Tuesday, August 25, 2015

EW #10: Gone With The Wind (1939)

Vivien Leigh and Thomas Mitchell in Gone with the Wind

Film fandom is a changeable, ever-morphing thing. It is a dynamic process that unfolds over a potentially long stretch of time (i.e., a filmgoer's lifetime). Films I revered quite highly in my youth may not resonate as much with me as I get older. As I change, and as the world changes, my perception of and feelings about films I've loved transmogrify and shift, sometimes quite dramatically.

One example of this is my changing relationship to the James Bond films. I grew up loving those movies, especially the Sean Connery ones. My god, I watched the shit out of those things. Yet as I have aged, the politics of those films -- their flagrant racism and sexism -- have become harder and harder for me to bracket aside or reconcile or feel okay about. As I get older and as I deliberately pursue learning all I can about cinema and its aesthetic and thematic possibilities, I find that my appetite for good ol' male-centered action films of all kinds (be they Bond films or superhero films or what have you) has diminished significantly. This is not a judgment about the genre, I know that action films can be great (hell, check out my gushy review of Mad Max: Fury Road) but it is certainly a genre from which I have drifted away over time. I may drift back. Who knows?

My point is that we longtime film fans often find ourselves in a position of loving a thing -- or starting to shift away from loving a thing -- that we do not wish to utterly repudiate or disown, but that makes us uncomfortable as we (and our movie tastes) mature. Gone with the Wind is just such a movie for me. As an exemplar of its genre (period melodrama), as an amazing aesthetic achievement, and as an absolute high water-mark in Hollywood film history, I love this film dearly. Put Gone with the Wind on in a room and I am absolutely glued to it. It is one of the best Technicolor films ever made and from an overall aesthetic point of view probably one of the best Hollywood studio films ever made, bar none. It is female-centered (a plus) and its performances (particularly by Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Hattie McDaniel, Thomas Mitchell, and Olivia de Havilland) are uniformly superb, in many cases outright iconic. In terms of its historical importance, artistic superiority, and overall yield of viewing pleasure, I would place Wind higher on Entertainment Weekly's Top 100 List than Casablanca, which is romantic and well-crafted and chock full of great performances, yet not actually as good as many other great black and white films of the same period in my view.*

All that said, Gone With the Wind is, like many popular Hollywood mega-hits, morally reprehensible. Like its earlier cinematic forebear, Birth of a Nation (1915), Wind is brazenly racist throughout. The movie views slavery with benevolent nostalgia, and it endorses (or at least excuses) domestic violence and rape as well. So my love of Gone with the Wind as an aesthetic object is at odds with my disgust over the film's ideological messages.

This brings me to a deeper question about "best of" lists like EW's. If one includes Gone with the Wind on the list despite its overt racism and misogynistic endorsement of domestic abuse, why not include Birth of a Nation? Alternately, if one brackets out Birth on moral/ethical grounds, then why include the equally conservative, reactionary, racist, and sexist The Dark Knight (2007)? I don't have ready answers to these questions but I wonder about them.

In any case, for me, Gone with the Wind goes into the same category as the James Bond film Thunderball (which, despite my recognition of its retrograde morality, I love as a perfect piece of action cinema) or George Miller's recent masterwork Mad Max: Fury Road. I know there are some serious ideological (or in the case of Fury Road, environmental) problems with it, yet I love the film itself with all my cinephile's soul.

Particularly given that the white population of the U.S.A. is still largely in denial about the structural racism that pervades our society, it is hard to write about Wind without calling it out for its discriminatory ideas. So let us begin with the film's most subtly sinister scene, the one I call the "Scarlett as benevolent slaver" scene. This comes halfway through the film, when, after the Civil War, Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) is running her own mill and chooses to lease some convicts as laborers. After looking at a lineup of convicts for hire, Scarlett's longtime friend and business partner Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) raises an objection to her plan, saying:
I do wish you'd let me hire free darkies instead of using convicts. I do believe we could do better.
Scarlett protests, accusing Ashley of being too soft on such people. Then this dialogue ensues:
Ashley: Scarlett, I will not make money out of the enforced labor and misery of others.

Scarlett: You weren't so particular about owning slaves.

Ashley: That was different, we didn't treat them that way.
Oh, I get it now. Slavery was totally fine in Ashley's mind because, at least in his imagined version of it, whites never mistreated their slaves the way Scarlett's foreman whips and starves her newly hired convict labor force. So long as we enslave people NICELY, it's okay, is it? Thanks for explaining that one, Ashley.

An extremely strange and morally backward sequence in which Ashley (Leslie Howard) explains why slavery was actually really good for black people -- so long as it was conducted nicely. 

Ashley's swift glossing over of the multitude of cruel horrors visited upon blacks during the transatlantic slave trading years is not the only way in which Gone with the Wind offends. The even bigger lie here is that the film shows us a line of mostly white convicts. As has been extensively documented in Slavery by Another Name, what actually happened after Reconstruction is that white authorities arrested black folks in great numbers on virtually any pretense, placing them into the prison system, thereby allowing them to be contracted out to various industries for essentially no wages. This was how the practice of slavery was continued even after the formal institution of slavery was abolished in the U.S.

Mill foreman Johnny Gallagher displays his line of white convicts for lease as hard laborers. This sequence glosses over the reality that the majority of leased convicts were black men.

Oddly, then, Gone with the Wind suggests that blacks are somehow better off being slaves than they are being free. Taken together with the film's depiction of blissfully loyal plantation blacks including Hattie McDaniel's famous "mammy" character, plus the deep, melodramatic pathos the film asks us to lavish upon the whites of the postbellum South, the film's pervasive racism is undeniable.

This shot of the tattered Confederate flag flying over the South's war dead succinctly conveys Gone with the Wind's racist ideological sympathies. On the other side of the coin, this shot concludes a breathtaking and technically masterful crane shot involving hundreds of extras, illustrating why Wind was such an enormously popular blockbuster.

All that said, one of the great strengths of Gone with the Wind, as with so many other classic women's pictures, is its foregrounding of an unrepentant, hard-charging heroine who takes command of her own destiny.** Indeed, it is the figure of Scarlett O'Hara that keeps me watching this lengthy film every time. Gone with the Wind is Scarlett's story, and she is one of the greatest screen heroines in Hollywood history, surviving war and impoverishment to rise again via strength of will and commitment to the land (helped by her loyal black servants, of course).

Scarlett's general greatness makes Rhett Butler's (Clark Gable's) callous rape of her in the last act of the film all the more marring and egregious. Presented as a jilted husband's attempt to get his due, the scene in which a drunken Rhett takes Scarlett by force is one of the most disturbing of the film. Maybe the scene is the film's attempt to show how corrupt masculinity is, even in the otherwise noble (if scoundrelly) Rhett, thereby strengthening Scarlett's motivation to press on without him. But I am not sure that reading is supported by what we see. Instead, I am left with the feeling that Wind wants us to view its intramarital rape scene as something Scarlett brought upon herself by rejecting her husband's sexual advances for too long, that her body was Rhett's to exploit and by god he was going to do it. This is a reprehensibly sexist and horrifying message.

Rhett Butler as acquaintance rapist. Like the recent film Gone Girl, Gone with the Wind implies that Scarlett provokes Rhett's violation of her, casting the blame for her rape back on her, the female victim, rather than on the rapist. 

