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Bigelow #7 – K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER Proves Not All Subs Are Seaworthy

Titles

Kathryn Bigelow’s Soviet submarine drama K-19: The Widowmaker had a no-doubt premise, a top-tier movie star, and an established, bankable action director. It’s the kind of total package that studio executives snuggle up to as they drift off to sleep.

Naturally, the film was a total disaster.

To understand how K-19 went so wrong, let’s turn to a story Bigelow herself shared in Time Magazine.

“I remember sitting in some executive’s office, and they said, ‘O.K., but who are the good guys?’ ‘What do you mean? The Russians are the good guys.’ ‘No, I mean who are the Americans?’

That quote has mysterious depths. Stare at it too long and you might see sounds or swallow your tongue. Here was Bigelow—still at that time known primarily for the megahit Point Break—peddling a tale about a heroic crew racing against time to avert nuclear disaster. The stakes: no less than the survival of every living being in the world. The story contains tension, danger, sacrifice, and a couple of meaty roles to attract big names for the poster. And the story happened to be 100%, absolutely true. Roll your money wheelbarrow to the back of the line, please.

The Boat

The only way we could make more money is if the submarines make out.

But even for an America that’s left the Cold War behind, that’s shifted its attention to the burgeoning superpower of China or the specter of global terrorism, the fact that the story’s main characters wear Russian uniforms was enough to transform K-19 from no-brainer to a tough sale. The true story of the K-19—not actually called “The Widowmaker” by anybody, but given the far-sketchier nickname of “The Hiroshima” after the incident—remained classified until the 1990s, 30 years after it nearly wrecked the world.

In July of 1961, the ship was performing maneuvers out in the Arctic, pretending to be an American sub attacking Moscow. The Cold War was good like that. On the way home, the K-19 sprung a reactor leak that turned the ship into a nuclear oven. Considering the state of international relations, everyone reasonably presumed a seaborne meltdown could be perceived as an act of war and so, rather than allow their deaths to put fingers on the big red buttons, the ship’s crew underwent drastic, deadly measures to save the reactor. If you didn’t start your day wrestling with a giant cancerous rat for the last known can of chicken soup, then you probably know how the story ends.

Yellow Shirt Meeting

With yellow shirts and, somehow, Fredo Corleone.

Bigelow’s first attempt to finance a film adaptation was halted by the release and mediocre box office of the 2000 sub drama U-571, and so, frustrated, Bigelow turned her attention to The Weight of Water, a movie that developed a toxic reputation at festivals before languishing away on a distributor’s shelf. That movie eventually made it out into the wild, but not without some problems of its own.

In the space of a few years, Bigelow’s bright career had suddenly flickered. Originally, she had wanted to tell the story of the K-19 crew. Now, she needed to. Bigelow eventually found her funding, but all outside of the traditional studio system, making K-19 the most expensive independent film ever made at that time. So not only did Kathryn Bigelow seemingly need K-19 to be a hit, but so did a bunch of investors whose pockets weren’t as deep as one might expect.

(One of the film’s major contributors was the National Geographic Society, who may have had their plans to enter the big budget movie scene dashed by K-19’s failure. This melancholy little site is still out there, promising that the film is opening this July 19th, every July 19th, the internet equivalent of the Mary Celeste. Somewhere, a marketing guy’s wife stands on the shore, hoping he’ll someday find his way home.)

To be fair, I’ve included a healthy amount of my own speculation into this history, and it’s hard to really know for sure what Bigelow was thinking or what she wasn’t. Maybe Bigelow approached K-19 like just another movie, and maybe the version that finally made it to the screen is exactly the movie she always intended to make. It’s irresponsible for me to just assume that the film was compromised except, well, K-19: The Widowmaker just feels so damned compromised.

poster

“This time, nerds, I can breathe because I’m inside the sub.”

There was a magical time in the movies when all you needed to open your blockbuster was Harrison Ford on the poster, and baby, Harrison Ford is all up on this poster, despite the fact that he’s all kinds of wrong for the part. The term “miscast” doesn’t even cover the notion that fans would line up to see Ford, the most Midwestern-American action star to ever grace the screen, play Captain Vostrikov, the crusty leader in charge of this particularly crusty ship. Worse, somebody allowed Ford to do the part in a blisteringly awful Russian accent, which Ford delivers like he’s trying fit his mouth around the fat part of a soda bottle. In 2013, it seems crazy to think that Ford would have been handed this role while a perfectly good Liam Neeson is standing right there, but in 2002 it was Ford’s name and face that held the burden of bringing the customers.

“Four-Quadrant” is a marketing term meaning that a movie appeals to every demographic, and K-19 does its utmost to be a four-quadrant performer. The threat is appropriately apocalyptic, but surprisingly clean, barely leaving a mark on the crewmen dying of radiation sickness. The K-19 herself is one of the most brightly-lit submarines in the sea, revealing a dull, repetitive set design. The sitcom-style lighting dispels the ship’s shadows and opens the place up. Gone is the claustrophobia needed to bring the setting to life. For a story that could have ended with the annihilation of the world, it’s strangely antiseptic, with all the sharp edges dulled so that it’s safe to handle. Even the film’s cumbersome title suggests a compromise between two different names in an effort to make everyone happy.

Old Ford

“We can all agree that we’ve eliminated ‘Was’sub!?’ as an option, right?”

One hurdle K-19 had to overcome is that the submarine movie is well-traveled. People know what a sub movie is supposed to look like and sound like, and any deviation or experimentation in the form comes off as false. Unless your sub is helmed by Roy Scheider and has a talking dolphin in the crew, your ship better look like a damn submarine. The K-19 doesn’t really cut it in a world where Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot and all of its gloomy tension exists.  For a sub movie to make its own mark, it has to find another way to distinguish itself, such as the way Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide filled the cramped setting with Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman’s war, and while there’s a little equivalent tension in K-19 between Neeson and Ford’s characters—and even a minor mutiny subplot—it never really gains traction. Instead, the audience has to decide how invested they are in the struggles of the crew to stop the leak, and the film provides few reasons to get invested, especially since we already know the ending. Films like Crimson Tide and others get around that problem by making the obvious global stakes seem deeply personal, but we get very few hints about the lives of the soldiers away from the sub, or about the people they personally hope to save. Their noble sacrifice is both suitably epic and really, really generic, as if Bigelow expects the fact that the crew is Russian to make us surprised when they start acting like human beings.

Wait, there's a girl!

This person is in the movie for 10 seconds and is the most significant female in the film. This is not a joke.

K-19: The Widowmaker strikes me as hollow and false. Again, maybe this is exactly Bigelow’s movie, and I’m totally wrong, but she’s never made anything that felt so lifeless and inert before or since. K-19 is little more than a series of facts capably strung together in the proper order, like IKEA furniture that somebody forgot to screw together—it looks like the real thing, but a gentle tap is enough to tear it apart. That just isn’t how Bigelow works. Whether her films are up or down, and she certainly has enough of both directions in her career, they are always personal. Even The Weight of Water, for all of its problems, feels like an artist is guiding the movie in the directions she wants it to go. The film still feels like a statement.

