Sunday, 15 September 2019

The Last Man to Leave

Thoughts on the album "Merrie Land" by The Good The Bad and The Queen
Originally written in December 2018

Although unlikely to garner much attention during next year's award season, one of my absolute favourite on-screen performances this year is Damon Albarn's beguiling turn as the ventriloquist dummy that appears in all ten promotional videos released in support of Merrie Land (2018): the second and very much long-awaited new album from Albarn's non-Blur, non-Gorrilaz side-project, The Good The Bad and The Queen.

As a more-than-worthy follow-up to the band's brilliant, self-titled 2007 debut, this second release continues the same approach of exploring the vague notions of "British identity" against a diverse musical soundscape, while at the same time presenting a wry but evocative commentary on the modern cultural landscape, its politics and the general mood of the day.

If the first album took as its focus the growing surveillance state of New Labour's "broken" Britain - still caught within the grip of post-7/7 terrorism, the illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the climate of economic excess that would inevitably lead to the financial collapse of the following year - then Merrie Land finds its obvious target in the disastrous Brexit situation.

By focusing specifically on the fallout from Brexit - with every element of the album, from its music and lyrics, to its song-titles and packaging managing to evoke the current zeitgeist of confusion, fear and cultural disagreement - Albarn and company have succeeded in producing not just a 'complete work', in the artistic sense, but a genuine statement.

The Truce of Twilight (Performance Video) [Paul Simonon, 2019]:

Beginning with the first track, a short piece of dialog sampled from the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger masterpiece A Canterbury Tale (1944), the album establishes a context of old English parochialism: that "martyr's dream" of an Arcadian idyll, all stiff-upper lipped determination, quaint village greens and cathedrals heralding the glories of God. From this point on, the subsequent ten songs offer a clear thread of wry observational commentary backed by engaging instrumentation, as the ensuing album traverses the outer reaches of the British landscape; from the cities and their surrounding suburbs, to the quiet villages and once-thriving coastal towns.

The ten videos produced to accompany the majority of songs taken from the album find Albarn buried beneath layers of intricate prosthetics to become the ventriloquist dummy. In each of the videos he sits in front of  an intentionally flat, two-dimensional green-screen backdrop, which changes from one song to the next in order to better present a specific mood, character or emotion.

Each persona, while uniform and unchanging, captures a different facet of the British "identity" (though the term itself is a misnomer: there is no one cultural identity definable as British, but countless different identities, all of them "British", all of them occupying the same plot of land.) However we chose to identify ourselves, personally or politically - whether we voted to 'leave' or 'remain', or didn't vote at all, whichever the case may be - the dummy here is us.

2. Merrie Land

3. Gun to Head

4. Nineteen Seventeen

5. The Great Fire

6. Lady Boston

7. Drifters and Trawlers

8. The Truce of Twilight

9. Ribbons

10. The Last Man to Leave

11. The Pioson Tree

The appearance of the dummy itself is inspired by a segment from the Ealing Studios anthology film Dead of Night (1945). The segment, titled The Ventriloquist's Dummy, sees the titular object develop a mind of its own, terrorising its master who can no longer control its amoral urges. Or does it? Is the dummy really possessed, or is the ventriloquist simply losing his grip on reality? Significantly, a still image from the film also features as part of the album's artwork.

Merrie Land [The Good The Bad and The Queen, 2018]:

In the presentation of the dummy, Albarn finds the perfect symbol for Brexit, if not Britain itself. This thing that has somehow gotten away from its own master, saying and doing appalling things without punishment, and destroying the psyche of the individual that can who can no longer control it.

Merrie Land combines the same musical influences of The Good The Bad and The Queen's first album, chiefly folk, ska and dub, but adds an element of music hall. In interviews accompanying the album's release, Albarn said he was influenced by the Northern English town of Blackpool. Fittingly, the music here has the feel of faded seaside glamour, empty funfairs and a world where the last bastions of "Englishness" (fish and chips, novelty postcards, cups of tea) struggle to remain relevant.

Friday, 13 September 2019

The Red and The Blue

Thoughts on the film: Demon City Shinjuku (1988)

First scene, pre-credits: a battle upon a rooftop. The evil Rebi Ra has sided with the demon world to become all-powerful. In attempting to open a portal that will unleash the demon world into that of our own, Rebi Ra is challenged by a former associate, Genichirō Izayoi. From the first images, the presence of Rebi Ra - and by extension, the demon world itself - is linked to the colour red. The presence of Genichirō and the side of good is linked to the colour blue.

