Monday, July 31, 2006

M. Night Shyamalan and Mel Gibson

Ross Douthat has two articles out defending the two of my favorite movie makers, M. Night Shyamalan and Mel Gibson. The first is prompted by M. N. S.'s new flick, Lady in the Water. The second by Gibson's drunken and bigoted outburst about Jews. First on Mel:
"Those who endorsed his previous obscene blockbuster (The Passion of the Christ - of course Hitchens hates even Mother Theresa so his views on the Passion narrative are suspect.- Taleena) are obliged to say something now or be ignored ever after," Christopher Hitchens writes today. Well, I endorsed it (for whatever my endorsement might be worth), and I'd endorse it again today, even if Mel Gibson were caught playing poker with David Irving in a library stocked entirely with copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and back issues of the Völkischer Beobachter. Separating your feelings about an artist's politics from your feelings about his art is a hard thing to do (just ask Hollywood's conservative critics!), especially when the artist in question is raving about the Jews on the Pacific Coast Highway. But if you can't manage it, then you have no business doing criticism in the first place.

Well, I liked the movie even if it was uncomfortable and discomforting. It wasn't supposed to make you comfortable it was supposed to make you think. Mr. Douthat says of the Passion:
As for The Passion itself, I don't think the case for or against its anti-Semitism is as open and shut as everyone else - Gibson's defenders and detractors alike - seemed to think when the movie opened. On the one hand, the film as a whole offers one of the most sustained depictions of Jesus and his disciples as Jews - inhabiting a distinctly Jewish civilization, speaking Aramaic, and so forth - that Hollywood, or anyone for that matter, has ever produced, and by extension offers a rebuke to the long-running anti-Semitic project of severing Christianity from its origins in Judaism.

What you think about this will depend, ultimately, on what you think about the movie's artistic value. If you think that Gibson made a sadomasochistic, pornographic snuff flick that reflects both his own twisted take on Christianity and the perverse medievalism of the American "Christianists" who flocked to see it, then the hints of anti-Semitism are just the icing on the cake. On the other hand, if you think, as I do, that it's an uneven but powerful film, and one of the most interesting and original experiments in religious art that we've seen in decades - well, then you're more likely to point out that distinctive works of art contain touches of bigotry all the time, and that a movie can be impressive and worth applauding even if you can sometimes see the director's private demons peeking out from the wings.

That's about right, although I'd omit the word "uneven". The seeming unevenness - the transitions between Jesus as a child or young man and the Passion narrative, are what give the violence it's weightyness. It's a study in contrasts; if anything there were too few flashbacks, but I think anymore would have brought the crucifixion to an unbearable pitch, the movie is just this side of emotionally intolerable as it was. The Passion stands on it's own, whatever the frailties of it's director. Onto the less weighty charges of narcissim leveled at M. Night. Shyamalan.

Peter Suderman (whose normal insight has an unaccountable blindspot towards Shyamalan's brilliance) and Mr. Douthat disagree on the deleterious effect Michael Mann's obsession with the uber-cool has on the new Miami Vice movie. Douthat says:
I like Mann, really I do, but I would like him a lot more if his movies were just narrative and atmosphere. But alas, Mann does have an idea, and that idea is the celebration of masculine cool - and, by extension, men who take their own coolness way, way too seriously. Mann worships the cool people; he can barely be bothered with everyone else.

To which Mr. Suderman replies:
But, pardon me for being dense when I ask: how is Douthat's comment a criticism? Mann’s deification of manly cool is precisely what makes him such a directorial badass. Where so many directors are content to half heartedly throw some cool-associated clichĂ©s on screen shades indoors, a cadre of hot girls, fast cars and rippling biceps, Mann’s films exude cool. They eat, sleep, breathe, walk, talk and live the stuff—they’re cool incarnate. Miami Vice is probably his most focused study on abstract cool yet, and that’s exactly its appeal. Don't the movies deserve a director who doesn't just show us cool, but makes us feel it as well?

Alright Mr. Suderman, cool should enhance the plot (see Daniel Day Lewis in Last of the Mohicans) not be the plot, as apparently it is in Miami Vice. What has this to do with Shyamalan? Mr. Suderman digs on Douthat's defense of him:
What I want to know is how Douthat can knock Mann while defending Shamalamadingdong.
What I want to know Mr. Suderman is: if it's OK for Mann to build his movies around an abstract concept, cool, why isn't it OK for Shyamalan (redemption (6th Sense), identity (Unbreakable), faith (Signs), and sacrifice (The Villiage))? Douthat defends Shyamalan's movies with ease:
In The Village, as in all his films, Shyamalan seems to be aiming for something, amid our summers of high-grossing superhero movies and our winters of little-seen Oscar-bait projects, that's increasingly rare these days: a marriage of entertainment and art, of mass-market tastes and elite sensibilities. This is a hard combination to pull off, as his stumbles have demonstrated, but it's precisely the goal that the film industry, home to our last mass art form, ought to be aspiring to. So, Shyamalan deserves credit, despite his vanity and his missteps—not because he's succeeding, necessarily, but because he's willing to keep trying and unwilling to take his place with those timid, highly compensated directors who know neither victory nor defeat.

1 comment:

WhidbeyIslander said...

Many works of art, even narrative works of art, are not about story as much as about mood. The mood expressed by Micheal Mann's body of work is coolness.

Cool as expressed in Michael Mann productions, is generally shown as strong male characters quietly going about their (dangerous) business. Last of the Mohicans, Red Dragon, Crime Story, Heat, Insider. The man defined cool for the 80s and 90s they way Ian Flemming's Bond did for the 1960s.