Review: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

This review contains spoilers. You have been warned.

Following the release of the Christopher Nolan Film: The Dark Knight Rises (DKR) I think most people are aware of the tragic events in Colorado in one premiere screening. What happened was hard to comprehend in a moral sense, as it reflects a very disturbing moral sentiment on the part of the perpetrator. Sensitive reviewers have acknowledged that this was a very sad event and threatens the percieved safety of what should be an enjoyable experience in civil life, namely, going to the movies.

It is also within good taste to acknowledge univocally that the Colorado shooting was morally abhorrent. Christopher Nolan commented on the shooting with absolute condemnation, as someone who considers the cinema a safe space and an important cultural venue. There is a lingering sense of discomfort about the event, however, especially because James Holmes declared himself as a Joker-style copycat.

When I saw DKR with Antisophie, she told me how her thoughts led back to The Dark Knight film of 2008, and DKR essentially improved her appreciation of The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight has since become a cultural artefact of our times. Villains and Heroes are completely confused in Nolan’s world. Government departments are corrupt while a criminally violent vigilante holds the protagonist role, but by his own recognition is performing a task that has no moral legitimacy compared to say, the police or the legal system.

I wish to address a few aspects of the film, and avoid repeating good points from other reviews. Firstly I wish to address the soundtrack. Following, wish to address the theme of ‘Truth and Lies’. I shall then consider how the representation of Batman is subverted by the Nolan Brothers and forms a kind of critique about the very idea of such a character. Finally I wish to consider the social dimensions of the film as a closing reflection.

Soundtrack

Perhaps one of the most interesting aesthetic things I enjoyed about the film was its soundtrack. In my view there hasn’t been a film soundtrack this good since Inception, and that was also a collaboration between Hans Zimmer (composer) and Christopher Nolan. If there are two things that I found especially powerful about the soundtrack it would be the use of leitmotif and the nature of the ‘Bane’ theme.

Leitmotif, as Michael is very eager to talk about, is the use of a melodic line to represent a feeling or character that is consistent in (say) an opera. Leitmotif is said by some to be pinnacle of programme music and thematic works, because of the unity that they try to stress. After watching DKR, I was inspired to watch Batman Begins and Dark Knight again, and I realised throughout Batman Begins (particularly in the origin scenes of Batman) there were melodic motifs subtly used that were referenced in DKR, the resonance of this is that there is a sense of birth and rebirth (eternal recurrence?) to Bruce Wayne’s character. In becoming Batman and training under the League of Shadows, Wayne had to face his sense of fear. When Wayne was placed in the prison pit by Bane seriously injured, he also had to face a rebirth, by embracing his fear of death. This was, I believe, the allusion that was trying to be achieved by the use of melodic phrases in DKR that borrowed from Batman Begins.

Coming on to the Bane theme. I thought that was particularly moving how the chant was used as a rhythmic frame, as opposed to using a melody line as the basis of a theme. Rhythm has a very powerful place in music, and European art music does not use it in as many interesting ways as other musical traditions compared to say, Bhangra. The use of a rhythmic cell rather than a melodic one makes for a very powerful soundtrack, and its one that will stick in my mind for a long time.

Truth and Lies

One moral dimension of the film was the moral role of truth telling. Perhaps this could be construed as a Kantian moral about the absolute good of maintaining the institution of being truthful. Throughout the film there are lies, or withheld truths kept in the 8 years between the Dark Knight and DKR in the series timeline. The climate has changed fundamentally due to two actions, one is that the behaviour of Harvey Dent murdering police officers is explained by Batman allegedly doing the deed, in order to keep the prosecution case against organised criminals (which was the slightly complicated plot of Dark Knight).

The other aspect of this is that Batman/Bruce Wayne had to accept false responsibility for this. As a result of his faith destroyed in Harvey Dent, and perhaps the death of his beloved Rachel Dawes, Bruce Wayne decides to retire from being Batman. Another crucial truth is withheld. Bruce Wayne believed that if he ever were to relinquish his Batman identity he could have a relationship with Dawes. What was not revealed to him was that Dawes ultimately chose to accept Dent’s marriage proposal, just before she died. Alfred withheld this information as a way to spare him from a painful truth.

Lying has consequences, and it shows the way that morality and ethics pulls apart. For most putative conceptions, morality is about ‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’, or ‘Goodness’ and ‘Bad’ in terms of perhaps decisions or effects. Ethics by contrast, may be said to pertain to character. Michael told me in an editorial email that he believed the meanings were reversed for these terms but I still hold to this distinction. For Jim Gordon, the cost of lying to Gotham about Harvey Dent destroyed his family relationship (Gordon, as you may remember, also faked his death as well). The cost of peace comes at the coin of his character and moral legitimacy.

