Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Book of Eli

The Book of Eli reduces western civilization to two basic elements: the Bible and the iPod. Both are rather fitting touchstones for this film, considering its combination of piety with music-video aesthetics. This is empty style sanctified by strained allegory—the semblance of a good time perverted by decency.

The bearer of those two artifacts is Eli (Denzel Washington), a sort of vagabond ninja safeguarding the last remaining Bible against those who would abuse it. Wandering a wasteland America, he searches for a place where the book can be properly respected and revered. His travels are interrupted by the machinations of Carnegie (Gary Oldman providing some stock villainy), tyrannical ruler of a small settlement who has spent years searching for a Bible to help cement his power over the last remnants of humanity.

Buried somewhere beneath all this solemn sludge there is a harmless, if slight, B-movie, complete with genteel old cannibals serving their victims tea on the fine china. This material is far too ridiculous to be afforded any reverence, but the Hughes brothers suffocate it with their earnest approach. Serious only works when you have something significant to say. Instead, we have Eli acting like a cross between Jesus and Batman, dispensing of threatening goons with the slightest flick of his machete while teaching wayward women how to say grace. I have such a hard time not laughing at this that I don’t know how to trust someone who takes it seriously.

On a fairly basic level, the film doesn’t even really work. Characters fight over the Bible as if it was an atom bomb, but there’s no real reason why the book should be so significant, aside from simple Christian narcissism. After all, if Carnegie wants to enslave the desperate masses with religion, why does he need the Bible to do this? Wouldn’t any religion do? A copy of Dianetics would do the trick as well as the Bible. Considering almost no one knows about the world before the apocalypse—a rather inexplicable detail in itself—Carnegie could even preach with the aid of that surprisingly well-preserved copy of O Magazine that turns up and none would be the wiser.

Ah, but that would require a) an understanding of religion beyond the fact that some people apparently dig the Bible for some reason, and b) a sense of humour, neither of which this film possesses in any noticeable degree. This is a joyless work, not spiritual but merely pious. It uses the self-destructiveness of humanity as an excuse to peddle hope, which is comparable to—and only marginally less pathetic than—composing your own obituary as an excuse to write nice things about yourself.

Combined with The Road, this means 2009 had at least two self-serious post-apocalyptic movies too many. How many of these maudlin, masturbatory exercises must we suffer through? Each wallows in cruelty and violence only to tack on a bogus sense of uplift at the end, like a reward for sitting through two hours of washed-out brown-grey wastelands (the first victims of the bomb are primary colours, apparently). This is a rigged game from the start, stacking the odds with unabashed evil so that the untainted good is more plausible. The palette of these films is distinctly grey—the morality is anything but.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Man of the West

Outlaws are rehearsing for their deaths in ghost towns, each man’s death throes more dramatic than the last. This one, a mute, clutches his gut and bays animal-like through deserted streets until he’s sucking dust. That one, senile and depraved, rolls down a rocky hill when his bullet comes, twirling his arms out like a kid at play. And then the hero, their killer, folds their arms over their chests and moves on to the next.

The outlaws in this case are a cancerous brood of robbers and the hero a weary man named Link (Gary Cooper), a reformed member of the clan who must destroy his abandoned family to maintain his newfound respectability as a father and citizen (he begins the film on his way to hire a school teacher on behalf of a settlement). An autumnal western in August, Man of the West comes at the tail end of the great flowering of the genre in the 1950s, bearing a heavy sense of decline and finality in every scene. It’s like watching a play where the set is dismantled before the actors even take their bows.

Anthony Mann’s direction is at its most flexible and assured here, moving from the dense geometry of cramped interiors (trains, cabins) to the engulfing expanses of the outdoors. What matters are not the landscapes, but rather the empty spaces between people—or in some cases, the empty spaces they leave behind. When the robbers ride into a mining town called Lasso, they expect to find great wealth ripe for the taking, but instead discover a desolate frontier outpost, population one: a poor Mexican woman awaiting her absent husband.

One of the robbers shoots the woman, initiating a tensely filmed series of gun battles that leaves Link the last man standing. As he leaves the town, he passes the returning husband of the dead woman, mutters a terse “Sorry,” and rides on. The camera pulls back to capture the entire town, with Link on one side of the screen shrinking from view, diminished, while the man on the other side stands in a doorway calling out to his dead wife. You don’t look at the figures in this immense landscape portrait—just the great emptiness that surrounds and connects them both.

The whole world might as well be a ghost town now, all empty streets filled up with empty people waiting for nothing. This is a sorrow of such grand dimensions it could only exist in the dry, dusty purgatory of a western, a sorrow momentarily alleviated—but finally sharpened—by the bittersweet ending. “I know there’s no hope for us,” one ghost says to another, smiling wistfully all the same, as if this sense of loss and impossibility is the kindest thing she has ever known, and perhaps it is. “I wouldn’t change this feeling, not for anything.”