K-19 doesn’t feel like anything other than perhaps a missed opportunity. Bigelow has made a career out of exploring makeshift families, especially within groups of men—the SEALs in Zero Dark Thirty; the bomb squad in The Hurt Locker; the desperate bonds between the main characters in Strange Days; the surfers in Point Break; the bikers in The Loveless; the vampires in Near Dark are like a family of cowboys, and even the girls are covered in dirt and absorbed into the whole. Here, Bigelow has at her disposal a group of men who rely on one another, live and die and each other’s mistakes, and who agree to make sacrifices to save lives. Do they care about the rest of the world, or is the sacrifice only to save the man who sleeps in the next bunk? We’ll never know, because the theme goes almost entirely unexplored. This movie feels like it was shipped in from someone else entirely.

Snapshot

It’s easy to suppose that after Strange Days flopped and Bigelow ran into trouble financing her next projects, that she threw up her hands. She went from being one of the most electric and in-demand young filmmakers to an outsider nearly overnight. It’s hard to imagine men like James Cameron or John McTiernan being given so little rope at that same time. (McTiernan, especially—he directed the legendary bomb Last Action Hero, but still had a new, great Die Hard sequel out two years later.) I’m sure that K-19’s disappointing reception made that film executive, the one who wondered about the Americans, feel pretty good about himself. But K-19’s failure doesn’t seem to come from its premise, but from a filmmaker who’s pushing the material in an uncomfortable direction, a filmmaker exasperated by needing to prove herself again so soon. K-19 feels cynical, which could explain why it failed to connect with pretty much anybody. After its release, Bigelow retreated to television for years, waiting until the right project came calling. Which, of course, eventually, it did.

I’ve wasted an unusual amount of fake ink in this post discussing the business end of K-19, its budget, its failure, and all of that boring stuff.  But in trying to appreciate and explore the career of Kathryn Bigelow, it helps to understand how something as impersonal and blank as K-19 can even happen. A career is a weird journey, and it helps to know why sometimes we end up on the calmest, least interesting of seas.

The Kathryn Bigelow Project

6. ???

7. K-19: The Widowmaker

8. The Weight of Water

Bonus: The Loveless

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Wrap-Up: The Hughes Brothers Project

When I chose The Hughes Brothers for the site I knew it wouldn’t be an easy project, but nobody ever said that writing about movies in my underwear from the warm embrace of deeply comfy chair would be easy. Now that the hardship is at an end, however, I’m left with the belief that this project has been absolutely vital to accomplishing the mission of this site. What good does yet another movie website do anybody by clinging to the accepted classics? Anybody can do Stanley Kubrick (and I did!) but film is about so much more than the winners and the gods.

I’ve often said that if I were to teach film history I would open the class with a showing of James Isaac’s Jason X, because I think that movie tells you everything you need to know about why you should love film. Jason X is a terrible film, natch, but even the least film is like a time capsule telling us about when it was made, why it was made, and about the people who made it (Jason X also has moments of sincere, intentional hilarity). Jason X may fail as a horror film, but it fails upward. The film is a prime example of an entire decade of horror—the 90s and its post-Scream, post-Buffy self-reference—and it lampoons a horror icon that had lost his edge in much the same way Universal once combined its fading, classic monsters into a duet with Abbot and Costello. You can tie a thread through decades of movie history down into that one movie, which, you know, fascinates the holy hell out of me. Jason X, in a way, represents why I love cinema.

Likewise, The Hughes Brothers represent why I love studying filmmakers, and for similar reasons. They’ve never made a film as shoddy as Jason X, and their links to the past are less clear (although Scorsese is a huge influence on their work, and Scorsese’s influence was everything else), but there they are, living on the margins, no longer the celebrated newcomers they once were but cresting with talent and producing deeply personal films for broad audiences. They don’t make masterpieces, but every one of their movies is worthy of discussion and analysis, and with every film, they contribute to the present culture and lay a little pavestone pointing the way to the future. There are only a handful of accomplished film masters in the world, and every one of them is standing on the backs of a dozen gifted, anonymous artists producing the bulk of the medium’s best work, the films that keep tickets ripping while the pantheon wander into the wilderness to find inspiration.

In a time where genre film has been consumed by the marketers and all goods are pre-packaged and cross-promoted, The Hughes Brothers (at least for now) resist. They deliver original material that has something new to say, and there’s just not enough of that going around these days. As I’ve said, I don’t really love any of their films, but I’m definitely excited to see what both Albert and Allen come up with next.

The Hughes Brothers Project

1. American Pimp (1999)

2. Menace II Society (1993)

3. The Book of Eli (2010)

4. From Hell (2001)

5. Dead Presidents (1995)

Special: Women in the Film of the Hughes Brothers

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Hughes Brothers #3 – The Book of Eli (2010)

Today, we’re finally entering the home stretch with a look at the Hughes’ deeply flawed, intriguing post-apoc epic…

The Story

The Earth lies charred from some kind of war-related disaster, and what’s left of humanity clumps together in shanty towns held together by barter and violence. Walking west across this wasteland is Eli (Denzel Washington), with a mission to do two things: kick ass and carry mysterious books, and he’s all out of mysterious boo—oh, wait. Eli happens to own the exact book that the warlord Carnegie (Gary Oldman) wants, and so a classic “town of evil vs. wandering battle-monk” scenario kicks into gear.

Spoiler alert, the book is the Bible.

“Thou shalt not get the fuck back up.”

The Production

Eli and his biblical quest began as a gutsy spec script from talented video game writer Gary Whitta (Prey). The boldness of the script helped it gain attention, and it soon fell into the hands of producer Joel Silver, who brought it to the attention of the Hughes Brothers, fresh off an 8-year sabbatical of solo work meant to distinguish their different creative voices. “I didn’t get it right away, my brother did,” says Albert Hughes. “And I said, ‘I don’t know about the religious stuff or the spiritual stuff.’ And then I went to sleep and woke up after a few hours of dreaming about it and thought, ‘Okay, I get it.’”

The Book of Eli premiered on January 15, 2010, and immediately tasted blue, furry death at the hands of James Cameron’s Avatar monster. Getting noticed at all around all that background noise was tough enough, but Eli still managed to turn a small profit, picking up a reported $160m worldwide on an $80m budget, which made it a very sturdy, if not quite mind-blowing, success.

There has rarely been anything cooler in the world than watching Eli hunt for cat meat. 

What Works Like Crazy

We’re all agreed that the apocalypse is not going to be cool, right? I mean, when the shit hits, it’s going to be all mushroom clouds and goat-babies and flies pouring out of people’s elbows. But the Hughes Brothers make the apocalypse look cool. It’s not a happening place to be, exactly, but the Hughes’s exaggerated sets and computer-enhanced skylines lend the proceedings an air of epic awesomeness that works for a film carrying such biblical ambitions. The Book of Eli is like the post-apoc movie the Shaw Brothers Studio never had a chance to make, and Denzel Washington is their Jimmy Wang.

Washington kicks the apocalypse’s ass in Eli and manages to totally sell the near-unsellable: an incorruptible man in a world without laws. So many apocalypse heroes are pragmatists who make choices based on need without much thought for scruples, but Eli is a man of morals who answers to a higher power. In any other hands, that character is a doofus, but Washington ditches that and goes for world-weary and kind. He’s a warrior monk who wants nothing and needs nothing except the direction West. It’s a performance that grounds the film and plays well against Oldman’s big bad.