Alfred’s withholding of the truth has also had an effect on his character. By withholding the truth about Dawes, Alfred thought that he would spare Wayne from unnecessary pain by letting him believe that he could have made a relationship with Dawes, but he realises that the consequences of not telling his employer is that it made a hermit out of him, who believed that there was ‘nothing out there anymore’ in the world, causing an inward retreat. There is something distinctly philosophical about this theme of the film, moral/ethical decisions can have an impact on the character of a person, some decisions which may cause less harm may be destructive on one’s character. Posed in this way, DKR may sound more like an elongated moral parable by Plato’s Socrates on a discourse on truth-telling.

Batman turned on its head

I think that DKR represents a critique of previous Batman representations, and the idea of Bruce Wayne/Batman in general. It has been commented how Bruce Wayne lives in extreme wealth in lieu of a gamut of social woes while he dedicates himself to what may be seen as street level crime. Wayne retreats in his economic luxury while the ills of the world do not lay in organised crime, but unemployment and those other things that the real world contains. Batman Begins acknowledges a period of ‘depression’ which created mass unemployment and suggestibly fertilised a period of corruption and organised crime. One thing that brought Wayne out of retirement is that he chose to ignore the social problems of the world, represented by John Blake pointing out that Wayne’s charitable funds have been allocated away from an orphanage which he used to support.

Batman recognises the limitations of what a vigilante can do throughout the series of films. There are other shortcomings which are acknowledged about the Batman character, one notable thing is that Bruce Wayne tends to have a soft spot for women, at the expense of keeping his secret identity! This is the case certainly for many of the other Batman films where Wayne has a romantic interest. In short, he just can’t help telling the woman he likes that he’s a superhero! I think one flaw of the character is that he’s too trusting of ‘nurturing’ female types. I thought it was absurd how Wayne gave all of his assets to Miranda Tate, a woman that he met only a few times before essentially giving her ultimate control of Wayne Enterprises. This of course was his folly, as Tate ended up being the main villain of the film! Batman is definitely a flawed character, both in terms of what he represents and how futile his ventures are to real social problems, and in terms of how the character is often represented in films. Kevn Conroy’s animated Batman by contrast hardly has such a weakness for women or rather, not so easily he reveals his real identity!

Social themes

I have remarked that poverty was one aspect of the Nolan world in the Batman films. Other socially poignant issues are also alluded to but not well developed throughout the films. A brief suggestion towards the importance of renewable energy mainly is a foil for a plot device, which is almost so brief it makes me think it is a unnecessary aspect of the film with so much else going on. There is a general sense of malaise created by the dark camera filters and the way that a sense of paranoia or moral panic is created in the films, from Batman as a vigilante, to the way in which copycat Bat-men appear as a form of dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Selina Kyle’s character points to the injustice of mass wealth distribution with the very poor said to be working in the sewers (as it turns out to be for Bane), and that this inequality cannot last forever without a violent form of revolution. There is an ambiguity to the film in that the issues addressed do not go one way or another to these perennial thoughts. I think every society has had an issue with wealth inequalities or the scarcity gap between what we need and what we have (and subsequently, what we need but cannot have).

I would like to reference a contrasting example of the superhero narrative in relation to social themes. At the moment, Marvel Comics have an ‘Avengers Vs. X Men’ serial, which involves 5 of the X-Men receiving a powerful cosmic power called the Phoenix, which gives them near absolute power. The fear of the Avengers is that this power will be corrupting and destructive. The X-Men who received this power have decided to try and solve world problems by sealing the San Andreas Fault, attempting to create a good harvest yield around the world to sustain a growing population Cyclops, Namor, Colossus, Emma Frost and Magik attempt to ‘save’ the world through dealing with fundamental human problems of survival and attempt to create a form of Pax Romana, or as they call it Pax Utopia. I think something like the X-Men represent a useful commentary on the utility of superheroes against the issues that form the backdrop of their world. Exactly what is the Batman character changing, or what exactly can one individual do to make a difference? The conclusion of DKR involves a play between not just Batman, but collaborators such as the Police, Jim Gordon and Lucius Fox all having a small part to save the city. Although Batman ultimately saves the day through a single action, Nolan shows that a single actor cannot do all the change, but it comes from collaboration. Perhaps this is a salient moral to add to the superhero mythos.

Sinistre

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Reading Goffman (1): The Definition of the Situation

“Hello, is this Mr. Peartree?”
“Speaking”
“I’m here from xxxx marketing and I was wondering if I could have a few minutes of yo-” [conversation abruptly ends]

“Hello madam how are you today?”
“[any answer]”
“That is lovely to hear, how can I help you today?”

“Hello sir, I love your umbrella”
[no response]
“I would like to talk to you about the charity….”

I’m sure you have heard many kinds of conversations like this. People in business, communications, politics or any kind of endeavour where currying favour is required, will be familiar with the notion that first impressions matter. Goffman’s Doctoral Dissertation on the subject of the interactions in a Shetlands hotel between the staff and customers, as well as between staff and the behaviours exhibited in front of staff and away from staff, formed the basis of his thought on interaction.

