Filed under: Pop! goes the Diesel
Note: This week Diesel has been replaced by Serious Diesel. Serious Diesel was either the result of a cloning experiment gone horribly wrong or the universe’s attempt to balance its Yin with its Yang, depending on your point of view.
Despite being a big fan of action movies, and despite the fawning of critics, I didn’t particularly like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. If I had to sum up why I didn’t like it, I’d have to say that it was unrealistic.
What?! You howl. Aren’t you the guy who just told us that Batman Begins is the best movie ever? Are you going to try to convince us that a caped crusader vanquishing flamboyant evildoers in Gotham city is realistic? You know what your problem is? You’re biased against movies with Asian actors and subtitles!
Probably. But there’s more to it than that.
I was a philosophy major in college. This admission prompts chuckles from certain types of people, who seem to think that philosophy has something to do with contemplating why the sky is blue or how many Kate Mosses can dance on the head of a pin. Contrary to the belief evidently held by the majority of small bookstore managers, philosophy is not the discipline that falls between Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet and the Time-Life series Mysteries of the Unknown. Philosophy — Western Philosophy, anyway, is mostly about logic and assessing the validity arguments.
Starting with Plato and Aristotle, philosophy has been all about breaking human knowledge down into discrete units and then trying to put them back together in a way that seems consistent with reason. Philosophy, in this sense, is the forerunner to Humanism, the Enlightenment, and the modern scientific method.
Eastern philosophy is a whole different thing. Eastern philosophy is about seeing patterns, and balance, and cycles in reality. Eastern philosophy tries to look at things as a whole, to get a sort of intuitive sense of reality, without trying to break it down into comprehensible chunks. Eastern philosophy is the kind of stuff that makes sense when you’re high, and then mysteriously stops making sense once you are in full possession of your rational faculties. This may be because drugs free your mind to embrace the hidden reality of the universe. Or it may be because nonsense seems to make sense when you’re f—-ed up. You may sense a slight bias on my part.
Where am I going with this? Good question. It occurred to me recently that the dichotomy between Eastern and Western philosophy explains a lot regarding the differences between Eastern and Western movies. Action movies, in particular.
What bugs me about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is that it doesn’t adhere to any internal logic regarding what’s physically possible. Sure, Spider-Man can stick to walls, but that’s because he was bitten by an irradiated spider. Wolverine can get shot in the head and live because he’s a genetic mutant with a metal skull. Batman can kick ass because he’s fueled with righteous anger at evil-doers; he’s traveled the world studying obscure martial arts techniques; and he’s a billionaire with access to a lot of cool toys. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the only explanation for the fact that characters can soar 50 feet through the air or stand on a hair-thin bamboo shoot is that they’ve practiced really hard. Huh? Even more frustrating, sometimes characters seem to be bound by mundane forces like gravity, while at other times they are not.
I have the same problem with the Kill Bill movies, which borrow heavily from Eastern cinema. They don’t make any freaking sense. Kung-Fu training may explain how someone can punch their way through a plywood coffin, but Kung-Fu doesn’t give one the ability to dig one’s way out of a six foot grave with one’s fingers. For that matter, why would any semi-sane individual try to kill another person with a snake? Snakes are incredibly inconvenient to carry around, and make lousy weapons, as a rule.
In other words, Western movies may not be more realistic, per se, than Eastern movies, but they tend to devise a set of rules and then stick to them (and movies that don’t adhere to their own rules are generally excoriated by critics). Eastern movies don’t feel bound to make sense on the same level. They may make sense thematically, but the mundane details don’t necessarily fit together. So yes, I’m biased against these kinds of movies, but my bias has more to do with my analytic nature than race or language (although I am of course, the product of a Western culture with a strong analytic bent).
The real offenders, however, are those movies that don’t trust either tradition enough to stick with it. Take the Matrix films for example. The first movie was a Western twist on the Gnostic notion of reality as illusory and evil. It frames its themes in Western sci-fi staples, but its theme (“there is no spoon”) is an Eastern one. The second and third films go rapidly downhill as we are subjected to unnecessary explanation and elaboration on the sci-fi themes (not to mention tiresome quasi-philosophical discussions about free will, determinism, destiny, etc.). The filmmakers pull the curtain too far back, revealing a clockwork universe with little mystery. That’s the problem with Western filmmakers taking on Eastern themes: They are so ensnared in the Aristotelian mode of thinking that they assume progress consists of explication, as if a magic show could be improved by revealing the secret pocket in the hat where the rabbit was hiding. They make the allegorical into the literal, sucking the life out of it in the process.
The latter Star Wars movies had the same problem. Who wants to know that one’s aptitude for using the force is determined by the “midi-cholorian count” in one’s blood? Not I. Perhaps the best example is Highlander II, in which we learn that the the race of immortals struggling for dominance of the world are in fact exiled aliens from the planet Zeist. Sigh.
And, of course, there are plenty of examples of Western-style films that degenerate into pseudo-mysticism when they get into a scientific/technological bind. The sci-fi genre is particularly rich with examples. I’d come up with some, but I’ve got to leave some work for you, don’t I?
I suppose I should wrap this up and make some kind of point. So here it is: If you’re making a movie, pick a cinematic “language” and stick with it. You may feel compelled to create a system of rules governing your universe, or you may decide to risk being more freewheeling in what you allow; it depends what effect you’re trying to achieve, and who you’re making the movie for. You can even play around with mixing genres and themes if you want, but don’t simply switch from one cinematic language to another to disguise the fact that you’ve run out of things to say. Mark Twain didn’t lapse into a rural Southern dialogue because he had painted himself into a corner with Yankee English. You don’t improve on mystery by breaking it into digestible pieces, and you aren’t fooling anybody by explaining away technical inconsistencies with pseudo-mystical gobbledygook. Well, not many people anyway.
Believe in what you’re saying, and how you say it, or nobody else is going to either.
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