You can’t watch either Burn after Reading or Man on Wire without knowing that the twin towers have fallen and that the American century is, if not finished, at least highly fraught. This is not because of anything in the movies themselves, which are specifically–perhaps hysterically–careful not to allude to anything that’s going on right now in the world. Instead, I would assert, it is simply because the world we live in is consumed with that problem, such that the interpretive context into which movies like these are inscribed prevents such filmmakers from not being read through it. You cannot make a non-political movie about the twin towers in 2008, nor can you talk about American covert ops and intelligence gathering without reflecting on the GWOT. The fact that this is exactly what both filmmakers do, then, is a really interesting interpretive problem.

In Man on Wire, of course, this is almost explicit: the title rhymes with “man on fire,” and while 9-11 peeks around the edges (it’s mentioned, for example, that no one else will do this kind of stunt again) the very fact that such statements are never qualified, that they’re never followed up on, helps make them into a thing, a thing whose significance is its very absence. It doesn’t become the elephant in the room until no one mentions it, after all, so the fact that everyone carefully doesn’t mention it makes it into that. What after all, is a trauma but an imagined absence? And in that sense, I question whether Man on Wire doesn’t (counterintuitively) do an incredible amount of work to re-imagine 9-11 as an absence, in a time when the spectacle of the Iraq war has made it difficult to do so; as the past half decade has filled “9-11” up with content, freighted it with political connotations to do with preemption, Mesopotamia, and Bush, that absence has been harder and harder to imagine for those who want or need to do so. And if that’s right, I’m not at all sure what to think the way this movie digs out that empty core again, carefully forgetting everything that been accumulating there en route to remembering that emptiness.

To think about Burn after Reading through Man on Wire then helps me make some sense of what would otherwise feel like the warmed up leftovers of The Big Lebowski; it was, I thought, the shaggiest of shaggy dog stories, callously playing death for laughs and notably lacking any of the charm that made it a shame when Donny died. When Brad Pitt’s character–the Jar Jar Binks of this movie–is killed, I felt only relief, the infamous hatchet scene plays like pure physical comedy, and the most purely successful moment in the film is also the most meaningless, the sight of George Clooney’s “special” chair. Thinking about the crafted absence at the heart of Man on Wire, though, makes me think the main point of it all is the very pointlessness of it, and a pointlessness which we, here and now, have a particular use for. After all, the only sane character in the film seems to be the CIA guy who cleans up after everything, the guy who has no real interest in getting to know what’s really going on. In fact, he has a particular interest in not knowing what happened: for him, information is the problem, and there’s a quizzative tone in his voice when he asks his idiot associate if we’ve learned anything today. “No?” he seems to say. “Good.” The work of empire, now and here, is as much an un-knowing as anything else, a necessary forgetfulness; and if the facts are not, from that perspective, useful, isn’t it purely rational to deal with them by dis-imagining them?

*(As always, the person to whom we should turn to for advice in these troubled times, what with all the American imperialism and all, is Emily Dickinson)


I find the fact that Matt Damon is a huge star intriguing. He’s not a bad actor, exactly, but expressiveness isn’t really his strength. Instead, it’s something else: he is reliably good at playing an unreadable cipher. That’s why he’s so right for a role like Jason Bourne-the man who’s lost his personality-or the title character in Good Will Hunting, the guy who can be anything but is afraid to be, and thus actually is nothing but an empty and unlimited potential. He has also, interestingly, typecast himself by playing variations on the same troubled ubermensch role, over and over again. And in that vein, I dare you to name a Matt Damon role that doesn’t involve him posessing some kind of super-power. Go!

Why these two tendencies-unreadable cipher and troubled ubermensch-come together so persistantly in a single actor is the problem I want to explore here, which I might formulate another way: why is it that the narrative of being unreadable so naturally harmonizes with the problem of great power? I would even submit that this problem is given a certain gravity by how persistantly Damon’s oeuvre responds to some of the more pressing cultural contradictions in US society today; Damon’s various Bournes, for example, seem like allegories for a broken US hegemony that both nostalgically mourns the power it has lost and grudgingly accepts that it can’t has dominance anymore.

Rounders is ostensibly much more lightweight, of course, but I the acting problem that faces him is related: as a guy with a poker face, he is prevented with the choice between either an unreadably opaque character or one whose external personality is so artificial and overwrought as to make the underneath unreadable. Turturro models the former, playing it so low key that you can practically hear the hum of the dingy refrigerators in the background, while Malkovich wears such an elaborate set of ridiculous masks that some sort of Russian doll metaphor would probably be appropriate. It’s a problem for Damon, because while watching Damon imitate Turturro would be boring, the kind of baroque stylizations of Malkovich are just as much beyond him. He ends up, as a result, in the worst of all possible worlds: trying to show the audience the clever way which he hides his inner emotional state, but he shows it to us while hiding it from his (ostensibly hyper-observant) opponents at the card table.

