Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Wanna Fight? Only God Forgives and Violent Myth-Making

When Drive came out in 2011, it seemed like Nicolas Winding Refn had finally escaped the cult-director ghetto where his early films had left him—here was a movie that spoke English, with trans-Atlantic star power and a mise-en-scene that shrewdly courted relevance by evoking the 80s after a decade of Reagan hagiographies and synthpop. Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan humanized its austere storyline, and for the first time Refn's penchant for gore felt like something out of Tarantino—that is, acceptably campy—rather than the ritualistic violence of Bronson and Valhalla Rising. Drive gave the impression that Refn was ready to make truly great films, rather than the niche-market gorefests of his early career.

But the critics have not been kind to Only God Forgives. The prevailing opinion is that Refn has gotten egotistical, that the success of Drive has convinced him he's a genius, and that, like Fellini before him, he's done the worst thing a respected art filmmaker can do: he's indulged himself. Ty Burr at the Boston Globe writes that it's "the kind of remarkable disaster only a very talented director can make after he finds success and is then allowed to do whatever he wants." "Very talented," in this case, is pejorative—Only God Forgives is a bloated, preachy, unbalanced mess, visually inventive but shrill, self-absorbed, and affected to the point of childishness. More to the point, though, it's inhuman.

Virtually every critic shares this last sentiment, and it's the point where we can see most clearly the laziness and dogmatism that color critical discussion of the film. Almost universally, critics of Only God Forgives predicate their criticism on a familiar argument from tradition—the humanist insistence that a work feature only characters who appear as complex and nuanced as actual people. Sometimes they slip consciously or unconsciously into a degraded form of this idea, the equally familiar insistence that a work feature at least a handful of "sympathetic" characters. In every case, they adamantly refuse to consider the movie on its own aesthetic terms; the reviews read like defenses of their own criteria more than evaluations of the movie itself.
In the New York Times, Stephen Holden starts his review by calling Kristen Scott Thomas's character "The closest thing to a human character in Nicolas Winding Refn's blood-drenched, nihilistic reverie Only God Forgives." "Nihilistic" might or might not be a good descriptor for the movie, but Holden never returns to it, and the word expresses nothing more than blank distaste. In Variety, Peter Debruge writes, "Audiences need clues as to what the character is feeling if they're to invest anything in his journey. Does [Julian] care that his brother has died? Is he intimidated by or merely obedient to his mother?" The first sentence is a writing workshop clichĂ©, repeated like catechism. Our need to invest something in his journey is apparently a self-evident truth, and this makes ambiguity an artistic demerit. In the Star Tribune, Colin Covert writes, "The film takes every audience desire and willfully breaks it over a knee." (Maybe it would be better if it broke every audience desire over a knee by mistake?) He later faults the movie for refusing to stage the film's fight scenes with "ingenious daredevil feats," for refusing to give us "the irresponsible thrills we're hoping for"—the implication being that a film is good or bad to the extent that it satisfies or doesn't satisfy audience desires.

The reviews go on more or less unbroken like this—complaints about the movie's pace, its humorlessness, even about how little Ryan Gosling smiles. In almost every case the reviews take vague concepts like "sympathetic characters" as the tenets of good filmmaking, which reveals a disappointing double standard in mainstream film criticism. How would a critic who judged movies based on snappy pacing and likable heroes deal with Monte Hellman? Or Andrei Tarkovsky? Or Jean-Luc Godard, for that matter? It's easy to imagine the reviews—"For all its visual flair, Godard's film is hamstrung. Why? Because we simply don't know who Michel and Patricia are. They never begin to seem like real people, and so it's hard to care when Michel is gunned down." Nobody with any experience has written a review like that since 1959, in part because Breathless's status as a art movie means we're inclined to give it a second chance. No reviewer would earnestly call Kubrick or Pasolini pretentious without a careful argument to back it up. Glib dismissal is only acceptable when the work in question is understood to be essentially Low, the kind of work that wouldn't stand up to sustained inquiry anyway. Only God Forgives, obviously, is understood to be this kind of movie—a failed attempt at art by a talented schlock director who ought to get back to the bloodbaths he does best. Of course, there were dozens of critics who attacked Breathless for its lack of organic characters when it came out, most of them conservative defenders of the Tradition of Quality. It's an important connection to keep in mind, because Only God Forgives is as much a pastiche as anything from the New Wave, and the critical response to it is as inadequate as it was to Breathless.

