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Wolverine’s Swan Song

Logan & Laura

“This repression of the ‘non-serious’ aspects of pleasure, of a discourse of fun, is not, of course, a total exclusion. Notions of distraction, diversion, and entertainment have appeared with regularity in the academic discourse on cinematic pleasure. Yet, within that discourse, they are almost invariably positioned as negative terms. They are often figured as decadent – betrayals of truth, morally corrupt, politically incorrect – or, at best, as escapist or trivial. Indeed, it seems that the vast majority of the academic ‘discourse on pleasure’ has been calculated to distinguish between these ‘corrupt’ pleasures and more acceptable, ‘serious’ pleasures.”

-R.L. Rutsky & Justin Wyatt, Serious Pleasures: Cinematic Pleasure And The Notion Of Fun, 1990

Most of the films that American audiences see or hear about are designed to maximize public appeal, to gross highly, and to entertain. With this set of priorities, the mainstream, the most commercial of American cinema, cannot afford much in the way of serious artistic expression. If we accept Rutsky and Wyatt’s arguments, then the films that come out of the major studios enter into critical discourse as “corrupt pleasures” insofar as these films primarily represent distractions, diversions and entertainment.

James Mangold’s Logan (2017) fits within this niche easily. It’s a major blockbuster and an installment within a well proven franchise of movies that has been turning a healthy profit in cinemas for seventeen years now. However, unlike most films within a franchise, Logan dares to challenge the genre to which it was born (so to speak).  J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) is a far more typical representation of how a franchise functions, evidencing how best to keep the grosses consistent: more of the same, again and again. Logan is not just alone in the X-Men movie franchise because of its rating, Logan is also a character study, and a film whose narrative devices have been absent from the superhero genre. In fact Logan has more in common narratively with Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World (1993), Luc Besson’s The Professional (1994), Takashi Miike’s Rainy Dog (1997), James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), and John Cassavetes’ Gloria (1980) than it does with any of the Batman, X-Men, Avengers, Spiderman, Superman, Ironman, or Guardians Of The Galaxy movies that have come out in the last twenty years or more.

Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart

The primary reason Logan does not fit within the aesthetic blueprint of the superhero genre is because the film prioritizes its three lead characters over the spectacle of violence. Mangold’s film is interested in the frailties of his superpowered characters, and populates his film with moments that allow these frailties to function as a direct counterpoint to the sequences of action-violence that the audience is expecting. The narrative of Logan is designed for this kind of investigation into character much in the same way as A Perfect World, Rainy Dog, The Professional and Gloria are. Every time the audience finds comfort in the familiar heroic antics of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Professor X (Patrick Stewart), and X-23/Laura (Dafne Keen) that comfort is in turn subverted. The scenes of Wolverine caring for Professor X are particularly adept at subverting the standards of superhero fare.

Logan is also unique for assuming that its target audience, comic book fans, will be in tune with the characters introduced in the narrative to a degree that Mangold can forgo the usual scenes of expository action. Besides, one does not need an in depth working knowledge of The Reavers, Dr. Rice or Albert within the context of the Wolverine comics to understand their narrative function. If one is familiar with this set of Wolverine #40, June, 1991characters, that is simply just another layer of pleasure that Logan has to offer. One of the great drawbacks to the superhero genre in film is that the authors of these films assume that the films will not work if they are not “all inclusive” in terms of their narrative accessibility. The best superhero films, Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978), and Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014) all operate on the assumption that an audience even vaguely familiar with the characters will be able to glean from the film an understanding of these characters and their respective narrative complexes in other media forms.

There has been a tremendous amount of hype surrounding Logan. If one were to read Kevin P. Sullivan’s article in the March 10th issue of Entertainment Weekly, one may very well assume that Logan was the greatest film of its kind ever made. However, Logan can never escape what it is, a “distraction, diversion, and entertainment”. And, for me at least, this isn’t a bad thing at all. 

-Robert Curry

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Concerning Gene Hackman & Eureka

Nicolas Roeg has enjoyed a career being a filmmaker’s filmmaker.  His films deliver delirious visuals in exceptionally iconoclastic montages that not only build upon narrative and character, but illuminate the psychological subtexts of scenes.  His most popular body of work is restricted to the seventies when auteurism was in vogue and audiences were more open to unorthodox employments of the cinematographic langue.  Of Roeg’s work in the seventies his most enduring and popular contributions to the cinema includes his collaboration with Donald Cammell Performance (1970), Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), and The Man Who Fell To Earth (1975).  Each of these films is aesthetically linked not only by Roeg’s inimitable visual style, but also by Roeg’s persistent exploration of narrative deconstruction; a sort of antithesis to the works of Sergei Eisenstein that still utilized Eisenstein’s methods counter to the filmmaker’s original theories as to their employment.

