"Human nature is violent," William Friedkin tells me, going on to say that he also likes Immanuel Kant's phrase "the crooked timber of humanity." As an artist, Friedkin is as blunt, matter-of-fact, and masterfully cynical as his initial statement suggests. His films indicate that a character's environment is, more often than not, what he reacts to when he snaps. Superior dramas like The French Connection (1971), To Live and Die in LA (1985), Cruising (1980), and Sorcerer (1977) are all about myopic obsessives, characters who are desperate to the point where they can't see how their actions have led them to become fatalistically self-involved. That same tendency towards self-harm is what makes many of Friedkin's movies bleakly and corrosively funny. For example, the hanky code scene in Cruising, where Al Pacino's undercover cop is comically baffled by the semiotics of the hanky code, is humorous because we're being encouraged to laugh as a man denies his own latent attraction to the subcultures he's investigating. 

So in that sense, it's not surprising that Killer Joe (2011), which Friedkin describes as his "darkest film yet," is a comedy. In it, Matthew McConaughey plays a corrupt, schizoid cop hired by desperate white trash to kill one of their own kin in order to collect a $50,000 life insurance policy. "Yes, it's a black comedy, in the way that Dr. Strangelove is a black comedy, nonetheless disturbing because of its subject matter," Friedkin told me Wednesday. He went on to tell me that with Killer Joe, he wanted to make a dark comedy that was direct and brutally "unsentimental." You can see that lack of sentimentality in the way that Friedkin uses Clarence Carter's "Strokin,'" a song that is about exactly what it sounds like what it's about, twice in Killer Joe. "I love 'Strokin'!' I think it's very funny and courageous. It's sort of a character on its own. It's kind of a statement on the all of the bullshit that surrounds today's films, kind of a reaction to that. It's not sentimental and the movie is not sentimental. It's funny, and if you really listen to it, it's a little dark." 

It actually makes sense that "Strokin'" is used during a scene in which a major character gets beaten to a pulp, a nasty choice but not excessive to the point of being gratuitous. For a filmmaker who has, over the years, continually pushed the envelope in his portrayal of violence on film, especially in films like The Exorcist (1973) and Cruising, that's saying a lot. "I thought I went as far as I needed to and no more or no less," Friedkin remarked.  He went on to say that he and his crew were surprised that the film got an NC-17 rating, in spite of its handful of scenes of full frontal nudity and over-the-top violence. Despite his surprise, Friedkin does not contest the rating: "None of us thought we'd get an NC-17, but when we did, I think we realized it's the correct rating. Because I'm not targeting teenagers. Once I got that rating, I knew I could hack that movie to pieces to get an R, but I didn't want to do that. I just didn't want to do that. So once they gave us an NC-17, the distribution company appealed it and they lost the appeal. So we left it alone."

Violence and sex are often the source of dark humor in Friedkin's films, a debt traceable to Friedkin's affinity for Henri-Georges Clouzot's films. Many of Clouzot's movies, like The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (1942) and Le Corbeau (1943) have a vicious sense of humor and are character-based. In fact, Friedkin's Sorcerer is a remake of Clouzot's Wages of Fear (1953), a masterful thriller about a group of broke truckers who go on a suicide mission to deliver highly unstable dynamite to a construction site deep in a South American forest. Friedkin has said in the most recent issue of Film Comment that he'd probably seen Clouzot's Diabolique upwards of 50 times, but he would never consider remaking it. "I love Clouzot's films," Friedkin beamed. "They're hard-edged and they're not sentimental. Diabolique is a very scary film. That nine minute sequence, without a word, is one of the most terrifying scenes I've ever seen."

But what makes Friedkin's films so unique is that sense of acidic humor stems from a perceptive view of the apathetic environments that breed his characters' obsessive and often inexplicable behavior. For example, in Rampage (1987), Friedkin follows the trial of a disturbed mass murderer shown to have Nazi paraphrenalia in his room, which is situated in the root cellar of a house ostensibly presided over by Twin Peaks star Grace Zabriskie. Both the defense seeking to prove that Zabriskie's son is legally insane and hence not in control of his actions, and the prosecuting attorneys who try to prove the defendant's guilt, produce evidence and witnesses that support their claims, leaving it up to the viewer to decide who is right and which factors matter most. 

Similarly, the abrupt demise of the corrupt cop William Petersen (of CSI and Manhunter) plays in Friedkin's To Live and Die in LA is not that shocking, given the context of the drama preceding his death. Petersen plays a character so myopically focused on arresting the counterfeiter responsible for the death of his partner that he can't see anything else around him, not even the vibrant Los Angeles that Friedkin practically makes a central protagonist of his story. "A lot of people found [the death of Petersen's character] shocking at the time, just as they found the death of Janet Leigh shocking in Psycho," Friedkin protested. But at the same time, it's only immediately jarring. Thematically, that violent death is hardly gratuitous.

That same focus on the ways environment and setting shape a character's identity is true of Cruising, a film possibly even more notorious than The Exorcist. In it, Pacino plays an undercover cop who descends from a position of feeling above-it-all—though reluctant to fully embrace the almost god-like, condescending perspective that comes with being a cop—into a struggle to repress latent feelings of homosexuality when he goes in search of a killer in the Meatpacking District’s S&M Clubs. The self-loathing mania that defines Pacino's character has been unfairly called a sign that Friedkin considers homosexuality an abnormal disease, but his character's actions tell a different story when looked at in context. For example, a pair of cops on patrol deliberately paraphrase Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle when they say, "Some day, a rain's going to come to wash all the scum off the streets." Friedkin says he remembered "overhearing that dialogue from cops that were patrolling the Meatpacking District, as it was then. That district is now completely gentrified. But that's the way cops talk. That's the attitude: all these people on the street, they're scum!" 

Friedkin went on to add that Randy Jurgenson, a NYC beat cop who worked with Friedkin on three films, including The French Connection, and was the main source of inspiration for Pacino's character in Cruising, didn't need to explicitly tell him how his undercover search affected his psyche. "[Randy] sort of resembled the victims, who were all dark-haired, with swarthy complexions and mustaches," Friedkin remarked. "And he was about the same height and the same build and he was assigned to attract the killer. And he told me his experiences and how the whole thing really screwed him up and bent his mind. And I remember never asking him further what he meant; I got it! "

The impotence and sociopathic feelings of powerlessness motivating characters like Pacino's character in Cruising and even McConaughey's in Killer Joe are crucial to what makes Friedkin's films so rich and also rather ugly. They have a pragmatic despair at their hearts because, to Friedkin, human behavior is gross and uncontrollable. When I asked him why he thought people were grasping at straws to qualify the "evil" motives behind the recent killings in Aurora, Colorado, Friedkin exclaimed, "Because there's no way to control human behavior, not even in China, where they basically have a dictatorship. And they have no ethnic differences whatsoever, no color differences. The reason why China has made such leaps forward economically is because they can control human behavior and punish it severely if it's at odds with the norm. In this country, we don't. We cannot control the norm. In this country, when you have democracy, there's nothing you can do to modify people's behavior." 

With that in mind, Friedkin's films appropriately function as Rorshach ink blot tests for viewer reactions. For example, the ending of The Exorcist comes after an exhaustive battle for the soul of a young child. That battle is eventually, though hardly inevitably, won, after one priest forcibly defenestrates himself. The calm following this cure is uneasy, at best, making it very easy for viewers to see what they want in that calm after the storm. "The ending of The Exorcist is in the mind of the beholder," Friedkin told me. "What you take from the film is what you bring to it. If you think the world is a dark and evil place, that’s what you will get back. If you think there is hope for a power of the good that is constantly at war with the power of evil, you'll get that."

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, But Not Quite High Enough

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, But Not Quite High Enough



Christopher Nolan's selective use of naturalism and realism in his three Bat-films has always been a double-edged sword. His literal-minded representations of the character, complete with declarative speeches that leave no symbol, gesture, or character motivation unexplained, can be maddening. Nolan's films’ biggest successes come from their massive scope. But The Dark Knight Rises is a half-baked success, a finale whose ambitions ultimately exceed the Nolan brothers' abilities.

The Dark Knight Rises begins eight years after the events of The Dark Knight (2008). Bruce Wayne has hung up his cowl as Batman to reinforce the myth that Batman killed "white knight" district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). The decision to hide the real reasons for Dent's death—he was driven mad after his face was scarred in an explosion, leading him to become the monstrous villain Two Face—supposedly weighs heavily on both Wayne and Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman), but that is something we are more often told than shown (more on this later). Still, this secret is the sticking point for criminal mastermind Bane's (Tom Hardy) plans to discredit Batman and "break" his soul.

Much of The Dark Knight Rises' colossal 168-minute running time is spent watching Bane's plan come to fruition. But The Dark Knight Rises isn't all it aspires to be, because its creators fumble key establishing events, many of which are needed to convincingly establish the film's grand scope. For example, all three of Nolan's films use dialogue excessively to spell out what each character represents. While Batman Begins has a self-serious charm which is smothered by the Nolans' need to psychologically enrich the character through lame, posturing dialogue, The Dark Knight Rises often feels emotionally skimpy.

As has been noted elsewhere, the skill of the actors in Nolan’s films often carries the weight of their emotionally heavy dialogue. In this film, Christian Bale's performance as Batman and Anne Hathaway's as Catwoman are both impressive. However, the most chatty character is Tom Hardy's Bane, a guy who sounds like the descendant of Kenneth Mars's character from Young Frankenstein. Bane's speeches are not only sometimes hard to understand, they're also stilted well past the point of credulity. The scene where he reads Gordon's speech before freeing and arming the inmates of Blackgate Prison, a facility erected with the help of the Harvey Dent-supported, uh, Dent Act, is a dud. It’s a dud for a couple of reasons, chief among them its excessive fixation on the mechanics of what it is trying to convey, to the point where it fails to give good reasons why it’s necessary in the first place. Do Gotham City residents really believe that much in Dent and his heroic image, which Wayne and Gordon helped to establish? If his martyrdom matters so much, Nolan should have slowed down and let the implications of Bane's speech sink in. He doesn't, however, and as a result, a crucial scene has little impact.

