Friday, 16 November 2012

Seven Postmodern Pyschopaths

Seven Psychopaths is Postmodern. I might as well put that up front because it’s pretty much the most important thing to know about this movie. In fact, there might not be anything else to know about this movie beyond that statement. But we’ll get to that.

As with many classic ‘postmodern’ works, Seven Psychopaths really, really wants you to know that it is postmodern. It doesn’t so much as want to slap you round the face with it as to show you a brief short of the slapper musing on the fact that he’s showing you a short of him musing on showing you a short in a giant self-referential arc that just leaves you slapping yourself and crying about the futility of life. While being filmed.

In the film, the point of all the postmodern posturing is a critique of Hollywood style action movies. The main character Marty (the same name as Director Martin McDonagh! OMG!), wants to write his in-film ‘Seven Psychopaths’ movie, but with less violence, and more musing on love and the meaning of life, much to the derision of his actually psychopathic friends. His struggles to introduce some literary pretension to the film form a frame for a series of very self-aware sequences replicating, and undercutting various action movie tropes as Marty’s screenplay overlaps with the film’s ‘real-world’ action. It’s a decent, if not entirely original idea, and occasionally, the film succeeds in its critique – one sequence in particular during a shootout between Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell with a jammed gun and some choice dialogue got a fair few laughs out of me.

But in general, the film simply ends up referencing, and acknowledging the flaws in action movies….and then falling foul of them anyway. Half way through the movie, Christopher Walken mentions to Marty that his female characters are basically sexist caricatures, with no real characterization. Marty seems to partially acknowledge this….but thereafter no female characters actually appear again in the movie. Admittedly most have been killed off by this point – which kind of underlines the problem. 

The same problem occurs with racism. The word ‘Nigger’ is thrown around loosely by all characters, and while several black characters appear, they are self admittedly caricatures and stereotypes. This is partially acknowledged throughout, with Christopher Walken, when retelling his story (told incompletely by Marty earlier in the film) pointing out, ‘Our daughter was black. Don’t think you mentioned that’.  But, and this is presumably not coincidental, every single one of the black characters are also women, and so are either dead by this point, or superfluous to the storyline (such as one exists beyond the director’s indulgences).

So this isn’t a critique of action movies as such, it’s just an action movie that knows it’s an action movie (with some added bro-love), that wants to thrust its action movie-ness in front of you and shout ‘Look at me, I’m an action-cum-buddy-movie! Aren’t action movies full of senseless violence, and unthinking racism and sexism! Hahaha! Look at me kill this woman while calling her a cunt, and laugh about how sexist that is!’

But that’s not undermining the tropes of action movies. It’s not even criticizing them. It’s acknowledging them, and, at least in the case of the audience in my screening, getting cheap laughs out of them. The nadir for me was the fact that when Christopher Walken’s character, in a last ditch attempt at some depth in the film, refers to the self-immolation of the Buddhist monks in Vietnam, the audience, by this point immune to violence having been made to chuckle through several self-referential sequences already, continued their laughter through the image of a monk setting himself alight in the streets of Saigon.

At that point you have to sit back, and ask, is the use of postmodern techniques to critique action movies sufficiently strong that it outweighs the fact that your postmodern techniques have so detached the viewer from the reality of what he’s viewing that any act of violence, however real and awful, becomes a subject for amusement? Ummm no. In fact, the answer is always no –playing an actual real world tragedy for laughter is just plain wrong in any circumstance. And so you come back to the old critique of post modernism for post modernism’ sake, and the problems of unthinkingly pulling out stylistic quirks without actually considering the point.

That point, made most eloquently by David Foster Wallace in his essay “E Unibus Pluram” is that postmodernism risks becoming a damaging and alienating farce, a series of self-referential winks and irony that lifts the audience from its immersion in the film in order to show them the workings of the film but with no actual purpose beyond shouting ‘Look, it’s me, the director! Writing a film about writing this film!’ The stylistic quirks take over and are indulged for indulgence’s sake, so that the writer can bask in his own awesomeness, rather than because it suits the story, or the audience. Essentially, if you’re going to go postmodern, you’d better have a damn good reason for it.

