“Warrior”: a Hyper-Masculine Melodrama

Movie trailers are notoriously bad vehicles for judging the quality of a film, but for my money, few trailers have been such a poor indicator of the film’s ultimate reception as the one for 2011’s Warrior (dir. Gavin O’Connor). Upon its release, the film garnered great reviews, and an Oscar nomination for Nick Nolte. With the public, though, Warrior’s even more popular, with a devoted fanbase that ranks it on lists of most-underrated movies. The trailer doesn’t inspire a lot of hope, though—its enumeration of the film’s narrative looks so over-the-top, so contrived, so melodramatic.

In pop culture, “authenticity” is a mark of great art, while “artifice” is the domain of the low-brow. The melodrama, with its overwrought pathos and narrative excess, is treated like one of the most “artificial” genres. Its form and function have even lead some people to declare the genre dead, like Nathan Rabin at the AV Club. “Has the age of irony killed off the melodrama? Have we as a culture become too cynical and smart-assed to accept—yet alone embrace—the operatic emotions, heavy-handed plot twists, and sweeping character arcs endemic to melodramas?” Even the most popular contemporary genre auteurs, like Nicolas Sparks and Tyler Perry, distance themselves from the label.

There’s a new Nicholas Sparks movie out, accompanied by an ejaculatory profile in GQ magazine. Can you believe Nic Sparks does such charity work as funding a Christian private school to the tune of $10 million? Who ever heard of a rich guy using his money to advance the cause of fundamentalist Christianity? Alongside details like these, Sparks advocates for the artistic merit of his chaste, tight-jeaned odes to the imagined values of heartland America by saying “The characters in my books begin and end with authenticity, which is the difference between drama and melodrama.”

So, while melodrama is a genre that’s produced great works in the past, today it’s discussed as a trifle. Critics deride it and even its foremost practitioners argue that they don’t have anything to do with it. However, melodramas aren’t just known for improbable narratives and arch-drama. According to film theorist Linda Williams, “Melodramas are deemed excessive for their gender- and sex-linked pathos, for their naked displays of emotion.” In short: for their femininity.

Narrative conflicts are usually centered on family dynamics, impossible romance, maintaining the sanctity of the home—the most feminine space. Melodrama, according to scholar Christine Gledhill, “had a visible generic existence in the family melodrama and its lowly companion, the woman’s film.” When Sparks says that his paint-by-numbers stories of lovers torn asunder by tragedy, or kept together through Herculean feats of devotion, are “authentic,” he’s arguing that they aren’t just what Ann Douglas calls “soft-core emotional porn for women.”

Warrior is interesting because it’s one of the most beloved films of the 2010s while being a family melodrama. It’s escaped the stigma that the genre typically receives—despite its improbable narrative, countless people laud its authenticity. Like a traditional family melodrama, Warrior deals with family dynamics and aims to make its audience cry. Where Warrior departs from genre tradition, though, is with its hyper-masculinity. Continue reading

Uncritical Critics & The Death of Political Film Criticism

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Batman’s panaudiocon (The Dark Knight, 2008).

At Interrogating the Reel, Ian Goodrum asked a question that I’ve also thought about for a long time: “What the fuck happened to film criticism?”

“Now, I suppose that really should read ‘What the fuck happened to English-language, mainstream film criticism?’ since that specific category of film scholarship is all a significant portion of the population reads, but the incredulity remains. What the fuck happened? Because it seems like since Pauline Kael stopped writing, there haven’t been any political indictments of the kind she rained down on the most deserving of cinematic atrocities. Where’s the critical courage?”

If there was ever a time when film criticism made space to interrogate the politics of a film text, that time is long gone. For Goodrum, as well as me, the denaturing of film criticism was best represented in the controversy over Zero Dark Thirty. There was a debate over the film’s textual support of monstrous, authoritarian tactics like torture and extrajudicial killing—but the film’s supporters were almost all film critics, and its detractors were journalists. “Even in the reviews that bring up the movie’s politics, this minor quibble is dismissed as insignificant in the face of what the critic considers to be a monumental achievement in filmmaking.”

The dynamic repeated itself most recently with the release of the genocide documentary Watchers of the Sky. The film posits liberal imperialist Samantha Power as a great human rights hero, and film reviewers have regurgitated this whitewash uncritically. Only journalists have done the work of reporting on Power’s role as “Obama’s atrocity enabler,” as Max Blumenthal put it. The critic/journalist split reflects the fact that film criticism has abandoned its most-needed critical faculties. “Mainstream criticism,” according to playwright John Steppling, “isn’t really criticism, it’s reviewing.”

Humanitarian hero Samantha Power takes time off from defending the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians to explain that the US's war against ISIS aims for regime change in Syria.

Humanitarian hero Samantha Power takes time off from defending the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians to explain that the US’s war against ISIS aims for regime change in Syria.

The reason why I love film and the art of criticism is because film matters. Film is a tool of unparalleled power for imparting messages, and unpacking those messages is a worthwhile pursuit. “From geopolitics to lifestyle through politics and history, Hollywood movies have become the key global delivery system of US culture, thanks to the nature and strength of its narrative and medium,” according to Al Jazeera. President Obama said that “entertainment is part of our American diplomacy.” It seems like the only people who don’t see the political dimensions of the multi-billion dollar beast sometimes called “the culture industry” are contemporary establishment film critics.

If political film criticism is dead, Charles Bramesco at The Dissolve has written a piece that would merit mention in the postmortem. I can hardly imagine an essay that better encapsulates the perception of politics as a facile, substance-free set of signals, coupled with a total lack of knowledge of recent history, and undergirded by a latent disdain for criticism with the courage to say something challenging. The Dissolve has several great, thoughtful writers, and obviously Bramesco is merely representative of malignant trends, rather than the cause. However, the piece, titled “The slippery politics of The Incredibles and other superheroes,” advocates for all the politically ignorant, historically illiterate, and anti-intellectual threads that have fed into the death of political film analysis.