I wouldn’t claim that Rounders is a particularly good movie though; it is what it is. But what is it? And that’s a more complex question than it appears, not least because (if I may) the problem of how a thing comes to be what it is is the problem of fungability that is at the heart of acting, poker, and capitalism. At a very basic level, after all, the plot hinges on the question of who Matt Damon is. Is he a boring law student living with his girlfriend in (an improbable movieland) bourgeois comfort? Or is he a poker player inhabiting some niche between Malkovich’s underworld, Turturro’s just-scraping-by respectability, and the World Series of Poker? The movie’s narrative drive is fueled by this problem, or rather, by the fact that not only is he capable of inhabiting both worlds (capable of being both), but the two worlds are in irreconcilable conflict. There is, in other words, an unsolvable algebra problem at the heart of this film: (Damon = Bourgeois) and (Damon = Poker) yet (Bourgeois != Poker). Quite a problem.

It’s instructive, therefore, to look at how the film uses narrative to deal with the dilemma. It turns to one of the oldest stories in the American reportoire, gendering domestic respectability as female while aligning the dangerous extra-social activity opposed to it as a space of violent homosocial male bonding. In High Noon, this gendered choice is filled in with a certain amount of content: the wife is a Quaker, so Gary Cooper can’t be out there shooting people up (until, of course, he rejects her pacifism, shoots people up, and wins her back). In Batman Begins, there’s also a certain method to it: Katie Holmes is a liberal who believes in working within the system, and Bruce Wayne is a vigilante, but the movie ultimately makes an anti-liberal argument (just as High Noon ultimately rejects pacifism) by making her weak feminine liberalism dependant on his manly extra-legal justice.

In Rounders, the story interestingly chooses not to make the faslse resolution. At the outset, the gifted male turns away from his gift, his ability to take money from bad card players (and therefore a sublimated violence) in exchange for the woman (and domestic comfort). The movie makes clear that this was a bad trade; not only did Damon only turn away from cards as the result of a bad trauma (making Gretchen Mol something of an emasculating mommy figure) but he doesn’t feel, as he tells her, alive except when he’s playing cards. So, when presented with the problematic catalyst, Edward Norton, a hetero- vs homosocial problem asserts itself: he must choose between his domestic obligations (being emasculated and infantilized) and his relationship with his bro, Edward Norton, who needs him to play poker or he’ll get garretted or something. After a talk with father-figure law professor, he learns the vbaluable lesson of being yourself. You is a good thing for you to be, right? So Damon decides to be himself; a boy, not an icky girl, and he rides off into the sunset to win the world series of poker.

As I said, it’s not a good movie, but its dull competence is interesting in its own right. After all, why is Gretchen Mol so dead set against Damon playing poker? She has reasons, but they feel flat to me, like the opposition between boy and girl is more important than content of those categories. Similarly, Ed Norton’s weird hostility to women is never referenced or explained, just structurally determined by the role he plays in the plot, as the opposite pole for Damon’s dilemma: bro’s versus ho’s. Like Katie Holmes and the Quaker wife in High Noon, Gretchen Mol isn’t just not psychologically complex, she’s actually a very particular kind of flat: she starts out with a principle, holds to it against her man, and then adopts his principles even while scorning him for them. Mol drops him “like a bad hand” and when he tells her its not a card game but “our thing” she refuses to step outside of the poker metaphor; a bizarre about face for someone who’s been trying to convince him to be less of a poker player. Even more weird, while he’s the one who’s been insisting on his own need to be what he is, these words are ultimately put in her mouth–“I am how I am”–so that our hero can have it both ways.

What the hell is that all about? I’m not wholly sure, but I find it fascinating that “be yourself,” a phrase exactly as moronic and banal as its algebraic equivalenet (you=you), turns out to be such a revered cultural touchstone, the kind of moral lesson that children’s books in the modern era are always instilling. And the closer we get to thinking with that logic, the more easily resolved Matt Damon’s dilemma becomes: either he is one thing or he’s another, so why worry about the choice? High Noon and Batman Begins are both, sort of, about the problem that justice requires violence which is a kind of injustice, an intrinsically unavoidable problem in that paradigm. But Rounders exists in a world where no such anti-tautologies need confront our hero: he is, simply, what he is. Which is whatever he wants to be.

Thus, when (as it inevitably must) the Western genre pokes its head into the narrative, there is no cognitive dissonance at blatantly rewriting it. Norton mentions that Damon’s favorite actor is Clint Eastwood, the man “who will always double back for a friend,” and I’m like, really? Seriously? When does Clint Eastwood even have a name? Much less a friend? As Michael Rogin pointed out, Clint Eastwood’s most famous lines (“Go ahead. Make my day.”) are remembered as one thing, but actually were another: we think there’s a John Wayn-ish nobility about him, but that character is basically a brutal thug. He’s John Wayne in Red River, but without the happy romantic ending. And also, he likes to shoot people of color.

My point, I guess, is that this film-I’m talking about Rounders againgets to have its cake and eat it too exactly because it uses that kind of fuzzy reasoning, where “I” is not large and multitudinous, but small and easy. So while Damon gets to share in the romantic disrepute of the underworld, he is also (unlike Norton, who cheats) a “straight” player. The world series of poker, too, brings everything to a nice, neat conlusion: all the bro’s in the poker world revere it, and it gives an unmistakable legitimacy to a game whose popularity is inseperable from the (Western) connotations of violence and disrepute.

