Monday, November 28, 2011

A Boy Has to Have Standards!

The largest exhibit at the Nimitz, "History Walks of the Pacific War," features "three acres of World War II artifacts, tanks, guns, and large relics" in the words of its brochure. This "Walk" avoids the history of the war in favor of an obsession with the nuts and bolts of the war's machines and of obtaining and preserving these specimens." I watched as a veteran of our armed forces (but not of combat) demonstrated an LVT (landing vehicle, tracked) and a flamethrower for a group of elementary school students. The museum claims that its living history "programs try to convey the day to day reality of life for the American soldier in the Pacific theater, the complexity of the U.S. war effort, and the harsh truths of modern war." They fail. The children's response -- "Ooh, that's neat" -- was perfectly appropriate to the spirit of the presentation. -- James. W. Loewen, Lies Against America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong (The New Press, 1999), p. 190-191, on the Nimitz Museum of the Pacific War in Fredricksburg, Texas
I finally got around to watching The Eagle, which I wrote about immediately after I heard about it. It was a lot better than I expected, just because I'd heard such bad things about it, and looking at some of the reviews and other commentary it received gave me food for thought.

The Eagle is based on a young-adult historical novel from the 1950s by Rosemary Sutcliff; apparently director Kevin Macdonald (best known for The Last King of Scotland) and producer Duncan Kenilworthy read it and loved it as boys. It's the story of a young Roman centurion, Marcus Flavius Aquila, who ventures into the wilderness north of Hadrian's Wall in quest of the Eagle, the golden standard of his late father's legion, which disappeared there without a trace. His only hope of survival, let alone success, is that he's accompanied by his British slave Esca, whose life he'd saved from a public exhibition-killing, and who therefore owes him a debt of honor even though his family was killed by Roman invaders.

The way the story is framed even sounds like a young-adult novel, doesn't it? The filmmakers aimed for a PG-13 rating, which meant leaving out a lot of the cinematic violence that characterized other recent blockbusters set in the Classical period. I watched the unrated DVD version, which inserts many brief shots of blood and gore that were left out of the theatrical release, but even so it's less gory than most action/military films these days, and I found I didn't mind that at all. Not because I necessarily object to violence in movies, but blood fountains and flying body parts have become ends in themselves, going far beyond the requirements of realism. (I read a semi-scholarly article on Mel Gibson's The Passion that described how the violence in that god-snuff movie was enhanced with CGI, to make chunks of flesh fly. But I've also heard that many Christian homes possess unopened copies of the film, bought to support it, even though they didn't want to watch it.)

So, of course, some reviewers and many commenters complained because The Eagle wasn't gory enough. The line between reviewer and commenters is blurred on movie blogs, which are often the work of fanboys who don't know much about cinema but know what they like, namely fountains of blood, explosions, and bare titties. Not there's anything wrong with that, I guess, but there is more to movies than that holy trinity. (I've never been able to decide whether this review of The Passion was serious or parody.) I've been baffled over the past couple of decades to see how many people, most of them male, have herded themselves into a shared mindset where nothing else matters; not only do they celebrate the refinement of special effects in the service of simulated mayhem, but they don't think anything else is worth watching and can't enjoy movies on any other subject. They're even sure that anyone who claims to enjoy other kinds of movies are either lying or deceiving themselves.

This is why I quoted the passage from James Loewen's book on American historical monuments, by the way. It might seem somewhat contradictory to say that flying body parts and gushers of CGI blood glamorize violence, but I think that is what happens. The fanboy commentators I've read seem to equivocate between believing that movie violence is real, and simply wanting more lavish fake violence. They know it's not real, but they still think it's cool, and they talk about it as though it was real. "Ooh, neat!" seems to be the reaction either way.