Looking like Bricktop, after the bomb.

Speaking of Gary Oldman—which we should all be doing, all the time—he does solid work in his role, presenting Carnegie in a way that make him believably frightening, and just a little scary without crossing into a Romeo is Bleeding/The Professional cartoon. Carnegie is a believer in his own way. He could care less about the specifics of what the book has to say, but he respects the power in it, and it’s that tension between belief and practicality that drives the film. Eli and Carnegie are waging a private little war, and it’s not really about the book as much as it’s about the way the world is going to be built. Ironically, it’s Carnegie who wants to build civilizations and Eli who wants to empower the individual, despite the Bible’s insistence and building a church between believers. Unfortunately, that’s only the first of many confusion points in the film’s message.

What Disappoints

Or, to put it more bluntly, what the hell is The Book of Eli getting at? Let’s assume that somebody, at some point, had more in mind than just a boot-tapping action movie and actually wanted the movie to say something. Call me crazy, but that’s what I’m going to assume. I mean, that’s why it’s the Bible and not the goddamned Webster’s Dictionary, right?

Spoilers coming.

Yup. Another apocalypse.

Carnegie describes a mass purging of Bibles after the apocalypse, because people believed that belief in the Bible had resulted in the destruction of the Earth. OK, sounds like a religious war to me, which probably means all the other books are—OH WAIT. When Eli arrives at his destination, all other major religious texts are found and accounted for. Since it’s not likely that a couple of dozen blind warrior-wanderers found their way across the wasteland, I’m going to assume that the Bible was the biggest get, the hardest find. It stands to reason that the Bible took the brunt of the blame and the damage while the other texts skated by, so why exactly are we thrilled that the book survives? The movie never makes a truly convincing argument for why the Bible should be passed on. Fair, there’s the whole “it’s not the book, but it’s what the people do with the book” thing that Carnegie represents, but then again we don’t exactly know enough about the people on Alcatraz to know their intentions. And what happens when someone with bigger guns shows up and takes the book? Retaining the Bible and all the competing texts feels an awful lot like hanging on to the past and failing to move forward, which is a philosophy that pretty much everyone embraces at the end of the film, while poor progressive Carnegie is left to be eaten alive. It sounds to me that, like the stragglers in The Stand, these survivors are doomed to make the same damn mistakes as the people before them.

The whole plot boils down to faith, I guess? Except, if I’m allowed to steal and butcher Monty Python, faith is no way to form a system of government, and that appears to be exactly the plan at the end of the film. Eli’s quest seems to be for nothing, and Mila Kunis (as poor pawn-turned-padawan Solara) ends the movie as the new Eli, literally wandering back the way she came and carrying on a mission that seems questionable at best and outright irresponsible at worst.

Zzzzzzzzz…

To be clear, I’m not advocating censorship or rooting for the destruction of the Bible. I’m only saying that the way the story goes about its business leaves a lot of intriguing and disturbing questions that the movie can’t be bothered to explain or clear up. The Hughes Brothers’ themselves kind of waffled around the issues of their film’s message when asked point blank.

In the movie they state that all the Bibles, and a lot of other religious texts, were burned after the “last great war,” because many people believed that religion was a catalyst for this war. If religion didn’t help the people of Eli’s fictional past, why do you guys as filmmakers think it will help their future?

Albert: You have some very deep, profound psychological questions there! You’re applying logic to something that there is no logic in. That’s part of my struggle. If you apply logic to a faith based religion — any of them — it will slowly start to fall apart. If you apply logic to Star Wars or Lord of The Rings, it will slowly start to fall apart. But if you go into it as a movie experience, as entertainment, [as] a mythology, and you don’t look for the holes, and you go and believe then that’s a different experience. But you’re like me, I can tell by your questions. [Laughs] I can’t even answer that. I can’t answer some things in all of the movies that we’ve made.

Some questions are tough. Ford tough.

Beyond troubling spiritual questions that even the director can’t answer, The Book of Eli wastes a pretty amazing supporting cast in thankless roles. Michael Gambon, Tom Waits, and Malcom McDowell show up to the party with almost nothing to do, and so help me, I forgot Ray Stevenson was even in the film until looking back over the cast list.

Perhaps that’s because the world around the actors is so damn lousy with product placement that there’s hardly room for much else. Even in the apocalypse, at least I know my NAME BRAND truck and my NAME BRAND food will survive! The product placement is so consistent and brazenly fronted through the film—not to mention wildly out of place, considering the premise–that I was constantly reminded of the secretly awesome film Josie and the Pussycats, and when your bad-ass, bleached-out, warworld reminds me of a Tara Reid film, the apocalypse is truly fucking here.

Tara Reid’s Mind Palace

Overall

The Book of Eli is one of the most visually accomplished movies in the Hughes Brothers canon, but it leans too heavily on some shaky spiritual questions and a few outright baffling choices. Crippling product placement distracts from one of Denzel Washington’s best performances, but there’s just enough blood, brawn, and showy violence to keep the viewer from checking out. There’s plenty to like about Washington’s character—although the third act “twist” stretches a little thin to my eyes—but  he’s stuck in a story that feels a little too heavy on faith, not of the Biblical kind, but of the kind that says “as long as it’s really, really cool, the audience will forgive us for pretty much anything.”

The Hughes Brothers Project

2. ???

3. The Book of Eli

4. From Hell

5. Dead Presidents

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Hollywood Project – The Hughes Brothers

Recent absence notwithstanding, I really love working on this site. Besides allowing me to write about catalog films—which I way, way prefer to writing new movie reviews—the site also lets me spackle holes in my movie lore. If I hadn’t written about Arthur Penn, would I have seen Mickey One? Without the Stanley Kubrick Project, I could have missed Killer’s Kiss.

Lately, though, I’ve been feeling like I’m missing a part of my mission. The way I see it, I’ve got two major problems.

1.)    The only directors I’ve written about are all obvious, expected guys–directors very easy to love.

2.)    My list is just a bunch of old and/or dead white dudes.

That ends today. I think there’s room on this site for directors I’m just not that into, directors who may have the potential for greatness, but who are still struggling to get all of their gears turning in the same direction. How about directors who, although mired in B-movie budgets, refuse to settle for the paychecks of quantity and instead choose projects that speak to their passions? Yeah, I think there’s something to be said for that.

The Hughes Brothers fit that description. I was too young to see it, but I recall the excitement surrounding Menace II Society and the explosion of crime films and young, black directors that appeared in the early 90s after Spike Lee kicked open the door. Directors like the Hughes Brothers and John Singleton became synonymous with a new culture of filmmaking, deeply in touch with an underrepresented group of people, electric anger flying off the screens. I remember the murmur of surprise when they signed on to helm the adaptation of Alan Moore’s Victorian horror tale, From Hell, because it wasn’t the kind of film a “black director” would normally accept. I also remember the limp disappointment when that film failed to stick the landing, as if somehow the idiots had been proven right.

As the ghetto crime genre dissipated in a piff of cliché, the Hughes Brothers followed the career path of contemporaries like Singleton and even Lee by positioning themselves as purveyors of interesting genre films. Their movies generate conversation, but rarely widespread critical acclaim. The brothers are stylists, but as filmmakers, they’re still chasing the success of their debut film. They’ve rarely gotten further than “almost.”

