There are spoilers ahead for Iron Man 3 - but going by the box office every human alive interested in seeing it already has, so we should be cool, right?
The Iron Man films – and the cinematic Marvel universe in general – possess some pretty odd politics. Shane Black’s take on the villainous Mandarin, however, was a clever twist in a sometimes-too-clever-for-its-own-good movie. It turns out Iron Man’s nemesis isn’t a murderous, magic-ringed, uncomfortably ‘ethnic’ tyrant; he’s a down-on-his-luck actor chewing the scenery for cash.
(Alyssa Rosenberg deftly dissects the movie’s ideology, saying Tony Stark’s enemies are “the movie’s great joke, and the subject of its major critique of the War on Terror, and unfortunately, Iron Man 3′s significant weakness.”)
Of course, some Iron Man fans are pissed. For example: Shane Black and Marvel “wiped their ass with decades of Iron Man history, reducing Shell Head’s lone significant adversary to a punchline.”
It’s a striking example of ‘superhero embarrassment’ that often appears when comic book characters migrate to other media. In Bryan Singer’s first X-Men, the mutants are dressed in post-Matrix black leather. When Wolverine complains, he’s asked if he’d “prefer yellow spandex”. Or in a recent episode of the TV show Arrow, where a character is mocked for daring to suggest Oliver Queen’s vigilante could be called something as ridiculous as Green Arrow.
Perhaps the grandest example of this was poor Galactus in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. He wasn’t allowed to appear as his giant, purple-helmeted, planet-eating self. That’d just be stupid. Instead, he was… a hungry space-cloud or something?
Comic books often channel this kind of embarrassment back to their pages: look at DC’s current Superman costume, meant to suggest body armour instead of a strongman’s silk. But comics also respond to ‘superhero embarrassment’ with what could be called ‘superhero defensiveness’. In fact, it’s one of Geoff Johns’ go-to techniques. His epic Green Lantern tale is a retort to everyone who joked about how goofy it was a magic ring wouldn’t work on anything yellow. In Batman: Earth One, he has a villain mock Batman for wearing a cape. Batman uses the cape to defeat his opponent, saying it’s actually a weapon.
This defensiveness reaches its peak in Johns’ new run on Aquaman. Poor Aquaman has been the butt of jokes in our world for years, and Johns brings that mockery into Aquaman’s world, too. In the first issue, he’s asked: “So how’s it feel to be a punchline? How’s it feel to be a laughingstock? How’s it feel to be nobody’s favourite super-hero?” Since then, every issue pauses to answer the presumed eye-rolls of the public at large with a ‘you think Aquaman’s dumb? No, you’re dumb! Aquaman’s rad!’ setpiece.
Movies and TV shows sneering at their source material can be frustrating – but so can the need to always turn the bizarre, nonsensical, beloved elements of superhero stories into logic and practicality.
A side effect of knowing so many film critics is that your December is inevitably filled with talk of Top Ten lists. I’ve never felt comfortable ranking art; I even hate having to score movies out of five. (Blame how terrible I was at sport when I was young. Second place is just the first loser, kids!) Stacking films against each other always makes me feel a little like I’m rating the hotness of my ex-girlfriends or something equally as creepy.
That said, reading everyone else’s Best Ofs is a great way to discover films I missed, and some were nice enough to pester me about what I enjoyed in 2012 for that same reason.
Here’s the thing, though: those who know me in what we laughingly refer to as ‘real life’ might be aware I’ve had a tough year. I wrote about what it’s meant for how I’ve absorbed art lately over at Bookslut. It means I’ve missed a lot of movies – including some that I actually saw, beginning to end. I was somewhere else.
I more easily enjoyed films that were silly, like Whit Stillman’s surprise tonal sequel to Clueless, Damsels in Distress. Or cerebral, like Andrey Zvyagintsev’s character-before-crime piece Elena. Or bombastic enough to thunder through the noise in my head: the operatic Margaret, the IMAXed and Inception-horned Dark Knight Rises, the first and last scenes of Killing Them Softly. What was between those scenes in Softly was pretty great, too.
Depression made me impervious to some films aiming for grand emotion, most notably Beasts of the Southern Wild. I appreciated its aesthetic, but anything more bounced off me and ricocheted into the dark. There were other much-loved films I found entertaining enough – Argo, The Avengers, Holy Motors – but any impression they made faded soon after. I’d need to see them a second time to know if they’re to blame for that, or if I am.
