Walter Benjamin chose to end his essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"—in which he discusses at length the effects of film on man & society—with a passage from the Futurist Manifesto of Filippo Marinetti:
War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metalization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony.
To which he chides:
[Mankind's] self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.
It goes without saying that Benjamin would have shit his britches were he permitted to view the blood-drenched splendor that is the climactic battle of Smokin' Aces, in which five sets of hired hitmen go head-to-head over one mob target. Because if there is one place in which this movie doesn't fail, it's this: the utter aestheticizing of capital-V-Violence. Dialogue may fall flat, the plot halts & capsizes at each turn like a poorly oiled shopping cart—but the saturated super-blue of Kevin Durand's eyes, pleading amid a sparkle of flying glass, as he falls back onto a chainsaw & blood like Crayola ink splatters skyward in a demented fountain... It's really something to see.
& I mean that. Because a well-made action movie is, on some level, what going to the movies is all about. Of course, so are the syrup-slow neoneorealist indie somnambles, but a good part of film's original intent—the Voyage dans la lune, Méliès-style spectacle—is in a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am, you-will-never-see-this-elsewhere shock-fest, carpet-bombed with effects & begging you to let it go further. When presented in the right light, a shoot-out can achieve Depth, a gangfight becomes High Art—but when handled with talent, zeal, a little humor, & an iron clad pair of Balls (the figurative, unisex kind), action movies transcend the need for these capitalized, capitalizing arthouse ghouls & just become pure fucking gorgeous fun.
Crank is a perfect example of this. For those unfamiliar: the basic conceit of Crank is that (age-old, brick-faced) Jason Statham has been injected with "some Chinese shit" that will kill him in a matter of minutes—unless he can keep his heart rate at a constant, adrenaline-fueled skyrocket. Basically, it's like Speed meets The Magic Schoolbus: Inside Ralphie—which, as you might imagine, makes for one hellish ride. Take this sequence, in which Statham holds up a hospital, main-lines pure epinephrine, then surfs crucifixion-style on a stolen police motorcycle. (Note Dennis Reynolds pushing the cart—&, later in the film, the little boy from A Simple Wish credited as "Warehouse Hood Leader.")
I mean, what's not to love? Really, though—the rhythm of shots is exciting; camerawork gripping; the use of super-saturated color only adds to the feeling that what we are seeing now is too much. Use of videogame references & news footage throughout the remaining 80 minutes remind us how hyperviolence already seeps into our everyday; Crank intentionally renders itself ridiculous, calls out its own parodying. This self-referential nod from both style & premise—as well as the masterful editing, the pervasive humor—make this, in my opinion, a film among films.
& so, too, with Smokin' Aces. While not so clever all-around like Crank, it really is incredibly, almost unfathomably well-made; despite its ludicrous & fumbling plot, it is, when all is said & done, an especially aesthetically pleasing film. Consider its trailer (which is, I can assure you, a microcosm of the full film's processes). [Unfortunately, the embeddable version is terrible quality—& not the one I want to show.]
First of all, we'll just say that Michael Bluth owns a piece of my heart & get that out of the way. (His part in this movie is painfully, painfully small, despite how it's made to look.) Most importantly, though: the images are color-conscious, saturated & well-framed; the editing is choppy & brisk, exciting even when there's little to be excited about (Ben Affleck? Really?); & it has that crucial dose of humor. Given, it's a shot of a man Sharpie-ing on a Hitler mustache set to elevator music—but those ice-blue irises against a flare of ochre sun...!
My point is simply this: that anything can be rendered beautiful if handled right. Take, for example, the shootout in John Woo's criminally over-the-top Face/Off, in which a little boy is given noise-cancelling headphones, & we are then allowed to watch the scene from his point of view, as "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" drowns out the sounds of violence:
Bodies flip & fall amid the sparks in a drunken ballet; mouths wide in pain seem cartoonish, representative—until they don't, & the urgent tubas butt back in, bringing gunfire & panic, & we realize what we were supposed to hear all along. By decontextualizing the violence to such a degree—rendering it purely aesthetic, purely beautiful, if perversely so—before yanking us back to our actual understanding of a gunfight—which is fierce & frightening—Woo is (among other things) reminding us of Benjamin's admonishment, that we experience our own destruction as pleasure.
But is this really such a bad thing? I would say: only if violent movies incite violent acts. Some say they do, some say they don't. I, personally, have no desire to own a gun, let alone fire it while getting head & speeding down a highway—but I sure love watching Jason Statham pretend to. (I also understand that my brain functions differently than that of a soda-fueled twelve year old boy—but that is, I think, more of an argument for keeping them away from these films than for keeping these films from being made.) Then, is there really harm in depicting violence beautifully, as long as that violence remains in diegesis?
I say, no. I say, bring it on. Though Marinetti's futurist manifesto provokes too far (obviously, murder as art is not something anyone should ever condone), it does represent the misguided literalizing of what I consider to be a valid point. Because the magic of film lies in the presentation of life as we can't see it—slowed down, sped up, to zoomed in close, as the director guides our eye—& violence is as much a part of life as friendship or sex. Moreover, film presents such possibility for making the unreal real, that it seems almost obligated (at least sometimes) to present life as we really can't see it, with special effects & wild, impossible scenarios.
