Politics & Policy

New Comics, New Hardy, Same Visual Illiteracy

Avengers: Age of Ultron and Far from the Madding Crowd continue the dumbing-down.

The first word spoken in Avengers: Age of Ultron is a scatological expletive. That says it all. No matter how many fans of comics and graphic novels dominate what’s left of the film-going populace, there can be no denying that they’re settling for crap. The terrible thing is that they’re too young and untutored to know it. (Not even the new version of a Thomas Hardy novel solves this predicament. See below.)

Avengers: Age of Ultron’s battle plot offers more pop Gnosticism, mixing up good, evil, and militarism. Today’s movie audience has been indoctrinated to accept inane, immoral fantasy as a millennial truth. The dubious politics behind the attempt by Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to control global warfare is presented as a democratic motive, but it’s really a fulfillment of the same consumerist urge that turns Marvel fans into brand worshipers. (Stark’s personal operating system boasts an atheistic label: “Jarvis is my co-pilot.”)           

Just as Stark’s technological toys subvert his best intentions, Marvel’s childishness also backfires: The Avengers team — comprising Captain America, the Hulk, Black Widow, Thor, and Hawkeye (plus three supernumerary black heroes) — is provoked by Stark’s id (the manufactured Ultron and its doppelgänger, Vision) into a fight to (yawn) save humanity. They clash upon a plot of land, somewhere in the Balkans, that is detached from the earth and elevated into a mid-air battlefield. But they can’t save the audience’s intelligence.

Director Joss Whedon shows his visual illiteracy with action scenes so dark they have the 3-D effect of watching a movie while wearing sunglasses indoors.

We’ve seen this God-less sci-fi stuff sequelized before. Not even having armies of robots battling over the indestructible ore “vibranium” is new. Still, juvenile viewers remain incapable of questioning the film’s political/economic subtext (in which vibranium = advertising hype). Completely pacified, they accept Hollywood coercion-by-placebo and give a pass to these celebrities and their alter egos. (Mark “Hulk” Ruffalo doing angst — again! If the Avengers audience had suffered through his Foxcatcher and The Normal Heart performances, they’d have joined the Baltimore rioters, too.)

So Age of Ultron is another payday-but-not-for-you. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen as supernatural war orphans — the Maximoff twins, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch – might object because they are given short shrift in the narrative (I do), while Scarlett “Black Widow” Johansson and colleagues can cheer as they check their bank balances.

Director Joss Whedon shows his visual illiteracy with action scenes so dark they have the 3-D effect of watching a movie while wearing sunglasses indoors. Each action set-piece is obviously planned yet is unclear. The blurry intercutting of simultaneous superhero exploits bungles the concept of montage. Recognizing steals from District 9, Starship Troopers, Carrie, and TV’s American Horror Story provides a risible semblance of coherence. Age of Ultron works only if you’re already in the Marvel cult. Just buy the ticket, barter your brain, and give up real movies.

*      *      *

Carey “Cry-Baby” Mulligan, star of some of the worst recent films (Shame, Drive, An Education), is today’s scrunchy-faced movie icon — a figure of New Girl petulance. She reduces Thomas Vinterberg’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd to a post-feminist chick flick about a moneyed flibbertigibbet.

Bathsheba Everdene (the Hardy heroine bowdlerized for illiterates into The Hunger Games’s Katniss Everdeen) is meant to seem impetuous when she toys with the hearts of three men in the late-19th-century English countryside, where she has inherited an estate. So the role needs an actress whose hasty impulses fascinate. Fascination is what Mulligan lacks. Vinterberg’s retelling offers more serious fare than The Hunger Games, yet it still demonstrates how far film culture has fallen since Hardy’s novel was last filmed almost 50 years ago.

In 1967, John Schlesinger’s version took advantage of then–Swinging London’s importance in the pop revolution — mainly by casting Julie Christie as Bathsheba (a classy extension of her role in Schlesinger’s preceding hit, Darling). Christie’s exotic beauty helped idealize Bathsheba as a superlative example of the feminine principle — during the sexual revolution, her independence confounded both male and female filmgoers. The puzzlement Hardy adduced in the chapter titled “Vanity” was memorably translated in the scene of Christie admiring herself in a mirror. Mulligan doesn’t — cannot — do that. Is there any movie star today who could?

Here, when the philandering Sergeant Troy meets Bathsheba and says, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a face as beautiful as yours,” the line has little point. Christie embodied Plato’s notion, “Beauty is the splendor of truth,” but this new version of the story, despite its fairly faithful narrative, has no aesthetic pulse. Hardy’s symbolic details, cliffhangers, and coincidences-as-instruments-of-fate are still watchable, yet under-dramatized as in a TV series. It’s as much of a cultural devolution as the falling-off from Christie to Mulligan.

The same problem occurs with Mulligan’s male troika. They cannot stand up to Christie’s suitors — Alan Bates, Peter Finch, and Terence Stamp.

As the shepherd Gabriel Oak, Matthias Schoenaerts is the best here; his strong peasant face and small eyes make him feral and powerfully taciturn, like the young Depardieu. As the landowner Boldwood, Michael Sheen does an Anthony Hopkins too neurotically — consistent with Vinterberg’s obviously psychoanalyzing these characters, as he does with Tom Sturridge’s Sergeant Troy, a sexually dominant weakling with Cupid’s-bow lips and a rock star’s androgyny.

But even that archetype was already aced by Schlesinger and Terence Stamp when characterizing Troy in a still-dazzling erotic swordplay montage; that scene carried the force of the zeitgeist — as provocative as any Mick Jagger move —  and startlingly updated Hardy’s Englishness. So did Nicolas Roeg’s 1960s color photography, which sensualized Hardy’s worldview, a landmark in cinematographic history.

Vinterberg and Mulligan’s adaptation is, unfortunately, also of its time. Vinterberg, a member of the debased Dogme movement, cheats us of Hardy’s marvelous breadth. Hardy’s great craft — rhyming plots and expressive details — contributed to the origin of cinematic storytelling (proved by D. W. Griffith’s 1920 Americanization of Tess of the d’Urbervilles into Way Down East). Hardy’s influence has been squandered since then and now is lost, unknown to “golden age of television” enthusiasts. When Godard bade farewell to language last year, narrative redundancies like this Far from the Madding Crowd are what he prophesied.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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