Flashback! To “Push…!”

Now I’ve seen it three times, and honestly I think I love it.

Isn’t that strange?

I was just so sure, you know, that it was something like Misfits Of Science writ large and sloppy…something cheap and tawdry and full of the awful hard light that suffuses (it seems) every singly little audiovisual thing with the slightest of science-fictional components these days. And the pushbutton feelings. Not that I don’t go to the movies in order to have my buttons pushed, you understand! I may be a bit different, but I’m not that different…but these are the wrong buttons, these things that I guess we can blame James Cameron for, or something. Action movies; they oppress me, bit by bit. On the whole, they seem to me to be devoid of positive feeling, lacking something I don’t-know-quite-what, that I’m always looking for. “Positive feeling”, though, it sounds absurd…what is that, anyway? What can I possibly mean? Surely I don’t mean just “happy endings”…

Well, no. I don’t. Although I certainly don’t disdain happy endings, and it bothers me excessively when filmmakers seem to…when they’ve written a happy-ending story and then don’t want it, it isn’t good enough for them, so they invent all these tortured methods of ineptly subverting that textual expectation. All in the name of making me feel something, but I don’t feel anything at all when a non-happy ending is tacked-on…no more than I feel when a happy one is tacked-on! And so both are “negative”; both have the odour of something made by committee, even if it’s only a committee of one. And it would be so convenient to be able to stop right there, and say I’ve sorted it out: blah blah something something true to the story, whatever story it is, but that won’t cover what it is to lack positive feeling, because what about the stories that get that part right and then still lack it? Have you seen Avatar? I swear, I tried to watch it, you know? But I couldn’t stay with it, it was so ridiculously, insultingly hollow. I watched more of Transformers 2 — no, really, I did! — and to this day am often caught wondering just how James Cameron managed to fuck up his magnum opus just so, so badly, that watching Transformers 2 was a more joyous experience for me by comparison. I mean, no one can accuse him of not having the love, can they? Of not having the vision?

But I guess it was the wrong kind of love…the wrong kind of vision. The hyperreal simulation was certainly a most extravagant metatextual device, but the different things to look at business that draws us to the movie theatre was somehow an itch not even the supreme attainment of the hyperreal could scratch: Avatar was just so damned boring, wasn’t it? Boring perfection. I was talking to someone not long ago about the boringness of perfection, with specific reference to Jim Lee and Geoff Johns — one a weirdly-driven renderer of some kind of ideal Batman splash page that dwells only inside his own head, with apparently very rigorous standards that are nonetheless unfathomable to me, and the other a crazy nitpicking completist with standards of plot-tidiness I can only assume are similar. All some weird bubble of Outsider Art, fooling the eye with the trappings of legitimacy? Steve Ditko and Dave Sim and even Alan Moore can’t match that stuff when it comes to outre, you know…they’re just mavericks, who drop into and out of public respectability according to what they’re working on, not full-blown extremists. Dave Sim may believe some crazy things about what the Bible says, but say this for him anyway: he’s concerned with what’s real, even if he gets it wrong. Because there is a certain standard of representation of things in Sim’s work, you know? Which imposes a certain set of beliefs in, approaches to, the adoption of form? Whereas Johns and Lee…

Well, it reminds me of something Werner Herzog said: that he couldn’t think of any film that the new 3D technology would be useful for. Except, possibly, a pornographic film. Which I thought was quite an interesting thing to say, because…hmm, yeah, wouldn’t that be just a terrifying art film? The terror of the hyperreal! Absolute widescreen super-clarity brought to a sex act! You can practically smell the lotion, in the brilliance of the Klieg lights you can see what attention porn stars pay to personal hygiene! All absolutely beyond clinical, thirty feet tall and coming at you…yes, that ought to terrify us: the living autopsy of sex. How we’d long for Jason to come along and inject a little assuaging fantasy into it by chopping up the partners in a ludicrously comic-booky way! But one must presume that in the world of hyperreal sex-on-film there can be no thought any longer of fantasies, our glorious Ludwig Van simply ruined forever…from now on even the sight of a soft-focus Susan Oliver or Yvonne Craig will drive us to the wastepaper basket in reflexive recollection of why we can no longer have such nice romantic things…