Much of the Hughes identity is twined with their unique background. Sibling teams are not uncommon, but twins? Even better, black twins? You can almost hear Hollywood stumbling over itself to glomp such diversity, and that’s without the Hughes’ Armenian and Iranian heritage, which informs their work as clearly as their black roots and connections to L.A. culture. They defy simple definitions. There’s nothing Hollywood about the films they make; there’s nothing Hollywood about them. In a predominantly white business, the Hughes Brothers are the outsiders, and their resulting work feels unique, loud, and chunky, filled with conflicting influences, conflicting ideas, and, yes, even sibling rivalry and love.

Perhaps it’s this narrative that first attracted me to the Brothers. Even though I’ve never loved any of their films, I’ve liked a few and I’m happy to root for them. I’m a Hughes Brothers cheerleader. Albert Hughes was attached early to the threatened whitewashing of Akira, and his involvement gave me some reason for optimism. I believed that, no matter the quality of the result, it would at least be interesting. Once he left, news of the project became progressively dire until the film recently, mercifully, collapsed completely (for now, at least). In recent years, the brothers have worked more often apart than together and it’s at least possible that the days of the Hughes Brothers as a directing team are at an end.

So, before Hollywood realities sever the team forever, I’m making a commitment to the Hughes Brothers. As their career develops, I’ll add their new films to this project. But first, let’s review the story so far.

Name:

Albert Hughes & Allen Hughes

Birth:

April 1, 1972 in Detroit, Michigan (Albert is older by 9 minutes)

Parents:

Aida Hughes (mother)

Life:

The Hughes spent their early years in Detroit in the care of their Armenian-American mother, Aida, who divorced their father (a man Albert describes as a “street hustler”, and whose name I couldn’t find in my research) when the brothers were only toddlers. Aida moved her family to Pomona, California by 1981 to seek new opportunities, but the rough culture in Pomona threatened to draw the twins into drugs and gang activity. To give her boys a distraction, Aida acquired a home video camera and gave it to them to explore. The gift changed the course of their lives. Soon, the boys were shooting short films together, recreating moments from favorite movies and television shows. They caught the bug.

Aida moved the twins to the white, upscale LA suburb of Claremont to attend high school, and it’s here that the boys began to chafe with the reality of being the wrong color. Frustrated with the Claremont culture and the increased scrutiny of law officers and authority figures, the boys channeled their frustration into their films, producing a class project called How to be a Burglar and a homemade documentary about a real-life crack dealer.

Albert eventually attended film classes at Los Angeles City College and used this experience—as well as their short film The Drive-By—to land the brothers a job producing music videos at Hollywood Records. Their talent and unique perspective earned them jobs with a number of high profile West Coast rap artists, most notably Tupac Shakur.Their friendship with Tupac helped open doors for the brothers, and their debut feature, the violent Menace II Society, premiered in 1993 to critical acclaim and notoriety. Unfortunately, behind-the-scenes conflicts derailed their relationship with Tupac. The brothers had originally promised Tupac a significant role in the film, but attempted to recast the rap star in a smaller role. Tupac responded by sending a group of Crips gangsters to assault the brothers. Tupac was arrested and served jail time for the incident.

After the success of Menace II Society, the Hughes Brothers remained in the crime genre for their followup, Dead Presidents, and the documentary American Pimp, before moving into horror with the adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell. The twins took a long hiatus before their next project, The Book of Eli, a move Albert attributed to sibling fatigue.

First off, when you live the life of a two-headed mutant monster, you both must agree on one thing before you can do it. That said, these mutants really needed a break from each other and, figuratively speaking, we went to the doctor and were surgically removed from one another. We’ve both led different and separate lives since that point, working apart for a bit and, in general, finding ourselves without the confusion of people lumping our personalities together. This sometimes is the most difficult thing about being a twin.

Trademarks:

    • As a directing duo, the twins split duties. Albert handles the camera and the technical production issues, while Allen works with the actors
    • Drawn to stories about urban culture, crime, and poverty
    • Heavily stylized visual design with deep, saturated colors and exaggerated cameras.
    • Influenced by 1970s western/kung fu/action cinema

Number of Eligible Films:

5

What’s Out:

Although the Hughes Brothers have made their name as a co-directors, they’re branching further and further into solo territory. While I may eventually include solo Hughes films—such as Allen’s Broken City, due sometime next year—solo TV movies and TV shows are, as usual, out.

Therefore, the joint Hughes TV show Touching Evil or Allen’s Knights of South Bronx won’t be a part of the project. Future films will be considered on a case-by-case basis, but for now I’m inclined to include anything directed by the pair or by either brother alone, as long as it’s theatrically released.

Connection to the Previous Project?:

Want to stare at the internet until your eyes bleed? Try to find an simple connection between Arthur Penn and the Hughes Brothers. After hours of looking and scrolling through IMDB, this is all I could find:

    • Penn was in California in 1965 for photography on The Chase, and he got caught in the Watts Riots. Years later, the Hughes Brothers used the Watts Riots as historical context for their film set in Watts, Menace II Society.
    • Arthur Penn’s favorite editor, Dede Allen, also worked on Denzel Washington’s John Q. Washington later starred in The Book of Eli! So Penn and the Hughes’ are at least two degrees of separation away!

Notes:

This is a short project, based entirely on my belief that the Hughes Brothers have great films in them, regardless of their relative successes and failures thus far. In each of my write-ups, I’ll devote space to what works like crazy in the film and what falls flat. Later on, I’m thinking about doing something a little different, taking time out of the countdown at some point to post a long essay about one overlooked aspect of their work that I find really fascinating, but that requires its own full post to get at.

(Note: The Hughes Brothers Projects is complete. Please enjoy the links below!)

The Hughes Brothers Project

1. American Pimp (1999)

2. Menace II Society (1993)

3. The Book of Eli (2010)

4. From Hell (2001)

5. Dead Presidents (1995)

Special: Women in the Film of the Hughes Brothers

Wrap-Up: The Hughes Brothers Project

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The Joker: Dark Avatar of the 99%?

This piece began as something else entirely, an article inspired by a paragraph from Film Crit Hulk’s debut post for Badass Digest.

IT’S NOT A QUESTION OF IF THE DARK KNIGHT IS THE AWESOMEST MOVIE EVER OR IF IT’S OVERRATED, BUT THE MILLIONS OF OTHER THINGS THAT MAKE THE FILM INTERESTING. LIKE ITS TREATMENT OF JOKER AS THE ULTIMATE ANARCHIST, THE LOGIC OF WHICH TAKEN TO ITS FURTHEST POSSIBLE POINT….. THE DARK KNIGHT HAS A MILLION GREAT CONVERSATIONS WE’RE NOT HAVING BECAUSE WE’RE TOO BUSY TALKING ABOUT ITS WORTH!

I wrote an article about The Dark Knight a few months ago, but Hulk’s comment gave me an urge to revisit it. Whatever you think about Christopher Nolan as a filmmaker, he certainly produces work that rewards repeat viewership, huge sandboxes of ideas to sift through and explore. I had an idea to take a another look at one of the movie’s weaker choices—the Joker’s convoluted plan.