Unfortunately that isn’t a new critique, because postmodernism itself is hardly new or original anymore. It’s old news. Thomas Pynchon wrote Gravity’s Rainbow in the 70s, and it wasn’t even an original conceit then. Even in films, Charlie Kaufmann’s ‘Adaptation’ (which essentially executes a similar idea to Seven Psychos, but with a bit more imagination) was done 10 years ago. The sad thing is that this basic warning about the dangers of postmodern style, repeated over and over by innumerable critics, is still ignored by directors and screenwriters obsessed with their own awesomeness, and the awesomeness of their own industry.

So, what you’re left with is a film which fails to tell a sensitive intelligent story about a writer’s failed attempts to write a sensitive intelligent story. It’s the perfect self-referential, postmodern loop of failure. Not even failure with style, but failure through style.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The Spy who threw a Batarang at me.

Christopher Nolan has a lot to answer for. Read any review of the new Bond movie, and I’ll bet 50% will reference the Dark Knight. Whether you think this is a positive or a negative, everyone seems to agree that the new Bond is basically Batman without the Bat.

What that essentially seems to mean, is that rather than Bond being the wisecracking charmer who kills or shags everything in sight…he’s the wisecracking charmer who kills or shags everything in sight. Except now we’re supposed to muse on Bond’s motivations and his inner demons while he’s doing it.  What both New Bond and New Batman actually share in common is the desire to take an essentially unrealistic character, and then to target their unrealistic and unsavory characteristics through some heavy introspection…and then have them win anyway through some ridiculously unrealistic plot. It’s basically having your cake and eating it. You still get the sexism, the casual, fascistic violence and the foiling of ridiculous plots through ridiculous means, but because Bond seems actually traumatized and compromised by all of this, it’s a deep and meaningful piece of serious film making.

This is, obviously, bullshit. It’s still a sexist, fascistic and unrealistic film, and the fact that Bond still wins for no other reason than being Bond means that being a sexist violent psychopath is never actually a problem. But while you might be able to forgive a film like that if it happily aims at nothing more than titillating your baser impulses (and I do like old Bond, and many other casual throwaway thrillers), the rules are a bit different if you’re trying to be taken seriously. If you’re going to make a ‘serious’ or ‘realistic’ Bond (or Batman) you have to open yourself up to ‘serious’ or ‘realistic’ criticism. And neither character is ever going to stand up to that scrutiny.

So I completely understand my friends’ feelings (summed up by David Mitchell HERE) that they miss the escapism of the wisecracking light hearted Bonds. So it might come as a surprise to learn that…..I still enjoyed Skyfall.

Why? Well, for the same reason I actually enjoyed the Dark Knight (the other two films were pretty awful). Because of the villain. Javier Bardem is menacingly charismatic and totally twisted, and he makes the film. Not only because, as the villain he can openly revel in the violence and abuse in a way that the new serious Bond can’t, but because he openly mocks the whole notion of Bond in the film.

From the constantly resigned exasperation as Bond escapes again through some ridiculously implausible act of physical daring, to the last frustrated growl as he finally succumbs at the end, Bardem’s villain is one who knows his place. He knows how the film has to end, with Bond on top, and finds this as dreary a possibility as the audience. Scenes such as his grand entrance to the final sequence in a helicopter blasting out ‘Boom Boom’ are exactly the kind of ridiculous, over the top campness that Bond used to excel at. The fact that every move like this is countered by the new, surly, aging Bond causes appropriate levels of irritation to him, and to some extent undercut and counterbalance the pretensions of new ‘serious’ Bond.

For many people this won’t be enough. Bardem alone doesn’t quite balance Craig’s brooding, and you still have the sexism and pointless ultra-violence thing to deal with. But just like the Joker in the Dark Knight, he provides enough charismatic turns to lighten the load of an otherwise overlong film.

But, I’ll leave you with a happy thought, at least we can be grateful that of all his films Nolan’s influence seems to have come from the Dark Knight. Just imagine what the Bond equivalent of the Dark Knight Rises would be…..

