06 June 2017

The Enduring Utility of Mythology

The other day, a guy I like and admire for his sharp mind, Sean Faircloth if you must know, posted a critique/complaint on his social media about the fact that blockbusters almost always tend to overshadow films of nuance, depth and reality. His jumping off point was Wonder Woman. He thought it was being oversold as a feminist track given that the film is full of explosions, and people hitting one another, and generally found superhero films to be not terribly engaging.

“I got to see the great movie everyone's been waiting to see this weekend. You know, the movie about heroism, respect for different cultures and a reckoning with women's rights. I, of course, refer to The Lost City of Z (film), in which real people face real problems heroically and with compassion in a story based on real life. No superpowers, no tiara, no tight-fitting outfits. It'd be great to have magic powers, and comic book movies do make reliably big bucks for the studios, but I tend to prefer stories about actual humans, particularly flawed yet admirable humans like in The Lost City of Z.”

-Sean Faircloth

On another thread, in response to the push back from friends, Sean added the following.

“Well. It's just about a movie. so no big deal. and I don't think the people who disagree with me are stupid (like I said I know I'm the minority on comic book movies) -- but it fascinates me that the marketing department of a large corporation has convinced a huge swath of liberals that it is a "feminist statement" to buy tickets to a movie in which 2.25 hours of 2.5 hours is people hitting each other and blowing stuff up. It's good to have more women directors and stars, and were I these women, I'd be more than happy to have the opportunity (and the mega-cash), but it's like if the CEO of Exxon is a woman. It's not whether you are a woman. it's what you do in the job. I liked the director's other big movie, Monster, much more. and I think it was actually much more feminist. It was a real story dealing with real life. great movie.”
-Sean Faircloth.

In some ways this is simply part of an older debate about the superiority of the high brow to the low brow. The Lost City of Z is literature, whereas Wonder Woman is to be found in other sections of the bookstore, with the low brow offerings in Fantasy, or Science Fiction. These discussions also, and obviously, center on matters of personal taste. Some people can watch and enjoy a film like, The Constant Gardner, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Some people cannot. It probably isn’t fair to extrapolate from one’s own taste about trends in film, or get too declarative about merit. Plenty of big and small films are made every year. The high brow and the nuanced have always been smaller films, and, with sharp exceptions, lesser box office producers. The small films tend to be the winners of critical praise and dominate the film awards unless the initials of the awarding body begin with M, T and V. The big films tend be the winners of the summer, when younger viewers dominate. I’m not sure there is anything to complain about in this. In our entertainment, we have always valued the entertainment. We live in the real world every day. We see its nuance, its grays, and its Hobbesian unpleasantness. Escapism is useful for sanity.

I also think there is a failure of imagination at play on the part of people who hold Faircloth’s position. This is probably not a huge danger in our consumption of entertainment, and critiques of said, but it remains a persistent one. Such criticisms often, too often in fact, miss the utility of mythology and the idealized case. As it is in science, perhaps so it is in entertainment. The simplified model may help us better understand the phenomena in question. In addition to this, the simplification of mythology has real literary utility. Tolkien, who was quite harsh on allegory, referred to this utility as applicability. One reason his Lord of the Rings cycle has endured is precisely because it sits outside any specific time and place and isn’t a precise allegory. It is about themes in human nature, and not about specific places and people. Perhaps counterintuitively, The Lord of the Rings then becomes about all people, at all times and in all places. His vision of Middle-Earth in its time of conflict was no doubt inspired by time in which he was living, and the conflict World War I in which he fought, but he was writing about larger themes.

Comic books have provided cinema with a new mythology to plumb. And as it was with the generic action heroes of the 80s and 90s, or the Westerns that preceded them, there are endless approaches to using the new mythologies to explore timeless human themes in an idealized way.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is as good an espionage thriller as Three Days of the Condor. It is also a great action film. In addition to all this, it has a lot of important things to say about the rule of law, and of standing on principle. Should we act pre-emptively to threats? This will become, as it was in Winter Soldier, an increasingly fraught question, because our digital footprint is allowing intelligent algorithms greater and greater predictive power. Currently this technology is effectively manipulating you to buy more than you need or really want, or spend more time on social media, or on certain apps. It could be used more nefariously. In the film, the good guys develop an algorithm capable of predicting future behavior. One of our heroes, Nick Fury, is so satisfied that it can predict future bad actions he is prepared to sign off on its implementation and essentially drone strike people who are going to, sooner or later, become threats to justice. Captain America is, hopefully the viewer’s surrogate self, and his reasonable, rule of law objections, kick off an investigation that uncovers the equally dark twin side of the algorithm. If it can predict bad actors, it can also predict people who would stand opposed to more fascist and authoritarian styles of power and the weapon could be used just as well against good and decent people, or people who will find themselves opposed and taking a stand. There are deep questions being asked by Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And all the while there are, for fans, wonderful character studies, and arcs to eat up along the way. We get the crushed Natasha Romanov, when she realizes Nick Fury, doesn’t trust her enough with what he discovers. He goes, not to her, his right hand, but to Rogers, who opposed the program. She is also unsettled by Rogers’ distrust of her. It is a rough thing to have the mirror reveal unpleasant things and Johansson’s acting choices as Natasha Romanov in response to each emotional reveal is more or less brilliant. I would argue this is fine filmmaking, and on par with much more somber espionage pieces like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, (which I found incredibly soporiphic) or the splendidly tense film Breach, starring the incomparable Chris Cooper.

Superhero films, like mythology, can be incredibly self-referential, involved in furthering character and story and still say a lot about principles and human nature and be worthy of one’s time. In this way they are very like the films of Wes Anderson, which are as far from reality as any comic book movie, but still manage to convey very real observations about human nature.

Not everyone can open themselves up to such fiction and allow the immersion that fantasy requires. Some people just find certain genres unappealing. That is okay. It would be nice though, if those who can’t or don't could see, at least in principle, why others do find the fantastical useful, as well as why it endures.

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At 11:04 AM , Blogger Billie Webster said...

Good piece here. The movie crowds are starting to change as the comic book mythology becomes a permanent genre of filmmaking


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