Let me allow the internet to say its piece:

“Then, while the whole town is on alert, we go ahead and have our henchmen kidnap both Dent and Rachel Dawes and strap them in with the bombs in the two abandoned buildings. Then I’ll send Batman after one of them, knowing that this will result in Rachel being killed and Dent being a certain distance from the explosion as to become grotesquely injured and disillusioned. Then I’ll blow up the jail without accidentally killing myself. Gentlemen, it couldn’t be simpler.”

Danny Gallagher, Cracked.com

Or if you prefer music:

My question was this: If, as Hulk suggests, Joker represents the purest form of anarchy, then why are his plans so ridiculously organized and over-planned?

So, my wife and I grabbed a notebook and charted the Joker’s actions and statements from the beginning of the movie to the end, weighing his deeds against his words, and parsing out exactly what he seems to be thinking at any given moment.

What we learned is that the Joker’s plan isn’t nearly as complex as it seems. Oh, sure, there are complicated parts, but almost none of the Joker’s wins (the Dent/Dawes scenario, the hospital bombing) appear to be part of some master plan that’s clicking into place. He’s never really outsmarting his opponents. After every event, he seems to retreat to assess the playing field and improvise a new strategy. He occasionally hedges his bets, but he’s rarely thinking too many steps ahead. He has a goal, definitely, but like any great chess match, he rethinks his attack after each of his opponent’s moves. To give him credit for some kind of perfectly-executed master plan is a huge stretch. He’s good, but he’s not Deep Blue.

Maybe because of this, as I watched the film from his perspective I became less interested in the details of the Joker’s plan and more interested in who the Joker is and how he’s presented. Slowly, I hit upon an unexpected thought.

The Joker’s not an anarchist, not really. He’s a populist.

True, that’s a strange thing to call a character as hellbent on destruction and murder as the Joker, but the recently revealed teaser for The Dark Knight Rises convinced me that I might be on to something. That trailer recasts classic Batman villains Catwoman and Bane as champions of the workers, inciting violence, dragging the wealthy from their ornate apartments, and generally flipping Gotham into some kind of October Revolution. No matter what else The Dark Knight Rises is about, clearly it will have roots in the gulf between the rich and the poor.

The thing is, I believe that story of class warfare began in The Dark Knight, hidden beneath the caked makeup of a killer clown and his bullets and drums of gas.

This idea came while I struggled to piece together what we actually KNOW about the Joker. He’s designed as a cipher, a complete unknown, but Nolan’s Gotham is built to resemble the real world, and in our world, a lack of clues is still a clue.

What do we know about The Joker?

  1. He’s smart—like next-level smart.
  2. He’s been scarred, but used to look like Heath Ledger.
  3. He has no criminal record or fingerprint on file

The first two points are intriguing—before he was the Joker, he was smart and attractive, two things society tends to reward. We can speculate about what this means (was he wealthy? successful?) but by itself it’s pure guesswork. We’ll have to look elsewhere.

The third point has more potential. The Joker has no fingerprint record. He has no criminal record of any kind. For someone with a passion for loud crimes and mayhem, that’s got to be incredibly rare. If the Joker were a career criminal—a lowlife thug who laughed at the wrong joke, let’s say, and got sliced for his gaffe—we’d have to assume he’d been picked up at least once, right? Even as a juvenile? A mugging, simple burglary, lighting a fire, stealing a car stereo, something. But before the events of the film, the Joker never entered the system, not even once.

That suggests, at least to me, that the Joker is not a career criminal. Crime is a new pursuit, one at which the Joker excels thanks to his unhinged mind and natural talents. In any case, the Joker was once anonymous, one of the masses, and he’s made himself special, mostly in response (as the ending of Batman Begins heavily implies) to the appearance of Batman.

I’ll get back to that later. For now, accepting the idea of the Joker as a talented newcomer to crime, I examined the way Nolan presents him. The Joker’s anonymity informs everything about him, including how he makes an entrance. For example, the film opens with a shot of the Joker standing still on a street corner, his back to us, clown mask in hand and (presumably) makeup on his face. It’s broad daylight in a heavily populated city, but nobody seems to notice. He’s invisible. Despite his ghoulish appearance, he’s one of them. And then he steps forward.

The following sequence—in which the Joker pretends to be a simple bank robber when he’s anything but—ends with the Joker merging a school bus into a street jammed with the same. He blends back into the anonymous crowd. How does someone like the Joker not stand out, all the time? Gotham PD should be flooded with calls and tips about psychotic clowns driving school buses, but once he blends in with the people, he’s gone. Each appearance of the Joker in the film begins with him returning from that hiding place, not simply from nowhere but specifically from the ranks of the working class.

  • Disguised as a nurse in the hospital
  • Hiding behind a trucker in a big rig
  • Hiding out in a warehouse near the shipping docks
  • Masquerading as a cop
  • Dragged into Gambol’s bar in a garbage bag, supposedly killed by common gang bangers
  • Emerging from a restaurant kitchen

It’s this last scene I want to explore. The Joker’s “magic trick” is the most famous part, but a lot of interesting little details go mostly overlooked. Here’s the scene again.

OK, let’s unpack this a bit. First of all, the guys at the table aren’t common crooks. They’re the best of the best, the heads of their various crime families and organizations. These guys are rich, well-known, and (at least before Batman) completely untouchable. The conversation is about their vast stores of cash money and how to protect it. What’s at stake is the wealth and power they’ve spent decades of hard work acquiring. For criminals, at least, these guys are the 1%.

When the Joker gets a mention, the mobsters dismiss him. Not for his actions or his insanity, mind you, but because he wears “a cheap purple suit.” He’s “a nobody.” He’s dismissed because he’s not in the class of the men in the room.

A moment later, the Joker appears, walking out of the shadows like he’s part of the kitchen crew or the help interrupting the boss’s party. Sure, he earns a seat at the table through a show of force, but the mobsters smirk at him. From their perspective, they’re simply humoring a bad gag.

But then the Joker talks sense, and it worries them. He casts doubt on the security of their money, and they react. He tells them that he’ll kill the Batman (who, in this case, represents government oversight about as clearly as he represents anything) and that gets their attention. And what does he want?

Half.

The Joker asks for half of their accumulated wealth. He did nothing to help them earn their money, but now he wants an equal share. Sure, he’s contracting a job, but it’s a job he never actually performs. Eventually, he’ll take that money and fritter it away on a bonfire (“If you had our money, you’d just waste it!” you can almost imagine them moaning), while doing nothing at all to earn it. The deal he made was to kill Batman, not to find the money or silence Lau. And yet he takes it anyway. He rises up from the anonymous, from the working class, from being a “nobody” in a cheap suit, and he takes half of the wealth from the special elite and sends them on the run.

In fact, the Joker seems to have a particular taste for putting wealthy people on their heels, as well as for attracting help from Gotham’s blue collars. The Joker’s most visible minions in the film are the insane idiots the cops keep catching (the schizophrenic shooter, the fat guy with the cell phone in his belly) but the Joker only uses nutjobs when he expects—actually, when he requires—them to be caught. The jobs that call for more reliable help wind up in the hands of corrupt cops on the mob payroll, cops like Ramirez whose struggle with an expensive and oppressive medical system (a flashpoint for the 99%) put her in desperate need of cash. It’s these cops who kidnap Rachel and Harvey for the bomb dilemma, who poison the Police Commissioner, and who put the judge into her rigged car.