Bane's dialogue is flatfooted throughout the film. At one point, he tells Batman that he too was literally raised among the shadows; at another, he enters a room with the line, "Speak of the devil, and he appears." It's impossible, at moments like these, to take him completely seriously. Nolan and his screenwriters have no ear for juicy dialogue, so their villain just sounds like a maniacal windbag missing not only an impressive backstory but also the ability to gloat properly (his most dry taunt line has to be when he compliments the "very lovely" sotto voice of the little boy singing the National Anthem during the stadium scene). 

But again, the Nolans' characterization of Bane and The Dark Knight Rises' other key characters is not, in theory, off-the-mark. The script contains several reverent allusions to the way its characters have previously been portrayed in comic books. Two of the most apparent examples of this can be seen in the way that Selina Kyle traipses around with gal pal Holly Robinson (Juno Temple), a meaningless but cute nod to Frank Miller's portrayal of Kyle in Batman: Year One. But then poor execution makes an ostensibly huge moment such as the one where Bane breaks Batman's back by slamming him down over his knee (as he does in the now infamous Knightfall comic book story) feel weightless. There is no appreciable eye for detail in this scene, no sign that Nolan wants the big, spine-crushing moment of impact to be felt. If this is Bane’s triumphal moment, why does this moment feel so inconsequential? 

I don't just mean to ask why Nolan didn't make Bane scream longer or have Batman’s back crack in slow-motion. Instead, I wonder why he chose to follow this seemingly pivotal scene with one where Bane explains to Wayne that he will continue to break his "soul," lessoning the power of the moment where he destroys his body. Likewise, Wayne's rehabilitation seems more perfunctory than grueling. Nolan should have taken a page from The French Connection II's book and not been so impulsive when fleshing out these pivotal lulls between action scenes. The effectiveness of these little moments and details distinguish an epic narrative from an over-reaching one.

The Nolans fumble in a couple of other small but salient ways, mostly because they don't know how to modulate the pitch of their representation of the character or his world. The Bat, the plane Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) creates for Batman, looks like a flying tank. That sounds trivial, given that that's essentially how the Tumbler, Nolan's spin on the Batmobile, has been described. But when it whooshes in out of nowhere to break up a tense standoff between bedraggled policemen and heavily-armed Bane supporters, its clunky appearance really ruins the scene.

The same heavy-handed approach makes it hard to take Miranda Tate's (Marion Cotillard) character seriously. It might seem unfair to complain that Nolan did a poor job of foreshadowing the revelation that Tate is secretly Talia Al Gul, the daughter of eco-terrorist and arch-Bat-foe Ra's Al Gul (played by Liam Neeson in Batman Begins). But Nolan really does do a poor job here, both in foreshadowing the betrayal and conveying its importance. You don't have to be a fanboy to anticipate that Tate is somehow related to Ra's, given that she is initially defined in Rises by her pro-environmental politics, a position that defined Ra's in Batman Begins (2005). Bane is also repeatedly presented as a representative of the League of Shadows, the group Ra's led in Begins, even having Bane go so far as to insist that he "is the League of Shadows."

The obviousness of Tate's real identity is a glaring problem. Nolan likes to get his audience to focus so intently on breadcrumb-sized morsels of information that it's often very easy to lose perspective on what pattern he's establishing as he builds a story. We are meant to be impressed with the complex nature of Rises' narrative but its details, both on a micro- and a macro-level, are frustrating. The scene where Tate cozies up with Wayne by a fire establishes adequately Tate’s significance to Wayne by the time she betrays him. But the scene where she does betray him, by actually thrusting a knife into his back, is emotionally slack. Is Nolan so creatively constipated that he has to make Talia a literal back-stabber?

Or take a look at what Talia symbolizes in the grand scheme of things. The political subtext of Nolan's pseudo-timely Bat-films has always been willfully evasive, which is striking since almost everything else in these films is blatantly spelled-out. But here, Talia tells Wayne point-blank that she is a foreigner in Gotham's midst, an alien who was only posing as a native-born citizen. While surely one can tease out an anti-Obama message from this, what's most striking about this political attack is how incomplete it is. Nolan only seems to point out Talia's foreign-ness and Bane's foreign accent, too, as a means of pointing out that the threat to Gotham has arrived disguised as an ally to Wayne, Gotham's real native son. But again, so what? That kind of weird, self-evident xenophobia does nothing to enrich our understanding of who Wayne is or why Batman is needed as a symbol for Gotham. If the answer is simply that he's not a mean false friend with a chip on his shoulder and a goofy accent, then maybe it's a good thing there won't be a fourth Nolan-directed Batman movie.

Then again, apart from good supporting characters like James Gordon and Joseph-Gordon Levitt's John Blake, the Nolans do get one central character just right:Hathaway's Catwoman is, for the purposes of this last film, mostly well-realized. Her trepidation in her fascination with Wayne is largely believable, and she makes for a decent bad-girl-turned-good. But even this characterization is only relatively successful. The camaraderie that serves as the foundation of the Wayne/Batman and Kyle/Catwoman is more than believable in the scene where Catwoman half-leads Batman and half-struts into Bane's midst at Batman's request. But once Catwoman slinks back into the shadows and lets Bane take control of the scene, her passivity becomes unbelievable. It's hard to believe that a character who later appears to have suffered from serious pangs of guilt would, in that key moment, watch and not even recoil forcefully while she watches the man she just betrayed get his back broken. Even the stuff the Nolans get right in The Dark Knight Rises is frustratingly imperfect. Here's hoping that the creators of the next Bat-tent pole are a little more flexible and a lot more detail-oriented.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.



“That’s what’s fun about doing this kind of work. All [sic] of it is organic. One idea suggests another, and it does grow.” –Denny O’Neil, Amazing Heroes #50

The concept of maintaining continuity in the representation of a character as simultaneously malleable and iconic as Batman seems like a lost cause, but it’s a noble one. No matter how much Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego have changed over the decades, the character’s various incarnations are all related, in a sense. So there’s no point in complaining that Neal Adams’s “photo-realistic” style, to borrow Bat-guru and writer Grant Morrison’s description, has been aped by a neophyte penciler. In that sense, Batman is a great symbol of modern pastiche. His best creators routinely borrow elements from the stories that have preceded them to create something new, or startling, or both. The evolution of Batman as a character is thus dependent on creative incorporation, repetition and re-invention: it only looks improvised if you don’t know your history.

This list of the best interpretations of Batman is intended to reflect that key aspect of the character. I have my personal preferences, just as anyone else does. If a major name or artistic creator is not on this list, their contributions are most likely discussed within the body of the text. So never fear, there’s a good reason why Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns are not prominently displayed on this list. I’ve also agonized over which stories to highlight for certain creators as sometimes it’s impossible to choose a story representative of a writer or artist’s talents at their peak. In these cases, I have chosen stories or collections which best show what makes that creator unique.

In making this list, I’ve found that that the aspects of the character I prefer are the kind that skew more closely to what Morrison identifies in Supergods, a history of comics, as the more surreal, gothic aspects of the character: “convention has it that Batman’s adventures work best when rooted in a basically realistic world of gritty crime violence […] but from the very start of his career, he was drawn into episodes of the supernatural, uncanny and inexplicable.” This aspect reflects what I like about Batman: the sheer weirdness of seeing a noble hero like Batman protect a city as crime-ridden and routinely besieged by pathological freaks and super-powered monsters. Also, did I mention that the said noble hero is a guy who dresses up as a bat to avenge the death of his parents? Modulation of tone and style is key here because, well, these are stories about a rich guy who fights crime because of a vow he made as a child to spend his adult life avenging his dead parents. If you exaggerate one aspect of the character, you can easily lose sight of that character’s greatest attributes.

Many of the comics I’ve chosen try to make use of established notions of who we think Batman is in order to get a better understanding of what he says to us. I hope you enjoy reading this list as much as I enjoyed making it.

null10) “Going Sane,” written by J.M. DeMatteis and Drawn by Joe Staton and Steve Mitchell

J.M. DeMatteis’s superhero comics are atypical in that they question the validity of solving conflicts through violence. In his most famous Spider-Man story, “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” DeMatteis forces Peter Parker through a draining gauntlet that makes him empathize and even go mad from burrowing so deep into the heads of two super-villains, Vermin and Kraven. “Going Sane” achieves a similar affect but through different means. In it, both Batman and the Joker believe that they’ve defeated each other. DeMatteis’s comic thus assumes that, as is shown in the 1989 Batman movie, the Joker was the man whp killed Bruce Wayne’s parents when he was a boy.

So, thinking that the personified reason for why they respectively fight and commit crime is gone, the Joker and Batman try to lead “normal” lives. Joker settles down, gets a day job, finds a girlfriend and Batman recuperates from his fight with the Joker upstate with the help of a nurse he falls in love with. Both men try to forget their pasts but suffer from recurring nightmares. Because they can’t forget what they mean to each other, they eventually wind up sparring again.

The sincere belief in reform driving DeMatteis’s exploration of this fundamentally goofy “What if” scenario is what makes it such a winner. It’s uniquely surreal to see someone like the Joker, a man we can’t help but consider a freak because of his white face and green hair, trying to lead a normal domestic life. But “Going Sane” is that much more effective for trying to introduce that level of normalcy into these characters’ lives: what if archetypal arch-enemies designed to hate each other tried to change their established personalities completely and forget that they existed?

Along the same lines, novelist Joe R. Lansdale wrote the teleplay for an episode of Batman: The Animated Series called “Perchance to Dream.” In that episode, the Mad Hatter brainwashes Batman into thinking that he’s living a normal life in which he never became Batman and his parents never died. Lansdale and the episode’s two story-writers, Laren Bright and Michael Reaves, come to the same conclusion that DeMatteis does: despite everything, Wayne would find a way to remember his obligation and would not rest until he could. His obsession is just that all-consuming and character-defining (more on this later).

