Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 in Film: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

I've disliked Neveldine/Taylor since I walked out of Gamer feeling like it was so desperately close to interesting, so infuriatingly fucking near something really worth watching, and straight into Steve Shaviro's essay about it. I already took exception to Shaviro because of his terrible essay about Southland Tales, that unmitigated boring trainwreck of a movie, but the fact that neither Neveldine/Taylor nor Shaviro seemed even remotely interested in exploring the particularity of games, instead just assuming they could be abstracted into some bullshit about the Modern Condition or the social Real or whatever really kind of inordinately pissed me off. Plus I've never seen the Crank movies and am not very good at watching action films anyway so they didn't really have any leeway for me there.

The original Ghost Rider movie, though, I liked quite a lot; and luckily for me, I didn't realize Neveldine/Taylor had directed Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance before I went in to see it. Plus, they didn't write the script, so that was a blessing.

Credit where it is due, though; there were some good directorial choices here. Little moments like seeing Idris Elba frantically putting on his motorcycle gloves in the opening sequence when he goes to chase Danny and Nadya, certain jerky camera moves and pans during the chase scenes, and a general decision to continually remind the viewers that Ghost Rider isn't even so much an "antihero" as a purely nihilistic force were all very welcome. And, of course, letting Cage do his thing is always a good decision. The only part of the movie that really drags is the sequence with the monks toward the end, where they take Danny for safeguarding and Blaze to exorcise his demon, and even that bit has the fucking wonderful scene with Blaze and the Rider splitting ways, and with Blackout mummifying the monks. Both of those moments, along with when the Rider pisses fire and when he spins around floating for no discernible reason after a grenade goes off sort of near him, are an absolute joy to watch in 3D, too. Not only that, but they are significantly less interesting to watch in 2D, which I think is interesting in itself; that the use of 3D isn’t purely ornamental is saying something neat about this movie, I think, and its ability to engage with its own visual economy.

Which, basically, is the one thing that Neveldine/Taylor are good at. They have a very strong sense of the screen as a space of managed scarcity, which is why they tend to be accused of excess; there is, of course, a lot going on onscreen in their films, but the sense of excess is much more tied to the way that they distribute the visual resources of the screen in a way roughly opposite to, say, John Carpenter in Halloween. Where Carpenter innovated by turning the blank spots of the frame into sites of focus by drawing the viewer’s attention to the dark corners with anticipation, Neveldine/Taylor do everything in their power to impart a hyperkinetic garishness to a visual landscape which is almost always some shade of grey. In this way they occupy the space of the ordinary (or "Symbolic" if you want to play Lacanian about it, as it is the accepted language of the form) while curating the viewer’s gaze in the direction of the apparent irruptions (the "Real," y’all) which generally take the form of the absolutely excessive. Which I guess is just to say that Neveldine/Taylor do as directors is more or less identical to what Cage does as an actor, and while I admire Cage and think that the fact that they paired up for this film is pretty brilliant, I still think Shaviro’s basically dead wrong. Enough sniping though.

The critical reaction to Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance was more or less identical to the reaction to Silent Hill: Revelation 3D, albeit with slightly less rancor; unfortunately, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance hasn’t got shit for materialism, even the fantastical variety, about it, so I’m not really going to try to argue its merits on the same terms. Maybe that’s a good thing; maybe you’re bored of me harping on about that shit already. Probably not though.

There were two moments in the film that, when I first watched it, struck me politically as wonderful. The first was in one of the animated infodump moments, in which Johnny Blaze informs the audience that the devil is weak when he walks the earth. He tells us that the devil needs “emissaries” on earth to do his bidding, and that the devil’s most powerful tool is “the deal.” The second is when, just after the Rider is returned to Blaze, he rears up and whips out and slaughters a bunch of robed folks who were described as “politicians, murderers, men of influence,” -- a fairly clear bit of revenge fantasy on “the 1%,” I thought at the time.

The second point is cheap, of course, and not really worth lingering on. It is wonderful to watch though. The first one, on the other hand, is worth taking a moment on, I think. This movie is very, very insistent on playing up the angle of the Faustian bargain, which is one bit of Ghost Rider which generally gets left to the backstory in favor of exploring some sort of variation on his being an allegorical struggle with inner demons. But from the very early voiceover where Blaze (speaking to the audience) mocks himself for being the guy who made a deal with the devil, to the at least half dozen flashbacks to the deal being made that are peppered throughout the movie, to the way that any time the plot advances in an even insignificant way Blaze grabs his palm that is scarred from the bottle he smashed to be able to sign the deal, the contract is obviously not just an incidental thing here. So when the movie not only says that the devil makes nasty deals, but that deals are the devil’s most powerful tool, the slippage seems to indicate that the Faustian bits are not so much played as a way of characterizing the devil as they are forming an incipient ethical position against contracts.