Whatever else it may be, Gone with the Wind will always stand as independent producer David O. Selznick's magnum opus and as one of the most popular and successful big-budget pictures of all time. It is a major landmark in Hollywood history and one of the greatest aesthetic and dramatic triumphs of the Golden Age. And, like it or not, it is accurately reflective of America's extremely conflicted history of race relations. Gone with the Wind may wish white America to feel better about itself by glossing over our ugly history with comforting romanticism presented in lush, three-strip Technicolor. What I hope the film does for us today -- besides enchanting us with its cinematic virtuosity and epic narrative sweep -- is to remind us how far we still have to go to achieve social justice and a discrimination-free society.

* Vaguely noirish and/or romantic black and white films of the 1940s I would place above Casablanca include Double Indemnity, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, To Have and Have Not, and probably even Hitchcock's Spellbound. If we include the early 1950s I'd also throw in From Here to Eternity, A Place in the Sun, and Night of the Hunter. I don't mean I would strike Casablanca from the Top 100 list, just that I would rank any of these films higher.
** More great examples of classic women-centered melodramas include the Bette Davis vehicles Now, Voyager (1942), Dark Victory (1939), and Jezebel (1938), Olivia de Havilland in William Wyler's The Heiress (1949), Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945), and Barbara Stanwyk's astounding turn as the title character in Stella Dallas (1937). 

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Fantastic Four (2015), Brand Loyalty, and "The Genius of the System"

I saw Josh Trank's Fantastic Four movie last week and what surprised me most was that, while it wasn't outright terrific, it actually wasn't all that bad. The critical and fan backlash against the film would have us believe that it was one of the worst movies of all time, which is clearly not the case.

Yes, the film is a bit slow-paced, which works fine in the opening 30-40 minutes as characters are being introduced, but dampens the fun in the back half. Yes, there is a devastating lack of witty banter of the sort one expects from the FF -- Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm do not flip each other any shit until the very last scene of the film, and that is a major problem. In general, Trank's take on the FF is a bit too serious in tone, which works well in the horrific segments depicting how the individual characters react to their newly acquired powers, but kills the buzz when it comes to the group's interpersonal dynamics. Omitting the traditional witty banter between the members of the FF is the biggest crime this film commits.

On the other hand, the movie's overall plot is well thought out; the idea that the military would try to control and exploit the FF really works for me. Furthermore, the film's portrayal of Victor Von Doom is absolutely spot-on, one of the best things about Trank's version. The darker tone really suits that particular character, and the parts where he starts wreaking havoc are terrific, although arguably they come along a bit late in the proceedings.

Toby Kebbell as Victor Von Doom -- the best part of Josh Trank's Fantastic Four movie. 

In other words, the FF film is flawed but not a disaster. As the Red Letter Media guys tell us, there are many good things about it, enough to keep it from being an outright failure. I personally enjoyed the film about as much as I enjoyed Marvel's Thor (2011), which had some good parts (its Asgard sequences) and, like the middle third of Trank's FF movie, just as many parts that dragged lifelessly and bored me (in Thor's case, pretty much everything that takes place on Earth).

Yet the Marvel movie fanbase seems to think that all Marvel Studios movies are somehow better than any other superhero action films these days and are rooting for Fox to hand the rights to the FF to Marvel Studios in the wake of Trank's reboot's under-performance. Bracketing aside that for economic reasons alone, that will never happen, I am not actually sure that is such a great idea. I think having different studios producing different "takes" on Marvel properties is probably a good thing, and I am not convinced that the Marvel Studios-produced films are really as consistently good as their brand-loyal fans think they are.

I am not saying that Marvel Studios isn't good at what they do. I enjoyed the first Iron Man and the first Avengers movies and thought the first Hulk and Thor movies were at least watchable. But the second Iron Man movie was a hot mess, and there is a kind of formulaic sameness that infects all Marvel's films that is getting really boring to me at this late stage in the game.*

Not that Trank didn't have his own problems with Fox Studios -- he did. As Mark Harris documented in 2014, we are in a completely franchise-dominated, bottom-line driven era of blockbuster film production, in which Disney-owned Marvel is just one particularly exemplary participant.** To be sure, Marvel Studios showed its true colors when it foolishly drove Edgar Wright off Ant-Man and pushed Joss Whedon to the point of exhaustion on Avengers 2, yet Fox and Universal are just as capable of crushing originality and creativity (or at least crushing the possibility of great mid-budget movies from directors like Trank) as is Marvel.

And my critique here reveals my own bias, doesn't it? I still tend to trust the individual director more so than I trust the larger Studio-as-auteur model now dominating Hollywood (just as it did in the Golden Age of the 1930s and '40s). To be fair, my preference for the individual director over the "house style" of a studio like Marvel (which is really Disney) is surely misguided. As Thomas Schatz writes in his brilliant book The Genius of the System,
the closer we look at Hollywood's relations of power and hierarchy of authority during the studio era, at its division of labor and assembly-line production process, the less sense it makes to assess filmmaking or film style in terms of the individual director -- or any individual, for that matter. [. . .] The quality and artistry of all these films were the product not simply of individual human expression, but of a melding of institutional forces. [. . .] The chief architects of a studio's style were its executives*** 
While it is not entirely accurate to compare today's Hollywood, dominated by unit-production and run by multinational conglomerates, to the vertically integrated major studios of the Golden Age, there are nevertheless some illuminating parallels to be drawn when discussing Marvel Studios in Schatz's terms.† Mark Harris has recently argued that studio executives like Marvel's Kevin Feige are the new power brokers in a Hollywood addicted to franchises and "live-action trailers" such as Feige's attention-getting 2014 reveal of the MCU's Phase 3. Indeed, Marvel Studios' Feige is surely the contemporary analogue to those executives to whom Schatz refers, and it is Feige, along with his corporate overlords at Disney, who chart the course of the MCU and make the final decisions about the tone, style, and content of each Marvel film.

No wonder idiosyncratic directors like Edgar Wright and Josh Trank, used to working in the somewhat more freewheeling indie sector, chafe at the dictates handed down by Disney/Marvel and Fox Studios.

Embattled director Josh Trank. 

All that said, perhaps the most noteworthy thing to me about Trank's Fantastic Four is its refusal to objectify or diminish Kate Mara's Sue Storm -- yes, amazingly, the film avoids the sexism that has so far pervaded the "official" Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel Studios' ongoing refusal to give Black Widow her own movie is only the best-known instance of this problem, dubbed "The Black Widow Conundrum" by Entertainment Weekly's Darren Franich. Franich writes:
isn’t it weird that, by the final action sequence [of Avengers 2], Black Widow’s main role is the same role as Pepper Potts in Iron Man, or Jane Foster in Thor: The lady who helps her man become a hero? “I adore you,” she tells Bruce Banner, right before she forces him to Hulk out and save the day. He also saves her life, and then makes the executive decision to disappear—To protect her, I guess? Even though the last time they talked, she made it pretty clear that she didn’t need to be protected?
Similarly, Natalie Portman's role in the Thor films is so transparently that of a two-dimensional damsel in distress that the actress attempted to escape the franchise after the first movie, to no avail.

Evangeline Lilly's Hope Van Dyne is relegated to training Ant-Man, her male replacement, because sexism.

To take an even more recent example, as Allyson Johnson argues in Marvel’s Ant-Man Went Out of Its Way to Shrink Hope Van Dyne’s Role and Suffered for It,
There is absolutely no reason why [Hope] shouldn’t have been the hero of the story. She’s relegated to being mad at her father and to training Scott, who in reality, has no real reason [for] being Ant-Man in this narrative aside from the fact that the larger narrative in the Marvel cinematic universe needs him to be. Hope is skilled in fighting, wildly intelligent and knows the lay of the company they will be infiltrating, and she continuously tells her father that she should be the one putting on the suit.
Indeed. Sadly, Ant-Man's Hope Van Dyne is just the latest female action hero to fall prey to what Tasha Robinson calls Trinity Syndrome, in which a female character initially presented as an ass-kicker is given very little to do in the film's narrative besides support the male protagonist. According to Robinson, this increasingly common character type ends the films she appears in as "the hugely capable woman who never once becomes as independent, significant, and exciting as she is in her introductory scene."

