Talking Movies

December 9, 2011

Violence at the Drive-In: Part I

In 2005 I wrote a piece for the University Observer titled ‘Huh Huh, Cool’ criticising the reception of Sin City. I find myself in 2011 writing much the same piece again criticising the reception of Drive. But this time I want to get deeper into the question of cinematic violence by trying to categorise the various types and their meaning.

Sin City’s poster campaign displayed with great pride a quote from a review: “The coolest film of the year”. Sin City probably was the coolest film of the year, in the sense that it was definitely the most violent film of the year. It was also grotesque witless garbage but that wasn’t said as much. I decided to position the piece as a pre-empting of the three strident defences usually offered to smack down anyone like me who had the reactionary audacity to object to something like Sin City. The first defence, endlessly aired especially by Taranteenies, holds that the violence is stylised. Stylised violence, the argument goes, isn’t real violence and therefore can’t be condemned. This argument stems from defences of A Clockwork Orange. The problem with citing that film though is that it actually undermines the whole argument about stylised violence being acceptable violence. The violence in the novel was veiled by Anthony Burgess’s parodic and inventive use of language which brought us inside the mind of Alex to whom this kind of activity is fun: “And then I stomped real hard on his yarblockas and the good vino came running out horrorshow good O my brothers”.  “And then I kicked him in the guts till his blood came gushing out” doesn’t entice us into Alex’s world of ultra-violence quite so much. Sadly this literary effect is impossible to replicate onscreen using “stylised violence” because film is a visual medium. You see the blood. Veil the visuals and you can still hear the screams. Perhaps if you were to depict a silent shadow puppet play you might succeed.

“But Frank Miller wrote graphic novels! It’s just comic book violence, not to be taken seriously at all, just like a cartoon” goes the second defence, perhaps invoked after attempts at inserting shadow puppets have failed. Sadly Frank Miller isn’t exactly typical of what comic books actually were, and are, like. This argument presupposes that The Itchy and Scratchy Show is what cartoons were really like rather than Tom and Jerry. The ‘acceptable’ level of violence has vastly increased in the last few decades. Please remember that The A-Team got in trouble in the mid-1980s for violence. That’s right, all those shootouts where no one ever dies, and all the spectacular cars-spinning-in-the-air crashes that end with everyone crawling out unharmed were considered excessively violent. Jack Bauer would laugh at what The Equaliser considered extreme actions, while blockbusters, which are films largely aimed at children, have become ever more violent. I didn’t envy parents explaining to 6 years olds exactly what Obi-Wan did to Anakin at the end of Star Wars III. But the comic-book defence overlooks a huge contradiction. Supervillains are classic villains because they live on. Superman can’t just kill Lex Luthor after struggling with him for a few issues, and the Fantastic Four were never able to simply take out Dr Doom. Buffy is a paradigm in recent years of the patience that it takes to build a classic villain: the Big Bad confronts fights Buffy multiple times, each encounter raising the stakes until a final confrontation in the season finale sees a duel to the death. But film is an idiot medium. It uses violence as a short cut to neatly resolve implacable conflicts, inserting a finality comic-books proudly abjure. Hollywood still operates under the code of the Wild West. The villain nearly always has to die.

The third defence abandoned ideas of irony or context and settled for raising a hue and cry against censorship. “But violence is part of American life, why shouldn’t it be in films?” I judged Hollywood’s beloved defence for prolonging the ethics of Dodge City a fair point, but noted that lack of health insurance and illiteracy problems were also part of American life and with the exception of John Q there weren’t too many films being made about them. Even John Q resorted to the good old familiar violence of a hostage situation in order to slip a film about healthcare under the radar. If filmmakers were sincere in using this defence then they would make films about all facets of American life. I suggested that readers should hold their breath waiting for Tarantino to make a film where a crucial plot point hinged on an illiterate character not being able to read a note left for him and just trying to stumble along according to what he thinks is written down. Then I instructed them to breathe out. It’s been 6 years and Tarantino’s remarkable propensity for violence has still yet to be leavened with any other facet of American life. Tarantino just likes violence, as does Robert Rodriguez, as does Nicolas Winding Refn, and the utter conformity of what gets to be “cool” is astounding. Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, Scarface, A Clockwork Orange, all of them featuring ultra-violence if not Beethoven, are cool films and have popular posters sold to college students. Wasn’t coolness based on individuality once? If it achieved nothing else, I argued, Sin City would have done some good if it left people asking just why extreme violence, borderline pornography and drug use seemed to be the only denominations in the currency of cool.

Nobody asked those questions, and sure enough Drive’s poster featured a quote from a reviewer dubbing it the coolest movie of the year. Even more disturbing was that critics in Cannes gave an ovation to the infamous elevator scene in which a man’s head is kicked in until bone-dust rises up into the camera. The three defences I trashed in 2005 aren’t the only dams keeping violence at the heart of cinema, but my objections to Drive can’t be articulated merely by dismantling those defences again. I now want to examine cinematic violence – its uses, its varieties, and its meanings.

