Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Get Out, Logan, and the Persistence of Genrephobia

This past weekend, the number one film was a perfect specimen of Hollywood’s new paradigm. I have not seen the latest attempt to bring King Kong into the 21st century, so I cannot comment on its quality. It is directed by a young white male director whose only previous feature credit is a coming-of-age story that premiered at Sundance. This strategy of pairing newbie directors with hoary properties is Hollywood’s newfound religion. It has produced mixed results. I like to imagine the bewilderment golden age producers like David O. Selznick would express over this current state of affairs.

But the big story of this still young year are the wild successes of two genre pictures that offer lessons the movie business is loath to learn. The first thing that unites them is both films are focused, specific, and adopt a minimalist approach to their subject. These films work because they try to do one thing, not everything, and they don’t try to wow us with spectacle. The second lesson is simpler still but nevertheless, often rejected.

Jordan Peele’s Get Out and James Mangold’s Logan have plenty of differences. One is original, the other is the 10th film of a loosely grouped cycle. Both were released by major studios but Peele’s film (his first feature after a successful TV comedy series and last year’s action pastiche Keanu) cost around $5 million whereas Logan cost just under $100 million. That last sum is vast but for a studio superhero film that’s a low budget film.

Both films made a lot of money in their first weekend. Logan made its budget back, Get Out made 6 times its budget that first weekend and has gone on to cross the $100 million mark. And once again, people marveled that genre films can be more than just diverting entertainment.

Peele’s horror film especially was met with near-disbelief that a horror film could also have something to say. Fans of horror have been quick to point out that this is absolutely nothing new. Horror has always been about real things. Confronting what we’re afraid of is serious business. And from the beginning of storytelling, we have always told stories that tap into our greatest fears. It is easy to forget what horror is capable of when so much of it is so poorly done and aims so low. But the moment Night of the Living Dead cruelly dispatched its Black hero by having racist lawmen kill him as a matter of reflex (a stunning moment slyly invoked with the final scene of Get Out) it should have become clear that horror is no less capable of reaching the grand level of art as any earnest parable made by Stanley Kramer.

Night of the Living Dead came out at the tail end of 1968. So why do we still treat genre filmmaking and literature as second class? From whence does this middlebrow instinct emerge and why is it so persistent? It should be said that most genre filmmaking/fiction is not, by and large, good. The expectations that create a framework all too often reduce storytelling to paint by numbers. Genre storytelling is looked at as comfort food because we know what to expect before the story even begins. At its worst, genre storytelling feels entrepreneurial, like an investment scheme determined to see a return; and this offends the earnest sensibility of the middlebrow.

Genre may be a vulgar mode of storytelling but when you really come down to it, perhaps genre storytellers are simply more honest and upfront about their intentions. They want you to invest in their story based on the genre, and when the story itself is executed badly, without any personality or originality, the result is indefensible. But it’s unfair to suggest all genre storytellers are the same. Some try to sneak in just a little originality or social commentary while taking care to give the audience the sex and/or violence it dutifully shows up for. But then we have the category Get Out falls in, where the filmmaker clearly is utilizing a genre for a range of reasons.

Peele brilliantly taps into the anxieties and fears that come with being Black in modern America. Get Out works because he clearly loves the genre (he doesn’t treat horror as simply a vehicle for his exploration of race), while simultaneously filling the genre with themes that resonate with him. That’s the tightrope Peele successfully walks. I initially thought Get Out, which invokes the paranoia of crypto-Jewish narratives crafted by Ira Levin and Stanley Kubrick, was effective but instantly dated. The Obama era is over. As elected members of Congress increasingly become comfortable using white nationalist rhetoric, the threat of white liberalism almost seemed quaint. But, as my brilliant wife pointed out, the election of Trump actually serves Get Out well. The paranoia that fuels the film has become even more profound as we process how many of our white neighbors, co-workers, and family might have voted for a man in spite of the fact that he gleefully turned racist dog whistles into air horns. They smile, they give us small talk, they voted for Obama even, but what exactly are they capable of? The horror of Get Out is mined from that question.

Hugh Jackman’s final outing with the claws is not as overtly political but the degree to which the future Logan imagines seems like a post-Trump America is well, uncanny. This is an America that long ago did away with hope or lofty ambitions. This America is about survival. The borders are filled with deportees, casinos have terraformed every Red State city into an ersatz Vegas, and big faceless entities tower over the lives of regular people. It’s striking that the grandest feat of computer generated imagery in Logan is not dedicated to awesome spectacle, but instead comes in the rendering of gargantuan farming robots, seen from a distance, that symbolize the futility of one farming family’s attempt to sustain itself.

