i need to stop writing this post before i convince myself that sucker punch is actually brilliant

Man of Steel, Zack Snyder’s new Superman movie, is coming out this weekend. I’m going to use that as a reason to write about Sucker Punch, his last movie, because I’ve been wanting to write about this hot mess ever since it came out two years ago.

Although it’s probably not very good in the final analysis, Sucker Punch plays with a lot of smart ideas, including an ironic self-awareness that most blockbuster action directors never mess with. In case you’re wondering if I’m just trying to find something complex about this movie, worry not: This self-consciousness is plainly implied by the movie itself, and even if Snyder can’t really figure out what that means or what to do with it, I like that he tried.

We’re immediately put on notice by the first image, a slow crawl forward through a theater that moves toward a curtain with the Warner Bros. logo on it. That curtain opens up onto another curtain with the production company’s logo, which in turn opens directly onto the first scene. In this very first image, then, we are being given a staged scene that is patently artificial, since of course we don’t normally watch the action of a movie take place on a theater stage unless it happens to take place in a theater. It’s the film equivalent of breaking the fourth wall.

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the great gatsby as a test case for what we lose in adaptation; not a post in which i grumble about the superiority of any medium over another, i promise

Greg Olear, writing for The Weeklings, makes a good argument that Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, is gay. I’m a sucker for unlikely theories about books and movies, but even more so when they rely on a close reading of the evidence. Also, since Baz Luhrmann’s movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby is finally coming out this week, Olear’s argument has gotten me thinking about the fundamental differences between the art of film and the art of writing.

Before I get to that, I’ll have to convey to you the gist of Olear’s argument, especially the way he uses Nick’s point of view to make it. A big chunk of Olear’s evidence comes from the way Carraway describes each of the other five major characters in the novel. Part of the argument comes from how Nick casts a pretty detached eye on the women, even though they are all supposed to be desirable in their own way. As an example, there is a passage where Nick describes Jordan Baker (a golfer), the woman he gets involved with: “She was a slender, small-breasted girl, with an erect carriage, which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet.” Olear summarizes it this way: “Other than the word small-breasted — which de-emphasizes the golfer’s feminine attributes — this could be a description of a man.”

Meanwhile, when Nick talks about Tom Buchanan he is struck by “the enormous power of that body.” This does seem telling, since in my experience as a straight dude, we don’t normally characterize other guys this way unless we’re talking about football players.

But I’ve just now re-read the passage that Olear uses to make his case that Carraway is “in love” with Gatsby, and I find it unconvincing — it seems to just be a description of a man who has quite a bit of charisma, but straight men can recognize that in other men just about as well as gay men can. To me, the description seems to convey mostly a general sense that Gatsby makes everyone feel better in his presence and is able to use his charm to uplift everyone he meets; we all know people like this, and it’s not at all clear that Carraway is attracted romantically to him.

photo by Rakka under cc

Whether I agree with Olear or whether Nick Carraway really is gay doesn’t matter so much to me, though. Instead, what occurred to me while reading was about how any of this would be communicated on film. My conclusion is that it can’t. The paragraphs Olear cites are a great example of what a book can do that a movie can’t even under the best of circumstances.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how novels can go into a character’s head in a way that feels intimate; what I’m thinking of here is similar to that phenomenon but still distinct. I do this thought experiment: What would we get if a filmmaker set out to do the most faithful rendition of the book possible, sans running commentary in voice-over by Nick Carraway? (It would just be cheating if he were allowed to read the book over the images.) Well, we’d have a long movie, but even with all the extra hours of scenes, we probably still wouldn’t know that Nick thinks of Tom Buchanan’s body as having “enormous power” or that Jordan Baker’s bearing reminds him of a cadet’s. We can see through Nick’s eyes or from Nick’s perspective in the film, but seeing isn’t the same as describing.

photo by advertisingelyse under cc

Frankly, I feel as though film is inevitably more objective than the written word, since it is divided from the connotations of words. I’m worried there’s a grand theory of film that has already proven me wrong, but I’m okay with that possibility, because damn if it doesn’t seem intuitively true. An image by itself can’t convey the dense forest undergrowth of mental associations that Nick makes when he eyeballs other people. I hate to talk about the essential qualities of an art form, but I have to admit, at times like these, I want to talk about what a novel does best vs. what a film does best. I can only hope Baz Luhrmann’s film can make up for what can only ever be lost in the transition.