In these first frames we can already see an obvious polarity between these saturated colours: red, with its connotations of heat - equating to hell, violence and "sin" - and blue, with its connotations of cold - equating to logic, introspection and the natural world. In a sense, these are the colours of dawn and dusk, falling at either end of a chromatic spectrum. Red also suggests fire, but in a way so does blue. The blue flame burns brighter, and perhaps that's the point.

Throughout the film the colours will be at war with one another: their battle for dominance over the cinematic frame mirroring that of the battle between characters on-screen.

Demon City Shinjuku [Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1988]:

As a visual aesthetic, this same contrasting colour palette was used previously in Yoshiaki Kawajiri's earlier film, Wicked City (1987). As in this film, Wicked City concerns itself with the battle between a demon world and our own. Though both films are unrelated and based on individual source materials, there are parallels that go beyond simple auteurism to suggest an actual lineage. In Wicked City, a human agent and a demon agent must join forces to attempt to stop the "black world" from encroaching on reality. Their relationship again defined by this same contrast between a red and blue lighting strategy. The colours there were redolent of that of a police siren: an invocation of law and order?

Wicked City [Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1987]:

The same connotations apply there as they do here, but the aesthetic was used much more sparingly in Wicked City than it is in this subsequent work. From the outset, the interplay between the two colours is made a defining feature of Demon City Shinjuku, obvious even in the on-screen presentation of its title. The text is repeated twice, once in red, and again in blue, as both colours re-enact a version of the rooftops battle that we've previously seen. Here, it's the colour blue that remains dominant: a telling sign perhaps of which side of this cosmic battle its filmmakers have taken.

[NOTE: One could argue from the screen-captures included that black is also a dominant colour. However, I tend to think of black, in this context, as a neutral backdrop, like the white of a piece of paper. The blank canvas or arena of a medieval darkness on to which these colours, as a personification, interact.]

Demon City Shinjuku [Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1988]:

Let's cut back to that opening fight for a second. In narrative terms, this scene is pure exposition. It establishes a context and back-story, but also gives purpose to our as-yet to be introduced central character, Kyoya Izayoi: Genichirō's son. One of the defining characteristics of the anime films of this period is their ability to marry exposition to scenes of action and spectacle. In conventional terms, it's unrealistic to assume that these characters would be sharing necessary background information so freely during the midst of battle, but then there is very little in the film that is realistic, or that aims to reflect reality in the literal sense. As such it's something we either embrace and go along with, or reject and move on.

Demon City Shinjuku [Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1988]:

As the battle here progresses, Kawajiri and his animators push the saturation of the colours even further, abstracting the reality of the (human) world as it might ordinarily appear and showing instead how it is destroyed (or reclaimed) by the shadowy supernatural forces of the demon world. There are broader social and political implications to this scene, specific to the destruction of Japan by the allies during the Second World War, which I'll return to in more detail in a subsequent post, however, there's also something more subconscious to this relationship between man and "world" that is worth remarking on.

At this point, it's probably not a massive spoiler to suggest that the noble Genichirō loses his battle. It's often a cliché in such films that the early death of a character is used to provide purpose to the subsequent protagonist, and especially if the deceased character is a parent, as is the case here. However, there is also a symbiotic relationship between the characters and the worlds that they inhabit. For example, if Genichirō is wounded, then the world is wounded. If Genichirō dies then the world dies too. Each physical wound against the human body causes a corporeal "wound" upon the landscape itself.

Demon City Shinjuku [Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1988]:

This subsequent shot, depicting the bruised and bloodied figure of Genichirō, makes the point somewhat clear. As the character approaches death he must look on, hopelessly, as the city he was fighting to protect falls into rubble and disarray. The colour red, now the colour of blood, suggests the severity of his wounds and the visualisation of life escaping into the shadowy depths: further clarifying the role that red, as a colour, will play in signifying death.

Demon City Shinjuku [Yoshiaki Kawajiri, 1988]:

After the defeat of Genichirō, the subsequent shot of the city as it's reduced to rubble is entirely saturated in the colour red. In this timeline, blue has been removed from the palette. I'll return to this image in a subsequent post as I find its significance goes far beyond the level of mere aesthetics and opens up on an interesting thread that runs throughout many Japanese genre films of this period (and especially in OAV/anime movies.)

