Monthly Archives: June 2013

Faore-Ul & The Failed Ambitions of Man of Steel

Faore-Ul (Antje Traue) is a henchwoman. In most films, this would make her little more than a combination of punching bag and stepping stone, something for the hero to batter mercilessly on the way to the final boss. In Man of Steel however, Faore-Ul is actually a character, a beneficiary of the film’s laudable attempt to give its villains real personality. Unfortunately, though the attempt is laudable, its execution isn’t. As the film progresses, Faore-Ul devolves, from a character of promise to an incoherent mess of competing motivations. Yet this devolution is itself fascinating, because the successes and failures of Faore-Ul’s characterisation illuminate the good and bad traits of the film as a whole.

Faore-Ul is General Zod’s (Michael Shannon) second in command, so loyal that she follows him into coup and exile, and obeys his every order with swift precision. She also takes pride in toughness, trying not to show the pain of imprisonment in the Phantom Zone. Furthermore, she even has a recognisably military code of honour. When facing down the desperate, knife-wielding Colonel Hardy (Christopher Melani), Faore-Ul does not just shoot him, but draws a knife of her own to maintain the semblance of a fair fight. She also approves of his courage in facing her, telling him that this will result in a ‘good death’. Loyalty, toughness, fair-fights and ‘good death’ sentiment: these four traits combined, amount to a character visibly shaped by traditional military ethics.

So Faore-Ul has a philosophy. She also has feeling. Faore-Ul is a tough woman who takes pride in her toughness, but at the sight of her world destroyed, she publicly sinks to her knees and weeps before her superior officer. That collapse complicates her. From that point on, Faore-Ul is a multifaceted character, motivated by both a warrior’s reason and an exile’s sense of loss. That is fertile soil for compelling drama.

Unfortunately, though the seeds of an arc are sown, the soil is then abruptly salted. In the midst of battle, Faore-Ul suddenly takes a break to spout a stream of ‘we are the master race’ nonsense, inspired by a vision of Darwinism that only exists in a fundamentalist’s nightmares. Even in a film full of bafflingly awful dialogue, “evolution always wins” is a really stupid thing for someone to say. Still, idiocy I can live with. It is the impact of this sudden philosophising on the character, and the film as a whole, that is the real problem.

Faore-Ul already had excellent motives for her actions: a combination of her grief at the death of Krypton and her adherence to military ethics. This new motive does nothing but complicate matters. We have never seen Faore-Ul act according to a ‘survival of the fittest’ philosophy, so this new motive feels tacked on and purposeless. Yet it is still there. Just as in an interview with Alex Jones, the information provided may be irrelevant, but its presence is still disruptive. Following her monologue, the character of Faore-Ul is left incoherent.

This incoherency increases when you realise that a loyal Kryptonian would never see natural selection as the proper order of things. From what we see of Krypton’s society, we can tell it operates as a caste system, maintained by genetic predetermination. Individual Kryptonians are programmed from birth to have the abilities and interests required by their social function: Zod’s mania for preserving Krypton is one such programmed trait. This then is a society without evolution. Indeed, the fact that Zod views natural birth as an abomination implies that Kryptonians see the random inheritance of genes as despicable. Krypton is a world where Intelligent Design both exists and is considered the only moral way to create new life. It makes no sense for a person devoted to Krypton’s resurrection to spew ‘survival of the fittest’ rhetoric.

Nor is the rant simply nonsensical: it’s also creatively irresponsible. In Man of Steel, Superman is Jesus. The symbolism is so blunt as to be ridiculous, so to have his foes start spouting a thuggish Darwinism sets up a contrast I consider to be repugnant. I am an atheist, but even though gods don’t exist I can still have faith in humans, or find a spiritual beauty in the vastness of the sky. What’s more, the essential truth of religion, that there exists a high standard of unselfish behaviour to which we should aspire, is as true as it ever was. Our ever-increasing understanding of the universe may be changing our religious lives, but that does not mean religion is locked in some light vs dark struggle with science. That way of thinking is the preserve of reductive fools, intent on manufacturing unnecessary conflict. Yet, by accident or by ridiculous intent, Man of Steel yokes an enjoyable alien punch-up, to a conflict just as fake but far less fun, and, in doing so, perpetuates a source of division that does not have to exist. At best, that’s lazy writing. At worst, it’s tone-deaf idiocy.