I have two contradictory feelings about Goffman, one is that I found it incredibly difficult to grasp the first time I read his monograph Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (henceforth ‘Presentation’), the second time reading it is similarly difficult, but perhaps I have a differing perspective on it now. The second thought that I have is that I see Goffman as relevant to everything in society insofar as it relates to people interacting in a dyadic (that is to say, one node to another, or ‘one on one’ in a more informal manner) manner, when it comes to polyadic, well, maybe I’ll get to that later.

The second time reading Goffman has made me think of the wider context in which he wrote. Goffman was a contemporary of Robert K. Merton; seems to be familiar with Sartre’s Being and Nothingness; and was influential to a number of sociologists who took interaction more seriously. I believe that Goffman’s work on the Total Institution  was referenced by Foucault in Discipline and Punish as a basis for the latter’s own work, but that is a subject beyond my current comprehension, and the topic of this post.

The definition of the situation is a term that sounds opaque to me, it is even more unhelpful to find that it has an existentialist origin. I think there is something interesting to be said about the fact that Goffman leans heavily on Sartre’s thought in discussing this issue. What is the definition of the situation?

As I have read it, the Definition of the Situation is a social confine within a singular interaction between at least two agents, this reflects the nature of what this social interaction is. The Definition of the situation reflects macrosocial features but only in a crude sense, within the macrosocial construction an agent can navigate within. Insofar as interactions allow for more fine grained manoeuvre of outcomes from the crude macrosocial colouring of interactions, we have a layer of the microsocial.

Lets start with a distinction. By macrosocial impacts upon interaction, I mean features such as ethnicity/race, gender/sex, class/status, or other situational factors (such as facial disfigurement, wearing a wedding dress etc) imposing on how one may see another. If I were to write like Goffman, I would cite cultural examples like how a Black man in the United States during the Jim Crow period may be referred to as ‘Boy’, or how in contemporary society, diminuitive terms for women or affectionate others may be denoted as ‘honey’, ‘babe’, ‘sweets’, ‘love’ etc.

The best elaboration of the Definition of the Situation comes from my Sociology Lecturer who taught me Goffman, Kieran Flanagan, who spoke of an anecdote of a ‘young student during the 1970s’ in the US speaking to a hotelier. The hotelier asks the young man politely, ‘and how was your day sir?’, the young Sociology Masters student  man replies: “I’M FUCKING AWFUL”. There was a slight pause, and the young man realised that the hotelier was mortified. The older woman was working along a constructed social script, and had faced a reaction that she was incapable of responding to, in this response, the young man had broken the interaction and shattered the message that was trying to be conveyed by the hotelier.

For me, this example says everything about what the Definition of the Situation is, and perhaps made me understand the real meaning of ‘losing face’. the Definition of the Situation is, to put it in business parlance, trying to communicate a message, and trying to put forward a pitch. What I find personally revolting about this kind of agency, is that the message you are putting forward in the definition of the situation (such as a kind receptionist appearing simultaneously sexually available, attentive, helpful and courteous) is that much of this is defined by her or his role. What exactly are the features of this role are often tacit. Goffman presents a world of agency where our interactions are often an alienation of our true self and more a communication of what we are prescribed to do. This is at least the case in the ‘Front’ side of our social interactions (which I have planned to talk about in my fourth post).

The Definition of the Situation is the confine of rule-following behaviour in interactions between social agents. In a coffee conversation with Destre, I mentioned my thoughts on Goffman to him and I said almost disparagingly, in relation to another conversation we had about Kant’s Categories: maybe this is what Kant meant by the ‘receptivity between agent and patient’. The interaction between people is a fundamental social aspect, and there is something distinctly fluid about its nature.

From a personal perspective I feel that I fail as a social person. I’m very awkward and difficult around new situations and I’m not good at working within the ‘Definition of the Situation’. However there are agents who could perhaps play very well in these constructions: people who have something to sell, pick up artists (usually men) trying to pick up (usually) women; or anyone working in the service industry. I find usually that having a presence of fixed items or aspects to a role make my anxiety about social interactions a lot easier. There is a sense in which I colloquilally consider Goffman to be a justification or theoretical eludication of my own perspective to social anxiety.

In my next post I shall attempt to discuss the role of ‘props’.

Michael

Hipsters and funny women: Reviewing ‘2 Broke Girls’

Editorial note 22nd March 2013.

 

I have decided to omit this article from the blog because although I don’t have a change of views from the original piece as I wrote it, I do however feel that the show ‘2 Broke Girls’ should not have the critical attention that I attempted to give it, as some of the jokes are just too crass, offensive and I am uncomfortable putting my name to even reviewing the show. Sorry readers.

Michael

Closing reflections on Hakim’s ‘Erotic Capital’

I know this blog post is about a week later than I intended it. I’m ridiculously busy and spending half the time enjoying my last few weeks of being 25. Doing this book review has reminded me of the importance of sociology as a discipline, including how it can be informative towards feminist and wider gender issue discussions. I have a few specific points I’d address that sum up aspects of my thinking on this book:

What informs our understanding of gender?

