hit Girl, played by the talented child actor Mindy Moretz, and her father, Big Daddy, played with spunk by Nicholas Cage, seems promising at first, because it is again playing with and undermining genre conventions, this time by placing a child in the dubious position of killing the bad guys under the direction of her psychotically driven father, which seems to promise--we could hope--some complex examination of their characters. But for some reason director Matthew Vaughn, who was also one of the film's screenwriters, decides to leave their relationship and the effect that being trained to kill from a young age has had on this young girl--who is easily the most interesting character in the film--essentially unexplored and after the 30-minute mark the film turns into a fairly conventional superhero movie with only average direction and a little more blood than we're usually given to expect.
But that's just the aesthetics--it stopped playing with genre conventions pretty quickly, spent too much time following a typical boy-who-is-secretly-a-masked-avenger-meets-girl plotline that we've seen in every superhero movie since Spider-Man and left its most interesting character unexplored. By leaving Hit Girl unexplored and her status as a "superhero" unquestioned, though, I think Vaughn made an ethical, as well as aesthetic, choice--this film was obviously banking on it's shock value to make money, as evidenced by Hit Girl uttering the word "cunt," which I really couldn't care less about, and by having her commit brutal murders, which, ultimately, disturbed me. Don't get me wrong--there was novelty in it at first--but after awhile I couldn't stop thinking about child soldiers in Africa. These are children that are pressed into military service by their families and extended families as much as by larger political entities to fight for their particular ethnic group, right? Don't they believe that they're fighting for good too? For their lives, for their people, for the morally correct cause, whatever, but this is universally acknowledged as something horrible. If Vaughn had examined Hit Girl more closely as a child soldier--which she is, make no mistake--who knows? Would we conclude that she was suffering from trauma or Daddy-induced Stockholm Syndrome (Patty Hearst, anybody?) or would we discover that the child is actually some sort of born sociopath or a created sociopath, influenced by her father and by the American culture surrounding violence to never have empathy for her victims and to never consider any real consequences of violence?

The Japanese film Battle Royale, from a couple years back, satirizes something even more transgressive than Kick-Ass--violence perpetrated by children on other children--and it examines the question of child sociopaths in a more gratifying way, but hasn't been released in a decent edition here, presumably for fear of controversy. Quentin Tarantino's films also have transgressive violence, but there too is an element of play in them and an element of ridicule in regards to violence and convention. I'm not saying that Tarantino land or Battle Royale are entirely ethical either--I'm undecided--but these examples prove to me that Vaughn didn't have to make the film unfunny or unenjoyable to deal with the stuff it brings up. Ultimately, by saying, "yeah, she's a bad ass!" and "look at that--a child committing bloody murders, wow!" and not saying anything else, not even giving her enough scenes, the film fails on both the aesthetic and the ethical count. Perhaps if these filmmakers at least thought of ethics sometimes instead of simply trying to alternately shock, awe or appease us, they'd develop more considered and interesting aesthetics too. But perhaps that would risk negating the real concerns of Cameron and Vaughn (as well as their producers), which is ultimately not aesthetics or ethics, but commerce. And to their credit, Kick-Ass and Avatar have made a lot of money.