Month: July 2012

The Phantoms We Fight

To the best of my knowledge, Batman has never fought the Phantom, the pulpy 1940s DC superhero sometimes called “the Ghost who walks,” despite sharing a label and a generally dark, detective-y disposition. Maybe that’s because it’s widely assumed the latter originated as a rip-off of the former (in fact, the Phantom predates Batman by over three years.) Myself, I actually prefer the Phantom — that’s a story for another time.


But in the wake of today’s shooting in Aurora, Co., during a showing of The Dark Knight Rises, we’re all coming to the aid of Batman against a Phantom we see as his biggest foe. Bigger than the Joker, bigger than Bane.

It’s the legion of people across America who will blame Batman himself — or rather, the dark, gritty Nolan Batman films — for putting the idea in the shooter’s head. It’s that same bunch (religious types mostly, as Homer Simpson might say) who “blamed it on Marilyn,” to quote Eminem referring to the 1999 Columbine shooting. They’re the church ladies who think violent movies are responsible for warping minds and causing these kinds of shooting sprees.

And they’re everywhere, just waiting to lay blame to violent Hollywood films. We all know they’re wrong: this shooting is the fault of the shooter and the shooter alone. How can so many people be so wrong?

Because they don’t exist. They’re phantoms.

Come on, that can’t be true, right? You can’t watch the news after a shooting like this without hearing miles of hot air about whether Hollywood is too violent. What about Fox News? Surely they were all over this, since those people are their core viewers? Nope, Fox News’s analysts all agree: “Batman didn’t do this.”

But there’s just no question these people are going to come out of the woodwork.

“Some will, no doubt, claim that late-night showings of movies involving masked avengers and incorporating violence are to blame.  Some will bemoan the playing out on screen of hyperbolic themes related to good and evil, claiming that these tides of meaning can sweep some people away and turn them into killers,” writes someone from Fox News whose name I didn’t care enough to look up.

The culprit? The man responsible, says whoever from Fox News wrote that. Just like everyone else says.

But extensive Googling is unlikely to turn up these characters. Page after page of Google News results, and the narrative becomes clear: “There are those who will blame these shootings on the films, but they are wrong — it’s the shooter’s fault alone.” We like this narrative — it gives us an opponent. But those same Google News pages give no sign that the opponent has actually shown up to the battle.

They are phantoms — the phantoms we use in engaging with the media every single day, the phantoms the media provides us (“no doubt they exist, they’re definitely out there”) so we can get riled up, righteously indignant and stand in brave and defiant opposition against absolutely no one.


Being Boring

The Onion’s AV Club calls the opening shot of The Turin Horse the shot of the year:

The most highly-voted comment on Youtube, from mikaelhs, says, “This is the most boring and yet probably the best flm I’ve ever seen.”

Can we really say what we’ve seen is boring? I say no.

Maybe the narrative mikaelhs is drawing from is the one that tells us films like this are boring because they don’t have the  action, sex, scenery, costumes or witty dialogue of a film like Iron Man 2. In this fairly basic narrative, boring films are better for the same reason boring food is better. A boring film is healthy, and it is your obligation as an intellectual to watch a boring film. I might say that I think The Turin Horse is far less boring than Iron Man 2 if I want to deliberately play contrarian to that narrative, and it’s true, the shot of the horse I just saw was to me much less boring than Iron Man 2. But it’s not that it is non-boring in a different way than Iron Man 2 is non-boring; to say it is is to reveal the pretense of contrarianism I mentioned before. The two films use the same techniques in excitement and drama.

I think the reason mikaelhs finds The Turin Horse boring is its positive qualities, not its negative ones. Some visual cues are on hand to tell us that the film should be thought of as boring. Despite being released in 2011, it looks like a European film from the 1950s. (This has to be intentional; even the “reel” itself shows blotches and imperfections.) Black and white, opening with recited Hungarian on a black screen, its color palette and flawed sound remind us instantly of Alain Resnais or Ingmar Bergman, our favorite “boring” filmmakers. The film is, nearly as much as The Artist was a replication of silent film, a replication of European art house. Art house’s main qualities are that it is boring, and that it is good. Boring and good: mikaelhs’s review.

But like The Artist, The Turin Horse betrays itself: in practice, rather than theory, it is not boring. By any basic cinematic standards, this is fascinating. The music is pulsing and suspenseful. The face and body movement of the horse is harrowing, and the stillness of its rider terrifying, and already my mind is creating the characters. I didn’t want the shot to end, and I’m someone with something like attention deficit disorder for watching video in the background while I work. A second camera capturing this scene in color and high-definition could have included the shot in Steven Spielberg’s non-boring horse drama War Horse, and it would have been one of the most riveting scenes in the movie.

The Turin Horse is an exciting film that appears boring on the surface because it stylistically reminds us of films we qualify as boring.