 Kate Mara as Sue Storm.

Fantastic Four's Sue Storm does not suffer this same fate. Hell, she does not even become Reed Richards's love interest in any palpable way during this film! She does become the target of Victor Von Doom's inappropriate affection/vengeance, but the film makes clear that she never encourages this. Furthermore, she never "uses" her feminine sexuality as a weapon or trap and the film never visually objectifies her. She simply plays her capable role on the team and that's that. What a refreshing breath of fresh air that was, believe me.

So in the end, I guess I am somewhat invested in keeping some of these Marvel characters in the hands of other studios and other directors. Trank's film may have been something of a noble failure, but for its casting, tone, refusal to objectify Sue Storm, and a few other nifty ideas, I respect it. While taking nothing away from Marvel Studios and what they do so well, I would rather see a few more of these offbeat attempts at something different than the same formulaic and predictable product Marvel/Disney seems intent on pumping out until the turn of the next millennium.

UPDATE 8/30/2015: Here is a list from Cracked.com that addresses the sexism of the MCU in an amusing yet accurate way.

* In truth, I have not actually seen any Marvel Studios film since The Avengers in 2012.
** Harris updated his comments in this 2015 follow-up, written after Jurassic World's release.
*** Schatz, The Genius of the System (Pantheon Books, 1988), pp. 5-7.
† Unit production, which has been the dominant way of making Hollywood films since the 1950s, is when a unique constellation of creative and technical personnel (the "unit") are assembled to make each individual film. As Schatz documents, while some studios flirted with unit-production methods during the studio era (1920s-1940s), the dominant mode of production back then was to have one supervising producer in charge of several films at a time at a given studio. The authority of this creative studio executive, who usually reported only to the studio boss, was so great that key personnel on individual films, even directors, were considered interchangeable. These producers (Irving Thalberg at MGM, David Selznick at RKO, Darryl Zanuck at Warners) were indeed the auteurs of the films they supervised, and they frequently mixed and matched directors, writers, cinematographers, etc., as each project required, thereby diffusing the creative control of those adjuvant personnel.
†† As io9's Meredith Woerner and Katharine Trendacosta have noted, Marvel/Disney's disservice to Black Widow extends beyond the films: they cite Jeremy Renner's public slut-shaming of the character and the lack of Black Widow merchandise as evidence of the structural sexism surrounding her at Disney/Marvel. Of course, they also note the unfortunate sexism of her "forced sterilization" back story in Avengers 2: "Instead of wading into the 'red ledger' of a complicated person who did seriously heinous acts and is trying desperately to buy redemption with good deeds, we get the character who feels ruined by her barren womb." Much of my diminishing interest in Marvel movies is due to crap like this.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Review: John Carter (2012)

The City of Helium

I saw Disney's John Carter movie early in its run in summer 2012 and, while acknowledging that it ain't Shakespeare, I nevertheless thoroughly enjoyed it. As a fan of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels upon which it is based, it was great fun to see the world of Barsoom (Mars) brought to vivid life, and I would single out the film's depiction of the green martian Tharks, its portrayal John Carter's faithful "hound" Woola, and its casting of Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris as particular high points. The airships were killer too. I wasn't totally sold on Taylor Kitsch as John Carter at first -- I agree with Al that he could have been characterized as more of a "chivalrous gentleman," as in the ERB books -- but he grew on me over the course of the movie.  

As you may know, there has been a ton of press circulating about how the film is a colossal box-office flop, sunk due to the studio's overindulgence of director Andrew Stanton and a seriously botched marketing campaign.* That all makes fascinating reading, and I am especially interested in (and, having seen the film, frustrated by) Disney's last-minute decision to change the film's title from the appropriately evocative John Carter of Mars to the blandly obtuse John Carter. This was a big blunder that, if corrected, may not have widened the actual audience for the film by a great margin, but as it stood surely didn't help the film's chances to accrue the following it deserves.

Much of the press about John Carter zeroes in only upon the tumultuous production and distribution circumstances that brought the film to the screen. Yet as a loyal Edgar Rice Burroughs fan who knew I wanted to see John Carter even if it was flawed in certain ways, I am more interested in the movie that actually made it to the screen. I want to judge the film on its own merits.

A Red Martian airship

On that score, John Carter is a total success. It is an engaging, thoughtfully crafted and very well made science-fantasy action epic. I would even say that it is superior, entertainment-value-wise, to many roughly contemporary superhero films including Thor and Iron Man 2. I personally had much more fun watching John Carter than I have practically any other big-budget movie since the first Iron Man.

For a really smart video review of the film itself, check out the Red Letter Media "Half in the Bag" Review, which begins at the 11:03 mark in the linked episode.

At around the 13:44 mark in that review, Jay (the light-haired guy on the right) calls John Carter a "1980's throwback," and that assessment may account for much of its appeal to me. I am forty years old, and my movie tastes are starting to become increasingly "old-fashioned" I think. I really enjoyed John Carter's fun spirit and straightforward, comprehensible action sequences. In fact, the editing of the action sequences in John Carter works for me in ways that the action-sequence cutting seen in Christopher Nolan's Batman films or Michael Bay's Transformers films does not. I find much of the action portions of those movies to be literally baffling; I cannot tell what the hell is going on from shot to shot. In addition to its general fidelity to source material I care about, John Carter moves more at my pace, editing-wise, and I like that.

To pick a couple of nits, I would say that John Carter's flashbacks to Carter's dead wife (??!) were totally unnecessary and did nothing for the story being told. The dialogue was a bit clunky and stilted at points, though no worse than what we get in most big-budget action films (clunkiness of dialogue is where Nolan's work leaps ahead of the competition). I also wasn't totally keen on the role the shape-shifting Therns played in the narrative -- I agree with Oliver Lyttelton's point #6, which states that: "For all the many antagonists thrown at him in the first 90 minutes, John Carter finds out in the last third of the movie, it’s actually Matai Shang (played by Mark Strong) who's the villain. Pulling the strings behind Sab Than’s quest for power, he spends most of the movie keeping an eye on John Carter before they finally meet head to head late in the game, although he doesn't simply kill Carter, because he's a cliched movie bad guy." The Therns indeed seemed bad just for badness' sake, and I would have liked to see more actual development of the Sab Than character and a greater emphasis on the substance of the rivalry between John Carter and Sab Than.

In conclusion, I must admit that director Stanton's attention to the details of the original Burroughs concepts may alienate or confuse many viewers not already familiar with John Carter from ERB's books (Lyttelton makes this his point #4). Yet I also can't see how any moderately intelligent viewer wouldn't figure out what a"Jeddak" was once it is used three or four times in the course of the dialogue (which it is in rapid succession at the film's outset). Come on, folks, how much spoon-feeding is necessary? I admire Stanton for sticking to his guns and keeping Barsoomian language more or less intact -- it gives this movie flavor and uniqueness.

Jay of Red Letter Media captures this spirit when he remarks (starting around the 18:18 mark) that "I see this movie having the same fate as other big-budget movies that don't find an audience in the theater, like Tron or David Lynch's Dune, it finds its audience later, becomes more of a cult movie."  This sounds right to me. I think John Carter -- which thankfully retains its full original title, John Carter of Mars, in the title card right at the end of the movie -- will age well, and will be regarded more highly once the hubbub over its big budget and small theatrical returns have died down. I myself have obtained the DVD version and am an avid member of the cult of John Carter of Mars.