…Or maybe not, but anyway: is there any boredom more boring than the boredom of perfection? So for me Avatar was just the pushing of dead buttons, and I couldn’t stand the thing. Because there was no positive feeling to it at all! Though I still haven’t managed to define what that is, I know, and maybe I don’t really need to invoke it when I’m talking about a crummy militarized ripoff of “The Word For World Is Forest”? Ye gods, a militarized “Word For World”, and with VR sex in it too. This is Simpsons-parody stuff, obviously…there’s nowhere to go with any of that but down…

For God’s sake, who thinks of making Ursula LeGuin stories for gearheads, you know? Positive feeling?

It never even gets a chance, in Avatar!

But fortunately we aren’t really talking about Avatar.

But we’re talking about Push, instead.

So, I figure it ought to be axiomatic, that anything that looks like it was published by Eclipse Comics has got THRILL-POWER. Well, I say “Eclipse”, which of course was only one company among many that pursued what Tom Spurgeon calls the Third Way of Eighties superhero comics, but I can’t list all of them, can I? Anyway we will get back to this thrill-power thing in more detail in a minute, but the reason I bring it up is because damn if Push doesn’t look JUST LIKE something that fell out of Eclipse in the Eighties, you know? I actually had to check to see it hadn’t been made from a comic, something around the time of The Crow, perhaps…or Mage…or even Luther Arkwright

And imagine my delight, to find out it hadn’t been! Though it should’ve been: since that passionate inkiness, that start-again freshness, is all over it. Those lessons learned in the alternative scene, that particular kind of framing of a shot — comics-style set-pieces, Welles by way of Kurosawa by way of Ditko by way of Talbot by way of Sim, if you’re of my vintage you can’t not notice it…all that stuff comes right up to you and pushes a pie in your face, and the pie is delicious. What this is, is a black-and-white comic of the Eighties finally printed with the colouring they could never afford, lovingly painted — no, lacquered — in amplified hue. Did I mention that I thought I was going to hate it? That I thought all those tricks of hard light were going to be present in it? I should’ve remembered to say something about love, which is that if you’ve got the right kind of it then even cliche can make you feel something…because it wasn’t the hard light this time, but the other thing, the ratcheted palette, you know that thing where they fuck with the colour-balances and make everything orange and blue? That’s an awful programmatic cliche too, along with the shaky-cam of Hollywood-verite that became so inescapable so suddenly in the late Nineties, was never used right, I think they even film Jeopardy! that way now…and the soundtrack, the soundtrack, the endless music-videoness of the soundtrack, as though the best thing the committee that thought the thing up could imagine was to get a music-video director to make their X-Men cash-in product…my God, so much is the same, here, as it is everywhere else…!

And yet somehow, it’s really beautiful.

My apologies for being all scattery here, it’s just that I really do have so much to say about Push, too much to ever say in a blog-post anyone will bother to read, so I have to jump from place to place, quickly point and say “see?”, and then hop off to another lilypad. Because it is all about seeing, as it’s all about that old “Eclipse” soul. It’s all a bit half-assed and derivative, it’s Scanners cut with Lost In Translation and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and The Tomorrow People…and Donnie Darko and X-Men, so it’s mod, it’s trad, it’s got all the mad cons and the retread cred, but it also has just something…something of my own little list of cult-classic movies, Dark Star and Sixteen Candles and Repo Man, things I could watch and watch and watch, because every time I watched them I found I could fall just a little deeper into their little worlds, get that much more absorbed into their texture, like becoming their wallpaper, becoming their character. I’ve never liked Chris Evans as much as I’ve liked him here, so much (perhaps) like me in the period of my twenties when I was cut loose in the demimonde. Because in the demimonde it’s all about origins, all the time: you barely know your own, and you don’t know anyone else’s, but origin swirls about you everywhere you go. Well, at Eclipse it was the same! Those breakaway Eighties artists who were still for some reason stuck on the superheroes, you know? And specifically on the intrigue of the superheroes as manifested primarily by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, made by them perhaps mostly by accident at first — that weird world of secret connectivity, subway tunnels of causation rumbling beneath the streets of apparent happenstance, the miracle of fantasy stories as disconnected as they were outrageous nevertheless being slowly knitted into a giant tapestry of extremely uneasy threads. The origin is always the most important thing, so important that you’ll notice they made a bestselling reprint book out of it, one of my top ten Christmas gifts ever…because to the comics readers who started around the time I did, the origin story was always the one you could never get, never find, only see in later versions done as summaries or flashbacks by later artists, the genuine article only hinted at, alluded to, seen through a prism and all that rot. So valuable, and I fancy the later Eighties renegades felt it deeply too: when in making up their own superhero mythos they successfully kept “origin” in some way always occluded, thus in some way always implicated, in their (importantly!) new stories.