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

SlutWalking and Institutionalised Sexism

I had thought the SlutWalk phenomenon to be a fairly uncontroversial protest, however it seems I was being hopelessly naive. An acquaintance recently posted this article on the Slutwalk‘phenomenon’ on Facebook. It reads like a rant, and, let’s face it, it’s in the Telegraph which is rarely a source of enlightened debate in my experience, but having been challenged on why exactly I dislike the piece, I thought I’d attempt to deconstruct it in rather more depth than Facebook allows.  

My challenger has already pointed out what he thinks the key argument of the piece is, that “how you appear socially affects how people react to you in a social context”. This certainly seems to be the argument used in the article, with the extension being that the Slutwalk campaigners can thus be criticised for not realising the realities of social interaction, and of equating rape with unwanted sexual advances, which, it is implied, are a natural consequence of the way in which you choose to dress. It’s difficult to argue with this - unfortunately that is indeed the way our society works, and there’s an unfortunate correlation between inches of cleavage and amounts of bum fondles a girl gets. The problem I have with the article is the implicit assumption that this reality is in any way acceptable or not worthy of condemnation.

To take the original point then, “that how you appear socially affects how people react to you in a social context”. The statement is noticeable for not mentioning gender, an unusual fact given that this argument is engaging in an openly gendered debate. Because already, here is the flaw, the blinkered denial of sexism. The statement ignores that the way people react to you in a social context is shaped not simply by how you appear, but by your gender, and perceptions of gender. Judgments on how sexually available one is by what you are wearing, are also, essentially, gendered assumptions. A topless man in a club is not immediately judged as being sexually available, nor is one who is swinging his penis around. Why should it mean a woman is sexually available if she engages in equivalent actions?

Just because women know the norms of society, and know that dressing ‘sluttily’ is going to attract attention does not imply that these norms do not deserve to challenged. Who decided what ‘sluttily’ meant? Who decided the definition of attractive, or available women? Such social norms are a product of essentially sexist society (and I say that as a straight male). Those who would rather claim biology should examine topless tribal women in Africa or South America and study the social norms of propriety in those cultures to note that such definitions are not biologically determined.

Another commenter (male) on the same Facebook thread went so far as to suggest that these protesters are anti-feminist, in that they deny women the right to have casual sex. Excuse me while I scream slightly into my pillow. NO! Jesus mother fucking Christ. So, the protesters, by asserting the right to wear what they like without being subject to socialised sexism, are denying themselves access to casual sex? Because casual sex is impossible outside of women dressing attractively? These protests are not anti-feminist, they are extremely pro-feminist, in that they are a challenge to deeply embedded sexist assumptions within society. The anti-feminist attitude is to pretend such assumptions do not exist, or that they are biologically determined.

In response then, to the argument over social appearance dictating social reaction, does the author, and those who agree with him, really imagine that those social reactions are fair, non-discriminatory or non-sexist? That they do not deserve to be challenged? Note, this is not about finding women attractive when they dress attractively; it is about perceiving that in the context of sexual availability, of denying women the ability to dress how they please, feel how they please, without social judgements. This may be unrealistic, but that is no reason to condemn an essentially admirable aim.

If I am required to address the article itself, one can take this statement as a typical misunderstanding of the point: “Yet that is what some SlutWalkers seem to be demanding: effectively the right to dress provocatively without ever being looked at, commented on, whistled at or spoken to by a member of the opposite sex.”

No, SlutWalkers are demanding the right to dress the way they feel like, without it being perceived as provocative. They are debating the very definition of ‘provocative’. There is no objection to interaction with men; there is simply an objection to being defined by appearance. If male interaction is simply limited to flirtatious comments to a ‘provocatively’ dressed woman then us males are a rather sad and unsophisticated lot.

Again, to address the article more precisely, Mr O’Neil actually ends reinforcing the SlutWalk argument. That argument being that the norms of society are sexist, and there is a culture which supports those norms. The SlutWalkers are making an extreme statement, to end an extreme problem. That the author refuses to see that those norms are essentially sexist (and belittles the protesters for pointing this out to him) is, sadly, making their point perfectly.

