Friday, June 02, 2006

Little Scott in Slumberland, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Beast / an X3 response-essay by Thomas

They went to see X-Men 3: The Last Stand and what began as a polite difference of opinion has rapidly degenerated into a hair-pulling, eye-gouging cage match! Jim Roeg hated it! Thomas loved it! They've both spent too much time in University! Witness the horrible results below!

First there was my own savaging, uncharitable review of X3; now Thomas responds with a defense of the film so dazzling and ingenious that I’ve been momentarily stunned into awed silence. Enjoy it while it lasts, folks! And thanks, Thomas, for this erudite defense of the film - but...does this mean I have to see it AGAIN?




Little Scott in Slumberland, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Beast

by Thomas

The soldiers dissipate, like leaves blowing in the wind. Reality itself seems to fray at the edges. A great destructive force pours forth from Jean Grey, the Dark Phoenix, and Wolverine battles against it. As he pushes steadily forwards - towards her - his costume begins to disintegrate, and then his skin. Brief flashes of the adamantium that is fused to his skeleton appear and then disappear as his flesh is torn away and regenerated once more. It’s a sublime moment, and undoubtedly visually stunning. It is also representative of the film as a whole. X-Men: the Last Stand is a complex and dazzling cinematic work that does not try to hide the machinations of the Hollywood machine that powers it, but rather reveals them like glimpses of fused metal, only to cover them back up by incorporating them into the strange reality its narrative.

The Beast looks terrible. There is no question about it. But to compare Hank McCoy to the infamous Jarjar Binks, as Jim Roeg does, is to totally misinterpret what is being done by the film and how the character functions within its narrative context. Jarjar fails completely because Lucas tried so earnestly to create a character that felt real, and ended up with a cartoon. It was not, however, the special effects that failed to integrate the CGI character into the real world environment. It was the writer/director and the voice actor who portrayed him. To suggest that Ratner and Co. were aiming for this same realism with the Beast is ridiculous. Everything about the Beast’s conceptualization and design calls attention to itself, not as an attempt at realism, but as something else entirely. Unlike the pathos producing and surprisingly convincing portrayer of Nightcrawler in the previous film, X3 uses the Beast to produce something much more along the lines of Brecht’s “Verfremdungseffekt”. In looking so fake, so badly constructed, so blatantly absurd, the Beast draws attention to his own reflexivity. The fact that the Beast looks so unreal explicitly tells the audience that we are no longer in a Brian Singer X-Men film.

Singer’s realism was commendable, and the sci-fi framework within which he situated his films was nearly flawless, but as Roeg points out, X3 is much more THX-1138 than it is Star Wars. The narrative comforts provided by an easily understandable science-fiction universe rooted in realism have been abandoned, and the Beast serves as a signifier of just that. The Beast is one of those shiny metal moments. His artifice tells us that the “real” X-Men director has left the building, that someone new is in charge, and that he is going to take us somewhere else entirely.


The “death” of Cyclops is another one of these adamantium moments. His “death” is handled so clumsily, so strangely, and with such artificial and false logic that it too produces the same distancing effect. Just why is the character in the film at all? There is no logical reason for his inclusion. He serves no function, and even his “death” is non-existent. X3 appears to pick up where X2 left off, in terms of both tone and narrative, but from the moment Scott leaves the mansion, something strange begins to happen. The reappearance of Jean and the total non-explanation for why she is alive, or why she has appeared there at that moment, is jarring and strange. The pacing feels all off: Scotts crying in anguish, then suddenly Jean is there, then they are kissing, then she’s telling him to take off his glasses, then she’s sucking the life out him… and then he wakes up, because this is clearly a dream sequence. It has all the signifiers of a dream sequence: nothing feels real or makes sense, yet we are pulled forward by the teleological sense that these events are supposed to happen because that-is-how-the-dream-unfolds. The only way this sequence can end is with Scott waking up. Only he doesn’t.

Not long afterwards, Wolverine and Strom arrive at the same location. It is a brilliant scene, specifically because the dream never ended. Wolverine and Storm walk through a non-realist world of mist, where droplets of water drift slowly and beautifully upwards away from leaves, rather than plummeting down upon them. When Storm uses her powers to clear away the fog, there is a brilliant reveal, and we see that our heroes have walked into a Salvador Dali painting. Across the alien surface of the dry river bed floats dozens of rocks. It is a fascinating image, carrying with it all of the power of one of Dali’s surrealist landscapes. Ratner is using the Lynchian language of dream cinema, and he is making almost explicit allusions to Dali! His Beast pushes us outside of the film, rather than draw us in, and the character of Cyclops seem to exist for no reason at all. By this point in the film it has become blatantly obvious that Ratner has abandoned Singer’s sci-fi realism and entered the realm of surrealist cinema.


