The Unloved - The Village - Director's Cut from Scout Tafoya on Vimeo.
I've been the author of a series over at RogerEbert.com called The Unloved for the last ten months. It's been a great opportunity to kind of figure out what cinematic tendencies most effect me. I've been building a home out of the grammar of some of cinema's most notorious failures. This month's installment, M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, is a film I have over a decade's worth of history with. So I released a version that's all analysis of the elegiac moral tale over at the sight. Below is a version that touches on my time as an extra in the movie and how being close to a film can cloud your judgment of it. It took me a long time before I could really see what a beautiful film this was. It's the one film of his that I still return to, even though I have unending respect for The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. It's in many ways a prelude to another American masterpiece, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
The Unloved - The Village - Director's Cut from Scout Tafoya on Vimeo.
The Unloved - The Village - Director's Cut from Scout Tafoya on Vimeo.
A Para-analytic, Para-critical Film Review of
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014, directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo)
by Noah Adrien Lyons
I. Of films not being islands
The second wave of comic book and super-hero movies began a little over fifteen years, around the time of Blade (1998) and The Matrix (1999). An untapped well of dark frenzy, postmodern ambiguity, and (ironic?) nostalgia burst out from the wings – a twenty-first century zeitgeist for Generation Y and the millennials. The Nerd was now cool, again; geekdom came out of the closet and had its perennial revenge. Perhaps this was/is due to the proliferation of the internet, to Silicon Valley and the tech industry boom absorbing white collars. It is no coincidence that academia has coevally opened its doors to the graphic novel, and begrudgingly promoted low-brow para-literature to canonized status. Hollywood is no stranger to the action flick or superhero; but the summer blockbuster, the special-effects laden pyro-fest, rarely succeeded in adapting comic book heroes to the screen. The turn of this century proved to be a rebirth of the Marvel and D.C. franchises; producers, armed with new technological claws and viral vision, pounced for the kill. And today, fifteen years later – after origins, sequels, crossovers, and extensions, the wave continues. Captain America: Winter Soldier should scream out the final death throes of this phenomenon, pointing towards the preeminent crash-and-burn. I’d direct attention not just to the cracks in the keystone, but to historical precedents of other over-stretched empires, such as, say, Rome. But this is a different kind of beast, and it’s not ending its run anytime soon.
Before anyone relegates me to the status of a bothersome Killjoy or Scrooge, a caveat – apart from an adolescent stint on mostly Slave Labor Graphics’ publications and Neil Gaiman’s work, I am an outsider to the esoteric inner circle of today’s comic book world. I do dig Batman, mostly because he’s a mysterious, morally ambiguous, and brooding goth; unfortunately, Christopher Nolan, director of the recent Batman trilogy, is not the norm but the exception in the franchise. I dislike Captain America for being…well, let’s say that in principle, any variation on the Campbellian or Doc Smith-type hero is anathema to all I hold dear in the science-fiction world. (Probably irrational, and definitely unnegotiable; rest assured, echoes of Doc Smith played no role in my review.) But I entered the movie theater determined not to project my dire apprehensions, whispering an improvised mantra about how even the greatest geniuses were once inchoate. To judge the film on its own merits; armed with very little sense of the Marvel universe, of Captain America’s past; yet very aware of genre parameters, of the inevitable good vs. evil paradigms, the shady organizations, and the leitmotif of alter-egos and unstable identities…
Hence! – Amphetamine-paced exposition and character establishment for the unenlightened. The opening scene is strong despite this onslaught – clear foregrounding of a slick D.C.-set location, the prominent Washington Monument flushed softly by a pink sun rise (rare to see the country’s capital shot with a rose-colored lens; equally rare, a foregrounded Reflecting Pool and Potomac River). Captain America (played by the vanilla, un-carbonated Chris Evans) shows off his speed needlessly (even we uninitiated are well aware he is fast and strong) in an unapologetic homage to Rocky. The invocation of the famous Rocky running scene tempers any uber-patriotism, viz. Rocky as underdog and average-Joe. So, more running laps around the pool, and several around regular human Samuel Wilson, a.k.a. Falcon (the talented Anthony Mackie, over-due for a starring role of his own). Pass after pass, Rogers good-heartedly teases, “On your left!", a neatly wrapped narrative gift of instantaneous fraternity; the gift box’s ribbon (to continue an awful but appropriate metaphor) unequivocally delineates white Rogers as Leader and black Falcon as subaltern.
Enter: Black Widow (reprised by Scarlett Johansson, always the formidable presence but here visibly frustrated by the confines of the script). Neophyte question: widow to whom? I note the black car, black bodysuit, and that she is the driver behind the wheel. (A few more steps have been taken by the female, but I will hold off from unpacking these gender roles for now.) The Russo Brothers ([un]known for the 2006 rom-com You, Me, and Dupree) deliver a one-two-three punch, with little posturing beyond the genre’s base-lines. Some good ol’ P.C. patriotism, cute cultural references; the relationship of the three central superheroes triangulated with the precision of a draughtsman and just as uninspired. Thinking back, I shudder how easily goaded I was by these smooth introductory images and dialogue, only to watch helplessly as the actors’ naturalism and the city’s viable (and novel) cinematic presence collapse from fatigue! I think of Rogers’ laps round and round and round the lake – a retrospective portent for the film’s circular endless loop with no goal, obstacle, or perapety standing in the way.
Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), head official of S.H.I.E.L.D., the aggregate of our world’s Homeland Security and C.I.A., is brass boss to Rogers and Widow. He suspects the threat of internal corruption – not foreign terrorists – within the organization. Forsooth, the antithesis to S.H.I.E.L.D. dating back to Nazi Germany is HYDRA, the clandestine, powerful, and occult (?) operation composed of politicians, world leaders, et al. This pseudo-White Brotherhood/Illuminati wants to use the Pentagon’s new technological marvels – surveillance-capable drones and a sophisticated algorithm that predicts who would/will commit crimes. Why? To execute millions of global citizens, of course, in the name of peace and security. If we fear for our safety enough– it is implied that most of history’s atrocities are inside-jobs – then we will more readily compromise our freedom. Thus: HYDRA and its brainwashed Boba Fett-esque assassin – the eponymous Winter Soldier (why winter?) – attempt this ‘pre-emptive’ genocide. Our heroes prevent it by the means of some USB drive, and the world carries on. End.
On a purely semantic level, this narrative hints at great revelations to come, but any momentum and social commentary built up by the first half hour quickly vanishes underneath repetitive banality and the flashing neon-lit NOs! from freshman year Intro-to-Narrative. The motif of extensive surveillance by the government is barely utilized beyond one scene involving security cameras, and a passing allusion to Edward Snowden and/or Chelsea Manning in a press conference denouement. But the question of surveillance, compounded with the production of government drones, is contingent to the very premise of how HYDRA plans its genocide. With the exception of the stock-set control room, there is no visual exploration of the 21st century global network. Our heroes are unquestioningly against HYDRA, but their motivation is a quaint pacifism; why is no one questioning the very presence of this technology in the first place? Why shrink away from engaging the issue? Well, Black Widow would be without a job, I suppose, and Captain America is from the 1940s. With such cognitive estrangement, how would he feel about this technology’s ethics? His thoughts on the internet, social networking, new definitions of privacy, the fuzzy rhetorics of protection and infiltration? No comment; maybe he doesn’t know; the filmmakers do not seem to know either, or just do not care. The most glaring omission, however, is any link to an external referent – an anchor – to situate this alternate universe in some proximity to ours. Consider that nearly every mise-en-scene is the interior to a government building or vehicle. I cannot recall any character that is not a high-level government employee. Even the romantically-promising “neighbor” winds up as a red herring. Finally, the innate referentiality of Media is an often-used sophomoric device to cheaply and uncreatively thread scenes together, to fill in narrative holes and context; its added benefit is explication on wider social effects through disembodied quips. For our present story, media is part-and-parcel to these motifs of surveillance, privacy, etc. But is this really all that important? Yes: with the radical absence of locality (beyond inanimate landmarks) and the puzzling absence of civilians, the danger of HYDRA is sanitized and harmless, the story is incidental to life, and so any correlation to real-life dilemmas is dismissed. The film winds up being a solipsistic Ouroboros!
Another correlative parallel to this aesthetic, consequence-free Arcadia is expressed in the cinematography. As noted, nearly every scene is inside a building, car, or plane. Several of the prominent action scenes are the obligatory car-chase, a well-executed claustrophobic elevator melee, and an extended tracking shot following Rogers through the bowels of a ship. While it is somewhat taboo (i.e., too depressing) to linger on bystanders and the post-battle carnage, I am puzzled by the overall absence of screaming/running/standing bystanders. I’d conclude the Capital was a ghost town, if not for a scattering of SHIELD agents.
II. Of Marvin Gaye, bait-and-switches, surrogates, and other troublesome things
Captain America – in the comic book narratives – was developed and exploited by the American government for his strength and for propaganda. Post-mortem, this prototype was recycled through other surrogates to perpetuate the icon of patriotism and American values. Outside of the comic book itself, the character Captain America as a produced and received fiction also functioned in this way. He is the pure, well-groomed, and principled individualist of the American myth. He fights Nazis; decades later, he takes on their cold-war equivalents. He questions authority only so far as it impedes upon “true” American values. But beneath this film’s pastiches lurks an even more paradigmatic tension: what is America, and how to negotiate Old Americana with New Americana? As I will repeatedly iterate, there is quite the aesthetic difference between the subtlety of intentional absence and the lacunae of censorship or avoidance. The old values Captain America represents are threatened by the new world order of HYDRA; but, (and perhaps to widen the potential demographic) they are ill-defined.
Paradox: dependence upon network-based technology to destroy HYDRA. Rogers is undoubtedly a stranger in a strange land. His cultural, if not cognitive, estrangement is evinced by the amusing notebook he keeps of cultural phenomenon recommended to him (Star Trek, Nirvana, Marvin Gaye). But this inchoate dialectic is not built upon, puzzlingly, but abandoned in its skeletal form; not even ten seconds pass before Rogers pockets the notebook and whips out his IPhone. I’ll forgive flat characterization, and I’ll accept the trite but cohesive Stranger-in-Strange-Land pattern; but I cannot get around blatant omissions of how Rogers must feel living in 2014. Who would not wonder what kind of stupid mistakes he makes operating consoles, or what kind of corny yet poignant observations he might express, like “gee whiz, things have sure changed huh? Maybe the battle isn’t so black-and-white anymore; maybe countries are not stable entities over time?” (Sing: “What did the Foucault say?”) With so much estrangement, though, maybe the comedic gold would outweigh the dramatic metal. Maybe there is no way for the faded stars and stripes to lose the stench of mothballs, to re/adapt Captain America to the 21st century, meshing him with gothic Nolan-esque Batmans and post-cyberpunk millenialist Spidermans. On the one hand, too much of the patriotic would isolate demographic vectors; on the other hand, too much of the transgressive would be inconsistent with past incarnations, and contradict the very essence of the character that’s been handed down to us. Worse, his vanilla persona doesn’t lend itself to PlanB: hollowness covered up with surface silicone, the recursive feigns of off-color humor, quirkiness, or sexuality. (Actor Chris Evans may partially contribute to this awkward aura: to what extent I cannot say, deo ducente).
