Forget Bresson; the geeks have inherited the earth

Ethan Hawke doesn’t equate superhero movies with French auteurs. Is this heresy?

Ethan Hawke in the 2016 film Maudie, directed by Aisling Walsh. His contention that Hollywood blockbuster Logan lacks the intellectual heft of a Bresson film has the Nerd Herd up in arms

Ethan Hawke in the 2016 film Maudie, directed by Aisling Walsh. His contention that Hollywood blockbuster Logan lacks the intellectual heft of a Bresson film has the Nerd Herd up in arms

 

Where you stand on Ethan Hawke is the defining question of our cultural week. During an interview with Film Stage, the actor attempted an apparent takedown on the superhero genre. “Now we have the problem that they tell us Logan is a great movie,” he said. “Well, it’s a great superhero movie. It still involves people in tights with metal coming out of their hands. It’s not Bresson. It’s not Bergman. But they talk about it like it is.”

Great was the rending of garments among the film community. It hardly needs to be said that bona fide members of the Nerd Herd became so cross they almost managed to extricate themselves from their specialist gaming chairs. “Heresy! Burn the Hawke!”

Logan is a good film. But it’s as philosophically shallow as most Three Stooges shorts. 

To be fair, some more snooty film commentators were equally outraged. They may have pointed out (as I am doing here) that the great French critics of the late 1950s – those that went on to inspire the Nouvelle Vague – began by celebrating populist American cinema that US critics largely abhorred. The comparison is not exact. Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut were as interested in Poverty Row pictures as the big Hollywood blockbusters.

There no longer exists any equivalent of Monogram Pictures, the shoestring studio to which Godard dedicated A Bout de Souffle. But the general argument remains applicable: genre pictures deserve to be considered as carefully as do Ukrainian movies about town-planning corruption.

Mind you, Hawke may well agree with that. Even if you enjoy Logan – an X-Men spin-off in the form of a contemplative western – as much as you enjoy the minimalist masterpieces of Robert Bresson, you are surely better off using different language to discuss them. If Hawke’s argument is that too many YouTube loudmouths discuss Avengers: Infinity War as if it had the same intellectual heft as a Bresson film then he has a point. “It’s not Bergman. But they talk about it like it is,” he said. See what I mean? Logan is a good film. But it’s as philosophically shallow as most Three Stooges shorts. 

Hawke wasn’t finished on that movie and the genre it represents. “Everyone was like, ‘This is a great movie,’” he continued. “And I was like, ‘Really? No, this is a fine superhero movie.’ There’s a difference, but big business doesn’t think there’s a difference. Big business wants you to think that this is a great film because they want to make money off of it.”

Note the stress on the businessmen. It seems as if the actor’s real argument is that the current populist behemoth is elbowing less fantastic genres out of the marketplace. That is indisputable. It hardly seems possible, but the highest-grossing film of 1988 was Rain Man. That modestly budgeted, unhurried drama took more in its home nation than Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Go back further and the contrasts become starker still. In 1973, the top 10 included films such as John Boorman’s Deliverance, Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? and – no, really – Ralph Bakshi’s transgressive, sexually explicit animation Fritz the Cat. Such a variety of challenging material would be inconceivable now.

Vacuous soap operas

Five of the 10 highest-grossing pictures of 2018 concern superheroes. My friend Derek says these films are invariably vacuous soap operas made by cynical accountants for the entertainment of forgiving acolytes who demand the predictable above everything else. Derek says that even the conspicuously praised Black Panther fails to flesh out any character or – despite its admirable embrace of previously under-represented cultures – form a single political argument more nuanced than anything you could encounter in a fortune cookie. That’s Derek’s view. I would never dare say such a thing. Godard and all that. 

There is no point bitching if some middle-aged actor disses your favourite genre. You’ve already won

Here’s the skinny. Hawke may be right. He may be wrong. He may be saying something entirely different to the thing we think he’s saying. But, as far as receipts are concerned, the argument is hardly worth having. The geeks have inherited the earth. Bossy genres such as the superhero film, the Jurassic Park sequel and the Star Wars episode now take a staggering proportion of the overall takings. There is no point bitching if some middle-aged actor disses your favourite genre. You’ve already won.

The victory is so complete that, on the apparent instruction of their overseers at ABC television, the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced the stupidest imaginable alteration to their rules. The incoming Oscar for outstanding achievement in popular film has managed to anger the Hawke contingent as much as the opposing faction. Ethanistas moan at the unedifying elevation of popcorn pabulum. The Anti-Hawke League moans about the apparent ghettoisation of popular cinema and the fact that films such as Black Panther will now almost certainly have less chance of scoring in best picture.

Dear Lord, what a ghastly mess. 

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