Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Just Like the Movies

NB: This will be an exercise in spontaneity. I’m just going to jot all this out and not revise endlessly and hope it comes out semi-coherent. I know I should probably do more blog entries, but I have a propensity to work on massive pieces instead of a bunch of little ones. This will be a littler one, I think. It’s also about movies, which I swore I was going to go cold turkey on writing about, since I feel I write about them too much. But hopefully it will be about enough other things to be interesting to people who don’t care all that much about movies.

A couple things piqued my interest recently. One was the review of Iron Man 3 I read in the NYTimes on Friday. The reviewer, Manohla Dargis, doesn’t really review the movie so much as ruminate on its place in the world we inhabit. Or, more accurately, she judges its appropriateness. For her, the action scenes of the movie too readily recall the recent tragedy in Boston, and the villains perpetrating acts of domestic terrorism are too similar to real-life counterparts for the movie to work as the piece of pop escapism it so clearly wants to be. (In all fairness to Ms. Dargis, the movie didn’t seem to interest her much on a very basic level, so she had to find something to write about.) One gets the sense that Ms. Dargis has been offended on multiple levels; she starts out by complaining about the excessive explosions and gunfire, then criticizes what she interprets as the movie’s cavalier approach to the events of 9/11 (she mentions the infamous date no fewer than six times in the review). This blasé attitude toward such a traumatic event is borderline unconscionable to her. While Ms. Dargis doesn’t completely abjure the use of “9/11 evocations” (or whatever) in movies, she just doesn’t want the events used all willy-nilly, without thought or consideration. The review seems to be a rallying cry of sorts: If a movie refers to 9/11, Ms. Dargis propounds, the events that took place should be explored, addressed directly and truthfully and significantly, and not just “exploited.” (There’s actually a certain pathos to her plea, because what she’s really saying is “Why can’t they just make good art?”)

Ms. Dargis also mentions something that I finally decided to look up: A couple weeks ago Steven Soderbergh gave a speech at the San Francisco International Film Festival that has been generating a fair amount of buzz. It’s basically a “State of the Union” address about the film industry. He starts out by relating an anecdote about this guy he saw during a flight who watched nothing but the action scenes of a bunch of movies, skipping ahead to the “good” parts: the car chases, the climactic gunfight, etc. Mr. Soderbergh is understandably disturbed at what he is witnessing, which is basically the desecration of an art form he has dedicated most of his life to. He then half-rues, half-accepts the current reality of Hollywood funding, which is that they feel more comfortable bankrolling a $200 million movie with costumed superheroes than they are funding a “mid-level” $35 million feature about real human beings (viz. exactly the kind of movie Mr. Soderbergh makes). You can see why Ms. Dargis brought this speech up, since her own points dovetail nicely with Mr. Soderbergh’s (“Why can’t they just make good art?”).

I’m not without sympathy for the arguments of Mr. Soderbergh (it really does seem that movies like Being John Malkovich, for instance, would never get funded today) and Ms. Dargis (the terrorist videos in IM3 had a chilling and arguably unnecessary verisimilitude that was perhaps a little out of place), and I do think something’s been up since 9/11. But I think they might both be missing the mark a little. Putting aside the fact that terrorists and explosions and toppling structures and falling bodies have been around in summer popcorn movies for a while now, way before 9/11 (e.g. go ahead and Youtube the opening scenes of Armageddon), I don’t think the problem lies in disturbing imagery or violent content in movies. The problem lies with narrative and our relation to it.

During and immediately after the events of 9/11, there was a general consensus on what the day looked/felt like. You heard it over and over: “It was like a movie.” That always struck me as odd. After all, nothing I saw on TV that day looked like something from the movies I really love and respond to, movies like My Dinner with Andre or Annie Hall or Before Sunrise. I know that’s not what people were talking about, but without adding a qualifier (“action movie,” “summer movie”) it did make crystal clear the benighted level at which most people considered something to be “a movie.” (Experiment: After your next magical date, turn to the other person and say the night was “just like a movie.” If the blank stare lasts longer than 5 seconds, escape while you can.)