The filmmakers may have realized this deficiency. Secondary and tertiary characters supply everything Rogers lacks, and more. I earlier mentioned Anthony Mackie’s potential star power. Early, we see Falcon facilitating a V.A. group therapy session. This brings emotional concreteness to the abstracted horror of war we only intellectually comprehend. (Or deny: the tame PG-13 violence – bloodless, cartoonish – just reaffirms how specious critical acclaim of the film’s “realism” is.) These veterans are men and women irreversibly damaged by war-games and machinations of the state. But then Falcon, offered a role (job?) by Captain America, abruptly leaves behind such admirable pursuits, and runs after lofty dreams of mythic heroism… so much for the grounded heroics of charity and aid! (I wonder if Sam realizes the irony in replacing PTSD therapy with the very arena of violence that causes PTSD.) At any rate, he is quite adequate and satisfying as the ‘side-kick.’ Our loss, in that the friendship-dynamic established early on between Sam and Rogers is reduced to the “on your left!” gag, and to the obligatory man-to-man bonding on the eve of battle. They stand on the top of a dam – a rather dammed-up metaphor - advice is exchanged, their universal duty is reaffirmed beneath wrinkled brow. The choice of Marvin Gaye’s music as a diegetic motif feels more arbitrary than anachronistically clever. It also leaves a slightly racist after-taste. Of all the music that Falcon, a veteran in his 30s, could recommend to the tabula rasa that is Captain America’s aesthetics, the scriptwriters settled on an iconic African-American soul artist; moreover, he just happens to be an African-American singer who is well known and loved by whites. This is quite a serious issue, all joking aside. Racist discourse is stabilized through innocuous cultural assimilation; there is always the political and social danger to a racial marker, however “accepted” or trans-cultural it may appear to be.
Samuel Jackson plays the eye-patched Nick Fury. I suspect that in the source material Fury is more nuanced than this caricature: the “old school cop” model who is led to question his own presumptions and integrity by the “newbie”, traditional but always “bad-ass”. (One is reminded of The X-Files’ Mr. Skinner, the F.B.I. boss of Agents Mulder and Scully.) By way of Nick Fury, the film smoothly transitions from the superheroes’ limited perspective to behind the enemy line. Fury-as-bridge allows for a contiguity that flows from action (he physically moves from one sphere to the other) rather than omnipresent cross-cutting. In this sense, mobility and permeability of social-political spheres are traceable motifs.
A case in point is the elevator for the central SHIELD skyscraper. Elevator as signifier is indexical – it transports characters vertically (upwards to highest authority; downwards to the basement of helicarriers,) and requires digital clearance-codes for access. The elevator is not opaque – instead glass walls open up to a vista of the Capital, a simplistic but effective metaphor. One of the first reveals happens inside the elevator. A hitherto trusted partner of Captain America’s, plus some twenty-odd henchmen, pulls an ambush as the elevator descends. The ensuing melee is outstandingly choreographed, particularly given the elevator’s spatial constraints. Despite a tornado of swinging limbs, the fight is discernible and realized in its totality. (Kudos to the DP Trent Opaloch, responsible for the gritty trans-realism of District 9 ).
The elevator is otherwise very readable as a symbol, a substitute for any transitive vessel or passage; Nick Fury may as well be Hermes. A last comment on Nick Fury: his faked death is 2014’s forerunner in the race for Most Atrocious Reveal. It merits an equally intolerable allegorical reading from my end: elevator goes down, grave; elevator go up, resurrection! Message: one eye open to life and one eye closed to death, we don’t see that death isn’t the end!) Even a fourth-wall breakage, a sardonic aside, a satiric hipster self-deprecation, anything else would be more welcome than this innocuous, almost glib, re/turn from the grave. You do not do this. If you must, and it’s not a parody or ingenious meta-prank, then there better be some particular thematic importance that demands it.
The dark-clad, tech-savvy Black Widow is played by Scarlett Johansson with aplomb. The performance underscores less Johansson’s A-caliber abilities (possibly destined as one of her generation’s finest actresses), as it draws more attention to her overqualified presence amid vacuity. In other circumstances, I’d applaud an action movie for not exploiting conventional gender roles, viz. woman as sex object and romantic interest, as helpless princess or foreign dark-haired temptress, or straight androgynous tomboy. Black Widow’s costume is surprisingly not designed around cleavage and exposes very little skin. She is intelligent, independent, witty, and never proves to be weaker, in esse, alongside Falcon and Rogers. There are no sex scenes or the mildest PG innuendo for any of the principals.
Rogers is the eponymous lead, so there needs to be some crucial relational dynamics at play. Black Widow, cyber-chic navigator and innovator, is the driver to the narrative as she is the romantic surrogate to Captain America’s theoretical love-affair. As a surrogate, she merely interacts with Rogers at the same structural and temporal nodes that a love-interest might in a traditional binary circuit. These vertexes would throw off sparks, but Widow provides innocuous banter, uninspired comic relief, and gives Rogers several ‘pushes’ and words of encouragement. But the provocations carry no flirtatiousness or real import to Rogers’ virility (I use the term ironically.) If their relationship had naturally formed like this, then maybe a feminist approach could have something to work with. But it is structurally contrived as a substitution, not a genuine alternative. Their most memorable exchanges amount to Black Widow giving Rogers a few dating tips. Intended as comic relief, this man-to-man banality is just depressing, like a zero-gravity bro-mance, severed and floating in space. (Doesn’t sound too bad, actually.)