Finally, there seems to be much criticism focused on a perceived overreaction to the incident which began the 'SlutWalk'. That being that a policeman suggested that women would not be such obvious targets for rape if they dressed more appropriately. This is not an overreaction to that comment, because it isnt even a reaction, it is a reaction against institutionalised, socialised sexism, a reaction sparked off by that comment, but certainly not limited to it. I quote one of the founders of the phenomenon: "SlutWalk was a reaction to not one officer’s remark, but to a history that was doomed to keep repeating". Unfortunately, the article quoted, and many other examples, are simply continuing to repeat that history by not addressing, or even acknowledging, the inherent sexism within society.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Article at Hurriyet Daily

Non-comics related though it may be, I've just had a joint article on the Egyptian economy published on Hurriyet Daily, one of the leading Turkish newspapers.

Its an expanded version of an analytical briefing I did as part of my work for AKE, and while its not exactly Op-Ed worthy, I think its still fairly interesting!

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Footnotes in Oral History - Guest post at the Hooded Utilitarian

Noah Berlatsky at the Hooded Utilitarian recently asked me to write a guest post about Joe Sacco, the pioneering graphic-journalist. I'm still getting to grips with this comics criticism, but here it is, a look at Sacco's 'Footnotes in Gaza', and basically at the issues I see in his historiography.

Noah and Bert have also added a few very interesting comments which place my less educated impressions within the theoretical context of post-structuralism in general, and Lacan in particular, which certainly adds a layer of intellectual sophistication to things!

Monday, 16 May 2011

Unfortunate Relevance of Superheroes: Neil Gaiman

Rules are made to be broken. I like my previous plan about exploring the comics canon, but the thing is, Neil Gaiman recently wrote an episode of Doctor Who which screened on Saturday. Doctor Who is definitely a guilty pleasure for me, its generally cheaply, if charmingly, made, with an even blend of witty and cheesy banter, and a storyline, unsurprisingly, that seems written for a ten year old. Because it is. But for an overgrown child like myself, its still just FUN, and Gaiman's episode was certainly the most entertaining thing I'd seen in a while. Don't judge me too harshly, its exam time.

But who on earth is Neil Gaiman? Well, as everyone apart from me seems to know, he wrote 'Sandman', a series of comics very, very, loosely based within the DC superhero universe, and which, you might point out, is definitely not in the TCJ's comics canon. Yeah, fine, but its still pretty acclaimed, its been recommended to me by several people, and its my blog. So, in the lovely cuddly aftermath of Doctor Who lets take a look at these here 'Sandman' comics.

It'd be a brave man who summarised this lot in a few hundred words, there's a lot of themes here, (ImageText ran this article on the sexual politics in the comics for instance), but if I had to pick up one constant theme in this lot, it would be that of belief. Gaiman's comics are ostensibly about the anthropomorphic personification of the concept 'Dream', the pantheon of entities which accompany Dream, and the relationships between the two worlds, our world of reality, and the world of myth and representation which Dream inhabits. And these connections are the important bit. In Gaiman's universe its all about perception, humans bind themselves to hell by believing they should be punished, the world can be remade by dreaming, and old gods die (and new ones emerge) through the power of human belief. It generally reminds me of 'The History of God' by Karen Armstrong which I've just finished reading. The point in that book being that throughout history God has become what he was required to be by the people of the place and moment. Our Gods then, are simply extensions of our beliefs and characteristics, and thus in Sandman, Gaiman can use his personifications to look back at humankind and its deeper mysteries.

Its not an original conceit, but Gaiman executes it quite nicely. Unfortunately, he arguably falls afoul of another point raised in Armstrong's book, which is that throughout the history of religion, there has been a tension between the depiction of God as vast, unknown and sublime, and the personification of God with human characteristics. Essentially, the first impulse towards God comes from the sublime, yet people require personification to feel appeal; however by doing so, they lose the essence of what the word 'God' was attempting to describe in the first place.

