Movies lately III (acerbic edition)

Batman Begins (2005). This movie restores some dignity to the Batman genre after the disgrace of the post-Tim Burton movies. It's competent in all the ways you want Batman to be, from action to plot to atmosphere. It's also the first Batman movie to raise the issue of criminality as a social problem, rather than merely a matter of moral weakness or psychological deformity. But the film doesn't stop there, bringing a hard light to bear on amoral corporations, corrupt cops and judges, and genocidal ninja cults.

The possiblity of an interesting social critique is certainly undermined by the silly conspiracy elements of the plot, which among other things ascribe economic depression to the machinations of a secret cabal (jesus, even mainstream economists admit that depression is caused by capitalism). But maybe social critique is foreclosed from the start by the fundamental assumption behind Batman: that society can only be redeemed thru the heroic efforts of singular men and women (mainly one very rich man in particular, but also a handful of incorruptible public servants) against the grip of corruption and crime. In this drama everyone else is merely audience, understanding little and utterly incapable of themselves taking the stage. I'm pretty sure this model of social change hasn't actually produced much other than dictatorships of the proletariat and stories about the lamb of god.

The Notebook (2004). I guess it's sort of sociologically interesting that people still take seriously movies as stunningly ingenuous and painfully predictable as this one. It's not really any different from a communist propaganda film, with hardships to be endured, obstacles to be overcome, but ultimate triumph ensured - with swelling music to let us know when we should feel moved. We look at that communist stuff and laugh at it. The plots are uninteresting, the techniques of manipulation insulting, and the social uses of the movies despicable. Yet somehow love-propaganda films are different? Isn't cynicism the mark of our times? If people still believe in something, why couldn't it be, say, liberation or equality?

Bring It On (2000). I know the obvious reading of this movie has to do with race and class, how the disadvantaged can succeed thru hard work, but that our sympathy ultimately lies with the rich white people who are, deep down, good-hearted. But I choose to read it as a tragedy, the descent of two super-cool alternative kids (Eliza Dushku and Jesse Bradford) into lamedom. Unable to transcend their identities as white rich kids, the two are drawn into a vortex of inanity by Kirsten Dunst, who is not to be seen as a villain in this interpretation but rather a mere agent of fate bringing the Pantone siblings' tragic flaw to its inevitable conclusion. O, the pathos!


Chris said...

Movies lately III (acerbic reply):

oh shit, is jake's blog sharing writers with the world socialist web site now? and here i was thinking that things like acting, cinematography, and editing could make a movie good too.

obviously, 95% of movies have no value as social critique and are probably socially regressive, from my point of view. but it's obvious that you can and do enjoy movies without good politics.

so why single out the notebook for this kind of scorn? while far from a perfect movie, i'd argue that it's harldy worse than a good number of the other films in your reviews. and did you even explicate your critique of the role of "true love" in movies? no.

instead you'd rather heap disdain upon the people who enjoy these films. shameful. cynicism is, apparently, the mark of our times, and you are a timely man.

sure, it's safe to let bottlerocket off with a trio of trite adjectives: "cute, funny, and harmless." liking bottlerocket isn't controversial, because it doesn't threaten one's self conception as a hip, with-it dude. liking the notebook on the other hand, exiles you to the fetid pit of mainstreamed pleasures, i suppose.

but is the love story in bottlerocket really different from the one in the notebook? perhaps it's better told or more understated, but it's still "hardships to be endured, obstacles to be overcome, but ultimate triumph ensured." and it comes with the baggage of wes anderson's quirky whiteness, whiteness, whiteness. a different opiate for a smaller, more exclusive mass.

so please feel free to not like the notebook. but reconsider uncritical lambasting of... me. and keep it down while the dvd's on.

kristina said...

ditto to chris' comments, which is all i can say since his articulates my reaction to your notebook criticism in a much better way than i could ever write... for my reaction would be far more personal, e.g. "shut the fuck up. why didn't you just leave our apartment instead of making snide comments on a movie others were clearly enjoying? save your disdain for people you don't call 'friends'."

Jake said...

okay, clearly the comments during the movie were bad manners, so i apologize for that. but i haven't heard anything to change my mind about the analysis. i don't even have a problem with unironically enjoying ridiculous love stories, or ridiculous political propaganda for that matter, and i certainly enjoy my fair share of politically atrocious movies (e.g. the entire genre of noir). but i think the contrast in how people receive love movies and political propaganda is pretty revealing.