Within a male White discourse, the position of women to a story’s center is nearly always peripheral. And when a woman fails to seduce (i.e. is rejected by) the male, or any occasion where she cannot be the love interest of some male character, by default she transforms into the “best buddy,” or worse, the incidental tertiary floater that hovers in the corners of the screen .. It’s as though the producers, trying to juggle an asexual protagonist and an actress with high sex appeal, demanded the directors to shoot visual approximations of innuendo. Et voila: think about the angry ‘fight’ over their mutual trust in the hospital hallway and the bizarre duplicitous encounter in some shadowy nook, “fighting” over some plot token (a USB drive, I think, with security-breached data.) The “nook fight” is a rare moment when we have the camera pull in for a tight two-shot of Widow’s and Rogers’ half-lit faces, inches apart. She has her back to the wall – classic female position; he looms in from the right side of the frame – classic male space. We have to ask, does the intense intimacy build up to the climactic kiss? Of course not. Sitting there in the theater, with a now-empty soda bottle, I thought about water and broken dams, and then found myself hoping for a meaningless sex scene, any spark of life, so I could forget about Godot and call it a day.
III. What do you [see] my lord? - Boxes, boxes, boxes
Critical consensus for Winter Soldier has been positive overall, and several personal acquaintances stressed to me how, unlike some other Marvel films, it is “grounded” and more CGI-restrained. I see no grounds for such grounding. I have expressed what I perceive as sophomoric characterization, and began moving towards the narrative’s problematics. The presence of culturally relevant topics does not guarantee interest. Rogers is not a caricature of masculinized aggressive patriotism – he is a tabula rasa, a palimpsest with no poet. As an etic spectator, I cannot comment meaningfully on intertextualities. One could question if this etic positioning is to blame for my negativity and formal structuralist approach. If I was more familiar with the contemporary intricacies of the Captain America saga, would I more easily forgive structural flaws? I have made no attempt to hide my personal aesthetic tastes behind cold objectivity; wanting to be as transparent and fair as possible, I do give kudos, when deserved, to cinematic excellence –measured against both the par of genre and of film as a whole. In conclusion of this asinine apologetic either I am blindsided by my own preconceived judgments, or the expectations of my detractors for a well-told story have dropped to an all-time low.
“Hey, what’s in the box?”
Someone, (I do not remember who,) posited a neat and useful visualization for how the majority of narrative propels itself forward. Okay: picture a box. There is something important in the box. Someone protects the box. Someone else is trying to get the box. The box is compromised; the box explodes; the box is safe on the mantle. But now there is another box – and so on. Winter Soldier doesn’t just have a box; it is loops and loops of chains of boxes. I do not mean the complex circuitry of a Russian doll, or an infinite regress (e.g. Synecdoche, New York.) Every scene seems to begin or end with somebody turning out to be a traitor, then a friend, then a traitor again; or an unexpected revelation that someone is somebody else; the mission objective shifts from getting to this room, now that room, now there. (I do not mind this in principle, but I need to sense that the film was made out of love and concern, not sloppiness or triviality). Rather than intriguing character decisions or ambiguity of motive, we are given far too many Deus ex machinas. (Having subjugated myself to repeated face-palms of incredulity, I nearly reached the limit of pain when one the Interpol ambassador holograms turned out to be… Black Widow! And at the most opportune time conceivable!)
My frustration over Rogers’ characterization is not because of my unfamiliarity with the history. Rather, there is not enough present to warrant a future. A tad more explanation would be welcome, however, for “newbies” as to why and how he arrived from the 1940s, via Antarctic ice, without aging. I observed the conspicuous absence of citizenry and media; a second question asks how does the public, and social discourse, see him? Does America even know Captain America is running around for S.H.I.E.L.D., or is he a dead legend? Is he still frozen in the iconography of state-funded museums? Why is there no public vs. government info-war following his rather public fight with the Winter Soldier on the city streets? Is media discourse and public performativity so marginally relevant, that someone thought it sufficient to cram a quick media press conference with Widow into one minute at the movie’s end?
The Winter Soldier – the mysterious eponymous foe who lurks in subspaces and subtitles. The actor’s identity, and so the character’s, was kept under wraps by the Marvel Studios marketing campaign. At my screening, the moment when the Winter Soldier exposes his face elicited audible gasps from perhaps 70% of the audience. I cocked my head and plumbed my memory of earlier scenes; was I supposed to know who this was? Oh, it is Rogers’ old chum Bucky, who we have gotten to know so intimately through ten-second flashbacks, filtered through some garish, green sepia. (The otherwise consistent quality of the cinematography leads me to suspect that these poor choices of color and tone may have been outside of the DP’s control.)
I always love an honestly depicted villain and the resulting ambiguity of moral binaries. But the story provides no impetus to care about Rogers, to care about Rogers’ friendship with Bucky, to care about how Bucky is brainwashed and electrocuted. (Not to say I am insensitive to torture, but that only ethics in the abstract are evoked.) If there is no investment, then there are no emotions or spiritual feelings at stake. If we put aside the Bucky context, what does this leave us? An automated assassin running around the city is not apprehensive enough to garner a film subtitle. I’m not demanding the representation of pure evil, but there is no novelty or suspense in a black-clad assassin with super-strength However, composer Henry Jackman’s monotonous orchestral score, culled from the Dream Factory’s basement stocks, became above-average only as accompaniment to the Winter Soldier. These welcome deviations were ominous and bass-heavy, a digital glitch-out of feedback, droning, and kick drums.