Eureka

Yet, despite the momentous contribution to the cinema that these four films represent, Roeg’s work after The Man Who Fell To Earth is practically unknown, with the exception of Bad Timing (1980), insignificance (1985), and The Witches (1990).  Films equally brilliant to Don’t Look Now and Performance, such as Castaway (1986) and Track 29 (1988), have been relegated to the singular purview of critics, scholars and cinephiles.  Thus, Roeg’s work as a whole has yet to receive an adequate and detailed survey.

Now consider Gene Hackman.  Hackman struggled for years to make a career for himself in the cinema, eventually breaking out in supporting roles in Robert Rossen’s Lilith (1964), Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde (1967) and John Frankenheimer’s The Gypsy Moths (1969).  But, much like Roeg, Hackman would find his niche in the seventies, though his usual fare consisted of darker realist dramas such as William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971), Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow (1973), Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), and Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975).  Hackman was not limited to these more sophisticated character portrayals, often playing camp inspired heroes and villains as well, most memorably in Ronald Neame’s The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978), and Bob Clark’s Loose Cannons (1990).  As the nineties progressed, Hackman stepped back, playing the smaller supporting parts like those that originally launched his career.  But in 1983 Gene Hackman played the lead role of Jack McCann, with the same unbridled energy and machismo of his Lex Luthor, in Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka.

What may seem off handedly to be an odd pairing actually works extremely well.  It is the camp of Hackman’s McCann that pulls off lines like “lay off the sauce” and “I never earned a nickel off another man’s sweat” with an other worldly naturalism.  And it’s Roeg who has created this other world.  Scenes such as the prospector’s suicide, McCann striking gold, McCann’s attempted murder of his son-in-law Claude (Rutger Hauer), Tracy’s (Theresa Russell) various love scenes with Claude, and McCann’s murder sequence are all brimming with the kinetic free-form energy and associative cutting that one expects from Performance.  And it is Roeg’s visual wizardry and melodrama that contextualizes Hackman’s campy Jack McCann so that every word he says and everything he does is perfectly justified.  This is the kind of relationship Hackman thrived in while shooting Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) in which his own stylized characterization matched the director’s perfectly.

Roeg's Eureka

Sadly, Hackman and Roeg’s tour de force is hardly known and rarely seen.  Eureka was not a hit when it was first released and, unlike Roeg’s Bad Timing, did not receive its due critical reappraisal with a quality home video release.  Regardless, Eureka is a film well worth discovering.  Recently I screened the film for an actor friend of mine and he was blown away, not just by Gene Hackman’s performance, but by Roeg’s unique visual language.  The film propagated a lengthy discussion on acting and filmmaking in general that I believe any audience member would likely have after watching Eureka.

-Robert Curry

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From Nolan To Beatty: The Comic Book Blockbuster

In today’s blockbuster climate it is proving more difficult than ever to enjoy “superhero” films.  More and more these films seem to be just going through the motions, attempting to cash in on the fad before it dissipates.  If science fiction epics were the hit genre of the late seventies and early eighties, superhero blockbusters are the hit of today.  Sadly, films like Thor, Captain America, Green Lantern, Iron Man 2, Iron Man, Sam Raimi’s Spiderman franchise, and X-Men 3 appear to be cookie-cutter replicas of their predecessors such as X-Men and Batman Begins.  Yet, even these predecessors lack the inventiveness and cinematic style of the original Batman franchise.  At the least, Tim Burton’s Batman provided a blueprint for Batman in the nineties, just as Richard Donner’s Superman The Movie had for the previous decade.

Though these films make for great escapist fare, few rival Warren Beatty’s now often overlooked Dick Tracy.  What Beatty does is successfully translate the atmosphere and style of the comic into cinematic language.  The techniques of montage and high contrast compositions are cinematic hallmarks of the era associated with the classic comic strip.  Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography explodes with the vibrant color that defined the strip.  The great innovation though is in the editing.  To achieve the quick tommy gun pace of the comic, Beatty turned to MTV, and perhaps for the first time legitimized those aesthetics for a summer blockbuster.  The Dick Tracy screenplay doesn’t suffer from a lack of witty dialogue, but rather from a weak plot, a staple of most comic book films, none more painfully so than Christopher Nolan’s sloppy Dark Knight.

So why can’t filmmakers today create a meaningful film from the graphic medium?  Probably for two reasons.  One, the studios that produce these films want them churned out as quickly as possible to sell more merchandise and milk the trend for every penny.  Second, the filmmakers themselves are probably so concerned with lofty cinematic ambition that they confuse and inhibit their own film.  So one is left with two extremes.  Each extreme representing the absolute worse possibilities in the world of studio controlled filmmaking.

Is there an upside to all this?  Not that I can think of.  Eventually, like all fads, this one will fade and make way for a new blockbuster trend.  In the meantime, we’ll just have to wait it out.

-Robert Curry

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