There appear to be a number of roots of this phenomenon. One is the slasher film of the 70s and later, which started as a virtually no-budget product but gradually improved production values as the genre became better-known and more popular. Carol J. Clover wrote an excellent book on this subject -- Men, Women, and Chain Saws (Princeton, 1992) -- which introduced and guided me into the genre, but I soon lost interest in it; there just wasn't enough going on to keep my attention. Another is the crime film, which grew from the B-movie and noir to The French Connection and Die Hard by way of the Godfather and Dirty Harry series. I suppose you could add spaghetti Westerns, which fed into and were fed by Japanese and Hong Kong martial arts films: Akira Kurosawa's samurai epics were influenced by Westerns, and in their turn were remade in Hollywood and Europe as Westerns; A Fistful of Dollars is essentially a remake of Kurosawa's Yojimbo.

In all of these the plot was a thread on which to hang car chases and gun battles, with rapid development of special effects to make the violence more "real", though again, reality was not really the point. I think it was Linda Williams who compared hardcore porn to Hollywood musicals in Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible" (California, expanded edition 1999), with the sex scenes analogous to the production numbers. Well, in these movies the fights and car chases are the production numbers: a disproportionate part of the budget goes into planning, choreographing, and executing them. And just as in pornography the plot (which porn used to have, however weak) has largely been abandoned for nonstop action, in today's action movies plot and characterization are grudgingly included, but only pro forma.

Sometimes the leads improvise their dialogue, which saves a lot of money on writers. (I've often wondered about that. Of all the costs of mounting a major motion picture, the writer must be among the lesser ones, but the money people begrudge it anyway. Also true in TV, hence the rise of "reality" shows.) One of the worst movies I've ever seen, Eight Million Ways to Die (1986), based on Lawrence Block's detective novel, featured long scenes with Jeff Bridges and Andy Garcia amiably facing off and snarling "Fuck you" at each other, with shitfaced grins pasted onto their faces. ("Oh yeah? Fuck you.") I read in Time or Newsweek that in one of the Rambo movies, the second I think, Stallone extemporized "Fuck youuuuu" at his oriental torturer. "That was completely ad libbed, not in the script at all, but they decided to use it!" a publicist gushed. That was a proper poke in the eye to snobs who thought Sly was inarticulate. Why bother with writers when you've got a guy who can come up with lines like that in front of the camera?

Which brings me to something else that excited some controversy about The Eagle: the Roman characters speak with American accents, while the Britons speak with English accents, except when they speak in subtitled Gaelic. This was a conscious decision by the filmmakers, going against decades of movie tradition which decrees that all foreigners, especially ancient ones, speak with posh British accents.
But Macdonald sees no reason why Romans should be portrayed with English accents, any more than with American ones. ...
"My take on all this was that it's a metaphor for empire and the end of empire… In the 1930s, 40s, 50s, when Britain had an empire, and could be seen as an oppressive force, that made some kind of metaphorical sense and that's why they did it. Well, today that doesn't make any sense. Today the empire is America, and the sense of bigotry that some Americans have, and of a single-minded belief in their own culture and the greatness that's America." At the same time Macdonald is not setting out to make a political drama and promises that the film will be first and foremost a "mainstream story" and an "adventure film".
After all, if you want authenticity, the Romans should be speaking Latin, not English. This decision, which I thought worked well, infuriated not only some commenters (see the message boards at IMDB, for example) but some professional reviewers. Scott Tobias at the Onion AV Club complained about Channing Tatum's "wavering, inexplicable accent" as Marcus Aquila: but Tatum didn't put on an accent that I could hear, he spoke standard movie American. I suspect that Tobias expected him to put on a Brit accent, as a good Roman should, and tried to hear one whether it was there or not. I could hear some of the British actors who played Romans having to work at their American accents, though. And quite a number of characters, Roman and Briton, were played by Hungarians, where part of the film was shot; if Jamie Bell had a job learning his lines in Gaelic, it must have been harder for them.

Band of Thebes, whose parody review of The Eagle enticed me into watching it to start with, read it as a leather/s&m romp.

In the first half, the buffer, more built 30 year-old muscle stud Marcus rescues the skinnier, cuter 24 year-old Esca from a brutal top in a helmet mask and makes him his slave. Fine. Lucky them.
I enjoyed watching the movie through that filter, which made it a lot more fun, but (for better or worse), I didn't even detect a gay subtext in it. It's just another male-bonding story, though the leads are certainly cute enough and I like to imagine them making out between the frames. Tatum, who's apparently copped to being bisexual in the past, playfully told New York Magazine that, although he didn't see The Eagle as particularly homoerotic or even bromantic, he and Jamie Bell (who played Esca) have "been having sex for a few years now." A commenter somewhere jumped to the conclusion that Tatum must have been the top; I think that's taking one's fantasies too seriously.

