Culture

Movie Manifestos Exposed

X-Men: Apocalypse (Fox)
The bad thinking that X-Men: Apocalypse and art movies have in common.

There’s little distance between X-Men: Apocalypse and the films of Chinese director Jia Zhangke. Although their audiences are different (juvenile thrill-seekers and art-movie devotees), the films appeal to the same grim taste for catastrophe. It is a symptom of the era’s depression and the culture’s decline.

The X-Men films are quasi-political comic-book trash, while Jia’s dramas depict Chinese citizens adjusting to new social conditions — they’re X-Men minus the fantasy metaphors. These similarities announced themselves with this week’s simultaneous opening of X-Men: Apocalypse (eighth in the Marvel franchise, so far), directed by American Bryan Singer, and the new documentary Jia Zhangke: A Guy from Fenyang, by Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles. Seen close together, Marvel Comics’ reiteration of its gifted-mutant-freedom-fighters action series seemed to parallel Salles’s respectful investigation into Jia’s films about average people whose lives are stunted by government-imposed social policies. (The high point of both movies is Jia sentimentally musing on father–son relationships. He must secretly love The Empire Strikes Back.)

The high-tech manufacturing of Singer’s impersonal, studio-financed blockbuster obviously contrasts with the personal history behind Jia’s government-supervised work. But rather than stick to a junk-vs.-art irony, notice a common, cynical view of behavior in the two movies. This cynicism was definitively set out in critic Gregory Solman’s brilliant 2001 assessment of how the first film in the X-Men series traduced human experience. Solman wrote, “X-Men offers little in the way of Xplanation or Xperiment. . . . [T]he X-men function as blunt metaphors for various forms of social injustice and alienation, but there are only hints of causal connection, and there’s no theory about why genetic mutations have suddenly sprung up and accelerated in the human community. . . . These X-men are all so Differently Abled and liberal baiting . . . ”

Jia takes a human-rights view of the same sociological mutation. In his films Platform, Unknown Pleasures, The World, and A Touch of Sin, various forms of social injustice – implicitly, the depredations of China’s Cultural Revolution — are subtly critiqued through art-cinema formalism (long takes and exaggerated violence), which, in its way, is as alienating as sci-fi comic-book gimcrack. This has made Jia a celebrity on the international film-festival circuit, where filmmakers are rewarded for managing careers under repressive regimes while also appealing to the privileged taste of elitist audiences.

Salles’s documentary/interview with Jia half-explores the motivations behind his elitism, which is more interesting than Singer’s pop-art nonsense featuring aging, interchangeable freakazoids and teasings about global annihilation. Jia can never depict malign authority such as Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of the character Apocalypse, whom the X-Men must defeat in order to save mankind; Jia’s characters simply react to their culture’s treacherous influence and unnamed power.

#share#As Jia guides Salles through his home settlement, Fenyang, formerly a prison, and his past shooting locations, and as he introduces old friends and neighbors, the documentary gives evidence of how a director translates personal experience and political perspective into film (a process that the Hollywood system — and particularly the Marvel machine — almost fascistically obscures).

It is touching to hear Jia admit, “I have such appreciation for the camera, for without it I could not capture the details of life and I would be left with all I feel inside.” Yet his confessional approach to filmmaking is thwarted by a storytelling tendency not so different from Singer’s. Jia’s films incline toward unclear social theories and simplistic rationales for complex impulses. Although he says, “There are personal emotions in my films,” he gets caught up in nihilistic art-movie clichés.

Filmmakers who propose violence as a manifesto, whether in comic-book or sociological contexts, are equally squalid.

And these have affected his appreciation for his cultural heritage and his own background in ways that observers of American hipster filmmaking might recognize: “I love the feeling of disaster and collapse we feel here,” Jia lectures. “There are still traces of past riches. The architectural structure is still there, but we see it after its decline.” This attitude can be sensed in the way Hollywood action filmmakers regard America’s past. It is the basis for the sad, tiring disputes favoring Marvel thrill rides over Zack Snyder’s moral epics; it indicates a preference for decadence (ruin porn) much like Jia’s.

When Jia relates a character from his abominable A Touch of Sin to a ruined locale, Salles intercuts a moment from the film that abstractly conveys the momentum of despair, violence, and spiritual stasis. This out-of-context scene is stronger than all the F/X in X-Men: Apocalypse, yet it is confounding. Jia relates this visual expression of alienation to social media: “All you need is a blog account to express your opinions. But the problem is that even if you have a blog, and express your ideas, who hears you? Is someone really listening?”

#related#Unfortunately, Jia then explains: “Violence is also a manifesto, a way to affirm . . . existence as an individual.” He makes reference to the Wuxia genre (China’s equivalent to U.S. Westerns), with its “old-time justice keepers” and “traditional female warriors,” along with his own style of filming scenes of interminable futility and exaggerated violence. Here, Jia sounds just like Tarantino, J. J. Abrams, or Bryan Singer but with sociological pretensions.

Would Salles prescribe such claptrap — the current fashion that romanticizes anarchist “protest” and fascist censure as “justice” — for the depiction of Brazil’s political crises? It’s doubtful. Filmmakers who propose violence as a manifesto, whether in comic-book or sociological contexts, are equally squalid. Jia and Singer are differently abled, but they’re both liberal baiting.

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