Wednesday, November 29, 2017

White Male Bashing as Criticism -- the LARB review of Bladerunner 2049

So, I just finished reading the Los Angeles Review of Books review of Bladerunner 2049. For the record, I loved the film. The themes were intellectually engaging, the score impressive, and it handled its characters with intelligence and respect. All in all, I consider it an exemplary sequel.

The writer of the LARB review, alas, does not.

I should clarify that when I call this a "poor" review, I do not mean in the technical sense. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun clearly has a great grasp of film technique, and her actual writing is lucid and engaging. Instead, what I mean is the refusal to see the film on its own terms -- preferring, rather, to see in one's own ideological/political lens, and then drenching the film in invective. The discussion of BR2049 on the IAFA listserv actually made many of Chun's main points last month, but she assembled them into a single article, so I'll tackle the review here.

Her basic idea is to look for why the film has failed to connect with audiences and find huge box office returns. The obvious answer, of course, is that BR2049 is a slow, moody, atmospheric film with little action and no humor. Brilliant, but way too artsy and cerebral for mass appeal. Chun, though, comes up with a few alternative humdingers of answers that, shall we say, really grind my gears.

She pinpoints two major problems with the film. First, she loathes the film's major theme, i.e., the “obsession with and nostalgia for what is real.” In more detail, she states:
"This question of the real — one that haunts film scholars everywhere as they mourn the loss of celluloid with its alleged physical tie to events that really happened — is arguably one that audience members brought up on digital media simply don’t care about."
This objection doesn't merit much rebuttal, I don't think. The real-fake or real/illusionary binary is about as ancient as it gets, and iphones haven't changed that. Indeed, some postmodernists often speak as if the technological advances of the last few decades have superseded everything we know about humanity, but until a post-human possible future becomes a reality, human nature is still pretty much the same -- and the urge to separate what is real from what is fake ain't going nowhere. End verdict: BR2049's theme is still relevant.

The second objection requires that one be okey-dokey with excessive, blatant, and unapologetic white male bashing. Oh, like most savvy critics, she frames the bashing with progressive-sounding theory language. And, certainly, some points about the film are undeniable: there are no major non-white characters (although there aren't many major characters total), and the minority secondary characters are hardly enlightened representations (though they're not actually offensive). But, mostly, Chun's critique of the film can't be separated from generic white male bashing. A quote:
[W]ith the latest mass shootings and the rise of white supremacist male avenger, the wounded white male isn’t quite the sympathetic character he once was. What’s tired — or should become so — is the simultaneous invisibility of people of color as protagonists and their hyper-visibility as raced others.
Let's take her truly mind-blowing first sentence. First off, she's pooh-poohing the "wounded white male", aka Ryan Gosling's character K, in this film -- as if his character's existential state was rendered moot or unimportant by his ethnicity and gender. She's not critiquing his actions, mind you, which are no worse than any other noir detective's -- she's focusing her criticism entirely on his skin color and genitalia. She knows better than this, I'm sure. After all, she'd never dare describe a non-white character in a similar way.

Even worse, "latest mass shootings?" Seriously -- the hell? What do mass shootings have to do with ANYTHING in this film? Although most cases of domestic terrorism (and serial murderers!) are white males, K is neither a domestic terrorist, a serial murder, a WASP, a Wall Street-bourgeois, a redneck, a hipster, or anything else associated with "white male" you care to name. This isn't even film criticism. She's just railing against contemporary American culture, which, sure, fine, if that's what you want to do. Knock yourself out. But it's not film criticism.

As far as the second half of that extended quote goes . . . well, sigh. Look, of course Hollywood should be more diverse. No reason not to! Diversity is good for the culture, and it's aesthetically good for cinematic art in general. But you also sometimes just have to accept that art is HARD. No single piece of art will ever be everything to every one. The only thing that matters, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, is whether the art has been done well or poorly. Wilde, incidentally, had argued art for art's sake precisely because excessive Victorian moralism had castigated his own artistic productions. We applaud him because we are no longer Victorians, but we also have our own cultural blinders, political keywords, hot button issues, and such forth. BR2049, to my mind, seems like it was the best film it was capable of being. I didn't see any obvious places to insert diversity . . . and criticizing the film for transforming slavery into a "white-on-white" affair, as if that someone erases the history of real slavery, is just eye-roll-worthy.

Mainly, because art is difficult, I think critics should also acknowledge that films simply can't be all things to all viewers. Perhaps the writers and the director just didn't have the personal capacity or talent to be laudable multicultural AND tell the story they wanted to tell. Although BR2049 may not have been sufficiently progressive for some, to castigate the film -- and it's white male protagonist -- so thoroughly is really to miss the trees for the forest. A postcolonial and race critical perspective can certainly bring to light important problems, but a good critic should also open themselves up to the story the film wants to tell (rather than the story s/he wishes the film had told). I don't think Chun ever makes that effort.

Ironically, while making passing references to "numerous evocative and thought-provoking sequences," the only thing Chun truly seems to enjoy about BR2049 involves how the film itself seems to engage in white male bashing (in her view, at least.) "The desires to love, to be loved, and to be special are brutally and ironically undermined," she writes. "Is this the height of white, male individuality: being named a 'joe' by a holograph named Joi?"

I agree that the film "brutally and ironically" undermines the desires to love and be loved. Where I part ways is the seeming callousness with which the reviewer notes K's suffering. We already know that she has little sympathy for "wounded white males," cuz mass shootings. Still, Gosling's character is sympathetic, and anyone who doesn't recognize that is either a soulless jerk or a critic with a political axe to grind. I'll be nice and suggest that Chun is the latter. White males are bad -- okay, fine, we got it. But any insightful or useful criticism has to look at issues of good and evil, vice or virtue, kindness or cruelty. Gosling's character scores well on all these marks insofar as his programming lets him. To fail to recognize that because of the ethnicity/gender is to fail to recognize a good human being, K's most cherished ideal, when one sees it.

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