ThePageBoy

Writing, Reviewing and Criticism In The Internet Age

Tag: Batman

Double Barrelled Shotgun Review – Realism and ‘Realism’

Right,

From the beginning of the blog I have always tried my best to ensure that this site was kept free of technical jargon and dense language. This wasn’t out of any desire to dumb down, but rather out of the aim of keeping the blog as available to as many potential readers as possible – you don’t and shouldn’t need any background or expertise in arts criticism to feel like cinema and literature are places where you can contribute and take part in our collective culture. Books and movies are among some of the last cultural arenas that everyone can take part in. On top of this I wanted ThePageBoy to be a blog that helped generate discussion, provoked debate and even started some friendly arguments and that should happen in whatever language you possess. I go into all this detail for a simple reason, which is this isn’t a blog I started lightly.  However thanks to things like readers being engaged and full of debate things have reached the point that maybe I need to start being a little more adventurous in what I talk about.

With the release of ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ a few weeks ago and now the first reviews from Christopher Nolan’s third Batman movie surfacing there has been a lot talk of how superhero movies have become more ‘realistic.’ The Amazing Spider-Man is different because it is more ‘real’ than the Sam Rami trilogy and the reason this struck me as odd is that these films are about a teenager who is bitten by a spider and then becomes a vigilante to combat his guilt about his uncle being murdered. The Christopher Nolan trilogy starts with a billionaire absconding from university, running away from home and then climbing a mountain to join a ninja death cult. Does this sound like a Ken Loach film? No, not even a little bit – I know of nobody whose life is like this. Real life doesn’t consist of fights on top of skyscrapers with mutated lizard men.  Books also get lambasted for not being realistic enough; conversely a lot of young adult fiction has been criticized for being too gritty, or too realistic as if the two words were somehow synonymous

So this leads to an inevitable conclusion – the word realism doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with real life; when a film is described as realistic it is not because it has anything to do with real life but rather the term is an aesthetic choice and the same goes for literature. So let’s start with the film and what makes these recent films qualify as ‘realistic’ and thus we need to go into a little history. The term ‘realism’ first came into the arts gradually during the period 1750-1850 (very approximately) in a variety of artistic fields. In a stereotype that is shockingly on point, the majority of the artistic fields that gave birth to the rise of realism came from the cultural heavyweight of France. In painting it came and thus literature inevitable followed. To put it as simply as I can, these pioneers, painters like Courbet and Chardin along with writers such as Balzac and Zola were attempting to do something special – create art that exists in third person or some sort of objective reality. Their aim was the production of verisimilitude of the real world. It sounds basic but this was an incredible radical decision for these artists to make. When literary realism reached England it provoked huge controversy; for an artist to make someone up that seemed to be real was considered to be ethically dodgy –lies sold as truth in the guise of art.

So, if this was the original aim of the realists, what changed? Well, two things have influenced where art has gone, firstly the artists themselves and secondly the people who view art, i.e. you and me. The first is possible more complex and certainly explains how films like the Amazing Spider-man can claim to be more realistic. As time progressed and artists continued to experiment the rules of ‘realism’ shifted. Through the realist writers different approaches developed, things like kitchen sink realism in British theatre and photography thanks to people like Dickens and his depictions of the life of the poor. The brittle sarcastic exchanges of the middle class English gentry in Austen are a world away from life in the dustbowl of America that Steinbeck wrote on, so literary realism became a form of the art rather than a description. The writer Henry James wrote a famous essay on the ‘Art of Fiction’ at the end of the 1800s that solidified this change – realism was less about the art but was no about the form it took. In literature the key points were close third person narrative and a direct access to the representation of a specific consciousness, and in many ways, regardless of genre this is still the basis of ‘realist’ writing today. I hope that goes some way to explaining how JK Rowling and Jonathan Franzen can both, in a sense, be considered realist writers  – with content subsumed to form this also applies to movies. As long as the form is still correct then the content can be as wild or fantastical as you like. From the literary form of realism realistic cinema we still have, (in most films in the mainstream) a three act plot structure, a close group of characters and unless the film is particularly avant-garde, a limited POV. Not in terms of cinematography mind you, just in the perspective the film is told from.

There is another, slightly more abstract reason why the term ‘realistic’ needs to be more carefully defined and this is about the very process of making art. Basically it’s this – my life doesn’t have lens flare. The very act of making a movie or writing a book involves a lot that is NOT real! To keep this term unchallenged and lazily bandied about by critics who want to explain how it can be a superhero movie without Adam West in it is just wrong.

