Tuesday, 3 May 2011

THOR! (George Ttoouli + Hammer + Horned Helmet = Happy Rampage)

The other morning I was running around shouting "THOOOOR!!" loudly, calling for mead and dusting off the mallet in the toolbox, in anticipation of Kenneth Branagh's new film. I would have gone to see it anyway, but the thought of Mr. Shakespeare's LoveChild (tm) himself directing this was so amusing to me that I decided it would only be fair to go in fancy dress. This was an 11am screening, so I thought the kids might even ask for my autograph, with questions like, "Are you a real viking?" to which I would respond with a growl, like what bears do in clichés when heroes enter caves that obviously haven't been bear-filled for decades.

From the trailer, I was convinced I'd be going into a braindead bash up, slightly camp, not taking itself too seriously, even though Anthony Hopkins was in it. I don't think I've ever seen him take on a role where he didn't get to be slightly melodramatic. Kind of like putting the end of The Fellowship of the Ring film in straitjackets.The sidekicks, done up like extras from Xena, but with a budget that extended well beyond 'bits of brown cloth that look like they might have been animal skins in a version of ancient Greece that never existed', looked marvellously like characters straight out of my childhood tabletop D&D imaginations. Impractically cool bits of metal armour, gung ho expressions, big shiny weapons... My subconscious actually started providing a non-existent soundtrack of dice rolls as they swiped and hacked at the Frost Giants.

Yes, well, you've guessed it: how wrong I was. The reviews have been great, putting this way up alongside The Dark Knight, possibly the best of comic book adaptations. In terms of quality, I wouldn't make that comparison lightly, knowing how my co-editor, in his own words, "Understands The Dark Knight better than Christopher Nolan himself". They're very different beasts, however, and as a companion to it, Thor shows how ideas of terror, militancy and stupidity can play out in a far more beautiful and exhilarating fashion.

The first twenty minutes or so didn't do too much to undermine my expectations. I was delighted by how well-crafted and intensely satisfying it all was, though, from the lush graphics, the stunning costumes and scene sets, the wonderful presence of the cast members, the camera angles that always seemed to be at Odin's feet when Hopkins appeared, to the gung ho 'let's invade' dialogue, which, although playing out familiar tropes in some ways, managed to stay within character-building reference points at all times.

I can pin down the point where I realised the film's intelligence very accurately. Early on, Thor and his adventuring party (the segment so deliberately played up to RPGs for this episode) invade the land of the Frost Giants and, towards the end a giant beast is unleashed. Thor's response is a typical escalation of violence, launching himself at it with his flying hammer. It's very subtle, but listen carefully: the soundtrack, as Thor flies through the air, straight as a rocket, is very much that of a missile's engines.

Let's be specific here: a cruise missile? Why not? That's what I thought. And then, suddenly, it all began to fit into place. Frost Giants: penned into a tiny prison island, physically frightening, psychologically alien; Asgard: self-promoting masters-of-the-universe race, patriarchs of the lesser worlds.

At first the film plays up to the allegory well, interrogates ideas of representation, good vs. evil and so on.(*) And that's all part of the film's subtle contextualising of the ridicule to come. Once Thor comes down out of the clouds (literally and metaphorically), the realism (and 'scuse me French here, kids) kicks the shit out of him. Steadily the film begins its deconstruction of the political in favour of the personal; Thor's character development is what this is about, and what Thor represents isn't so much the US Govt. or affiliated warmongers, but everyday people and their views. The scene where he's cooking breakfast for the scientists, you can imagine him in checked shirt and baseball cap, an Average Joe, bottle of beer and barbecue man.

This is Shakespeare, in many ways. Branagh's feel for stage directing leads to seamless scene changes, a kind of fluidity in how he moves the camera to show the next set piece already establishing itself beside the current scene. It's the characterisation, above all, that does it for me: yes, Thor is royalty; yes, he's a bit of a meathead; but that doesn't preclude compassion, a learning curve. Tradition dictates that gods of mythology are spoiled brats, playing out the urges and whims of children with no checks to their power and ability to meddle except the older, only marginally wiser gods. Yet they also play out the fears of mortals, of what would happen if we tried to behave in the same way.

The most Shakespearian tribute here, however, is to use the Norse Sagas and the comic book's ideas not just to play out an allegory. The film deviates from consistently obvious (at least to me) recent political events by returning to the unique quirks of Norse myth. This provides a freshness, more space to translate the film not only into commentary, but into a personal journey of one's own. Yes, it's ultimately a story we've seen before: the dumb, impulsive coming-of-age lessons; but it's done in such rich terms, I forgave it for all of my preconceived ideas. Branagh stays utterly in control of how each segment of the film is perceived, he knows exactly what you're thinking at each moment; and the direction is completely generous is how it manipulates you into reading Thor's personality, playing on your sympathies.

As a final point, I ought to relate this to discussions of convention and ideology that I've been pasting on G&P with sticky tape. I can see, through and through, Thor is a 'conventional' film. While I may have come across as tub-thumpingly pro-experimentation, I'm not zealously ascribed to it, but I am concerned with ideas of stagnation, when derivatives take over the vast bulk of publication.