don’t be turned off by raccoon mario: a very half-hearted case for immortals

I’m sure a lot of people saw the trailer for Immortals and dismissed it as a sword-and-sandals deal that would be about the joy of spearing your enemy and not much else, but this one is significantly more artistically ambitious than the average Conan movie. I like that Immortals takes risks, even when it results in costumes like this, which I think of as “Edgy Raccoon Mario”:

It’s easy to take shots at this movie, but actually the willingness to embrace unique visuals pays off in some beautiful moments. The single best part from this perspective is probably the climatic battle between Zeus’s cohort of gods and their nemeses, the Titans. (Titans, like all creepy things, stoop a lot for reasons that are unclear.) It begins when Zeus and the other four Olympian gods arrive on earth by dropping in as clouds of gold dust — very heavy gold dust, apparently, because they come in at a fast rate — and they materialize upon hitting the ground. Each landing makes a sound like a metal door being clanged shut, as if they were iron statues dropped to earth, and the camera even shudders a little bit, as if being shaken by the impact. It’s a great effect.

Once they land, Zeus proclaims something — does it matter what, really? — and then hurtles his hammer toward the camera, through a bunch of Titans milling around. The hammer comes closer, closer, then freezes in mid-air, and the camera pulls back slightly while the hammer is stuck there. This all happens in literally the blink of an eye.

This doesn’t make sense for a second, but then we cut to see that the hammer has stuck itself in a wall of rock. This means the camera had been taking the perspective of the wall in the previous shot, when the hammer got frozen “in” the camera’s eye. That’s awesome anyway, and it’s even a little more awesome because it’s just awesome that Zeus can throw a hammer so that it is embedded in stone even if it intercepts the stone parallel to its long axis … if you see what I mean? It’s hard to explain without drawing a diagram, really.

The rest of the fight is that rarest of cinematic battles, the one that is both graceful and convincingly brutal. One of a few reasons that I can’t do it justice with screen shots is its clever use of slo-mo: As each of the Titans is injured, he goes into slo-mo while the golden Olympians keep moving at regular speed. It’s a great look and it seems like a fresh take on the slo-mo action sequences that have become de rigueur since The Matrix.

The god-on-Titan battle is one of the best examples of the movie’s occasional success at feeling operatic. (Or, at least, what I imagine “operatic” to feel like, since I’ve never been.) It’s not easy to make combat feel this light and flowing, and the only other filmmakers that I can think of that can pull this off are Zhang Yimou (I’m thinking of the sleeve-throwing scene from House of Flying Daggers) and the Wachowskis (to a lesser extent) with the incredible stairway melee from The Matrix Reloaded. Immortals isn’t as good as those movies, though, because it doesn’t induce the operatic emotions that Zhang and the Wachowskis make a part of their package.

It’s hard to pinpoint why Immortals isn’t very moving, but I think it has something to do with a slack script. The main tension in the film seems to be whether Theseus is going to put himself in mortal danger for what he believes in, but we already pretty much know he is from the very beginning; it’s never suggested that he has to wrestle with the idea much. He starts out stubborn and valiant and ends that way. In the meantime, there are a lot of other minor points that seem to be resolved about as quickly as they are introduced. Should he bury his mother, even though he doesn’t believe in her gods? Yes. Should he switch allegiances and join forces with the most evil guy in the world? Question answered as soon as it is asked. Is he going to find the MacGuffin, in this case a powerful bow that looks like the kind of thing Apple would design if they were into archery? Yes, duh. And is he going to lose it when a wolf runs away with it? Okay, that was kind of surprising.

There’s also a lot of misused time with the gods, who seem like they ought to fit into the story but who might as well have been written out entirely. Theseus can prove his mettle on his own, so why drag in Zeus and friends, who spend most of the movie wanting really badly to be part of the action, only to be held back by contrived-seeming reasons?

I have one more niggling detail about the gods I just can’t get over: All of the gods, including top-dog Zeus, are played by people under 40. I know Zeus is immortal and never ages, but can you just give us this one? The least they could do was slap a white beard on the actor playing him, especially if his primary function in the group is Obstinate Father. I mean, we don’t need a Liam Neeson here, but maybe a Sean Bean would do, or really anybody who is visibly older than the other gods. As it is, it looks like one generic young hardbody was inexplicably given the authority to boss around the other generic young hardbodies.

Anyway, I guess if I have to settle for some beautiful pictures, I will, but I wish there had been some deeper sentiment or philosophy evoked by this movie. It just wasn’t meant to be.