Such a general question: what informs gender notions? One of the things about working in a sociological area that hits close to home is that the researcher will have some personal stake or experience in this issue. Gender is arguably one of the few issues that people can escape for better or worse.

Hakimappeals to a variety of sources to create her notion of femina sociologicus [note: Destre told me not to say ‘homo feminis’ due to the absurdity of it] by a variety of qualitative and quantitative sources:

  • Interview histories: some of which Hakim admits details are ‘changed’ for dramatic effect, as well as the standard ethical anonymity reasons. Some of her interviews often tell a story, but seem so contrived and suggestive I feel they are unhelpful. For example, Hakim’s examples of the two sisters (one ugly, one attractive) where one predictably has self esteem issues and is an underachiever, and the other is a social climber.
  • Cultural references: Hakim references a bit of erotica such as ‘The Story of O’ and ‘Secret diary of a call girl’. The point of these references are to establish a sense of zeitgeist of how real people live. Cultural references are a good resource for getting insights on social perspectives and issues, but methodologically speaking lack the rigour of strong operationalism
  • Public health data: This is really the meat of the research that backs up Hakim’s conclusions. One may quibble about the comparison issues of say USA and Finnish datasets or the measuring and melding of the data, but I see this as immaterial to the conclusions made which were coarse grained. The data gives an indication for instance that more male men report a lack of sexual satisfaction than females in the data. When looking at massive datasets, we may entertain exceptions from personal experience or testimony, but as social scientists, one should know better than to regard personal or anecdotal testimony higher than the wider dataset. I thought this point was unhelpfully highlighted when incumbent London Mayor Boris Johnson reported in the Mayoral debate that crime in London was down significantly and a person in the audience reported she’s never seen so much knife crime around her before. This point may have made Boris red in the face, but the data is dispassionately more comprehensive, even if it tells us things we don’t want to accept

Lemma: Ideology and prejudice

I’d like to talk a bit about prejudices now. Prejudices can take a whole variety of forms. A few months ago I was making a music suggestion to someone who will remain nameless of a band they would like. I made this decision on the basis of knowing their interests and wider outlook on life. However it was because I biased the conversation by talking about Black Metal in the same sentence that primed her to say she would immediately not like it. Months later a facebook post magnanimously accepted the bias involved in her initial judgment. Cognitive bias 1, passive aggressive okayguy.

There is currently a book review of Magnanti’s book on Sex Myths which would also point to a greater commitment to ideology than actual facts. Note how few of the empirical points or the methodology are critiqued, and how the review reads as the immortal: ‘it’s not what you said, it’s the way you said it’. Hakim embarrasses feminists. Which feminists, you might ask? As I’m sure Hakim would identify with the advancement of womankind. The ones who are committed to being a vague unspecified feminist. The kind who is like the Christian who refuses to acknowledge that denominations exist and genuine disagreements and disputes can and should exist even among people who are supposed to be allies. It’s one thing to acknowledge your opponents, its another to misunderstand your detractors.

The commitment to an ideology undercuts the commitment to facts, conclusions, or the revision of said ideology. This was a big problem in Adorno’s work where his view on social research was basically anti-methodology and all theory, and even ventured to essentially say that ‘research’ is an undermining conspiracy against his agenda. Antisophie said in a comment earlier this month how when anyone says ‘I believe’ it immediately smells fishy. Nobody should be allowed to say ‘I believe’ in an argument, you either justify your conclusions or you don’t contribute constructively to a discussion. Feminism as an ideology with propositions is definately a bad idea. The immunity to criticism is also really bad. Liberal men have spent hundreds of years adopting this position of engaging in amicable disagreement about the most fundamental notions. It upsets me when there are politicos who refuse to accept a conclusion contrary to their own, solely on the basis that it is not their own. This is dogmatism, and challenging notions such as whether sex work is always criminal, or whether sex work is ‘oppressive to women’ needs to be challenged, opened up and critically considered. Dogmatism has no place in decent social thinking.

The Ski Jumpers

One objection about subcultural research is that it overemphasises the deviants of society. What about people who are boring and not part of a subculture? If we judged solely by media representation the year of 1977 most Londoners would be savage punks opposing the Queen or protogoths in the early 1980s. The point about the Ski Jumpers is that while there were movements of social ‘cool’ credibility through things like subculture, it didn’t affect everyone. In fact, most people wish to overlook the naff fashions of yesteryear, like the Ski Jumper. Likewise, we might think that Hakim is overemphasising erotic capital, even if we concede the data about sexual focus between men and women, or her points about how sex work should be considered a legal enterprise, perhaps for most people it would not change their mundane lives.

