Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (Neveldine/Taylor, 2012) -- A

Perhaps the most egregiously overlooked and visionary directors of the last decade, Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor represent a crisis for contemporary cinephiles. Beginning with their blazingly irreverent 2006 debut, Crank, and extending to their latest faux-sugar rush opus (there are nutrients in disguise here folks, I assure you), Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (with Crank: High Voltage being their unquestionable masterpiece), the duo have embodied everything those with a predilection for subversive cinema could hope for - exciting, cognizant, and playful young filmmakers, without any pretensions or hang-ups about their crude, socially conscious juvenilia. Unencumbered by pressure to succumb to either the heedless solemnity that defines a new generation's aesthetic tastes or adhere to a passe mold of ironic detachment via soulless pastiche, N/T make films for sharp, attentive viewers, yearning to grapple with their sleek allegorical form as opposed to witnessing the umpteenth fleshing out of a comic book character. Instead, and not surprisingly, the duo are mistaken by viewers, pundits, and critics alike as simply an evocation of ADD culture's infatuation with stimulation and excess, as simply an attribution to a zeitgeist, rather than the Carnivalesque, pop culturally ambivalent, formally sophisticated, mean-spirited, but hopefully-minded tour-de-force thinkers they are.

How can there be such a disparity between what most viewers see and what's actually on-screen? In this case, it stems from a late-capitalist milieu that dictates product in place of art. Product always trumps art in these cases, as minds are trained toward certain expectations (in this case, people believe they are going to see a Ghost Rider movie, not a N/T Film) and unconcerned with anything that doesn't live up to these stringent molds. These molds are inherently bland, consistent, and causal, as to procure an audience that can be brainwashed into thinking pleasure comes from certainty and repetition. Such is the capitalistic mold. If products are too difficult to sell, then the bar for expected quality must be lowered, so that profits can me made. Such would be the explanation for the success of films like Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, putrid, silly, and worthless entities that emphasize "narrative" as a disguise for their product - if given a narrative excuse, a product can be contained within, and consumers believe it is necessary and important to understand their favorite caped-crusaders or what have you, through the lens of a new "story." Yet story, in the purely diegetic sense, is merely a tool for marketing, the afterbirth of a High Concept 90's Hollywood Blockbuster era that tried to make hundreds of millions of dollars on a single line or pitch. At least in the 90's, critics were wary of these tendencies, which were moving away from idiosyncrasy and towards mass conformity, but now a film (or filmmakers) that works against these ideas is shunned, condemned, and threatened with extinction by a system uninterested in broaching new forms, merely leaving the purely misanthropic, "capital first" mores of the false-consciousness masses to be acknowledged, but ultimately repressed and downplayed.

Moving onto Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, N/T engage an inherently subversive act by making films from within the Hollywood system; their methodology and technique are described with words like "unorthodox" and/or "wild" by numerous cast and crew members they've worked with (Jason Statham and Nicolas Cage are especially notable here), but what the actors are essentially getting at is the form from which their experience comes, the manner of shooting scenes and sequences, and the ultimate Eisensteinian tool: intellectual montage. While the pair's latest doesn't communicate with sensory precision the way either Crank film manages, it's evident from the breathless, in-medias-res opening that N/T are implicitly probing the ontology of shooting movement and action. The graceful Idris Elba, playing a French priest named Moreau, is filmed with a bodily emphasis, often either in part or in whole, but rarely the expected, medium-shot. In doing so (such as the low-level tracking shot, an N/T staple), there's a fragmented sense of diegetic action, not to heighten or amp the pacing, but with a contrapuntal emphasis, the form quite literally not allowing the totality of the action to be seen. However, this is countered by the essence of each, individual shot, beautiful in their ability to capture and emphasize the visceral. When Moreau jumps from a balcony, N/T shoot from a low angle, capturing the jump. Instead of cutting, the camera moves back to allow for the landing, then pushes forward to a dolly. An incredible capture, the feeling of movement and gravity while seated, amplified by N/T's consistent use of RED-cams, an apparatical fascination that will obviously go unaddressed by unsophisticated viewers/critics, since form, in N/T's case, IS the content (which is not to suggest they neglect subtext, far from it).

