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Detroit

“Nervous breakdowns

Crowd the calendar of freedom

When reality is forced upon the nonbeliever’s ego plan

Criticizers

From the hanging cliffs of plenty

Laugh to see the fall of those

Who would remain in honest lands

Clairvoyants strive to see

The plans of those who need to know

What lies beyond the seeing tree of life” – Eugene McDaniels, Unspoken Dreams Of Light, 1970

 DETROIT

When I saw Detroit last Tuesday, I believe that I was fortunate enough to have a wholly unique viewing experience. I assume that unlike most white male viewers I had a special “tour guide” in the form of a running commentary from two elderly Black women seated directly behind me. In many respects this commentary provided a good deal that the film did not. Though these two women restricted most of their commentary to the fashions of 1967, their personal reminisces that accompanied these asides were highly enlightening. The Black Culture of 1967 that was too elusive in Detroit became almost tangible to me thanks to my fellow spectators. Now I cannot imagine making it through the entire film without them.

The fact that the cultural context for Detroit came not from the film itself but from my fellow spectators indicates the primary failure of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s film. A film which sets as its objective the “education” of an audience should be more inclusive, prioritizing the context of its protagonists so that, from the vantage point of 2017, we may understand and even recognize the dramatic stakes proposed by the film. A recent publication in the Huffington Post, ‘Detroit’ Is The Most Irresponsible And Dangerous Movie This Year  by Jeanne Theoharis, Mary Phillips, and Say Burgin, points to some of the major omissions of historical events as well as the political ramifications of said inclusions and omissions.

This half-hearted approach to Black Culture in a film made by white filmmakers condemning racism squarely places Detroit within the tradition of Richard Brooks’ or Stanley Kramer’s civil rights oriented films of the fifties and sixties. Kramer’s use of caricature, narrative cliché, and preachy dialogue seems out-of-place in a film of 2017; it may even be dangerous. When Stanley Kramer was making his films Oscar Micheaux had already completed more than two dozen films that had never been released widely to white audiences (J. Hoberman’s excellent essay on Micheaux is collected in his book Vulgar Modernism). Black filmmakers before 1970 were almost exclusively left to exhibit their films on a regional level (New York based filmmakers screened their work there, Memphis filmmakers screened their films there, etc). The segregation of American cinema in the fifties and sixties and even before is what makes Kramer’s films such important political documents. In other words, Kramer’s voice was one of the few audiences all over the U.S. heard at the cinemas on the subject of civil rights. Today Black filmmakers have found a more general mainstream acceptance, so issues of racism in this country do not have to wait for a “white savior” like Stanley Kramer to stick up for them. It is almost impossible to imagine what a filmmaker like Oscar Micheaux would have been capable of if he had had the opportunities of Tyler Perry, Lee Daniels, Barry Jenkins or Steve McQueen.

The films that have endured by white and black filmmakers alike about America’s racial conflict are the ones that have not sought to explicitly propagate one agenda over another. Charles Burnett’s The Glass Shield (1994), John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959), Ryan Fleck’s Half Nelson (2006), and Lee Daniel’s The Paperboy (2012) and The Butler (2015) all take an equally compassionate view of their characters regardless of race; prioritizing character over politics and thus finding something closer to the truth with regards as to how race affects human beings on an acutely personal level.

Detroit does not offer viewers human beings, only character types and sketches, distilling the life out of its characters both Black and White. This has the unusual effect of placing Detroit more in line, in terms of genre, with the home invasion thriller than with the historical drama. Detroit, like any good exploitation film, favors the spectacle of violence, revelling like a sadist in scenes of torture and depravity. The only “message” this tactic can offer viewers and the only understanding of the event in our history Detroit seems ready to share is that racism is violent and bad. This juvenile interpretation of these historical events both demeans its survivors as well as leaves viewers ill-equipped to address this kind of racial violence after seeing the film.

Detroit

For myself personally, the truly frightening aspect of racism is that it can be found anywhere. People and co-workers one may assume one knows could in fact harbor some of the most revolting kinds of racism. Costa-Gravas’ film Betrayed (1988) takes this as its thesis, constructing around this idea a uniquely disconcerting thriller. However, this kind of terror can only be made manifest on the screen if the film attempts to construct actual characters.

Bigelow and Boal have most certainly accomplished the antithesis of their goal. Detroit does not work as a film about the Detroit race riots of 1967. Detroit is an exploitation film, dressed up with a major budget and sold as a quasi “historical revelation”. Its great accomplishment will be to offend, and in so doing prove just how out of touch White Hollywood still is with the problems of Black America today and yesterday.

