Thursday, September 8, 2011

Playing With Fire

Captain America is out. Last month it was The Green Lantern, and Thor the month before. Marvel Entertainment is rolling out its second-string properties, with their built-in potential for a franchise of computer games, toys, collectibles, and possible sequelae. The producers of the films have attracted real talent: Kenneth Branagh directed Thor and, awhile ago, Ang Lee made Hulk. But instead of using all their art and imagination creating three-dimensional, believably human characters, such talented filmmakers commit all their energies to making inhuman characters believable in 3-D. The essential silliness of these characters can be measured by the color and cut of their outfits. The Hulk's magic shorts are particularly silly, since, no matter how gigantic he becomes (along with, presumably, gigantic naughty bits), his shorts remain discreetly in place.

After seeing some of these films, I was forced to conclude that I could not disqualify myself, however much I tried, from criticizing them. The best that could be said against my presuming to have an opinion about them came from Chris Rock who once told white people who criticized rap music for its aggressive ugliness to keep their mouths shut because, as he put it, "it ain't for you!" Whom, then, is rap for?

I recently watched the first few scenes from the new X-Men: First Class and I saw how they once again exploited the Nazi death camps to lend something - what? depth? credibility? - to the comic book character Magneto's discovery of his mutant powers. If you haven't seen the film, perhaps you will recall the opening scene from the very first X-Men (2000), in which, in a few shots, the terrible reality of a Nazi death camp is evoked: "Poland 1944", in a driving rain prisoners are being herded by soldiers. One of the prisoners, a boy, notices other prisoners toiling behind the fence, with numbers tattooed on their forearms. The boy is separated from what we can assume are his parents, amid angry shouting and screams, underscored by prodding music. As the guards restrain the boy and his parents are marched away, the boy reaches out and the barbed-wire fence separating him from his parents is pried open by an unseen force. This force, which also pulls the boy, restrained by guards, toward the metal fence, suddenly ceases the moment thatone of the guards knocks the boy unconscious with the butt of his rifle.

This scene is repeated in the new X-Men shot for shot. (I haven't looked closely enough to determine if they were the same scenes. I think it would've required a particularly crass producer to simply re-stage the whole thing and re-shoot it.) In the new film, it is followed by a scene in which the boy is standing in front of the desk of a Mengele-like doctor, played by Kevin Bacon. He rings abell and a woman prisoner is brought into the room by helmeted guards. Bacon puts a coin on the edge of his desk and tells the boy to move it with his "powers". Then Bacon points a pistol at the woman and begins counting down from ten. The boy holds out his hands toward the coin, but fails to move it before Bacon shoots the woman. The boy, enraged by the act, begins to scream and metal objects in the room react - the bell, the guards' helmets, the zinc tables in the examining room, etc.*

I mentioned that the first scene evoked the reality of the camps. But it was evoked in order to enhance the story of Magneto. I was so disgusted by these scenes, and by the filmmakers' insane belief that they could get away with using the Holocaust in such a distasteful and vulgarizing manner, that I stopped watching the film.

The first Iron Man (2008) includes a scene in which American soldiers escorting Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) in Afghanistan are killed in an ambush. Their deaths are used as a pretext for Stark to be captured by Taliban-like thugs, who force him to use his weapons expertise to create a new weapon for them. But that single scene of soldiers being killed, which was, I suppose, an attempt to add topicality to the movie as well as contribute to its schizophrenic anti-militarist message, came too close to home. I have served in the army. I wasn't deployed to Afghanistan, but I have friends who were in Iraq. I can't speak for them, but I found it outrageous that their experience could have been appropriated by a group of obviously cynical people as a plot device in a comic book movie.

In his essay, "Inside the Whale", George Orwell looked at the Auden poem "Spain 1937", which he singled out as "one of the few decent things that have been written about the Spanish war." He took exception, however, to the lines that read:

To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;

Orwell noted that these lines "could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word." He went on to state that

Mr. Auden's brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled. So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don't even know that fire is hot.

If Auden's liberal conscience moved him to write something about the Spanish Civil War at the time, a little more personal commitment to the event, such as Orwell experienced, would perhaps have only made the poem greater. But Auden would have to have been a different person. He was so stung, however, by Orwell's words that he changed the line in the poem and suppressed it in his collected poems.

The makers of these movies seem motivated by something other than conscience in their determination to graft historical fact onto their fantasies. They are playing with fire in the foolish belief that fantasy makes them fireproof.

*Postscript: I had a chance to double check the scenes from X-Men: First Class, and the initial scenes in the death camp do appear to be new. The woman prisoner whom Kevin Bacon summons, speaking German atrociously (to add a little authenticity, you see) is, in fact, the boy's mother. Bacon points his gun at her and counts to three ("ein, zwei, drei"). The men who make these crass movies (notice how women consistently absent themselves from the making of these male juvenile fantasies) believe that nothing is sacred.

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