Demon City Shinjuku is in no way a masterwork. It's anticlimactic - feeling more like a series of set-pieces than a coherent narrative - and is marred by many of the shortcomings of other Kawajiri films, specifically his fondness for obnoxious characters and scenes of sexual violence against women. However, it stands out in part due to its bold imagery, its nightmares of body horror mutation and the atmosphere of its ruined world.

Friday, 6 September 2019

The Sheltering Sky

Thoughts on the book by Paul Bowles

"And in the same fashion, the strange languor in the centre of her consciousness, those vaporous ideas which kept appearing, as though independently of her will, were mere tentative fragments of her own presence, looming against the nothingness of a sleep not yet cold. A sleep still powerful enough to return and take her in its arms. But she remained awake; the nascent light invading her eyes, and still no corresponding aliveness awoke within her; she had no feeling of being anywhere, or being anyone."

Several years ago I saw Bernardo Bertolucci's 1990 film version of the book in question and found it rather forgettable. The film version felt like the story of a bourgeois couple who venture off the beaten track in search of new experiences and pay the price for their xenophobic entitlement. It was all surface, with none of the deeper nuances or illusory tone that Bowles captures so brilliantly in his book. Here, the connection with the female protagonist, Kit Moresby, is so absolute, that it becomes impossible to view the book as anything less than the story of a woman seeking liberation against the imprisoning factors that attempt to define and dominate her throughout. Feelings of guilt and grief circle about the thoughts of this character like the encroaching sandstorms that drift across the book's arid North African deserts, as Kit finds herself incarcerated repeatedly by systems and circumstances, and finally by the landscape itself.

The Sheltering Sky [Bernardo Bertolucci, 1990]:

I saw the Bertolucci film for the first time in October 2012. At the time I wrote the following: "Like its characters, the film is in too much of a hurry to get from one location to the next; rarely capturing the atmosphere or the colour of a place before we're off again, onto the next misadventure. Bertolucci seems to view North Africa with a cynical suspicion. The landscapes may be striking but the people are seen as shady, even untrustworthy. The closing lines are beautiful (and beautifully delivered by the author himself) but offer only a vague hint to the reflective and possibly even poetic film that might have existed before it collapsed into melodramatic excess."

The Sheltering Sky [Paul Bowles, 1949]:

Needless to say I found the book remarkable. Not least in its storytelling, but in its moments of evocation and surrealism. Passages where the language becomes so heightened and atmospheric that it passes through the influences of observation and the "travelogue" to become charged with something altogether more figurative and revealing. Images that are stark and entirely unforgettable in their illustration, but also in what they communicate; imparting upon the narrative something richer, more psychological and suggestive. Without wishing to spoil anything for the uninitiated, the final part of the book in particular maintains an odd, dreamlike tone, becoming more than just a continuation of the character's journey but an effort to distil the narrative of the first two parts into a figurative, psycho-dramatic, psychosexual expression of Kit's inner consciousness.

I took my copy of the book with me on a recent Scottish excursion and as such it's now pretty beat up. However, the bends and tears that mark its cover and the water damage seeped into its yellowing pages each bear the memories of that great trip, which of course feels fitting for a book about travel, and about the lure of losing oneself completely in a culture that isn't your own. I may return to the Bertolucci film at some point in the near future to see if a familiarity with the book deepens or enriches the adaptation, but in all honesty I think the subconscious film that was constructed in my own mind during the reading of Bowles's evocative and illusory text remains more powerful and certainly more transportive.

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Thoughts on the 9th (?) film by Quentin Tarantino

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), the new film by Quentin Tarantino, is a difficult one to unpack, critically speaking, so this cursory review, if one can even call it such, is more a summing up of initial thoughts, as opposed to any sort of definitive statement. An attempt to process some of the reactions to the film, both from my own initial viewing, as well as the cultural conversations that have surrounded the film since its first release.

To begin, I felt the charges of racism and misogyny seemed a bit off to me, although his female characters have never been more transparent as they are here. It's rare for a Tarantino film to be this lacking in non-white representation, but not unprecedented. Reservoir Dogs (1992) has only one black supporting character, and Inglourious Basterds (2009), despite historical revisionism, is still a largely "white" film. And while the violence at the end of "Once Upon a Time..." is certainly gratuitous, its aimed at both sexes. Tarantino's violence has never had a gender bias.