But so if after 9/11 we were stuck in a movie brought to life, it seems important to ask what kind of movie. Well, the only type of movie where that level of destruction and devastation occurs is the mega-blockbuster. We weren’t in a quiet little chamber piece. This was a prototypical big-budget disaster movie. And all mega-blockbusters have common elements: a dramatic opening scene, clearly delineated heroes and villains, obstacles ultimately overcome through perseverance and innate ability, and a final and all-encompassing triumph over evil. And we quickly accepted that this was the story we were in, largely because it offered solace when nothing else made much sense. If we were in a narrative where the World Trade Center towers came down, so be it, but we would see that the rest of the story unfolded as these kinds of stories always do: with struggle, retribution, and eventual victory.

There have not been a lot of good pieces of art that have directly “taken on” the events of 9/11. I can think of only two. One, the movie United 93, is a pretty straight-forward reenactment of what actually happened; the filmmakers realized that the truth held more than enough power without adding anything to it. The second is Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man. It’s about a man and a woman who escape the towers on that fateful day and cross paths in the subsequent weeks. One of the major points of the novel, delivered with consummate subtlety and skill, is something I think we all realize but find it hard to articulate: 9/11 imposed narrative on us, where before there was none. There was not just the overarching narrative involving our fight against the enemies of Freedom, but it also affected our quotidian narratives in the small ways it impinged on our daily low-key existence. From that point on our lives were inextricably wrapped up in a story not of our choosing. We were in that movie where bad guys were out there, blowing stuff up, killing our fellow citizens. A world where there were clearly defined good guys (us) and clearly defined bad guys (them). This was our collective narrative, whether we liked it or not. Some of us embraced it, but a fair number of us were deeply unsettled. And I don’t think we were disturbed solely by our internal debate about the morality of war, or the abuse of national power, or things like that. We were, on a deeper level, really unsettled at living in a narrative that traditionally had ironclad concepts of right and wrong, good and bad—a world where everything is black and white, just like a summer movie. We were unsettled because we know the world is never black and white, that things are never that simple. There are shades of gray, ambiguities, confusion, uncertainties, doubt—all the things anathema to a big-budget popcorn movie.

Now, we know we are not in a movie, even if the post-9/11 world seems like one (and some, scarily, have been convinced it is). Most of us know that the last thing the world resembles is a straight narrative. That’s where Ms. Dargis’s view starts to fall apart. It shouldn’t matter how many explosions are in a movie or how many times 9/11 is supposedly evoked, we know it’s not reality. And we know this not because there’s a guy with an iron suit flying around, but rather because credits pop up, a story is told, and more credits roll. This is not particularly faithful to how life is, particularly the ultimate beginning and ultimate end parts. (Sure, we as individuals experience beginnings and endings, but life goes on before and after, plus we don’t have the luxury of analyzing how it went after we reach our ending, sitting in a coffee shop with friends, teasing out themes, arguing about the plot.) Narrative is faker than any fantastic alien a CGI artist can come up with. We impose it on our selves, or other events do, if they’re big enough. But it is not how the world works. In a way, that guy on the plane was watching something much closer to reality than narrative features depict (for what is the 21st Century so far but a series of contextless explosions?).

I’m not saying narrative is worthless. Nor am I advocating a proliferation of non-narrative films. (Besides, even the most “non-narrative” film has a beginning and ending and something inbetween, which ultimately constitutes narrative, no matter how scrambled up it may seem when the lights go down. (As Jean-Luc Godard is purported to say, “A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order.”)) And I’m certainly not saying we should be the guy that just watches explosions. There are ways for art to engage meaningfully with these big concerns that both Ms. Dargis and Mr. Soderbergh seem to want movies to address, and something with a strong narrative will most likely turn out to be the artwork that does it. But we should probably stop expecting our art to be mimetic of the real world, or regarding a kind of simulacrumness as some gold standard for art. To paraphrase David Mamet, the goal of art shouldn’t be to recreate the conversation two people had on a bus this morning, the goal should be to have them say something better. Narrative is our chance to write, draw, film something better. Narrative can be edifying, illuminating, vital, important. But it shouldn’t be mistaken for life, and vice versa. Our lives are our own, and art resides outside, whether it’s an important cinematic masterpiece or just a dumb summer superhero flick. In the end, it’s all escapism.


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