Maybe, though, the real dilemma of the film is distinguishing Damon from Norton, and here, too, the movie makes the distinction by lying. At one point, Norton demands, rhetorically but significantly, what’s the difference between them? Why is Damon noble and pure, while Norton is shitty and rotten? It’s the kind of hysterically unanswerable question the film has to paper over, since the obvious answer-they aren’t at all different-would be unnacceptable. So instead, the movie resorts to the kind of dream-work that resolves these kinds of problems in Freud: Matt Damon becomes who he is by being two things and then denying he was. “This isn’t a gunfight, this isn’t about pride or ego; it’s about money,” he says, but in the end, he elects to go back and finish the gunfight. He remembers an argument he had with Norton, where he urged caution, and then he does exactly what he had been telling Norton not to do, proving Norton not only right about that, but about his whole judgement of Damon, even as Damon’s success marks the end of Norton’s time in the movie.

The line about it not being about pride and ego, too, makes about as much sense as pretending the chips aren’t about dollars, and money, after all, represents more than capital. But simple answers are necessary here, or rather, the fiction of stability is the necessary cover under which capitalist speculation operates, and what could be a better metaphor for it than Poker? The poker player’s confidence game is to speculate on a thing’s value, to rely both on the manner which a thing can change its value according to circumstance–without changing what it is-while (at will) being able to withdraw it from the table and rely on it’s buying power as such. Damon gets irritated that “people insist on calling it luck,” and the urgency of this claim is related to the urgency of capitalism itself: to insist that ownership legitimates itslef, thereby effacing histories of dispossession. Ownership now, it must claim, is ownership always, never mind the blood in the water. Like Sarah Palin and capitalism, this is a movie that needs it both ways, and rather than let it fall apart, will lie, lie, and lie, with a boldness that is absolutely startling, and hard to even know how to address. No wonder Matt Damon dislikes her; she’s him.

It was a critical commonplace in the middle of the 20th century that American literature was fundamentally antisocial, romantic, and gothic (Richard Chase, Leslie Fiedler); that even our classiest novelist-of-manners, Henry James, could be persuasively identified as a man of melodrama (Susan Sontag in “Notes on Camp,” Peter Brooks) might have seemed to clinch the case. Watching Dallas, a Friday-night CBS soap opera that ran from 1978 to 1991, doesn’t incline one to disagree with the overall diagnosis. Ours is evidently a culture given to Manichean extremes, to fleeing the mild pleasures of bourgeois society, to alienation, isolation and excess. If we haven’t got a George Eliot or a Gustave Flaubert, this argument allows one to shrug, we’ve got the best creepy schlock available.

But—the question intrudes if one is watching Dallas at the same time the Republican National Convention is being aired—is a culture of creepy schlock healthful for a democracy? Melodrama gets slammed for having “resolutely refused to understand social change in other than private contexts and emotional terms” (Thomas Elsaesser), for contributing to a “national sentimentality” that “makes citizenship into a category of feeling irrelevant to practices of hegemony or sociality in everyday life…. it is a politics that abjures politics, made on behalf of a private life protected from the harsh realities of power” (Lauren Berlant). Against the charge that schlock (or melodrama, or the sentimental, or the gothic) is irresponsible escapism, I find myself wanting to claim some socially redemptive cred for it.

No doubt the desire to redeem a discredited but lovable thing is itself schlocky. I should call it jouissance and let it go. But it’s true that among the pleasures that Dallas provides today is that of uncanny recognition: this show appeared during one oil crisis, at the height of a great American malaise; here we are in the midst of another oil crisis and with an economy in full recess. The head boss on the show was J.R., a barbecue-flavored conniver and the heir to an oil fortune; the head boss on our show could be his born-again cousin. When Sontag writes about camp, she’s not arguing for its socio-political traction; she says that “time liberates the work of art from moral relevance, delivering it over to the Camp sensibility…. What was banal can, with the passage of time, become fantastic.” With Dallas time has made what was ostensibly a fantasy into banal reality. But it’s still camp, surely. What follows is a short catalog of some of the pleasures—redemptive or non-redemptive, campy or not—of watching Dallas now.

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The unforgivable thing about Altman’s The Long Goodbye is not that it takes a masterpiece and turns it into a fairly lightweight mood piece; that’s merely irritating, and you have to file it under “griping about weird movie adaptations of books you really like.” Chandler’s The Long Goodbye is my favorite of the Philip Marlowe novels that I’ve read–which is about half of them–because it’s the one that feels most thoughtful about genre, and about the peculiar relationship between a storytelling genre defined by its first person protagonist (the detective) who is, in turn, defined by the manner in which he produces stories. What, after all, is a detective but a person who wants to find out the truth? Yet Chandler has the insight that a detective doesn’t so much discover a pre-existing truth as he participates in the social process by which narratives are made. The Long Goodbye, for example, just takes to a certain extreme something that’s always an undercurrent narrative in the Marlowe novels, the way Marlowe pushes his way into stories and events not necessarily to correct them (or working as someone’s agent), but because he himself likes stories, likes making them, and likes learning them*.

All that is, obviously, gone from Altman’s version, but the unforgivable thing is that he so drastically misunderstands the material he’s working with, to almost comic proportions. Seen from a distance, you might mistake Altman’s The Long Goodbye for Chandler’s, the way you could mistake two siblings for each other if you squint a little and if they’re wearing the same clothes. There are superficial resemblances. But the ending, where Philip Marlowe shoots Terry Lennox, is so incredibly wrong that I’m left breathless, not merely a repudiation of original’s crux (since Chandler’s Marlowe would never do that) but a repudiation that doesn’t want to even understand what it’s repudiating.

