Thursday, July 03, 2008

wanted: The Big Sleep and Sin City

In order to truly enjoy the new film, Wanted, one must check one's logic at the theater door. I mean, c'mon... A world where the names of baddies who are fated to die are delivered to a secret society of assassins via loom? Let's hope that the powers-that-be don't slip a stitch. Just because this film demands an obscene level of suspension of disbelief, however, doesn't mean that viewers should turn their brains off altogether.

That I enjoyed this film in no way forgives the fact that it revels in some fairly dubious morality. I think it would be difficult to justify my appreciation of Wanted if I was not consciously aware of the ideological elements that I find so objectionable. (In order to refrain from divulging any information that may constitute spoilers, allow me to limit my summarization for the time being and say that the movie celebrates misogynistic fantasies, rationalizes amoral [and sometimes immoral] violence, and masks the ambiguous value system its protagonist develops by suggesting that he is on a path of self growth.)

At the risk of sounding pompous, Wanted has been touted and marketed as mindless summer entertainment, and it is bound to appeal to a largely mindless audience. I'm not saying that the majority of the film's viewers lack the ability to discern from right and wrong, fiction and fact, or that they will adopt the movie's values into their everyday lives. To think, however, that the celebration of ideals such as Wanted presents does nothing to shape a spectator's notion of what traits are to be admired in a movie and/or its "hero" would be a mistake. Just look at these excerpts from fan reviews posted on

In all honesty, this movie is symbolizes what all action movies should be. Fun, HOT, testosterone-fueled... PLUS you get to see that sweet little bum bum of Angelina Jolie's! What's not to love about this movie? ... It starts off with James McAvoy playing Wesley Gibson as a bumbling nobody walking through his daily existence as someone who doesn't know the core of who he is. By the end of the film, he is a violent, magnetic presence that you can't take your eyes off. You'll truly understand why he is "The Man".

Off the chain look for an unexpected twist at the end. I didn't quite understand it but, was very good movie watching. Grab that bag of popcorn and soda in the other hand and enjoy ... An action picture that shows ingenuity in inventing new ways to attack, defend, ambush and annihilate. Wanted slams the pedal to the metal and never slows down.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, while the film scored a 7.6 out of 10 from imdb visitors who rated it, there are at least as many negative written reviews about Wanted as there are positive, and even the fans who enjoyed the film are, by and large, quite insightful in their commentary. One must grant, however, that most people who would be inspired to take the time to write a comment for the website have a vested interest in film analysis to begin with. I can't help but think that if you interviewed the audience as a theatrical screening lets out, you would get a lot of responses to the movie that are similar to the ones above.

In fact, I am reminded of a university tutorial I taught a few years ago in which the class was studying Howard Hawks' 1946 film noir, The Big Sleep. One of the goals for the hour was to examine sexist attitudes in the film, and my students were surprisingly reluctant to do so. When I asked them what they thought of the lead character, private eye Philip Marlowe, a young gent shouted out, "Dude, Marlowe's pimpin'" (in the most complimentary sense of the term). I was shocked, again, to see how many of my female students smiled and nodded in agreement.

The class was in no way opposed to examining the aesthetics of the film, but its ideology was decidedly off limits, as if discovering something objectionable in the fabric of the movie would destroy its entertainment value. Bear in mind that this is an introductory course for film majors, students who have committed to spending the next four years of their lives analyzing cinema. They were convinced that Marlow embodied every aspect that a movie hero should, and were able to brush off the fact that he slaps a few women around as a sign of the time in which the picture was made.

And it is true that such behavior would not fly as easily in a contemporary film, but they refused to see that these blatant images are not the only examples of outdated morality in The Big Sleep, or that the fact that they so easily accepted the character of Philip Marlowe as a typical on-screen hero illustrates that many of the film's values and ideals are still present in the movies we watch today. Ultimately, we all need to understand that enjoying a film as entertainment and recognizing its ideological flaws are not mutually exclusive.

The difference, I would say, between a movie like The Big Sleep and one such as Wanted is that the content of the former is largely influenced by the ethics of the time in which it was made while the latter, more often than not, means to entertain by way of hedonistic excess. This is not an admirable agenda, but I find it hard to dismiss the movie for this reason any more than I would poo-poo the early James Bond films. I don't admire Bond for being a womanizing brute, but neither do I deny the fact that his cinematic persona is the source of great amusement.

Wanted has been compared to films like The Matrix and Fight Club, and aptly so, since it owes a great deal of visual style and story content to both. But the feeling I got from watching the movie was more akin to my experience with Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller's Sin City. The visuals are stunning, and they subsume me the way only a comic book or video game can. The plot line (or lines) is (or are) both extreme and engaging. The film establishes a consistent mood and an enticing story world. And yet, the subject matter is often appalling.

It's not the violence or sexuality that I find offensive, but rather the way in which the film tries to misdirect us into believing that it is somehow progressive. For instance, I take particular issue with the segment entitled "The Big Fat Kill," in which we are supposed to imagine that the female prostitutes who occupy the Old Town region of Basin City are strong women who rule the turf and administer their own brand of justice: "The ladies are the law here. Beautiful and merciless. If you've got the cash and you play by the rules, they'll make all your dreams come true. But if you cross them, you're a corpse."

Forget, for a moment, that the only powers these women wield are their bodies and their guns, and consider that, in spite of the authority they are said to maintain, when the chips fall they need a man (Clive Owen) to save the day. Oh... and, best case scenario? If he saves the day, they get to continue being prostitutes!!! Wanted attempts to manipulate us in much the same way, presenting Angelina Jolie as an expert assassin who is, initially, far more capable than our protagonist. But the scene in which she reveals her ornate tattoos and supple buttocks to James McAvoy should alert us to the fact that her primary role in the film is to be sexy.

It is difficult, in a way, to begrudge a spectator for having a superficial reaction to a film when that film encourages just such a reaction. In the end, however, I believe that it is our responsibility as an audience to seek out and support films that are more ideologically sound, and to establish dialogues about the movies that aren't. I would hate to live in a world where an excessive, hedonistic, amoral extravaganza like Wanted couldn't be made, but I would be less tempted to live in world where its ethics are accepted, let alone championed.


The tagline for The Big Sleep is: "
The type of man she hated . . . was the type she wanted!"

The day that my students and I discussed The Big Sleep was only the second class of the semester. As the year progressed, they proved themselves to be superb film analysts, and I wish them all the greatest success as they continue their education.

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