17 November 2008

Some Good FIlms With Disturbing Sub-Texts


1. THE INCREDIBLES

There’s a whole slew of Web articles to be found about whether or not THE INCREDIBLES, a truly entertaining flick, is actually an objectivist screed. Writer/director Brad Bird (previously of The Simpsons and King Of The Hill, now the Pixar bell cow) has gone on record as NOT being an objectivist.

Still, I’m not inclined to believe him. Not only is The Incredibles loaded with some truly bone-chilling subtext, but Bird’s later film, RATATOUILLE, also has some pretty Randian things to say about “born creators” versus “high and mighty critics.”

And then there’s this:

 
Uh...



 
In THE INCREDIBLES all of the villains--both the mundane/everyday and the super-enchanced--are obsessed with... gasp!... leveling the playing field.

The story opens with super heroes being sued and prosecuted out of the people-saving biz by government bureaucrats and lawyers. Mr. Incredible’s son is being held back by his conformity-minded teacher and principal. Finally, the main antagonist of the piece--a former sidekick who has reinvented himself as the master-villain “Syndrome”--is out to sell--er, give (gasp!)--his power-granting gadgets to everyone.

“Everybody will be super, which means no one will be.”

Um, shudder. I guess.

Compared to the usual threat of sinking California into the ocean or turning everyone into a hideous mutant, I’m not sure my getting energy gauntlets, jet boots, and an infrared helmet will exactly bum me out.

Love us! We’re more boring than The Incredibles, but clearly less boring than Cars!”


2. EVERY ACTION MOVIE WITH THIS SCENE IN IT:

1. We’re near the end of the movie.
2. The good guy is on the ropes. He’s getting pounded to paste by a) the bad guy, or b) the bad guy’s thyroidal henchmen.
3. He’s outclassed, and too hurt/despondent to put up a fight. No problems so far (except for the hero).

The problem is what happens next. (You know what happens next.) He gets mad.

Righteously angry.

He’s had enough.

His testicles descend.

Descend mightily indeed.

Often times he’s so endowed with the Holy Spirit, righteous anger, uh, good vibrations, that he catches a thrown punch or shakes off a direct blow to the head with a lead pipe.

The turnaround sometimes comes when the bad guy makes a careless remark about drowning puppies, or whisking the female lead off to Belize for some light drinks and Samba lessons. Sometimes when the hero realizes that his blond-haired five year old son has finally been unhooked from the car battery. Something like that.

The problem with playing and replaying this “Hey, now I’m angry” moment in our stories is that it’s cramming the principle of RIGHT MAKES MIGHT into our collective heads. On the surface of things, RIGHT MAKES MIGHT is not a horrible doctrine, just a naive one. Many people like to believe that the side of good will win out in the end, and conveniently forget that the side of right usually fails as often as it succeeds, and when it does succeed, usually does so by virtue of cooperation and sacrifice. And, of course, RIGHT MAKES MIGHT depends heavily on your concept of “right”.

And then there’s how easy it is to INVERT the concept. Which is why, when I think of these types of scenes, I picture Hitler and Goebbels watching in Hitler’s private movie room approvingly as Bruce Willis beats all hell out of, ironically, what is (two times out of four, at least) a German.


3. REVENGE OF THE SITH

The Star Wars prequels are justly infamous for their shabbiness. But people who have concentrated their disappointment on the text have denied themselves a whole extra chunk of silliness at the subtext level.

For starters, there’s the whole confusing notion (which dates back to RETURN OF THE JEDI) that a single calculated act of vigilantism will turn you evil for life. It doesn’t matter, apparently, that the victim of said vigilantism is the cackling personification of gooey, Ewok-raping evil. It doesn’t even matter if he’s in charge of a massacre going on AT THAT VERY MOMENT, IN FRONT OF YOUR EYES. Gosh, if he was stepping on a defenseless fetus with each black-clad foot, could you kill him then?

Some of the Jedi/Sith business is out of whack too. When the newly born Darth Vader intones that Obi-Wan Kenobi is either “with him or against him”, Obi-Wan responds, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes”, which is, I feel silly pointing it out for you, a logical fallacy of Neo-Con proportions. Good debates skill there, Obi.

Still, none of the above is very, uh, grievous. However , in REVENGE OF THE SITH, Lucas overreaches himself in trying to dramatize his personal philosophy regarding the path to evil. Lucas’s adroit summation of the path is completely laudable as it was expressed in THE PHANTOM MENACE: “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” There’s absolutely no flaw is this reasoning as stated, but in REVENGE OF THE SITH, an unspoken, and moronic preamble is added: i.e. “Relationships lead to fear.” Boy, that divorce must’ve really done a number on ol’ George.

Your thoughts dwell on your mother ... Candy Ass!”


For the story in REVENGE OF THE SITH to lurch forward, Anakin Skywalker must find himself alone in his quest to save his wife from death. Any support from Obi-Wan or Yoda in his pursuit to save her would’ve ended the movie at the one third mark. “Oh, someone you love is going to die? Let’s look into how to stop that.”

Instead, George Lucas indulges in some of the most unforgivable fatalism ever committed to celluloid:

YODA: Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them, do not. Miss them, do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is. ANAKIN: What must I do, Master Yoda? YODA: Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.

What the hell? Death is a natural part of life... I’m with you. Train myself to let go... sure, okay, in case I fail. But nobody’s dead yet, frog-boy. How about we get off these cheap-ass Ikea cushions, crank open the blinds in this mausoleum, and you help me look into it?

“At least when she’s gone I can redo the furniture.”


4. SAVING PRIVATE RYAN

The problem with Steven Spielberg is that Steven Spielberg doesn’t believe in much besides being loved.

He loves to be loved. And in the gooiest, sappiest way.

I get the feeling Spielberg would embrace just about any philosophy if he thought, coated in enough sentimentality, it would boost box office and make him more beloved. Case in point: SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Justly famous for its D-Day sequence and remarkable violence, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN treads on some pretty firm ethical footing, at least on paper. Not many people go about arguing that World War II didn’t need to be fought. But SAVING PRIVATE RYAN ventures into that No Man’s Land where it’s possible to confuse participation in a Thing The Had To Be Done with being God Even Blesses My Shits.

It's evident from shot one--the waving U.S. flag--that Spielberg will be playing all out. But THAT shot is expectable, as are the shots of the cemetery that follow. Hey, war film. What freezes the brain into numbing terror is what comes next: an old soldier walks with his family behind him.

Only it’s not his family. It’s all of America in blonde, perky, disgustingly healthy and innocent improbability. Even though the scene is France, we decode their “American-ness” in an instant. Ah, corn-fed sweater muffins! Sweet liberty!


“Like, this all so totally validates our lives!"


Nothing wrong with a healthy ego in regards to your own home country, Steven, but do you not realize what you’re helping to sell with this apple-cheeked, bosomy brood? No, probably not. 

I’m not sure there’s anyway for anybody to “earn this”, as Captain Miller asks of Private Ryan in the closing moments of the film, but I sure as hell know that if there were, it wouldn’t be accomplished by Ryan growing old as a linoleum salesman, living the middle class existence, and churning out hot, Aryan granddaughters.