Bonus afterthought: See also Rob Dean's "Gaze longingly at the John Carter Of Mars film that could have been."

Lynn Collins says: "Come see me as Dejah Thoris in John Carter -- I'm so good I practically steal the movie!"

* For a detailed account of what went wrong on John Carter's marketing campaign, see Michael D. Sellers' John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Great Directors: David Fincher

David Fincher.

I am somewhat hesitant to use the term "great directors" at all because it suggests a kind of auteurism that favors the works of a few so-called "great" filmmakers over films made by lesser-known or less consistent talents. Despite my love of certain directors (Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford, Kurosawa, Korine, Soderbergh, Holofcener, etc.) and my tendency to seek out films by directors whose work I know I have enjoyed in the past, I am not ONLY interested in the work of directors I know by name nor do I believe that a "great" director is required to produce great work. However, I could not include this appreciation of David Fincher in my "Overlooked Directors" series because he is certainly not overlooked, not since 1999's Fight Club anyway.

I further acknowledge that greatness is always culturally determined and historically contingent. I recently wrote a piece about the lack of greatness I see in Quentin Tarantino's post-1997 output. In that piece I compare QT's late-career works both to his own earlier, better films AND to several other independent, studio, and non-U.S. directors and films with which I am familiar. To me, as a filmgoer with a fairly deep exposure to many of the same films from which Tarantino borrows his style, his post-1997 work seems derivative, two-dimensional, and not that interesting. By contrast,  I assume his films must feel like an edgy, inventive breath of fresh air to someone who mainly only watches big studio blockbusters and other mainstream stuff.

In addition to a viewer's assumptions and background knowledge, time also changes how we view films and bodies of work. In 1997, Quentin Tarantino's work seemed lively, clever, amazing. In 2015, the novelty has worn thin.

Therefore I judge Fincher in his present moment and context: he is a commercial, studio director with an extraordinary degree of technical and artistic mastery who really really loves to make dark, noirish crime thrillers, often about serial killers.

It might be best if we start off by watching this excellent video:

Tony Zhou, the whip-smart narrator of that video, remarks of watching David Fincher's films that "it's great to watch someone who's actually great at their job." Zhou concludes that "even if you don't like Fincher, this is some of the best craft in directing right now and it is absolutely worth studying."* I couldn't agree more. I will state openly that I think Fincher is one of America's most talented and skilled directors, and he may sit very close to the top of the heap now that Steven Soderbergh has supposedly "retired" from filmmaking.

Let's look at a few of Fincher's best efforts -- chosen quite subjectively by me -- in an attempt to sum up what makes his work so consistently superb.**

"Its production history has usurped its impact." --Scout Tafoya on Alien 3

Alien 3 (1992)
Alien 3 is one of those films that it is fashionable to hate, probably due to the rock-solid construction, immense popularity, and lasting influence of its two precursors, Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986). Yet I have always liked Alien 3 and have never quite understood the outcry against it. When I first saw the extensive behind-the-scenes footage of how difficult this threequel was to make, I was surprised, for to me the finished film does not reveal the tumultuous struggle that brought it into being. Like this reviewer, I consider Alien 3 to be on par with the first two Alien films, and in fact I personally prefer it over James Cameron's Aliens.

Of course, much of my preference is surely attributable to genre: I categorically prefer horror films to action films. But like Mr. Constantine says in the review linked above, Alien 3 is a perfect capstone to the Alien trilogy (like him I deny the existence of the abysmal and, ironically, lifeless Alien Resurrection) and a superb stand-alone gothic horror film, especially in its extended version included in the Alien Quadrilogy boxed set:
While it’s admirable of James Cameron to do something different as opposed to a traditional sequel, I do feel that [in Aliens] the aliens became a bit less threatening by having so many of them. [. . .] With Aliens, although there are some surprises, you’re pretty confident that Ripley, Hicks and Newt will all survive. But in Alien 3, like in Alien, it’s made very clear that no one is safe. We’re now in a situation that is just as desperate as the first film.
Indeed. To continue in this vein, let's check out this great video essay about the greatness of Alien 3:

As Scout Tafoya writes in the essay accompanying the video, 
Because the third film revolves almost entirely around Ripley's desire to protect the integrity of her body—specifically her womb—"Alien 3" feels more purely feminist than the previous two movies, for all their innovative images of a badass heroine fighting bugs whose bodies fused male and female genitalia into a Freudian nightmare. In the first movie, she's fighting to save her crew. In the second, she's fighting to save a little girl, and in so doing, embracing her own latent potential for motherhood; the climactic action scene even brings her face-to-face with another mother, the alien queen, in an egg chamber. These are all engaging, relatable motivations, but they're culturally conservative, because they play on the traditional image of woman as potential victim or maternal protector. 
In "Alien 3," Ripley is fighting for Ripley, period.
I agree with this assessment. I have always felt that, while Ripley is undeniably badass in Aliens, the feminist implications of her role in that film have tended to be overstated. I think she is a more progressive figure in the first Alien film, where her gender is barely even at play -- she just does her job as first officer of the Nostromo and her femininity and/or maternal instincts have nothing to do with it. In fact, I think that Alien makes clear that she is a better leader and officer than Dallas, since he makes the devastatingly bad call to insist she admit he and the alien-infested Kane back onboard ship, while she has the good judgment to refuse him. The only way the first film might be seen to "sell out" Ripley on the basis of her gender is when it depicts her in her underwear near the end, subjecting her to the objectifying, erotic masculine gaze germane to all Hollywood cinema.***

The one sexually objectifying series of shots that mars Ridley Scott's 
otherwise perfect horror masterpiece Alien (1979). 

All that said, and to broaden the scope here a little, we should ask: is David Fincher's work sexist? I admit that a couple of his recent works, The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, have given me serious pause: the former is about an adolescent-minded guy who treats women misogynistically at every point along his rise to the top, and the latter depicts rape in ways that I find unnerving (especially compared to its Swedish antecedent).† Beyond that, I am inclined to read Gone Girl, Fincher's latest psychosexual thriller, as another of the director's works that leans too heavily in the misogynist direction.††

In this context, Fincher's work reminds me a great deal of Alfred Hitchcock's, both in terms of its technical perfection and in its tendency to be both woman-positive AND misogynist at the same time. Like Hitch, Fincher seems drawn toward stories featuring well-rounded and interesting women characters (e.g., Alien 3, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and the Netflix TV series House of Cards) most of whom are dark, edgy, gender-bending, and sexually dangerous in ways reminiscent of the femme fatale of film noir. As such, Fincher's women characters, despite their complexity, often end up getting tortured, raped, and/or murdered at some point in their respective films or programs. I discuss Gone Girl at length elsewhere, but must note here that, despite its technical perfection and edge-of-your-seat thrills, it has drawn a substantial feminist backlash (e.g., here, here, and here) that I find difficult to downplay or refute.

But in any case Alien 3 is great and I strongly suggest that you lay your hands on a copy of the extended 1991 "Assembly Cut" and check it out.

Jodie Foster and a young Kristen Stewart star in David Fincher's 
somewhat under-appreciated thriller Panic Room.

The Game (1997) and Panic Room (2002)
I am quite fond of these two underrated gems, especially the latter. They are genre films, tightly made thrillers with few, if any, deep thoughts on their minds, yet they are so damn well directed and visually rich that they stand out purely for their level of craft.