The real enemy is not the Winter Solider, of course, but HYDRA member and SHIELD executive Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford.) The casting of Redford is an ironic twist to the plethora of Redford conspiracy political thrillers from decades past, a genre that Winter Soldier tries to evoke. But the chains of boxes and peripatetic recourses discredits Redford’s acting chops; he does what he can, given that the character is constrained to pacing within the confines of a top-floor office. Wise may it be to avoid decisive politicization, the displacement of anti-government icons (e.g. drone technology, privacy) to the esoteric HYDRA adulterates our potential outrage. The whispered code-word “Hail HYDRA” between two politicians should be the germination of paranoia and government intrigue, but it reads more like a G.W. Bush-era parody than accrual satire.
In regards to theme, structure, and form: the thematic invocation of McCarthy-era red-listing (the genocidal Project Insight), the structural dependency on Cold War rhetoric and spy vs. spy dynamism, and the visual demonization of Nazi-era Germany – all three layers of cinematic code are weak, or, as Black Widow confesses, (“I don’t know; I just seem like I know everything,”) lost at sea. If the dialectic between Old America and New America had been more foregrounded, then ambiguity and uncertainty would to nature’s course. Although history repeats itself, and analogues are made through cinematic intertextuality, Winter Soldier is not a re-working but a replication of its predecessors. This sort of aesthetic or narrative use of Nazis or Cold War Russia just seems hackneyed and, frankly, old-fashioned. (I would love to know what factors, other than loyalty to the original text, led the filmmakers to avoid all references to 21st century Middle East politics). A better metaphor can be found no further than the movie itself – about an hour in, Rogers and Black Widow return to the site of Rogers’ ‘transformation’ into Captain America; when - - - - - CUT! HOLD... now QUE the expository flashback! More baffling than the color palates is the very decision to use flashbacks for exposition. Such pandering extrapolation is intolerable and offensive enough as present recit, but compounded with a flashback, which expects me to comprehend new information from a few seconds of hurried recaps, is sophomoric. It is unjustified (a character may justifiably learn something through a forgotten memory), and ultimately a perfect emblem for serial movies’ conundrum of catering to both fans and new viewers. Maybe one can’t. Maybe the producers of serial movies should decide on an audience, and respect that audience. Waffling between the esoteric secret handshake of the emic (revelation of Bucky) and condescending exposition to the etic (re-telling of who Bucky is) results in aesthetical annoyance for both fans and the new viewers. The audience should be respected. If a film is confident that its audience can cross the street without holding hands, and respectful of those who decide not to cross at all, then the film will undoubtedly be stronger, clearer, and more enjoyable even for the clueless. END FLASHBACK. CUT – ACTION – back to Widow and Rogers playing Hardy Boys. What better image than a basement of cobwebbed dust-sheathed computers dated no later than 1980? Antiquated, useless; irrelevant; ghost specters of the once Other – the xenophobic, dualistic moral absolutism of the discourse…Americana’s us vs. them rhetoric haunts this computer system.
An unpleasant person(ality) has been uploaded into the computer (a past (?) enemy of Captain America, the ghost-in-the-machine-Nazi devised the algorithm HYDRA will use in justifying its “final solution.”) It makes me wonder what effects this era of technology has on us today, the discourses at play behind 8-bit holography inside a digital film? Historically accurate, but aesthetically anachronistic, I think there may have been better ways to link the historical past to the speculative present. Did the scriptwriters intend for ironic humor? Quaint nostalgia? Or a retro-hip seriousness? There is a very quick allusion made by Black Widow to 1983’s Wargames. The reference will probably go over the heads of the under-20s crowd (maybe even the under-3os); Wargames does not have the same sort of cult status for post-Gen X as, say, Strange Days or Hackers might. For those whom it does resonate, be warned that it may trigger a fatal closed circuit loop of: Memory of referent: self-congratulation over catching the reference: nostalgia: comparisons between then and now: sadness and despair: realization that the Wargames reference was meant to be funny: wonderment over why Captain America has seen Wargames when he hasn’t seen Star Trek (remember that notebook?): sadness: happiness, from comparing the clunky on-screen behemoths with the slick IPhones in every audience member’s pocket: sadness for the same reason: memory: And so on.
Every single aspect of this sequence seems out-of-date for no reason, and with no benefit of being retro-cool. The Nazi-ghost doctor is not menacing, any irony or parodic intent is lost, and the dependence on classic science-fiction is too top-heavy to stand on its own. All in all, the evil Nazi-ghost doctor and the image of the sprawling operating-system encapsulate all that I personally find wrong with the film. If anything, Winter Soldier is ripe with holographic metaphors. Case in point: the genocidal helicarriers rising into the sky at a glacial pace; final face-off amidst random pyrotechnics, inexplicably modeled on an enigmatic moment in Star Wars (Luke and Darth Vader on the sky-walk); deus ex machina by way of Black Widow’s remote device; and in the most ironically apt climax, the spectacle of the helicarriers shooting themselves to pieces and slowly falling in pieces from the sky, as glacially as they had risen. In some respects, there is a beauty to how wonderfully analogous those ships are; that the parts indeed contain all the data of the whole.