The conceit of Altman’s piece is that while the setting is now LA of the ‘70‘s, Marlowe is still from the ‘40’s, an effect which Altman calls “Rip Van Marlowe.” Ok, fine; the fact that Marlowe wears a dark suit and red-white-and-blue tie amidst the gaudy colors of Altman’s vision of the seventies is cute, at least. But it wasn’t long before I started missing the loving detail with which Marlowe and Chandler explored their world, and started to gag a little on the simple-minded vitriol with which the landscape is imagined around him. Altman chokes on his own bile for a world he clearly loathes, loading down the screen with caricatures of people he hates, from the hippies to the trendy rich. Some of it is interesting, as with Martinez–the genuinely frightening gangster–but most of it is simply there to make a simpleminded point: things have seriously devolved since the forties, when agents of virtue like Philip Marlowe walked the streets.

But, honestly! The whole point of those original novels was that the world had devolved and everything was shit. And because of that, our narrator Chandler/Marlowe, was constituted by a fascinating ambiguity: he rejected the world and he loved it, understanding its faults yet lovingly tending towards engagement with a corruption he never tried to separate himself from. That’s why the narratives work: both author and author/narrator engaged with their worlds, even identified with its worst aspects, making a trip into its underbelly an opportunity for self-exploration. But the Altman version not only doesn’t want that–preferring, instead, the most simple-minded California in the seventies as Sodom and Gomorra narrative it can create–but it tries to argue that Philip Marlowe would, if he woke up in the seventies, share Altman’s vicious splenetic rejection of the scene. Wrong. Marlowe would fucking love the seventies. Bring it the fuck on, he would say.

* Am I thinking this because I’ve just finished Season Five of The Wire? Yes, I am.

The program for the Manoel de Oliveira series at the PFA speaks of that hundred year old director–still active, amazingly–as the “dean” of Portuguese cinema, yet hurries from that statement to another, more interesting one, asserting that “Portugal could never lay sole claim to him: like Louis Bunuel and Raul Ruiz, he is a major European film stylist. He belongs to cinema.” By the end of the paragraph, too, the writer has returned to this point, reasserting that “Again, he belongs to cinema.”

I’m fascinated whenever it feels like a writer or speaker is putting a somehow excessive emphasis on a seemingly banal point, when the lady protests too much. After all, who is the writer arguing against? Who is denying that he belongs to “cinema”? Why is that being the “dean of Portuguese cinema” has to be so quickly qualified and neutralized and why is it so necessary to establish that he’s still one of us? Why would being Portuguese be incompatible with belonging to cinema, and why does the writer compare him to people like Bunuel and Ruiz? Why don’t I stop with the rhetorical questions and just say what I think?

The answer, I think, is that Portugal’s position within Europe (and within modernity) is different than France’s, as the first film of the series–Viagem ao Princípio do Mundo / Voyage to the Beginning of the World–sets out to illustrate. Half of it is in French, mainly consisting of sparkling philosophical banter amongst a troupe of television people, and the other half is in Portuguese, as these television people try to communicate with a bunch of old farmers in a tiny Portuguese village. As we were walking out, I delighted myself with the thought that it’s a European version of Deliverance: nothing like Deliverance–because Deliverance is an extremely American film–but having in common a journey into a place defined as the “past,” and the problem of communicating with the strange savages who inhabit that past. That the American version features anal rape and manly men in boats while the European version highlights existential self-loathing in bad mustaches only firms up my confidence in the parallel, and my conviction that I have discovered the key to all cinematic mythologies.

So here’s what happens: three actors and their director are on his way to a location shooting in Portugal, and they make a stop at the place where one of the actor’s father was from. After much verbal mutual masturbation regarding the meaning of The Past, Art, Truth, Sex, and Time, the quartet end up in a tiny little Portuguese village trying to communicate with an old lady who is one actor’s aunt (and one of the joys of this movie, by the way, is Mastrioanni’s irritated body language once everything’s not all about him anymore). The old lady refuses to be convinced that he is in fact her nephew, repeating over and over again, “why can’t he speak our language?” Eventually, by visiting the family cemetery with her and via a particularly moving sequence where he makes her feel the blood in his arm, he manages to convince her that even though he doesn’t speak their language, blood is the important thing, and (when they have to move on to a TV shoot) she makes a final request: return with his brother, Yves, so she can see him before she dies.

Deliverance, too, is about the death of an “old” way of life: the river they paddle down is due to be destroyed by a TVA dam, so that hydro-electrification can bring progress. And, like the hicks in Deliverance, this old woman has a particular but barely explained antipathy to the outside: not only does she hate TV, she speaks with a poignant distaste for the ways that, by fleeing to the cities, the “old” ways are being left behind. So, as the film ends, we are left with an unanswered question: will the TV actor return with his brother Yves? Or will he prove all of his aunt’s prejudices against the “new” right?

