Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Jupiter Ascending

It's been less than a year since Tasha Robinson coined the phrase "Trinity syndrome," and yet it's already become one of the most useful terms in pop culture criticism.  Named for the female lead in Lana and Andy Wachowski's The Matrix, Trinity syndrome refers to a movie in which a female character is depicted as cool, competent, and badass, but always and inexplicably in the service of a much blander male lead (for whom she is usually the love interest).  She often loses her motivation (if she ever had one) and her ability to affect the plot in the film's final act, just in time for the lead to take center stage, and often needs to be rescued by him.  As Hollywood blockbusters become more conservative in their structures and plots, the roles they give women become more constrained, and Trinity syndrome has become a useful way of examining how the appearance of agency can obscure its absence.  Jupiter Ascending, the Wachowskis' most recent film and their first return to no-holds-barred SF since the second Matrix sequel, offers an interesting data point in the discussion of the phenomenon to which they gave a name.  Of all its many flaws, perhaps the most crucial is that Jupiter Ascending does not suffer from Trinity syndrome.

Perhaps the easiest way to sum up Jupiter Ascending is to describe it as a gender-swapped, space opera retelling of The Matrix.  In both films, you have a somewhat personality-free protagonist dissatisfied with their humdrum, monotonous life who discovers that they were born special, a savior figure awaited for generations.  Whisked off to a life of adventure by a sexy, uber-competent bodyguard, they discover that the truths about the world that they'd taken for granted are nothing but illusions, and that human beings are being exploited by a sinister system that sees them as nothing but fuel for a great machine--an exploitation that only our hero can bring an end to.

What's interesting about this repetition is how it reveals the ways in which telling the same story with a different-gendered protagonist affects the kind of tale you end up telling.  In The Matrix, the fact that Neo was such a blank--devoid of past, family, relationships, or even any concrete dreams or aspirations--wasn't a problem because that blankness allowed the other characters to explain the world to him and the audience to project themselves onto him (in fact one assumes that the reason the Wachowskis chose Keanu Reeves for the role was his infamous lack of affect).  That passivity, however, was counteracted by the type of special person Neo turned out to be.  His journey from no-one to The One required him to discover skills and ultimately ascend to godhood.  As passive as he was, the role in which the story placed him was an essentially active one, and his passivity was expressed by his acquiescence to this active role.  But if Neo gets to live out the fantasy of a nobody who discovers that he is actually supremely powerful, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) gets to live out the girl's version of that fantasy.  He's a warrior; she's a princess.  His specialness expresses itself in his ability to do things that no one else can; hers, in the fact that she owns a lot of stuff--as the reincarnation of the matriarch of one of the richest dynasties in the galaxy, she owns whole planets (including Earth) and their populations.  All Jupiter has to do to be special is keep breathing long enough to officially claim her inheritance--at which point the greatest danger to her (and the rest of the world) becomes that she might accidentally marry the wrong person and give them access to her property.

Jupiter spends the film that bears her name being moved from place to place--and sometimes physically tossed around like a rag doll--by the alien bounty hunter Caine (Channing Tatum), who tries to keep her safe from the various factions in her newfound family who want to control or kill her.  There's been some talk about how Caine embodies the romantic fantasies of a certain genre of bodice-rippers--endlessly loyal, his fearsome strength completely in thrall to Jupiter's needs, and constantly on display (the entire middle segment of the film, for example, finds some pretty flimsy excuses to keep him topless).  He cuts a much more subservient figure than Trinity, right down to being explicitly likened to a dog, but then that too feels like a function of his gender--Caine being a man reduces the insecurity inherent in his role, and makes it safe for him to be subservient to Jupiter. 

What undercuts Jupiter Ascending as female wish fulfillment is the fact that, unlike the bland male protagonists who benefit from Trinity syndrome, Jupiter never develops into the central character in her own story.  Caine is, in fact, a more developed character than she is (I'm speaking in relative terms, of course), with something resembling a character arc revolving around his need to find a "pack," which Jupiter comes to embody, and to regain his honor and sense of purpose.  Jupiter, meanwhile, has little in the way of a discernible personality.  We're repeatedly told that she's cynical and distrusting, but the actual character who turns up on screen is shockingly naive, willing to be led by anyone who acts like they know what they're doing.  This is a character, after all, who allows her cousin to convince her to sell her eggs and give him the bulk of her payment.  A character who agrees to marry one of the super-rich space siblings whom she has dispossessed by claiming her inheritance, simply because he has promised to use her wealth for good, and despite the fact that Douglas Booth plays him with such slimy untrustworthiness that one almost expects him to make sneering asides to the audience that start with "little does she suspect..."

