Bleary-eyed, puffy cheeked,
Half-awake, the other asleep
A war is waged, the neutral zone
No Man’s Land, you’re all alone.
Thoughts are made, and then are lost
Like smoke rings.
Or rain drops.
Time is a sieve that deceives,
A second is an hour.
The countenance turns dour,
Under the unwavering line that lies ahead
Lying in wait, but the lolling head
Lolls around, searching for a pillow,
Drops of drool shine under the glow
Of lights that burn for eternity,
As if sailors lost in the crashing waves
Would be saved by the all-encompassing sight
The Eye of Civilization, resplendent in its might-
Blink, back to reality
The eyes close on their own now.
All-nighters lead to insanity
Unless you have the real know-how.
The key is to avoid it at all costs,
No matter what they say
For ’tis simply a measure against time already lost
A last-ditch effort, better than to pray.
Refn and Gosling team up for a nightmarish trip through a gorgeously depraved Bangkok
Few films have left my head swirling in confusion and ambivalence as much as Only God Forgives has. I have seen it twice because after the first I wasn’t sure whether it is one of the best films of the year or a piece of ‘pretentious macho nonsense’ and ‘preposterous designer revenge pulp’. To be able to penetrate as deeply as it does, as divisively as it does, is itself an achievement, one that director Nicolas Winding Refn knows and embraces.
It begins with a deus ex machina, the death of Billy (Tom Burke), older brother of Julian (Ryan Gosling). They own a Muay Thai fight club that doubles as a place to sell drugs. During the five minutes we see Billy, he whacks a pimp with a bottle on his head, smacks around women and kills a 16 year old prostitute. He’s got problems.
Billy’s death is precipitated by the involvement of a mysterious Thai policeman Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), the judge, jury and executioner of Bangkok. Chang is more than just a man; he operates, just as the film does, on the spiritual, fantastical and real worlds. A God in his realm, he metes out his own justice by chopping off limbs with his sword and singing his gospel through Korean pop songs in empty nightclubs.
The aforementioned event forces Julian along the most well-documented path of the gangster: revenge. He proceeds with blank indifference, perhaps he’s secretly relieved. But Julian is stuck in inertia, unable to do anything, tormented by his violent past. The kind of inertia that induces an impotence that he cannot shake off.
While watching it, I felt as if Kubrick had decided to make a religious parable (tentatively titled The Shining) in Bangkok.
His inability to take care of business brings Julian’s psycho mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) into the mix to avenge her firstborn. She’s aggressive, foulmouthed, unapologetic and fierce, and Thomas approaches her character with a wicked relish. Crystal and Julian have a passive-aggressive relationship where she alternates between demeaning him (in arguably the best scene of the film, when he brings his Thai girlfriend for dinner) and then asking him for help, but Julian remains stoic, always ready to light one of his mother’s cigarettes when she needs it.
While Drive was the work of a mechanic showcasing his perfectly engineered machine, Only God Forgives is the work of a master artist unafraid to experiment, even if it means alienating his audience. Here is a Renaissance painting for the 21st century, not just in how beautiful it looks (every color in this movie makes me feel like I am seeing them for the first time), but in how Refn expects us to treat it.
Traditional art forms like paintings and sculpture offer images that are open for interpretation by whoever views them, primarily because their creators aren’t around to provide the definitive explanation. In the film, dialogue is kept to a minimum and silence speaks louder than words, and the images, some phantasmagoric, that appear force you to figure out for yourself what’s going on. Using the dream mechanics of Inception, Refn designs this nightmare and we fill it in with our collective consciousness.
This filmmaking style, hypnotic, trance-like, meandering, is diametrically opposite to everything we watch today. In fact, its divisive nature recalls Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, but while that film was critically lauded, this work of art has been rejected by critics and audiences alike. Everything has to be spelt out for us and repeated again and again in current cinema, including subtext. The ones that are most critically appreciated offer a balance that make audiences feel more intelligent at having grasped this “hidden meaning” that ascends them to a higher level of awareness. Only God Forgives retains the purity of cinema sans linguistic exposition, it doesn’t stoop to mundane narrative levels. While most viewers were bored to death by the repeated takes of Gosling staring out into space blankly, I found myself using what I knew about him to piece together what he might be feeling. An ordinary film would have choked us with blatant exposition, here there is space to breathe and ponder.