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June 10, 2011

On Fassbendering

“To Fassbender: To very obviously derive too much enjoyment from one’s work”. That’s the Urban Dictionary definition at any rate. But, like the residents of Madison Avenue advertising firms in the 1960s being termed Mad Men, I defined it myself…

So, where on earth did I get the concept of Fassbendering from? Well, I first really noticed Michael Fassbender when he played Azazeal in Hex, and my reaction to the show was pretty much “meh, pale Buffy rip-off, but serious kudos to that guy who’s really enjoying himself far too much as the Big Bad”. Later on I realised that he was the actor from Guinness ad who dived off the Cliffs of Moher and swam to New York to say “Sorry” to his brother for hitting on the brother’s girlfriend. The fact that Fassbender had ended that ad by grinning and appearing to hit on the brother’s girlfriend again, suggested a trend – this was a guy who just couldn’t stop grinning mischievously because he was always enjoying himself far too much. Fassbender fell off my radar for a while so I only belatedly noticed that he grinned with some malevolence in Rupert Everett’s BBC TV movie Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, as he got to be both an impeccably impassive servant and a sadistic serial killer; who, several years before Heath Ledger’s Joker, took a distinct pleasure in being tortured by Holmes. I also later caught up with ITV’s Poirot and discovered that Fassbender had smoked, drank, drawled and grinned his way thru After the Funeral.

But his ridiculous role as Stelios in Zack Snyder’s bombastic 300 was where I really started to take this nonsense seriously, if you will. I have found among my circle that whoever watched 300 as a serious action drama thought it was unbearably bad, but whoever watched it thru the absurd prism of Fassbender (on my prompting) thought it was a deliriously great black comedy. Watching the film with Fassbender as your focus you realise just how much fun he’s obviously having. As the film opens with the 300 marching off to battle Fassbender is already grinning… Later he jumps in slow motion to chop off the arm of the Persian who threatens the Spartans with a thousand nation army, “Well then, we shall fight in the shade”, with the air of a man once again enjoying himself far too much. Fassbender gets to be half of a Spartan Legolas/Gimili style partnership in mayhem and, in his definitive moment of gleefulness, when the Persian mystics are throwing bombs Fassbender runs out, catches one and throws it back, then shelters behind his shield as the arsenal of bombs explodes. In the darkness lit only by bomb blasts we can’t see Fassbender’s face underneath his helmet until we see his teeth, as he grins. Fassbender does something awesome in the denouement to allow Leonidas to do something even more awesome, before holding hands with Leonidas for their butch last lines; where even dying becomes a blast…

But, daft as it sounds, it was Fassbender’s subsequent role in Hunger that led me to go online and define Fassbendering, because, when announcing the casting news from Cannes the Irish Times, for reasons best known to themselves, decided to accompany the story that Fassbender was taking on this big serious role in what one would expect to be a grim sombre film, with a photo of Fassbender cracking up on set – as if there was nothing on this planet, not decency, not logic, that could prevent Fassbender from enjoying himself too much… And indeed Hunger did provide one moment which I deemed Fassbendering above and beyond the call of duty. In the midst of a serious performance in a serious film he still managed to sneak in a scene where, after being beaten up and then dropped naked and bloodied on the floor of his cell, his Bobby Sands rolls over, blood streaming from his mouth, and slowly grins at the camera… On retrospect this is obviously the moment where Sands realises he can defeat his captors by doing this to himself by going on hunger strike, but would anyone but Fassbender dare to do communicate this by a grin, that also serves to indicate that he knows he is doing a great job with this role and still can’t quite believe his luck.

Fassbender had a straight man role in Inglourious Basterds opposite Mike Myers’ absurdist British officer, and then in one of the tensest sequences in the film, but I argue that he was able to play things straight because he didn’t need to Fassbender, he’d already infected the entire ensemble. Christoph Waltz’s ecstatic glee at his role is pure Fassbendering, especially his appreciation of the musical qualities of Italian names and Diane Kruger’s explanation of her leg injury, during which he has to go off to one side to laugh himself sick. The trailer for Jonah Hex left me in tears of laughter as Fassbender’s first appearance as henchman Burke saw him grinning manically while dressed as a droog and setting fire to a barn with someone trapped in it. You can only hope that one day Fassbender gets to truly cut loose with the madmen/auteurs behind the Crank films.

So what is Fassbendering? I used 300 for the definition because it’s the supreme example of a man just obviously enjoying himself far too much for something that’s meant to be paid work, hence my quip – “On being handed the cheque he probably said ‘No, really I couldn’t. It’s just been such a blast. Can I keep the cape?” Now, Fassbendering is not unique to Fassbender, but only in one sense as I will argue in a minute. I would argue that the Red Hot Chili Peppers can be audibly heard Fassbendering their way thru BloodSugarSexMagik because when you listen to it you feel that they would do this for free, they are so obviously deriving too much enjoyment from their paid work. But Fassbendering always has a positive undertone, what is enjoyable for the performer is enjoyable for the audience too, unlike fiascos like Ocean’s 12 where a group of actors obviously having a ball does not translate into the warm hug of the audience that the same actors having a ball provides in Ocean’s 11 and Ocean’s 13. Fassbendering therefore is high praise when I use it for another actor, as I have occasionally done (Iron Man, Speed Racer, The Importance of Being Lady Bracknell, Death of A Salesman, 7 Reasons to Love Scott Pilgrim, The Field, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Pygmalion, X-Men: First Class).

The part of Erik Lensherr is dark and vengeful, but there is some Fassbendering. The most obvious moments come in the recruitment and training montages where Erik suddenly reveals a hitherto unsuspected sardonic side. These are where any actor would grin widely at how much fun they’re having, even if Fassbender grins wider than most. The true moment that defines Fassbendering as something that only Michael Fassbender truly personifies comes in the extremely tense sequence in the Argentinian German Bar. Fassbender smiling widely drops loaded hints to the ex-Nazis, “They had no name. It was taken from them, by pig-farmers, and tailors”, his smile confusing the hell out of them, even as he slowly drains his drink, still looking affable, but perhaps to be feared. Fassbender is obviously enjoying himself far too much in this scene, but what’s more, to paraphrase Werner Herzog, he’s conveying an inner thought process of his character that other actors would not attempt – Erik really is obviously enjoying this Nazi-hunting business far too much…

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