Another thoughtful story that similarly makes light of Batman’s perhaps-myopic need to fight crime first and protect the citizens of Gotham City second is “The Night of Thanks but No Thanks” (Detective Comics #567), a story written by Harlan Ellison in which Batman constantly misreads situations and tries to give help where it’s neither needed nor wanted. In one scene, an old, handicapped woman beats up a mugger by herself, while in another, a car-jacker turns out to have locked his car keys inside his vehicle. As Batman jokes to Alfred at the end of the story, this is “the worst night of [Batman’s] life.”

null9) Batman as drawn by Gene Colan: “Nightmare in Crimson”

Many pencillers have put a definitive stamp on Batman, the prime example being Neal Adams. Morrison aptly describes Adams’s well-known Batman as “grown-up and contemporary:” “Adams combined slick Madison Avenue photorealism with the power of Jack Kirby in a way that made comic-book characters more naturalistic than before.” This added “naturalism,” which emphasizes dramatic poses and the athletic physique of the character, is what makes Adams probably the most influential artist to draw Batman. But Gene Colan, working with inker Klaus Janson, took the foundation of naturalism that Adams established in key stories like “The Demon Lives Again” (Batman #244), and made Batman look more like a character with one foot in a Gothic horror story and another in a modern-day superhero story.

After hyper-popular comics like Tomb of Dracula helped re-establish the prominence of horror in superhero comics, Gene Colan and writer Gerry Conway re-made Batman as a monster-fighting detective. Colan’s version of the Dark Knight certainly looked like Adams’s iteration of the character, complete with pointier ears and a gymnast’s physique. But Conway, Colan and Janson’s take on the character depended far more on the creatures inhabiting the inky shadows and psychedelic zip-a-tone fog of Gotham City at night. Batman not only fought monsters like the Mole and the Man-Bat, the latter of which was an Adams creation—he also became a vampire himself in stories like “Nightmare in Crimson,” featured in Batman #350 (August 1982).

The blurring of the line between Batman and the monsters he fought to keep Gotham safe is weirdly fitting. Since the character’s inception, Wayne’s always affected the look of a monster in order to frighten the criminal element, which co-creator Bob Kane called a “superstitious, cowardly lot.” Or as Morrison puts it in his description of an early Batman story where he fights the Mad Monk, “It was Batman as Dracula, the vampire as hero, preying on the even more unwholesome creatures of the night.” Conway and Colan’s Batman was still a detective and a physical, martial artist-trained crime-fighter. But while their Bruce Wayne had a well-adjusted aspect of melodrama to his life—more believable love interests, the return of now grown-up ward Dick Grayson—their Batman was now more than ever a creature of the night.

Writers and artists have taken many cues from Conway and Colan’s version of the characters. Writer Doug Moench and penciller Kelley Jones would later write a trilogy of stories set in an alternate reality, in which Batman becomes a vampire, stories that were unquestionably influenced by Conway and Colan’s own Bat-vamp stories (Moench began writing Detective Comics soon after Gerry Conway and even collaborated regularly with Colan). Furthermore, writer/penciller/painter Matt Wagner’s revisionist take on the old Mad Monk story, fittingly titled Batman and the Mad Monk, would almost certainly not exist were it not for Colan’s stylishly moody emphasis on monster-men.

null8) Batman in the Justice League International, written by J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen, drawn by Kevin Maguire

It seems illogical to put Batman, a character who preys on the fear of criminals and is universally understood to be a loner, in a team setting. And yet, opposites frequently attract in Batman stories. Take the World’s Finest title that paired Batman together with Superman. In Amazing Heroes #50, quintessential Bat-writer Denny O’Neil described the pairing shrewdly but imperfectly by saying that Batman is the logical left brain to Superman’s can-do right brain (the right brain typically being defined as the center for creativity). Then again, Batman also has a history of teaming-up with just about every superhero in his The Brave and the Bold title; the series featured many incongruous pairings with the likes of WW2 hero Sgt. Rock, super-sleuth Elastic Man and even the Frankensteinian Brother Power the Geek.

So when J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen had Batman lead the newly reformed Justice League in 1987, Batman was already traditionally a team-player. The writing duo’s (now famous) irreverent take on DC’s biggest superhero team franchise made good use of Batman: he was both the voice of experience and pathological reason for the group and the hall monitor for the team’s mix of unruly newbies and aimless veterans. So on the one hand, Batman lead the group in order to keep loose cannons like Guy Gardner, a raging narcissist, and Green Lantern, too, in line, but also to make sure the team functioned as a group until they could find a good leader.

Still, DeMatteis and Giffen were both clever enough to know that Batman is a counter-intuitive choice to lead such a high-profile team. He routinely barks at Guy, and the first time he makes a joke, the Blue Beetle is so shocked that he has to ask his fellow team-mates if they heard it, too. Batman is the group’s stop-gap solution, a character who takes the role as leader until he can appoint someone who’s not only more comfortable in a position of power but also a good fit for this particular team to lead. Martian Manhunter soon took Batman’s place as the group’s leader but for a little while, Batman remained with the group, helping them as best as such an authoritative outlier could. This would not however be the first or last time Batman would lead a team: Mike Barr, the writer who conducted the aforementioned interview with O’Neil in Amazing Heroes #50, gave the Caped Crusader his own team to lead in Batman and the Outsiders.

null7) Tim Burton and Batman Returns

One of the most refreshing things about the two Batman movies that Tim Burton directed is the fact that he was not, before helming either film, a fan of the character or of comics in general. That lack of familiarity gave Burton the confidence he needed to futz around with the character and remake him using Burton’s idiosyncratically macabre sense of humor. Though Burton would become frustrated with mandates imposed on him by studio execs during the making of Batman Returns—he has said many times that he was unhappy with being forced to make the characters more accessory-friendly and thus more marketable for kids’ Happy Meal toys—his second attempt is much more tonally consistent and uniformly brazen in its take on the character.

Which is somewhat ironic, considering that Batman (Michael Keaton) is barely present in Batman Returns. Though he has some compelling scenes where he confronts both the Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), he’s only vestigially important to the film’s plot. This is mostly because Batman is, both thematically and narratively, caught in between these two characters, one an outsider who has fooled himself into thinking he wants to be an insider (Penguin runs for Mayor of Gotham City but winds up trying to blow the city up) and the other disgusted with anything vaguely associated with the city’s patriarchial hierarchy.

When the film was initially released, many critics complained about Batman’s reduced status. But that’s part of what makes Batman Returns so exciting: it’s every bit the movie its (then) outré filmmaker wanted to make. It also doesn’t hold uninitiated viewers’ hands too much. Batman Returns is a film whose interests and sense of humor are hyper-specific to its creators: who else would have DeVito bite a man’s nose until he bleeds or have Catwoman grope Batman’s crotch while purring about how his penis is what really defines him? It’s too bad that Burton didn’t get to make a third Bat-film. It seems like both Burton and the Warner Brothers execs were sick of each other by the time it came to realize Burton’s tentatively planned third film. With Batman Returns, it looked like he had really hit his stride and was onto something.

null6) Batman: Year One, written by Frank Miller and Drawn by Dave Mazzuchelli

Batman: Year One’s biggest triumph is establishing the importance of Commissioner James Gordon, then only a Lieutenant—this development is part of what made it a milestone comic book, and one of the major influences on Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. In Miller and Mazzuchelli’s comic, Gordon, a tough, aspiring cop who refuses to be bribed by Gotham City’s corrupt politicians or their hirelings, helps to establish a much-missed human element in Batman’s story. Gordon’s obsession with protecting his pregnant wife Barbara and raising his unborn child in a crime-infested city makes him the personification of what Bruce Wayne returned to Gotham City to. He’s the core of humanity amidst so much squalor, characterized in Year One by pimps, mobsters, bent elected officials and crooked cops. 

Miller and Mazzuchelli’s greatest innovation was establishing Gotham City as being more than just a dense labyrinth for Batman to run around in. That approach would rub off on creators like John Ostrander and Mary Mitchell in Gotham Nights or Paul Dini and Dustin Nguyen in Streets of Gotham, two short-lived titles focusing on the various different people living in Gotham, from rival superheroes to citizen shop-keepers. And it’s telling that “Gotham Noir,” the only time to date that writer/artist duo Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have put their film-noir-influenced spin on Batman and his world, centers on Commissioner Gordon. Also, Gotham Central, one of the best Batman-related comics in recent memory, follows the misadventures of a group of cops that just happen to work in the same city as the shadowy Batman.

null5) Grant Morrison and The Return of Bruce Wayne

I’ve singled out The Return of Bruce Wayne as Morrison’s best story so far because it’s simultaneously his most ambitious and accomplished work. In the six-issue mini-series, Morrison has Bruce Wayne re-incarnated six times before he returns to his life in the present-day. Stories like the one where Batman, as a pirate or a witch-hunting pilgrim or even a caveman, retains his moral compass and learns more about himself in the process are inspiring for their simultaneously bugfuck crazy and gratifyingly character-driven spirit. Oh, and did I mention that Batman’s friends are trying to find a way to stop him from being reborn in the present, as he’s been implanted with a futuristic bomb that will blow up when he is reborn one more time? Return really does have something for everyone: romance, time travel and Batman dressed as a Blackbeard-style pirate, complete with fire in his beard.

No comics writer has approached the character of Batman with as much ambition as Grant Morrison. Morrison’s often-psychedelic takes on the character prove just how deeply invested in the character and the world he is: he views Batman as a heroic archetype unto himself. No matter the form, Morrison’s comics insist that Batman will always be a heroic presence. In “Batman R.I.P.,” Morrison creates a villainous group that nearly destroys Batman, causing him to revert to a back-up personality that he created years ago just in case his psyche was ever destroyed by a villain (in these cases, Batman becomes “the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh,” a purple, yellow and red-costumed hero that Morrison repurposed from Silver Age comics where Batman inexplicably visits the alien planet of Zur-En-Arrh). In Batman and Robin, Morrison and penciller Frank Quitely did a nightmarish riff on the Adam West-era Batman stories but, as filtered through, as Morrison put it, a David Lynch-style sensibility. And in Batman Inc., Batman unites with the various different countries’ answers to Batman, including England’s Knight, and Argentina’s El Gaucho.

null4) Bruce Timm’s Batman: Batman: The Animated Series and Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

People often take for granted just how much Bruce Timm, along with his stable of voice actors and writers, did to modernize the character of Batman, as we know him today.Both the multiple Emmy-Award-winning Batman: The Animated Series and its one theatrical incarnation, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, achieved a tonal balance with the character that no live-action film has ever been able to beat. With show-writers like Alan Burnett and Paul Dini and voice talent like Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Mark Hammill (the Joker), animator and director Bruce Timm found a great middle ground in appeasing both child and adult audiences looking for a good Bat-story. The stories were consistently well-told, juggling Bruce Wayne and Batman’s various and sometimes contradictory character traits. He’s a womanizer, a detective, an athlete, a symbol, and yes, a cartoon character that does things no human man could ever do. Mask of the Phantasm, a film Timm co-directed and co-scripted, is probably the best Batman film to date: its narrative juggles two villains and features a strong love interest for Bruce without ever seeming over-burdened.

