Hey, look! Here they are!
By now, I’m sure you six or seven readers out there have all realized that I dig the post-apocalyptica, as a genre – for the possibilities it presents (or, can present) from a speculative standpoint, as well as the intriguing collision of kineticism and human diagnoses that can often result, usually in a mythic, revisionist Western framework. And, while the genre has been down in the dumps of late, this last year we’ve had a triple threat of intriguing, if not completely realized, visions of the future – we can discount Acker’s 9 entirely, but Hillcoat’s adaptation of The Road deserve real mention, going some distance toward acting as a cinematic pseudo-deconstruction of the genre – if not entirely getting there. And, then there’s this one – released just two or three weeks back.
The Hughes Brother’s recent release, The Book of Eli, is a strange film – I don’t think I’ve seen a movie released in the last three years that is so clearly divided between scenes and elements that coalesce and work wonderfully, and still others that ring out like a sour note. Even so, it’s far and away a better film than the critical over-raking that it’s received recently would have one believe, if only for the ostensibly dense and – yes, even tangy world that it creates around its main character. Certainly, it’s a ramshackle collection of post-apocalyptic tropes and so on, but – like any good piece of clothing – it knows how to at least wear them with panache. It’s also doing so honestly, as well – there is a sense of homage about the film, but it springs organically instead of being the main catch of the product, like any number of sub-Tarantino films, or McG’s execrable Terminator: Salvation of last year. The inherently Western architecture of the genre is resurrected and with a vengeance – positing its main character as the stranger who stops in the doorway of a broken down old saloon, heading ‘west.’
This is an immediately vivid and complete world the Hughes brothers have imagined, here – one that, in contrast to so many other films of a similar nature, surrounds and envelops you in the context and situation of the story being presented, all through the frequent use of the kind of familiar Western iconography that has so defined the genre – and that was missing sorely from The Road – and a constantly dusty, starched, worn-out sense of composition that even seems to infect the way the characters speak. Everyone, from Tom Waits’ peripheral shop-keeper character to Eli himself, all speak in voices that seem frayed. There’s a sort of inherently ‘tired’ quality to the performances, here. Their voices are low, and harsh – even when they’re trying to be intimidating. There’s a relatively strong sense of dynamic formalism here, as well – in the set-pieces most especially, and in the quieter shots that interrupt some of the chaos of the film, of clouds moving a little too fast in opposition to the characters on the screen. In one sequence early on that’s shot entirely in one take, the Brothers Hughes place the character of Eli and his marauding attackers as stark silhouettes against an afternoon sun – with their exaggerated spurts of blood her and there appearing like ink on the canvas. Or, in another – where the directors fulfill what seems to be their penchant for ultimately-needless-but-eye catching tracking sequences, shooting us in and out of a gradually collapsing desert home, and so on. The Hughes Brothers aren’t going at this with a lax eye, and there’s no shortage of ideas here, even when they don’t completely work, which is more than refreshing in a genre that’s become quite trite and overused, of late. I might even say it’s a little ironic that the first film in a while with a sense of spontaneity about it does so by returning blue-blooded and genuinely to what had defined the genre.
Still, one of the things that stands out like a sore, broken thumb in the film is the character of Carnagie, Eli’s opposite in position and moral ambition – while Oldman does his best to give the character some kind of texture, and something behind the eyes, he comes off as the post-apocalyptic equivalent to a cackling James Bond villain, whose ‘push’ comes down to, basically, “I can use the Bible to control people, and rule the world!” Indeed, our introduction to the character sees him reading a biography of Mussolini, and all of that kind of thing. Which is – all well and fine, I guess. But, there needs to be a bit of Beyond Thunderdome‘s Aunty Entity to the character for him to work, especially given the markedly similar ‘frontier-town’ contexts the two stories take place in – but, Carnagie has nothing to compare with, “all this I built. Where there was desert, now there’s a town. Where there was robbery, there’s trade. Where there was despair, now there’s hope. Civilization. And I’ll do anything to protect it. Today, it’s necessary to kill a man.” It’s a heightened world the Hughes Bros have created here, to be sure; but there is an essential reality to it, something that comes through in the smaller moments that pepper the film. And, because of that, Carnagie’s thin, two-dimensional character doesn’t seem to fit – especially not in opposition to the character of Eli, who is possessed of significantly more development and pathos.
He’s a tried-and-true wandering stranger archetype down to his bones, but it’s through him that the film seems to return to that theme that runs throughout the Old and New Testaments, of god choosing the meek in lieu of the mighty to take up the role of the prophet – we learn later on in the film that, before whatever had caused the world to fall as it did, he’d previously worked as a K-Mart cashier. And , given the twist in the film – that, yes, doesn’t make much sense at all for a few reasons – this becomes all the more clear. Unfortunately, it’s also through him that the film strikes upon it’s largest inequality, and that is – a strange, muddled sense of morality, one that I think goes back to an essential disagreement between writer Gary Whitta and the two directors. We’re given sequences of him acting as a sort of avenging angel, but there’s very little of the kind of genuine prophet-in-the-wilderness here, give or take a few scenes. Reading interviews with the three of them fills this out – the screenplay had multiple sequences of Eli preaching to a gradually growing audience, and things like that. Those should’ve remained, as they would’ve given a clearer view of the character and the contrast between himself and Carnagie, and their ideological goals that define the story. Because they’re not there, and because of Carnagie’s overly-cartoonish sketching, everything comes out a little cross-eyed, by film’s end.