Mr. Co-editor put it to me recently, in one of our late evening, over-caffeinated conversations, that the avant garde (whatever they are, Simon) are always at least one step ahead of what's just been published. Yet in terms of what's been published, we can still look at work and judge it by the merits of tradition and experimentation. If the work isn't yet in circulation, then it can't form part of a circle of reference points for reviewers, critics and even practitioners, unless we're in the community of experimenters, maintaining dialogue at the rockface of creativity. So we have to look at the published work to learn about where to experiment next, or how to assimilate new ideas into traditions.

Branagh sets out to exist within a tradition that allies itself not with mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, but with Shakespeare's drama. He's fully in control of the film's style, structure, character - all the technical elements, pretty much - by being an expert on the genre and an expert reader of how each element in the film can be perceived. (That makes me wish I knew a bit more about the editing process for Thor, given how tight the final result is.)

Arguably, there is something original to how he goes about this, by not adapting a Shakespearean story into the godawful conventions of a highschool teen drama, or similar crud. Instead he's adapting a comic book series, which is in itself an adaptation of Norse mythology, using the techniques of Shakespearean theatre directing, but positioning it within a marketplace of story/plot conventions that could be considered part of a Hollywood/mainstream US filmmaking cannon. Where other films (Kick-Ass, Iron Man) flounder dramatically in resorting to story and plot conventions that are utterly prevalent today and undermine any superficial entertainment these provide for me, or moral commentary they seem to be attempting to carry on their overloaded camel's backs, Thor kicks these aside it makes its way towards the podium of best comic book adaptations available. It rises above the genre, as Nolan's Batman films have done, but doesn't set out to imitate those films, or others immediately and obviously connected to the genre.

What I'm trying to say in summary is, don't miss it. And I'm hoping co-editor will run over and see it, then throw up a more detailed comparison of it to The Dark Knight, as he's far more knowledgeable than any mortal ought to be about it.

A Note on 3D:

I really didn't want to have to throw up such a dud aside about this stuff, but I have to. It's an unfortunate sign of things to come when credit sequences make better use of 3D technology than the rest of a film. Thor is incredibly lush, even without 3D, but what 3D there is makes feeble use of depth throughout. The juicier CGI sequences didn't really gain much scope from teching up, and the big shots, e.g. of Asgard, seemed static, as if only the camera was moving. As bad as it was as a story, Avatar is a great example of 3D use, extremely immersive, without being showy. Films like Thor, with the punch of story, script, tight editing and brilliant characterisation, don't need this crap. The visual medium is secondary to the aural experience. Once again, an example of studios trampling over the fanbase. (On that note, this is fun, but note: a faux-trailer.) Homogenising bastards, all of them.

(*) Can't work out where to insert this, so it's a footnote. A small niggle early on with the presentation of Asgard's backstory - Peter Jackson did it brilliantly in LOTR, the history of the severing of the ring from Sauron's finger; and he set a template for future epic fantasies which no one has tried hard enough to dismantle. The slightly distanced narrative perspective, serious voice over, the hordes of static CGI-ed combatants lined up implausibly in some kind of WWE face off, big sweeping battle scenes. Yes, it's a helpful shorthand for storytelling, but no, no, no. Unless you're going to make some serious comment on Jackson's style, Tolkien's campness and LOTR generally, why? Here's a challenge: why not let readers use their imaginations and set up a field on a table, with metalcast miniatures - painted Warhammer moulds and papier-maché landscapes. Has anyone done that yet? Probably cost a shitload less than CGI and look as beautiful. All you'd need is a decent soundtrack.

Here, look at this. Now imagine the intro and other intertitles read by James Earl Jones. And the sub/surtitles as stage directions. You can also note the realism of the set up: units formed into small squadrons, with a clear chain of hierarchy spreading through the different unit types. Multiple points of attack, multiple points of contact on a single battlefield... I'd better stop here, my geekery is getting the better of me. But it's a footnote, so that's OK, boy's and girls.

1 comment:

The Editors said...

Hello George!

Your boyish enthusiasm for Thor has infected me: I'm planning to see it as soon as possible, ideally in a private cinema where I don't have to worry about other people eating and talking and ruining what is for me a quasi-religious experience (cinema-going in general, not watching Thor specifically). Thanks, too, for the strangely back-handed compliments relating to my obsessive knowledge of The Dark Knight. I worry it might oust The Exorcist as the key plank in my personal movie pantheon, nestling snugly alongside Clueless and Jaws. But only time will tell.

I did have a minor quibble with your critique of the 'epic backstory' cliche that seems to be the default setting for these kinds of movies, though. I think the mould can and *has* been broken on occasion: what about the beautiful solution in the opening sequence of Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, where the story of the army is filtered through the young Hellboy's Howdy-Doody-steeped imagination, with the mythic protagonists portrayed as stringless CGI puppets? It doesn't reduce the epic sweep of the material, but does play some interesting games with narrative conventions and imaginative subjectivity in the process. What say you, Ttoouli?

Simon @ Gists and Piths