Batman creators owe an untold debt to Timm and company for modernizing the Batman and making him both more believable and kid-friendly. He turned a goofy villains like Mr. Freeze into a credible, sympathetic character by giving him a backstory (Freeze now commits crimes to find a cure for his wife, who suffers from a mysterious illness) and modernizing the character’s look. In that way, he also helped to expand the cast of characters that Batman fans would associate with the character to the point where they could not only easily identify a vast “rogues gallery” unique to Batman, but also a regular roster of sidekicks and allies, including two different incarnations of Robin. If any one creator can be credited with helping to build the foundation that has made Batman the most popular superhero film franchise to date, it’s Bruce Timm.

null3) Denny O’Neil and “Venom”

Comics writer Denny O’Neil is probably the most influential writer to ever take on the character. Stories like the now-canonical re-imagining of Batman’s origin story, “There is No Hope in Crime Alley,” and the formally innovative prose story “Death Strikes at Midnight and Three” set the pace for what scads of writers and artists felt they could do with the character. O’Neil’s take was grounded in Wayne’s obsessive nature. Romance, like the one Wayne briefly shares with Talia Al Ghul, was marginal in O’Neil’s Bat-stories because of the character was so mission-oriented. His most formative Bat-stories were written, as O’Neil described them in Amazing Heroes #50, as “pure comic books:” “It never occurred to me to plot social issues into these stories.”

At the same time, O’Neil’s take on Batman was semi-realistic, making his teaming with penciller Neal Adams a good fit. O’Neil treated the character as a real, psychologically understandable character, someone whose actions and world could make sense within a quasi-realistic context. His villains were not as flamboyant as the ones featured in the campy Adam West TV show from the ‘60s, a conscious decision that O’Neil has since expressed regret about (“I think it was also, however, a mistake on my part not to put more colorful, flamboyant villains in more of the stories.”). This is striking since Christopher Nolan similarly was hired to take on the Bat-film franchise because his take stridently opposed everything the two West-era-inspired Joel Schumacher-directed films offered viewers.

 “Venom,” a relatively recent Batman story by O’Neil, is a very good example of what O’Neil could do with the character. In it, O’Neil takes the social-issues-centric, anti-drugs stance that he famously pursued in his Green Lantern/Green Arrow team-up comics and applies them to a rather moving Batman story. After he’s incapable of lifting a piece of debris trapping a small child, Batman resorts to experimental steroids to help make him as physically capable as he is mentally adept. The way O’Neill merges his psychologically rich understanding of the character, as shown in Wayne’s daily setting of the grandfather clock leading to the Bat-Cave to the time of his parents’ death, is remarkable. And more importantly, the plot, which takes Batman to the fictional South American island of Santa Prisca (the island where, in the comics, The Dark Knight Rises’ villain Bane originated), is a good mix of detective story and action-adventure.

null2) The Killing Joke

With The Killing Joke, British New Wave writer Alan Moore and 2000 A.D. artist Brian Bolland put a definitive spin on the Joker as Batman’s mirror image in a story that’s still considered one of Moore’s best stories. Like “Going Sane,” Moore and Bolland’s story starts from the premise that Joker and the Batman can’t stop the cycle of violence that keeps them at each others’ throats. But unlike that later story, The Killing Joke really drives home the psychological violence that drove the Joker to drop out from society and turn to crime. “One bad day,” as the Joker puts it, is all it took to push an otherwise sane man over the edge, turning him into a monster.

Normally, the idea of giving a villain like the Joker a specific origin (in this case, the Joker is a failed comedian who gets involved with gangsters in order to help buy a better life for his pregnant wife) seems tacky. But that’s the crux of what makes Moore and Bolland’s Joker so sympathetic: his madness is a product of his refusal or perhaps inability to stomach the random injustices of life, the kind that made his life determined by a series of circumstances that were well beyond his control. What makes The Killing Joke a great Batman story is its taking advantage of the notion that Batman’s villains are just reflections of his personality, versions of what might have been, had Bruce Wayne’s life been determined by completely different forces.

null1) Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers’ Batman

No one take on the Batman character and his development as a modern hero is as influential as Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers’ eight-issue run. The pair left their indelible mark on the character in mystery-oriented stories like “The Laughing Fish,” a story that was the loose basis for Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie, and with villains like Hugo Strange, a psychologist who became obsessed with revealing Batman’s identity after trying to recreate the conditions that made Bruce Wayne Batman. With Silver St. Cloud, Englehart and Rogers were the first team to give Batman a memorable independent love interest. And the pair’s treatment of the Joker is equally crucial to the character’s development as a lethal psychopath and the most dangerous of Batman’s villains.

Though O’Neil readily admitted that there are similiarites between Englehart’s and his own vision of the character, he also correctly identified what separated his Batman from Englehart’s: Wayne was a more emotionally well-balanced character under Englehart and Rogers’s stewardship. He was more understandable, too, perhaps because he had functional social relationships and could still be defined by his extra-curricular obsessions as a super-rich, tights-clad vigilante. Here was a recognizably human Batman, one that should be looked on as the Platonic ideal whenever superhero skeptics wonder how a superhero comic can be simultaneously pulpy, thoughtful and character-driven.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: Could TRISHNA Really Be a Michael Winterbottom Film?

SIMON SAYS: Could TRISHNA Really Be a Michael Winterbottom Film?


If you sat down to watch Trishna, a modern-day adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles reset in contemporary India, and didn't already know that it was directed by Michael Winterbottom, you probably wouldn't be able to tell. Trishna has none of the finesse, charm, or nuance of Winterbottom's better films about raging narcissists and the supporting characters who love them. That's right, a film that is ostensibly about Trishna is in reality largely defined by the thudding obviousness of Winterbottom's feeble class-warfare-minded social commentary. The one-note characterization of Jay (Riz Ahmed), the wealthy and highly irresponsible young man from the rich part of Mumbai who marries working-class Ossian peasant Trishna (Freida Pinto), typifies the film's weaknesses as both a social critique and a drama. Winterbottom's latest is so alarmingly flat that it's not even an ambitious failure like 9 Songs (2004): it's just unremarkably bad. Which begs the following question: where did the idiosyncratic, calculating young artist go, who helmed both the hilarious Tristram Shandy (2005) and the provocative Code 46 (2003) and also co-directed with Mat Whitecross the rousing Road to Guantanamo (2006)?

In Trishna, class rules everything surrounding the titular heroine, a working-class girl who accepts Jay's offer to work at his father's hotel. The inequality inherent in this relationship is clumsily foreshadowed during the film’s introductory scenes with Jay, a self-absorbed young man who, when hanging out with his airhead friends, rides around in a car blasting a song with hateful lyrics like, “I’m the king and she’s my queen, bitch.” Apparently, Winterbottom thought that telling us through a song cue how being raised with a silver spoon in his mouth affected Jay’s character was a good thing, at one point.

Still, Jay unwittingly broadcasts his own insensitivity throughout the film, even as he gives Trishna a personal tour of the family's hotel's manor estate. Jay doesn't even know how to thank the men that work on the grounds in their native tongue, but that's presumably forgivable at this point since he's still more sheepish and obnoxious than aggressive and obnoxious. That will gradually change, which is realistically where Trishna differs most with Hardy’s source novel. It takes Tess far less time to realize that she doesn’t like the smarmy and rich Alec. But in the beginning at least, Trishna willingly allows herself to be tempted by Jay's offers of financial security for her family and herself. 

The world of the rich is populated by louts of all stripes throughout Trishna. That kind of ham-fisted commentary is the last thing one would expect from Winterbottom, an artist who has over the last decade or so proven just how thoughtful his general understanding of the human condition can be. And yet even Jay's father, a man who bemoans his son's insensitivity and lack of business sense, is obnoxious. Jay's father casually remarks that he can hear pheasants chirping. That casual display of knowledge is meant to drive us to him, especially since Jay petulantly protests that his father couldn't possibly identify birds based only on their unique call. But ultimately, Jay's dad is only endearing insofar as he's the opposite of his son. He disappears from the film's narrative and is never seen again. For that one scene, he serves as a human sandwich board, reflecting in big bold letters what is wrong with Jay's character before those points are only further accentuated through his interactions with Trishna.

Speaking of which: boy, are this movie's sexual politics guileless. How could the director of 9 Songs, a notoriously anti-romantic (but ambitious) drama that used graphic scenes of un-simulated sex to chart the gradual decline of a relationship, have made this film? Trishna has none of that earlier film's sophistication. When Jay dominates Trishna in the bedroom, it's obvious when his domination is a good thing and when it shows his callousness as a character. You always know exactly how you're supposed to feel when you watch Trishna, making the film's first 90 minutes a slow but blatant march towards an unenlightening over-the-top climax. In 9 Songs, Winterbottom tried to get viewers to examine and draw their own conclusions about the minute but telling gestures that define his two lovers. Where the hell did that Winterbottom go?

(Spoiler!) The most immediate example of this film’s weakness can be seen in the scene where Trishna confesses to Jay that she aborted their baby. The scene understandably goes on after Trishna, who at this point still loves and trusts Jay, tells what she did. But it doesn't need to go on for as long as it does. Winterbottom conveys all of the malice the scene needs with the worried and increasingly distant expression on Ahmed's face. And yet, the scene continues to accommodate and needlessly communicate Jay's uncomprehending narcisissm: he's upset with Trishna and wants her to know that she should have involved him in this important decision. Again, we know we're supposed to come down on Trishna's side because of the way that Winterbottom allows Jay to have the final say in this scene, dazedly berating Trishna about how hurt he is that she didn’t consult him. That kind of ceaseless chiding manipulates the viewer into wanting to tsk-tsk the bratty Jay for insisting that his needs supersede Trishna's. But really, the only thing this scene proves is that an obnoxious character who was always obnoxious can get away with being obnoxious for a while because he has a hold over someone as impressionable and disadvantaged as Trishna. Because nothing is done to make Jay more sympathetic, there's nothing more to Trishna than bad histrionics and self-righteous anger. Just as Godzilla fans call the 1998 American version GINO (Godzilla in Name Only), Trishna should henceforth be called Db-WINO: Directed by Winterbottom in Name Only. 