Something terrible has happened. Actually many terrible things have happened. The X-Men are all dead, the mansion is gone, and Logan ekes out a living as an Uber driver while caring for a dementia-addled Professor X with help from the mutant detector Caliban. Borrowing from Alfonso Cuaron’s nearly-prophetic Children of Men, mutants have stopped being born and the man who was once Wolverine grapples with the reality that he is the last of his kind. Until he realizes he isn’t the last. He is given the charge of a young girl with powers suspiciously like his own and embarks on a cross country trek with cybernetically enhanced mercs dogging their heels (from the U.S.-Mexico border up to the Canadian border, not unlike the path taken in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey).

One of the breathtaking details of Logan is the detail that the titular mutant is carrying a bullet made of the same unbreakable alloy that has been fused to his skeleton and is likely killing him slowly. Superheroes are expected to make grand sacrifices for the rest of us, and sometimes that includes taking on missions that all but guarantee their demise. But that’s not why Logan is carrying that bullet. He’s carrying it because he wants to die.

This immediately brought to my mind Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon which was released almost 30 years to the day that Logan hit the theaters. I know this because when I saw Lethal Weapon during its opening weekend I was one week into my new life of being a son without a father. I’ll never forget the jaw-dropping moment when Martin Riggs, established in the previous scene as a uniquely dangerous individual with an almost preternatural skill at killing that he can barely control, puts his gun to his head. I had just lost my father a week earlier to suicide.

It was quite a moment for me. It was not a moment I was prepared for. I had been watching action films for a few years at that point and I thought I knew what to expect. But at that moment Shane Black, the screenwriter of Lethal Weapon, crossed a line. A suicidal hero violated the expected machismo of the 1980s action film. Riggs doesn’t pull the trigger but he weeps, holding his dead wife’s photo to his face. What Shane Black did could be looked at as violating the rules of the action film genre, but I think what he did was show us that the genre was more elastic than we ever thought. He showed us that an action film could own the fact that the hero’s derring-do might be a cry for help as much as sign of strength because deep down, we had suspected that some of our heroes might not be the most mentally/spiritually sound individuals.

So rather than leave the theater shaken or upset by what I’d seen, I was somewhat agog over the fact that something as entertaining as Lethal Weapon could also deal with something as serious as suicide. My personal life and my passion had converged.

Learning that Logan is considering suicide isn’t as shocking as Martin Riggs’ attempt but it owes a debt to it. Shane Black’s script changed forever what an action film could do and I think we’ll see that Logan has done similar things for the superhero genre. The analogy is apt. Superhero films are every bit as derided as action films of the 80s were. In a wonderful bit of irony, Richard Donner, director of Lethal Weapon and Superman: The Movie, recently joined in on the widely held condemnation of superhero films as being shallow and childish.

If anything, action films were viewed as more disposable than comic book movies, which on average get better reviews than even the high profile action films of the Reagan era. The closest cousin the superhero film has is the western. The western has been a big influence on superhero films and Logan wears that on its sleeve. Laura, the mute mutant girl who Logan must get to the border, watches Shane with Professor X (Shane was my father’s favorite film, by the way; a perfect encapsulation of his own baby boomer childhood and a foreshadow of his short-lived fatherhood).

The western has certainly given us great films, a few Best Picture winners even (Logan is profoundly Eastwoodian: it is the Unforgiven of the superhero genre and owes a debt to Outlaw Josey Wales as well). Same for horror (in a just world, The Exorcist would’ve won Best Picture). But nevertheless, genre storytelling continues to have second-class citizenship and it likely always will. For whatever reason, human beings create dichotomies easily and often cling to them even in the face of contradictory evidence.

Sadly, this kind of dogged illogic may be what makes us what we are. Having a Black First Family that represented us with class and dignity without a whiff of scandal should have dealt a deathblow to racism but instead the opposite has happened. So if evidence can’t combat racism, I don’t think it will do anything to change the perception that genre storytelling is the narrative equivalent of junk food. So we will be forever amazed by the genre films that show the framework of that narrative mode can be used to explore social ills or dramatize existential crisis as well as any non-genre film.

Both horror and the superhero film will continue to be held up by people who profoundly lack imagination as exhibits A & B of our cultural and moral bankruptcy, and films like Logan and Get Out will be dismissed as exceptions to the rule. Genrephobia is attractive because it is puritanical. And it places those who embrace it into a warm and luxuriant bath of smug superiority. Much like the Obamas, exceptions can be dismissed as either not that great or simply ignored. As a species, we excel at that.

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