Thursday, July 31, 2008

Teeth, or On Counterproductiveness

There's a central decision at work in Teeth that kind of hobbles the pic's whole point. You've got a movie all about ancient mythical vaginal angst and the ways in which modern society perpetuates and internalises womens' fears of their own bodies so as to make them sexually malleable by men; so far so good. The central device is well-explored as a metaphor for internalised gynophobia and the less pure implications of the abstinence movement, and it's done in a way that breezily veers between Dawson's Creek teen drama and b-horror. This is nice.

But the movie sets itself up for a payoff that's not delivered, and does so in a way that threatens to make it the exact thing it sets out to undermine: a gynophobic, guilt-ridden romp through the tropes of misogyny.

Dawn's mutated (or "evolved", as the movie strongly hints) genitalia is never revealed to the audience; there are plenty of severed dicks, which is nice, but the terrifying agent of their severing remains secret, sacrosanct. It gets talked about plenty, in a perplexing scene that posits Dawn's sex as part shark, part lamprey and all mysterious, but this is just a wasted subplot that doesn't go anywhere. Similarly, the metaphor of stickered-over anatomy textbooks is a subplot that ought to move toward even Dawn getting a look at the mysterious organ, but as far as we know, she ends the movie as clueless as we are.

Lichtenstein justifies this by saying he "didn't want anything ugly associated with the character" and wanted her to remain "innocent"; one can't help feeling that in a movie about vaginal anxiety and the complicity of modern society in perpetuating same, a 52-year-old dude's hesitations regarding "ugliness" are hardly helpful. If you think the vagina has latent potential to be "ugly" and be tied up in questions of "innocence", maybe you're not the best person to make a movie about it. In a movie where gaze power yadda yadda yadda, to work your way through several subplots about how the worst thing about modern attitudes to the vagina is our unwillingness to talk about it then yourself lace your movie with innuendo and clunky visual punning is hardly breaking down boundaries.

About the best way Dawn's latent danger is foreshadowed is in a way that's never alluded to, but hopefully deliberate: though pretty much everyone in the movie wants her, and are willing to employ all sorts of trickery and coercion to get into her pants, nobody ever just tries going down on her. If this is intentional it's nice, because usually cinematic endorsements of cunnilingus are pretty gross. Is that Teeth's greatest achievement? A sly, subversive fable about eating pussy before it eats you? Put that way, even this doesn't seem like such a great thing, does it?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

More The Dark Knight, or On Not Being The Best

Previously, Your Correspondent's objections to the ostensible central conflict of The Dark Knight have been noted. However, of course, the Joker is not the centre of the movie.

What is the centre of The Dark Knight? Is it the character of Bruce Wayne/Gravelly Elmer Fudd? Because the centrepoint of that character's arc, dramatic though it is, is supremely dumb: what logic was it that dictated that the midpoint of the New Batman Trilogy(?) would be Wayne renouncing his crimefighting days? Are we supposed to buy, for a fraction of a second, that this is actually happening? It's the weakest midpoint in such a plot-strong movie in quite some time, because it's such an implausible possibility that you just resent the movie for making like you could ever be buying into it. Ocean's 11-type hoodwinks only work if there's the vaguest sense that the ruse is a plausible series of events. In fact the only sensible reason one can see for this silly timewaster of an arc is that in the middle part of trilogies*, the hero ought to get to his lowest point w/r/t his powers, destiny etc. There's nothing wrong with playing by the rules, but does it have to feel quite this arbitrary?

Is the centre of The Dark Knight Harvey Dent/Twoface? Because that's a mighty performance, possibly the film's best (Caine is unfailingly admirable; Oldman loses himself behind that comical moustache and emerges essaying Jim Gordon far better than he deserves to; but Eckhart's snappy hubris fits the role of Dent to a tee). But it's also horribly underused; his character has a hard time living up to his role as the franchise's compelling villain (which, your correspondent humbly submits, Twoface is), swaddled as he is in every other character's heavy-handed pontificating as to what Dent Represents. Harvey Dent is the film's most likeable character because he's the only one actually doing anything, instead of talking endlessly about the vital symbolic importance of Harvey Dent.

Is the centre of The Dark Knight, perhaps, the Bruce/Harvey/Rachel triangle? Because, gross. Rachel's role in the movie couldn't be any more shamelessly plot-serving if the Joker had just put her in a fridge and been done with it. The character exists solely as a bargaining chip between the two male heroes, which wouldn't in itself be terrible (just lazy business as usual for geek movies) if her involvement hadn't extended to being blown to bits for the sole purpose of eliciting angst from said heroes. New rule for the writing of female characters in movies marketed toward teenage boys and manchildren: ask yourself this. Could your female character be replaced by the right breed of dog? If your reasoning in the negative involves the words "kiss", "naked", or "mother", Try Harder.

The centre of The Dark Knight as far as Your Correspondent could see, though, was none of the above. It wasn't the action, because that was admirably pedestrian (camera right way up, film moves at the same speed as people, time not confused with bullets, thank you very much!). As mentioned previously, the pacing of the film is first-rate, ensuring that even when the pic is driving one mental with its inadequacies it refuses to let up with the enthralling. But the real centre of the pic is its tone: the movie has a cool, concretey harshness to it, a real-world blood-and-guts brains-in-heads gravity that sets it apart not just from the majority of superhero pics but from the majority of pics in its demographic market.