I had greater problems with the more conventional aspects of the film; chiefly its narrative structure. Tarantino has always been wildly indulgent as a screenwriter, but it's difficult to think of another film of his as undisciplined as this. For a good 90-minutes "Once Upon a Time..." has a relaxed, conversational quality that evokes filmmakers like Eric Rohmer and Richard Linklater; positively luxuriating as it does in a painstakingly recreated late-1960s setting, where scene after scene of characters going about their odd-jobs and daily routines feel designed to barely progress the narrative but suggest something of a life being lived. At one point Tarantino throws in a flashback within a flashback, both of which function mostly as covert exposition (essentially to establish stuntman Cliff's almost superhuman abilities and ease around death - both of which pay off in the final scenes) before jumping eight months ahead for a last act, which for some reason now has a storybook narrator.

I wonder if Tarantino has become so accustomed to dividing his films into chapters that he's now incapable to telling a straight story? Unlike the unconventional narratives of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction (1994) and Jackie Brown (1997), the storytelling of "Once Upon a Time..." just has the feel of bad plotting.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood [Quentin Tarantino, 2019]:

After seeing the film, I wrote on Facebook that it was, for the most part: "Tarantino's most restrained and mature film since Jackie Brown; finding an emphasis on leisurely observation, period detail and genuine melancholy. A film that at first seems to be preoccupied with a feeling of finality; its disparate strands of plot and the collisions between real-life and fantasy always arriving at the end of things; the end of the Hollywood studio system, the state of innocence, the American "West", a life, the friendship that exists between men, etc. Then all of a sudden it isn't; erupting into an orgy of cartoon violence in its final scenes.

The title however is the clue. "Once Upon a Time...", like in a fairy-story? Here Tarantino wants to show the triumph of Hollywood escapism over brutal reality; re-writing history to provide the closure, catharsis (even vengeance) that real life denies us, but which the cinema is more than capable to indulge. As Carleton Young said in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) - "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." But is this enough?

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance [John Ford, 1962]:

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood [Quentin Tarantino, 2019]:

If I have a complaint about the film it's this: I wish Tarantino had shown enough courage to follow the story through to its historical conclusion. Throughout so much of the film there's a sick-inducing sense of tension and inevitability developing around the expectation of the real-life horrors to come. In this sense, the characterisation of Sharon Tate is the film's representation of American innocence - primed as she is to be lost in a bloodbath of counter-cultural decadence - and the often observational scenes of her character gong about her daily life have a beautiful sadness to them, which is powerful. But by subverting the reality of Tate's eventual fate, Tarantino betrays those scenes and reduces the characterisation to nothing. A shame."

I liked "Once Upon a Time..." a lot better than my least favourite of Tarantino's work to-date, Django Unchained (2013), where the extended third act descent into cartoon violence felt more egregious. But as much as I found a lot to appreciate here, it still ranks as one of the weaker Tarantino efforts for me, far behind my very favourite films of his, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Death Proof (2007), Inglourious Basterds and The Hateful Eight (2015).

As an aside, I would argue that "Once Upon a Time..." could form an odd little triptych with two other recent "auteurist" films, The House That Jack Built (2018) by Lars von Trier and Glass (2019) by M. Night Shyamalan, in the sense that they function both as a kind of final statement or meta-commentary on their filmmakers' respective careers (loaded as they are with all the quirks, eccentricities and manipulations that their authors are best known for), but also a provocation to the audiences that have both derided and defended them; "doubling down" as it were on the more contentious aspects of their aesthetic and ideological concerns to the extent that the films both define and obfuscate (intentionally?) their actual intentions.

The sense of nostalgia permeates every aspect of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and its evocation of late-1960s Los Angeles to the point at which the film becomes less concerned with the more conventional development of character and plot, and instead finds drama and interest in the images of actors driving classic cars through painstakingly recreated Hollywood streets; where the camera picks out and lingers on period signage and billboard advertisements while songs and commercials play from stereo to stereo. For Tarantino, such sequences are the backbone of the film, and it's this immersive, atmospheric quality and the sense of period authenticity that really defines the film as a genuine experience.