One of the insights of the New Wave was that if Hollywood composed its movies with a system of what amounted to myths—genres, tropes and stock characters—then parodies of those myths were the best way to overturn a stagnant film culture. Characters were deliberately shallow, referring directly to their archetypal roles without attempts at depth. Godard and Truffaut made genre movies about genre; it would be absurd to suggest that Refn doesn't do the same. What differentiates Only God Forgives, and what makes it the logical continuation of Drive, is render the parody infinitely murkier and more frightening. The movie takes movie archetypes—Ryan Gosling's self-reliant American, Kristin Scott Thomas's doting mother—to pure, nightmarish extremes, extremes that reveal their psychosis and, more often than not, their shabbiness. Critics who find fault with "mythic" undertones are missing half the movie; myth doesn't elevate Refn's characters, it demeans them. His characters are at their worst when they're inhabiting a role that might, in another movie, make them "sympathetic." 

When Julian plays the cool badass, Chang beats him meticulously to a pulp, which makes the Joseph Gordon Levitt ensemble he's just doffed look laughable. The revelation of Crystal's total ineffectuality makes her notorious dining room speech sound like Blanche DuBois myth-making. Even Chang's ritualistic murders are followed by campy karaoke numbers, presided over by a hilariously stone-faced group of cops. If there's anything really sadistic about Nicolas Winding Refn, it's his dedication to iconoclasm. In his world, where people form their identities by assuming whatever role is at hand, there's no part available that isn't vicious, or paranoid, or pathetic; people are isolated, warped and crushed by the myths they use to constitute themselves.

Only God Forgives, like Pierrot le fou, Investigation of a Citizen Above All Suspicion, Mulholland Drive, Watchmen, and dozens of other works, is a reductio ad absurdum of these myths. Accusations of humorlessness are highly exaggerated—this movie is a satire as much as anything else. Insofar as myths encompass concepts like "sympathetic character," and insofar as they coalesce to create audience expectations, Only God Forgives is also a reductio ad absurdum of sympathetic characters and audience expectations. The critical consensus is that this basic premise is wrong, which amounts to nothing more than a defense of the status quo. It ought to be obvious that while it's a critic's prerogative to take issue with a film's execution, it's lazy at best, and dogmatic at worst, to dismiss its raison d'ĂȘtre. 

David Edelstein's review of the film for Vulture is a good note to end on. In the first paragraph, Edelstein gives a straw reading of the film as a mythic melodrama, gives himself a few points to refute, and then breezes through three paragraphs of shallow jokes, during which he refutes none of them. The film is pompous and bloated, and presumably wouldn't stand up to sustained inquiry anyway. He ponders whether Ryan Gosling can see in the dark and calls the karaoke numbers "Lynch with none of the Lynchian frissons," which is not a good sentence to use if you're accusing something of pomposity. In the final paragraph he compares Only God Forgives to Christopher Nolan. Ironically, Nolan's tedious mythologizing, and the pseudofascist heroes he's inflicted on us, are probably the most obvious of Only God Forgives's targets. Edelstein, and everyone else, seem perfectly comfortable with mythologizing itself, in spite of their token objections to Nolan's work. Either that or they've lost their sense of humor. Why so serious?

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Empty Tourist: Lost In Translation and Narrative Alienation

In Obama's Dreams From My Father, he wrote:
To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist Professors and the structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets.We smoked cigarettes and wore leather jackets.At night,in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Frantz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy.When we ground out our cigarettes in the hallway carpet or set our stereos so loud that the walls began to shake, we were resisting bourgeois society's stifling constraints. We weren't indifferent or careless or insecure. We were alienated.
This paragraph, undoubtedly written with a wry and knowing smile, encapsulates a common liberal vision of subculture. If you are rebelling against the "system", it's because you're having troubles dealing with your own problems. These problems may be serious or (more likely) superfluous, but being outside of the mainstream is more about what you are ("expressively") as an individual than any sort of larger statement about the conditions that gave rise to what you are.  Ironically, a famous populist radical put this idea best: "Maybe there ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue, they's just what people does. Some things folks do is nice and some ain't so nice, and that's all any man's got a right to say."

This sort of folksy, sighing rhetoric is pleasant enough as a sort of humanist palliative, the kind of thing that lets us put the book down and go back to our lives, but it buys comforting cliche at the cost of detail. Moreover, the sentiment itself isn't universal. It's born of a certain set of very modern values.