In addition to their formal clarity, N/T belittle exposition in favor of non-sequiters, Deleuze's time-image (though it could be argued N/T's use of the time-image is an auto-critique of the technique's haphazard uses, by filmmakers such as Michael Bay or Tony Scott, given their playful frequency with it), and the surreal. In this case, little emphasis is placed on locating Johnny Blaze's (Nicolas Cage) journey towards redemption via Jon Faverau-like action sequences and dialogue exchanges. Instead, they offer Cage a freak-out inside a Muy-Thai fighting pit to rival his numerous rants in Bad Lietenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which could easily be mistaken for a drug-deprived episode (the recipient of his rant even suggests as much), leading to a bizarro-CG montage of Blaze's skull on fire, riding his motorcycle down a dilapidated highway, all while screaming, retching, and convulsing. Like every N/T film, their style tends towards grappling with the compulsions which define obsession and addiction, whether in the literal sense (Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance), metaphorical sense (Gamer), or both (Crank, Crank: High Voltage). Though N/T have been oft accused of nihilism and misanthropy, these are reactionary suggestions that stem from a falsely moralistic understanding of social criticism - make no mistake, N/T are full-blown satirists in how they manage to subvert normative, narrative storytelling without declaring difference. Such is the reason (among many) their films are so readily misunderstood, since a film that doesn't tick off the necessary signposts for "quality" either by adherence or outright disassociation is rendered indiscernible. Nevertheless, such is precisely the mold needed to communicate hopeful ambivalence, which Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance has in droves. View the scene later into the film where Moreau and Blaze break bread and say a prayer, while discussing the lore that defines his comic book origins. N/T align Biblical mythology with Comic Book exposition, an audacious, irreverent choice that culminates in Blaze nervously eating the bread and only slightly audibly saying "Amen." In this sense, N/T suggest puerile lore as the replacement for traditional morality, but also imply that such morality was suspect to begin with. Adding in a montage which suggests corporeal corruption as a product of the Military Industrial Complex and criminalizing vices (drugs, sex, personal degradation) and a finale that seeks to synthesize the action trope deconstruction of the first half and the lament of disintegrating moral purpose of self and denial of death in the second half (pure sensory engagement, cognitive and visceral), N/T stealthfully penetrate the roll of product (Franchise) and produce art (Personal). Not a film about the titular character, but a formal deconstruction tempered with satirical textual assertions, N/T have made one of the most dynamic, measured films of recent years, but with the entirety of mankind neglecting their brilliance, one wonders if their films are simply the proverbial tree, falling in the forest, with no one there to hear them.

6 comments:

  1. Somehow, I just knew you would be the only person out there to give this film a glowing review. :)

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  2. http://cityarts.info/2012/02/21/heavy-metal-gothic-ghost-rider-redeems-and-critiques/

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  3. You do realize that man considers Spielberg's "A.I." is the best movie ever made, right?

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  4. Went and saw it yesterday, and I've got two notes:

    1) You claim the film is a N/T film and not a Ghost Rider film, but if you ever darkened the inner pages of a Ghost Rider comic with your shadow, it would be readily clear that N/T most assuredly made a Ghost Rider/Johnny Blaze film. Not a single thing happened in this film that doesn't happen regularly in Ghost Rider comics. Ghost Rider books don't really give a crap about character arcs because, well, it's a comic about a dude with a flaming skull, who in his angst-y four colored adventures runs roughshod over the tropes of Catholicism (this will bring me to my next point in a moment).

    The people who have problems with this movie are the same people who would never enjoy reading a Ghost Rider comic. Spider-Man he ain't. He's more of a fourth tiered character, crudely created in the '70s to cash in on the growing fame of drive-in biker flicks and rock and roll. In the '90s, the kids I knew who read him were more of the gas-huffing Beavis and Butthead types who devoted entire math classes to the endless pursuit of drawing the most perfectly shaded Metallica logo of all time. I imagine that those kids could watch Ghost Rider 2 and have one heck of a great time. Especially during the parts where he pisses flames while laughing at the camera.

    The character's roots in rock and roll are evidenced by his rock star poses before the first two Ghost Rider attack sequences. He even busts a Trent Reznor "Hurt" pose after being hit with the flash grenade. And the film also hits on the fact that as a hero, Ghost Rider is not really in control of his abilities. He's a spirit of vengeance, and will compromise the lives of anyone he might be trying to save in pursuit of the villains he attempts to destroy.

    N/T made a Ghost Rider film, and one minor plot hole notwithstanding, I can't really fault them because they did just that.

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  5. 2) Your devotion to the auteur theory lead to this statement:
    "View the scene later into the film where Moreau and Blaze break bread and say a prayer, while discussing the lore that defines his comic book origins. N/T align Biblical mythology with Comic Book exposition, an audacious, irreverent choice that culminates in Blaze nervously eating the bread and only slightly audibly saying "Amen.""

    Blurring the line between pop culture lore and Judeo-Christian theology is something comic books have been doing forever. What is Superman if not a retelling of Moses (a doomed baby placed on a raft, or in Supes' case escape pod, and orphaned to become the greatest hero in the world)? X-Men frequently cite Jesus Christ as being one of the very first "mutants." And the seminal book "Powers" equates all gods from all mythology to super heroes, ninja warriors, and the mega celebrities of old (i.e. Frank Sinatra). Ghost Rider has ingested more than his fair share of holy sacraments in the books, so I don't think him doing so in this film has anything to do with a great auteur statement so much as it does with the fact that this happens in Ghost Rider comics all the time.

    But if this is in fact an auteur statement (even though authorship is questionable at best due to the fact the movie has no less than three screenwriters who are not N/T), why are you bashing "Thor"? "Thor" essentially equates Nordic mythology to comic book superheroes. Centuries ago, people believed in that hogwash the same way that people are now using scripture to determine their stance on women's reproductive health. I imagine if both civilization and comics last 100 more years, Marvel will release a book called "The Almighty Jesus," wherein the nazarene returns to earth to fell all kinds of bad guys.

    I would argue that Comic Book Superheroes are an American religion. Their devotees visit temples (comic book shops) every Wednesday (new comic book day) in an attempt to remain faithful to these characters, who often extoll simple and sometimes complex morality plays on an infinite loop.

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