In the Matrix's final act, Trinity is taken suddenly off the board, leaving Neo without his protector, which forces him to suddenly discover his own awesome powers.  Her role immediately becomes a moral one, to inspire Neo to discover his own innate greatness, rather than being great herself--the very fact that she loves him becomes evidence of his incipient godhood.  If the Wachowskis were determined to retell their most successful story beat by beat, we'd expect Caine to be similarly sidelined in Jupiter Ascending's final scenes, but instead the film remains focused on him as its action hero and the mover of its plot--even taking a moment to have another character, Nikki Amuka-Bird's stalwart spaceship captain, compliment him on his "rare courage."  Jupiter, meanwhile, gets to land a few blows against her chief enemy Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne, proving himself worthy of the Oscar he received last night for his performance in another movie by fully committing to the cheesiness of this one), but since his power is rooted in his wealth, the fact that she can knock him to the ground when all his flunkies and security guards aren't around (which is down to Caine's actions) isn't terribly impressive.  She still ends up having to be rescued, and the only way in which she is less passive at the end of the film than she was in its beginning is her willingness to express her sexual desire for Caine.  The problem here isn't so much that Jupiter can't beat people up, which after all isn't the only hallmark of a hero, but that unlike Neo, she doesn't undergo any sort of transformation or inner change--in fact her journey leads her back to the exact same life she had at the film's beginning, except with a cute alien boyfriend.  Even the two films' parallel closing scenes, in which the protagonists zip through the sky, feel deeply gendered--Neo flies on his own power; Jupiter flies because Caine has lent her his jetpack boots.

But then, maybe this all has a lot less to do with gender than it does with capitalism.  Another way to express the difference between Neo and Jupiter is that he is unsatisfied with his life because he wants to do things, whereas she is unsatisfied with her life because she wants to have things.  An illegal immigrant who works all hours of the day as a housecleaner, Jupiter spends the film's early scenes lusting after the designer dresses and expensive jewelry she finds in the homes of her rich clients.  That the wish-fulfillment fantasy that the Wachowskis spin around her involves being the richest person in the galaxy is therefore unsurprising, as is the form of the exploitation she discovers.  The reason that Earth is such a valuable resource, we learn, is that its population can be harvested and converted into a goo that elites like Jupiter and the Abrasax family use to restore their youth and health, essentially living forever.  The same imagery that, in The Matrix, was used as a metaphor for the crushing power of conformity, is here used to symbolize the predatory nature of hyper-capitalism, with culled humans floating unconscious in tanks, and referred to as cattle and crops.

There's obviously space here to tell an engaging story about privilege and wealth.  For Jupiter, a poor person from what turns out to be a poor planet, to find herself instantly elevated to unimaginable privilege, and just as quickly discover that it is founded, literally, in blood, has a lot of potential.  The film's repeated insistence that Jupiter is cynical makes more sense when you realize that she's supposed to have been hardened by poverty, and a life that seemed to offer no hope of anything better.  It could have been interesting to see her struggle with her desire for wealth and her disgust at what it means--though again, that would require the film to be a lot more interested in Jupiter as a person than it actually is.  But as the saying goes, it's easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.  Neo can be a hero in the story of The Matrix because the system he's rebelling against represents something relatively simple, sterile modern living.  Jupiter has to rebel against something much more pernicious--even within the film's ridiculous worldbuilding it's hard to imagine how she could end the system by which billions are culled so that an elite few could live forever.  Is it any surprise, therefore, that she doesn't even try?  That her triumph is the result of relying not just on Caine, but on the very legal authorities that prop up the corrupt system that so horrifies her? 