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: Local Heroes: The New York Asian Film Festival Strikes Again (And Again, And Again)

SIMON SAYS: Local Heroes: The New York Asian Film Festival Strikes Again (And Again, And Again)

The New York Asian Film Festival, now a pop culture institution unto itself, started eleven years ago. Its movies were first screened at the Anthology Film Archives in the summer of 2002. For a while, the festival was just a colossal labor of love for fest founders Goran Topalovic, Nat Olson, Paul Kazee, Brian Naas and Grady Hendrix. The air conditioning at the Anthology broke a lot during the festival's first few summers, and the programmers paid for much of the festival's expenses with their personal credit cards. Most years, the festival earned just enough to break even, but each following year, they'd come back stronger and more determined than ever to show attendants genre films and arthouse experiments from across Asia. 
nullWith raffle drawings before each film, surprise screenings, and a plethora of special guests, the festival has become a staple of adventurous New York cinephiles' annual calendars. So while this year's program may seem like it's filled with familiar titles and faces, that's only because the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) helped those titles and faces to become familiar. Oldboy, the poster child for the short-lived "Asia Extreme" movement of the early aughts, screened this past weekend with star Min-Sik Choi in attendance. And the first two Infernal Affairs movies, the crooked cop/gangster saga that inspired Martin Scorsese's The Departed, will screen this Friday. Which is fitting, since Infernal Affairs previously screened at NYAFF in 2004, while two of Oldboy director Chan-wook Park's films screened at the festival in 2003 and 2007, respectively. These guys don't jump on bandwagons, they get people on them: Park's Joint Security Area screened at NYAFF (before it was officially NYAFF) a year before Oldboy came out in America, and Infernal Affairs played NYAFF a couple of months before it got a miniscule limited theatrical engagement, thanks to the Weinstein brothers. 
NYAFF also got Janus Films to dig up Nobuhiko Obayashi's psychedelic House, a film that has gone on to be one of the Criterion Collection's biggest sellers, from their vaults. They've started cults around filmmakers like Katauhito Ishii (The Taste of Tea; Funky Forest: The First Contact), Johnnie To (Exiled; Throw Down) and Ji-Woon Kim (I Saw the Devil; The Good, the Bad and the Weird). These guys may have started from (and with little!) scratch, but they went on to become wildly influential taste-makers.
This year, the original NYAFF programmers are not present: Olson and Naas have left the festival, while a couple of other succeeding NYAFF curators have assumed diminished responsibilities. And the festival's venue has changed over the years, too; this will be NYAFF's third year at Lincoln Center's fully air-conditioned Walter Reade. But not much else has changed. The festival continues to show support for the artists they've previously championed, further fostering a sense of community, with high-energy events for each of these screenings. 
nullFor example, Hong Kong filmmaker Edmond Pang has had a film screen at the festival before (Pang's Exodus screened in 2009). But this year, NYAFF will screen two of Pang's features and an eclectic shorts program called Pang Ho-Cheung's First Attempt. First Attempt was a one-time-only reprisal of an interactive experience where Pang talked about four of his early short films before, after and while they screened. Pang made these shorts with his mother and two brothers when he was 11, 12 and then 26 years old. The earlier shorts, where Pang improvised slow motion effects and spliced in footage from John Woo films like A Better Tomorrow, were definitely the highlights of what was shown. Their make-do aesthetic has a cockiness to it that makes every boombox song cue and every spliced-in scene of buildings exploding that much more endearing.
Better yet, before a screening of Pang's romantic comedy Love in the Buff, Pang and Hendrix re-enacted (with hand puppets!) the events of Love in a Puff, the romcom to which Buff is a sequel, for anyone that hadn't seen it. The NYAFF gang will do anything to make first-time attendants feel welcome, and they do it with such a unique combination of storied grace and aw-shucks charm that it's almost scientifically impossible to not be won over.
nullAnd the festival hasn't stopped making new discoveries either. On Sunday, the festival screened The Sword Identity, the directorial debut of Chinese screenwriter/action choreographer Xu Haofeng. Haofeng is the screenwriter of The Grandmasters, Kar-wai Wong's upcoming martial arts epic. Watching The Sword Identity, you can easily see a similarity between Haofeng's interests and Wong's. Haofeng has made a genre film ideologically grounded in the notion that actions reflect character and that physical gestures and techniques always express the essence of things. That's the kind of story that the protagonists of both In the Mood for Love and 2046 dream of writing and the kind that Wong tried to make in Ashes of Time
Still, The Sword Identity, which screens again on the 11th, is very much an accomplished self-sufficient work and a compelling festival find. In his Sunday introduction to the film, Hendrix probably overplayed the fact that the film got a blase critical reception at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. But The Sword Identity is now very much a NYAFF find, a film whose vision of heroism perfectly matches the festival's ethos. NYAFF programmers know that, when it comes to screening exciting and innovative films, it's not just the thought that counts. These guys never program in a half-assed manner; they always pull out as many stops as they can. To paraphrase Harlan Ellison, the most important thing about NYAFF is not that they became a great film festival–it's that they've remained a great film festival. Here's to another eleven years of discoveries at the New York Asian Film Festival.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.




Steven Soderbergh's recent use of digital photography in Contagion (2011) and The Girlfriend Experience (2009) has a painterly quality. With Haywire, he proved that he could effortlessly achieve a nuanced look using the still burgeoning method of video photography. But with Magic Mike, he continues to hone the kind of glassy, flat but simultaneously elaborate aesthetic he's used for his more recent films. The broad beats of Magic Mike's narrative may be contrived, but Soderbergh enriches his usual main theme—of getting what you want by consenting to be exploited—through the film's highly stylized look. Soderbergh’s latest is at its best when its camerawork is most eccentric.

Based loosely on star Channing Tatum's own time as a stripper, Magic Mike is full of sequences designed to subtly disorient or dazzle viewers. Soderbergh constantly calls attention to the artificial nature of his imagery, using lens flares and, in a scene where Tatum raises his voice, unpolished audio to draw attention to his aesthetic and alienate viewers.

Magic Mike's story may not initially seem like it's all about Mike, but that's because it reflects his disillusionment with his job rather than narrating events in his life. At first, Mike thinks he’s an active agent in his life story—but he’s not. He realizes this after recruiting Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a naive, unemployed 19 year-old, to work with him at Xquisite, his strip club. Mike gives up his agency long enough to bond with Adam and develop a crush on Brooke (Cody Horn), Adam's sister.  But predictably, Mike eventually realizes that stripping is only a stopgap solution, and it has actually made it difficult for him to become financially independent. He grows to realize that he's only valuable to Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), the owner of the club Mike dances at, as long as he's doing what Dallas wants him to. 

Mike has contrived, generic reasons for wanting to divorce himself from his scantily clad livelihood. But they're inconsequential; Soderbergh establishes his character's true motivation in a thoughtful, albeit blunt, way. Bear in mind: sophistication is rarely combined with audiovisual elegance in Soderbergh's films. This is apparent in the way Soderbergh uses so much soft focus; his visual compositions all have uniform, flat look backgrounds. Shapes move behind the main figures, but the shapes are relatively indistinct. Additionally, Soderbergh's characters are constantly being projected on. In a crucial scene, Dallas teaches Adam how to dance at the club, posing in front of a wall-sized mirror. We see Adam learn to dance as it happens in the mirror, not directly; this neatly establishes the film's main concern with symmetry and obstacles. When characters want to really see each other, they appear to be positioned symmetrically. But the more out of sync with each other the characters get, the more visually different Soderbergh’s camerawork makes them appear, and hence the harder it is for audiences to actually see Mike and his friends (Brooke pointedly admonishes Adam by telling him, "I can fucking see you"). 

For example, Mike and Adam immediately form a shaky bond. The camera cuts back and forth between the two men as Mike drives Adam in his car for the first time. The men occupy separate spaces, but there is total symmetry to the shot-reverse shot visual structure of their conversations in the scene. The second time, Mike drives Adam home and, if you look hard enough, you can see that Adam is slightly better lit than Mike, that his head's not as close to the right side of the frame as Mike's is to the left side. The two have imperceptibly begun to drift apart. But in the third drive, Soderbergh shows the full-blown divide between the two men by creating a visibly rippling effect, suggesting that Mike and Adam are an outburst away from literally exploding at each other.

Soderbergh's visual flourishes establish Magic Mike’s concerns better than anything his characters say. In one blunt but effective juxtaposition, Soderbergh first shows a rain-streaked window pane and then transitions to a shot of a bust Dallas has made of himself. Another thoughtful visual cue is when Soderbergh literally shows us the barriers between Brooke and Mike disappearing through a tracking shot. As the shot continues, fewer objects clutter the image's foreground, leaving just Brooke and Mike, alone. Ironically, Magic Mike is probably dullest when most focused on its subject: when Mike and his colleagues strip on-stage, Soderbergh's approach is at its most basic.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: The Roberto Benigni Problem

SIMON SAYS: The Roberto Benigni Problem


The imminent release of To Rome with Love, the latest movie directed and written by Woody Allen, should have you wondering the following: what exactly do people see in Roberto Benigni, and why has his career sustained itself for as long as it has?

In Allen's new movie, Benigni plays a man whose actions are scrutinized publicly and in minute detail on TV. He plays an overnight reality TV celebrity, which is especially funny since the image that Benigni has projected of himself is completely divorced from his comedies before Life is Beautiful. While they used to screen all the time on IFC, dumb but satisfying lowbrow comedies like The Monster (1994) and Johnny Stecchino (1991) are Out of Print on DVD. You can't even get the original Italian language version of Benigni's Pinocchio (2003) here in the States: the film's original language version had a limited theatrical run in the US, but now, Netflix only carries the English-language cut. Incidentally, Pinocchio was originally supposed to be co-helmed by Federico Fellini, who worked with Benigni while making his final film, The Voice of the Moon (1990). But even that movie is (legally) unavailable anywhere with English subtitles.