Of course, even Goethe’s Faust tends to be read along the lines of claims of authenticity, with Faust himself seeking, in the first book at least, what we might call (because fuck “enough sniping,” I guess) unmitigated access to the Real. His contract with the devil is less about personal demons than attempting to slice through the social forces that dominate in his time. Faust comes to terms with this in Scene I, Act I of Part II, with the lines:
The rainbow’s arch of colour, bending brightly,
Is clearly marked, and then dissolved in air,
Around it the cool showers, falling lightly.
There the efforts of mankind they mirror.
Reflect on it, you’ll understand precisely:
We live our life amongst refracted colour.
By Scene IV of Act I, we have this:
‘To whom it concerns, may you all know,
This paper’s worth a thousand crowns, or so.
As a secure pledge, it will underwrite,
All buried treasure, our Emperor’s right.
Now, as soon as the treasure’s excavated,
It’s taken care of, and well compensated.’
Which is to say, the introduction of paper money. And so the the mediation goes round and round, moving inexorably between the universal and the particular.

To say that Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance’s focus on the contractual even makes the same move is overstating things a bit, of course, but there is a resonance there that is well worth acknowledging. And to say that there are strong parallels between Goethe’s Faust Part I and Part II, and Ghost Rider and its sequel, well that would just be stretching, wouldn’t it; totally beyond the ambit of something so lowly as a review on a stupid blog.

It isn’t the act of comparative criticism that matters nearly as much as it is its consequences, and the way that Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance takes a more Faust Part II approach to its working through mediation by way of economic forms means that its thematic economy (Faustian Bargain), its visual economy (Neveldine/Taylor’s direction), and its performance economy (Cage) all collapse nicely into each other.

The narrative economy, of course, is nowhere to be seen here, and thus the critics begin to snarl: without the proper establishment of motivation for characters, without the plot’s advancing properly, without arcs and structured acts, how is the viewer to be immersed? How are they to change their slip of paper for the coinage they were promised, when the exchange rate to which we’ve agreed is nowhere in sight?

Of course, the production of value occurs outside of the narrative economy as well. But it looks suspiciously more like reproduction, and we all know that’s no good. It’s derivative or tired or lazy; it’s histrionic or melodramatic or ironic; it’s, well, just not worth your time.

But then, in the relationship between the critic and the reader, only one member actually needs to understand viewing a film as a straightforward exchange of labor time for wages, and it obviously isn’t the reader. The reader obviously isn’t “outside” of capital, but neither are they implicated in the most obvious labor relationship with what they watch. In fact, the reader of reviews who watches a film is much more likely to view it analogously to the reproduction of labor than productive labor (which, in a literal sense, as recreation time, it is).

Of course, this is all just me footworking around saying fuck critics, and not saying much of anything at all about the movie. Which I’m okay with, although on the other hand I also kind of totally adored Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, and would like to talk about it specifically too. So I’ll try to do that, to wrap this whole thing up. And what better place to end a review of Ghost Rider than with burning vehicles?

I mean, come on, the fucking crane sequence. What an absolute beauty of visual filmmaking, of pure awesome excess, of fidelity to character by stretching the limits of believability, of fucking film. Better even than the burning trestle of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the Rider’s flaming crane isn’t just any old toy, it’s the whole chest. From the Rider’s maniacal glee in operating it to the car that gets launched into space, from the bunker busters pointed at it to the fucking bizarre decision to actually view the paramedics cleaning it up afterward, that sequence alone is more than worth your fucking time, no matter what economic rubric you privilege. And just like the other peaks of the movie, from the Rider’s initial defeat to his triumphant slaughtering of the ruling class and that glorious final pun, it collapses its own filmic economies so elegantly, with such beautiful disregard for narrative, that you’ll feel like you’ve been offered a slip of paper for a fortune you could never imagine. And if any libertarian fucks try to tell you that it isn’t worth anything because it isn’t properly backed, let them know that they’re stupid assholes who can politely fuck off.

Oh, and if anyone ever tries to talk shit on Nic Cage or Idris Elba (especially Idris Elba), that goes double.

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