But Dent’s bigwig fundraiser in Bruce’s penthouse? For that The Joker shows up personally, and he takes special delight in putting the in-crowd in their place. See, the crooks were right. Despite his obvious talents, the Joker was a nobody, and he displays a unique rage against the people who had the opportunities, who were too wealthy and powerful to be anonymous.

This isn’t the pattern of an anarchist, but rather the pattern of someone with an axe to grind, someone who wants everyone to suffer, but who wants the rich to suffer more than their fair share.

Many people point to the Joker’s speech at Harvey Dent’s bedside as the truest manifestation of his philosophy. The Joker talks about the pointlessness of plans and the blissful beauty of anarchy. But, remember, the Joker lies. All the time. It’s what he did for breakfast this morning. So why give his hospital speech more weight than any of his other, conflicting rants? When he tells the crooks that he wants to kill Batman, that’s clearly a lie, and when he tells Harvey that he believes in anarchy, that’s also a lie. He doesn’t put the gun in Harvey’s hand to bring anarchy into Gotham. He does it to destroy Harvey, because that serves the Joker’s purpose and gets him a step closer to the goal. There’s nothing anarchic about Joker’s action as it leads one step closer to a specific, calculated result–equality

The only time the Joker tells the entire truth is exactly when you’d expect the villain to spill his beans, the finale confrontation on the high rise platform. What he wants, more than anything, is Gotham’s soul or, as Batman puts it, to prove that everyone is as ugly as he is.

Or as ugly as they are. See, the Joker’s actions in the finale and at the peak of his plan convince me that he’s telling at least a half-truth in an earlier scene, the police interrogation scene. There, the Joker describes how Batman changed the rules in Gotham between the oppressors and the oppressed. Now that Batman, supposedly one of the oppressed, has risen up to fight back, there must be a Joker to meet him. Two sides of the coin, yes, but both exceptional. The rest of the movie is spent trying to get the people of Gotham to act as the Joker does, to shake off the chains of anonymity and become nihilistically exceptional in the Joker’s own image, to destroy one another using their rational self-interest.

This is why he points the ferries at one another, why he forces Gambol’s men to kill or be killed, why he feeds the drug lord to his own dogs. In a way, the Joker speaks for the 1%, for the followers of Ayn Rand who believe self-interest is the only real motivation. But where the Joker veers off is the application of this philosophy. He can’t stand the idea of remaining exceptional.

Batman was born into wealth and spent and spent his billions to become exceptional. The Joker, on the other hand, rose through his own ingenuity and natural talent. They’re both elite, but The Joker’s sin is that he doesn’t want to keep the status he earned to himself. No, the Joker wants to share.

See, just as he drags the wealthy elite (both the criminal and the legitimate) down into the gutter, he attempts to bring the gutter up to the elite. He seeks a balance, a beautiful nightmare where Gotham burns and all are equal because all life is worth exactly the same–nothing. There is no wealth in Joker’s heaven, no elite class. There is only alive or dead, and every citizen either kills or is killed. The Joker hopes to convince the city to destroy itself by either compromising Batman’s moral strength (which he fails to do, even though he’s willing to die to do it) or by corrupting the incorruptible symbol of hope, Dent (which he succeeds in doing before Batman hides his victory.) The Joker seeks equality and balance between all layers of Gotham society, but he wants it in a way that creates a hell in which nobody can possibly be happy.

By now you’ll realize I’m presenting a wildly warped view of the populist philosophy behind the Occupy movement and other rallying points of the 99%. None of this represents the actual, on-the-ground thinking behind last year’s widespread protests. Am I reading too much into what I’m seeing? Perhaps twisting the goals of the 99% to fit some intriguing accidents in the way the film depicts the Joker?

Maybe. But I don’t think so.

The thing is, the Chris Nolan Batman movies, as they’ve so far developed, are turning into an oddly enthusiastic endorsement of the fascistic, right-wing policies of the Bush and Obama Administrations. Critics like Devin Faraci have noted that the ending reads like a pat on the back for the Patriot Act. “I’m not thrilled,” Batman seems to be saying “that I have to spy on every free citizen of Gotham to find this terrorist, but I saved lives and so the end justifies the means.” And then Morgan Freeman smiles wisely, destroys the system that we’ll never use again (unless we need it, right?), and we fade out. Writers long ago made the connection between superheroes and fascism—a subject most notably explored in Alan Moore’s Watchmen—but Nolan seems to be gift-wrapping this philosophy, barely disguised, as consequence-free entertainment. I have no idea about Nolan’s personal politics, but his Batman films have championed the notion of the exceptional exercising  rich man’s burden to keep the poor from destroying themselves—class was a central theme in Batman Begins and it appears to be a major, major part of The Dark Knight Rises.

(Nolan even considered filming at an actual Occupy protest, and it now seems possible, even probable, that those scenes would have been connected to the civil unrest Bane and Catwoman unleash. In other words, the real-world Occupy protestors would be painted as either villains or pawns of the villains, which might explain why Nolan eventually shied away from the idea.)

I’m not saying that The Dark Knight script was written to paint the Joker as a populist rabble-rouser; the Nolans and David Goyer may have actually believed they were writing a pure anarchist. But if the Occupy movement has its roots in the unrest over foreign wars—and it does—then those ideas were already bouncing around our culture and starting to form and may have found their way into the screenplay unintentionally, sprouting from the same garden as the decidedly intentional “truckload of soldiers” comment Joker uses to point out Gotham’s hypocrisy. If the Joker is mad about wartime apathy, then what else might he be mad about?

So, no, the actual real-life Occupy protestors and supporters of the 99% wouldn’t support the Joker or his actions. But I’d remind you that if these Batman films are truly from the point of view of the 1%–and our main character is in the 1% of the 1%–then it stands to reason that the Joker’s actions are seen through that point of view as well. And we already know how the elite class sees this movement:

Is this guy a sociopath just itching to spray down a row of peaceful people because, fuck, pepper spray is really fun? Maybe. It’s possible. I don’t know the guy. But it’s just as likely to me that this image resulted from the collision of two ideas. The people on the ground had the idea that they were protesting peacefully as the Constitution allows, and the guy with the can of spray decided that their protest represented something he’s employed to fight—anarchy. To the people in charge of defending the gates, challenging the system looks an awful lot like terrorism, and the America the Occupy protestors want to see looks an awful lot like hell. Specifically, it looks like Joker’s dream, with the world turning on itself and drowning in poisonous ideas because we can’t all be exceptional. The Joker’s brand of terrorism may not resemble the actual populist movement, but it comes mighty close to how that movement appears to the people who have all the money and the power and stand to lose it. The elite no longer snort and call these people nobodies. No, instead they’re passing laws.

We won’t know Nolan’s plans for sure until his trilogy’s conclusion, but I’ve got a fairly good guess about how it’s shaping up. The first film was about burdens of the wealthy, and the last film appears to be about the misguided, manipulated poor attempting to destroy their wealthy protectors. If that’s right, and if The Dark Knight is really only about an anarchist, then the excellent, middle film no longer has an organic purpose in the trilogy Nolan has built. I don’t think that’s the case. To my eyes, the Joker represents the first volley towards equality in Gotham, but it’s a failed equality built on extremism and terror, and Batman’s next battle is to prevent a more organized, crystallized version of Joker’s ideal from coming to pass. To most, the Joker is simply a terrorist, but I have a feeling that when Bane throws Gotham into a shooting war, and when the poor drag the rich from their houses, and when expensive furniture burns in the street, the Joker will peek through the window of his Arkham cell and smile.

