Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Looper (Rian Johnson, 2012) -- B

Pastiche is back in fashion with Rian Johnson's Looper, the most aggressively "cinephilic" mainstream endeavor since 2009's Inglourious Basterds. Critics praising Johnson's "originality" clearly haven't read their Fredric Jameson, their Jean Baudrillard. Johnson is a curator with creative license - he takes bits, pieces (sometimes entire sections) of other films, rearranges them, subtracts one functional equivalent for another, and carefully stitches them together into something that has the appearance of being new. What we actually have are jumbled, empty signifiers, especially when Johnson attempts to get explicit in his intentions (in Looper, see Abe (Jeff Daniels) as the director's conduit).

The problem is not so much individual instances of reference - Johnson does a commendable job of grafting the surgical wounds. In fact, Looper is, on an aesthetic level, remarkable. Rather, the film's problem lies in its overall vision of cinematic emulation. Much like Tarantino, Johnson's film suggests him as something of a savant, exceedingly well-versed in cinema history, cinematic ethos - but less convincingly so in terms of representational awareness. Looper's quick, sharply-directed opening scenes seemingly foreshadow an impending immersion in 21st century affect and, one would hope, a critical look at the incessant search for corporeal jolts and sensory shocks which dominate contemporary "youth" culture. Johnson abandons this, however, for a less interesting meta-text about cinematic circuity - how time, space, language, and intent are all contingent upon one another, wrapped and warped within the same spatio-temporal matrix. Thus, when Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) blows his assignment to kill Old Joe (Bruce Willis), the film becomes a humorous, sometimes dazzling cinematic trifle, rather than the thematic juggernaut about culture and aesthetics suggested by its early scenes.

Less interesting still, are the obvious referents for Johnson's film. To list them all would take ample space - an ultimately yield little information. Herein lies Johnson's (like Tarantino) problem - no matter how convincing his stitch-job becomes (and it is, quite so), there remains our underlying issue of ontology. Johnson sees the world of representation through the world of representation; that is, he sees cinema through cinema. He makes films to express the influence of other films. Thus, it's unsurprising that a mute, passive Asian woman is used as the central narrative impetus for Old Joe. Johnson can't stop to be concerned with the cultural implications of his representation - he simply knows the male-driven archetypes. Similarly, Looper tries to use the subterfugal slaying of children as executioner guilt, which is absolutely risible. These oversights indicate mimesis over character-based conviction. In fact, Johnson's film (and script) is likely going to get too much credit because of the nuanced work done by leads Gordon-Levitt, Willis, and Emily Blunt - perhaps the most proficient work of each actor's career. There are especially giddy pleasures to be had in Willis's sage - credit Johnson here for finding an ingenious way to allow Old Joe's plight the narrative resonance needed to reveal Willis's performative intricacies. For that jaw-dropping sequence, Johnson makes a thirty-year duration play like chronological progression - remarkable. However, unlike last year's Drive, Johnson is more fanboy than cultural critic - a critique of screen violence does not implicitly manifest. In fact, the recent Dredd has much more to say about cinematic violence as ritual. If we look beyond the screen, Looper is rather straight.

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