-Robert Curry

 

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A Spectacle Of War

“Of course, you know this means war!” – Groucho Marx, A Night At The Opera, 1935

Dunkirk

I don’t particularly love war films as a genre. I find most of them to be either overly sentimental, propagandist, violently exploitative, or just racist. For me the first really good and also fascinating war film is  Abel Gance’s J’Accuse (1919). The other war films (I’m finding this genre label a bit too loose and not very helpful) that have expressed anything of merit have all appeared to have taken something from Gance, even if it is just a shared impulse. The “good” war films, in my opinion, all cherish human life with a capacity that a blockbuster production is incapable of while also posing questions regarding the necessity of violence and the nature of violence as spectacle. The more popular route has always been more propagandist and celebratory of the machismo of war while simultaneously pushing the political agenda of a current regime. That’s precisely why masterpieces such as Chris Marker’s omnibus film Far From Vietnam (1967), Miklós Jancsó’s The Red And The White (1967) and Elem Klimov’s Come & See (1984) remain elusive to most American audiences during a time when they are, perhaps, needed the most. But playing in cinemas today are two films who navigate these concerns with war in different ways that make them as illuminating with regards to their subject while also functioning as a sort of litmus test for the ideologies of this moment in time. The films are War For The Planet Of The Apes and Dunkirk.

Matt Reeves’ War For The Planet Of The Apes (2017) represents a pastiche that apes (pun intended) from such distinguished and diverse films as John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963), Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), and Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951) to cite only the most obvious examples. The culmination of these narrative elements having been reappropriated and strewn together in a patchwork is not necessarily that interesting in so far as imbuing a new degree of emotional response to familiar stimuli, but rather in War For The Planet Of The Apes’ capacity to examine the principles of these narrative tropes that have allowed them to work in different iterations over many decades by simply rearranging and aligning them within a linear narrative construct. Ironically, the detachment required by such an investigation derives from the computer generated apes themselves (they represent a different though just as plastic and campy manifestation as the costumes worn by actors during the original franchise from the late sixties into the seventies).

War For The Planet Of The Apes exists in a kind of limbo in American mainstream cinema. This represents an alternative reading of War For The Planet Of The Apes. Reeves has still delivered an overwhelming spectacle of violence, so it isn’t very likely that many viewers will be watching the film for its subtle genre deconstruction. Due to its blockbuster status, critical discourse around War For The Planet Of The Apes will be miniscule while audiences will not likely feel encouraged to enter into an analytical dialogue with the film. War For The Planet Of The Apes, as campy as it is, successfully straddles the line which is so sacred in American cinema; the one between art and entertainment (intellectual vs. spectacle). The problem here is that there shouldn’t be any segregation.

War For The Planet Of The Apes

Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there is Christopher Nolan. His films have consistently pandered to artistic recognition while never truly accomplishing anything worthwhile or remotely interesting as far as I can see. Dunkirk could have potentially demonstrated the various sensations of duration born out of a variety of duress in its hodge-podge semi-linear structure. However, Nolan consistently assumes that his audience suffers from some kind of mental incapacity and chose to label these three experiences of duration, thus negating the final reveal that would have lent Dunkirk emotional power. Nolan’s approach to form via these labels (The Mole, The Sea, and The Air) also functions to deny the film any interesting exchange between the images within the three different timelines as he cuts back and forth between them.

Thus Dunkirk is the antithesis of War For The Planet Of The Apes in that it aspires to art and provides only spectacle. The spectacle itself is not even that rewarding for that matter. As I sat in the theater watching Dunkirk I kept thinking of Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (1977). Dunkirk, like A Bridge Too Far, trades on its roster of celebrities and plethora of special effects to pull at the heart-strings of its audience. This strategy, while good in theory, doesn’t allow for ample character development, thus making it difficult for the audience to have anything more than a passing superficial reaction to the film. The only time Dunkirk comes close to achieving any real characterization is during Mark Rylance’s scenes. Rylance brings a subtlety and a sense of experience to his role as Mr. Dawson that renders his character with more depth and ambiguity than could be mustered by the rest of the film’s cast.

What Dunkirk and War For The Planet Of The Apes have in common is what they prove, each in their own way. These two films indicate that a majority of the movie going public see war and accept war purely as a spectacle, as a means for escape. This probably has as much to do with how these films are sold and marketed as with the way which wars are treated by journalists and the media in this country. Arguably, as the images of Vietnam on the 5 o’clock news fade from our national consciousness, so does our ability as a nation to treat war on film as anything other than “pulp”. I doubt that it is any coincidence that a majority of the most worthwhile films about war I have seen were made during the Vietnam conflict and in its immediate aftermath.

-Robert Curry

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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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