While Drive was the work of a mechanic showcasing his perfectly engineered machine, Only God Forgives is the work of a master artist unafraid to experiment, even if it means alienating his audience.
For every sequence of artistic impressionism, Refn caters to our baser instincts with extreme violence. The violence itself isn’t stylized apart from the obligatory slow motion because it doesn’t need to be. It’s a break from the mental workout of its unconventional cinematic language. This arrangement is almost like that of a symphony, and the film is like listening to Beethoven in a world saturated with pop music, AutoTune and Justin Bieber.
This is a gorgeous looking film (did I say that already?) drenched in red and blue neon, floating through the grimy streets of crime-ridden Bangkok, with characters that speak with their bodies more than their words, set to the tune of Cliff Martinez’s pulsating electronic score. While watching it, I felt as if Kubrick had decided to make a religious parable (tentatively titled The Shining) in Bangkok. My instincts were right: cinematographer Larry Smith was a longtime Kubrick collaborator. Maybe, like many of Kubrick’s films, hindsight will give Only God Forgives the acclaim it deserves. Not that Refn cares.
Even with million-dollar rocket boosters, this 60-foot behemoth gets pulled down by its own weight
The first giant robot I saw was Bumblebee in Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007) and it filled me with a huge sense of awe: the way its gears, nuts, and bolts clicked together to become perfect combination of transport vehicle and total badass, its sleek metal glistening in the light and the sheer weight with which it interacted with the world. But upon seeing the mountainous Jaegers (German for hunter) of Pacific Rim, I feel detached and lost, even though these robots have men and women on the inside (so what does that say about them?). Maybe it’s because the equally massive Kaiju (big, ugly monsters, Japanese for strange creature) can simply rip them apart as if they were made of plastic and not metal. Or maybe we hardly ever get an accurate sense of scale.
The idea for Pacific Rim is simple: giant robots fight giant monsters. But around it is the kind of flaky, half-baked plot that surrounds recent summer blockbusters. In the near future, monsters emerge from out of the Pacific, through a hole in spacetime called ‘The Breach’. They don’t like Earth so much and destroy cities, and none of the usual bullets, bombs and artillery work against them.
To fight monsters, we created monsters of our own, rambles Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam trying to establish himself as a bonafide action star) in the obligatory world building introduction (honestly, District 9 is a classic sci-fi film simply because it doesn’t have this kind of world building tool), and the Jaeger program is born. The Jaegers are operated by two pilots via ‘a nonsensical Hollywood sci-fi concept’ called ‘The Drift’ where their minds fuse together (excuse me as I try to grasp how the fusing of minds moves heavy machinery).
In the script written by Travis Beacham and director Guillermo Del Toro, he of the fantastic Hellboy movies and Pan’s Labyrinth, one of these pilots is Raleigh Becket, the customary handsome Caucasian male action hero, who quits being a Ranger after his brother dies in one of their battles. He’s approached by his old boss Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba, charismatic as ever) to carry out a last ditch effort to save the world with trainee Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) as his partner. Aided by Australian, Russian and Chinese soldiers, Pentecost plans to close The Breach once and for all. Let the CGI extravaganza begin.
There are three real problems with the film that envelop it in a miasma of ennui. The first is that it aspires to be more than a robots vs. monsters flick and instead tries to be an operatic epic about the collective might and resolve of humanity as it thwarts villainous forces that threaten its existence. What this means is that there’s less imagery where robot arms transform into chain swords to slash blue tongued monsters in half and more of Elba, Hunnam and Kikuchi trying to get along.