The Guardian reviewer noted that "Inevitably, in the absence of more traditional romantic interest, there's a certain unobtrusive homoerotic aspect to the relationship." That's because there are no women at all with speaking parts in the movie (unless you count some of the spectators at the gladiatorial game who get to yell "Kill him!"). At one point Marcus makes eye contact with comely Brit lasses, but that's the extent of heterosexuality in the movie. John Podhoretz complained in the right-wing Weekly Standard:
But it probably didn’t have to go all Brokeback Mountain on us either. After a time The Eagle comes to turn on the relationship between Aquila and the British slave he rescues from a gladiator’s blade. The slave’s name is Esca, and he pledges his life to Aquila even though he says he “hates the Romans and everything you stand for.” Their relationship is extremely physical. During an operation to save Aquila’s leg, Esca throws himself on top of Aquila’s body to hold him down. They ride together, they camp together, they even have a fight during which they roll around on each other.
Oh, why couldn't they have had a fight without physical contact? Too bad Esca didn't just whip out a gun -- no, wait, that's a phallic symbol ... Esca only "throws himself on top of Aquila's body" because he's ordered to, not out of devotion or desire. Brokeback Mountain was often invoked in connection with The Eagle, but I think that was more due to reviewers' hangups or wishes than anything in the movie. I wrote about an earlier case of this syndrome, the reviewer who lamented that "because of Ang Lee’s successful film, he could no longer see the frolicking of two talking animals in a children’s animated cartoon as 'completely innocent.'"

There's a thread at IMDB's message boards in which some users were vocally pleased that no love interest had been added; not having read the original story, I can't say, but in 1950s YA fiction the heterosexuality would have been toned down. This also used to be true of American cowboy movies, war movies, science fiction, and traditional Asian martial arts films. (Jeffrey P. Dennis documented this in We Boys Together: Teenagers in Love Before Girl-Craziness [Vanderbilt, 2007].) I recall how many male martial-arts fans objected to the blatant heterosexuality in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which went (deliberately) against genre expectations. In the military and in sport -- to say nothing of the monastic strands of Asian martial arts -- contact with females is polluting; the ladies' man is depicted as dandified if not effeminate. You can also see that this notion is still alive and well in today's USA from boy-culture panic about the dread, masculinity-draining chick flick.

One odd complaint involved what the Guardian critic called the film's embrace of "certain unfashionable virtues of what might be considered a Roman brand – duty, honour, filial piety." A surprising number of action-movie fans professed to be unable to understand why Marcus would go to all that trouble to recover the standard. Maybe if it had been an American flag, they'd have gotten it. Armies everywhere are honor/shame cultures, so it shouldn't be that much of a leap; I don't share those values at all, but I was able to suspend belief on this point with no difficulty.

But maybe that's my strength as a movie watcher: I'm not bound to one genre or style. There's no real reason why fanboys should enjoy different kinds of movies -- if you want to be a robot that responds only to a handful of keywords, it's your life. I don't hate action movies, or even quite violent ones. Peppermint Candy and Save the Green Planet! are both extremely violent in different modes, grimly realistic and comically over-the-top, but they're among my all-time favorites. But I also enjoy character-driven stories with no special effects and no bloodshed; I recently saw Mike Mills's Beginners, and enjoyed it thoroughly, and there are many others.

I liked The Eagle because it put character development before CGI blood geysers; while the characters were nevertheless a bit thin, they worked well enough for the movie's purposes. The use of accents was a pleasant change from routine. The budget was relatively small for a costume epic, and it showed in good ways: the filmmakers had to concentrate on story and motive rather than technology and crowd management -- but for all that, the battle scenes were very effectively done. Sometimes lack of funds stimulates invention. The photography was excellent. I might watch this one again sometime.