To close out a week on Brad Bird’s 2005 film The Incredibles, Bramesco discusses the “curious” observations that many film critics made about the film’s seemingly Ayn Rand-inspired ethos. Bramesco declares that this reading is curious, but then enumerates all the evidence in the film and ultimately concedes that “it isn’t difficult to see where they were coming from,” because “The Incredibles offers up a roundly solid foundation for an Objectivist reading to hold water.” In the very first sentence, Bramesco describes the act of reading a film politically with a weaselly adjective, before repeatedly conceding that the reading is supported by evidence. Not a great start, but a sign of things to come.

However, despite the exhaustively documented argument made by these critics, Bramesco has found a silver bullet that renders all these readings baseless. “Except that Brad Bird isn’t an Objectivist. He’s an avowed centrist, stating in multiple interviews that any Rand-sympathizing ideology in the film was completely incidental.”

60 years after the heralded “Death of the Author,” it’s a little weird to declare a filmmaker’s “centrist” intent with godlike certainty, as though that’s a definitive statement about the text. It doesn’t take Roland Barthes to see that films, maybe more than any other art forms, are collaborative efforts, and countless creators go into making them. Rick Altman proposes that films be read as “events,” legible as a structure with culture and history influencing the product. It doesn’t take Chomsky and Herman, either, to see that a film with a 9-figure budget fronted by a giant corporation during an extraordinarily reactionary time will reflect of the dominant culture that created it. Continue reading

Michael Bay is the only man who can give America the Benghazi film it deserves

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The announcement that Michael Bay is going to direct a movie about Benghazi seems tailor-made to provoke paroxysms of snarky schadenfreude in a prominent section of the internet’s pop culture commentariat. It was an announcement to rival Nicolas Cage’s unveiling as the star of the rebooted evangelical apocalypse thriller Left Behind. Even more than the meme-factory Cage, Bay is thought by many to represent every over-the-top, fraudulent strain that’s currently tainting cinema—and here he is, at the helm of a story whose only natural audience are the Fox-watching philistines of the flyover states (and ironic hate-watchers). According to the AV Club it’s “news that seems like it’s designed simply as a setup for the sharpest political joke of all time.”

If the reason Michael Bay exists is to create big, loud cultural events that will satisfy people and get them talking, he may have already made his masterpiece. Bay’s films are renowned for being big, loud, over-the-top money-making machines. His signature style, often called “Bayhem,” involves having as many elements moving onscreen as possible; swirling, larger-than-life. For this, his movies make obscene amounts of money, but have made him a convenient target to represent all that’s hollow and commercial about contemporary Hollywood. As far as the excess charge goes, it’s true, that’s what he does. Even Michael Bay’s most “modest” film, Pain & Gain (with an indie budget of $26 million) has physically gargantuan men as its selling point.

Michael Bay doing scaling it down.

Michael Bay doing scaling it down.

However, he incites the sort of critical pile-ons that have reviewers regularly invoking “the death of cinema.” A vlogger for Escapist Magazine posits that this kind of critical reaction isn’t just a swipe at Bay, it’s a proxy for attacking the perceived low tastes of America as a whole. Since it’s an unbreakable taboo for a critic to denigrate the “average American moviegoer,” the politically correct alternative is to trash with unrelenting zeal the filmmaker who’s seen as most emblematic of their unrefined tastes. To slag Bay, the logic goes, is to stake a place above the perceived bovine intellect of the typical popcorn-gobbling Cineplex rube.

Michael Bay isn’t just film’s most excessive artist, he represents things—he embodies totalizing statements. And now he’s going to make a film based on the book Thirteen Hours: A Firsthand Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi.

The non-partisan backstory is that on September 11, 2012, members of a Libyan militia attacked the US consulate in Benghazi and the nearby CIA station, killing the ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, a diplomat, and two CIA contractors. Eastern Libya had historically been a center for takfiri extremism—according to Newsweek, “an astoundingly large number of men traveled from there to Iraq to fight Americans during the war, and in a 2008 telegram released by WikiLeaks, Ambassador Stevens wrote that “By contrast with mosques in Tripoli and elsewhere in the country, where references to jihad are extremely rare, in Benghazi and Derna they are fairly frequent subjects.”

A story of weaponized Salafism resulting in “blowback” doesn’t put asses in movie theater seats, though. It’s actually just about the most unpopular story there is—just ask Jeremiah Wright (Still, Reverend, please reply to me about my screenplay, God Damn America). However, this all happened in the run-up to the 2012 election, when any news story was subject to being mashed through one of two partisan sluices.

Rallying around the President and against their hated Republican uncles on Facebook, liberals declared that there was absolutely no story to be told, and any intimation otherwise was hilarious on its face. Smelling another shot at impeachment after Obummer produced that birth certificate, reactionaries quickly declared it a matter of existential national importance, spinning it off into stories about rescue planes sitting on tarmacs and Hillary Clinton’s fake concussion. With an American national disgrace as the crime, and a dubious story about a spontaneous anti-hate film demonstration providing the cover-up, the Benghazi scandal as it’s currently understood was born.

Into this melee steps Michael Bay, a filmmaker who elicits Benghazi-like reactions. Naturally, since Benghazi is so thoroughly coded the domain of the right, and Bay’s movies are so throbbingly patriotic, it’s tempting to see the attraction as something Republican. However, Bay is less a traditional patriot than a maximalist, so if the biggest, most explosive political event is the Benghazi consulate attack, then Michael Bay’s Benghazi will see America in 2016. Continue reading