Monday, June 25, 2018
there's nothing quite like a clever animated feature film to help demonstrate that film critics at The New Yorker can be utter fools
There are only two scenes in all of Incredibles 2 where I enjoyed Elastigirl as a character. As many critics, including Slate’s Sam Adams, have noted, the Pixar sequel’s gender politics feel as midcentury as its aesthetic flourishes. When a new employer offers Elastigirl, but not her husband, Mr. Incredible, the opportunity to improve the reputation of superheroes, the married couple treat their suddenly reversed division of labor, in which she is the breadwinner and he the stay-at-home parent, the way Don and Betty Draper might have: with mutual panic and reluctance. Too much time is devoted to Elastigirl’s guilt about being apart from her children, while the film lets Mr. Incredible say all kinds of undermining things to his unprotesting wife with no repercussions. So when Elastigirl finally lets herself zip through Municiberg with abandon on a motorcycle, temporarily free of maternal concerns and her downer of a spouse, her exhilaration is infectious.*
It's strange to read journalists sound off on the new Incredibles film because they're so set on seeing what they regard as the retrograde sexual politics of gender they perceive in the film they forget or never notice to begin with that Helen is on the fence about returning to superhero work because 1) it's still illegal at the start of the story 2) she's not sure she wants to abandon raising the kids 3) she doesn't want to do something that could get her AND her children in JAIL and the last part is most noteworthy 4) her husband Mr. Incredible/Bob Parr urges her to take Winston Deavor's offer. Why? Because either she accepts the offer and gets a job or he has to scrounge up full-time work in under two weeks or the entire family becomes homeless. Helen Parr returning to superheroism as a vocation is, at the start of the film, much more Bob Parr's idea than Helen Parr's idea. Winston Deavor wants to bring back supers into legal status and, based on number-crunching done by his sister Evelyn, decides "Elastigirl is our best play."
And yet that scene is nowhere near as poignant as the one between Elastigirl and her boss, Evelyn Deavor, the inventor who designs all her company’s technology while her brother turns it into profit.
Kang may have felt that the scene between Helen Parr and Evelyn Deavor was poignant and it's poignant but not as bonding between adult woman in friendship. Evelyn asks Helen if it feels good to be in the spotlight after being in Mr. Incredible's shadow for so many years. Helen simply disagrees that that has ever been the case. For people who know their Brad Bird/Incredibles trivia, it was Elastigirl who was at one point approached to lead a team of supers by the NSA. Where some journalists might see the two grown women talking as a sign of friendship between adult women that's not where Evelyn Deavor is going. She's trying to appeal to a sense of injured pride or vanity that Helen Parr doesn't exactly have. She knows she's great at helping people and saving the day and that's not in conflict with her wanting to be a wife and mother, to Bob, even.
Evelyn also says she doesn't WANT to be the one officially running things when she can create technology behind the scenes and let her brother do all the interacting with people stuff he actually cares about.
It isn't even the case that Evelyn has not been shown and said to have adult women friends. Lucius and Honey Best (aka Frozone and his wife) have been friends with the Parrs since before the Parrs married; Frozone indicates clearly that he and Honey have made an offer to the Parrs to let them crash at their place if they need to and Helen doesn't want to put Honey through that out of loyalty and appreciation of their longtime friendship. How, for that matter, could anyone forget the zeal with which Edna Mode relishes Helen's visits from the first film? Any journalistic polemic that runs with a premise that Evelyn Deavor and Elastigirl have a "real" moment has to be offset against Evelyn Deavor's contemptuous remarks to Helen about how you shouldn't just trust someone because they design and give you something. That's basically for super-suckers.
Now, as for Anthony Lane's review it's actually longer than another one that went up somewhere recently. By and large Lane enjoyed the new Bird film and made a number of lame quasi-prurient jokes about girl and girl and how "trampoline me" should have been more bedroom talk than crime-fighting. Right, that'll keep the PG rating. There is no doubt slash fic somewhere on the internet because Rule 34 ... .