One of the most remarkable shots in Panic Room is a digital "long take" in the film's first act, just before the 16-minute mark. The shot lasts about three minutes, tracking backward out of Meg's (Jodie Foster) bedroom, between two banister rails, down two stories, past the front window (seeing intruders outside) and into the front door keyhole, back past the front window (still seeing intruders), through the kitchen to the back door, up a story to see an intruder climbing up the fire escape outside, then up a few more to the skylight, then back down into the "panic room" on the house's top floor. What I like about this shot is that it is clearly an impossible shot to get via traditional means -- no camera could fit between those banister rails or inside that keyhole -- yet what Fincher and his team do here is create a mostly digital (computer-generated) shot that attempts to look like a traditional, analog camera move that achieves the physically impossible. I wish more directors and films took advantage of CGI to accomplish stuff like this rather than to overwhelm us with robots.

Aside from his general virtuosity and inventive use of cutting-edge digital effects techniques, I also like that Fincher clearly understands the roots of the genre in which he works, paying homage to other thrillers and noirs such as Kubrick's The Killing:

One of the last shots from David Fincher's Panic Room . . . 

. . . pays homage to this famous, climactic shot from Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956).

Fincher's early thrillers and neo-noirs such as Se7enThe Game, and Panic Room ultimately pave the way for his greatest achievement in this area . . .

A beautifully lit and composed shot from the opening sequence of Zodiac
David Fincher's 2007 neo-noir masterpiece.

Zodiac (2007)
Zodiac is Fincher's hands-down best film in my view. I really don't know what to say about it except: see it. It may be that I am ill-equipped to speak critically about Zodiac because I am too close to it -- it is one of my all-time favorite movies. It is essentially a film noir (more precisely a neo-noir, that is, a noir-like film made after 1958), which is one of my very favorite film genres / styles. Briefly glossed, film noir is a style that emerged as part a cycle of crime films starting in the late 1930s or early 1940s. Structurally, the noir is an offshoot or adaptation of the crime thriller, especially the police procedural. What makes the film noir distinct from its antecedents is its high-contrast lighting style, its rain-soaked nighttime city streets, its morally ambiguous characters, and its focus on the process of an investigation as opposed to its outcome (a great many noirs end ambiguously or with the real culprit uncaught). According to French film theorists Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton,
the moral ambivalence, the criminality, the complex contradictions in motives and events, all conspire to make the viewer co-experience that anguish and insecurity which are the true emotions of contemporary film noir. All films of this cycle create a similar emotional effect: that state of tension instilled in the spectator when the psychological reference points are removed. †††
This applies oh so well to Zodiac, in which everyday guy Robert Graysmith becomes obsessed with the case of the Zodiac Killer and utterly loses touch with his family life in the process. He finds the killer, but does he catch him? Watch the movie to find out.

Note Zodiac's noir-like high contrast lighting that plunges 
Robert's (Jake Gyllenhaal) face into shadow. 

For those of you who have read my American Hustle review, you will recall that I critiqued that film for over-doing its "70s-ness," going too far over the top, creating something that felt off-putting, hyper-real, and historically wrong. Zodiac is my positive counter-example for how to get a 1970s period piece exactly right.

Zodiac represents neo-noir at its very best. Its aesthetics are a masterful mixture of neo-noir style and a perfectly rendered 1970s period piece -- kind of like the serial killer plot of Dirty Harry shot, lit, and paced as if it were Night Moves or Chinatown.

Mark Ruffalo walking in front of a bluescreen in San Francisco shooting Zodiac

Equally interesting as what we see onscreen in Zodiac are the cutting-edge processes used to bring them about. I could attempt to explain in detail how Fincher and his associates created 1970s San Francisco via complex bluescreen technology etc., but why not once again defer to an informative video?

Deliciously twisted and sprawling, intelligently scripted, and (as always) boldly shot, lit, and edited, Fincher's Zodiac is a masterpiece for both Fincher and the neo-noir tradition writ large. Please see it.

Kate Mara and Kevin Spacey in season one episode two of House of Cards.

House of Cards (2 episodes, 2013)
Folks who know me will attest that it is difficult to win me over as a regular watcher of dramatic television shows (comedy is a different story). I am well aware of the "quality TV" revolution and have watched a few pivotal series, like Oz and The Shield, to completion, but I swear I've made several earnest efforts to get into The Sopranos and have never made it past season two. I made it three and a half seasons into Mad Men and got bored. Dramatic shows, no matter how well-produced, just don't typically seem to hold my attention for long.

Fincher's Netflix Original Series House of Cards is an exception. I don't even normally like Kevin Spacey -- I usually find him too "actor-y" and over-determined in his onscreen performances -- and yet I like him here. (I also basically like him in Se7en as well -- his hamminess meshes well with that somewhat fantastical / fanatical character.) I watched all of seasons one and two of Cards and enjoyed them both quite a bit.

That said, my interest in House of Cards has flagged a bit as it heads into its third season. Part of my issue is that I think Claire Underwood's (Robin Wright) story got compromised in season two. As Karen Valby's critique of Claire's season two story arc makes clear, she is such an awesome, compelling, uncompromising character to begin with that it is a major letdown to discover that a past sexual assault may be a motivating factor explaining her present-day edge. As Valby asks: "can’t we enjoy standing aghast in the face of Claire’s ruthlessness without saddling her with such an excruciating foundation?" I sincerely wish we could. I join with Valby in asking "quality" television shows to quit falling back on rape as a stock story device imposed upon otherwise extremely compelling and interesting female characters.

Robin Wright as Claire Underwood on House of Cards

I guess that brings us back to the misogyny point, and it is an issue that continues to haunt Fincher's latest works. I must acknowledge Fincher as one of the greatest living American filmmakers. His mastery of his craft is exceptionally high, his films consistently superb, and even when he makes sexist missteps, his films are never anything less than emotionally and visually provocative. Even when I am troubled by some of their gendered implications, I nevertheless enjoy and marvel at (most of) Fincher's films. Yet that sexist vibe is palpably in there, perhaps nowhere more so than in Gone Girl. That troubles me and may, for me, somewhat diminish Fincher's cinematic achievements over time if it continues.

* Zhou has a Patreon site where he solicits financial support for his superb and essential "Every Frame a Painting" video essay series.
** Note that I am not discussing Fight Club (1999), because frankly, I don't like that film much. I find it thematically pretentious (with its false "anti-capitalist" message), and ideologically dangerous (striving to be a satire I think but presenting Edward Norton's character too sympathetically to work as a critique of his white, hypermasculine bullshittery). I am not discussing Se7en (1995) because, while I like it a lot, I think Zhou's video essay says enough about what makes this generally well-received film great.
*** Here I refer to the well-known feminist analysis of Hollywood cinema by Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," which correctly points out that Hollywood objectifies women onscreen via sexist camera and costuming techniques Mulvey calls the "male gaze."
† For more on the sexism of the geeky protagonist of The Social Network, see my co-authored article, "Postmodern Geekdom as Simulated Ethnicity."
†† I capsule-reviewed Gone Girl in my 2014 end of year roundup, concluding that it is "an amazingly well-wrought thriller with an unfortunate, mile-wide misogynist streak."
††† Borde and Chaumeton, "Towards a Definition of Film Noir" in The Film Noir Reader (Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini, Limelight Editions, 1996) p. 25.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Review: The Fog (1980)

Hal Holbrook as Father Malone in The Fog, John Carpenter's underrated 
supernatural revenge thriller.  

