Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Dramaturgy and the Wolverine

Last night I watched 2013's "The Wolverine" again. I've watched it more times than probably any high profile movie to come out in the last decade. I've watched it more than any other so-called "superhero movie" and I've reviewed it more than any other short form artwork that isn't the Bible or Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns". I've watched it a lot.

"The Wolverine" got a skimpy score from movie review aggregates. Metacritic has it at 60% and Internet Movie Database has it at a 6.7 out of 10. Rotten Tomatoes, which in theory should be drawing from the same pool as Metacritic, had it at a respectable 70%, which is by no means bad but certainly not anything special. "Max Mad: Fury Road" was probably the best reviewed action movie and it set a new standard for things but it isn't really helpful to compare these kind of things. Apples and oranges, really.

It's too bad that the scores are so close to middling because it's an awesome movie. It's a sort-of adaptation of a run of comics written by Chris Claremont, one of the most important comic book writers spit out by this century-old modern art form. The most notable artist from this story line was the same Frank Miller who wrote and illustrated the aforementioned "Dark Knight Returns". It is by no means a true adaptation but it's a good reworking of the atmosphere created by that series. I'd be hard pressed to give a play-by-play of that series, but it felt awesome reading it.

The setting has the same mood as "Blade Runner" or "Lost in Translation" or even "The Bad News Bears Go to Japan". It feels a little like the Japanese sequence of the first "Kill Bill" installment. The mitigating factor is, of course, Japan. Much like Jean Renoir's "The River" or David Lean's "A Passage to India", it's hard to shake the fish-out-of-water trope typical to colonial and post-colonial story telling. The story isn't about integration but, rather, juxtaposition. Everyone in "the Wolverine" is compared with someone else, even if it's simply by association. It's a reminder that the world really isn't homogenized and that, despite the ubiquity of mainstream technologies and fashion, that there still exists a real difference between the cultures of the world. We're much further from turning culturally grey than we may realize.

It's hard to shake the concern that the movie is exploiting its setting. Pachinko machines, bonsai trees, dark decora, bullet trains, and samurai abound. It feels like an idealized travelogue, hopefully less like Marco Polo or even less like Louis Malle's "Phantom India". "The Wolverine" offers little editorial other than that which normally occur in the use of stereotypes. It's also hard to shake the sense that the Japan of this film is built on well-known and oft-used stereotypes.

But maybe it's me creating the stereotype. Stereotypes are the definition of a set of characteristics in a person or culture that are reduced in the process of being made absolutes. But describing something as a stereotype is also a form of stereotyping, a reductio ad absurdum that can be a perpetual definition of definitions, an unending interplay of "this" and "not this" where what is original and what is parody spiral in the fluidity of culture. Maybe not pointing out the existence of a bullet train as characteristic of an image of contemporary Japan is in as much danger of stereotyping as pointing one out. Traditionally, it all comes down to storytelling. "Does it serve the purpose of the story?" the critic asks, "or is it arbitrary? Is it it merely establishing the mise en scène? And who decides that a bullet train is characteristic of modern Japan?"

Perhaps that critic is a western critic, who can be quick to point out the collective guilt of cultural imperialism that has only homogenized a global society in the same way gentrification homogenizes neighborhood cultures or how logging eradicates the ecosystem of the rain forest. There is a sense that we ought not to inhibit cultures by reducing their diversity, to not propagate these stereotypes as a way of constricting the opinions of others who aren't in contact with these cultures, and to preserve the uniqueness of a culture by allowing it to "be".

Of course, this might be the same kind of control that is often typical of American culture, an appeal to the oldest form of domination: the power to name. The oldest argument in this phase of western modernity tends to begin with the words "who are we to...". "Who are we to decide what's best for a culture?" "Who are we to interfere or define?". The process of "naming" exhausts itself because the gaze into our own navels is endless. Identity collapses within itself.

Of course I am also stereotyping the western critic. The whole concept of "western" is part of the myth of Orientalism, that "east" and "west" are accidents of the Occident, those self-appointed authorities of western European origin. Perhaps a native critic would receive "The Wolverine" differently. I'd have to ask.

But what if they didn't like it? Where would that leave me? Could I appreciate it on its own terms? I don't understand the critics because I don't understand what has determined dramaturgical excellence. Where did it fall short and on what terms? I liked it. I think it's excellent. Great, moody storytelling that doesn't try to be realistic but also doesn't try to be fake either. There are hints beyond the fantastical aspects of the storytelling, Silver Samurais and prescient mutants. How about the redub of Svetlana Khodchenkova's voice, devoid of all ambiance and echo? Or Yashida's hospital bed? These are choices of style and atmosphere, not at all flashy or showy but manipulators of mood that bend what we think we should see and what we think we should here. We expect mythic figures articulated in a grounded idiom and we expect realistic settings. But the smaller choices that affect mood and convention change our expectations much like the score (which is excellent) does. The unsettling moment created by the lack on sound upon the impact of the hydrogen bomb on Nagasaki grounds me in natural unreality, those things that suspend normality but are quite explainable. Sound and set design are natural manipulations and so defines the mood.

"The Wolverine" is excellent. I think it's on purpose.

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