Does this make The Dark Knight highly enjoyable? That it does. Does it make it one of the best movies ever (or, as popular opinion might have it, the Single Best Movie Ever Made)? No, because you can't be the best at something just by copying something else really well. Not even if that something is Heat.

The Dark Knight's opening bank heist is thrilling and well paced and packs a lot of character into a short space and has an electrifying staccatto score that's the worst-hidden example of temp love (in this case, for Elliot Goldenthal's score from Heat's bank robbery) in years. The Dark Knight's colour pallette is cool and stony and grimly vibrant and depicts Real Life exactly as envisaged by Dante Spinotti thirteen years ago. The Dark Knight's set pieces are huge weighty cross-city crime chases and executions that flit masterfully between protagonists in a manner openly borrowed from - but nowhere near as flawlessly carried off as - the 1995 epic.

Christopher Nolan has openly stated that Heat was an influence, and the comparison has been widely-made. And it's a damn fine choice of movie to copy, and an admirable goal to import that picture's vast emotional canvas into this movie's caped shenanighans. But you can't make the best movie ever - or even one of the best movies ever - simply by recycling someone else's schtick and putting a jet-powered motorbike in it.

That's not to say that Nolan isn't free to shoot The Caped Crusader largely in DV except for the scene where The Penguin is gunned down in his own Korean nightclub.

* The presumption here isn't in fact that The Dark Knight intends to be the middle part of a trilogy; the presumption is that the powers behind The Dark Knight feel it can run and run until it's no longer profitable, which is only good and right; however as Christopher Nolan is by no means a stupid man, let's run with the assumption that The Dark Knight sets itself as the middle part of what aim to be three really good movies with an overarching arc between them. After all, in not being a huge waste of time, the movie has already trumped Batman Returns, so let's see how far this goes.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Dark Knight, or On Craaaayzeh

One of your correspondent's least favourite words is "random". "Oh, the humor was so random". "He was saying the randomest things". "He's a terrifying character because he personifies random chaos".

Bullshit. Unless expertly handled, "random" is just aimless, meandering shit. Bill Murray at the height of his first-wave career wasn't random, he was attuned to exactly the frequency he wanted to be and that's why his comedy was funny. Karl Pilkington, similarly; a bald simpleton saying scattershot things oblivious to their inflammatory nature wouldn't be funny unless the totality of those things added up to hint at some sort of overarching worldview that was worth paying attention to. Random does not equal funny: this is why, say, Matt Groening is still more respected by people above the age of 20 than, say, Seth MacFarlane.

"Random" doesn't automatically equal "scary" either. John Doe of Se7en or Hannibal Lecter are the least "random" characters ever. Again, their terror is in their otherness, the sense that they're speaking from another level of being. A level which all makes complete sense to them, but that's hard to reconcile with ours without violence. Sure, randomness can be scary - that's why we have the CDC, after all - but for every terrifying unchartable disease vector, there's ten dozen mediocre movies on the DTV shelves featuring actors labouring under the misapprehension that all they need to do to be scary is to leer unpredictably, and directors who's allowed - or requested - this approach. Play the odds, fella. It's not worth it.

The character of the Joker has always been prey to the Fallacy of Scary Randomness. He's a clown! He kills people! Why would someone do such a thing? He must be an agent of randomness! And so any number of comic book stories featuring the character have done stupid random stuff with him, and occasionally it's mildly unnerving, and mainly it's embarrassing.

The way Tim Burton's movie got around this was by making the Joker not "Crazy Insane" so much as "Artist Insane". The world for him was a huge canvas to be painted on with blood and ammo: he was unfazed by violence and determined to express himself. What was he about, what exactly would he be expressing? Well, shit, he was Jack Nicholson, that was an easy blank to fill in.

Whereas Heath Ledger's Joker is purposely given no centre whatsoever. He's all embarrassing humming and murmuring and unpredictable outbursts: Raph Feinnes' interminably slow-imploding Spider character given a gun and a shot of adrenaline. In case the actor is unable to capture this uncentred dithering-with-a-passion, he's given several speeches that outline, at length, just how Representative! Of! Chaos! the character is. But being as being watchable was never really a problem for Ledger (even when he was stuck with as dopey and underwritten a character as this), such speeches just come off heavy-handed, thematising instead of dramatising. Well golly, you're an agent of chaos you say? You represent anarchy you're telling me? It's lucky the dialogue is here to point this out in language just this plain, or I might have mistaken you for a character with a purpose.

Really, the whole thing - Ledger's unbridled chaotic swagger, Eckhart's quixotic orderliness - is just unfortunate because it's already been done so often; but notably, not nine months ago by The Best Movie of the Year. Bale may look into Ledger's eyes and say - in, honestly, who told him this was a good choice, a voice like Vin Diesel playing Elmer Fudd - "you are all alone in the darkness, is it not frightening to you?"; and it may be all very moody and well-shot and crackingly-paced (Dark Knight's greatest skill is in having a half-dozen things going on at any one time; its setpieces aren't just scenes, they're multi-event symphonies of tension); but Javier Bardem can get all that across in a single reaction shot, without needing several pages of Theme Of Movie dialogue to get across what it is we're meant to be investing in these characters.

All that said, it should be mentioned that (1) your correspondent liked Spiderman 3 a lot, so he obviously doesn't know what he's talking about; and (2) he would eagerly watch another movie of this length featuring these characters or others in their vein, which is lucky, given the de rigeur unfinished ending of this movie.