Is Hakim overemphasising the place of Erotic Capital for women? My initial thought was that this may only apply to something like the upper 2-4% of attractive women. However Hakim would have a reply to this, in the idea of upper class ideals and virtues filtering down social classes. Hakim links this to the idea of Elias Norbert’s take on the historical process of social etiquette which was initially held by aristocratic classes that was then filtered down to other social classes through guidebooks. Erotic capital could also have a ‘filtering’ process, it may be the upper percentile of extremely attractive women who provide the recipe of success that can in some ways be replicated such as good manners, social attractiveness, improving coded signifiers of attractiveness like jewelry, hairstyle, fitness etc. In that way, highly attractive people who use erotic capital successfully act as trendsetters or shepherds for others to follow as a guide of erotic capital’s successful execution. My initial critical thought is therefore addressed.

I also think it is fascinating how Hakim links Hoschild’s work on ‘The Managed Heart’ as a piece of microsociology to the macrosociological theme of Elias’ social filtering. Methodologically speaking, Hakim tries to breach the qualitative/quantitative gap, as well as the micro-macro in the social. feminis socialis is both homo sociologicus and homo economicus.

Phsyiognomy, the worrying conclusion

Hakim alludes to Erotic Capital as if it were like the process of Shaw’s Pygalion, transforming from a peasant to a queen. If there was a 19thC English writer that I’d allude to with Erotic Capital, it’s Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’ is a story of a man trapped by his beauty, but also simultaneously blessed by his beauty. The world of Hakim’s erotic capital is quite a cynical one. A world that says that the pretty candidate gets the job in an interview; the most attractive barrister wins the case and that your looks will be an asset or a discredit in the same way that say, your economic background or education might.

In essence I think that Hakim has not discovered a new way of female emancipation from men by manipulating their sexual urges to benefit the former. Rather, she’s unveiled a new form of discrimination. There’s no legal opponent for not discriminating on the basis of one’s looks, and in the most intimate of competitions (sexual), that is the truest of judges.

I put forward the normative question: is that really how we want to judge society and our values as modern people of today? Hakim would say yes, and point to how private sector employees tend to have a beauty premium over those in public sector, where looks are valued in commercial ventures. The problem with Hakim’s world is not that she’s given us the wrong depiction of the social reality, the problem is that it looks like she’s right. More than anything this is the worrying concern. A similar problem with Goffman’s ontology, where is the authenticity of the social in the interaction-based world of erotic capital? How much of the real person is behind all that flirting and nice presentation for others?

When Goffman shows intricately the ways in which the ‘front’ stage of social performance permeates so much, I think how in the early 21st century the personal has become commodified: people can talk about what they’ve had for breakfast on Twitter or Facebook and even though these experiences are immensely personal (and mundanely boring), they immediately lose rights to those thoughts and ideas, as they become official data owned by Facebook and privacy is diminished. The cultural focus on the personal in television programs such as documentaries which try to document how people feel in their experiences, or the proliferation of 24 hour media even further limit the scope of privacy or authenticity for public officials and significants, for they are always on ‘stage’. So too is the social presence to want to be these celebrities. We are always on the front region of Goffman’s stage and Erotic Capital shows how one of the most personal worlds we inhabit (our sexuality, attractiveness and set of social intentions) are essentially a commodity.

Perhaps many women may read Erotic Capital as a guide to social and economic advancement, I read it as a pessimistic reminder of how authenticity is under attack.

Michael

“Mewling Quim”: Watching Marvel’s Avengers Assemble

(Some possible spoilers ahead)

I saw a film that surprisingly impressed me this weekend. That film, you might reasonably guess correctly is ‘Marvel: Avengers Assemble’ (long UK release name henceforth referred to as Avengers). I grew up with animated series like X-Men, as well as the Marvel Action Hour in the early-mid 1990s and although X-Men has not been as impressive in its film incarnations, I have always been drawn to characters like Iron Man and Captain America. I think Marvel Studios and the Marvel Empire at large recognise that a good amount of money can be made from fanboys.

So why was this film so awesome? There were many elements, going to see the film with friends who mutually appreciated the Marvel Universe did help. Seeing the overweight nerd men with bald heads and their Captain America and Thor paraphernalia did make me feel at home, of course I’m nothing like them (I was wearing an Iron Man t-shirt). The question of ‘who’s your favourite?’ came up. There is something about ensemble films that are immensely attractive to the public consciousness, I suppose that is why so many people enjoy films such as The Godfather.

I was thinking of the Marvel Universe earlier last year when I was reading through the works of Howard Philips Lovecraft? Why, because there is a sense that I feel that Lovecraft had an earlier notion of a grand narrative unifying many stories through the same universe in the same way that the Marvel comic universes do. There is something almost operatic about creating imaginary worlds and entertaining creative space within them. For too long people have undermined or scoffed at these media forms as either lowbrow or base or childish, the same is said for computer games as an artform; comics and the graphic novel as a literary form.

Getting into superheroes got me into Homer. If you want to call superhero mythology base, then consider the pages of gruesome violence in Homer’s Iliad. Consider the use of supernatural imagery in the likes of Milton’s Paradise Lost when you consider super powers and demigods as childish.