The film’s final shot is the actors standing in a dressing room, resplendent in their period costumes–apparently they’re putting on the Portuguese version of How Green Was My Valley–and you just know, looking at them, that there’s no way any of them are going back. The silly nostalgia for “authenticity” that they are performing for television is from the same script that made it so hard for them to understand what the old woman was trying to tell them back in the village. As she talked about his father, she kept telling him variations on the same story: how he came to leave the village. Afonso is unsatisfied, wanting to know about his father’s life here, but she only shakes her head, refusing to tell he: there is no “here,” here anymore. TV has destroyed it, and the departure of young people. I don’t think he quite gets this, but–just like when she bitterly complains that the EEC has ruined the local economy by taking away smuggling as a business opportunity–it’s a remarkable piece of social theory: under globalization, being “local” isn’t about adhering to a static and authentic past, but an identity constructed by being left behind.

So it’s funny that, as in the film, Manoel de Oliveira gets defined not as merely Portuguese, but as a purveyor of Portugueseness for a global audience, an origin redefined by the function its interpellated into. Like the old woman in the village, his identity as local gets constructed not in opposition to the global, but through it. Like hers, it’s an identity constructed out of nostalgia for a real that not only never existed then, but only exists now because of the ways that nostalgia creates it. How green was my valley, indeed.

An opportunistically selected panel from "An Innocent Guy," script and art by Brian Bolland, reprinted here.

Prologue in the Batcave: An opportunistically selected panel from "An Innocent Guy," script and art by Brian Bolland, reprinted in the new edition of The Killing Joke.

In compliance with internet etiquette, I must warn readers about a certain piece of the comics lore. Anyway…

When the Gotham police discuss their ongoing investigation of the Batman, the camera pans down along a bulletin-board graced with the visages of suspects such as Elvis, Bigfoot, and Abraham Lincoln, a list to which the ranks of film’s commentators have contributed the theory that TDK is TDR and the more frequently voiced suspicion that beneath the rubbery mask of allegory lies the puckered mug of George W. Bush. In an editorial for The Wall Street Journal, Andrew Klavan (a novelist, apparently) embraces Nolan’s film as “a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war.”  Other proponents of this theory seem less enthusiastic for some reason. No less a critic than Dave Kehr, well on his way to becoming the omega-man of American auteurism, has wryly inquired whether Batman is “just George Bush with a better outfit.” Agnostic as to whether the film actively endorses conservative politics  or reflects them incidentally, Kehr instead seems concerned (or merely unimpressed) with The Dark Knight’s perceived lack of texture, calling the film “Dirty Harry stripped of Don Siegal’s ambivalence and ambiguity.” So, what’s the deal?

Asked pre-release about the film’s political resonance, director Christopher Nolan has responded that “in the writing of the films we try not to be too conscious of any political parallels” for the reason that “the terms of the storytelling demand that you be a step removed from today’s political environment.” This step of removal does not preclude visual and thematic references to terrorism, enhanced interrogation, and wiretapping, but Nolan’s point is well taken . The Dark Knight presents a fiction with integrity on its own terms, whose occasional lapses into didactic speechifying arrive with enough internal context and an abstract enough vocabulary (justice, chaos, heroism, &c., &c., &c.) that the membrane of verisimilitude never punctures. This sometimes leads to coy or equivocal passages. During the surveillance subplot, in which Batman enlists the help of a reluctant Lucius Fox to wiretap the entirety of Gotham with a fancy sonar system (one that turns the city into a veritable panaudicon), Nolan both tempts political analogies and deftly prevents them from stabilizing. This subplot resolves as Batman’s final monologue sounds over a shot of Lucius Fox, smiling briefly as the surveillance monitors self-destruct behind him: “Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.” The general correspondence between the image and the voice-over conceals an ambiguous mismatch: Batman has actually rewarded his friend’s confidence by dismantling the spy computer, but the monologue implies that “people” will only have their faith rewarded through expedient deceptions. “Sometimes,” begins Batman, “the truth isn’t good enough.” Does the compromised narration expose the image as wishful thinking? Does the image temper the narration by reminding us of our hero’s good intentions? Does the slight incongruity of this juxtaposition imply that our truth differs from Batman’s? Tune in next time. Suffice it to say that when the icons of print start printing the legend, things can get slippery.

The sense of an autonomous fictional world seems to be why many perfectly smart and observant people have discounted the charges of allegory, treating the politically charged touches (if at all) as fresh adornments to the familiar structure of a comic-book psychodrama. For instance, Glenn Kenny (formerly of Premiere, which I can’t be arsed linking) comments on his own blog (which I can) to the effect that the fictional scenarios won’t sustain the political analogies: “Batman conducts his surveillance undercover, knowing full well that it’s ethically and constitutionally wrong, driven by his own desperation. The Bush programs are done in broad daylight, rationalized by the likes of Yoo and Addington and given a pass by Congress.”  This is a convincing objection if we’re talking about a one-to-one correspondence between fictional events and political fact, such as it is. As a fiction, though, The Dark Knight still shares many features with the operative fictions of contemporary political rhetoric, including the vision of terrorism as apolitical evil that is embodied in TDK‘s Joker. The film does not offer a statement of political views so much as its fictional world gives provisional reality to politically relevant conceits. The Dark Knight, I think, allows us to experience features of the political climate as a structure of enjoyment rather than a collection of ideas of beliefs, a capacity that may go some way to explaining the recent popularity of comic-book films.