And in Push, the same pattern is followed…and, interestingly at least to me, it isn’t a million miles away from James Cameron’s metatextual strategy in Avatar, except it’s got the one thing that movie hasn’t got!

A testimonial…!

Or, no…waitaminute…yes, that’s right, I’ve got it now…

A heart.

Chris Evans, bruised expatriate failure, is competent in every way except the one that counts…at home (if a little fucked-up) in his limbo, his island of stilts in no-man’s land, where the overlapping spheres of authority just don’t quite touch one another as they’re supposed to…youth, with plenty of time but no purpose, in a space where he can go unobserved for at least (if he is lucky) weeks at a time. Origin flows forth here, as a rising tide, as stormwater welling up from an underground lake, and we are ankle-deep in it already: so like it or not, it connects us all, though the fondest wish of youth is still to be free…

And then later on you find out that “being free” and “doing good” are really the same thing. Uh…

Spoilers?

Well, he does a really good job of conveying it, and he doesn’t even say much. “Hard light” would have him come to an onerous realization with a bowed head in a blue light, all suddenly self-knowing, but Push gives him an orange light and lets him do things he has to with no time to really think about them, much less make a confessional speech…and even less than much-less could he formulate one. Comics? It’s comics; because you know that one character who’s the girl? Dakota Fanning plays her here, somehow managing the nifty trick of fitting in perfectly with all the “guy from that show” character-actor faces…and such attractive faces they are, all of them! Some really major part of the credit must go to the casting, here, because the only person you see who looks like a movie star is the one person who’s kind of supposed to, the well-known noir Oracle visited by everyone from William Powell to Bob Hope to Harrison Ford to Keanu Reeves…and, sorry, that isn’t much of a spread, but I was going for a specific effect there? Which is going to fail, now, because I have not yet come all the way back around to THRILL-POWER…!

But never mind that now, though ol’ Ming-Na is framed just so Eclipse-like in her Oracle’s Den? There’s actually a longer movie here, one senses; or, should that be “a bigger story”? Some of what happens doesn’t really make sense, and interestingly (again: to me!) it’s in just those parts where blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-that-didn’t-add-up, that the action coheres into something you can care about. Well, was it not ever thus, with cult-classic movies? Did Brother From Another Planet never hand you a bag and say “hold this for me a minute, I just gotta talk to a guy”? At such moments is the audience truly involved, as they reason past the infelicities on their characters’ behalf. People rarely look right at the camera in this movie; everything is drenched in neon; if the building’s being shaded, she won’t be able to see it; anything with shrimp. Plate O’ Shrimp. The story has a happy ending, because it was always meant to, but there are still tortured steps because we’re missing ten minutes: ten minutes of explicated cause, for some of the odder necessary things that happen.

Ten minutes of origin.

It should have bothered me. There are so many movies that just needed that one line left in, for things to make sense, and it always bothers me, it bothers me, it bothers me when they leave it out anyway. But, those are movies in which the sensemaking is really the main thing: the perfect movies, that were not quite perfect. But, have you seen Avatar?

So maybe I’d better rethink this. Maybe a movie filled with cliches, basically composed of cliches, can’t really be about doing them “right”? After all, was not the thing I liked about Batman Begins and The Dark Knight that they weren’t afraid to make a virtue of inconsistency? The plot in Push is so familiar, you know…and the solution to the problem is familiar too, and it’s all familiar. I’ve seen this movie, this comic, before…and perhaps that’s the point. Have you ever watched Donnie Darko with the commentary track on?

