Frank Miller, Twilight and Criticism

More cross-posting from Whitechapel for blog-padding purposes, this one from a thread discussing the  Frank Miller incident.

I realise this thread is in the sink, but @Finagle's question -- does an author's life and beliefs and informal writings have a bearing on critically interpreting their fiction? -- is an interesting one.

Made me think about the way the Twilight novels and films have been interpreted solely through the knowledge that the author is a Mormon, which doesn't answer why the series is such a phenomenon. (I have been guilty of this as well). Obviously, Stephenie Meyer's readers can't ALL be socially conservative Christians, there must be something else in the work which makes it vital for them. I think commentators haven't been paying enough attention to the reader-response part of @J.Brennan's New Criticism / New Historicist outline (v. helpful, thanks!)

I think I generally lean Historicist, just because privileging every reading equally, while obv nice and democratic, just gets unmanageable and a bit boring. Sure every reading is of some worth, but some are more interesting than others -- either identifying ideas and emotions that are more meaningful to you, or able to bring in relevant contexts that can shed light on the way the work was produced or received. The latter can be a platform to explore broader historical questions -- where does the work fit into the discourses of its time etc. Of course, that should be contexts plural, so you don't just narrow it down to the range of influences and motives of the author, but recognize that studying the way the work moves through society and history is equally important.

To bring it back to Frank Miller, a work (like for example) The Dark Knight Returns can stand on its own, with the reader free to interpret its ironies in any way they want. That has some value, at the very least to the individual involved, perhaps to others with whom the interpretation holds some kind of resonance. But there is also value in looking at it in the context of Miller's other work, his influences, and piecing together stylistic and thematic constants or shifts. And there is also value in looking at what impact the work had, how others interpreted it, and what that says about the form (comics, literature) or the discourse (superheroes etc.), when it came out and now. All three are worthwhile endeavours, and I tend to admire commentators that can do all of them -- although it can be a lot of work!



I'm too lazy to chase up the quotes now, but I'm pretty sure either Twilight or True Blood (or both) have been described as being about the 'terrors of intimacy'. Compared to Submarine, they really really aren't! The title references a recurring metaphor for depression used in the film -- that of being underwater. In one sequence, ultrasound (heard by dogs but not by humans, which is significant for Jordana) is turned into a symbol for communication between people, and the fact that we can never completely understand others. The link made is that depression is caused by excessive solipsism. Further, that openness to your fellow woman and man, no matter how scary and painful their situation, is the only route that leads away from suicide.

This is a clever, quirky and funny film, beautifully acted, almost note-perfect. Almost. I have my own quirks about this sort of thing, but the final scene didn't entirely work for me. At first I thought it was due to the fact that the rapprochement was indicated through a visual metaphor (Oliver following Jordana into the sea, but remaining above it). If the film's point was communication, then using symbols rather than words (which is what Oliver's mother used, in a hilariously blunt way) undermined it somewhat. But no, that's just stupid (words ARE symbols and all that...). After a bit of thought, I realised that my problem was much simpler. It's Youth In Revolt again: Oliver shouldn't earn forgiveness just by walking into the sea, and Jordana shouldn't start to trust him because he gets his feet wet. Oliver's hopeful expression, and Jordana's smiles, arrived too early. I could have done without.  Sure, the film remains ambiguous about their future, but I would have liked more ambiguity. Dudes shouldn't be given a gentle ride when they fuck up.

But as I said,  I have my own quirks about this sort of thing. It's a testament to the film's uncompromising attitude that it could well have ended with Oliver alone on the beach, fade to black, premonitions of death, and I half-expected (maybe wanted) it to. But the final image of Oliver, Jordana and her dog is too potent to discard. Still, less hope, fewer smiles. Communication isn't easy. Learning to do it takes longer than one film's running time.


We Need To Talk About Kevin

I saw this a week ago and haven't had the time to write about it, even though I've really wanted to. The film is almost perfect, one of the best I've seen this year, and well worth your time. I just wish I had the memory of it fresh in my mind right now, but I'll have to make do.