Pacific Rim is an exercise in repetition to generate awe: the monsters start looking the same (different variations of ugly), the combat tactics become well-known (Jaegers punch but they don’t kick), the battles are hard to follow and the stakes don’t get higher (the end of the world is kind of as far as you can go). Shane Black, the master of the action flick, said, “If you make everything go at 100 miles per hour from the outset, it loses any impact or meaning. I mean, if a flying truck lands on the bonnet of your car, it should be shocking and scary. But if stuff like that is happening constantly throughout the film, it becomes mundane.“
Where Del Toro scores with the collective might of humanity is with his international cast and international location (Hong Kong). Other critics have called this blatant targeting at the international markets for more box-office moolah, but I’m relieved that one Hollywood blockbuster chose not to end in a fight to the finish in a metropolis with all the skyscrapers tumbling down. He also manages to keep things light with Charlie Day and Burn Gorman are the proverbial odd scientist couple and a wicked Ron Perlman as a no nonsense Kaiju black market dealer. If only Becket and Pentecost could smile a little while they saved the world.
Whatever may be the case, the bottom line is that this shiny new toy is filled with rust on the inside.
But the promise of well-rounded and diverse characters is replaced with perfectly packaged one-dimensional characters who remain ciphers throughout, the second problem of the film. The only reason to take away from the action scenes is to build character, but instead we see the same character trait/flaw brought out again and again…and again. Pentecost’s nose bleeds (terrible secret!), Becket reminisces about his dead brother, and Mori wants to avenge her family. I was upset that the characters survive at the end through a last-minute cheat, but I should have known better. Even with impossible odds, Hollywood values sequels over common sense.
But are the core problems of Pacific Rim more meta in nature? Have we become used to seeing the same flimsy blockbuster characters over and over again that we frown at meeting new ones that are just as flimsy? After a couple more rifts cut through the ocean floor around the world and more Kaiju fight with more Jaegers, will I love Raleigh Becket and Mako Mori even more? Or is this Transformers vs. Godzillas representative of the commercial potential of remaking the same thing over and over again until a franchise is developed (Godzilla is being rebooted as a franchise as we speak)…
Whatever may be the case, the bottom line is that this shiny new toy is filled with rust on the inside. It upsets me that I’m in the minority on this one, or maybe I’ve become bogged down by a disappointing summer slate filled with more misses than hits. I’m afraid the future holds only more sequels, threequels and franchise overkill. And more crazy combinations that involve millions of dollars in CGI pixels.
This post is a deeper look at the ideas I proposed in my last post The Shatterers of Illusions simply because I wasn’t satisfied with the reasons I gave towards the loss of respect of today’s movies. I think it’s something deeper than cross-platform entertainment and the kind of movies studios are making today.
In Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi, Pi Patel tells us two versions of his journey across the Pacific Ocean after a storm sinks his ship and his family with it. The first involves Pi sharing a lifeboat with a tiger, going to a carnivorous island and being saved by God. The second, on the other hand, involves Pi fighting for his life by turning to cannibalism after his mother is killed by the remaining survivors of the ship’s crew. Neither story can be proven to be true, and Pi (and by extension, Martel) asks us which story we would like to believe in.
I used to think that most, if not all, of us would choose the former story, but lately I’ve come to terms with the idea that more people might actually side with the latter. It is this skeptic shift in cinema towards realism and plausibility that I think has led to the death of spectacle in public consciousness.
The Death of Spectacle in Life
Spectacle. Those grand, overpowering images that consume your very being and make you feel awe, wonder and amazement. When I think of spectacle, I think of fireworks exploding, rockets blazing across the universe and the Northern Lights.
When we’re four years old, every facet of the whole world is spectacular. Every little insect, blade of grass, sunrise and raindrop holds our attention, because we’re seeing the world for the first time. The smell of freshly baked bread and the sound of peacocks and the taste of maple syrup fascinate us, because we’ve never experienced these things before.
The lives of children are lives of wonder and imagination as they translate the world around them through reality, fiction, myth and fantasy. When I was a kid, my parents would tell me the classic tales of Cinderella and Goldilocks as I drifted off to sleep. When my first tooth fell they told me to put it under my pillow for the Tooth Fairy to trade it for a rupee (I now realize I was shortchanged because a dollar is worth more than a rupee). And of course, Santa Claus and his band of merry reindeer would always bring presents for me on Christmas Day.