Jupiter's one moment of moral triumph--the one moment in which she does something to actually justify being the protagonist of her own story--is when she refuses to buy her life from Balem by giving him Earth, knowing that if he kills her he still won't have title to the planet.  It's a heroic moment--though again, it's worth noting that the most heroic thing Jupiter does in her whole story is to agree to do nothing and die--but unlike killer AIs, we know that capitalism doesn't play by the rules.  The film's ending, in which Jupiter goes back to her life on Earth, secure in the belief that no power in the galaxy will touch the precious resource simply because the person who owns it has refused to exploit it, is far less believable than Neo's ability to manipulate space and time in the Matrix.  The Wachowskis clearly intended Jupiter Ascending to be the opening chapter in another series, but I think the fact that, unlike in The Matrix, they couldn't hand their heroine a genuine accomplishment with which to close the opening chapter says a lot about the differences between the two stories.  Killing Agent Smith strikes a meaningful blow against the Matrix.  Killing Balem Abrasax doesn't even ding the system that gave him his power.

There are other reasons why Jupiter Ascending isn't as successful as The Matrix--the lackluster action scenes, the near-total lack of humor, the deadening seriousness with which the film takes its baroque worldbuilding--and, at the same time, it's only fair to note that despite all these flaws, I didn't find it a torture to watch.  It certainly isn't good, but it isn't the sort of slog that, say, The Matrix Revolutions was.  And while it doesn't approach the heights of zany ridiculousness that the Wachowskis' Cloud Atlas achieved, there's a certain loopy charm to its overstuffed plot and its constant shifts between ever-more elaborate locations, that makes it rather easy to get through.  But it's heartbreaking to see a Wachowski film that is so similar to The Matrix, and yet falls so far from its accomplishments.  It's even sadder to realize that at least part of the reason for that difference in quality is the Wachowskis' limits--that the sort of stories they tell about women, and poor women in particular, are so much less exciting and adventurous than the ones they tell about disaffected middle class men.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Five Comments on Birdman

It's been two days since I saw Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman and I'm still feeling exhilarated.  On the most basic level, this film is like nothing else I've seen in a movie theater in a long time, possibly forever, and I urge you to see it simply for the experience (and ideally in a movie theater, since this is a work worth being immersed in).  It's also a hard movie to write about, with multiple layers and themes, and a frenetic approach to plot that makes the format of a straightforward review feel inappropriate.  So I'm highlighting a few points that feel interesting in a film about which I could probably say a great deal more.
  • The first coherent thought I had about Birdman, even as I was still watching it, was that its overarching goal, the one thing it wanted to accomplish more than anything else, was to replicate the experience of watching a play through the experience of watching a movie.  That's not an unusual desire, of course, but usually when directors aim for it their approach is to be super-naturalistic--to limit both the space in which the story takes place and the cinematic tools they employ so that the actors and the dialogue can come to the fore (and, or course, most of these films are adaptations of existing plays, while Birdman is an original story).

    Birdman's approach is the exact opposite.  It's trying to make you feel as if you're watching a play by constantly reminding you that you're watching a movie, and using the most blatant cinematic tools and gimmicks to recreate the experience of being in a theater.  You see this in the by-now famous long takes that make up the movie.  An eye-catching and, some would say, self-indulgent device, they never allow you to forget that you are watching something that was crafted, where a less present directorial choice might have let you believe that you are merely peering through a window that shows the film's events.  But what these long takes do is force the audience to feel the physical space in which the film takes place as almost its own character, rather than a backdrop that is simply there to lend verisimilitude.  They also force the actors to stay in character far longer than they would in a conventionally-shot movie, closer to what they'd have to do on stage.  Most interesting to me was the film's use of sound.  Birdman has a stunning, percussion-heavy score (by Antonio Sanchez) that does a lot to establish the film's frenetic tone and the increasing deterioration of its hero's grasp on reality, but the way it uses diegetic sound--doors opening and closing, dialogue that comes from off-screen--is particularly wrongfooting.  These sounds are all much too loud, and they come from one side of the movie theater only, in a way that initially makes us wonder whether what we're hearing is part of the movie or happening next to us in reality (I don't think it's an accident that the first instance of this device is a cellphone ringing).