Basically, what I’m trying to argue for is a better application of our shared critical language when we try and describe and engage with culture. From Wuthering Heights to The Dark Knight Rises our cinema and literary life is full of big exciting and often complex things that surely deserve more than just having a simple, fix all term thrown at them. So if we’re going to do that we should at least understand what we’re saying.

At least, that’s what I think.

Thanks

ThePageBoy

PS I am well aware that these thoughts on realism in the critical sense are hardly exhaustive and if there is something worth saying that I’ve missed then please join in, in the comments section.

Backwards sense make should this, or, Christopher Nolan, remember?

Right,

 

If the title of the article hasn’t given away the name of today’s film then you clearly need to stop getting out so much and watch some more movies; clearly you’ve been having too much of a social life or friends to be paying attention to a BritishAmerican guy called Christopher Nolan. For those of you for whom this name only rings faint bells, probably associated with a certain Bat-Man, then consider this your movie education. Nolan is a director who is surprisingly little known apart from the trilogy of Batman movies that have proven that superhero films can be critically and commercially successful – for this alone he should deserve unending respect and creative freedom. Personally I also think he should be followed everywhere by the director of the horror that was The Green Lantern movie apologising for not paying close enough attention on how to direct a superhero movie.

Nolan is somewhat unique in modern directors as, speaking personally here, I don’t believe he has ever produced a bad movie. Ever. And when that’s considered in the modern gulag that is the cinematic world that is kind of impressive fact and places Nolan in the company of the hottest directors currently working. Nolan has a reputation as a consummate professional but his films have been played down by some for producing films that are too cerebral. Maybe too cold. Too interested in the intellect and too much emphasis on the power of the mind in getting through events.

Frankly, anyone who thinks this makes Nolan a poor director or someone who can’t communicate a decent story is…well…wrong. And for proof, we’ll turn to what was only Nolan’s second feature film; the staggeringly good film from 2000, Memento.

Now, again, as per usual I am going to try to avoid spoilers but rather than out of mere politeness as with usual films, Memento is a film that any spoilers would ruin. Let me say this, right now – if you haven’t seen this film, go out and find a copy. Buy it. Watch it and you’ll see one of the most creative, interesting films produced in the last fifteen years. The film follows Leonard Shelby, (Guy Pearce) a man who suffers from retrograde amnesia who is looking for the man who has murdered his wife.

So, on to some of the many, many positives  the film posses. Guy Pearce is Leonard Shelby, a man who can only hold things in his head for fifteen minutes at a time. He’s a great combination of driven, vulnerable and lost and the film’s incredible script brings all of this across; the rage, the loss and even the black comedy that comes out of the situation. One great sequence involves Pearce and a man with a gun. In the voiceover Shelby wonders whether he’s chasing this guy or being chased by him. A gunshot rings out. And dryly he realises which is the right answer…

The rest of the actors all do an admirable job but the film’s real strengths lie in the script – which won an Oscar and the direction. The film feels like a noir film with ADHD, splicing between artful monochrome, splashes of colour and an expert use of light and shade. The whole story unfolds in a non-linear fashion and as you watch you piece the story together alongside Leonard. It’s sad and strange and wonderfully done – its themes and the huge twist that the film’s end delivers is made even more brutal by being the beginning of the narrative told at the very end of the film. Once you put the narrative together in your own mind, you’ll want to watch it again. And again. And again. It is that good.

But as an adaptation? Well, here’s the thing, a lot of people don’t know, but the film is based on a very good short story published in Esquire in 2001. It was written by a successful screen writer who worked on projects such as The Prestige and a little known film called The Dark Knight. Yeah, that one. The writer’s name? Jonathan Nolan.

It must be genetic, at some level anyway…

The short story, Memento Mori didn’t really bear a close resemblance to the film but you know something? I think it’s a brilliant adaptation, thanks not necessarily to things like plot or characters but on the level of form and the similarities in ideas.  The story, written, (depressingly) when Jonathan Nolan was still at university, centres around a man called Earl who can only remember things for a few minutes at a time and who developed his condition when his wife was murdered by an assailant who causes Earl memory loss. He uses notes to himself and tattoos to keep track of new information. The temporal nature of the story is as fractured as the film’s. Earl story basically follows three different time scales. We see Earl escape from the mental institution where he’s kept, the next time line follows his escape and his search for revenge and then he manages to get his revenge and utterly fails to remember it.