Jake said...

also, my analysis wasn't even directed at you guys, as should be obvious from the liberation and equality bit. but i think it's incumbent upon us to examine why we like the movies (and music, clothes, &c) we do, since only by being self aware are we going to be able to get anywhere. that said, let's hear the full critique of wes anderson and whiteness - i have no fear of confronting my own racial entanglements.

jenny said...

chris, i think your criticism of jake is too harsh. jake likes a lot of stupid movies with no social commentary. the bottle rocket comments were right on, though.

but i DID think the notebook totally sucked. i'm really sorry i aided jake in ruining the movie for you guys...it's true that we should have left.

my justification is that i didn't know what i was getting into. i had never heard of the notebook before. but it IS common knowledge that i hate most movies in the "chick flick" genre, so you guys should have sent me home right away if you didn't want snide remarks. i end up getting totally pissed off at (most of)these movies. it's not because i don't like love stories. there are some good ones out there, like moulin rouge or when harry met sally.

the thing that distinguishes a normal movie from a bad chick flick is the oversimplification of the process of falling in love, and the subsequent oversimplification of people's lives in relationship to their love. the crucial aspect of the chick flick, which is how the two people fell in love in the first place in order to get you invested in their love, is never developed properly. and....to be honest...i'm also totally upset sometimes with the quality of male personalities that the women in these movies go for. they're usually assholes in every aspect of their lives (take legends of the fall).

that being said, it's clear that i don't have a concise critique of anything. can't you just know when you don't like a movie?

and why can't you make snide comments during a movie? if you're renting the movie and watching it in a social setting, i think it's fair game. unless you kick us out of your house.

kristina said...

Yes, you can just know that you didn't like the movie. I often just say, 'because that's how I feel'.

But I think that if others enjoyed watching a movie like the notebook and went into it well aware that it's going to be a cheesy story, an oversimplification of love full of the cliche and traditional gender and movie roles, then why do you have to make them feel bad about it? Just as Jenny knows that she didn't like the movie just because, I enjoyed the movie just because. And indeed, there are certain occasions when it's totally great to make snide comments on a movie, but not when others who are watching are clearly into it.

But ultimately, I think this is just an illustration of a pervasive problem I have with certain people telling me that I'm wrong to like or dislike certain things. I'm sick of it. But this is not a forum for such a discussion.

Chris said...

well, i agree that my commentary was too harsh, or that it at least appeared that way. i was going for mostly tounge-in-cheek, and i didn't mean to make any one defensive, although i did intend to get jake to defend some of the points he made.

didn't mean to make anyone feel bad for talking during the movie, (even though y'all know you shouldn't be doing that.)

so let's sit in a circle and sit on pillows and drink tea soon, wearing shapeless pastel garments and breathing in the vapors of ancient aromatherapy remedies to heal rifts.

Jake said...

people should like whatever they want, but they should also recognize that whatever they like is almost certainly deeply compromised by some form or other of bad social relations. the really important thing is not to get some sort of unsullied aesthetics, which is impossible anyway, but to be active trying to change the social structures that shape our aesthetics in the first place. part of that is recognizing how all the cultural products we enjoy are politically problematic, and struggling with the fact that our desire/happiness is often complicit with that. the point of critiquing these things is not to make people feel bad, but to get us all thinking about the way cultural production can make us want things and enjoy things that are obstacles to an equal society. i'm not telling anyone what to like, but i do demand that people be self-aware.

jenny said...

how can EVERYTHING in the world be bad? what's the point of asserting this if you aren't going to try to change into something good?

Anonymous said...

jake, i don't think anyone has contested your call for self-awareness, or your analysis in particular. but you can agree with the specifics of an analysis while still contesting an argument, or a piece of writing, of which an analysis is one part.

to pose an answer to your question about why people still take love-propaganda seriously, i would respond that perhaps it's because love (the concept of romantic love, let's say), is still as influential and present in people's everyday lives as communism was back when people took it seriously. and like communism, it does supply people with some of the things that they require to live. love is not just an ideal, it's a reality, a viable, evolving part of our existence.

i think it is impossible to experience life without engaging in concepts like "true love" (drawn from literature, family mythology, civil society, whatever) in order to impose some semblance of meaning or order on existence.

it's good to criticize love, but i find your outrage over it somewhat outrageous.

my main problem with your argument is not the analysis, but the way in which it is delivered. by which i mean in a slightly condescending way. describing someone's emotions as "somewhat sociologically interesting" doesn't seem very nice. i know you're not directing this towards us, or at me in particular, but it still seems a bit callous.

and, of course, at some point i think it's possible to exhaust the possibilities for confronting a problem in a rational way. at which point it's necessary to use empathy. after all, our goal isn't "truth" but a certain kind of equality. and in our personal relationships, truth isn't the goal but mutual respect.