    This is, of course, how plays establish their world, and particularly events that happen off-stage, with over-emphasis compensating for the fact that the audience is being asked to build an entire setting from a stage, a few props, and some sound effects.  But when layered onto the real-world setting of a movie the result is hyper-realistic, almost an assault.  Most movies try to distract us from their artifice.  They use location shooting and a lot of clever sound editing to make us think that we're seeing something effortless, so that we can ignore the setting and focus on the story.  Birdman wants us to notice the artifice, to do the work that we would have had to do if we were watching a play.  It's putting us in the headspace of a theater audience even though we're watching a movie.

  • This all feels particularly important because the underlying theme of Birdman is authenticity.  The hero, Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is a Hollywood star best-known for playing a superhero in the 90s, who is making a desperate bid for respectability by directing and starring in a Broadway play.  He's insistent that he is trying to create something "real," and haunted by the fear that he is actually a fake--a celebrity pretending to be a serious actor.  At the same time, he keeps seeing and hearing his titular alter-ego, who insists that it's actually the world of the theater that's a fake--why scramble for the approval of a few hundred theater-goers and the insular world they represent when you can be beloved by millions for playing something as primal as a hero?

    Whatever he chooses, Riggan is dismissed a poseur, a hack who is after prestige and fame rather than art, and so it's perhaps not surprising that he becomes obsessed with realism as a means of elevating his performance.  In this, he's joined by his co-star, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a blowhard who, by his own admission, is only honest when he's on stage.  Mike is a brilliant actor, but he takes his commitment to realism to irrational extremes, bringing real gin onstage for his character to drink (and then bringing a preview to a halt when he realizes that Riggan switched the drink with water, insisting that doing so undercuts his performance), and trying to have sex on stage with his co-star and girlfriend Lesley (Naomi Watts) when he becomes aroused mid-scene.  Riggan is frustrated by Mike's antics, but also clearly starstruck by his commitment.  As his grip on reality slackens, and as he becomes convinced that the play will fail and make him a laughingstock, he buys further and further into the notion that creating something real on stage means being something real on stage.  This culminates with Riggan bringing a real gun on stage with which to shoot himself in the play's final scene.  The audience's response to Riggan pulling the trigger is ecstatic, even when it's revealed that he really shot himself.  The New York Times's sour-faced theater critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) writes a glowing review titled "The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance" (also the film's subtitle) in which she praises Riggan for discovering a new mode of acting.

    There are a lot of reasons to question these final scenes, in which Riggan survives his suicide attempt, which I'll get to shortly.  But I think that Birdman itself is teaching us, through its style, to doubt what we're being told.  If making art was as simple as putting real pain, real joy, real horror on a stage and pointing a camera at them, then our culture would begin and end with reality TV.  Art is the process of saying something real by doing something fake; it achieves authenticity through artifice, not in spite of it.  In the film's earlier scenes, Riggan seems to realize this--he breaks through Mike's self-satisfaction by telling him a heartbreaking story about his abusive father, and then reveals that he was just acting--but he loses that understanding by its end, convinced that killing himself on stage is a meaningful artistic statement.  But in a movie that constantly calls attention to its fakeness, to the work that went into creating it, it's impossible to take that conclusion at face value.  What Iñárritu's hard work in making Birdman such a consciously artificial object tells us is that ignorance is not a virtue.  Art isn't something that just happens; you have to work to make it, even if all that work is to make the audience think that you did nothing at all.

  • It's not surprising that Riggan buys into the notion of realism as art, because as much as he claims to be devoted to his play, it's clear that what interests him isn't the work, but himself.  As much as Birdman is a meditation on authenticity and art, it's also a portrait of a profoundly self-absorbed man, who, as his ex-wife points out, consistently mistakes admiration for love, and is desperately scrambling to earn more of the former.  Riggan may claim that he's trying to create something real, but what he's actually trying to do is make himself real by winning plaudits and applause.  Genevieve Valentine has written an excellent essay about reading Birdman as an indictment of toxic masculinity, with Riggan's downfall stemming from his desperate need to be the big man, the star, the alpha male, and from his inability to accept that in his real life, he isn't a superhero.  But it's an observation that inevitably leads us to wonder what Birdman does with its female characters, and there the film is a mixture of success and rather bizarre failure.