It was Dali himself who first brought surrealism to the medium of filmmaking with his and Luis Bunuel’s 1929 film Un chien andalou, and the criticism that Roeg directs towards X3 (that its “a jumbled mess”, that its “all special effects and no heart”, that the narrative is subordinated to “only the symbolic”) are the same criticisms that were directed towards Bunuel and Dali’s groundbreaking film. Bunuel would go on to direct several surrealist masterpieces, all of which question the assumptions audiences and filmmakers bring with them when they enter the cinema. Jim Roeg concedes that “films must obey their own dramatic logic,” but the work of filmmakers like Bunuel actively questions that very conceit. One might argue that surrealist cinema obeys only its own narrative illogic.

Does it make sense that Wolverine and Jean would make out passionately in the hospital ward? Not particularly. X2 worked hard to establish the fact that Jean would never actually commit to someone like Wolverine, and Logan’s nobility has been established to the point where it is quite doubtful that he would ever actually partake in an affair or steal his ally’s wife. Yet there they are, making out on the hospital best, Jean’s nails tearing at Logan’s flesh. It makes no sense, and yet it feels right - in dream logic sort of way. But at the same time it also feels wrong, and Wolverine knows it. This is why he pulls away from Jean. For a moment, he realizes that they have entered a dream. He realizes the fictionality of the reality in which this scene is taking place. He would never actually consummate his desire for Jean and she would never allow him to do so, yet here they are, like some sort of twisted fantasy made real. And that, of course, is the power of the Phoenix. That is what Jean brings to this film.

Roeg’s accusation of political conservatism fails to take into account the paradoxical non-political and yet poly-political nature of surrealist cinema. The haphazard juxtaposition of the Cure narrative with the Dark Phoenix storyline, and the seemingly illogical and nonsensical construction of scene placement and character motivation in X3 explicitly resist easy categorization and homogenization. The plurality that Roeg yearns for is in fact there throughout the film, and is embodied in the Dark Phoenix herself. Jean is a force of chaos and her existence tears at the foundations of reality, as artificially constructed within the film. Once she is unleashed by Scott, notions of realism and linearity begin to crumble and disintegrate. Few of the film’s narrative choices make obvious sense logically, but when events happen it seems like they were supposed to happen (the way it does in a dream) and we, as an audience, are able to believe in them while we are experiencing them. We can enjoy the Beast, because - unlike Jarjar - he isn’t trying to look real.

Like any dream character, Juggernaut too looks utterly ridiculous when frozen in place and viewed objectively, but when in motion - like when he chases Kitty through the walls of the prison - he looks perfect and feels wonderful and right. Like most surrealist films, X3 is an experience that exists in time while you are viewing it and becomes something different afterwards. It all makes sense when you are dreaming… but afterwards? Surrealism refuses to be nailed down, to explain itself, or to present a clear political message. It is always in motion, always pushing forwards through the chaos, showing its own constructed nature, then hiding it away again.



X3 is certainly a mess, but so is Un chien andalou; a beautiful, visceral, wonderful, complex mess. Is X3 a better film than X2? Probably not. But it’s a much more interesting one. Whether it was intentional or not (and I highly doubt that it was), Brett Ratner has stumbled his way out of action filmmaking and into the world of art cinema. That is to say, challenging cinema. One looks at X3 and wonders, where the hell did they come up with this stuff? But of course, we all know the answer to that, don’t we? The comics, of course! We would never have a Hollywood character that looks as crazy and nonsensical as the Beast if it were not for comic books. We would never have the beauty of Wolverine moving towards Jean at the end of the film, nor the utter melancholy of Magneto at the chess board, robbed of his power. We would never, ever have that brilliant, brilliant scene of Jean and Xavier at her childhood home. The types of stories told in comics are the types of stories that Hollywood is totally incapable of producing on its own, because they do not fit into the template of Hollywood narratives. From Windsor McCay to Stan Lee to Chris Claremont and John Byrne, the creators of comics have been exploring the world of dreams for over a century, and thanks to films like X-Men 3, a wider audience is now able to experience the joys of surrealism.



And the wonderful thing about dreams is that they are not real. Hey Jim, the astroturf and styrofoam tombstones look fake because they are! The creators of X3 were able to acknowledge that this is fiction in a way that Singer was never able to, and to fully acknowledge that this is fiction is to open the doors of infinite possibilities. This means that the events of X3 do not have to be lasting. The cure could wear off, allowing the return of Rogue, Magneto and Mystic. Charles Xavior can live on in another man’s body. Phoenix, of course, dies only to be reborn again and again. And Scott… well, Scott never really did die now, did he? By rejecting Singer’s realism and choosing to explore a dream landscape of his own making, Ratner has moved the X-Men franchise into a space where ANYTHING is possible, including a return to the status quo of Singer’s films.