The problem becomes apparent in Gaiman's works; by anthropomorphising concepts of the human psyche, you essentially simplify and caricature those concepts. You may object that Dream and the rest of Gaiman's pantheon are quite complex characters, yet this misses the point, their personalities are simply human personalities imposed through anthropomorphism onto abstract concepts. That those concepts and their complexities are of interest to art and artists is undeniable, yet any attempt to portray them as characters essentially fails to grasp the enormity of each one. The representations of the characters impose characteristics which should not exist, and remove ones which should. You cannot fully contemplate or philosophise about death when death is a pretty girl in skinny jeans grinning at you. All representation simplifies, but the best representation hints rather than reveals, it allows the reader to muse on a concept and impose their own complexities upon it. Gaiman's approach is by necessity less subtle. 

Gaiman seems to try and address the issue, his human characters frequently express astonishment and amazement at the complexities of Dream and his family, yet this simply creates a greater disparity between that which we see on the page, and what it is we are clearly supposed to see. So the problem remains, the tension between the complexities of life and human experience which Gaiman wants to explore, and the overly simplistic representations on which he relies.

It is no surprise then that 'Sandman' works best when it focuses on the humans themselves, when it tells short parables of experience, such as the man who lives forever and meets Dream every hundred years for a pint and a chat, or the man who is made to believe himself emperor of America, and desires nothing beyond this, despite his life as a street bum. Here, arguably, Gaiman comes closest to transcending his clever quirks of style and representation and making something worthy of inclusion in my canon. But it never comes regularly enough, and seems almost accidental when it does. Ultimately then, just as I wouldn't put 'Doctor Who' in the same category as 'The Wire' in terms of television, I have to admit I can't really place Gaiman alongside the likes of Chris Ware or Alan Moore in terms of comics. TCJ, we, rather worryingly, agree again.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Unfortunate Relevance of Superheroes: Canon time!

There's been a rather aggressive debate on the Hooded Utilitarian this last week about canon and canonicity. Without getting too involved, it boils down to a debate between those who favour including historically relevant comics, which includes embarrassing superhero comics, in the 'canon', so far as there is one, and those who would want to form a canon based entirely on artistic merit, thus focusing largely on modern, clever, generally awesome Alt comics. Its a big complicated subject which many intelligent people have argued slightly uncivilly about on the blog, and there's a fair bit of room inbetween the two extremes. However, on a personal level, in my 'personal canon', I'd tend more towards keeping things at an artistic level. Not because I'm artistic or anything, but because I'm a tiny bit pretentious like that.

That said, it's made me reconsider what I was doing when I decided to do this 'Unfortunate Relevance' series of posts. As I laid out in the first post, I wanted to look at superhero comics, which are pretty historically relevant to Alt comics, and see if I could find artistic value within them, to find if any of them have anything to offer other than simply teaching good draftsmanship to more artistic creators. See the (utterly unintentional) connection? What I'm basically doing is re-evaluating the 'historically relevant' canon to judge how much of it would make my own 'artistic' canon. In this light then, my previous post could (honestly) be read as concluding that Miller wouldn't make the cut, but implying Moore would. Cos he's better.

With that in mind, I thought I'd approach things slightly differently. Rather than blindly muddling through recommendations from the few friends I have who give a flying one about the comics medium, I'm going to look at The Comics Journal's 'official' canon. I think the consensus on the HU comments has been that this is a list compiled by a bunch of overgrown, be-spotted fanboys with 'I'm the motherfucking Batman' T-shirts, but I feel its a good enough place to start. I'm going to have a look at this list, ignore their influence or historic relevance (which won't be hard as I have almost no knowledge of comics history), and judge them by the standards by which I judge any book, music or YouTube clip. So there's no allowances made for time period, or innovation within comics, if its not as good as any of Joseph Conrad or Jorge Luis Borges' stories, not as affecting as “Maus” or as intriguing as “Blankets”, its gone, dismissed as tedious escapist tripe not far removed from Big Brother. Harsh words, but we play for big prizes.

P.S Interestingly, note the lack of any Frank Miller on that canon, but the plethora of Alan Moore books. At least I can agree with TCJ on that.