As I said, the success or failure of this as an adaptation can’t really rest on the similarities between the two on the level of plot. This is an adaptation that works best on the level of form. As with the film, the notes that Earl leaves for himself are done incredibly well and the quest for revenge has a similar ultimate futility to it, given his fragile and broken mind. The question that the short story raises is one that the film will make you think about on around the third time you watch it. Namely, this….if you can’t remember anything that happened to you, then who are you? The most commonly held assumption about what philosophers call our  personal continuation throughout existence is that without the notion of psychological consistency, effectively it would be nigh on impossible to claim that you are the same person that you were. It may sound slightly odd but think about it, if the timescale of your memory was reduced to the length of time it has taken you to read this article, (thanks by the way) then who are you? What will happen when you stop reading? If you have no memory of it – does that make you someone else.

The most troubling implication is perhaps one the film has more time and space in its form to play around with – if everything you are, (in a mental state kind of way) is so fragile, how easy would it be to manipulate you? Who would you be? Could it be shaped? Changed?

In a way, both the story and the film are wake up calls. Who you are is indelibly a construct. A construct of lots of different things, yes, such as culture and nature/nurture and your own psychology but so much of this is dependent on your own memory. The scary thing is, it can all be taken away so easily. So simply.

This is what great art is meant to do folks, to jolt us out-of-the-way we look at the world and remember that life is fragile and precious. The saddest moments of the film and the short story aren’t the horrible things that have happened to them, or their wives. The true tragedy is that they can’t remember winning. Revenge is futile, because how can you take revenge if you can’t remember the hurt you suffered? Or who you’re taking revenge for? Or why?

Lots of questions, I know but if you haven’t watched the movie in a while, seek it out. But be warned, you’ll end up like me, putting your two cents in whenever someone brings it up. Disagree? Saw it and hated it? Great – join in the debate in the comment section.

Thanks

ThePageBoy

Oh, I realise that there weren’t that many gags in this week’s column. I was going to do this whole thing where I wrote the whole blog backwards and you would have had to have read to the very end to figure out what I was talking about. Would have been awesome, though I decided it would be way too much hard work. Next time, promise!

 

Marvel Month I: An Apology, or, ‘I’m not really a big enough geek for this.’

Right,

First off, let me expunge the first reaction you may be having. This isn’t an apology for me beng too busy to update regularly because I’m out doing things that the internet doesn’t approve of; like having friends who aren’t pixels and talking to girls, (joking! A bit…) This post wasn’t even supposed to be an apology – it was intended to be a huge announcement of the first ever theme month.

This was where I was going to be proud to announce the commencement of…MARVEL MONTH! That’s right, a whole month of me assessing the Marvel movies and the source material they came from. A month of superheroics, kick-ass action, bad guys and saving the world. A whole month of geek awesomeness.

And that’s where I hit just a couple of really small snags. The first one came when I was looking for which comic should be the first one to be reviewed. It should have been obvious, it really should have been but all I can say is that I was so grateful for getting past The Da Vinci Code I just wasn’t thinking straight. Then it hit me. The first comic I wanted to read has been going since 1963. That is a really long time. Really – a loooooooooooooong time. So, there’s 49 years of comics to read. I can’t do that, nobody can. Not in a week, where I also need to watch the movie!

Then, I hit upon the obvious and simple solution. I don’t need to read it all, because the people who wrote the movie probably didn’t, and if its been going since 1963 the law of averages says that a big chunck of these comics aren’t going to be worth reading. sorry to be harsh, but that just seems to be the way things are.  If you don’t believe me just try to read some of the Batman that was churned out in the 1960’s and try and tell me seriously that it  meets any definition of the word good.

So, this is where I hit my second snag, and to be honest, this one I don’t see a way through, so here’s why I need to apologise. Again. Here we go…

I am not an expert on comics. I read them for a bit but didn’t have the money or the dedication to keep up the habit. But some people do. Some people must have read every comic, are familiar with the mythology of the comics, the lore, the references, the jokes even. Sorry, but that isn’t me.

Here’s what I can do though, and maybe what I should be doing. I’m going to spend the time looking into each character and find the run that helps shape and define the character and then treat that as the source material. If it isn’t the run you would have chosen or the writer you love then, sorry… But surely the success or failure of the film shouldn’t hinge on me having read Journey into Mystery #92. Maybe I’ll get round to it, but in the meantime this is the best way I’ve found.

The more eagle-eyed and comic loving may have picked up on the one or two clues in this article, the first film in ThePageBoy’s is Thor directed by Kenneth Branagh, after a little research I decided on the jaw dropping run by Walt Simonsen Vol1 #337-382.

Right, I’m off. Got comics to read.

Thanks

ThePageBoy

Oh, don’t worry; there will be more jokes in the next column. Promise.