Who knows… maybe X4 will open with Scott finally waking up.

12 comments:

heath said...

very nice...

Nobody said...

Great metatextual analysis. Though I'm resistant to arguments that something is good because it was bad intentionally (Beast is supposed to look fake, etc.), the surrealist explanation rings true for me in that I loved the movie while watching it, and it was only after thinking about it in retrospect that I began to believe it must not have been as good as I remembered.

I think Thomas' reading has convinced me that the final post-credit scene, which I had felt pointlessly undermined the powerful earlier scene, is actually consistent with the whole movie (Scott's absent death and Jean's second temporary death). If anything, we would have assumed Jim would be in love with this ultimate series of non-endings. The X-Men are dead; long live the New Mutants.

But unlike Jim, one of the things I liked about X3 was Rogue following through with getting the cure voluntarily, showing that the cure itself was not inherently evil, only the way it could be used. Considering the gay allegory that has always been associated with the movie franchise in particular, it was undoubtedly a bold decision to show it might not be morally wrong for a mutant to accept the cure if she wants it.

In this way, however, Ratner's movie was the first truly "realistic" film of the franchise because, in seeming to betray the allegory, it announced an acceptance of the story on its own terms (mutation as mutation) rather than just as an allegory for minorities (mutation as all types of difference). Ironically, however, the fact that the cure is intended as permanent but turns out to be only temporary actually reinforces the gay allegory in the first place. So in the end I don't think any harm is done to the metaphor as Jim laments.

Similar to the ambiguity of the cure, I also thought it was interesting for the movie to show a darker side to Professor X while (I agree with Jim) giving Magneto the strongest case yet for his position. Rather than a failure, however, I thought it made the movie a bit more sophisticated, but maybe my distinction between good and evil is becoming hopelessly blurred. Plot-wise, however, Magneto's position admittedly weakened the X-Men who seem to fight Magneto only because it is their job to oppose whatever Magneto does. Yet this itself also fits the dream-like logic of the movie identified by Thomas. I'm actually eager to see it again now!

Jim Roeg said...

Given my own proclivity for spinning silk purses from sow's ears, I dare not even try to rebut any of the points in this wonderful alchemical reading of the film, which actually does make me (like Nobody) want to watch it again. Of course, the fact that it resonates with the infamous Dallas solution to Bobby's death ("It was all Pam's dream!") only raises its estimation in my eyes.

I will say, though, that I would be able to give myself over to the surrealist X3 a little more easily if the plot was ALL Phoenix and her reality warping powers, with nary a sign of the aggravating Cure storyline--though I admit that I may have been a bit hard on it, if indeed the cure really IS temporary. Did Magneto's chesspiece move at the end there? I thought it didn't, but maybe I blinked.

Thomas, you also make me wonder which other directors may have (inadvertently) "stumbled [their] way out of action filmmaking and into the world of art cinema," which other films might fall into this category of accidental surrealism... That would be an interesting film-night to organize. And on the topic of surrealist intertexts, do you think that Cocteau's Belle et la Bete could be shoe-horned into this conversation somehow? (At this point, I'm not even sure if I'm kidding!)

Thomas said...

Beath – Thanks!

Nobody – I wasn’t trying to excuse the bad conceptualization of the Beast, so much as point out the fact that we need to approach different genres of storytelling with different sets of analytical and critical skills. As you point out, when understood within the realm of surrealism several of the film’s strange creative choices make more sense. I don’t think they intended that the Beast look bad, but I think they were going for a very different aesthetic than what Singer brought to the series.

I’m surprised everyone has been so accepting of Roeg’s argument that the film is now approaching “mutation as mutation”. Has the metaphor really been shifted out of the realm of homosexuality? Even Roeg admits that the Angel story in X3 still covers this metaphorical ground. Perhaps the metaphor has simply been expanded. I believe many of the feminist critics of the film are completely missing out on one of the movie’s most important elements. Couldn’t a strong argument be made that this film is essentially a pro-choice film about a woman’s right to control her own body? Doesn’t the scene where Bobby is searching for Rogue in the Abortion Clinic line… er, I mean “Cure” clinic line, make that pretty clear?

Jim - When we saw the film, the chess piece DID NOT move. Magneto reaches out for the piece, and then we cut directly to the credits. But from what other people have to say, it sounds like when they saw the film the chess piece DID move! Can anyone confirm this for us? Did Roeg and I see a different cut of the film than what you guys out there saw? And if so, what does that tell us about the fluidity and transitory nature of this narrative?