More below the cut on comic-book psychodrama, starting with a few notes on scars:

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The old Duboisian definition of being black is that you have to ride Jim Crow in Georgia, but an updated version of that standard might be that the character you play onscreen must have blues and rap as his theme music and serve the crucial plot point of helping the white couple get together. By those standards, Hancock (played by Will Smith) is black. And when his thousand year lifespan seems to have been plagued by a surprising amount of violence arbitrarily directed at him for no apparent reason, one explanation might be the equally surprising amount of violence that has been directed at people of color over the course of the last thousand years or so. Who, after all, are the “they” who attacked Hancock and his wife in ancient Sumeria, Napoleonic France, and Florida in the twenties? The movie never directly explains itself on this point, and I initially chalked it up to the Preposterous Superhero Backstory explanation (henceforth, the PSB). But the PSB actually never says anything about why the two of them keep getting attacked, or why there’s something about their relationship that seems to put the both of them in danger of violence. All the others of their superhero kind, the PSB tells us, have died because they consumated their relationships, but while Charlize Theron’s character says they became mortal when they got together (and presumably died of old age or something equally banal) there is a certain unexplained excess about their particular relationship. Why do they keep getting attacked when they’re together? And why might it be that their history together is so clearly mapped out by the scars on his body?

Why indeed. By the conventions of the genre, the PSB tends towards the arbitrary, and the movie even makes some quiet humor out of this when Jason Bateman asks if Hancock got his powers because he’s an alien or because he’s a mutant. It couldn’t be a more irrelevent question. But as Hannah Arendt reminds us, recognizing violence as illegitimate is not the same thing as calling it senseless and, more importantly, that calling racism irrational or beyond understanding only tends to deprive us of the tools necessary to understand why it makes sense to the minds that perpetrate it, however warped they might be. After all, if terrorists are like the Joker, impossibly omniscient, inscrutable, and purposeless, then maybe George Bush is right that we have to close our eyes to the rationality by which they direct their lives. But if they aren’t, then maybe violence is not so much arbitrary as it is banal, directed by a rationality we simply find repugnant. And maybe why is actually a good question to ask.

So while Hancock is a fun movie, and I enjoyed the deconstruction of the superhero genre tremendously, I can’t help but let it nag at me a little that the major plot device is a white woman (played by, of all things, a South African actress who grew up under Apartheid) deciding that her relationship with a black man just can’t work, and leaving him behind after the two of them were attacked in 1920’s Miami. What, pray tell, did Florida law have to say about inter-racial marriages in 1928, by the way? And is it important that the movie they were going to see climaxes with a lynch mob? So what do we do with a movie that ultimately resolves this plot point by transforming Hancock from a husband into a public servant, and which hinges this transformation on a de facto enforcement of the legal segregation that those old laws demanded? A movie that separates a black man from his white wife explicitly “for the good of the community?” Not to mention a movie whose moral center is a guy whose main goal in life seems to be the scandalously ineffectual project of corporatizing charity, which is to say, to make African poverty into something that Western corporations can profit from? I ask you.

Johnny To’s Exiled is such a goddamn Western. The opening sequence is amazing for many reasons, but one of the things I find most affecting about it is the constant wind blowing in through the windows, the invasion of air from the outside into the domestic space. De Mille’s The Plainsman (which, like Stagecoach, was one of the late thirties attempts to retool the western) has a great moment where tumbleweeds keep blowing into the house that the “good” female lead is trying to build, just before Gary Cooper arrives to take her husband off to war. In Exiled, the wind is the same kind of quasi-expressionist sturm-and-drang figure for the gangsters who have come to take the husband away from his family, and the omnipresence of that wind manages very nicely to illustrate the insufficiency of her domestic cocoon, the way the frame in which the wife and child are ensconsed (thereby gendering the terms) is impossibly doomed. As a succession of gangsters pound on her door, she can force them to wait outside, but to do so is only to delay the inevitable.

In that figure, you have the movie in a nutshell: exiled, Wo and his family have “come home” to a place that is on the verge of ceasing to be, a home that is ceasing to be home. Macau is being handed over to China, and Boss Fay from Hong Kong-who will kill Wo-is taking over the place. What might have once been a refuge is no longer; “home” is a tenuous and fast disappearing shelter from the storm.

Practically a definition of the genre, in other words. But what really makes the film work, on the other hand, is what happens after the second big shootout in the clinic, the escape into the desert and into a kind of philosophical quest framed by the flipping coin. The film has to do something radically different than what it’s already done, because the merely glossy archetypicality of the Western tropes (faceoffs, winds, domestic spaces being invaded, brotherhood) can’t sustain the movie without actually becoming cliches. So the desert interlude – “How much is a ton of love?” – is lovely, and works, I think, to nicely cleanse the pallate after the baroque excesses of the underground clinic shoot-out. The fluttering curtains and Wo’s dirty tarp shroud are visually as stunning as the clip I’ve youtubed above, but one can only aestheticize violence so far before it becomes unsustainable. So To Kai-Fung very nicely backs away from that style of visual narrative into a minimalist sequence of dusty parched wilderness, hanging somewhere between the philosophizing of Kurasawa at his most existential and the worldless philosophy of American Westerns. Having just seen Three Godfathers, it strikes me as very similar to that film, but only if the baby had died leaving the outlaws on the run from the law and from themselves. Wilderness has now gone from home-wrecker to purgatory.