I am a major John Carpenter fan. He is an enormously talented and consistent genre filmmaker whose string of 1970s and 1980s films, including Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), Escape From New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Starman (1984), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and They Live (1988), establish him as one of the key figures of the Hollywood Renaissance. However, due to his somewhat lower budgets and propensity to stick to "low" genres like horror, action, and science fiction, he often gets short shrift in accounts of this uniquely fertile period in American filmmaking.*

Carpenter's revenge-of-ghosts thriller The Fog was a somewhat troubled production, requiring extensive reshoots late in the process and receiving mixed reviews upon its release in early 1980. But it fared okay at the box office and is by no means despised, just somewhat overlooked, especially in comparison to the bigger hits that bracket it.

I am a pretty big fan of The Fog, rating it my third or fourth favorite Carpenter film overall, behind Assault, The Thing, and Halloween. I feel great love for the Carpenter / Kurt Russell collaborations Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China, yet I confess that I re-watch The Fog far more often than I do either of those two pictures. I probably even re-watch it more frequently than I do Halloween these days.** Why do I enjoy The Fog so much? Let me explain.

Darwin Joston, who played the second lead in Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13, makes a cameo appearance as medical examiner Dr. Phibes in The Fog

Like The Thing, Carpenter's 1982 career masterpiece, The Fog is a true ensemble film, and both the specific individuals involved and their onscreen performances here are absolutely superior. We're talking about Carpenter regulars Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Atkins, Charles Cyphers, Nancy Loomis, and Adrienne Barbeau, plus legendary performers Janet Leigh, Hal Holbrook, and John Houseman making impressive late-career appearances (though the latter only appears in a very brief cameo, essentially introducing the film). As if that weren't enough, Carpenter himself makes a cameo in front of the camera as church handyman Bennett, something he rarely ever does. His line delivery is not terrific, but it's neat to see him in there. And his early scene with Father Malone is the only one in the film in which the performances are anything less than stellar.

Indeed, like Jaws 2 or other films of the 1970s, The Fog's more relaxed moments of character development -- which it is unafraid to embrace at length, allowing the movie to "breathe" in ways few post-1980s mainstream genre films manage -- are especially good, and feel especially "real." Now I know the word "real" is an extremely subjective, slippery, and historically contingent term to use in reference to complexly constructed storytelling media like movies. All films are fiction films, and none -- not even documentaries -- represent true, lived reality with particularly great fidelity. So maybe the adjective I'm looking for here is "lived-in," an appearance of comfortable, easy familiarity that connotes psychological depth and emotional richness using only a few briefly sketched details. The best example of this from The Fog (though there are many, including every conversation between Nancy Loomis and Janet Leigh) is the scene between Nick and Elizabeth at Nick's house in Antonio Bay.

One of my favorite scenes in The Fog: Nick (Tom Atkins) and Elizabeth (Jamie Lee Curtis) discuss her drawings and their lives in a wonderfully natural and intimate sequence. 

This naturalness or lived-in-ness carries over into the film's brilliant use of locations, especially the lighthouse from which Stevie Wayne's radio show broadcasts nightly. Carpenter's use of actual northern California exteriors really pays off in The Fog -- the film looks like few other Hollywood productions do solely on this basis. The choice to shoot at least partially in northern Cal subtly evokes that other uncanny thriller associated with the region, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). By saying this I do not mean to compare The Fog to Vertigo in terms of artistic accomplishment, emotional impact, or overall quality, for in all these areas, Hitchcock's film is superior. I simply mean to point out that Carpenter uses his locations very well. They lend a visual richness and depth to The Fog.

Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) hikes down the stairs to her lighthouse radio station. This exterior was shot on location on the northern California coast. 

The Fog also does a lovely job paying homage to other films and narrative traditions that have come before. As I've said, The Fog's scenery vaguely reminds me of the locales of Vertigo: Antonio Bay evokes the highway leading to the redwood forests and Father Malone's church substitutes for the Spanish mission. Beyond that, Janet Leigh's presence in this film obviously recalls Psycho. The film's climactic showdown in Father Malone's chapel, with our ensemble of heroes fighting off murderous ghosties coming in through the windows, is surely a deliberate callback to similar scenes in Night of the Living Dead. And Stevie Wayne's concluding admonition to "Look for the fog!" is a direct echo of The Thing from Another World's final line, "Watch the skies!" Lastly, The Fog's whole central narrative arc about vengeful, supernatural creatures emerging from the sea to kill a bunch of clueless townspeople evokes, well, every scary story about hook-handed murderers you've ever heard around a campfire.

Indeed, Houseman's opening pre-credits vignette, depicting just such a story being told to children around a campfire, makes clear that The Fog knows it is treading well-worn narrative ground here, revealing that its main purpose is to have us sit back and enjoy the ride while it offers us an occasional scare accompanied by a nudge and a wink. I think that this knowingness, the film's touch of intentional camp, is one of the central pleasures to be had in viewing The Fog.

Sandy (Nancy Loomis) and Kathy (Janet Leigh) discuss the curse that has fallen upon their town with the gloomy, inconsolable Father Malone.

Along this line, the film's greatest triumph is the casting and performance of Hal Holbrook as Father Malone. In contrast to the scenes with the rest of the cast, none of the scenes involving Malone feel "lived-in" or real, but rather hyperbolically melodramatic and symbolically overdetermined. If everybody else in Antonio Bay is going about their daily lives in a relatively pedestrian way, Malone feels like he has been dropped into the proceedings from the set of a histrionically overcharged morality play. However incongruous this may sound as I write it, trust me: Malone's every scenery chewing moment is absolutely delightful. Malone is both the moral center of the town (and the film) and the most entertaining single element to be found in The Fog.

The only elements that compete with Malone for sheer entertainment value are some of the juicy murders committed by the film's verbally reticent sea-ghosts.

[Note: This next paragraph contains SPOILERS so if you want to avoid them, skip down past the screenshot of the Antonio Bay coastline.]

As Halloween aptly demonstrates, John Carpenter knows how to stage thrilling, horrific-but-not-too-gory death scenes. As with Halloween, in The Fog there are relatively few actual killings (only six people die) but most of these folks' final moments are pretty memorable. The best and most brutal deaths are the first ones, on board the ill-fated trawler Sea Grass, but my personal favorite killing is that of over-confident, wisecracking weather reporter Dan (Charles Cyphers) -- the buildup to that particular death is priceless. And as with the little girl murdered by gangsters early on in Assault on Precinct 13The Fog demonstrates that Carpenter is unafraid to brutally kill off innocent, good-hearted, sympathetic characters we care about in order to raise the stakes. The deaths of Dan and Mrs. Kobritz are the best examples of this.

Mrs. Kobritz's last stand. 

Antonio Bay at twilight, an example of The Fog's top-notch scenery and cinematography and a signal that "the coast is clear" regarding SPOILERS in this review. 

Discussing The Fog's killing scenes brings to mind the film's one possible weakness, the element that motivated its eleventh-hour reshoots and serves as a key criticism for its detractors: its somewhat inconsistent tone. Most of the explicit parts of The Fog's murder scenes were added late and feel more slasher-ish than uncannily ghost-like. The aforementioned character-development scenes, like those between Nick and Elizabeth, feel more like they belong in Hal Ashby's Shampoo than they do in a John Carpenter-directed horror film. Contrasting with both of these more "realistic" elements are the supernatural, glowing fog and the ghosts it brings with it, which are uncanny and creepy but not truly very shocking or scary. For some viewers, these three different tones may not cohere well or add up to anything particularly impactful by the film's last reel.

Yet for me, The Fog's disparate elements weave together well, aided by Father Malone's relentless hammering of the vile motivations behind the revenge plot and the film's frequent, highly adept use of cross-cutting to suggest simultaneity and thematic linkage between its various story strands.  