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Jim Emerson, The Dark Knight, and other things that make no sense.

Who wants to talk about The Dark Knight for a minute?

A lot of chatter circulated in the movie-nerdist blogosphere last week concerning Jim Emerson’s video critique of the truck chase in Christopher Nolan’s second Batman epic. Much of the attention focused around Emerson’s notion that Christopher Nolan is overrated and/or awful as a film director, and also Batman.

I thought Emerson’s video was interesting, if deeply flawed, but I hadn’t planned to weigh in; way smarter people already had the issue very well covered by the time I arrived. As the articles poured in, however, In noticed one important piece of the puzzle that was being overlooked, a piece crucial to understanding the full context of the argument.

First, some background. Emerson is a critic and the founding editor-in-chief of rogerebert.com, and I’ve linked to him here ever since hanging up my net shingle. He’s a hyper-intelligent critic with strong opinions, and he occasionally drives me completely batty with rage. In other words, he’s a good read. Anyway, Emerson launched a new series of videos a couple of weeks ago, videos intended to dissect and analyze the craft of editing action scenes. For his first video, Emerson gave us this:

It’s long, I know. But it’s still The Dark Knight, and most people love that movie, so you should click.

Did you watch it? Pretty crazy, right? By the time Emerson is done, it’s like, holy crap is that scene hard to follow, or what? And since one of the laws of the internet is that any post involving Batman will have an equal and obstinate reaction, the anger began to build. Intellectual, persnickety, movie-nerd anger. We’re weird critters, is what I’m saying.

Anyway, Emerson’s video popped up at Devin Faraci’s BadassDigest, and the comments there led me to a fabulous three-part mega essay by Film Critic Hulk about the proper cutting of action sequences…

(By the way, do you read Film Critic Hulk? Because you totally should be reading Film Critic Hulk. He’s quickly turning into one of the most thoughtful and thorough critics on the internet, which is insane because he writes posts in all caps with broken English and his word count is apocalyptic. Still, awesome.)

…and then on Friday, the video gets totally BLASTED by Joseph Kahn, director of Torque and Detention. Kahn has a hard time finding ANY value in Emerson’s argument, which to me is a bit of an over-correction, because Emerson is definitely not all the way wrong. Emerson correctly notes several continuity errors, points out a problem with The Joker’s rocket aim, and correctly identifies a fairly muddy perspective glitch, where the Joker and Batman appear to be on a collision course, only to have Batman wreck into the wrong lane of traffic.

(Although one could argue that the cop repeatedly screaming “Look Out!” in the truck clears that problem up, but there’s still confusion in the cut.)

But, see, Emerson is also wrong a LOT. As Kahn notes, Emerson indulges in tangents about how HE would have directed the scene, a class felony in film criticism. He also sets up a slew of false arguments to fill gaps when there’s nothing to talk about, and it’s one of these arguments that I’m going to look at more closely.

One of Emerson’s big problems with the sequence begins at 02:50 in the video as Harvey Dent takes a seat in the back of the police van. We clearly see Harvey put his back to the passenger side of the vehicle while he shares dialogue with Rachel, just before the door shuts on him.

The very next shot we have of Harvey—and pretty much the only shot of Harvey we have for the rest of the sequence, a shot that Nolan returns to often—is this one:

Emerson argues that this is distracting for the audience because they can’t confirm where Harvey is sitting. Is he still on the passenger side? There’s no window, no context, and no establishing shot that confirms Harvey’s place in the van.

What Emerson is talking about is basic film language, the kind of shots that most moviegoers never notice, but if neglected can transform a good film into unwatchable junk. Basically, no single shot in any movie actually relates to any other single shot in the movie. Every shot in every movie is a snippet of disconnected time, and it’s how the shots are lined up next to one another that creates meaning for the audience. In this case, that second shot of Harvey could have been shot on a different day or in a different truck, or it could have been pulled from a totally different movie and jammed in there. It doesn’t directly confirm Harvey’s position in the space, and by itself, it means absolutely nothing. Emerson’s argument is that our minds are aware of this, even if we’re not, creating subtle confusion as our minds struggle to piece the action together in the background while our eyes constantly download new and sometimes contradictory information. It’s kind of like when you’re at work and you’re not done with Tuesday’s report, but then somebody drops Wednesday’s on your desk.

This is the first result for “semiotics” on Google Images.

What Emerson glosses over, however, is the inconvenient fact that this shot does NOT exist in a vacuum. If the truck chase was all the movie there was, as in the entire movie begins with the helicopter shot of the convoy, then Emerson’s right. Who is Harvey? Where is he sitting? What truck is he in? We’d have no way of knowing.

But that didn’t happen. Like 30 seconds earlier, the audience watched Harvey get into the truck and sit down on the passenger side during an important and memorable bit of conversation. THAT’s your establishing shot. Our brains didn’t reset when the truck started. Nolan relies on that earlier shot to make sense of this one. We already believe Harvey is on the passenger side of the truck, and the visual information in the shot reinforces our belief.

Let’s look at the image again.

Note that the camera shoots Harvey cheated to his left side, and that the truck’s light source shines on his right. Judging by the shadow on the wall, the light source appears to be positioned close and just above Harvey, which most of us would immediately (and probably subconsciously) assume to be some kind of ceiling or high light of the truck. Lights like that are usually placed in the center to maximize the lit area, and since Harvey’s right side is facing towards center, that means Harvey is most likely sitting, surprise surprise, on the passenger side, exactly where he’s supposed to be and where our minds already had him based on the earlier scene’s information.

At least, that’s how my mind works. Emerson’s apparently works like this:

Emerson has other questionable points in his video, but I chose to highlight this issue of Harvey’s seating arrangement because I think it’s a symbol for what’s really going on here overall. I’ve been reading Jim Emerson for years. He’s a really, really smart guy and he analyzes film with a gumshoe-like attention to detail that’s often fascinating. He knows his shit, so he should also be smart enough to know that he’s standing on some pretty weak legs here.

Unless, that is, he’s got some other agenda.

Emerson’s name has grown in infamy since this video appeared online, but for those of us who have been following him for a while, this is just the latest chapter in Emerson’s strange obsession with Christopher Nolan. The truth is that has been grinding an ax against Nolan for years, and this video marks the moment where it’s finally starting to seem a little weird. If you scour Emerson’s blog, you’ll uncover pages and pages of anti-Nolan writings. This link goes to a page full of stories bashing The Dark Knight, including at least two articles about Emerson’s distaste for a 4 second shot of a school bus leaving a bank.

Eagle-eyes will notice that he hasn’t posted a Dark Knight article since 2009. That’s because he had something else to write about. My favorite part of this article is the insecure bit at the bottom where he posts Roger Ebert’s “permission” for people to not like Inception, as if that permission were necessary. A preemptive defense from Nolanites.

Here’s a “review” of The Prestige where he admits to having no interest in the film, compares it incongruously to Shyamalan’s Signs, then dismisses it just as he predicted.

