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.