Thinking with more critical lenses lately, I was thinking about the nature of the characters in the Avengers film. It was notable for instance that it was an almost all male affair, however the presence of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is not an obviously feminine or trope-like character. I thought that it was of note that her character showed the most vulnerability which seemed linked to her gender, but I am willing to be convinced that the depiction of vulnerability may have been set up as a ruse in one scene with Loki, or when she was present with Bruce Banner’s character, she had a genuine sense of fear that anyone would at the power of Banner’s alter ego. It’s also fair to say that many of the male characters showed a sense of vulnerability, especially towards the endgame of the film. There was a sense of futility and hopelessness among all of them which also served as a bonding moment between the characters, as well as between us (the audience) and the characters.

After I saw the film, I noticed an online discussion about one specific issue. The character of Loki uses an antiquated expletive in the scene with Black Widow where he refers to her as a “Mewling Quim”. I really don’t know what to think of this. It has been argued by the critic Mark Kermode (who surprisingly rates the film quite well). I didn’t notice this or know about this word when I saw the film, however it seems of note that a small number of (adult) viewers discovered this slight. This term requires a bit of context and apparently has regional significance. I was listening to a podcast last week on Radio 4 by Will Self who talked about the philistine trend of critiquing books for using words that are considered verbose or that many readers are not familiar with. The use of unusual or difficult language should be applauded, although there is some real power to the insult that Loki says which distinctly symbolically feminises Black Widow as a way of undermining her.

I might say a bit about the portrayal of vulnerability in the other male characters. Robert Downey Jr’s ‘Tony Stark’ shares his experience of mortality with Bruce Banner (well played by Mark Ruffalo, who was once better remembered by me in the lame film ’13 going on 30′) and both characters address how their special powers are also a source of difficulty and pain for them. The power source of Iron Man is also the very thing that keeps him alive and dependent, and Stark speculates that Banner’s Hulk is similarly a source of self preservation as well as destruction. A caring side is shown in the characters which gives wider dimensions to them. Stark has his lover Pepper Potts, Thor shows some concern for his friend Jane Foster and Agent Coulson is a beloved character to all of them. It may be that I am overplaying the femininity of Black Widow’s vulnerability in that many of the other characters show moments of emotional turmoil or depth. I wonder if this film passes the Bechdel test. Considering that there were only two main female characters in the film I suspect not, but there is hardly an emphasis on romance or sexuality. I noticed in one billboard appeared the actress for Maria Hill, the agent working under Nick Fury, even though she was not as prominent a character in the film, it was nice that an important supporting character was featured.

This was a film that had it all as far as a fanboy as myself is concerned. The drama, pathos, comedy and action elements of the comic and cartoon world put in a film experience. I’m really glad that the film impressed me as it did, as I have quite low standards for films after many disappointments, many of the films leading up to the Avengers, for instance were hit and miss. There is a sense in which this film seems to capture a mindset of the status quo. The plotline of the tesseract as a form of ‘clean’ energy is an interesting one of contemporary relevance. The clandestine behaviour of S.H.I.E.L.D. and their borderline unethical plans reflect a distrust of institutional authority. The coda of the film where various talking heads talk about the Avengers and the range of opinions about them reflect a media age where criticism and a variety of views and fears are addressed, some of these threads of discussion in the coda are addressed in the comic and animated incarnations of the Avengers and wider Marvel comics (such as the Civil War story arc).

What more can be said of this film? Awesome actors, great action and a genuine sense of surprise about much of the plot: I didn’t expect one Avenger to be so noble and powerful compared to everyone else (the one who ‘defeated’ loki). The comedy mixed in well, plus I did the embarrassing thing of jumping at cinematic moments of surprise. I don’t think anybody noticed though. A great soundtrack by Alan Silvestri, who is also known for such great films soundtracks as Predator. A film soundtrack is as important as the plotline or dialogue. I saw the film in 3D IMAX, and I must say that I don’t think I noticed a specific 3D or IMAX scene, as it seemed indistinguishable to the rest of the film. Is that good or bad? I don’t know.

One thing is certain, if and when a sequel of this film is made (sequels are the name of the money making cinematic game), it has a lot to live up to, and sometimes past success is the most difficult marker of critiquing a sequel. I normally expect about one good film a year, but seeing The Hunger Games makes 2012 a year of prospective positive expectations. I’m quite looking forward to the coming Ridley Scott ‘Prometheus’ film, as well as (excuse my primal tendencies) Expendables 2. However having met the quota of good films already I have no expectations.

Michael

Review: ‘Barbarians’, by Barrie Keefe

There is that old line by Adorno that poetry after the holocaust is barbaric.Michael reminded me of this line after I came out of seeing a play earlier this week. What I saw was ugliness, bleak despair in Doc Martens and suspenders. I don’t normally get to visit the Noumenal Realm crew but an unrelated occaision brought us all together, and since I was local to South London, I was told about a burgeoning grassroots cultural group called the ‘Tooting Arts Club’ who have been around for a bit over a year now. Ever the ones for new experiences, about three of us went to see a play that we knew nothing about.