I gave Lynne Ramsey the benefit of the doubt last time around, and I'm glad I did. We Need To Talk About Kevin is more focussed, and clearer, than the meandering Morvern Callar. Peter Bradshaw is otm when he talks about motherhood being 'a ritual in which the adult consents to gradual parasitic destruction', although when it comes to Eva and Kevin I think the ritual is more important that the parasitic destruction. I say that because of the last dialogue exchange in the film. Eva finally breaks a habit of a lifetime and stops patronising her child. Instead she treats him as an equal. No more games, just an urgent need to understand 'WHY??'. Kevin's response highlights how monumental that question is: 'I used to think I knew. Now I'm not so sure.'

Eva's problem is that she plays at being a mother rather than really being one. Her behaviour towards her children is codified by rituals learnt and internalised from movies and books. Christy acts like a typical little girl, and so the relationship works, but Kevin has no desire to play by the rules society has prescribed. The film dismisses the charge of autism or mental illness. Kevin is just smart enough to understand and manipulate the codes of behaviour he sees around him, and the fact that he is too intelligent to fit within the established idea of what a child should be like makes him lash out. He torments his mother because she is lying to herself, trying to love her son even though she cannot. Hypocrisy is Kevin's enemy, the fact that people obsess over serial killers without recognising the uncomfortable sources of that obsession.

My only problem with the film is that Kevin isn't really a real person to me, rather a preternatural demon sent to play with or expose people's self-deception. The scene in the restaurant where he lists all his mother's pathetic stratagems strains credibility (although I should say the person I saw it with had no problems with it). Eva's response to such a horror frustrates, as it should, as that is what the film is about. I wasn't always very sympathetic towards her, but perhaps that lack of indulgence is just a sign that my own mother was much better at raising children than she was.


Really now, I wonder whether this has any more depth or nuance than something like The Fast And The Furious. Refn's loyalty to archetypes and fairy-tale simplicity remains intact. He didn't choose this film, he was chosen for it by Gosling, and my feeling is he did little apart from bring his idiosyncratic  style to it and strip away the excess to bare-bones plot, character, action. But is that enough?

Sure, Refn's unusual casting choices pay off, although I suspect more could have been done with them. Gosling is no action hero, his expression remains too weirdly childlike, but there isn't all that much underneath it either. Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks playing at gangsters has a certain thrill of the unexpected, but their dialogue is extremely by-the-numbers compared to what (for example) Tarantino could have delivered with the same materials. Carey Mulligan and Christina Hendricks don't have to do anything apart from look pretty and vaguely troubled, although they both do that very well.

So what is Refn trying to say? I don't understand whatever existentialism is implied by the driver's automobile fixation. Like Valhalla Rising (and, I guess, Bronson, although I haven't seen it), Refn comes back to study male bloodlust. Like One-Eye, the driver kills and sacrifices himself to protect a little boy, in part learning to love as well as hate. Why Refn returns to this chivalric motif is a mystery to me, but I'm rather suspicious of the kind of gender biases that may lie behind it. The trouble with sticking to archetypes is that they limit your field of possibility, which inherently leads to conservative  results.

I didn't mention it in my post on Valhalla Rising, but Refn's style requires a certain degree of patience. That film was so nuts that I found I wanted to stick with it only to see what crazy territory it would move into next. Drive is more grounded, and the slow pans across beautifully designed soundstages can be quite tiring. The hot pink titles and the great 80s-indebted soundtrack are fine embellishments, but without the throb of a well-paced plot beating through it, the film's style starts to drag a bit.

I don't think Refn is capable of making dull films. His eye for great frames and his willingness to make uncompromising choices marks him out as a director worth watching. He reminds me of Chan-wook Park, another filmmaker who tries to add an art-house sensibility to genre movies. The work of both directors is superficially gorgeous, but has troubling or incoherent themes. It's still early days, though. Perhaps they'll get over themselves and try to collaborate fully with good writers. Or maybe they'll learn on their own. As of now, they still haven't made the masterpieces they are clearly able to make.