In my mind, as long as an improbable last-second reunion of star-cross'd lovers is acceptable cinema, then so is a guns-blazing final showdown. In fact, the former is simpler to create (& to experience), because love is emotionally pleasurable; to render violence beautiful, so much so that it divorces from its inherent ugliness, is true craftsmanship at work. Well-made film is well-made film—but more than that, I would assert that a well-made violent film is often an inherently better film than most: All Quiet on the Western Front is an emotionally-paralyzing antiwar juggernaut, a truly transcendent piece of cinema—in part, of course, because the shells flashing white-hot across a wasteland of gunsmoke, even as they fell a blinded soldier, are beautiful.
I feel it's important to clarify, however:
1) that real, worthwhile Action Movies are a small, small subset of the drivel that normally gets shoved into that category. See: Smokin' Aces 2: Assassins' Ball. (I haven't.)
2) that I don't see Evoking the Sadness of Death as crucial to a violent movie's success.
Rather, the moment I really fall off the Smokin' Aces bandwagon is when, around the hour-or-so mark, they start to (over)dramatize the toll that certain deaths take on the bloodied-but-living: there are many tears, vengeful clip-emptyings, surges of mournful scoring. Meanwhile, inconsequential characters (or, those revenged upon) continue to drop like jostled mannequins: they try to have & eat their cake in such tactless, sloppy bites that the movie loses all its vitality, stops being my platonic Action Movie, & flails emptily in unearned Sentiment. The violence is neither interesting, nor is it successfully emotional, slipping off both sides of the tightrope in a spectacular bellyflop. Were it either—or, were it both, as [MAJOR SPOILER from The Departed] only the best manage—it would continue to be impressive, but instead, it's just impressively disappointing.
However, I'm talking here about the very end of Smokin' Aces. I really do enjoy its first two-thirds—which is, of course, what I feel the need to justify, constantly, here & in conversation, because there is inherent disrespect for a movie that's marketed under the gun-full umbrella of Action. But really now, after paragraph upon paragraph, I ask you again: if a movie is both beautiful & exciting, enthralling to eye & adrenal gland (& yes, occasionally, heart) because it is just so damn skillfully put together—what's not to love?
Well, one thing, at least (she says, guiltily shoe-gazing). Though my main thrust in this musing has been to dissect the depiction of violence in my beloved Action Movie, it's impossible to talk about these films without mentioning their near-unbroken trend of serious female exploitation, which is ultimately unjustifiable.
& I tried. Really, I did. I wrote a whole paragraph about how everything is so heightened that the men aren't realistic either, but then I just sounded like those people who try to justify female superhero costumes—showing large swaths of skin, clinging to gigantic breasts that loom above impossibly thin waists—by saying that the men are just as exaggerated. But there is, of course, a crucial difference, in that they're exaggerated with separate ends in mind: men are super-powerful, & though women may be too, they must also be super-sexy. In short: supermen don't have comically large crotch-bulges—just as male action heroes are badasses first, attractive later. Balding, blunt-featured Jason Statham is not a heartthrob by any stretch, but after watching him perform some derring-do, he becomes potentially desirable in the most cavemanesque sense—in that, if it came to it, he could probably keep you in furs & deer carcass, fell the occasional wooly mammoth, etc.
Meanwhile, women in action movies are trophies, set decoration, or damsels in distress—with the occasional intervention of an oversexed female superheroine, who is, in her own way, almost worse (Ooh! A woman kicking ass? What a lark! It's a wonder her half-inch of spandex underwear hasn't ridden up...). There are exceptions, of course, but they pale in comparison to the exploited masses, & that's a fact.
So here's the deal: I think more action-loving Ladies need to come out of the woodwork. If we make it clear that beer-bellied testosterone dispensers (& their younger counterparts) aren't the Action Movie's only enthused patrons, then maybe we can stem the tide of tits-for-tits'-sake & Token Girls. Though it's the pill we have to swallow for now to enjoy some really, truly excellent films (I know, I know, it pains me, too—really), maybe, someday, things will be different...
This is, of course, essentially a fantasy, & I recognize it as such, but it's the only way I can reconcile this really icky trend in the movies I love—the little suspension of disbelief I allow myself, even before sitting back to watch something truly spectacular.
Today's Headphone Fodder:
World Destruction—Time Zone feat. Afrika Bambaataa & John Lydon.
It's just brilliant. I mean, really. The two unlikeliest anti-norm forces—an afrocentric hip-hop group & the cockeyed, safety-pinned onetime Rotten—colliding to denounce the frustrating lunacy of a Moral Majority—&, especially, its leader. There's not much more to say, other than that in a time of Armageddon scares—oil spills & chokeholds of ignorance, Glenn Beck leading a swarm of his own chanting reactionary lunatics—it's somewhat comforting to know that people have felt this way before, enough to merge hyperAfrican hip hop & borderline skinhead Britpunk. They felt this way, & yet—Reagan's blundering prophecies aside—we're all still here. Of course, that could just mean we're due.