‘Barbarians’, by Barrie Keefe apparently debuted about 20 years ago in the early 1990s. This being the early 2010s, there is a layer of significance about this play that resonates with the present day. Thinking about what Adorno wrote on the holocaust all those years ago gives a sense of distance about what the Second World War was, as seven decades have passed and those with living memories are fewer in number. This play however, is set in the late 1970s. The play was set in a time period so close, many of the audience (the various 50 and 60 somethings) were probably the same age as the youths depicted in the play. The slightly younger mid-30 to mid-40 somethings were probably familiar with the economic downturn of the late 1980s and early 1990s where the play originally had its run. During the break in a conversation with Antisophie, we commented how although we were hardly alive or conscious adults during either the 1970s or late 80s, this play cuts close to the bone for us as well.

The situation is Lewisham, an area of London not too much unlike Tooting. The time is set (I think) over a year or two in the late 70s. The most interesting part about the play was that there was no distinction between audience and stage. As we came in to the play, one of the cast members was hanging around and engraving various things on the wall. The ‘stage’ was a former building dedicated for some kind of youth employment scheme in a bygone year, which is pertinent since the first act refers to the careers advice given to the characters at the time: train for a profession and get a competitive edge in the job market. Of course, everybody knew that such a plan didn’t work in difficult economic times.

Bell’s post-industrial society came to mind when the characters were not impressed at the prospect of working in a factory filled with predominantly women, gender roles associated with industrial work and masculinity were strongly ingrained in that generation. There was no ‘stage’ as such, but rather different aspects of the building were through the process of the performance. The characters would break the forth wall and ask us, as the audience to kindly stand up and sit in a different place, the chairs were then reorganised and we faced a different part of the building to see the next act of the play. In this way, there was no distinction between the audience and the performers. One performer flirted with one of the female audience members (which I must presume is part of the script) and at another point, another person’s alcoholic drink was almost spilled the other actor jumped on the table. The degree of eye contact and talking with us, the audience was deeply uncomfortable for me. Michael commented that it reminded him of when he went to see Marc Maron a while back and Maron looked at him and said, almost with mimicry ‘will you be my dad?’.

The changing nature of space was very innovative, and it helped the audience engage more with what this play was about. I normally read plays as opposed to watching them (the same goes for Opera), and there is a comfortable distance when reading about difficult subjects or even pleasant ones. Being in a stage so physically close to the actors (one of them in fact bumped into me during the pitch black scene change) and the setting of the play based in a time period very close to the present ensured that every member of that audience felt engaged.

The play was deeply upsetting. The main themes of the play seemed to be about the lack of sense of belonging among the characters Jan, Louis and Paul. The play also featured a distinct sense of betrayal from many sections of society to these three youths. Paul’s betrayal by his duplicitous cousin who he is unwittingly playing as a pawn to; Jan’s betrayal from both his family through his absentee father to his unreliable uncle whom he places much confidence in; finally there is Louis, the black British character who finds friendship among the other two white protagonists but also plays a pawn to Paul’s various schemes. Louis appears at the end as the most successful character who manages to find a profession and a bit of an earning, but ultimately cannot escape racism.

There is a bit of racism in this play. Michael commented how brutal it was, plus adding the unease of being in a predominantly white bourgeois audience. With many performances, like say, Antigone or Dido and Aeneas, one can walk away from the play with a sense of distance and perhaps eat cake or whatever it is people do after plays. With this play, walking out of that building from the 1970s to 2012 really made no difference. I entered a building where the Conservative Government were more interested in party political quibbles than Youth Employment, where money was tight for many people concerned and many people felt betrayed by the false hopes and aspirations taught to them by the older generation. The only real difference between going inside that building and coming out to Tooting High Street was the smartphone in my pocket. What made this play really successful was that the sense of despair and ugliness about the time of the 1970s is something that one cannot ignore, moreover, the similar sense of pessimism for the present day is something we are reminded of. I thought to myself that this was a great piece by the expressionist standard.

I was chatting to Antisophie on Skype earlier today who made a couple of observations to the point of trying to be funny, it was lost on me. Antisophie’s first remark was to tell me about a gag on this week’s episode of Have I Got News For You, a popular panel show about current affairs. The joke was concerning the Jubiliee celebrations, that the Jubilee committee asked the Punk band Sex Pistols whether they would celebrate the Diamond Jubilee in the way that they did with the Jubilee in 1977 by re-forming. The punchline was that they declined because John Lyndon was unavailable, as he was filming for a butter commercial. I then was reminded of Adorno’s thesis that the Culture Industry eventually subverts the subversive into aggressive capitalism. The other mocking comment she made was that she said after the play Michael probably listened to Burzum on the way home [editorial: I did (MP)] feeling some disingenuous sense of facile sensibility. While there was some acknowledgement into the youth culture and movements of the time (Notting Hill Carnival, Punk Music), the play does not overplay the ‘radical’ aspects of these cultural forms by putting some balance about the boring aspects of the 1970s. There was for instance a 1970s original poster informing us about V.D. and the stage changes were aided by some crass televisual advertisments of the time, such as the inadvertently ridiculous female perfume named ‘Tramp’. It was a good call not to overplay the revolutionary aspects youth culture of the time, that’s for the aging trustafarians who boast their punk anarchist credentials to local ramblers who pass their farm house.

