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Time and Tempo

by Nicholas Rombes

Reactionary Wokeness

Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams in Get Out (Photo by Justin Lubin, Copyright Universal Studios)

Near the beginning of Peter Watkins’s still-astounding 1971 fictional dystopian documentary Punishment Park, one of the African-American defendants, Lee Robert Brown, is hauled in handcuffs before a makeshift, extra-legal tribunal in the sweltering California desert, where he is instructed to defend his counter-cultural militancy. He says, in part: “You talk as if this is some great, civilized, nonviolent place. It ain’t. America is as psychotic as it is powerful and violence is the only goddamned thing that will command your attention.”

These lines floated to the top of my head while sitting though James Mangold’s Logan, widely praised for its unusually (for a superhero movie) complex and textured character development, and also for its not-so-subtle commentary on the debates about immigration, borders and walls that were in circulation during the film’s creation. “Logan is a Powerful Allegory about U.S. Immigration” read one headline, while Mangold himself said, in an interview at Slashfilm, that he “thought putting mutants in the immigrant experience, on the run, trying to get across the border, would be really interesting for this film.”

This all seems pretty obvious and typical of the soft-progressive mores of Hollywood films, so obvious that it disguises the profound contradictions at play, the ways in which the film’s liberal good intentions are bathed in blood and a kind of hyper-fetishization of guns and weaponry. To ask how many people are murdered by the film’s Kick-Ass-like heroine Laura (Dafne Keen) is just the sort of wet-blanket question you’re not supposed to ask in an action-hero movie, and yet Logan opens the door so widely because, in humanizing and deepening Logan, as well as dosing-up the psychological complexity of his relationship with Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Logan’s daughter Laura, the film wants us to care — but only some of the time. Maybe a few of the dozens (hundreds?) of characters murdered in the film had lives that, too, were precious.

And yet this critique only scratches the surface of the tightly woven together, inseparable political tendencies of a film like Logan. Still useful despite — or maybe because — that it comes from the grand old days of pure “high theory” is the weirdly prescient 1969 Marxist-structuralist essay “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism”  by Jean-Luc Comolli and Paul Narboni, who laid out, like scientists working over a cadaver (“a rigidly factual analysis” they called their essay) seven types of cinema, ranging from those that are “imbued through and through with the dominant ideology” to those that come closest to resisting (never successfully, alas) their ideological systems of creation.

Comolli and Narborni write: “[There are] films which attack their ideological assimilation on two fronts. Firstly, by direct political action, on the level of the ‘signified,’ that is, they deal with a directly political subject. ‘Deal with’ is here intended in an active sense: they do not just discuss an issue, reiterate, paraphrase it, but use it to attack the ideology… This act only becomes politically effective if it is linked with a breaking down of the traditional way of depicting reality.”

I think what Comolli and Narboni are getting at here is not that far off from Marshall McLuhan’s famous “the medium is the message.” Resistance depicted in familiar ways (and with the tools and through the lenses of the so-called dominant ideology) is only so effective. Radical ideas demand radical depictions of those ideas, and the most experimental moments in Logan involve — as they do in several other Mangold films, such as Cop Land and Walk the Line — the spectacular use of sound. The hotel room scene in which Charles suffers a telepathic seizure verges on the avant-garde in its duration (nearly two-and-a-half minutes with no dialog, a lifetime in an action movie) and its droning, strobing, crescendoing use of sound, and for those minutes it’s as if the movie briefly blossoms into some cross-wired alternative to, as Comolli and Narboni would have it, the traditional way of depicting reality. But it’s a brief stretch of the film, and its radical, structural traces are soon recuperated by the film’s return to familiar carnage.

Speaking of which, according to the Internet Movie Firearms Database, here are just some of the weapons used (product-placed?) in Logan: SIG-Sauer P228, SIG-Sauer P226 Sport II, M1911A1, Smith & Wesson Model 386, Heckler & Koch MP5A3, Heckler & Koch MP7A1, M240 Machine Gun. The website for the American Entertainment Armorers Association is a fascinating read, and if there is any doubt that Hollywood’s values reflect the interests of those who lobby for and control the means of production, well…

The paradox is that it is precisely this contradiction — between enlightened progressivism and conservative, even reactionary mores — that fuels some of the best genre films, and this has been true almost since the emergence of narrative genre in the decades following the birth of projected cinema in the 1890s. This is especially true of recent, revivalist genre films such as The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, We Are Still Here, Django Unchained, The Witch, The Bye Bye Man and, most potently, Get Out. The film’s fresh and surprising wokeness works so well precisely because it has its conservative “other” to stand against (spoilers follow): the femme fatale/woman-as-murderous-whore archetype in the form of Chris Washington’s (Daniel Kaluuya) girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams). Barbara Creed, in her now-classic 1993 study The Monstrous-Feminine, wrote:  “As with all other stereotypes of the feminine, from virgin to whore, she is defined in terms of her sexuality. The phrase ‘monstrous-feminine’ emphasizes the importance of gender in the construct of her monstrosity.” Lured through seduction to Rose’s parents’ house, Chris is delivered unto Rose’s mother Missy (Catherine Keener), who seduces him in a different sort of way. Rose (who must and does die at the end for her transgressions) is of a type that, in movie history, reaches back prior to the femme fatale into the early 20th-century vogue of the vamp.

Movies like Logan, Get Out and any number of Hollywood genre films released in any given week function so efficiently not despite their ideological contradictions, but, on the contrary, because of them. Dealing a sort of soft, generic liberalism on one hand, and a weirdly disguised (a good, engaging narrative always disguises its gestures; the “invisible” style of storytelling, according to David Bordwell) reactionary underbelly. It is the work of ideology to never allow this contradiction to be solved.

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