Exceptions to the above: Andrew Haigh’s lo-fi romantic drama Weekend. I interviewed him about it here. It broke my heart so gradually I almost didn’t notice it’d stopped beating. The documentary Searching for Sugar Man broke my heart early and just kept on grinding it to pieces until the credits rolled. Andrea Arnold’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights had the kind of deft, deep poetic imagery most films can only dream of. And Hugo – Scorsese’s lecture on early cinema Trojan Horsed into a kid’s fantasy – hurt me with its plea that “time hasn’t been kind to old movies”.
2012 was also, unexpectedly, the Year I Got To Hang Out With Paul Thomas Anderson For A Whole Evening. Hosting a daunting Q&A with Anderson for Melbourne’s Astor Theatre meant I was predisposed to love The Master – but was enthralled by it, anyway. It’s the single most romantic film of the year, and whatever oblique moments or meanings it contains paled against that romance for me. Offstage, I told Anderson I was surprised to see so many talking about how “difficult” The Master was. He responded, incredulous: “I know, right?”
Mostly, last year, I remembered the solace of genre; the joy of conventions as satisfying when followed as when broken. I loved Josh Trank’s Chronicle, and thought it tapped into the dark logic of superhero stories better than its blockbuster equivalents. Takashi Miike’s Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai was an incredibly effective slow-burn tragedy, with one reveal that made me gasp out loud like I was guest starring in a panto.
As Rian Johnson’s Looper unspooled on the screen, it was the most unthinkingly what-will-happen-next-? I was in any film in 2012. (Once I got used to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s makeup, anyway.) The way Looper combined so many strands of sci-fi into something so satisfying reminded me of The Matrix, all those years ago, and seeing it a second time better opened up its melancholic core.
And how do I explain my love of poor, poor John Carter? So many people I know, with opinions I respect, could barely even make it through Andrew Stanton’s labour of love. Is it my fondness of old-fashioned pulp that let me find so much magic here where others found none? My post-Friday Night Lights crush on Taylor Kitsch? The fact it arrived already labelled as the year’s biggest fiasco? With each gleefully terrible review, I admit I found myself wanting to like it more.
Did I Tinkerbell-clap it to life? I don’t think so.
I’m wary of criticism that’s about the author first and the art a distant second, and I know the above might read that way. What 2012 taught me, however, is that while cinema opens us up to new worlds we only ever watch it with our own eyes.
So what have I been doing for the past couple of months that’s precluded me from rambling about popular culture here? Working on screenplays, mostly. (One down! One with a long, long way to go!) But I’ve also been doing plenty of film-related interviews for Time Out, so here are some recent highlights:
Experimental filmmaker Guy Maddin talks about his body of work, the development of his visual style, and his mistrust of cinematic ‘realism’.
Skins’ actor Kaya Scodelario on the challenges of playing Cathy in Andrea Arnolds’ new, poetic adaptation of Wuthering Heights.
Geoffrey Wright looks back at his controversial Romper Stomper on its 20th anniversary, and tells why just-starting-out filmmakers should take more risks.
Bollywood superstar Vidya Balan discusses lascivious winking,’virtual sex’, and shifts in Hindi cinema.
Here’s Claudio Simonetti of Goblin on how a young Italian rock band created one of the most famous horror soundtracks of all time for Dario Argento’s Suspiria.
And B-movie legend Larry Cohen – of It’s Alive, God Told Me To, and The Stuff – explains why most Hollywood films are so screwed up.
(Yeah, it’s directors. Goddamn directors.)
In the latest issue of Triple J Magazine, I chat with Carrie Brownstein about her hit sketch comedy show Portlandia, her new band Wild Flag, and how comedy and music compare. She was so generous with her time, though, I thought I’d put up the rest of our conversation here. So go read the mag for Part One, and here’s Part Two…
My favourite thing about Portlandia is how it’s always entertaining even when I’m not finding it funny. The best sketch comedy is always weird little short stories, right? It’s great when there are laughs, but laughs aren’t the only thing…
I find that too. I went back and watched Kids In The Hall, and I sometimes found that I wasn’t laughing. When you think of something being funny, you think: “This must be something that makes me laugh.” But I realised that wasn’t the only way I was responding to the show. I think our intention is not always to make people laugh – we’re okay with sometimes making people feel a little uncomfortable, or making something last a little too long. I appreciate what you said in terms of ‘short stories’. There are moments of surprise or entertainment or discomfort. You’re not just laughing. You’re going on a little journey. We credit that to our director, Jonathan Krisel, who approaches everything like we’re making a bunch of short indie films.
Can you predict the scenes or characters or lines that might explode in popular culture? Or is it always a surprise?