Saturday, 17 August 2019


Thoughts on the film by Neil Jordan

A new film by Neil Jordan is always going to be an event for me; even if turns out to be one of his occasional excursions into the conventional world of mainstream Hollywood. Greta (2018) feels more in line with Jordan's other, often flawed studio endeavours, We're No Angels (1989), Interview with the Vampire (1994), In Dreams (1999), The Brave One (2007), etc, lacking from the outset the more distinctive spark and invention found in his more personal efforts, such as The Company of Wolves (1984), The Butcher Boy (1997), Breakfast on Pluto (2005) and Ondine (2009). Jordan's Hollywood excursions are often massively compromised and far from his greatest works and Greta is no exception.

While not as visually stunning or thematically rich as the similarly overdone psychodrama In Dreams, it's not as compromised or hysterical either. It's not as polished or prestigious as Interview with the Vampire, but it's also less prosaic. And unlike his last Hollywood production, the anonymous revenge fantasy The Brave One, it does at least feel like a Neil Jordan film, littered as it is with his usual references to fairy-tale iconography, broken families, mirror symbolism and the perspective of lost girls. In its collision between coming of age narrative and psycho-drama it hints a little towards his greatest work, The Butcher Boy, with some apparent throwbacks found in the repeated use of the song "Where Are You?" (made famous by Frank Sinatra), a mid-narrative dream sequence and the image of the title character dancing-childlike around the kitchen after carrying out a violent attack.

Greta [Neil Jordan, 2019]: 

While nowhere near the same level as Jordan's best work, I still found a lot to like here. The original screenplay was written by Ray Wright; a screenwriter known for Hollywood horror remakes like Pulse (2006) and The Crazies (2010). In re-writing the screenplay before filming, Jordan creates a strange tension between the two voices of the text; one that in a way mirrors the tension between the protagonist and antagonist of the film itself. It's not difficult to see Wright as Frances (the naive youngster defined by her engagement with social media, casual dialog and attempts to be seen as good or virtuous), with Greta herself becoming kind of avatar for Jordan; an older, seemingly eccentric European, with a love of classical music and an air for the tragic that points towards something violent.

When Greta uses the tools of Frances's generation to ensnare the young woman, it feels like Jordan himself is taking something current from Wright's original story and using it against the modern audience. If the film is flawed in any way (and it is) it's in the weak or under-developed characterisations. Protagonist Frances is defined only by stock familial clichés and denied any kind of emotional catharsis, while we never learn enough about the villainous Greta for her to ascend to the same level as other iconic screen monsters such as Annie Wilkes and Hannibal Lecter. That said, it's a beautifully shot film that makes the most of its Dublin-doubling-as-New-York locations, and one that finds Jordan indulging a lot of his preferred visual quirks and thematic interests.

Wednesday, 26 June 2019


Thoughts on the film by José Ramón Larraz

Putting together a short comment for MUBI, I wrote the following: "With its atmospheric locations, painterly shot compositions and use of natural lighting, Vampyres is a grindhouse film that succeeds in dipping a toe or two into the esoteric world of the arthouse movie. Despite its minimal plotting, the story sustains interest and has a few surprising developments, but it can't compete with certain similar films by the great Jean Rollin, who could have injected this particular brand of exploitation with something more dreamlike, hypnotic and surreal."

I drafted the above almost automatically. At the time it seemed a good enough means of expressing (within the minimum character limit available) the film's strengths and weaknesses. I was content to leave it there and move on to something else when I started to question the film's deeper merits. I was thinking about how, from a surface perspective, the "vampiric" characters of Vampyres (1974) seemed to lack a political or sociological component. What was the subtext? Was the film simply a work of empty exploitation designed to shock and titillate the undiscerning viewer, or was it an opportunity - like with many other horror films before and since - to explore more interesting themes?

In many gothic horror films, the presentation of the "monster" - be it werewolf, vampire or something else - is often a figurative stand-in for something more theoretical, or subtextual. For instance, in Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922) by F. W. Murnau, the vampire sweeps across the landscape like a literal plague. It becomes in the process a kind of harbinger of sickness; a physical black death. In the later remake by Werner Hezog, Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), this "plague" becomes a possible invocation of the encroaching darkness that would infect the German psyche in the early to middle parts of the Twentieth Century. For Herzog, the vampire is almost a portent of the Weimar Republic; that period of decadence and ruin that led directly (or indirectly) to the rise of National Socialism, and later fascism and war.