Faore-Ul is a henchwoman, and so much more. Antje Traue crafts a marble performance, cold, hard and elegant, with enough skill to be noticeable even next to the rage of Michael Shannon. The character she embodies has purpose and presence: Faore-Ul is no stepping stone, but a villain in her own right. Man of Steel achieves that much, and indeed, should be lauded for it. A pity then, that this character is also an incoherent mess of underdeveloped and nonsensical motives. A pity, that Faore-Ul is made the vector for a diseased idea. In her creation lies acting talent, creative ambition and a broken writing process. In her creation, the strengths and weaknesses of Man of Steel itself are thrust into stark visibility.

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Scarface & The Constraints of Moral Narrative

Scarface is an uneasy movie, not because of gore, but because it refuses to play by the rules. This is a film about a blunt, crass thug who wants to own the world. He betrays his roots to achieve this, only to find himself shunned in the canopy. That synopsis practically screams ‘inbound moral lesson!’ making Tony Montana’s (Al Pacino) downfall into something inevitably exemplary. However this is not a character content to simply break societal rules. The rebellion of Tony Montana carries him far beyond his fictional world, into a battle against the strictures of moral narrative.

In the sermon of Tony Montana, the rules are straightforward. Montana is supposed to be irredeemably evil, as we see when he kills for pleasure. He is supposed to betray his way to the top, obtaining power illegitimately in order to justify its later loss. He is supposed to derive no pleasure from his wages of sin, and eventually he is supposed to be brought to justice. Those should be the rules, but to Tony Montana, they are at most guidelines.

Montana certainly enjoys the murder that acts as his golden ticket into organised crime, but the reason for his pleasure is that his victim is a Communist. Perhaps his joy remains crass, but a ferocious hatred of communism in Reagan’s America is hardly beyond the pale. Montana does eventually supplant his boss, but, he is not the betrayer. His boss betrays him, so Montana’s power grab seems more sensible than malicious. Montana ends up taking little pleasure from his wealth, but, that is more due to him treating Elvira Hancock (Michelle Ffeiffer) as a status symbol rather than a person. Her concentrated misery vampirically drains the joy from his luxury, providing more of a lesson on the dangers of sexism than the dangers of greed. Finally, Montana does eventually meet his end, but, he does so at the hands of a fellow criminal (hardly the embodiment of justice) and as the direct result of what is his only moral action. The life of Tony Montana fights tooth and nail against simplistic characterisation.

The most vicious blow of this battle lands in the midst of a speech. Surrounded by wealthy WASP-types at a fancy restaurant, a drunken Tony manages to, at once, be a complete social embarrassment and wield a hammer of social critique. Stumbling, swaying and brimming with rage, Montana faces down the concentrated bourgeois ‘well-I-never’-ness and tells them the truth: that they (we) need him, because without such clear evil to eclipse its own flaws, polite society would itself be judged and found extremely wanting. Pacino’s delivery is an expression of pure rhetorical force, despite the halting speaking-pace of a drunk amazed at his own coherency. It is a blunt and vicious attack, a dart shot into the oh-so-pious eyes of an audience hundreds of years old. It’s as much of a shock as turning the page of a pamphlet to find only the words ‘FUCK YOU’ beyond.

Revolt is central to Scarface, because no-one could want freedom more than Tony Montana. All his wealth is but a means to this end. Montana is a very simple man. He looks upon 80s America, and he deduces that money is power. With this power, he plans to be free, in the sense that there will be nothing to restrain his actions. It seems like a neat plan, and indeed, it is too neat. Montana believes that money is power. It is, but it is not power’s sole component, and Montana has no refinement or connections to complement his wealth. Furthermore, as Montana experiences, the having and holding of power does not free one from constraint. Indeed clinging to power requires compromise, and compromise is anathema to Tony Montana. So dear are his principles to him that with one gunshot he sacrifices his security for them, and puts his boot through the sermon’s walls.

Tony Montana is not a good man. He is a self-aware bad guy, violent, crude, untrusting and insane. Yet, for the whole of his life, he is a man who never sacrifices his self for any reward. Used to having a clearer line drawn between good and bad, it was unsettling for me to see such a praise-inspiring trait drive a man that despicable. Unsettling, and tremendously exciting.

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