In Italy, the only other popular comedian who has also sustained himself in terms of popularity, but not consistency, is Carlo Verdone. Verdone’s and Benigni's careers are roughly contemporaneous and while Benigni cranked out a number of films as a director and actor in the '70s and '80s, Verdone, a fellow comedian-turned-filmmaker, has managed to remain very popular. And yet, with the exception of the bitingly self-loathing 2004 divorce comedy Love is Eternal While it Lasts, Verdone is pretty much washed-up. He directs a film every two or three years, featuring Italy's hottest young pop stars, and he appears in about one film per year.

By contrast, Benigni is equally popular, but his output has become far more inconsistent. After Benigni's awful 2005 tragicomedy The Tiger and the Snow got a 2006 US release, Benigni came to America in 2008 and 2009 for limited English-language theatrical playdates for TuttoDante. In Benigni's live, semi-improvised routine, he extemporaneously recites The Divine Comedy and talks about the puissance of Dante Alighieri's language, even relating the poet's words to contemporary events, including some anti-Berlusconi gags. Bear in mind: Benigni is also the recipient of a whopping nine honorary collegiate degrees from around the world. He has honorary PhDs in Modern Philology, Philosophy, Letters and Communication Arts. Five of these degrees are from Italian institutions. So, unlike Verdone, who seems to have stopped challenging himself a decade ago, Benigni is still sometimes as impressive as he'd like to appear to be. It's just that American audiences don't get to see that side of his persona very often.

Because the difficulty of seeing many of Benigni's more eccentric projects, I'm forced to talk about the Benigni we know, rather than the Benigni we don't know. I've elected to ignore the image Benigni projects of himself in Jim Jarmusch's films, because those films are either not an authoritative means of understanding the calcified Benigni persona as we now know it (Down by Law, Night on Earth) or are just riffs on a previously-established persona (Coffee and Cigarettes). And that's really the ultra-serious question: Benigni has worked with a couple of great filmmakers. He's a hit in his home country, or was (the budget for Pinocchio was estimated at about $45 million, the biggest budget for an Italian film until then). So how is it that he's been able to be so irreducibly annoying for this long?

For most American viewers, Benigni is the guy who pulled a Johnny Weismuller and made like Tarzan when he accepted an Oscar for a mediocre Holocaust movie. The Tiger and the Snow confirms Benigni's self-identification as a hyper-caffeinated, bleeding-heart eccentric. To quote Jennifer Beals' description of Nanni Moretti in Dear Diary, Benigni doesn't present as "crazy;" in fact, he's "harmless" and "whimsical." But his current sense of whimsy stinks, mostly because it's dishearteningly anti-intellectual, as well as simultaneously manic and flat-footed.

Still, Benigni's two recent movies are governed by a shallow and manipulative, but sincere, ethos. This is a guy who, as he explains in The Tiger and the Snow, looks down his nose at abstract metaphors in poetry and art. If he wants to show his affection for something, he will not hide it in veiled metaphors or, y'know, complex ideas, but rather through effusive, hackneyed images. This retroactively explains why Benigni chose the Holocaust as the setting for Life is Beautiful. To make a pat, pseudo-empowering statement about how beautiful life can be, Benigni needed an event that would immediately bring to mind the worst of humanity, an inciting incident both simple and direct. So he chose the concentration camps and the loss of one's parents. 

(Spoiler!) Similarly, The Tiger and the Snow is about a man who fantasizes about winning his wife back, so he heroically rescues her from Baghdad during the Second Gulf War. Tiger is a sort of fuddy-duddy artistic manifesto in that way. Benigni plays Attillio, a poetry professor who laughs at the notion that we have to dream or write poetry about what we want with complex metaphors. Attilio, a scatter-brained romantic, dreams of marrying the same woman every night. His colleague scoffs at this as being "primitive," suggesting that Freud's psychoanalytic theories demand that Attilio imagine this woman as an animal, not directly as a person. But therein lies the charm or lack thereof of Benigni's recent films: they are blunt and proud of it.

If Benigni's character faces a problem, he will not give up until he has begged, cajoled and demanded aid from everyone within the immediate vicinity. Case in point: the woman of Attilio's dreams flees to Baghdad. He follows her there, only to find her being treated for a terminal illness. He takes it upon himself to save her, against all odds, and consequently runs around war-torn Baghdad looking for a cure. This means he has to insert himself into madcap situations, and he winds up being confused for an Iraqi insurgent. How is this the same guy that knows Dante's work by heart? Is Benigni's attitude really just a matter of, as Attilio says, encouraging aspiring poets to acknowledge their limitations and not try to be as lofty in their artistic goals as the author of Inferno? If so, then Benigni's comically jumpy persona really isn't merely self-deprecatingly modest, but rather that of a con-man who’s pandering to a crowd he's not sure is all that smart in the first place.

Benigni's filmmaking and his personality as an extension would be fairly inoffensive if he weren't so strident about being, well, a fuddy-duddy. His films wouldn't, in other words, be so bad if he didn't take acting goofily so seriously. Today, Benigni looks like the constipated King of the Manchildren; he's a self-fashioned populist, a guy who wants us to think he's both a poet and a regular guy. Abstraction in poetry is poopooed outright in The Tiger and the Snow for the same reason that the Holocaust is the subject of Life is Beautiful: because a film whose bathetic message uses the most gut-wrenching context can be understood by anyone. Somewhere along the way, Benigni has somehow confused importance with self-seriousness, and he’s become a popular artist that only people that really want to buy what he's selling can stomach. He's not, in other words, a monster because he's a narcissist, but rather because the version of himself he's in love with is insufferable.

But a lot of people like Benigni almost as much as he does. His fans enjoy his manboy schtick, which is understandable since he makes such great displays of his sincerity as a humanist comedian in the Chaplin mode. He's perfected his slapsticky public persona to the point where his recent ideas make him look more like a juvenile intellectual than a facial-tic-ridden anti-intellectual reactionary. So it's simultaneously fitting and rather strange to think that Benigni is also the guy whose most versatile comedic performances—that American audiences have had the privilege of seeing—are probably in The Monster and Johnny Stecchino, comedies where his protagonist is respectively confused for a rapist and a gangster. If anything, what's most refreshing about Benigni is that he's still trying to figure out who he wants to be. If only he took himself less seriously while doing it.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: Pure Ideas: Dropping Science (Fiction) with EXTRATERRESTRIAL Filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo

SIMON SAYS: Pure Ideas: Dropping Science (Fiction) with EXTRATERRESTRIAL Filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo


Nacho Vigalondo’s films are about ideas. The Spanish filmmaker's two recent science fiction films, Timecrimes and Extraterrestrial, suggest that the drive towards scientific discovery or self-discovery doesn't need to be motivated by personal reasons. Vigalondo also makes the best contemporary high-concept science fiction movies. Timecrimes is a time travel thriller, and Extraterrestrial, his equally worthy 2011 follow-up, is an alien invasion story. At the same time, Timecrimes's story also concerns a struggle between free will and determinism; Extraterrestrial is also a romantic comedy about two people who slowly learn to make the best of their lots in life.

Extraterrestrial is especially striking since it's not about aliens' actions once they've arrived on Earth, but rather the actions of two characters who have elected to hole up in an abandoned apartment building after a UFO arrives. Our heroes never directly make contact with the aliens; Extraterrestrial isn’t about first contact. Instead, Vigalondo’s latest shows two indecisive, amoral protagonists reacting to extraordinary circumstances. 

I sat down with him this Tuesday to talk about the philosophy of time travel, Primer, Stanislaw Lem, and Red Planet Mars, among other things.

I know you’ve said before that Extraterrestrial is sort of an unconventional alien invasion film, unlike [Steven Spielberg’s] War of the Worlds, because your characters can’t see everything that’s going on. When you set out to write Extraterrestrial, what else did you set out to do?

Nacho Vigalondo (NV): I think that significance in your films comes from the movies themselves. Directors don’t always need to be aware of everything they’re doing. For example, when we talk about science fiction films from the ‘50s, we don’t know that those movies were cathartic expression—sorry for my English. When I speak about abstract ideas, it becomes complicated even in Spanish. [laughs] But those movies in the ‘50s talk about global fears about the war, about the unknown, about the others. Communists, for example.

Those films give symbolic expression to that fear. But those filmmakers were not aware of that. So I always try to let my movies talk instead of me. I think my movies have more interesting things to say than I do. So when I’m writing, I try to ignore my motives. When I started to write Extraterrestrial, my first idea was, “Ok, what if we were to tell an alien invasion story from the point-of-view of normal people instead of the heroes, people who would be occupied with everyday things?” That would describe most of us. If you have a toothache, and the end of the world comes, you still have a toothache. So you’ll be desperate for painkillers. So: “What if we talked about this big event from the point-of-view of people who are just waiting for things to happen, who are just waiting for things to be solved by someone else?”

That’s a little childish, I think. It’s a way to amuse myself when I write this sort of thing. But then, I let my movies talk about something else, which is more important. For example, in Timecrimes, what I wanted to do is prove to myself I was able to write a time travel story in which everything happened in real time, and the killer, the instigator and the victim are the same [person]. So I think of those stories as formal challenges.

But later, I found out that both movies are about guilt as well as the feelings you have when you find out you are the other. In both movies, the main guy realizes that he’s not just a good guy, that maybe he’s “the other.” So I feel it’s important, in any art, to let your body of work speak for itself. That’s a religion to me. Movies are more intelligent than their directors. I promise you that that’s the case with me.

Well, that’s also true of viewers and your films. When I was rewatching Timecrimes, I noticed new things that I missed the first go-around, like the way that the main character’s wedding ring is constantly emphasized. So at the end, when he talks to his wife’s hand, it’s sort of a re-affirmation of their relationship. Although at the same time, that gesture is, after the film’s grueling events, almost like a way for the character to silently say, “Well, I accept the fact that there’s only so much I can change in my life. Time to exhale and move on.”

NV: They’re looking up at this dark sky and don’t know what will happen next.

Right. I didn’t remember the ending of Timecrimes, so while I was rewatching it, I was debating with my roommate [Bill Best] whether or not the film was in favor of determinism or individualism. And he was insisting that it was definitely not an individualistic movie, and then I saw the ending again and I thought, “Oh yeah, it isn’t.”

NV: [laughs] This is one of those nice interviews, where you prefer listening to answering.