But then age brings with it the moments that break through the tapestry of innocence and expose reality for what it is. The Christmas Day tradition died an early death in my household when I was six and stumbled upon my parents hurriedly gift wrapping presents at the last minute. And then when I was seven and wanted to meet the Tooth Fairy to prove to my non-believing friends that she was real, I found my mother instead, tip toeing in the darkness with a coin in her hand.
The curtain is lifted, the truth is told, and nothing is ever the same again. You feel betrayed and cheated, the wide-eyed child becomes the skeptic teen searching for the con in every story. And instead of using your imagination to translate the world around you, you use Google instead.
The Death of Spectacle in Cinema
So when reality has been stripped of spectacle at the end of our childhoods, where can we go? To the dream factory.
Cinema is an outgrowth of a universal human desire to see subconscious dreams and fears and hopes and fantasies displayed on a grand scale, where anything is possible. Where men really can fly and monsters come alive and time machines exist. It’s an escapist form of entertainment, an escape from reality. Spectacle is the bedrock of big budget moviemaking (here are some recent examples here, here, and here).
Sure, logic and rationale explain the obvious, that Superman isn’t real or the Matrix doesn’t exist. But the real magic lies in what’s on the screen, but it vanishes when it’s revealed how it was done.
Studios love posting behind-the-scenes featurettes of their blockbusters to showcase the technical wizardry behind their stories (Peter Jackson used these featurettes to cover production on The Hobbit even before it was released). In these featurettes, scenes are deconstructed to show how amazing visual effects technology is these days. But this merely strips the spectacle from cinema just as the truth behind the Tooth Fairy did for me. Do I want to know how most of The Avengers is directed by Industrial Light & Magic? Or that Life of Pi wasn’t really shot on the Pacific Ocean but in a large water tank in Taiwan? Or the space jump scene from Star Trek was done like this?
Essentially, these videos provide fodder for audiences to engage in a guessing game with they see on screen: is it real or is it fake? When I’m on an emotional journey with the characters, I get distracted by searching for the puppet strings behind what I’m watching. When we know exactly how the magic trick works, the spectacle disappears.
The secret impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything. – The Prestige (2006)
How Skepticism Limited Spectacle
This skepticism towards cinematic spectacle has influenced our meta-understanding of the limits of it in movies today. The Batmobile could climb up buildings in the ‘90s, but now it merely smashes through them. Spiderman’s webs were a natural effect of his radioactive spider bite, but in The Amazing Spiderman, he crafts a gadget to shoot them. Audiences now yearn for realism and grounded futuristic worlds rather than going to the fantastical world of Mars (Disney’s John Carter and Mars Needs Moms flopped at the box office).
Let me clarify. I’m not saying that the movies of today aren’t spectacular. I’m saying that the spectacle is tarnished and limited rather than allowed to exist organically on its own. It’s pretty much dead.
Is this recent realism a bad thing for movies? It is when ambitious stories cannot be told because they’re too “out there”. Films like Cloud Atlas and Dark City don’t survive in the box office because of the skepticism with which they’re met. Instead of being treated as breaths of fresh air, they’re cast away into the darkness. And so the recycling of what’s worked before goes on and on, over and over again.
And So It Is…
No wonder audiences behave with such apathy in movie theatres, without any consideration for their fellow moviegoers: they’ve lost the awareness of their four year old selves and see the money shots as blue screens…and the superficial storytelling in today’s blockbusters is supposed to make them care? Their minds are stronger than their hearts; their own illusions have been shattered, and so they choose to shatter our own.
We can blame the postmodernist critic culture we have today – they deconstruct characters and plots with philosophical and mythical lenses provided by academia – for providing biased perspectives before the movie is seen by anyone. But who is to blame for the death of spectacle in cinema?
Not all of us have passed over to the dark side. Some of us keep our four year old selves close to our hearts by day dreaming and turning those day dreams into art. By spinning our own stories with the fluff of clouds. By escaping into worlds far, far away through the thin, permeable membrane of a movie screen and living alternate lives. And as long as there are enough of us looking at the world wide-eyed with wonder and telling our children the eternal myths, I think we’ll be okay. At least I hope we will be.