In Lost in Translation we meet two characters, a recent college graduate named Charlotte and a washed-up actor named Bob, adrift in a foreign land. They're both worried about the same things in different ways;  about their respective marriages (new and old), kids, and the deep, hollow aimlessness that they feel stuck in with no agenda in Japan.  Rather than coming off insightful or wise, this feels like a performance of intimacy,  even set against the intended background of "phony" performances that Bob executes with a grimace as a part of his advertising and PR work.  Down underneath the shifting structure of our social duties, Bob and Charlotte tell us, we're all the same kids at the core.  We have common fears, common hopes, and our own little quirks. We're supposed to the see the parallel; two points of the "cycles of life" that come close to one another in the null environment of Tokyo, uniting two people that would otherwise remain strangers to one another. 

This is a compelling line and it's delivered beautifully, but the environment that Bob and Charlotte find themselves in and how they react to it says far more about them than any of their intimate, confessional scenes.  Much of the film depicts Charlotte and Bob wandering in the vast confines of Tokyo. Presumably Tokyo was picked because it is an eminently modern city; despite Charlotte's foray into a Buddhist temple (she feels nothing after) much of the scenery could fit in somewhere between Midtown and Vegas.  For a majority of the movie they could be in any city they don't understand.  Just as we have common fears, hopes, and our own little quirks, the most modern parts of our mega-cities share a cosmopolitan sameness flavored with individual kitschy touches of history.  This is supposed to be a sort of calming realization; a city is just a city just as a person is just a person. It's our common human construction, going back to the dawn of civilization. And, in the hands of Bob and Charlotte, both aimless and both having no apparent monetary concerns, the city becomes a playground.  

Debord wrote in Society of the Spectacle that capitalism was a coagulation.  Like Adorno before him, Debord thought that the specific historical nature of human reason in each period had its own dynamics that worked dialectically.  More specifically, he believed that this dialectical process was slowed by capitalism to the point of arrest.  He thought that our culture was a continual excretion of this arrested process; the modern explosion of fractured narratives was a sort of distorted snapshot of the real material conditions that were the stalled engine of historical progress.  This image of abstract individuals fed back into the dialectical material conditions that were its original basis and continued to slow them down.  Things and people were caught up in a narrative feedback loop that kept them from moving forward.  And the monolithic capitalist city was a physical manifestation of this vicious cycle. 

Though  Lost In Translation doesn't make claims that are this bold or pessimistic, it does recognize that the situation of being a tourist in a large city is a very special one. When you visit Tokyo or New York City or London without an agenda, it turns into a sort of theme park.  All of the compaction that is part and parcel of individual lives in the cramped confines of a city becomes unreal and difficult to penetrate when we don't have a structured interest in the specific details of it.  This is because the public space of a city is excessive, abstract, and impersonal. People who live in it successfully know how to draw off what they need from the excess of things that it offers while maintaining their internal agenda. The unstructured tourist, on the other hand, sees the day-to-day activities of the city for what they are; in the crowds of people they don't know, they see the bare, depersonalized flow of desires and needs that undergirds human individuality.  This can give us insight into what makes a place a tourist attraction; in the faceless slush of the day to day life of the city the most successful activities and locations manage to bring in the most tourists because they have some sort of grounding individuality.  This individuality is commonly historical (Ellis Island), prestigious (Carnegie Hall) and/or extreme (The Empire State Building).

Analogous narratives of individuality and its accompanying security attract Charlotte and Bob to their common stories.  Their stories (marriage, children, career) function like tourist attractions; these historically meaningful narratives provide them with bulwarks against the ego-annihilating buzz of Tokyo.  However, their invocation of these stories to protect themselves also brings into stark relief their failure to measure up to the stories' abstract standards.  Their ennui simultaneously protects them from the harsh alien environment and makes them into self-involved and unaware tourists.  However, we shouldn't think that this failure is some sort of radical deviance from the way these narratives are supposed to work; Charlotte and Bob are exactly what these stories are supposed to produce.  In response to the inhuman whir of Tokyo, they have achieved the modern dream of individuality and self-sufficiency, which is exactly the dream of the isolated, unchanging observer.  The reason that Bob and Charlotte can share their uniform and childlike hopes and dreams is not because they both have a lot in the common human condition, but because they've come through these stories to the same place; they both manage to maintain an identity by constantly failing in comparison to something that will never change. With only the abstract conflict and structure of narratives to limit them, they float free from everything else, wading around in the bewildering, austere, and meaningless beauty that comes with being a tourist. 

The worry is that in the modern situation, we all want to be tourists. And we're going to get what we want.