Of course, it’s also implausible: the four hitmen must have had to drive a long time to find a backdrop in Macau that would be appropriate for a desert sequence – so they eventually film it in a quarry of some sort – but this indicates to me how important it was to give the “Buddha Mountain” sequence that sort of ambiance. Along with the slide guitar on the soundtrack (and, eventually, a harmonica played within the scene), the desert backdrop harkens back even more explicitly to the Western idiom the film is articulating, the idea of the desert that underwrites so much of the ideological work that the Western does as a genre. This film is doing subtly different work, I suspect, but it’s using a well-established vocabulary to do it; although the home that is being lost or gained is defined not by the frontier but by handover, we are familiar with the manner in which its inside/outside narratives of home and loss are articulated through gender (the cigar smoking gangsters that pound on her door, that interrupt the doctor’s having sex, that shoot Simon Lam in the balls, and that ultimately fail to recreate a domestic space through homosocial bonding) and with the manner in which gender is tracked by violence (the gun violence that makes a home will also, inevitably tear it apart).

For Teddy Roosevelt, the great theorist of the West, the difference between the cowboy and the farmer was fundamental, and while the former cleared the wilderness with violence, he could never be a true husband to the land. This was the tragedy of the closing frontier for him, as Turner would give it in his own particular articulation: an American spirit that was defined by the violence of clearing away the wilderness had to give way to the more gentle farmers that would follow. For Roosevelt, it was a decline and fall narrative, one which he imagined forestalling by extending the frontier out to imperial spaces abroad, sending cowboys charging up San Juan hill (and, by the way, “reading” the darker peoples of the world through the genocidal paradigms set up by indian warfare). But this conflict between the violence that makes a home and the violence that destroys it – the violence that makes the cowboy also makes him incapable of – is at the heart of so many of the great Westerns. I’m thinking of High Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in particular, both of which I’ll actually blog about in more detail at some point. But in brief, I think both of those movies try to explode the problem that Exiled seems more interested in inhabiting: that a domestic space carved out by violence will inevitably die by that sword.

High Noon, for example, turns the Quaker wife into a purveyor of violence, thus undoing the only thing that made her a character and (presumably) the basis of his love for her, while Cooper’s own use of extralegal violence (shooting a bandit in the back) manages to save the town only by shaming them and making himself into an exile. You couldn’t ask for a more damning and devastating employment of the “violence kills love” trope, nor could you ask that it be more thoroughly Rooseveltian in its articulation: the man of violence carves civilization out of desert savagery, but by that very process becomes superfluous, even dangerous to it. The complete insufficiency of the “happy” ending (whereby the bad guys are dead and the husband and wife are together again) only better shows how impossible it is to mediate the contradiction: wife has become a monster to herself, and husband has become the very criminal he thought he was fighting.

One could make a similar argument with respect to Liberty Valance, but I don’t want to use up my Ford quota for this month, so I’ll let High Noon stand as the example. What’s so weird about those endings is the ways High Noon and Liberty Valance so powerfully illustrate the incommensurability of female domesticity and manly violence that their endings, which magically bridge the gap, are powerfully unsatisfying. Who the fuck did shoot Liberty? Stoddard’s wife still loves John Wayne, and the newspapers won’t print the truth. The plot resolves into a happy ending, as it had to, but that resolution is as empty as Gary Cooper’s motivations for staying and fighting in High Noon: no one in town wants him to stay and fight, but he is completely unable to articulate why he has to, other than that he has to. The plot simply demands it, in a way that disables human choice.

You could, in that vein, make the argument that the Western genre (overdetermined, as it always is, by the closing of the frontier) is ultimately about the foreclosures of fate, the ways our identities manifest our destinies and the ways that social context always closes in around us, fensing us in. It’s rare, after all, to find a twentieth century Western that takes seriously the possibility that one could “light out for the territories,” and when you find one, chances are good that it sucks. The Western begins, I think, the moment that ship sails.

In Exiled, on the other hand, the ship never quite sails. In a very literal sense, the hitmen have choices and this gives substance to their performance of Western cliché after cliché, rendering those gunfights with a depth and meaning that an automaton like Gary Cooper (who suffers but does not choose to suffer) or allegories like Wayne/Stewart lack. In their wilderness purgatory, the hitmen redeem themselves-illustrating, along the way, the incommensurability of violence gold and love-but they do so by choosing to go back, a choice that renders the meanings of possibility, rather than the tragedy of impossibility. Exiled doesn’t contradict itself with the impossible happy ending-a gesture of no faith in the party line that is not without significance-but translates the impossibility of turning violence into a home into a choice: do you play with the boys around a campfire or do you sacrifice everything for the family unit? And this choice is not an archetype, not an allegory. To’s actors are, for all their stylized sartoriality, able to invest their characters with a depth that American Westerns cannot, not because they’re better, but because they’re doing something different.

So my thesis is this: because American Westerns are obsessed and impressed with the omnipresent inevitability of the State’s hegemony, the ultimate impossibility of the freedom every cowboy is in search of, their resolutions tend towards reinforcing the impossiblity of the very escapist fantasies they enact. Yet the whole point of the To Western is that something new is being born as history takes a step forward; while the ideology of the American Western is always an avoidance of the future, Wo comes home not out of nostalgia but because he has a concrete plan, with a very real sense of what he will lose and gain, and he chooses to make that trade-off. The American Western understands home as an already always doomed and lost nostalgia, while Home, for Wo, is that which is being born.