IV. All’s well that ends well
Credit should be given as due, in addition to several acknowledgements made prior. Filmmakers and producers might take notes from how the Russo Brothers and DP Opaloch approached the obligatory fight scenes. Action films are plagued right now by an infectious and debilitating disease, informally christened as the ‘Shaky Cam.’ The general consensus of medical specialists in the field share a general consensus; they have located Patient Zero – the origin of the epidemic – in 2002’s The Bourne Identity. Excellent film as it is, its distinctive choice of using a handheld camera has been appropriated now as the only method for shooting action and conveying danger. The handheld and/or toggled camera is shaken, decentered, abruptly zoomed in and out, etc. (sadly, the physicality may just be simulated in post-production) The aesthetic reasoning for the shaky cam rightly cites how it may: increase a scene’s intensity; bring the viewer to a disorienting proximity to the players; reinforce subjectivity or point of view, and compromise the reliability we have on the image to provide us data for comprehension and/or verisimilitude. No longer novel or interesting in its own right, the shaky cam is assumed to be the way to shoot action. It is exploited: by producers because it can mask cheap production values and obviate expensive hiring or CGI equipment; by directors because it can hide their incompetence in dramatic composition. When overused, one cannot discern limb from limb, blow from blow. Professional stunt actors are not needed when long-shots and pans are replaced by rapid-fire crosscutting and extreme close-up shots set at pointless Dutch angles. Finally, this aesthetic disease lowers our expectations for well-executed action. Medium shots at slow, continuous takes allow us to absorb and appreciate the breath-taking physical realism and death-defying spectacles. I am of strong opinion that a long-shot which slowly pans across or in circles will almost always be engrossing and effective.
With that said, presently there is hardly any shaky cam. Action scenes are paced steadily, they move through a variety of long, medium, and close-up shots, and quick cuts are used when it makes most sense, not as recourse for lack of footage or substance. The long sequence on the pirate-boarded ship makes a great case-study for how to compose and shoot, especially when the action requires over two actors and moves beyond one room/arena. The shaky cam is a device, not a default. So kudos to Winter Soldier for resisting the disease. While not awful - and at times very, very good – there is (as in this sentence) not much compositional beauty to marvel over. Opaloch, as I’ve mentioned, is extremely capable as a cinematographer, and perhaps he is the reason for the movie staying afloat despite so many persistent flaws and aporias. Take for instance his consistent quality in light and texture (e.g. Pierce’s office and the elevator, the cascade of white light through glass is carefully balanced with the steely interior by minimal splashes of shadow); or the regular employment of long and medium shots, along with selective use of helicopter shots.
But the image that stayed with me past the credits was when after Rogers has fallen into the Potomac and he is pulled to shore by his old friend Bucky/Winter Soldier. Thematically meshing and deepening the motifs of fraternity, loyalty, and the inchoate savior, the score fades away to silence. The Winter Soldier, also soundless, leaves Rogers on the bank and walks away from the past and into his present – the movie western’s horizon, Western discourse’s frontier. In the present background, the Washington Monument stands as sole reminder of locality, the marker of city and country. Yet it seems diminished, pushed to the back right behind a wall of trees. The sun sets in warm hues to the left, casting its light on the water which composes the right side of the frame. The water extends into the foreground. Also foregrounded is Rogers’ limp body on the bank, face-up and, for the first time, action-less. He’s frozen once again in re/pose, as the sun sets, the water flows, and the Winter Soldier walks away from Sodom. The foregrounded body takes up the lower left quadrant and re/opens the frame back out to the silent movements of Soldier, sun, and water. The erect Soldier recedes directly overhead Rogers’ supine horizontality, a geometry to reflect the Monument and offset nature’s curves.
Here, finally, is the grounding we’ve been looking for: Captain America, grounded, in the mud. And the movie allows us this one moment of contemplation; the shot lingers for perhaps ten-to-fifteen seconds. With class, it terminates by slow blackout. Right out of a comic book frame – a troublesome beauty, the more of which is direly needed.
V. Of eschatologies and gadflies
The threat of a secret, transnational, intra-governmental bloc may still proliferate the target audience’s Weltanschauung (even some current hip-hop has whisperings of the Illuminati.) But the film’s microcosmic mise-en-scenes fail to give the topic any freshness. Epics on a global level always threaten to burst open the singular story. Conversely, locality should pop and crackle (the focus on particularities as icons of universalities; opting for narrowness and depth, not width and vagueness.) But Winter Soldier occludes all leakage from the outside world, like the dam, blocking the airways of exchange: the national and global politics, media representations, the effects and implications for citizens. No one irreplaceably exists in this movie apart from the principals and anonymous S.H.I.E.L.D. employees; the spy vs. spy scuffling is all internal. It’s hard to invest one’s emotions in solipsistic rhetoric – the interior digestive systems – of a body that won’t speak to you. Rogers, in a rare moment of eloquence, speaks up in defense of what “America stands for”; but it remains too abstracted. His America is as far-removed from the present reality as the vista is from Pierce’s office window. Like the WWII-era Captain America museum exhibit, this America no longer exists (if it ever did.) Our cultural memory has carefully preserved the parts we like, ignored or demonized the parts we don’t, and framed them with a self-fashioned historical narrative of mythic heroism and patriotism. Witness the children walking by these fragments of memory; witness the curated rhetoric of morals (Captain America) and virtues (fraternity, loyalty, capitalism) as it is passed down to them. Rogers gazes upon the life-size photo of his former self, emitting that fuzzy glow only old photographs seem able to do. Is he aware of the vast distance between that Captain and himself, time’s paragon, the wounded image? Witness the young boy who recognizes his hero, the wounded image given life, “Word made flesh”, to wound. Incarnated for this brief moment, Rogers winks at the boy, finger to lips. “Word made flesh.” To wound the body, the rending of the veil at the moment of rupture. Using no words, Rogers says, “All of this history is a discourse. Both the images and the words; to wound others is to wound yourself. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Like a zombie, or a perpetually forestalled end…like an eschatology glimpsed but not grasped, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the museum. The curator determines the discourse, and we are told not to touch. We see the postmodern dilemma here, we get it, but we also sense vitality of the true behind the real, know the wo/man behind the hero (and the hero behind the wo/man.) The boy must remain silent before the true (God), for to speak words of the prophet he will be called fool, and will shatter the real into shards. Has he courage enough to shatter these glass cases, to destroy this temple, and speak?