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror [F. W. Murnau, 1922]:

Nosferatu the Vampyre [Werner Herzog, 1979]:

In these films the vampire is symbolic; a personification of something greater than its single form. Later vampire films, such as The Hunger (1983), Interview With the Vampire (1994) and The Addiction (1995), would use vampirism as a metaphor for AIDS, homosexuality and drug addiction respectively, while a more recent vampire film, Byzantium (2012), found parallels between its vampiric protagonists and the experience of asylum seekers forced to flee their native homes and live nomadically in foreign countries.

Thinking more about this particular film by José Ramón Larraz, I started to wonder if I'd sold the movie short. While I think it's easy to be blindsided by the sleazier aspects of the film - its low-budget nature, wooden performances, perfunctory dialogue, etc - there is something about Vampyres that seems to connect, albeit in retrospect, to a more interesting interpretation. It's a reading of the film that seems analogous to that of the aforementioned Interview With the Vampire (both the film version by Neil Jordan and the original 1976 novel by Anne Rice) in which the relationship between the two vampire characters could be seen as a metaphor for a homosexual relationship in the times before same-sex partnerships were more widely accepted.

Interview with the Vampire [Neil Jordan, 1994]:

In Vampyres, the lesbian lovers at the centre of the film are forced to remain hidden; living a nocturnal existence away from the conventional society. In the opening scene of the film, the couple, during an act of love, are punished and destroyed for their natural, consensual desires, by the literal shadow of puritanical virtue. In the decades, if not centuries that follow, they are forced to feed off various men in a mockery of heterosexual sex.

Vampyres [José Ramón Larraz, 1974]:

Like Interview with the Vampire, the subtext of the conventional vampiric existence is as such one of longing and repression; about two characters bound-together in partnership, sharing time and space, but not legally recognised as part of a "Holy" union. Further to this, the subplot involving the young couple who arrive at the film's manor house location with their caravan in tow (and with it an image of conventional domesticity in miniature) becomes endemic of the threat of the "straight", the conservative conformity of the "normal", or the everyday. In this context, it adds an element of colour to the interpretation, exaggerating the tedium of the heterosexual couple with the transgressions of the central characters. As does the ending, and the necessity of the two supernatural figures to once more take flight into the uncaring wilderness, lost within the margins of society.

In Vampyres, the scenes of heterosexual sex are fittingly grotesque. This grotesquery may have been coincidental - a result of having bad actors floundering into awkward love scenes without the guidance of an intimacy coordinator and literally fumbling their way through - but I think it's intentional. The wild pawing of flesh, the slobbering lips and tongues penetrating open-mouthed encounters, are the antitheses of eroticism. It fits in with the idea of characters forced to engage with a kind of sexuality that isn't felt, but instead becomes a cruel necessity for survival.

Vampyres is the first of two films I've seen by Larraz. While it's interesting enough to spend some time with, I found his subsequent work, The Coming of Sin (1978), to be on the whole a lot more interesting and much more successful in its combination of exploitation elements and art-house mind-games. Nonetheless, Vampyres makes an interesting companion-piece to that later film, with another story about female courtship and female desire under threat from the almost supernatural harbingers of conservative masculinity, guilt and emotional repression.

Saturday, 22 June 2019

The Popular Cinema

A Question of Aesthetics?

What is the popular cinema in the year 2019? Is it this shot of Carol Danvers, aka Vers, aka Captain Marvel - the titular hero from the Marvel™ product of the same name - framed defiantly, with glowing white eyes and a surrounding aura of heavenly lens-flares added in post-production?

Captain Marvel [Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, 2019]:

Or is it this shot, of Samuel L. Jackson's dead-eyed, unnatural CGI head? A bizarre and questionable bit of cinematic hocus-pocus, which brings to mind the borderline immoral horrors of another of Disney's recent atrocities, the creepy "de-aged" Princess Leia from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), or worse, the digitally-rendered resurrection of long-dead actor Peter Cushing in the same film.

Or maybe it's whatever's happening in this shot – which apparently has no aesthetic value whatsoever.

I don't want it to seem as if I'm singling out Captain Marvel (2019) for unfair criticism here. In general I'm not the target audiences for these films, having realised very quickly that Marvel movies were not for me. However, the continuing popularity of such films among worldwide audiences makes them of particular significance when looking at the development of contemporary cinema. Marvel movies aren't just global blockbusters, they're frequently elevated by so-called professional critics to a level that now dominates the cultural discourse.

When I began writing this particular post, Captain Marvel was merely the latest instalment in the decade-long "franchise", and was generating the most attention across both mainstream and social media platforms. By the time I finish writing it, the next instalment, Avengers: Endgame (2019), will no doubt have grossed a billion dollars worldwide and garnered an unprecedented 99% critical consensus rating on the odious Rotten Tomatoes®. The world keeps turning.