The first time I saw Johnny To’s Running on Karma, I liked it. As is often the case with To, the opening sequence is worth the price of admission alone, though for once the payoff is conceptual (and a delayed gratification) more than simply visual theatrics. To cram it into one ridiculous sentence: Andy Lau’s excessive masculinity is a vehicle for voyeuristically enjoying a certain kind of embodiment that the rest of the film frames and analyzes, but the scene also deftly uses Lau’s vulnerability as embodied to start the film’s romantic drama rolling. A less ridiculous sentence: it’s incredibly well done, so go and see the film.

But the first time I saw it, I was also vaguely irritated by the film’s implicit glorification of police work. Even though the Hong Kong police are portrayed as fairly vindictive and brutal, the female lead attempts to work off her karmic debt by catching criminals, and Andy Lau assists her. There’s even a key moment in the film when the male lead believes she’s given up her calling in the police force (he sees her wearing rave gear in the company of rave-types) and he’s gravely disappointed. We’re gravely disappointed. But, of course, it turns out that she’s been working undercover, busting rave types instead of partying. Whoo! What a relief.

The nadir for me was the ominous tabla music that plays when the creepy scary indian criminals show up and menace Hong Kong, the way a “middle eastern scale” might start playing in the background when islamo-fascists menace the republic in a good clean patriotic American drama. Racializing criminality (or criminalizing race) is subtle that way, teaching you to fear the cultural markers of difference, but there was nothing subtle about this: the murderous criminals they chase down are as unambiguously bad (and as clearly ethnically differentiated) as you could possibly want. They’re even rendered in an almost comic book super-villain idiom, with particular super skills, just to make it totally clear that catching them is utterly within the realm of good clean decent police drama. And like a Spider-man comic, our hero Andy Lau catches them not by using deadly force, but by humanely caging them in elaborate metal traps, and then leaving them there for the police to collect.

There’s several moments in To’s Breaking News where a child refuses to help or serve food to the criminals that are holding him and his family hostage, and I’m not sure how to take such moments. On the one hand, the film (sometimes called a “Hong Kong Dog Day Afternoon“) clearly empathizes with its bad guys, no less than Lumet empathizes with the bank robber that Pacino plays in DDA. But, on the other hand, the film also kills them all off; while it can’t exactly side with the police (like DDA it prefers to show them as deceptive and frighteningly violent) neither does it want to imagine a world in which crime pays, so it insulates itself from all the problems it raises by wiping the slate clean by the end. We might like the criminals, the way we might sympathize with the indians in cowboy movies, but we’re enabled to do so by the inevitability of their doom.

This is characteristic of a broad sweep of American genre tradition, I think, and it’s a way to conceptualize why The Wire can’t stop killing off the criminals and why all of its redemption narratives have to center on the forces of law and order. We toy with perceiving criminals as human, but their narratives are always tragic; only the police narratives can comedically resolve into a re-establishment of hearth and home. There’s a kind of dialectic that you can find in a broad sweep of these American genres, which mediate between tragedy and comedy, between sympathizing with the doomed and being vaguely unsatisfied with the victorious. The bad guys are always at least a little bit good, and the good guys are always at least a little bit bad, but the essential lines of demarcation don’t fundamentally change.

So I was irritated, initially, when Running on Karma didn’t seem to be playing by these rules. It was not merely blandly self-assured in praising the self righteousness of police work, as in Kurasawa’s Stray Dog, for example; it was downright messianic, using the vast heavenly machinery of Karma to endow catching dirty ethnic criminals with transcendent virtue. This seemed less good to me.

But the second time I saw it, I picked up on a variety of things I’d not noticed before. For one thing, I’d forgotten how much care is taken to quietly establish, early on, that Andy Lau’s character is an illegal alien himself (from mainland China). And I’d forgotten how much police brutality there actually is in the film, how much unnecessary violence the cops end up exerting as they chase their comic book villains (and against Lau, for no reason). Perhaps more importantly, I’d also misunderstood why it was that all the police officers seemed to harbor such an enormous grudge against the female lead: in the opening chase sequence, she accidentally shoots a police dog (because the super ninja she’s chasing wraps a chain around her gun) and the rest of the squad is angry at her.

Events, it turns out, simply and amorally have consequences, something the film takes increasing pains to establish as the real force driving its narrative, like a passenger being plucked out of a speeding car by the rapture. If the police are brutal, there’s a reason; maybe not a good or bad reason, but a reason. And as this theme takes over the film’s final third, I started to get what it was doing in a way I hadn’t the first time. The last part of the film is so surprising, so creepy, and yet so sweet, that the first time I saw it I simply hadn’t processed the radical reconstruction it performs on the film’s first half. And while I was quick to respond to this Hong Kong police and kung fu drama as if it were simply an American genre piece, the thing that makes it work, finally, as a unified artistic work, is the fact that it resolves a conflict that feels very American in origin to me–the stereotypical depression-era loss of faith in good guys and muted sympathy with bad guys thing–by employing a set of resolutions that would not happen in an American film. So as I was biking home, I suddenly noticed, and marveled at my prior myopia, that the movie’s actual ending hinges on the thing I had been thinking it rejected: the rehabilitation of the criminal as human and a repudiation of the violent function of police work. That was a pretty good film, I though to myself.