And in Extraterrestrial you start from the premise that everyone’s gone, so all that’s left for the main character to do is hunker down in an apartment and just move from there with a limited amount of options. So it’s not about the fact that aliens have invaded: that’s a given. The spaceship is in the sky, we can see it. What happens next isn’t even a matter of waiting for people to do something—it’s waiting for this guy to do something. By comparison, since you mentioned ‘50s science fiction movies, I have to ask: have you ever seen the movie Red Planet Mars?

NV: Hm. Sometimes the title gets changed in Spain. Red Planet Mars?

It’s a film based on a play where a radio signal is emanating from the far side of Mars, and people think it’s the voice of God.

NV: Oh, I haven’t seen it. I would remember that, definitely! [both laugh]

The idea is that the Americans and the Russians are competing to find the source of the transmission. And ultimately there’s a complicated conclusion where they find out it was a Russian plot the whole time. But wait, no, it wasn’t the Russians, it was the Americans pretending to be Russians. But then they realize, oh wait, it was God, after all. So ultimately, it’s just people figuring out that however much they think they’re in control, they’re really not.

NV: Oh, great! Who made this film?

I’m not sure…

NV: Because it really sounds like Stanislaw Lem, the guy who wrote Solaris. I’ve been reading this guy all my life, because he’s writing about conspiracies in which, after a certain point, characters have to assume they can’t know what’s going on. And I wanted to take this feeling and put it in Extraterrestrial, in a comical way. In my film, one character says, “Well, why are you here?” And the other replies, “Well, we haven’t thought of that.” That’s a metaphor for the script itself, and it’s something I wanted to play with consciously.

The latest Lem novel I’ve been reading—I’m not sure if it’s been translated into English—is called Fiasco. In it, we find evidence of extraterrestrial life in the universe, and they are expecting us to do something. We react, trying to communicate, but the nature of both civilizations is so deep that we are not able to communicate with them. We don’t understand them, and they will never understand us. It’s not because the language is different: the nature of the language is different. What if we realized that rocks were secretly alive, but we were not able to talk to them? Or we don’t get their references or the way we ordinate reality is totally different? I love when science fiction gives us the chance to look at ourselves as human beings. Instead of picturing ourselves as conquerors or limitless beings, we are just humans, and we have to face the fact that humanity has its limits. I love that, and I wanted to work on that in a different way in Extraterrestrial.

That’s interesting since there’s a rumor that you’re working on a film adaptation of a comic book written by [Kickass and Wanted co-creator] Mark Millar, called Supercrooks.

NV: Not exactly an adaptation, because we wrote the script together. In fact, the comics’ script and the screenplay were made in the same location. So at the end, I appear as a co-plotter. Our collaboration was really intense and one of my best professional experiences ever.

But while your stuff and his have cursory thematic similarities—they both ask how a “normal person” would behave under extraordinary circumstances—your characters are much more indecisive. Your characters are much more amoral than immoral.

NV: One thing I’ve noticed is that when Mark writes comic books, even when it’s just a Marvel comic like Wolverine or Fantastic Four—I have a theory. I’m not even sure he’s aware of this; it’s his nature as a writer. I’m not sure that he’s working on this in a conscious way. But every time he picks a character, he lets us intuit what the darker side of his characters are. So when we see the Fantastic Four in a Wolverine comic, the way you perceive the Fantastic Four is so dark. It’s not in a nasty way; he’s not being a punk writer to them. But you can guess—I don’t know, I’m being a bit crude now, but you can guess that there’s no sex life between Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman. That’s nothing explicitly said but it’s something you can feel based on the kind of relationship they have. He’s too into his job and she feels invisible in many ways.

To get back to your movies: what’s interesting about these two films is that, while they’re science fiction films through and through, they’re also high concept.

NV: I really like to push for a starting point that feels striking and surprising but I don’t like the idea of making a movie that is just a high concept. For example, in the case of Extraterrestrial, the starting point is a mix of two genres that are apparently incompatible[: science fiction and romantic comedy]. But that’s the way it’s going to be described from this point. So we try to work every sequence in a way that we can forget about this starting point.

As in Timecrimes, I wanted everything your intuition says will happen at the end of the movie to happen in the middle. I want to work with audiences on that level. I want to take their hand and push them into different directions they were assuming the movie would take. So for me the idea of high concept is attractive but I don’t want to feel comfortable with that concept.

Not many people are making science fiction without a big budget. Horror movies are prolific because filmmakers know that they can do that on a low budget. But making a low-budget science fiction film is—not many people are doing it.

NV: That’s because science fiction films have become related with production values. Even B-movies from the ‘50s and ‘60s, most of the time they were trying to fake production values in their trailers. So that was the thing that always—sorry, two steps back. I feel sometimes, when I’m talking in English first thing in the morning, like I’m Danny from The Shining when he’s inside the labyrinth and he has to walk backwards [laughs].

But I think if you’re a true science fiction fan, you read novels. Because there aren't so many science fiction movie masterpieces. But if you read science fiction authors like Stanislaw Lem or Philip K. Dick, you’ll realize that science fiction is based on ideas, not descriptions of planets or other civilizations, but pure ideas. In fact, I’m not really sure science fiction is a genre. That's something I love to talk about. Because most of the time, people think science fiction is a genre. But a genre is based on rules, and there are no rules in science fiction.

There are rules in the western, in the crime movie and some horror subgenres. But in science fiction, you don’t have rules. The only rule in science fiction is that you can take ideas to the edge in many ways. You can say I have made two science fiction films, but I have also made a giallo and a romantic comedy. In a common romantic comedy, if you want to lie to someone else, you have this set of lies you can play with. But if there’s a UFO on the horizon, you can say, “Maybe this guy’s an alien?” It’s like giving new truths or new artifacts to a character in a Billy Wilder comedy.

I was recently thinking about the western and how it goes from the classical period to the spaghetti western to the acid western. And the further you go, the more the genre’s rules and tropes become decontextualized. Do you think that in science fiction, contemporary filmmakers just don’t know how to push and break down those ideas? Put another way: have you seen any contemporary science fiction films whose ideas have really impressed you?

NV: Yeah, but I’m not going to surprise you. I think the titles I’m going to give you are the titles you already know.

Go for it.

NV: For example, when I was writing Timecrimes, Primer had just come out. And I was horrified because the shape of the movie was close to mine. But then I saw it, and I saw that it was totally different. But I love the fact that in that movie, there’s no melodramatic implication to the fact that they’re going back in time. There’s no human impulse rather than the excitement of the scientific experiment itself. So you’re not going back in time to save the world, and you’re not going back in time to save the girl: you’re just scientific. I really liked the idea of applying that scientific impulse to the film. I like this film and I even really like an older film like Silent Running.

Oh, I love Silent Running!

NV: What’s amazing about that film is that it runs on ideals. In most movies, filmmakers tend to be universal through the intimate human experience. So it’s easier to tell a story where you’re going to protect your wife than wanting to protect a forest. It’s an unusual film in that the main character is pushed by pure ideals.

What comes next for you? Is Supercrooks filming…?

NV: At this moment, my next film is going to be called Windows. It’s a movie I’ve been developing for a couple of years. In fact, Windows is going to be like Timecrimes in so many ways that I decided to make Extraterrestrial first to prove to myself I can push a different button. Because those two movies—Windows and Timecrimes—are like narrative labyrinths in which, on every page of the script, you find another little twist. The nature of what we’re telling is changing all the time. It’s really plot-driven. I wanted to make something that was totally the opposite of me, so I made Extraterrestrial. I was trying to fight against myself.

And Windows is going to shoot this October, if everything goes well. I wish the casting were finished, so I could tell you about that, but we’re doing the negotiations right now. It’s going to be a really special thriller again in the Hitchcockian tradition. But this time, I really had Brian De Palma on my mind. I don’t want to make explicit references in my films because I want those references to be felt, not told. So if I had in my Vertigo and Psycho all the time while making Timecrimes, the movie I had in front of me for Windows is Blow Out.

Oh my God.

NV: So it’s a movie with an erotic element, and a chase element and the tricks with perception of the characters—it’s really in front of you all the time.

When you said “De Palma,” I was hoping you’d say, “Body Double.” But still.

NV: But you know, Body Double is too Timecrimes for me. I saw Body Double when I was making Timecrimes, and I thought, “This is the movie I’m making now: one guy falls into a trip, there’s an erotic impulse that is manipulated, and this guy has to move from his house to another place, but it’s a trap. Timecrimes is the same kind of film, except that the bad guy is also the good guy. But it’s the same kind of trick. It’s the same bait in both films.”

There will also be a lot of technical tricks in Windows that are going to make it really special. It’s not a found footage film but . . .

Oh, thank God.

NV: But I’m going to play a different game. I’m not going to fake a camera . . .

Oh, thank God.

NV: But I love found footage! Some of it’s good. I was so amazed when I saw Chronicle recently. When you see people flying in that, it’s like you’re seeing people flying on film for the first time. So I find it weird. People tend to criticize the movies, not the tool. And I think found footage is just a tool. This is not a found footage film. But I’d love to use found footage someday.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: Trying Harder: What PROMETHEUS Gets Right

SIMON SAYS: Trying Harder: What PROMETHEUS Gets Right


One character in Prometheus sums up why Ridley Scott's return to his 1979 science fiction milestone is as refreshing as it is, in just two words. The protagonist in question is an android, arguably the first in the series since Aliens who’s more than an extension of the people who programmed him. Typically, androids are understood to be mental blank slates in the Alien films, so it makes sense that in Prometheus, David (Michael Fassbender) is treated as a tabula rasa. In fact, one character points this out late in Prometheus's plot, reminding him that he can't feel the emotions he professes to. So it's fitting that, when asked what his boss has communicated to him, David says: "Try harder." 

Prometheus, more ambitious than any other Alien sequel, has an impressively massive scope, both literally and figuratively. The film's mammoth CG and concept art-heavy sets are matched only by its over-arching theological speculation. Of course, because Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection both went through production hell, their stories are understandably incoherent. But even Aliens, James Cameron's perfectly adequate follow-up to Alien, has relatively staid aspirations. 

