Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Capsules: Blow Out (De Palma, 1981)/Nights of Cabiria (Fellini, 1957)/Hulk (Lee, 2003)

It is late, I am tired, and the following writings will be quite facile. Deal with it:

Blow Out (De Palma, 1981)
Blow Up meets The Conversation meets Hitchcock. De Palma wears his influences on his sleeve, so much that the film is ultimately an imitation more than anything. However, De Palma gives the film just enough visual flair to make it an enjoyable imitation.

What prevents the film from being as good as its influences is De Palma's sole concern with the surface construction of the film. Blow Out is a movie that does everything an art film does on the surface, but has the core of mainstream entertainment. Yes, it is a well conceived political thriller, yes, it calls attention to the construct of cinema, yes, it shows artistic creation as a search for understanding in a world that would prefer you didn't understand, but it all seems like posturing for the sake of slick aesthetic production.

Nights of Cabiria (Fellini, 1957)
Masina plays Maria, a woman who tells people her name is Cabiria, and who is looking for true love. We watch as her first few loves are lost, how she meets a man all too briefly who could probably be the right man for her (the guy who gives stuff to homeless people), and ultimately we are strung along with her by her final suitor.

What makes the film so great, then, is the milieu that can best be described as Felliniesque. No one else creates scenes so on the brink of being unhinged as the scene of Maria dancing on the street while there's music being played, people screaming, and who knows what else. There's always a sense of realism coupled with surrealism coupled with a sly smirk, and it's hard to pinpoint exactly how this mood is created. It's ordered chaos.

Much of this wonderment can be attributed to Masina, whose comic grace (yet with a simultaneous ability to inspire true pathos) warrants comparisons to Chaplin.

A summary of the film cannot do it justice, because with Fellini it is the moment by moment wonders that accumulate to create a memorable experience. Nights of Cabiria is really just a comedy about a hooker with a heart of gold who can't seem to find a guy who wants more than her money or will give her likewise, but the mixture of comedy with the quirky atmosphere and the subtle and unexpected emotional connection that develops between the viewer and Maria is what elevates it above what it is conceptually.

Hulk (Lee, 2003)
Hulk trades in the heroism of traditional super hero mythology for a portrayal of the subject's 'super' form as undesirable, as a burden in itself (rather than Spiderman's theme of the power begetting responsibility begetting burden). The film goes to lengths to portray the big green outbursts as an effect of pent up aggression and emotion in Banner, but is never wholly convincing in this regard. We are told that Banner has repressed memories, that he is externally stoic, and that he finds human relationships difficult, but there is no experiental evidence of this. Verhoeven's Hollow Man is a more convincing dissertation on supernatural power leading to a lack of inhibition and a release of troublesome desires.

The problem here is not that of the filmmakers, but of the super hero concept in itself. Super heroes were created not because of the kinds of psychological or philosophical problems that their existence may present (i.e., Batman wasn't conceived as the logical progression of being orphaned, Hulk wasn't conceived as a meditation on passive aggression), but because someone once thought "Hey, wouldn't a guy who was kind of like a spider be pretty bad ass?" Any show of profundity a super hero film has exists as an attempt to justify the existence of such hollow concepts. Super heroes are first and foremost juvenile pulp entertainment, and it is very vogue at the moment to present them as tortured souls in film (something that has been going on in the graphic novel and comic book mediums for decades). It works, to an extent, but there's always a disconnect between the seriousness and the absurdity of the very construct. For the record, Spiderman 2 has pulled off this mixture best.

As for the aesthetic construction of the film, in particular the editing, I liked it. It achieves differentiation, even if it is a very literal-minded approach to the "comic book film" concept, without being obtrusive. It amounts only to so much polish on the surface of an engaging film, but it's good polish nonetheless. Some of the split screen and floating comic book frame compositions can be not only visually interesting and unexpected (unlike many big-budget action films, you can't always predict the editing rhythms of Hulk), but effective in creating a sense of immediacy that would otherwise be absent.

Also, am I supposed to know what the fuck is going on with Banner's father?


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