Still, this is a strong step in the right direction for the genre, finally – and, a more than welcome way to bide time until big daddy Fury Road‘s imminent release.
(No, but seriously. What a vapid, mind-numbing film – sure, James Cameron’s Avatar is very pretty, certainly. And, those alien cat-girls sure are cute – but, I can see them on the internet for free. You know what it reminds me of, now that I think about it? I have this comic, The Saga of Shaloman, in the bathroom that was self-published by a local comic store I used to go to, the Arlington branch of Lone Star Comics. It’s basically a polemic against the constant warring and separation in the Middle East, and a reiteration of unity – which is all fine and well and good. But it does so through the most inane stereotypes and giant bounds of illogic that it just becomes ridiculous by the eighth page.
Yes, the intense focus on cultural definition and world-building is great – even though most of this is extra-narrative and can only be found by reading an online encyclopedia – but, it needs a stronger core narrative that’s got at least a little more heft under it. Project 880, the original treatment draft for the project, wasn’t all that great either, but it certainly would’ve been better than this trite, hollow piece of work. This is a film that, more than anything, defines the difference between archetype and cliche, utilization of trope and just-plain-unoriginal. And, coming from the guy who made Aliens and Terminator 2, surprisingly – there’s very little affection or personality to the film itself, even the overly sentimental kind that Cameron is known for, outside of the aforementioned world-building. It’s cold, it’s silly, the characters are overly sketched caricatures who don’t act at all like anything resembling real people – which is essential for this type of story, I think. And, I don’t like it either.
And we spent half a billion dollars on this movie what the fuck.)
The initial goal of Martin Campbell’s recent Casino Royale was to redefine Bond for the new millennium, and wash the bad taste of 2002’s Die Another Day out of everybody’s mouths. Now, there’s no doubt at all that it succeeded in the latter, but the former I’m not so sure about. It’s certainly moving in that direction, but it seems to stop just a mile or two away from the goal. Which isn’t to say I don’t enjoy it – it’s a great, classic Bond film, but it’s also very traditional in spite of the change in tonality and all of that kind of thing.
Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace goes the full length, however – there’s a truer sense of redefinition here, while still keeping entirely centered on the evolution of the more Fleming inspired Bond from the previous film. In a way, it also mends a link that was broken in Fleming’s original series – Casino Royale acts primarily as a stand-alone pot-boiler that grows high on emotion near the end, and we’re left with Bond deciding to actively pursue the organization of SMERSH, the “threat behind the spies, the threat that made them spy.” But by the time that Live and Let Die rolled around, Fleming seems to have resigned himself instead to write the books as pure, pulpy action-adventure first, and the kind of morally ambiguous exploration of spies and whatnot second, reversing the train of thought of that first novel, and so Bond’s vengeful path is almost immediately forgotten in lieu of larger-than-life characters like Mr. Big and Auric Goldfinger, with the series occasionally breaking from tradition and formula every so often to allow for Fleming’s best works like From Russia With Love and the Blofeld trilogy, and so on. But here, Forster bridges that gap, showing us a Bond consumed by a quiet sense of vengeance that, by the end of the film, gives way to the character of Bond proper, having resigned himself fully to his task. We’re given a small inkling of Bond’s first taste of these larger organizations and machinations in QUANTUM, but Bond’s view is ultimately so narrow that our focus remains entirely on his personal evolution, throughout the film. And indeed, I don’t think there’s ever been a stronger representation of Fleming’s Bond than the film’s final epilogue scene in snowy Moscow, with Bond ambushing the man at the start of all this mess in his own apartment.
Forster brings a stronger sense of himself to the film, in contrast to Campbell’s more workmanlike approach – much like The Book of Eli, there’s a strong sense of formal experimentation here, from the tangy, pulp-esque title cards that mark our introduction each new location in unique fonts and shapes, to the lyrical, rapidly staccato editing of the Opera and desert-siege sequences, which utilizes the chaotic editing techniques – that, true, to certain earlier action sequences do become a little detrimental – in a far more self-conscious manner than immediately expected. There’s a stronger, more visceral quality to his action sequences – one that’s not necessarily similar to the Bourne films, despite the presence of a shared 2nd unit director – and, at the same time, more humane. The attack on Bond in the African hotel room ends quietly, with Bond checking himself in the mirror, cleaning the blood off his face before lingering minutely on the body of the attacker, who’s a fair bit younger than Bond, himself. Or, earlier on – when Bond fires on an unseen attacker while being strung from scaffolding rope, Forster heightens the sound of his gun to loud, booming proportions while keeping us centered squarely on Bond’s face for several second more than is comfortable.
Of course, all of this is implicit. Forster isn’t constantly telling us, ‘hey, we’re doing something new here,’ over and over again. It comes gradually, although there’s a sense of this at the beginning of the film, where the traditionally staid air and camera of a Bond film is broken, and we’re allowed personalized close-ups and editing centered on this self-assured Mr. White character. This is a great film, and I’m sincerely befuddled by the love-it-or-hate-it attitude it seems to have received, of late – this may be the one time I find myself agreeing with those two insufferable cocks over at The Film Talk, incidentally. May it never happen again.