Thursday, April 7, 2011

In the Realms of the Unreal

Before I went to see Zack Snyder’s new film Suckerpunch last weekend, I watched the trailer – for the fourth or fifth time and in my usual state of fist-pumping enthusiasm – ostensibly for the purpose of showing a friend who’d agreed to come along what we were in for at the local Imax. Amid my exclaimed profanities and endorsing narration (“Look at the composition of that shot! And that one! Also: zeppelins?!”), he managed to get the gist of the preview, and said, once it was over and he could get a word in edgewise, “It’s a little like Henry Darger, don’t you think?” To which I squealed, “Oh my god, you are so right!” and nearly keeled over from the sudden rush of ticket-buying endorphins flooding my bloodstream.

Frequent readers of this blog will know that my affection for Zack Snyder is matched by few things, and one of those things is my passion for Henry Darger, the Chicago janitor who, working in total solitude, spent decades of his life creating a mammoth illustrated novel entitled In the Realms of the Unreal. This volume tells the story of the Vivian sisters, blameless children fighting a battle in a magical, Narnia-like realm against a confederacy of male evildoers wearing what Darger described as “college-professor hats” (mortarboards). My buddy was right on in seeing the parallel between this vision and Snyder’s admittedly juiced-up fantasy of Lolitas in peril. Darger’s postmodern visual technique involved pulling images from everywhere in commercial low culture – advertisements, coloring books, magazine illustrations, tabloid photos – via tracing, collage, and later, photo enlargements for inclusion in what was a bizarre, obsessively personal world. The sisters in particular were cribbed from clichéd paradigms of girlhood innocence, cloying figures wielding beach buckets or cowgirl hats while all around them, apocalypse unfolded. Replace Darger’s newspaper comics and Coppertone girls with anime, graphics-heavy videogames, classic sexploitation, and some back issues of Heavy Metal, I figured, and you’d be looking at something like Suckerpunch. In both cases, the characters the story follows are paper dolls, flat and familiar to the point of near invisibility. The mind we’re actually exploring is the creator’s – Darger’s and Snyder’s, respectively.

In some respects, Suckerpunch did not disappoint this expectation. The movie is fucking gorgeous, for starters. In four of the movie’s set pieces, we watch Baby Doll (Emily Browning, looking like the platonic ideal to which so much plastic surgery aspires) duking it out with clockwork samurai, steampowered doughboys, dragons, and a monorail full of robots. With enough money, anyone can film gadgets and explosions (and anyone has), but Snyder has a deep understanding of the choreography of fight sequences, and a painter’s eye for the panoramic landscapes in which they play out. As four music videos – or more accurately, silent films, since they each outlast the duration of a single song – these would be rococo, ridiculous delights.

The trouble, for me, comes from Snyder’s attempts to cram the dodecahedron of his imagination into the square hole left by recent Hollywood successes. I’m speaking here of that inconvenient thing: the movie’s screenplay.

If, unlike me, you weren’t too distracted by the trailer’s pulsating soundtrack or its images of badass dragons to see the warning signs, you’ll have gathered that the story’s frame concerns a mental institution from which our heroine wishes to escape. Her attempts are psychotically reconfigured in her ailing brain, first into a strip club/whorehouse and then into the action numbers described above.

This frame is a regrettable choice for a couple of reasons. First, it necessitates a series of scenes in which Baby Doll and several other characters talk. Let me be perfectly clear on this point: none of these characters should speak. Ever. It is totally unnecessary and invariably embarrassing when they do. I’m not maligning the actresses, who do the best they can with dialogue that sounds like it came from a cut scene in Panzer Dragoon Orta. But, if their sexy goth Halloween costumes discouraged us from imagining these women’s inner lives, their conversations confirm they have no inner lives at all. In Snyder’s masterpiece Watchmen, I considered the over-the-top obvious exchanges (“What happened to the American dream?” “It came true! You’re looking at it!”) to serve the same purpose that the superhero stances on window ledges or in fiery hallways did: the characters were striking poses, iconic ones, that served to define something significant about themselves. But in Suckerpunch, to put it bluntly, the dialogue is boring and meaningless. While writing this post, I referred to IMDB in hopes of finding some “memorable quotes” from the film to cite, but except for the fake-mysticism twaddle from the movie’s inexplicable voiceovers, even that resource seems to consider most of what these ladies say eminently forgettable.

Because Baby Doll is not believable as a character with an inner life, period, Snyder exacerbates the second and larger problem with the story's frame. It’s effectively impossible for the movie’s stunning dreamscapes to have originated in her mind. According to the production materials, the mental institution is supposed to be set in rural Vermont in the early 1960’s; because of the sepia tone, Edward Gorey-esque set design, and our heroine’s vintage sailor dress, I pegged it for even earlier. Regardless, though, the story comes from an era prior to the vast majority of the film’s many allusions and centers on a character who, as far as we can tell, is ignorant of all of them. Let’s be real: why would an orphaned cutie in New England during the Eisenhower administration fantasize about destroying androids with a samurai sword? Why would she imagine racy dominatrix outfits for all of her friends? Why, in fact, does the story that she tells herself have the structure of a videogame?

And most importantly, what does it add to any of this imagery to claim she’s the one behind it? Ultimately, this is where I got stuck. The visual world of this movie is interesting precisely because of what it suggests about the imagination behind it, an imagination saturated in the popular culture of the last 50 years. Suckerpunch has been polarizing for a reason: just as Darger’s obsession with the Vivian girls’ courage and virtue led him to create exceptionally disturbing images of violence against children, so does Snyder’s apparent girl-power message contain an immutable gender binary and a prominent rape fixation. Where is that voice coming from? Claiming it’s all in Baby Doll’s head feels like a cop-out, one that insults the intelligence of the viewer – or, alternately, suggests that Snyder has no idea what his picture is really about.

I’m not saying that’s the worst thing. Artists don’t always know what they’re up to, or where the dark heart of their material lies. I claim to love Darger, but I’ve never read the thousands of pages of fiction that accompany his dazzling paintings, and I probably never will. It’s certainly possible to enjoy the action sequences in Suckerpunch as the stunted masterpieces that they are and ignore the rest. But if Snyder wanted to make a full-length film with this material, and supply it with an accessible emotional and psychological arc, I would have suggested he take a page out of Charlie Kaufman’s book and insert himself – or a character like himself – into the picture. By doing that, he would have foregrounded what’s unsettling and original about the movie by making us complicit: sympathetic with the type of male gaze that condemns lechery and sexual aggression while only calling women by their stripper names, with the form of escapism that celebrates bloodless violence without consequences. And even more than an icepick, that’s the kind of thing that sticks in a viewer’s mind.


Snowden Wright said...

Somebody told me that the idea for Sucker Punch originated with a Japanese video-game company, which--fittingly, given your assessment of the movie--abandoned it because the "story" made no sense. Then Snyder, I'm told, picked up the project and sold it to studio execs with the tag, "Alice in Wonderland with machine guns."

The Chawmonger said...

Too funny. (Though I must admit, I'd buy that videogame!)

Jack said...

Yeah, I won't be surprised if/when it ends up as a video game. Great writing as always, Chandler.

The Chawmonger said...

Thanks so much for reading, Jack!

John Wiswell said...

This is the kindest opinion of Suckerpunch I've yet read. Also the most intelligent, given the bitching of haters sets a very low bar on articulated criticism. I question whether Snyder intended any truly profound material - I infer from your second-to-last paragraph that he was really pursuing an action romp - but it certainly could say more about his mind than that of his protagonist. I enjoyed two of his prior movies and had some hope for this one, since it was to be his first wholly original project.