June 23, 2013

A Superman for our socially fragmented age

I've kept checking reviews for Man of Steel and noticed that it seems like a pile-on from the critics, who mostly don't like it. And they kept harping on how little joy and fun there is -- well, what else can you expect these days? It's not the '80s anymore, it's the fragmented, cocooning, and mistrusting Millennial era.

Actors no longer have that familiar sense of playfulness and informality to tap into when they're playing their roles. They have to use what they have available in their psychology, and within the constraints of the general social mood, to the greatest effect. And since our social mood is marked more strongly by distance, isolation, alienation, and so on, it's only natural that their performances will have a more noirish feel to them.

During the previous "age of anxiety," alienation, and cocooning -- the mid-century -- Sunset Boulevard reminded any middle-aged viewers longing for the good old days that it wasn't the Roaring Twenties anymore. Time to accept the same for the '60s, '70s, and '80s. However much you may like the culture from back then, it's impossible to recreate it today, even in spirit, because our mood has been running in the opposite direction for over 20 years now.

It's like expecting Expressionist paintings from a color-blind population, which would still not prevent it from producing its own masterworks, just taking a different approach that favored black and white contrasts or subtle shading or whatever else they thought of.

So I decided to see for myself tonight. I still stand by what I said earlier about its visuals, though it was a little better than I'd expected. It took me awhile to get back home after it was over, so I think I'll end this post with a little more on the visual style of the movie, and write up a separate post going into more detail about the plot, characterization, and themes that the critics don't seem to like so much, but which I thought were interesting. Just can't get it out before I go to sleep tonight, and this post is already long as it is.

As I'd expected, there's an overall lack of visual mystery that comes from not knowing how to get the most out of the anamorphic lens' shallow focus. There were two decent uses of it, though: when Lois Lane is reluctantly walking away from a vulnerable Superman, she's totally out of focus, and we only make out her head turning back -- with no resolution necessary to tell us what's on her face. And near the end when Superman and General Zod are about to show down on a city street, Zod is very out of focus some distance away, leaving us to imagine the determined and evil look on his face, and giving him a shadowy appearance.

There is also no pervasive atmosphere of foreboding that would've come from a strong chiaroscuro lighting scheme, as you see in Christopher Nolan's movies thanks to his cinematographer Wally Pfister. And the desaturated color palette kept the look too ordinary and familiar, where stronger colors would've made more of an impact. A striking plot and striking themes calls for striking visuals.

It doesn't have to be some sublime religious painting by Caravaggio for those qualities to be important. Go back to Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, where the bold colors and strong light-dark contrasts give what could've been an unremarkable, ordinary scene a rather disturbing charge. Through color and lighting alone, and not subject matter, we can tell that something is not as it should be in that world. Ditto for Jean-Leon Gerome's portrayals of the Near East -- they depict totally natural and largely secular subjects, but strong colors and chiaroscuro make us feel like we're not just observing any old ordinary scenes. It heightens their exotic appeal.

Both of those two painted in socially dull and inward periods -- the mid-century and the Victorian era -- so there's no reason that this approach couldn't work in our incarnation of the tame-and-kinda-lame society. Look how memorable the look of the Dark Knight movies and Inception is because of it. Or Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive before them.


  1. The thing I find interesting is how the critics reacted to this one, versus that awful "Superman Returns." (and the difference in the audience reactions to the two movies.)

    It reminds of the Michael Caine quote that Superman is the way America thinks of itself, Batman is what it really is.

    And that I think is the visceral reaction the critics are having to this film. This is the Superman (America) they have created and they don't like the reflection it is casting.

    Superman is destructive, uncertain, reckless, brooding, angry, violent, he wants to help, he can be seen as ineffective too, he is fearful.

    And this Superman, unlike the 2006 one, has not qualms saying he's an American.

    And while Superman has been described as a secular, even "atheist" Jesus, there is another deeper message underlying it that repudiates that.

    The secularists, the progressives, the atheists think that humanity can be perfected, and the Kryptonians are the Ultimate Progressive fantasy. Cradle to grave training, education, indoctrination.

    And the end result: Corruption that goes right down to the blood.

    Superman's rejection of the Kryptonians is in fact a rejection of the Progressives.

    And while I have not seen a single critic touch this, probably because of what that says about the left, this too is unsettling for them.

  2. I haven't seen the 2006 one. I stopped going to the movies regularly by the late '90s, and after it came out I'd always heard it was a real stinker.

    And directed by a queer...

  3. And they kept harping on how little joy and fun there is -- well, what else can you expect these days? It's not the '80s anymore, it's the fragmented, cocooning, and mistrusting Millennial era.

    I guess they wanted something more like Iron Man or the Amazing Spider Man movies?

  4. The attempts at comedy and romance are so forced in the first two Spiderman movies (did not see the third). They're just doing it because the script says so, not because those characters would spontaneously arrive at those actions.

    Young people over the past 20 years have become so humorless and de-sexualized that, even if it's only unconsciously, you're thinking "Yeah right" when passion is supposed to erupt on the screen.

    I don't think I've seen any of the Iron Man movies, but I have seen enough from trailers to get the gist of the "wit" -- more like snark, but in a mumbling rather than bitchy tone of voice. Same with his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes.

    Robert Downey, Jr. is a charming prankster and smartass -- not actually funny as a hero. The laughter comes more from a meta-awareness of how inappropriate he is for the role -- "Like, dude, can you believe they let the prick character from Weird Science play a superhero?" "OMG, no way!"

    He was good in Weird Science, Less Than Zero, and Wonder Boys, where his role matched up with his own personality, since he can't act outside of it. And the gonzo reporter role in Natural Born Killers -- like, what would happen if the charmingly anarchic type would get in the path of a true psychopath.

  5. http://www.suntimes.com/sports/basketball/20763740-419/heat-veteran-juwan-howard-bemoans-demise-of-playground-basketball-because-of-rise-in-violence.html

    Basketball player Juwan Howard laments the death of playground basketball supposedly because of violence, in reality violence was much worse when Howard was a kid in the 80s so that's not the real reason for the decline

  6. "Wonder Boys"

    Weird, that was just on TV. what do you think of it?


  7. The attempts at comedy and romance are so forced in the first two Spiderman movies (did not see the third). They're just doing it because the script says so, not because those characters would spontaneously arrive at those actions.

    I might try and catch the 2012 one some time. A chick I know found the romance plot in it really convincing (said the characters had real chemistry, as the actors had a real life subplot). They seemed to have a kind of mumbly Millenial sexual tension in the trailer I say for it when I watched Prometheus. The Spiderman seems a bit more convincing than the emotionally unconvincing Toby Maguire and Kristen Dunst (his deliver seems more ultra flat than even Keanu Reeves ever has).


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