In like spirit, this is why I write down these words.
This is not a negative review. To re/view, to critique, is to unground discourse.
Comics and the other paraliteratures witness and do this – always daring, always inquisitive of public and canonical standards.
Like the shot of Rogers lying on the bank of the Potomac, mud in the stars and stripes.
For as long as I can remember, I have considered myself a writer.
Influences: “Mariana Shellard and many others”
Champion of: Nights of Cabiria
Contributed to: artforum.com, The Believer, The Boston Globe, Cineaste, Cinema Scope, Fandor Keyframe, Film Comment, Idiom, Jornal da Mostra Internacional de Cinema de São Paulo, The L Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Screen Machine, Sight & Sound, Slant Magazine, and The Village Voice among others. Articles are posted at his site The Moviegoer.
Freelancer Aaron Cutler (December 20th, 1985-) makes his home in São Paulo but was born in Blue Bell, PA. After binging on TLA Video rentals and writing for his high school and college newspapers, Cutler moved to New York for graduate school. He made overtures to Slant Magazine and The House Next Door separately, began writing for both of them, and then continued to do so after the two online publications had merged. Thanks to Slant/House, he attended both the New York Film Festival and the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in 2010, seeing Certified Copy at the first and meeting and interviewing Abbas Kiarostami at the second.
The Kiarostami conversation, which found a home at Cineaste, was the first of his published filmmaker interviews, which are probably the best entryways into Cutler's writing. He believes art to be a way to reach out, and the job of a critic to be helping an artist to make contact with his or her audience. In the case of his interviews, that means giving people space to express themselves, to the point of sometimes turning conventional interviews into monologues after deciding that the artist has no need for his questions. The interviews often double as criticism, as Cutler guides his interview subjects to talk about themselves in thoughtful ways. When interviewing fellow critic and film programmer Miriam Bale about her publication Joan’s Digest, some people might have asked how she arrived at such an unusual name for a film journal. Cutler asks simply, "Who’s Joan?"
Cutler's writing comes from a place of humility. He's in the service of good art and exalts it. Along with this, he rarely writes pans. If he has to attack something, he does so implicitly rather than explicitly. His pieces become less about what failed and more about how something succeeded.
When Cutler talk about himself, as he does in the postscript to his discussion of Claude Lanzmann's film Last of the Unjust, it's to give the film and director's aims a historical context outside of technique or theory. In that case, he refers to his family members that were killed in Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War as a way of localizing Lanzmann’s discussions of the exterminations of Jews by the Third Reich. Crucially, he begins that same piece with a quote from Unjust's subject, a rabbi named Benjamin Murmelstein who was accused of collaborating with the Nazis: "I’m sorry, you accuse me of sidetracking all the time but one cannot understand things without their context." Each Cutler article contains a narrative outside of the film up for review, usually about the people involved, the directors or actors or subjects. He finds different ways to place films within the context of careers and, more importantly, of lives.
Humanity is his work’s defining characteristic. Grouping films thematically instead of flowing chronologically through a body of work risks missing important points and losing the history of the creator. Criticism is Cutler’s way of sharing a life story in a few paragraphs and letting the world know the character of an artist with whom he connects on some level. He doesn't use superlatives as they tend to soar over a film and the minute, important ways it affects a viewer. He can be meticulous with the details because that's where he understands his strengths often lie, in the simple description of a scene. It may seem elementary but he finds great emotional payoffs in talking about a change of lighting or the nuts and bolts of a performance. His films capsules for The L Magazine and The Village Voice express the height of economy and yet you still know precisely what it is about the film that has touched him.
In a young critics’ symposium for Cineaste, Cutler tells a lovely anecdote about his first date with his wife, the Brazilian artist Mariana Shellard. They went to see a new 35mm print of Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans together and maudlin though it may sound, that title isn't a terrible way to think about the role that Cutler has given himself as a critic. There is the filmmaker and there is the critic who has been touched by his work, and the song that the critic sings is always one of love: Love for the medium, love for the director, and love for people who might also be touched in the ways he that he has been.
On My Darling Clementine (The Village Voice, 1/22/14)
John Ford is often called a great American filmmaker, but rarely a national poet. He filled space with silence and introspective breaks as well as any Frost or Stevens could, though, even when his subject was as dynamic as the settling of the West. My Darling Clementine (presented in a new restoration on DCP) tells the tale of Wyatt Earp's time as marshal of the town of Tombstone, Arizona, following a brother's death and culminating in his and his family's gunfight with the Clanton gang at the O.K. Corral. Yet the film is really about a death-soaked man falling deeply in love with life. Henry Fonda, cloaked in shadow, plays Earp as firm, responsible, and fundamentally shy; he differs from Fonda's naïve young men of promise in earlier Fords like Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940) by carrying a weight of unspoken sadness from losses past. Earp holds himself apart from the town, patrolling it without feeling like a member, until the arrival of sweet nurse Clementine (played by Cathy Downs), who has come to reclaim her former partner, the gentleman-turned-outlaw Dr. John Holliday (Victor Mature). Holliday rejects Clem outright, and the smitten Earp does his best to accommodate her during what they both know will be a brief stay. They step out together one Sunday morning and dance with the other townspeople on a wooden platform where a church will someday be built. At that instant, light floods over them, and for a moment, the couple fits into the group.