The Alien franchise, up until Prometheus, delivered less and less of a payoff. This is most evident in the degrading of the relationship between three key figures in each film: the lead human protagonist (usually Ripley); the robot; and the Xenomorph. In Alien, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) was the last survivor of the Xenomorph's attack on the Nostromo. She manages to escape the hazards of A mission whose main directives are unclear to all but one of its crew members. Ash (Ian Holm) is the voice of "the company," a phrase over-used in the Alien movies to describe the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. The company's motives are hidden and in this case, immediately dangerous. The Xenomorph thus represents an idiosyncratically weird fusion of technology and primal sexual tension (holy freeholey, H.R. Giger, to what libidinal depths did you plunge to come up with that concept art)—as well as all the trauma and emotions the otherwise bloodless company has suppressed. So it stands to reason that Ash admires the perverse "perfect[ion]" of the Xenomorph's feral but chilly behavior. The Xenomorph is the monster that Ash wants to become but cannot, since he was made in his creators' image.

Ripley's relationship with the Xenomorph is similarly not personal. In Alien's futuristic office space, Ripley is just one grunt among many. For the longest time, she's not the lead protagonist, just a survivor, more a concept than a character. This is striking given who Ripley is presented as in the forthcoming sequels. Each time, she's treated as the reluctant host to the Xenomorph's parasite. In Aliens, the aging Ripley's ticking biological clock gives her nightmares about motherhood, including one in which an alien shoots out of her guts. Her relationship with Newt (Carrie Henn) is simple: she is the child that Ripley wants, but the Queen Xenomorph is blocking her. The aliens are thus once again extensions of Weyland-Yutani, but this time they ultimately represent the monster the company might gradually turn Ripley into. 

The most complex character in Aliens is thus Bishop (Lance Henriksen), the one representative of Weyland-Yutani consistently portrayed as both an emissary of "the company" and an individual. In Alien, Weyland-Yutani employees only start to exist as individuals once they reject the mandates of their bosses. This is also true of David in Prometheus, who says that when his master dies, he "will be free." So it's refreshing to see that Bishop, at the end of Aliens, stands by Ripley and Newt in their final fight against the Queen. In that one moment, Bishop sets up the archetype that screenwriters Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaights will follow for David in Prometheus. Bishop's nature as a more human-like model is apparent in his lack of interest in the Xenomorphs. He, like Ripley, is there to save lives. The mission that he's on is thus not one that sympathetically associates him with the Xenomorphs. Instead, it's assumed that Bishop is trying to be, as the saying goes, "just one of the guys," a point succinctly illustrated during the famous knife trick scene.

Unfortunately, the next two sequels only perpetuate the more psychologically lacking aspects of the franchise. In Alien 3, Ripley grapples with her nascent feelings of survivor's guilt on a prison planet full of convicted murderers and rapists, some of whom have reformed. Ripley relates with the prisoners, all of whom are at least nominally atoning for their crimes. But that identification inexplicably makes the alien the cause of Ripley's feelings of impotence: in her head, the Xenomorph’s survival  is her responsibility and her fault. That theme is never fully explored but it's assumed that Ripley, who tries to get a prisoner to help her kill herself before she (and the alien she will soon give birth to) cause further damage, feels responsible for the Xenomorphs. Her death at the end of Alien 3 is not cathartic, however, because it's a drastic reduction of Alien's themes to a surreal fight between a specific character and a world-ending monster.

Furthermore, the man who created Bishop returns in the last scene of Alien 3, predictably representing Weyland-Yutani's psychopathic interest in studying and profiting from the Xenomorphs. Ripley briefly revives the robo-carcass of Bishop earlier on—meaning the Bishop android that was pretty much destroyed by the Queen at the end of Aliens. But Bishop's human creator's random appearance at the film’s conclusion is as good a sign as any of how un-nuanced that film's portrayal of "the company" and its androids have become.

That being said, Alien: Resurrection, a consistently entertaining but often ridiculous and mostly brain-dead sequel, is even more unambitious. The film starts with a heady theme: what does a post-Ripley Alien movie look like? Ripley's clone is the film's main heroine, once again restructuring the “Alien film” as a personal fight between her and the Xenomorph: ironic, given that the film's main theme is supposed to be evolution and the way that time has changed things. The Xenomorph may have transformed into a weird human-alien hybrid called a "Newborn" by film's end, and the robot Ripley deals with may be a lady (Winona Ryder), in fact. But there's nothing to suggest that anything that Ripley's relationship with these emblematic characters has grown or drastically changed from what we've seen in the last three films. Call (Ryder) is a sympathetic companion and is defined as an individual throughout Alien: Resurrection. There are thus no substantial stakes in her relationship with Ripley. And the Newborn is still just a dangling thread that Ripley has to get rid of so she can die easily. Call also has no real fascination with, or even strong hate for, the Xenomorphs or the Newborn. She just wants to kill the monster and not "die."

This thankfully brings us back to Prometheus, a film that finally builds on the foundation that Scott built with screenwriters Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett. Scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) is circumstantially different than Ripley: she gets in over her head in her quest for answers. Shaw's actively searching for the unknown, unlike Ripley, who just happened to stumble upon it. Shaw is thus guided by the same impulses as David, a character who embodies a potentially pure drive towards scientific exploration. David is only corrupt because his master is corrupt. The deaths of a couple of other characters in the film suggest that Prometheus has a naive but intriguingly moralistic through-line: discovery for flawed reasons is dismissed. 

Unlike some other characters, Shaw has no ulterior motives. She genuinely wants to see, do and learn more than anyone else on the Prometheus, the ship that has replaced the Nostromo. The aliens in Prometheus, called Engineers, are the tantalizingly close realization of Shaw's search but ultimately, her encounter with them is not what it could be.  She does not learn anything from that originally wanted to. The aliens that Shaw encounters have no answers for her, leaving her right where she started at the film’s beginning.

That having been said, there is a serious danger inherent in these creatures, made clear when David suggests that the Engineers may have just made humans for the same reason man made androids: "because [they] could." But at the same time, there's a romance to David's actions. He idolizes the Engineers, and calls them "a superior race." But he also admires Peter O'Toole's Lawrence of Lawrence of Arabia, even going so far as to dye his hair an Aryan blond to match his messianic hero. David stands in awe of the Engineers and gets to "live" ultimately because he has that drive to learn and do more to learn about Prometheus' aliens.

By film's end, David and Shaw choose to continue their search for answers to big questions. And while that resolution's thematic bottom line is fairly simplistic, it's also what makes Prometheus's conclusion the second most satisfying in the series. To dream, to continue to strive for something greater than yourself and, yes, to try harder, in the face of the horrifying and the cruel is a very noble thing.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

SIMON SAYS: White Men Can’t Ninja

SIMON SAYS: White Men Can’t Ninja


In the ‘60s and ‘70s, ninjas proliferated in Japanese movies. Movies like The Daimyo Spy (1964) and Castle of Owls (1964) helped to establish ninjas as the sneaky but honorable warriors that we now know them as. In 1981, an Israeli filmmaker with too much money and not enough talent started a wave of ninja-sploitation films. Producer-cum-director Menahem Golan was supposed to direct Charles Bronson in Death Wish 2. But, as the apocryphal story goes, Bronson didn't want Golan at the helm. So Golan directed Enter the Ninja—a movie which, oddly enough, has remote ties to the spaghetti western genre.

Enter the Ninja is the first film in a trilogy of schizoid films that Carlson, my amiably ornery Bad Idea Podcast co-host, has wisely characterized as "copy-and-paste cinema." Like spaghetti westerns and Manchurian action films before them, ninja-splotation films depend on cinematic revisionism. But instead of post-dubbed Italians shooting each other in Monument Valley, ninja cheapies like Enter the Ninja feature non-Italian Europeans throwing ninja stars and colored smoke bombs at Asian guys (plenty of whom were not even Japanese-American) in colorful outfits.

Ironically enough, Franco Nero, the star of Sergio Corbucci's blood-soaked spaghetti Western classic Django (1966), also starred in Enter the Ninja. Nero's face changed in the 15 years between the two films: the formerly glass-jawed B-grade star is notably puffier and has a different mustache in the later film. But the jowly, bleary-eyed, Chevron-mustache-clad look Nero perfected here would influence a couple of other ninja-splotation heroes, including Richard Harrison, star of such films as Ninja Terminator (1985) and Project Ninja Daredevils (1986). Harrison may have started his film career auspiciously in the 50s, as the co-pilot in the film version of South Pacific (1958), but after starring in such spaghetti westerns as Rojo (1967) and $100,000 for Ringo (1966), Harrison went even farther West: to Japan. 

The connection between spaghetti westerns and the '80s cycle of white-washed ninja films doesn’t run very deep. The narrative coherence found in spaghetti westerns can’t be found in ninja movies. For example, in Enter the Ninja, Golan arbitrarily transplants a western stock plot in the Philippines, presumably because it was famously very cheap to shoot there. But once we are in the Philippines, we see that nothing makes sense. Case in point: the film's villain is an evil, union-busting plantation owner with a bizarre love for synchronized swimming. He's hired a sadistic one-eyed German fellow as his head lackey. Similarly, the titular machine in Ninja Terminator is a small toy robot that delivers its irate masters' death threats for them. Regardless of budget constraints, these movies make no sense.

But ultimately, such a salient lack of sense is part of the appeal of the ninja-sploitation film. These blustery and nonsensical films follow murderous but chivalric white guys with lethal squints as they fight badly dubbed villains who laugh maniacally and use the telephone too much. What kind of ninja uses a phone? These are ninjas! They live by a code of honor, protect their women and beat each other up with exotic weapons. Who said anything about Ma Bell?!

In summation: no, I can't tell you why one film would include a toy robot, or another a sadistic, eye-patch-wearing gnome. But I'd have an equally hard time explaining why Nero's Django hid his signature Gatling gun in a coffin. The average ninja-splotation film makes its own rules, unwittingly going further than most spaghetti westerns did to feature as much exploitable ninja-related violence as possible on a tiny budget. Schlockmeisters like Golan and Godfrey Ho (Ninja Destroyer, Rage of Ninja), inept filmmakers though they were, carved out a surreally burgeoning niche for themselves.

***Enter the Ninja will be the first movie playing in a double bill that Steve Carlson and I will present next Saturday, 6/9 at 92YTribeca. That night, we will also be screening a 35mm print of Ninja III: The Domination.***