Saturday, May 29, 2010

Standards of Value

Jim Emerson’s Scanners website recently addressed the question of whether superhero movies can be works of art, concluding “they should be subjected to the same standards of critical judgment you'd apply to any other kind of movie.” He expands: “Short-sighted people used to argue about whether genres as disreputable as horror or science-fiction could contain art -- even though F.W. Murnau made Nosferatu in 1922 and Fritz Lang made Metropolis in 1927. I don't believe in ghettoizing movies by genre, in pretending that a summer science-fiction release has to be judged on a different scale than a fall Oscar-bait biopic or a Romanian experimental theater drama. Any of them is capable of being a great film, worthy of active appreciation, or a dull and forgettable few hours of wasted time. It's not my place to speculate about how deep or superficial the filmmakers' "intentions" were and how well they may have met whatever standards I imagine they may have set for themselves. All I care about is what's on the screen -- and it's either exciting and engaging or it isn't.”

Looking for Greatness

It’s obviously a logical and decent view, and one that minimizes the likelihood of being labeled a stuck-up old fart. But I’ve increasingly come to think such liberalism is self-defeating. As the rest of his article makes clear, Emerson hasn’t been particularly impressed by most superhero movies, and indeed doesn’t seem to see that many of them. Although he holds out hope the genre may produce a great picture, you sense it’s not really an aspiration he feels is worth spending much time on. After all, greatness in his sense of “worthy of close scrutiny and in-depth study” isn’t necessary to Hollywood’s purpose in turning out these pictures. What is necessary is that audiences be bamboozled by the sense of the week’s big new spectacle as a cultural event, that they feel somehow excluded if they don’t see these movies (the mainstream media happily plays along with this, by giving more news coverage to box office scores than to a thousand other more important things), and that the movies are sufficiently bright and glib to meet consensus notions of success. Sure, once in a while someone might find a way of navigating all that in a way that generates greatness, but then some people saw greatness in The Dark Knight, which I found as meaningless as all the rest. They’re just opinions, sure, but at some point don’t you just have to say: life is already too short, you’ll never see everything that might be elevating and enhancing, and if you’re capable of learning anything at all, it should be that this all-consuming mainstream isn’t for you, it’s for them. So can superhero movies be art? The right answer is (a) probably not, but anyway (b) who cares?

On the way to or back from Iron Man 2 (or both) you may no doubt stop off at the fast food joint, just for something else that tastes good and is an inevitable aspect of living conventionally in the world we’re in, regardless that it represents pure evil. Without the resources and/or awareness to make better choices, people make themselves fat and sick on this stuff, constraining their capacity to eat anything more nutritious than the same old crap. The industry itself pays peanuts and generates mass pollution. And our willingness to accept factory farming – mass torture of sentient beings that we know to be capable of pain and distress – grievously undermines us as a race. I personally think until we have a collective conversation about what we’ve done to our food – which we surely ought to care more about than just about anything else – we’ll never get anywhere on addressing our bigger problems. Because it’s all connected. The moronic momentum that keeps us heading to Macdonald’s is intertwined with our debt-ridden consumerism and the ridiculous expectations we apply to our governments and our culture. There's no virtue in any of this, and only the hollowest form of unsustainable contentment.


Is there a current mainstream movie out there, against this wretched backdrop, which deserves our greater indulgence? I’d make the case for the film Oceans, directed by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud (it has the same French origins as Winged Migration, and is released here under the Disney banner). This wasn’t covered at all by Emerson or by any “serious” critics as far as I’m aware, and you can see why – it seems to cater to something different than one’s primary interest in cinema. Filmed over four years in all five oceans, it’s a compendium of stunning footage from beaches and glaciers and from all depths of the water, ranging from the serene bulk of the blue whales to the scrappy interactions of the bottom-dwelling crabs and shrimp.

It’s easy to patronize this kind of thing – to say, well of course it’s amazing, but it’s still just for kids (Pierce Brosnan’s rather over-earnest narration for the English version doesn’t particularly help). That’s because, of course, fish and otters are inherently less culturally provocative than men in flying metal suits. But I can’t imagine anyone (or only the most far-gone of the culturally indoctrinated) not coming away from this with some kind of heightened awareness and sense of generosity. Time and time again, the movie depicts things no one would invent – I guess they’re the messy outcomes of evolution - but which (absent our egregious intervention) maintain a mystical balance. For example, we observe newly-hatched turtles emerging from under the sand and heading for the water, picked off as they go by the birds swirling overhead – the narration says only one in a thousand will make it, but that’s enough to maintain the species. This is the most vicious irony for mankind I think: the more we ratchet up the noble rhetoric about every life being precious, about saving every one of us turtles, we forget what it was all for in the first place.

Something Better

There’s a great deal of emotion in the film – it goes easy on ascribing human emotions to the creatures, but at various points their pleasure and fear and anxiety are self-evident. It’s also generally restrained about the environmental crisis that threatens to render large chunks of the ocean effectively dead within our lifetimes. It’s truly a positive film: it basically presents something beautiful and worthy and collectively enhancing, and then implicitly asks why we don’t value it more, but leaving it to us to connect all the dots. Obviously, my enthusiasm for the film comes from a somewhat different place than my enthusiasm for Howard Hawks or Eric Rohmer, but then if cinema doesn’t in some sense make better people of us, then what’s the point of any of it? And, you know, by that measure, cinema must be failing – most of us, frankly, are becoming worse. Through its simple appeal to our humility and whatever degraded sense we may maintain of our place in the ecosystem, Oceans is the one current film that evokes the possibility (albeit faint) of redemption.

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