And when given the chance to write about any director he pleases for an entirely different site, Emerson chooses a familiar target.

Dude just genuinely doesn’t like Nolan. That’s totally his right, of course, and as long as his criticism is intelligent and informed, bring it on. Nolan’s not perfect, and as a developing filmmaker, he needs all the puncturing he can get. How else is he supposed to improve if he’s drunk off his own myth?

Unfortunately, Emerson’s rants are starting to seem less like valid criticism and more the guy at the end of Body Snatchers, telling us to watch the skies. I know it must be frustrating for a critic to watch as a director he doesn’t enjoy is gradually canonized into movie sainthood, as seems to be happening right now with Nolan. It’s only natural for Emerson to feel like his education places him in the unique position of being able to make a stand, to turn heads in the public and get a little balance back into the conversation. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this before.

It reminds me a lot of Bosley Crowther.

If you read the Arthur Penn Project, you may remember his name from my post about Bonnie and Clyde. Crowther was the old school New York critic who didn’t like Bonnie and Clyde and couldn’t accept that the general public did. He never missed an opportunity to bash the film and went out his way to engage with his readers even as the mud he threw just found its way back inside his door.

The comparison isn’t completely valid. Emerson isn’t attacking from a position of power as Crowther was, and Crowther was demonstrably wrong while Emerson is arguably right to call The Dark Knight overrated (I love the film, but there is an argument to be made.) Emerson is also unlikely to have his career totally destroyed.

“Unless I feel like it.”

He may be in danger, however, of having his voice as a critic mean something less than it should. Emerson went out of his way to launch an ongoing video series with a drive-by attack at a film against which he seems to have some kind of vendetta. His attack consists of weak arguments and strawmen designed to give himself a victory hash on the scoreboard. Even the very basis of the argument could be considered a strawman, because it’s not as if people even watch Dark Knight for of the action. Didn’t we already know that Nolan’s strength isn’t in his action sequences? Didn’t we establish this with Batman Begins? The draw of The Dark Knight wasn’t the action, it was Heath Ledger’s performance and, yes, the tight storytelling, and the way the film presents these cartoonish characters in a more serious, palatable way that appeals to a mass audience who wouldn’t be caught dead at a comic book convention. Attack Dark Knight for its action? Might as well call Se7en a rotten film because you don’t like Gwyneth Paltrow.

Emerson’s vendetta risks compromising his position as a critic. Armond White has written himself into the role of a contrarian so completely that his criticism carries no weight anymore. Like or dislike a movie, anyone who disagrees can just say “White just likes to be different.” Nobody takes his opinion seriously anymore. If Emerson keeps this up, he risks becoming “just that guy who has a hate on for Chris Nolan.” As soon as your readers don’t believe what you’re writing comes from a place of honesty, your value as a critic goes poof.

So let people have their Dark Knight, Mr. Emerson. You’ve made your point clearly, consistently, and persistently. Believe me, you’re on record, and if the world one day decides that The Dark Knight is the sloppy mess you believe it to be, then you’ll be vindicated, just like Pauline Kael was when she came down on the right side of Bonnie and Clyde. Do you hate the film? Then hate the film. Write your post and move on, because there’s nothing to be gained wasting so much time and energy simply trying to prove yourself right. There are plenty of other films in the sea.

Besides, if you want to analyze incomprehensible action scenes, you’ve only just begun to fight.

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Project-of-One: Super 8

 

Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, and our current movie generation is addicted to it. Nostalgia is why the movies in our future have names like Battleship, Candyland, Asteroids, Smurfs, and Transformers 3. Nostalgia is why very little makes it past the big budget bean-counters today unless it can be tied to a “brand” that comes pre-sold and pre-digested.

Super 8 is billed as an original, non-sequel science fiction film, but it still has a brand—the Amblin brand, after the style of movies it apes. Under Steven Spielberg’s watch, Amblin Entertainment produced some of the most distinctive films of the 80s and 90s, and it’s specifically this flavor that Super 8 conjures up. Super 8 wants to feel like some lost Amblin film from 1982, and for the most part, director JJ Abrams pulls it off.

Super 8 is part-Goonies, part-ET, and a tiny part-Cloverfield. That’d be the Abrams touch, I imagine. The story is full of foul-mouthed kids riding bikes through the suburbs, loud dinner-table conversations, gruff soldiers, and a mysterious creature that nobody understands.

Young Joel Courtney stars as Joe, the makeup artist for a batch of kids filming a horror movie in small town Ohio. His dad (Kyle Chandler)—a suddenly single father after a workplace accident took his wife—doesn’t approve of Joe’s interests, but grits his teeth and tries to abide. As the kids film a scene at the local train stop, they witness (and shoot) a devastating train accident, which turns out to be the catalyst for a lot of strange events. Animals run away, people disappear, and metal starts flying around on its own. As you likely guessed, the train wasn’t carrying coal.

When you think about it, Super 8 is a ballsy move for Abrams. He’s long been anointed “the next Spielberg,” but it takes a special kind of chutzpah to embrace that title and say, yeah, that’s me. For most of its running time, Super 8 so deftly blends the small-town flavor and big-idea sparkle of a Spielberg film, I wondered if Spielberg himself had snuck onto the set and told Abrams to go take a Tobe Hooper break. Unfortunately, when Abrams absorbed Spielberg’s power, Rogue-like, he also absorbed Spielberg’s third-act jitters. Spielberg hasn’t filmed a completely satisfying ending in twenty years, and sure enough, after Abrams spins so many plates so deftly for 90 minutes, as Super 8 approaches its finale, they all come crashing down.

It starts slowly at first. The coincidences pile up a little too high. Credibility stretches a little too tight. How many projectiles can those kids miraculously miss? How did the army swoop in and arrest four people hiding in the bowels of a building and miss their driver parked outside? How could one child not notice that their parent is missing? By the time the creature is revealed (and it is revealed, full-on, and looking a lot like a monster from another Abrams joint), the editing turns against the story. Characters that seem trapped in one location are suddenly somewhere else in time to see the plot. Emotional journeys complete without any motivation, save that the end of the movie is here. Sure, the film has the requisite shots—dirty-faced children blinking up into spotlights as something miraculous happens—but they fall flat because they don’t pay off what’s come before. Are we supposed to sympathize with the monster or be terrified by it? I’ve seen the movie, and I guarantee the answer is a lot muddier than the kids’ reactions suggest.

Super 8 reminds me of two other, non-Amblin, films. The first is Forrest Gump. Like the hero of that movie, the kids seem to be flitting in and around larger events without ever really connecting to them. There’s a big alien invasion movie happening right next door, but the kids are content to be in the ballpark and get their shot. They plunge in by the end—as Forrest certainly would if Jenny were in trouble—but you wonder why it took so long to move to this side of the camera.

Super 8 also reminds me of Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez’s half of the Grindhouse double feature. That one is a messy film (intentionally), but the point is to sit back and soak up the ambiance while ignoring the plot glitches and the bits that make no sense. You’re not there for the plot, anyway. So it is with Super 8. It’s not a new classic, but nostalgia does carry it a long, long way. Like the kids’ homemade movie-within-the-movie, it’s not great, but it’s entertaining, and you just have to give them credit for trying so hard.

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