Michael commented on how the whirling and altering nature of the stage, as well as the near-contemporary setting of the 1970s reminds him of Goffman’s notion of the front and back stage. So much of society is the front stage that the back stage is an exhaustingly small domain. The embarrassment of the audience when the actors would look at us and talk to us reminded me of the small space that Goffman’s ‘back stage’ has in social life. The fact that one could not escape the subjects of the play by simply leaving the performance venue also made us uncomfortable. The emphasis on performance in social behaviour, aggrivated by the rise of service industries and the perfectionism of television media as it tries to make real life into its ‘reality’ reminds me of how little space there is for a back stage. There is betrayal and objectification from larger social forces. The final essence of the play is that something’s gotta give if the youth of today are under such pressure and under such psychologically destructive forces that undermine identity, group affiliation or the failure of aspiration.This was expressed in the play by the hint of racialist politics by the character Paul, or the hint of post-traumatic stress from Jan. Or we may simply be victims by other victims, like Louis.

A few hours after the play once I got home, I was reminded of a more modern parable: Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight. I thought of the Joker because he seems to represent a villain that emerges from the social conditions of Gotham City. In that way, he represents all of the corruption and ills and lies of the society that he came from. The extreme psychotic criminality makes more sense in the context of Gotham City’s corruption. Just like the ending of Barbarians, when economic and social conditions become difficult, something’s gotta give.

Destre

We also very much appreciate the work of Tooting Arts Club for their latest venture, but also their past and (hopefully) future events.

I liked ‘The Hunger Games’ (I don’t normally like films, but when I do, I blog about it with a most interesting man in the world meme reference)

Gene Wilder speaks the truth

Last weekend I was out with a friend to see a film at the cinema and an obligatory pint afterwards. It has become a ritual with a few university and sixth form friends that we have to meet up every 3-6 months and catch up over some beverage. That in itself is a subject all in itself, but today I would like to sing praises about a film I saw last week: The Hunger Games, which is a ‘Young Adult’ (I don’t qualify as YA by the way) piece of fiction based on a book, and book series of the same name by one Suzanne Collins, who had the esteem of working on a few children’s shows between the 1990s and 2000s.

As far as popular book/franchise fictions go, this has quite a favourable response from me. I haven’t (yet) read the books, but it has led to a lot of people in the meme generating world to go all hipster and say how lots of people read the books before it was cool, or also go hipster and say ‘they preferred the book’ &c. I’m a Johnny-come-lately and a casual film goer and as far as my fandom goes I am striclty a star wars/RPG type of person so I’m definately not informed about The Hunger Games.

The things I really liked about the film are as follows:

  1. Lenny Kravitz plays an effete yet sympathetic stylist. Nuff said
  2. The protagonist is female, and very strong, assertive, self-determined and also has a caring dimension too.
  3. Female protagonists are pretty rare, and it’s great that she isn’t defined by how she likes boys or the typical trivialisation about women. There is a relationship storyline, but she is in some respects a reluctant party and her participation in it is nuanced and complicated (something that also promises for plotline in the sequels)
  4. There is a distinct ‘political’ message about the book, what it is exactly I am still not sure about. I think the story gives a picture of a totalitarian world but also combined with the contemporary fascination with global media and the voyeuristic nature of how people feed of tragedies or personal problems. Consider for instance the fascination with natural disasters, violent crimes, or even the way how people in game shows/televisual competition shows like ‘The Apprentice’ or ‘X Factor’ give sob stories about how it was their dying aunt’s dream that such-and-such a competitor sung whitney houston on live television.
  5. The film would pass the Bechdel Test. You would be surprised how many films don’t.
  6. I’m an action hero fan by heart and that probably won’t ever change, and the film definately had a lot of violence in it for gruesome violence voyeurs like me. Much of the violence wasn’t actually shown but more insinuated (after all, it is a film about children killing each other). The use of suggestion instead of actually showing violence is very dramatic, and for a younger audience to watch a film like this, gives a great amount of shock and disgust to the audience. A film like this is probably more adult than a crappy rom-com rated higher than this in terms of the disturbing themes.

I have become quite discerning about what I call a good film and this is one of them*. The Hunger Games has been the best recent film that I’ve seen since Inception. Bravo to Lionsgate (who are better known for their lowbrow action films) for making such a bold decision to make a teenager-oriented film, and for giving teenagers something more interesting than Twilight and Harry Potter. I kind of wish I had something that cool when I was a teenager.

Michael

Lemma*: There are by contrast, films I enjoy watching over and over again that fail to be good films, such as Harold and Kumar go to White Castle, Commando, Crank 2, The Expendables (only for that AA-12 shotgun scene) or Revenge of the Sith.