It’s a surprise, of course. I don’t think you can go into a creative endeavour with any kind of assumption about how other people will understand it – or whether people will understand it. I don’t think that’s a good place to start. It’s a backwards way of looking at it. You have to go in knowing your intentions, having a point of view, and then all you can do is hope it will capture the imagination of others. We never go in thinking: “This is a phrase people will quote back to us!”
In fact, one of the most pleasant things about meeting fans is how everyone has an individual experience of the show. Even though ‘put a bird on it!’ might be the most ubiquitous line, others will come up and repeat back an obscure line from some sketch we’d nearly forgotten about. That’s very rewarding. Not only can you not predict what people are going to enjoy, it also really differs from person to person. Even sketches you think weren’t as successful as you wanted them to be – somebody finds them applicable to their lives.
You’ve also managed to avoid the thing that kills so much sketch comedy: when something is successful, running it into the ground. How do you resist the urge?
I’ll tell you. We fight against the network. We have a wonderful network in IFC, and they give us a lot of creative license and freedom – but everyone gets excited about something and wants that thing to keep happening. You just have to convince yourself and others that it’s best to keep it rare, and try for something new instead of repeating the old. I think that’s something I learned and remembered from music. You don’t want to just keep putting out the same album.
Actually, as we went into the second season and now the third, the analogy we used was a record. Your first album can be a series of singles – like “here’s our opening thesis” – and you have a couple of hits. It might not be cohesive as an album, but we had ‘Dream of the 90s’, or ‘Put A Bird on It’. And then, for the second record, it’s okay if it’s a little more complicated. It fits together better as an album but might not have the same sort of singles. We talk about that all the time, and it’s very intentional not to go back and retread territory we’ve already gone over.
I love this analogy. So does that mean we’ll soon get Portlandia’s ‘difficult’ album? Just weird instrumental tones for hardcore fans or something?
Hopefully not yet. That’ll be a spin-off show. But let’s see – traditionally, the third album tries new things. And the third album is a good one because you can mine some of the things you know how to do, but you can hopefully do them better. And people also allow for some experimentation, some artistic deviation, from what you did on the first and second records. I know we’ll be trying some new things this season.
You once said that you didn’t want to keep climbing up on stage and “mimicking your younger self”. How is that different now with Wild Flag? How is this Carrie different from that Carrie?
That’s hard to say because I’m just myself. But I do think that having a new relationship to something, having the actual endeavor be new, helps you get out of any nostalgic sentimental trap. Nostalgia can be so comforting – but then you realise it’s actually a deceptive feeling because you feel almost dirty afterwards. Stuck in a weird loop of sadness. A weird, dreamy melancholy. The person I am on stage with Wild Flag is just someone trying to enjoy it, in the moment, feeling connected to it. Not trying to emulate or repeat something I did in the past.
Is Portlandia in part addressing that kind of nostalgia?
A little bit. I think the cycle of nostalgia definitely gets shorter and shorter. It used to feel like the cycles came further apart – like we were mining something twenty years ago, then ten years ago, and all of a sudden you almost feel nostalgic for yesterday, or this morning. There’s something about that sense that yesterday might have been better, or our childhoods better than now. I think a lot of the characters on Portlandia are grappling with that. Trying to find meaning in the here and now. But now I’m talking really big – obviously we’re not a drama! We approach a lot of our themes in a really absurd way, but I think the grounded premise is often: “Who are we? Who are we supposed to be? Are all the choices I’ve made the ones I intended to make when I was young? Am I doing what I set out to do?” That’s part of what ‘Dream of the 90s’ is about.
And talking about choices made when you’re young – you once said that punk was a “salvation” to you. So what’s comedy to you now?
I’d say comedy is a way of getting out of my head. Music is as well, but comedy’s a way of embracing frivolity that music can’t be for me. I take music very seriously. Obviously there’s a lot of joy and elation surrounding music – but I don’t find it funny, and I don’t necessarily like ‘funny’ music. Comedy sometimes stems from dark inclinations, but I love trying to find the levity in a situation, and having that be the way to tell a story. Finding something surreal or absurd about something serious. It’s definitely a good outlet for me, I think.
Last question: earlier you mentioned the restlessness you have, always looking for what’s next. So… what’s next?
I’d like to continue to do more writing. There’s a book I’m working. It’s more of an isolated pursuit, but I do really enjoy writing, and I’d like to do more of it. But for the time being I’m trying to just be in the moment with music and with Portlandia, and to embrace it as long as it will have me. And then, once it spits me out, I’ll find something else to do.
Maybe you’ll be the one to spit it out instead.
Yes, that’s a good way of looking at it. I will reject it, just like a relationship. I will reject it before it rejects me. A preemptive rejection. I’ll break my own heart. That’s what always happens.