Chris said...

whoops, that last post wasn't intended to be anyonymous...

Joe said...

Wow, I love the acerbic edition.

If the four of you did this on TV, an Ebert-type thing, I would watch that show religiously.

Chris said...

sure the acerbic edition is entertaining, but at what cost? it's a scorched earth situation: there's no one left to laugh...

except for joe.

neha said...

shit, i'm amused, and i liked the movie. i didnt even want to see it until chris convinced me to.

Jon said...

I agree with Neha. This is clearly priceless. And over The Notebook of all films! And by that I'm not saying that The Notebook doesn't deserve a critical analysis. Or that I'm actually laughing. I wish every conversation about every movie contained this awareness and commentary on the impact that films, even formulaic predictable ones, can have on us. That this thread has also engaged the question of film-watching etiquette makes it doubly fascinating.

My blanket sound-bite contribution to the debate is this: Every critic has a blind spot. (Gotta tell ya, it was a real struggle to sit through Young Guns II, killer soundtrack and suspect morality or not.)

Also, I like Wes Anderson and I'm not white! (On the outside...) Although The Life Aquatic's instant admittance into the Criterion Collection is very questionable. I'd like to think co-writer Noam Baumbach is responsible for the Filipino pirates. So I want to hear this critique also.

Chris said...

well, it might have served my argument better to use a bit more moderation. i don't want to suggest that jake's a racist or that only white people will enjoy wes anderson. i've enjoyed every wes anderson movie, and it's really only been recently that i've started to have serious reservations.

but i do think that the cleverness or hipness of bottlerocket does sort of obscure the fact that the love story is similar in important respects to the one from the the notebook.

furthermore, i definitely worry about the role of race in wes anderson's movies. he does seem to resort to racial stereotype. seu jorge's character in the life aquatic was definitely a stereotype, a black musician who plays his guitar all day and is too lazy to notice that his boat is being boarded by pirates. (and then there are the pirates...)

the royal tenenbaums also has important things to think about. gene hackman is a complete racist bastard, but he's never really taken to task for it. and the conflict between him and danny glover (who are competitors for angelica huston) is ultimately reduced to an "oh, you men" type situation, where both rivals are engaging in macho, vain behavior. but this reduces the seriousness of hackman's (character's) racism.

one critic felt that it was questionable for anderson to have hackman not use the word "nigger" against glover. instead he resorted, in one scene, to calling him "coltrane." obviously, this is still very offensive, but it does seem to dull the impact somehow. it plays into his quirkyness, and keeps him from becoming a character that is every completely objectionable.

nor is hackman's racism ever really called out. he does eventually accept glover in a way, but the resolution does not feel completely satisfying, because the terms of the conflict between them have been falsified.

the same theme is present in rushmore and bottle rocket, but in a different way. the main characters are flawed white dudes, and are never really taken to count for their flaws. rather, they are loved for their flaws, for their narcissism, by women who just can't help themselves.

although i love the characters and the acting in bottle rocket, it's kinda unsatisfying that Inez is so desperate to get back with luke wilson. given that the whole point of her character is that she's a very practical, hardworking individual. she's obviously also capable of being passionate, so i don't want to discout the fact that she could fall madly in love with someone, but we given the sense that this relationship will be totally on luke's terms.

for example, she's the one who's learning english to be better able to communicate with him. and his narcissism seems not reduced a bit by his experiences in the film, finally he still seems to be more in love with himself than with her.

all of this is fine, because it makes for a good characterization, but given that it's luke wilson that we primarily identify with through the trials and tribulations of bottle rocket we should beware of how we become complicit in the characters actions.

the connecting theme is that these are all vain white guys that we are encouraged to indulge. they're somehow redeemed through their uniqueness and their adorableness. but they shouldn't be indulged, they should be called out for their self-absorption, their racism, or their sexism.

well i hope that my contribution of long boring posts can make up for my contributions of long, unnecessarily harsh posts.

Scott said...

Nobody wanted to talk about Batman?