Sunday, December 23, 2012

2012 in Film: Men In Black 3

As far as time travel movies from this year go, I think I would recommend MIIIB over Looper, at the end of the day. That's maybe just a symptom of me having a wretched track record of recommending movies to people, though. And the fact that the last time I was interested in time travel as a fictional conceit was when I used to get high and watch Primer over and over in high school. I dunno.

Maybe the strangest thing about Looper was that it wasn't adapted from a novel. That would have gone a long way towards explaining why it seems to so relentlessly disavow anything filmic about itself. MIIIB doesn't have this shortcoming. Compare the two modes of time travel; one is a little capsule, the other a watch that you press after jumping off a building. To claim either is more "realistic" is to play into the hands of boring rule-based criticism; to claim that one works way better in the cinematic medium is pretty fucking undeniable.

So, the film. Basically we get the story of how Will Smith's dad was actually really cool all along. So that's cool.

I didn't realize it at the time, but there's something of a highly sanitized Cthulhu Mythos feel to the aliens in the lab, and the movie itself could maybe be read as an attempt to translate unspeakable horrors from beyond the stars into hilarity instead of terror. It isn't quite Monsters, Inc about it either; there is something that remains of the genuinely weird in the aliens here. They are comprehensible without being totally domesticated, and many of the most famous comedy moments could very well have been played for horror without much alteration.

The biggest disappointment I had with the movie, I think, was how seriously it took itself. That maybe sounds weird to say about a movie in which Andy Warhol is an undercover agent for a secret governmental organization that polices aliens, and is a comedy, but there is something indefinable, except maybe in the moralizing ending, about the movie that made me think that it wasn't nearly as interested in being of itself than it was of being, well, serious. Maybe it's the lack of a new Smith rap song. Possibly it was how the most absurd alien of all happened to be the main villain and his actions were for some unknowable reason treated as if they had dramatic effects. I can't really remember, honestly. Pretty sure it was there, though.

What this film does do is to treat itself as a film, which is to say that it builds its world and narrative with a sense of the visual at least as much as the thematic. For that alone it beats Looper hands down, though who out there exists that needs to hear me compare the two I don't know. But just for good measure, the opening subway scene outpaces anything in Looper by miles, so fuck it. Also that fucking dog wasn't in this one I don't think? or maybe only really briefly? which is great.

I (probably totally spuriously) attribute the original Men In Black movie with an inordinate amount of importance in shaping, or at least predicting, much of what I would end up being fascinated with in my teenage years. I didn't watch a lot of films growing up; I was one of those book nerds who would hide in my room and read when the rest of the family was watching television or a movie. But one of the earliest birthday parties I ever had -- probably in fourth grade, because that was when I finally first made some friends -- was to go see Men In Black in theaters. I then spent a few formative years, during high school, basically a recluse reading conspiracy theory bullshit about September 11th a few years after the fact. I also wore around multiple pentacles -- a necklace and a ring, primarily -- along with other magickal objects. I can't say that I ever much believed in any of these things, but they held my interest for a long time in a way that wasn't really academic or whatever so much as just, well, interest, and was only tangentially at best a way of creating an image for myself.

What Men In Black had to do with that is hard to pinpoint, exactly, and I am not especially proud of that moment, but there is something there, I believe. Because unlike the X-Files with "the truth is out there," or Lovecraft's cod-philosophizing, one of the most important things about the Men In Black movies is that they do not attempt any sort of extrapolation. They simply present a very vibrant world, which draws on certain mythologies of our own, without ever needing to claim that it impacts our understanding of reality. The series doesn't have a pedagogy; meanings get thrown off them, many of them unsavory, and there is obviously an assumed subject to some extent, but unlike the milieu out of which it rises, and which it lovingly mocks, there is no directed program on how to teach you to see the world better. There is only the sights themselves, for you to make of them what you will. And that is wonderful; and it is also why MIIIB's seriousness can almost terminally wound it.

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