On Century of Birthing
(catalogue description for the 37th São Paulo International Film
Festival in October 2013, when the film was screened within a Lav Diaz retrospective that Cutler helped organize)
A Christian cult led by the forceful Father Tiburcio chants while baptizing new members. A cynical photographer observes the group and thinks about how to destroy it. Meanwhile, a filmmaker named Homer sits at his editing table, taking breaks to talk with an actress about his struggles to finish a film that might resonate with common people. Scenes from Homer’s film sometimes appear showing a nun and a criminal, both of who seek to redeem themselves. All these stories intersect, overlap, and enter into dialogue with each other, in ways explicit as well as implicit. This is one of Diaz’s most troubled, self-investigating films. In it, art is equivalent to religion, with both the filmmaker and the cult leader holding responsibility to potential followers. Neither practice is made out to be better than the other—both can be used for good as well as for evil. It is rather up to people to decide what right and wrong are, and how to use their capacities for each.
On Perceval (The L Magazine, 9/18/13)
[Éric] Rohmer was a Roman Catholic whose contemporary tales of people shyly, fearfully revealing themselves to one another often worked as metaphors for the difficult process of giving oneself over to god. While this, his medieval epic (screening on 16mm), might seem abnormal for him, it's actually a consistent act of faith. The film’s actors inhabit what initially seem to be outlandish circumstances, alternately chanting and singing verses from Chrétien de Troyes’s 12th-century Arthurian poem (translated by Rohmer) in front of colorfully painted backdrops on theatrically artificial sets. Yet they all do so with gravity, grace, and commitment, including Fabrice Luchini as the sweet, young, wide-eyed titular knight who leaves home with an open heart to test himself and face whatever adventures the Lord provides.
The first of which is that director Matt Reeves decided to take his two most recent films and mash them together tonally. Cloverfield is a non-stop shaky-cam thrill ride with explosions, screaming, and firefights. Let Me In is a much quieter film that focuses far more on building atmosphere and letting relationships between the characters have time to breathe and stretch their legs. Each film hinges respectively on its traits and what's so great about Dawn is that not only does it make a virtue of the action filmmaking that elevated Cloverfield but it also manages to spend as much time on the kind of quiet, emotional character building that attracted Reeves to remaking Let The Right One In in the first place. What this all boils down to is that Dawn really does have something for everyone.
I saw the film in a theater that's really only a step down from IMAX and I recommend that everyone do the same. The action is thrilling and the sound mix is top notch. But more importantly this film needs to be seen on a giant screen with a stellar projection system because the time and effort put into the apes faces is frankly, out of this world. Motion capture has become a truly amazing tool for almost any type of filmmaker and the advances they've made in even the short time since 2011's Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is astounding.
But it's not just there to look pretty. The motion capture is essential to getting the film's true message across. Just like it's predecessor, Dawn was made to tell a story about family. The broad strokes of the film pit human families against ape families and that can be broadened further to a battle of species v.s. species. But the reason Dawn pulls it off differently than so many other films is because the versus aspect of the story is actually the B storyline. At least as far as I'm concerned. The trailers for the film portrayed it as a story of apes on horseback with M-16's riding in slow motion through flames. And yes that does happen but it's not important. What is important is watching all kinds of creatures simply trying to survive. When violence begins to rear its head before the eyes of the main characters they all attempt to avoid it at all costs. It's only when a villain, and this film does a great job of showing that they exist on all sides, tries to capitalize on the primal fear that all creatures possess and respond to. Fear drives more decisions than any of us would ever like to admit but the sad truth is that when we're scared we'll do anything to survive. Even if that means dashing the hope for peace at our own feet.
It's incredibly refreshing to see a film that does its best to portray the participants in its big budget action sequences as unwilling. Unlike so many other summer blockbusters and large scale battle films, only a handful of characters in this film actually preach violence as an answer. Almost every violent decision in the film is driven by fear and though it's easier to understand something primal with apes occupying half the screen time it really doesn't take much to translate their behaviors to our own. Late in the film Caesar has the epiphany that apes and humans are more similar than he could have ever imagined. He's devastated in this moment because despite trying so hard to be free and independent of man, the apes still wound up behaving just like them. And because these two species are so similar they're doomed to repeat the violence of the past and eventually find their way to the future represented in the original Planet Of The Apes.
Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes is a film that has its characters trying desperately to create a better world for themselves but more importantly for their families. For their children. They go to all kinds of lengths to promise their children a better world than they had. A world that is peaceful and safe for their families to simply live in. But what the film continues to challenge us with is the idea that if we're so willing to turn a blind eye to the peace we want so badly in order to remove any threat to it, then why can't we simply turn a blind eye to the size of our family? Why can't we see our whole species as our family all the time rather than just when we feel threatened? Shouldn't peace, our ultimate desire, be guiding our decisions rather than fear? If we're such advanced thinkers, then why can't we escape our most primal urges and simply be together, strong?