“Uh…yeah, that’s another thing that was…uh, I mean originally there was a scene that explained all that, but we had that hard 98-minute limit and…uh…”

Fucking breaks your heart. Fucking breaks your heart, but consider this: Donnie Darko wasn’t all that shit-hot of a movie, honestly. The ideas that were left out were just boilerplate, I will go so far as to say laboured, SF ideas; the only really important things about it are a) the rabbit, and b) the girl riding up on her bike asking what’s going on. And the ability to be absorbed into that little world over and over again, and deeper each time (as I know many people are and have been) is probably in part down to — though it breaks your heart to hear the guy tell it, it really does! — its ultimately disheartening imperfection. Push doesn’t really suffer from as much of that, but there are enough vagueries to satisfy anyone if they care to search them out: part of it’s the setting, an aggressively non-specific Hong Kong that nevertheless looks specific as hell…all the places are intact, with all their marvellous specific gritty detail, but the sense is not, and actually the places are not either because they’re all covered in this weird wash. There is a bit where young Dakota Fanning gets drunk and talks about being “…power in my youth!” and it adds nothing at all, except it does. Hmm, I wonder how far back this thing stretches, this set of associations called up by her transgression? The bit about the 13 year-old wanting some booze is punched up a bit, as though the general principle of the rules being partly suspended in Hong Kong (though you never know how much you can count on that, or when it will work for you or against you!) is being accentuated…however it isn’t too much work to associate it with the idea of youth being a suspended state that pops up in…oh, that movie Rich Kids, maybe? The World Of Henry Orient, possibly? I don’t mean to suggest that every person who makes a movie or a comic is just so conscious of their own influences that they sit down and map them all out, you understand…I mean, probably most of these influences are just my own and no one else’s, but the thing is that I like it, and the movie frames and poses and shoots things in such a fortuitous way that it helps me to make those connections. Everything looks like something; most of the time I can’t figure out what it looks like. A while ago I was talking about how I became attracted to opera for its comic-like qualities: the production of mere tableaux, within which exposition takes place! It’s a tough trick to pull off, honestly. Because it really puts enormous pressure on the ability to deliver a performance, you know? Action movies, or the parts of movies that consist of action, are more like dance: not about tableaux, but instead about tableau’s opposite. But in those, although you can certainly fuck it all up if you don’t know what you’re doing, at least you don’t have the problem of action being decoupled from motion. But the tableaux, the tableaux, they all have to make action take place in the pose, right? And so it’s all about the quality of performance that happens when you’re stuck there.

In my opinion: some mighty good performances here. But!

Blink and you’ll miss them.

My God, how I wish now this had been an Eclipse comic, so I could haunt used bookstores and try to track it down. The missing origin. In a way it’s quite a simple thing, this evanescence of a thrill that we’re constantly seeking in all our switch-flipping and button-pushing — as I said, we go to the movies primarily to see things, to do the fine act of seeing, and so who wants to see the same thing all the time? There needs to be something in it that sings to us, and the only thing that sings is difference…mood, tone, staging, performance, a set of evoked associations, commentary, colour, sound, costumes…the glimmer of an idea, the shadow of a purpose. Remix culture is a powerful tool for the constellation of meaning, but (as I also said up above, or maybe just implied) it needs some sort of love to drive it. Without the love, it’s all just so many flashpots going off in sequence: as mere pyrotechnics is loosed upon the world. And thus though it’s pretty easy to specify what interests a person when they go to the movies, still all the parts and pieces can be in order and the thing can fail to intrigue anyway. Evanescence: it’s, like, a thing, y’know? Consider, for example, the little matter of THRILL-POWER that I promised I’d get back to: though I believe the term first arises at Martin Goodman’s Atlas Comics, and later becomes woven into the skin of 2000 A.D., if it means anything past a marketing line then it means the top fraction of a distillation process — what you get when you bring industrial pressures to bear on a bunch of talented and subversive artists, and set them to grinding out Product on the factory floor, slipping in jokes when the boss-man ain’t looking and winking at one another conspiratorially…as if there were any other way to wink. It isn’t the only kind of art, by any means; but it’s the only one that promises such a strange and nebulous quality of success. So thrill-power is really a dream, you know: a dream of value. But with a most peculiar inflection. “We can make something out of this”, or “this can be important, somehow”, are thoughts that (it seems to me) can’t help but lie at the back of the cave of industrial relations even if for most working people it’s only slumbering there — tell the truth in art, and you can change the world, even if the art is of a degraded or twisted kind. And, you can still collect your paycheque!

