Thursday, January 31, 2008

Boyl-ing It All Down: A Manifesto on the Purpose of Film (and other awful puns)

I've written before about some problems in Danny Boyle's films. But I finally got around to seeing Sunshine the other day, and it's becoming increasingly clear that his films aren't reductive to a fault out of his love for striking images that might seem to prevent any real point. After all, the list of filmmakers who compose genuinely moving images (going back to the original spirit that seemed to haunt the "movies") while loading them with genuinely disturbing social or political or philosophical or spiritual content is too enormous to list here (although, it could possibly be the subject of another post in the future).

No, at this point I have to admit that Boyle's endearingly stupid films are really the symptom of a genuinely consistent philosophy of film. One that he seems to genuinely believe in whole-heartedly. One which, as should by now be obvious, leaves me with serious reservations.

In 28 days later... Boyle crafted a patchwork film out of genre fare. Nearly every element from the most iconic zombie films were there. Even the plot itself, while re-tooling the basic premise by turning the "living dead" into the "infected," borrowed the first act from The Omega Man and the final two from Day of the Dead. One could call the film an "experiment" in digital filmmaking, but the entire piece was often breathtakingly and terrifyingly beautiful, borrowing the most iconic images from those previously iconic films and refreshing them with a pixelized, high-contrast sheen. Such a gloss seemed to permeate the entire narrative as well, as the film rolled along through the greatest hits of 1970s and 80s zombie cinema to give something like a striking Power Point presentation of the different kinds of violence humans can inflict on one another.

"Gloss" turns out to be the perfect word to describe the film, both in cinematic and narrative terms. "Gloss" not only in the sense of the sleekness of its chilly photography, but also in the sense that the film ultimately feels like a paraphrase of those previous films that ultimately seems to misinterpret the social point that they were attempting in the first place. After all, what impact can the image of a lone survivor of disaster wandering through the lonely streets of an empty metropolis have when it's divorced from the context in which that image first emerged, that is, the insanely reactionary, gun-toting Messianic image of Charlton Heston navigating the malaise of a society torn between "quiet Americans" like Heston and the radicals sick of Vietnam? And how is a viewer to understand the escape of a chained-up zombie who leads a violent revolt against a military compound when divorced from the image of Bub leading a very different group of "quiet Americans" in a violent protest against Reagan's militarism?

These aren't reinventions of those moments, replacing the politics of previously-loaded images with differently-loaded images. In the interviews with him that I've read, he seems to be fairly clear on the fact that the film isn't meant to be a palimpsestic adaptation of those sources: it is supposed to be an attempt to evacuate those sources of political valences that he may have felt were too specific on a particular moment. Those two moments, after all, have conflicting political projects in their original manifestations, but they are used here for the same political message. It was a deliberate casting away from the particular in favor of what he perceives as the "universal", a kind of idealistic humanism which is most concerned with what kinds of good and bad the individual is capable of performing. A philosophy of man on screen which forces "man" to confront "his" basest nature and conquer it by turning the violence of the individual against itself.

And so we now have Sunshine, which gives us virtually an identical message (Alex Garland scripted both, and I suspect that if I were to revisit The Beach I would find exactly the same message posed in exactly the same universalizing terms). And this time Boyle cannibalizes some of the greatest sci-fi films of all time, evacuating each and every one of them of their larger philosophical and socio-political implications in favor of a message that "Boyles" down to: "Some people have the capacity to kill humanity, while others have the strength to save it." Present are unimaginatively gorgeous and thrilling formal renderings of classic sci-fi images: a circular space station creating an eclipse with the sun; a group of astronauts floating through the vacuum of space in an attempt to re-enter a wounded ship; and a killer obscured by the properties of space vowing to bring an end to all life. Gone, however, are Solaris's post-WWII ruminations on how our collective memories become a material reality that we sometimes have to kill; 2001's obsessive fear of our own ingenuity turning against us; and even Alien's horror at how the biological imperative to kill could be exploited by global corporations.

The problem is not that the films were released outside of the "original" contexts of those films. The problem is that Boyle's aesthetics is precisely an "aesthetics" in the late-19th-century connotations of that term: a terrifying "sublime" under which any material social concerns at all are sublimated. The films have a political thesis, but that thesis is in a very real sense a metaphor with no referent, nothing grounding the loaded images in the very loaded contexts of how these concerns about violence operate today. This philosophy about the function of film has the same problems of which cultural critics of all kinds (popular and academic) are often accused: a disengagement with the real world in favor of masturbatory pursuits.

Personally, I find such vain pursuits at getting to the core of "humanity" counter-productive, misguided, and downright insulting when critics attempt it, and I find it no less of a problem when such pursuits fall under the purview of "art." Film is meant to engage us on a social level somehow, not on a personal level (no one really started talking about the "individual" experience of film until the 1960s or 70s, when psychoanalysis, with its own attempts to universalize the audience perversely by looking at individual film experience, took its hold in film criticism and hasn't let go. We can see this kind of criticism persist all the time popularly, most often with the "thumbs up" mentality that seems to dictate how we approach media nowadays). Some of the most sophisticated and explosive theory about film has been about its relationship to a collective audience, and I think that this is where film should still aim, even in the age of Netflix and iTunes. Film is meant to engage us collectively on an affective level, to drive us into some kind of action, even if it is simply to see something in a literally different way. The Boyle style of filmmaking shows us only things that we have already seen and says only things that have no real value to how we live in this very material world. He Boyles it down to essentials that are no longer essential for our survival, and I'm a little offended by it....

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