While I'm not actively seeking to take anything away from the popularity of these films or besmirch the fan base in any malicious way, I do think the elevation of these movies among professional critics to the level of serious art is incredibly strange, especially since so many of these Marvel movies are mediocre, unchallenging and entirely formulaic. They're built around often incredibly conservative values, including the repeated framing of "goodness" and heroism as personified by beauty and/or physical perfection, and "evil" and villainy as personified by physical disfigurement, disability or the manifestation of the "other" (as in something alien; a safe Hollywood shorthand for "non-white/non-American.")

Worse, the films are increasingly reliant on jingoistic imagery that is pro-war and pro-military, with the worst offender, Iron Man (2008), setting-up an obvious proxy version of the Taliban in order to exploit the realities of the Iraq war and present its protagonist - billionaire weapons designer Tony Stark - as a kind of white (American) saviour. Given the context of Marvel's previous cinematic endeavours, I don't think it's an accident that several shots from the Captain Marvel trailer look as if they've been lifted from an Air Force recruitment video.

Iron Man [Jon Favreau, 2008]:

Commentary or exploitation? Iron Man as the American liberator; bringing peace to a Hollywood facsimile of the Middle-East through a particular brand of violent aggression; destroying entire cities but getting the job done! You can almost imagine parts of the film with the same soundtrack as Trey Parker's brilliantly satirical Team America: World Police (2004).

Captain Marvel [Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, 2019]:

Korean War Era US Air Force Recruitment Poster [Norman Rockwell, 1951]:

Captain Marvel meets the Air Force [Stephen Losey/Air Force Times, 2018]:

While once important films like The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Manhattan (1979) get cancelled for being "problematic", the propagandist or fascistic elements of the modern Marvel cinema pose no problems for the contemporary critic. Such people are content to suspend the same sense of moral outrage when faced with the latest Disney-backed offering; praising yet another identikit narrative about some physically and intellectually superior, American personified, military sponsored Übermensch, and their battles against a dehumanised alien oppressor who must be stopped, usually by means of destroying an entire city (with no human casualties?) and shooting a beam of light into the sky.

The same critics have similarly lowered the bar in terms of what passes for serious filmmaking. Marvel movies are at best competent, but they could also be described as bland, televisual and entirely reliant on conventional methods of coverage. The imagery, even at its most fantastical, is often boring and familiar; like an endless demo reel from a particular VFX company that keeps repeating itself. Unlike blockbusters of yesteryear, such as The Exorcist (1973), Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), etc, these Marvel movies provide no iconic imagery, their soundtracks are unmemorable and their characters lazily coast off the legacy of an available source material. The entire look and feel of Marvel's cinema is the result of a very strict house-style suggestive of committee-level filmmaking. Whether their films are directed by Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, Joss Whedon or others, they have a uniformity to them; a sense that their respective makers are not artists or auteurs, but brand guardians.

The Marvel films I've seen have been interchangeable, mechanical and devoid of aesthetic worth. They might thrill on a level of action and spectacle - they might even convince us that their characters have depth and personality because they drop a few quips or wisecracks from time to time - but so what? When the result is a cinema that feels as if it's being created by an artificial intelligence system, predicted by various market-research algorithms and rendered before our very eyes, shouldn't those that position themselves as the gatekeepers of popular culture be asking for something more?

Avengers 2: Age of Ultron [Joss Whedon, 2015]:

The above images are part of a single shot taken from Avengers 2: Age of Ultron (2015). In the vulgar parlance, this frame is effectively the "money shot"; it's the moment when all the heroes come together to flex their superior might. In context, it could be exciting, even awe-inspiring, but looked at as an aesthetic object, or as a piece of craftsmanship, it's dreadful; the incompetence of this imagery is overwhelming. Compare this absolutely ridiculous visual to any of the great images from the classic blockbuster cinema of the past fifty years and it starts to feel as if the bar for critical approval has never been lower. If a film containing such a moment of complete cinematic kitsch can be acclaimed by the majority of professional reviewers as if somehow comparable to the Odessa steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin (1925), the confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) or the Tyrannosaurus attack scene in Jurassic Park (1993), then it's safe to assume that the rules of the game have been rigged.