Because the suits will never know!

Wink wink. Alert readers may be dismayed to see a shadow of my preoccupation with the Sufis and the Grail and alchemy here, once again, but don’t worry I won’t plunge us into all that right now…I never do get all the way into it anyway, you see, because in the back of my head there is still a tiny undergraduate looking for a senses-shattering term paper topic, and he’s saving “Magic Is Green: Colour As Icon In Twentieth-Century Fiction” for himself…so suffice it to say that the promise of bringing something wonderful and artistically-significant and world-renewing out of the atmosphere of the sweatshop is a promise with an unusually intense odour of transcendence about it. BUT!

It doesn’t have to be the sweatshop, where it’s found. Take my useful catch-all stand-in “Eclipse”, for example: which had that same stuff, that same energy, but located in the spirit of competition with the sweatshop; rather than in the paradoxical glamour of the sweatshop itself, where you get away with stuff just like a rogueish movie hero whose spirit can’t be broken though they beat him. Well, okay, okay…and maybe that glamour’s real, and relatively uncomplicated, but you don’t have to live too long to realize it’s better to write the movie than to be a character in it? Especially a character who dies in the second act because he’s everybody’s favourite, and that’ll make the jaded punters feel something? Except it’ll really only make them more jaded, probably, and anyway life’s not a movie and surely there are some better endings to be had than just these old ones where everyone loses. There was a young fellow online recently who had the idea that there are some movies that are, uh, “tonal chimeras”, where there’s a slip-point in the movie’s middle: what the movie concludes as, is not what it began as. Much like any old youthful adventure of living? So what Lee and Kirby made at Marvel Comics, as it turned out (at least: for a while) was a thing that others could do as well, in co-ops or collectives that served their labour more faithfully…okay, and sometimes it stank, because the love wasn’t really there, or it was the “wrong kind” — a useful rule of thumb might be that the more it looked like Marvel or DC, the more purely spectacular it seemed, then the less respectable it was in other ways? — and no one’s saying that nobody got screwed over again just by tinier sweatshops this time, because obviously they did, but that promise, THAT PROMISE, when it was there could never be mistaken. So hard to put one’s finger on it! But then it’s always hard to put one’s finger on an aroma

The aroma, in some sense, of reality. Positive feeling; maybe that’s all it is, in the end? Or, all it needs to be? I rather like the idea of life being like a “tonal chimera”, that starts as the seed-pod of one implied meaning and then ends up as quite another: like walnuts from the cherry tree, your old thermodynamic miracle. So many bad movies, that bail on their original conception, what they “want” to be in their soul! Loathsomely dismal endings to hopeful stories, panderingly curative endings to hard-nosed ones! Yet in art as in life, sometimes what you want from your adventure changes along the way. So, maybe that kid’s righter than he knows? Maybe this is the kernel of every good story, that the thing you want changes along the way? Maybe every movie is a “tonal chimera”?

I still don’t know what “positive feeling” is, sad to say; I’m currently entertaining the possibility that it’s nothing but the filmmaker having interests all his or her own, and influences all his or her own too. I don’t really know if James Cameron has interests and influences like that. I mean, that’s a terrible thing to say, of course he must, he’s a person after all? But I just mean, as a friend once pointed out to me, he only makes action movies?

Only makes action movies.

And the sickly thought occurs: what is it that a person does, when they only do one thing, to branch out once they start to get bored with it?

James Cameron Pour L’Homme.

People, it is probably only a matter of time…

But I had better stop hopping now. Hey, do me a favour and go watch Push, eh? I’d really like to know what you think of it.

Or what it makes you think of.

Or if I’m just crazy for liking it.

But here’s to positive feeling, eh?

Wherever she may lie, God bless her.

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