    Through the three most important women in Riggan's life--his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), and his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough)--Birdman does an excellent job of conveying the frustrations of loving someone who is so completely narcissistic.  Despite being locked into Riggan's point of view for most of its run, the film shows us enough of these women to make them real, sometimes through only a single line delivery.  "I want a baby but my body won't cooperate," Sylvia says, quite simply and almost with a shrug, in one of the film's later scenes.  The contrast between her plain, undemonstrative acknowledgment of this heartbreaking fact and Riggan's movie-long tantrum over the far smaller tragedy of his failing career speaks volumes about the balance of their relationship, about who gets to be operatic and to act as if the world has ended, and who has to just keep going without giving in to self-pity.  In another scene, Sylvia, who clearly still cares deeply for Riggan, has to remind him that their marriage fell apart because he was violent and unfaithful, something that Riggan has clearly not given much thought to.  Sam, meanwhile, is the only person who manages to engage Riggan as a human being, not as an actor, and thus the only person who can come close to puncturing his belief that his play is a grand and meaningful endeavor, rather than just one more shout into the darkness among millions.

    When the film's camera leaves Riggan, however, and follows these women on their own stories, a strange flattening seems to occur.  We can see their humanity when Riggan is ignoring it, but it seems to escape Iñárritu (and his co-writers Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo), who locks them into simplistic roles and dead-end relationships.  Laura and Lesley have a romantic encounter that comes out of nowhere and isn't referenced again after it happens.  Sam falls into a romantic relationship with Mike despite witnessing the death throes of his relationship with Lesley, in which he is at his most immature and self-absorbed, and despite Mike making it clear that her main appeal to him is her youth and the reflected vitality he hopes to gain from her.  It's not unrealistic for a young woman to enter into a relationship that is clearly a bad idea (especially as Sam is just recently out of rehab and very vulnerable) but the fact that, in her scenes with Mike, the film isn't interested in Sam as a person is a problem.  She's human in her scenes with Riggan, where she's allowed to express frustration and anger in ways that aren't cute or flattering to him.  But in her scenes with Mike she becomes the muse he sees her as, batting away his bad behavior in a way that only invites more of it, and skewering his faults without ever seeming to consider that maybe they make him an unsuitable romantic partner.

  • A lot of the negative reactions I've seen to Birdman have concentrated on the character of Tabitha and the film's apparent disdain for critics.  It's true that Birdman seems to have been written from the perspective that critics are merely frustrated artists, and it's always depressing to see otherwise intelligent, creative people reveal such a bizarre inability to grasp that most people who write criticism do it because they genuinely love it.  But though Birdman doesn't offer the pro-critic perspective, I don't think it comes down as hard on Tabitha as I'd been led to expect.  Yes, she's painted as a villain, informing Riggan that she's going to destroy his play before she's even seen it.  But she also gets to explain why, and her reasons are largely persuasive--she's sick of celebrities like Riggan taking up oxygen in an industry that is already struggling, and doing so merely to gratify their own vanity--and in fact supported by what we see of Riggan in the rest of the film.  Of all the characters in the movie, Tabitha is the one who most accurately diagnoses Riggan's faults and failings, and unlike the other women in his life she is someone he has no power over (a fact that clearly frustrates him enormously).  In a movie that is ultimately so critical of its star and his delusions, it's hard to see how the person who most clearly expresses that criticism is meant to be a pure villain, even if she's hit with some easy and familiar (not to mention misogynistic) accusations.

  • One of the reasons that I'm less down on the depiction of Tabitha is that I don't think we're meant to take the about-face in her review of Riggan's play at face value.  My reading of the film's ending is that its final scene, in which Riggan wakes up to discover that he survived his suicide attempt and that his play is being lauded as a triumph, is a fantasy--that Riggan in fact died on stage.  This is perhaps a bleaker conclusion than Birdman can shoulder--aside from the fact that Riggan, narcissist that he is, doesn't actually deserve to die, it leaves most of the other characters in a lurch, from the fragile Sam who clearly still needs her father, to Lesley, whose dreams of a Broadway debut have just been shattered.  So I can't blame the film for ending more ambiguously, even if to me the true conclusion feels obvious--and to its credit, there's room to read the ending as something much stranger and wilder.