In sum, The Fog is a glorious mishmash of casting choices, genre conventions, and film references that somehow jells in a way that really works for me. Is it the scariest ghost story you'll ever see on screen? No, not by a long shot.*** Is it John Carpenter's best film? No, not that either. But is it full of self-aware pleasures, superb cinematography, (mostly) lived-in performances, and a few fun scares? Absolutely. Is it worth your time? I'd say so.

Father Malone sez: "We're all murderers!"

Bonus afterthought: I have never seen the 2005 remake of The Fog and never plan to -- you're joking, right? 

UPDATE 8/30/2015: This io9 list names The Fog as a "devastatingly beautiful" horror film.

* By Hollywood's standards, "low-budget" means around $6 million or less. Carpenter's Halloween was made for $325,000 and The Fog was reportedly made for approximately $1 million. For more information about the Hollywood Renaissance, see my review of Bonnie and Clyde.
** Halloween is a big movie for me, because it is the film my younger brother used to lure me into horror film fandom in the first place, and it is surely the John Carpenter film I have seen the greatest number of times by far. It will always maintain a special place in my viewing history and my heart, even if there are other horror films (such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Videodrome) and John Carpenter films (especially Assault on Precinct 13, my very favorite) that I enjoy more than I do Halloween. It may also be that once I saw Bob Clark's Black Christmas (1974) and realized that Carpenter stole most of Halloween's innovative visual ideas from that earlier slasher, my appreciation for Halloween was somewhat diminished.
*** That distinction surely belongs to Kairo (2001, dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa) or maybe The Innocents (1961, dir. Jack Clayton). 

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Review: Mad Max Fury Road (2015)

I am somewhat giddily in love with Mad Max: Fury Road. As of this writing, I have seen it twice in the theaters, plan to see it there once more, and have already pre-ordered it on DVD.* I know I will be enjoying this film for years to come and will teach it in my future "Women and Film" courses. Therefore I don't think my future self will be too upset if I declare it to be the best mainstream action film of the year 2015. It is one of the best films bar none that I have seen in a long time (since I saw Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan earlier this year at any rate).

Yes, I love Fury Road like a fanboy. Still, I completely understand some folks' concerns about and criticisms of the movie. It's a bit violent and brutal, of course, and some reviewers consider it to be too thinly plotted. Furthermore, while its themes are pronouncedly feminist, it does demonstrate some noticeable objectification of female bodies. Its real-life environmental record is abysmal. I will address some of these concerns later in this spoiler-inclusive review. Yet for me, given that so much contemporary mainstream action fare is so much crappier than Fury Road in quality and ideology, it is easy to focus on what this movie gets right and to slightly overlook the ways in which it plays into retrograde conventions.

Adam Lubitow, writing for the Rochester City newspaper, says almost everything I would want to say about the film -- I urge you to read his review in full. He writes:
At 70 years old, George Miller has put his younger peers to shame, producing an instant classic of the [action] genre. His film is packed with thrillingly kinetic action sequences, filled with unforgettable images; the world of "Mad Max" is a marvel of production and costume design. Each frame is brimming with details that demonstrate how much thought and care went into building this universe.
Indeed. The incredibly high degree of filmmaking craft on display here is so stunning that this io9 writer calls Fury Road's very existence in today's Hollywood "a miracle." I am inclined to agree.

But the latest Mad Max installment's specialness doesn't stop there. Lubitow's insightful review notes Fury Road's "unabashed feminist streak":
It's the rare action movie (or any genre for that matter) that not only passes the Bechdel test, but does so with flying colors. At a certain point, there are 12 women on screen, all talking to one another, never about a man. For a film with a plotline about women being treated as sex slaves, it's never exploitative. We're never forced to witness their abuse, and only meet the women after they've escaped. The film's mindset can be summed up by the first clear look we get of the freed brides: rejoicing as they use a bolt cutter to help each other break free of their painful-looking chastity belts.
Once Max joins Furiosa and company about twenty minutes in, he searches the War Rig's cab for guns but misses Furiosa's gearshift knife, which she reveals to the viewer (but not Max) as a punchline to the scene. This whole sequence exemplifies what makes Fury Road so unique and great: Max's "serious" action hero behavior is rendered comedic, his paranoia shown to be misplaced even as it simultaneously illuminates how deeply traumatized he is. We are shown (not told) that Furiosa has complete control over this situation and is not scared of Max at all. Her reveal of the gearshift knife informs us that she could have pulled that knife at any time and killed him, but has elected not to. This wonderful sequence, and the one that follows it in which Max works to remove his metal face mask with a file, positions him as an object of laughter, just like Ronny (Nic Cage) in Moonstruck, being made fun of for his melodramatic suffering after the loss of his hand.**

"I lost my hand!" laments Ronny Cammereri. Film scholar Kathleen Karlyn argues that moments of male melodrama in Moonstruck are tempered by female laughter, re-centering the film's narrative around women's power to disrupt patriarchal oppression via comedy. The same general strategy holds true for Mad Max: Fury Road, in which female power renders "serious" male heroics funny.

In short, Imperator Furiosa is the protagonist of Fury Road and Max is essentially her comic sidekick. He plays a key role in the action, has some great fight sequences, and we feel his pain and trauma via inventive, sparingly used flashbacks, yet there is no doubt that Furiosa is this story's hero.

Furthermore, the movie is at great pains to illustrate that the dominant form of masculinity in its world is bankrupt, hollow and destructive: we see a belt with a Death Skull motif placed over Immortan Joe's crotch at the outset, just before he withholds from his people the life-giving water coming from his symbolic triple-phallus. Then, at the end of the film, the milk-giving mothers open these same water valves for good.

Meanwhile, our gang goes through the valley -- a vaginal metaphor -- bringing seeds back through the same valley to the water-rich Citadel and giving birth to a new civilization. This sort of thing has prompted some reviews to call the film ecofeminist.

Yet as Philip Smith correctly argues, Fury Road does indulge one sexist cinematic convention: the visual objectification of women's bodies. Immortan Joe's scantily clad wives are indeed put on display for the viewer's pleasure, in accordance with the pervasive Hollywood practice documented by film scholar Laura Mulvey.*** Yet I am inclined to agree with Lubitow and others who see these characters as being developed enough to alleviate accusations that their depiction is gratuitous or exploitative. In the context of the film, their relative nudity has been imposed upon them by their patriarchal oppressor, so it functions as a reminder of the conditions from which they are proactively escaping. Furthermore, they are given much more to do in this film than to just stand around being objectified.

This pro-woman, pro-feminist stance is so rare to see in a mainstream action film, and so delightfully surprising and refreshing as presented in Fury Road, that mother Cecily Kellogg even took her nine-year-old daughter to see the film despite its "R" rating, because "it kicks ass, and that ass-kicking is done by a huge variety of women." She writes:
There's a small moment in the movie where [Max] turns the big gun with the last bullet over to Furiosa because she's a better shot. Frankly, it's stunning. I've never once seen that in a movie.
Me neither! Kellogg's comment exposes one of the Fury Road's greatest strengths, and the main reason it is destined for "classic" status: its ability to convey important character development moments in action rather than dialogue. Indeed, the best thing about Fury Road, besides its bold feminist ideology, is its complete commitment to "Show, don't tell" filmmaking (what Hitchcock and others call "pure cinema").