That some sector of the internet lit up because Lane's review seemed a bit glib and skeezy is also not surprising. Then there's the Brody review ...
Brody sang the praises of Coogler's Black Panther and damns Bird's The Incredibles 2 because supposedly Bird's methodology is the message and the message is total control. And ... that's more harrowing and anti-democratic than the celebration of a super-powered monarch called the Black Panther who in each given generation must take the throne after single-combat against any and all takers? Brody is miffed that Bird isn't anti-technology but is anti-technologist. Way to go Captain Obvious. Imagine a world in which nobody has epi-pens for children who go into anaphylactic shock and then try to make a case that someone like Brad Bird "should" be anti-technology; seeing that by his own account Brody has a kid with food allergies the dubiousness of his moralizing against a Brad Bird but not a Ryan Coogler seems hard to just ignore. Bird and Coogler have both made thoroughly enjoyable superhero films in which people born into a spectacular birthright of powers and a familial legacy find they have to defend their loved ones and society in general against manipulative usurpers.
Brody can see that and praise that in Coogler's film but not for Bird's film when, if anything, Bird's film is in some sense more ambivalent about the supers than Coogler's film. In Brody's lament the problem with Bird is his authoritarian populism. Now titles are often as not provided by section editors but the title premise is moronic. The body of the polemic is also moronic because Brody can't exactly have it two different way for two of this year's more memorable superhero entries.
The Rick Dicker who says government officials can't get that some people want to do the right thing because it's the right thing also scolds Bob and Helen Parr after they're detained by police for wreaking havoc on a city with a sentence that reviewers like Brody seem incapable of hearing, "If you want to get out of the hole, put down the shovel."
On the whole mainstream journalism that's either vaguely left or right tend to be uneducated simpletons about a medium they generally can't take seriously, animation. If they ake it seriously it has to have enough "adult" content for them to feel they're not watching puerile child-distracting entertainment which is what too many journalists default to assuming animation is. But I'd take The Incredibles 2 over Game of Thrones any day (not that I begrudge Peter Dinklage gainful employment, he was one of the only reasons I stuck it out through the end of season 1 before deciding the show wasn't for me).
It hardly seems less authoritarian for Brad Bird to make another superhero film than for Richard Brody, from the privilege of writing at The New Yorker, to declare that mother! is whatever he says it is about because he's the film critic and that's what film critics get to do over against any explicit message explication from the writer and director of mother! If that's what you think you can do as a film critic, pontificate as to the meaning of a film over against anything and everything a director says the film is supposed to be about, you're not in the best position to complain when a film-maker seems to have some authoritarian anything. If Brody thinks Bird is authoritarian in method and message because a director like Bird has a message and makes a movie crafted to the point where that message is clear and not something that can be contravened by critical discourse then it may just be that a film critic like Brody dislikes the moralizing tendencies of a Brad Bird or a Christopher Nolan because their films don't let him say they're about whatever he says they're supposed to be about; just about anyone on the proverbial street could get the basic ideas of Brad Bird's and Christopher Nolan's films without having to go to film school. But then anyone who steadily sings the praises of Godard and dismisses Kurosawa as bombastic was probably not going to be on my list of people I swiftly agree with.
I can appreciate why writers on both the left and right can look at The New Yorker these days and just have the impression that these people may seem educated but that at various points the writers are morons. Journalists at sites like The New Yorker and Slate seem to be set on reading film through the lenses of their particular commitments and if they don't realize that this can be as readily said about folks at The Blaze or Breitbart as about them that ... could explain how 2016 went down the way it did. If you have contempt for the fly-over red-state electorate to the point that you can't imagine them deserving the right to vote against urban blue state interests that could be construed as authoritarian ... but, never mind, it's apparently easier for journalists to take Brad Bird to task for what they read as his retrograde sexual politics and allegedly authoritarian/Randian message.