Obviously audiences aren't wrong to enjoy these films, but when you have images that are as tasteless, impersonal and disorganised as the ones shown here, isn't it the responsibility of the critic to hold such works to a higher standard? A film practically engineered to appeal to the widest possible audience and guaranteed to generate billions in revenue doesn't need the fawning adoration of people who could use their platform to celebrate innovation and risk in the popular cinema, instead of falling on it like an angry mob (as if they're forced to play the defensive for an already bulletproof corporate entity that demands total industry dominance.)

Case in point, Glass (2019) by M. Night Shyamalan. A superhero movie that not only attempts to deconstruct and demystify the conventions of the genre in a visually expressive, almost experimental way, but a film that also acts as a kind of clarion call against the jaded disaffection of the modern world under the presidency of Donald J. Trump. At a time of great cynicism and widening divides between every stratum of society, Glass is a hopeful and optimistic film about giving power back to the powerless, rejecting corporate hegemony and recognising that the people we see as the monsters in society (the "broken", the sick, the disabled) are often the victims of a system that facilitates conformity and social exclusion. Of course, faced with a film that wilfully disregards the popular narrative and refuses to satisfy the all important expectations of genre, or "brand", the critics hated it; and yet Glass remains a fascinating, personal and uniquely cinematic work.

Glass [M. Night Shyamalan, 2019]:

Glass, which received 36% among critics on the aforementioned Rotten Tomatoes - compared to 80% for Captain Marvel and 75% for Avengers 2 - is not a film without flaws. The first twenty-minutes are front-loaded with enough action and plot machinations to sustain an entire feature - which creates a comparative feeling of inertia during the more talkative and claustrophobic second act - and it occasionally feels unfocused; attempting to tie up a trilogy's worth of plot-lines while also maintaining its own narrative thread. Compared to its predecessors, the landmark Unbreakable (2000) and the excellent Split (2017), Glass is the weakest of the three films. However, it's also a work that attempts to explore ideas and emotions that other, more mainstream superhero movies, would see as surplus to requirement.

The popular criticisms of Glass among professional reviewers include the film's lack of action, its intimate scale and an over-reliance on a single location. None of these criticisms are actually negative in nature unless we're actively comparing the film, unfavourably, to the standards of what came before; specifically, Marvel's product (and why would critics consciously do this, unless part of an agenda?). The cardinal sin that Shyamlan committed was to make a superhero movie that didn't conform to the popular paradigm; his auteurist leanings and commitment to lower-budgeted cinema was an affront to the corporate ideology that mainstream critics now work to promote.

Unbreakable [M. Night Shyamalan, 2000]:

Turning the comic book movie upside-down; Unbreakable is a film that predicted the trend for self-serious superhero cinema by almost a decade. Dismissed by short-sighted critics at the time as little more than "The Sixth Sense Part II", Shyamalan's film is now a key text in the evolution of the sub-genre; it's arguably the Blade Runner (1982) of the modern superhero movie.

Like much of Shyamalan's cinema, Glass is a film about self-acceptance and empowerment; about rejecting the narrative that's created by governments, corporations and bullies, and instead recognising our own abilities and the characteristics that make us different. It's a hopeful film about communities coming together through grief to create a positive social force. Given the present political landscape and the conversations about self-identity - the attitude of expressing one's own truth, best epitomised by the song "This Is Me" from The Greatest Showman (2017) - it's difficult to think of a more relevant film in the context of the current zeitgeist.

Instead of elevating the hundred-million dollar corporate product that idolises the military war machine and makes heroes out of an embodiment of physical and intellectual perfection, would it not be more beneficial to the cinema, if not society, to elevate and reward the personal, self-financed film that questions the intentions of large corporations and, in its final moments, makes heroes out of characters placed in a mental hospital and demonised as monsters? Would it not be to the betterment of the popular cinema if, instead of rewarding conformity and/or denigrating eccentricity, professional critics were expected to call out films that present monoform or uninteresting aesthetics, and to praise the films and filmmakers that take personal risks?

For me, the popular cinema in 2019 should be aspiring to something closer to Shyamalan's recent work than the mediocrities of Marvel. It should be striving to put on screen images that are intelligently framed and composed with an eye for perspective, lines and texture; it should be aiming to use colour in a way that is expressive of emotions and ideas; it should be seeking to bring back the sheer spectacle of watching a great actor give a thrilling performance, where the physicality of the craft is its own special effect.