For some (re-)viewers, this "show don't tell" aesthetic is taken too far. Film blogger David Palmer, echoing similar yet more forgiving comments made by Entertainment Weekly reviewer Chris Nashawaty, writes that Fury Road is too much "style over substance" and that "from a narrative perspective, it leaves much to be desired." While I respect his view on the matter, I can't help but wonder if the recent (post-1990s) spat of over-explicated blockbusters -- a style of over-talked, superficially cerebral action film of which Christopher Nolan is the undisputed king, though Michael Bay is also guilty of over-complicating his "plots" with needless chatter about doomsday devices irrelevant to the films' action -- has blunted many contemporary viewers' ability to pick up on subtle visual cues, rendering it difficult for such viewers to register unexplicated actions as a legitimate form of characterization.

On a tangential yet related note, I think this same phenomenon of slight viewer inattentiveness and expectation that anything important will be spelled out in dialogue is what leads many commentators to erroneously label the films of Stanley Kubrick as "cold" or "antiseptic" or "distant." Forsooth, those films are full of life and humor and deep emotion, but Kubrick achieves his effects (affects?) by creating dissonance, tension, even (at times) deliberate contradictions between what characters say and what we see. His characters lie and obfuscate and dissemble, displaying a lack of self-awareness that is both intensely amusing and true to life. Nowhere is this technique used more clearly and sublimely than in his great masterpiece Barry Lyndon (1975), in which almost everything the smug, hilariously self-satisfied narrator tells the viewer about Redmond Barry is incomplete, misleading, and/or outright false. The meaning of that film lies in the discrepancy between what we are TOLD of Barry and what we are SHOWN of him. It requires a perceptive viewer and multiple viewings to suss this out.

I place Fury Road in the same category. It is, quite literally, deceptively simple on the surface, yet is freighted with meaning. Unmistakably feminist meaning. Lubitow agrees:
Despite the sparse dialogue, there's just enough development so that every character gets their own arc. The brides all have distinct personalities, and we come to know each of the characters not through tedious exposition, but through the actions they take.
As this video essayist points out, part of Fury Road's visual power lies in its refusal to use Chaos Cinema techniques, instead relying on more traditional (or "classical") shot framings and editing techniques:

Fury Road's stunning visual beauty also has a lot to do with its location, and therein lies a sad story of ethical misdeeds. The production's sketchy environmental report card is thoughtfully discussed by ecocritic Steve Rust here. In that piece, Rust points out that
[what’s] most concerning about Miller’s latest film isn’t the message audiences take away from the text, [but] the actual environmental impact of the film on on the areas where it was filmed in the [ecologically] sensitive desert of Namibia. Back in 2013, when only hard-core fans and industry insiders were following the film’s production, the film stirred up controversy for a short time over concerns that the film crew was tearing up the desert.
Rust quotes Guardian reporter Natasya Tay, who writes that “a leaked environmental report claims [Fury Road's] film crew damaged sensitive areas meant to be protected, endangering reptiles and rare cacti.” Rust notes that despite the implications of that leaked report, the film was given a pass by the regional film commission, and he concludes that "the question remains whether the NFC (Namibia Film Commission) sought to cover up the damage in order to avoid controversy and maintain good public relations so as to bring more films to the country for the economic benefits they provide."

Environmental abuses by film crews is a pervasive problem that needs to be remedied. Yet at the same time, as Bitch Magazine's Sarah Mirk argues, Fury Road's ecofeminist message may go some distance toward discouraging the kind of real-world abuses the film's production itself committed:
the toughest people you’ll meet in this dystopia are a collective of old women who are diligent heirloom seed savers. In the midst of the desert’s chaos and murder, they see a clear path forward: Find a way to heal the earth. The secret weapon of Fury Road is not a bigger gun, a faster car, an improbable spaceship, or a boy genius. It’s a pile of heirloom seeds. In the end, nothing is more powerful in the desert than the simple forces of soil, seeds, water, and tender care.
I do not excuse the environmental damage Miller's production crew inflicted upon Namibia's Dorob national park, and I sincerely hope that Fury Road and future productions like it will be firmly held to environmental standards that disallow such flagrant abuses.

As for me, it seems that my inner cinephile and my inner feminist have gotten the better of my inner ecocritic in this case.


Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa, the real star (and protagonist) of George Miller's contemporary masterpiece Mad Max: Fury Road

Bonus auto-ethnographic afterthoughtsMad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) was the first Mad Max film I ever got to see in the theater. Prior to that I saw The Road Warrior (1981) many many times on VHS, and much later I saw the original Mad Max (1979) on home video as well. For me, The Road Warrior in particular is an iconic and much-beloved action film of my youth and beyond. Even Mel Gibson's late-career racist antics have not dimmed the greatness of Mad Max 2 for me. That movie set an incredibly high bar for high-octane action, a lived-in universe, mythological storytelling, and realistic lo-fi special effects that few other films have achieved so effectively.

Miller himself has made clear that Fury Road does not occupy any particular place in the Mad Max "chronology," a term I place in quotes because, aside from the events of Mad Max presumably happening first, there is no specific chronology to any of the films in the series. That said, I did notice one little visual detail at the very end of Fury Road that suggests a (hyper-)link to an earlier installment. Right at the end of the film, as the big truck platform is being lowered to receive Imperator Furiosa and the crowd is chanting "Let her up! Let her up!" I spied two guards on that platform wearing metal helmets encasing their whole heads. Could this possibly be an oblique reference to Lord Humungus (pictured at left), the villain of The Road Warrior? Is one of these Humungus-like soldiers serving Immortan Joe the actual future Lord Humungus? Or are these guards a couple of Humungus's past followers? Or are metal helmets just fashionable in the post-apocalypse? My guess is that we'll never know for sure.

Theron and Miller on set in Namibia.

UPDATE 6/20/2015: I found yet another extremely laudatory review of Mad Max: Fury Road, by Grantland's Alex Pappademas, which accurately claims, among other things, that "we live in times of lowered expectation, blockbuster-wise; we pretend that not-insulting relaunches of old IP are worthy and that the rare worthy ones are also interesting and necessary. We’re lying to ourselves, but we do it because there’s almost nothing else out there." He then describes Fury Road as a glorious exception to this situation. I wanted to link the review here because it is both very well written and because it notes several details -- George Miller's original plans to shoot Fury Road with Mel Gibson back in 2001, its visual shout-outs to Peter Weir's The Cars that Ate Paris -- that I haven't seen discussed anywhere else. It also contains a nice sum-up of the main theme of each of the four Mad Max films. This is the kind of review I want to re-read in ten years or so in order to marvel at how presciently Pappademas declares the film to be "one of the best action movies of the decade."

* I haven't embraced Blu-Ray yet because, even though I have access to a Blu-Ray player at home, I am a film studies professor and my college has not yet converted to Blu-Ray.
** Kathleen Karlyn makes this convincing argument in her classic essay, "Comedy, Melodrama, and Gender: Theorizing the Genres of Laughter," anthologized in Classical Hollywood Comedy (1995, ed. Karnick and Jenkins) pp. 39-59.
*** See Mulvey's famous and influential essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," originally published in Screen 16.3 (Autumn 1975) pp. 6-18.
† EW's Nashawaty later clarified that he really liked Fury Road, especially for the visceral impact and "insane beauty of the film’s practical effects and old-school stunts. There were sequences in Fury Road where I actually thought someone might die while the camera was rolling. When you compare that to something like San Andreas, where, as disposably entertaining as it is, you never for a second believe anything you’re seeing with your eyes, then the intoxicating and nervously giddy power of practical effects becomes obvious."
 As a potential example of this blunting effect, Palmer makes the baffling statement that "there are several points where two of the girls traveling with Max ask what will happen to them if the cult leader catches them, and I kept wondering the same thing." Isn't it obvious? They will be returned to sexual subjugation! Do we need a graphic scene of Immortan Joe violently raping his imprisoned "wives" in order to make those stakes clear?