Other directors that stumbled from action film making into surreal cinema? Certainly the difference between Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead I and Evil Dead II is that the director learned to exploit the surrealism that film as a medium lends itself to. Evil Dead II is essentially the same film as Evil Dead I, as viewed through the prism of surrealism. And of course, Raimi went on to become the most successful superhero director of all time. So Ratner is in good company!

I have not had the opportunity to view La Belle et la bete (though I will have to now!).

dale said...

the chess piece moved the two times I saw the film. but it's such a quick jump into the credits I can understand the confusion.

what I like about the movie is how it embraced some of the more idiotic moments of the comics without winking at the audience.

it knew it wasn't adapting king lear, yet it did NOT fall into the same self aware sinkhole the fantastic four film did...

what doesn't work for me is ANGEL- you could remove all his scenes and you'd have a smoother, cleaner adventure story.

Thomas said...

Dale – While I agree that the removal of the Angel storyline would have created a “smoother, clearer adventure story,” I feel that the way characters like Angel, Colossus, Madrox and Rogue weave their way in and out of the narrative actually adds to the overall surreal effect of the film in a positive (though admittedly less clear) way. Even Kitty, who at first glance appears to have a fairly major supporting role, is actually rather insubstantial.

These characters, like Robert Blake’s Mystery Man in David Lynch’s “Lost Highway”, seem to defy traditional narrative trajectory by inexplicably appearing and disappearing throughout the story. They are like that character in your dream, who you can only see out of the corner of your eye, or who suddenly morphs from one person you know to another.

In Bunuel’s film “That Obscure Object of Desire”, one of the characters is suddenly played by a new actress mid-film, and it produces a similar effect to what the comings and goings of characters like Angel in X3 produce. The characters feel familiar, and yet distant.

Jim Roeg said...

dale - thanks for clarifying that. The moving chess-piece makes a big difference, and I finally understand the point that frank was making in a discussion on a different comments thread. This is one of the pitfalls of writing an off-the-cuff review after only seeing a movie once, I guess.

The issue of Rogue's choosing the "cure" still bothers me, but nobody makes a good point (why do I feel suddenly like Odysseus in the cave of the Cyclops??) about the way it complicates things morally - even (especially?) with the gay allegory. thomas's feminist argument is also interesting. I didn't pick up on the abortion clinic possibility at at all, but I lived in Winnipeg near the Morgentaller clinic for long enough that I should be able to recognize a sign-weilding mob when I see one. Thanks, btw for that Evil Dead 1 & 2 suggestion. I haven't seen them, but strangely, Evil Dead is the movie that Donnie and his girlfriend attend in Donnie Darko, which I just saw for the first time. We're not in a tangent universe right now, are we?

Mitch Montgomery said...

FYI to all interested:

You can view Un Chien andalou in its entirety here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQRmZvSo6Z0

BTW: Roeg and Thomas-- Love reading both your reviews, even if I agree with Thomas that this is a more interesting film than Singers'.

I have a few thoughts posted on my myspace blog, which you can reach by clicking my name.

Best and keep up the good work,

Mitch

Thomas said...

Mitch – Thanks for the awesome link! It’s amazing that (thanks to digital technology) rare films like Un Chien andalou are now so easily available.

I really enjoyed your thoughts on X3! I tried to post a comment on your site, but was unable to. Do I have to have a My Space account to be able to post?

Anyway, I loved how your really engage the relationship between the comics and the films, something I completely avoided in my essay. I totally agree that Ratner’s movie captured the feel of the modern comics, while Singer pulled from the classics. The “death” of characters X3 felt EXACTLY like reading the “death” of a major supporting character in the recent Brubaker Daredevil storyline, or Jean's death in Morrison's New X-Men. Somehow they don’t really feel like “real” deaths. In fact, I think it is almost impossible to have a “real” death in modern comics.

Though I guess Conner Kent might argue differently.

MItch said...

Thomas:

Yep. Unfortunately, Myspace is still a pretty exclusive club. Thanks for taking a look. Death in comics is a totally different animal. It is used as an exclamation point to the begining of the story or the ending of a story.

Conner Kent is a unique matter. He is a (suddenly) messianic figure for the "event comics" I talk about in my review. He was born out of the original "staggering event" that began this current trend.

Between 52 and Teen Titans (not that I'm reading Teen Titans) it looks like he won't be gone long.

Best,

Mitch

Helpful Links For Growth said...

wow..after reading that review of X3, i feel like now i HAVE to go see it (yes, i know im late..) if for nothing else but just to see what the writer was talking about..

great review..

Jim Roeg said...

Mitch - let me just second Thomas's thanks for that awesome surrealism link! I'd never seen Un Chien Andalou before and since I have absolutely nothing intelligent to say about it, I'll make the most banal comment possible: wow, that 's some crazy, f'ed up shit! The image of the ants on the hand is (brace for more banality) utterly amazing.

Loved your review of X3, btw!