Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Notes on Politics in Two Movies With Ian McKellen


If your read my post of memories of LA, you might have picked up that I go to the movies a lot. I'm not sure why, exactly, but it seems to fit well with what I need to get out of the limited purely-for-leisure time that I have. I even go to a fair number of movies that are, on the whole, not great movies.

In the last few weeks I have been to two different shows. The only thing they have in common, other than being large Hollywood productions, is that Ian McKellen was in both of them. I have a few random things to say about each, both as movies and as texts that can be read in political ways, and some of those have to do with his characters.

The DaVinci Code

I haven't read the book and do not intend to, though many years ago I did read a nonfiction book that talked about some of the evidence for things appropriated by Dan Brown for his story -- things like Jesus Christ marrying Mary Magdalene, moving to France, and having a few kids. In fact, the father of a good friend of mine growing up belonged to a small church that believes that this actually happened.

I was not originally planning on seeing the movie, but ended up doing so on a whim. It was pretty boring, on the whole. I have a longstanding dislike of Tom Hanks, but found him inoffensive and unremarkable in this movie. I like Audrey Tautou, but while they went out of their way to make her adorable in this movie, they really didn't give her much to do. I have nothing against plots that centre around conspiracies and secret societies but the script was not at all compelling.

The only interesting part of the film was Ian McKellen's character. He gave a charmingly eccentric performance, for one thing. However, the character was also a good illustration of the political foolishness that can result from taking the positivist epistemology that is intertwined with political liberalism to extremes, and expecting a "fact" to act as a social agent that will change the world. (I was reading Decolonizing Methodologies around the time I saw the movie, so epistemology was on my mind.)

The premise of the movie is that there are living descendents of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene in the world today, and that there is an ongoing war between a secret society that is sworn to protect both those descendents and the actual tomb of Christ, and a secret formation within the Roman Catholic Church that is sworn to find and kill them in order to protect the Church. It turns out that McKellen's character has devoted his life to uncovering the identity of the descendents of Christ and the location of the tomb in order to use DNA sequencing technology to prove that the Church has been lying for centuries and thereby, in his view, liberate humanity from the grip of at least one hierarchical human institution that exerts its power in the name of faith.

I don't have anything to say about the character's goals, but his intended methods are interesting because they are so foolish but they echo the methods of some liberals and progressives in the aftermath of 9/11. In the context of the movie's premise, McKellen's character might be able to accomplish his goal of producing a "fact" that was credible to him in demonstrating that the Church's version of history is untrue, in a supposedly objective way -- I'm not convinced to what extent some of the scientific details would be meaningful, because any single person alive today would probably have at least a million ancestors who were alive at that time, and any person alive in that time who procreated probably has millions of descendents, but we'll ignore that. But it is a fallacy to think that producing that "fact" in that way would necessarily have any social impact whatsoever. Knowledge comes to exist socially, and I seriously doubt, if that "fact" were produced in the context outlined in the movie, that it would have much of a social or political impact of any sort at all. It might generate one flash of media attention and then be ignored as an old crackpot making strange and unlikely claims. Or it might not even do that. The fact that organized Christianity would engage in a well-funded and highly skilled public relations campaign to ensure that this "fact" never became commonly accepted knowledge would probably be decisive. I do not identify as a Christian, and if I were to see a story like this on the front page of tomorrow's newspaper I would immediately decide it was unlikely and unintersting and not give it another thought. Not only does McKellen's chracter show a striking ignorance of how social knowledge comes to be, but he also shows an unwarranted positivist faith in the history he has, in the story, uncovered. For this "fact" to function as he wanted, it would require not only people believing that the DNA tests weren't faked, but that the very shady and marginal and esoteric history linking the DNA to Jesus Christ was beyond any doubt. Most people would see a living person related to some mouldy bones that could've belonged to anyone, and go about their business undisturbed. One "fact" cannot change the world on its own, only people can.

This immediately made me think about the ways in which a certain subset of liberals and progressive responded to 9/11. Generally speaking, from what I have seen, these people lack an analysis of power. In dealing with the extreme psychological disjuncture that 9/11 created in the minds, hearts, and bodies of many (especially privileged) North Americans, and which the Bush administration has manipulated with great skill, they did not have a social analysis that could explain it so they turned to unlikely conspiracies and individual villains. They seem to be convinced that uncovering the right "facts" will reveal that the Bushies were to blame in a way that will turn people against them. Never mind that their manipulation of data often enough is inconsistent even with the very principles of positivist epistemology, rationalism, and scientific methodology to which they claim allegiance: I find it highly unlikely that, even if they were to find a string of obscure "facts" that did, in fact, relate to culpability for 9/11 by the Bush Admininstration -- something I do not believe to be true -- that this string of "facts" based in specialist knowledge and competing claims of interpretation would be of any use in changing the world. If we cannot change the world based on the much more easily verifiable facts about institutions in which we are complicit engaging in oppression, conquest, and other imperial adventures, then I don't think a harshly worded analysis of a dubious videotape will make much difference even in the unlikely event that such an analysis were, in some sense, "true."

(And I should hasten to add that this dismissal of "conspiracy theorizing" is much different from those who try and dismiss the very kinds of analyses of power that I am advocating by unreasonably calling them "conspiracy theories," such as those who try to use this label to dismiss Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman's analysis of the functioning of the North American media, for example.)

My other political complaint about the film has to do with the portrayal of figures in the Roman Catholic Church. Now, it is a very real and very worrisome political fact that quite right-wing forces are in control of the Church at a time when, I have read, it probably has more influence on the secular world than it has had in 200 years. Though I usually think it is important for me to stay out of the doings of collectives to which I do not belong, I am very concerned that this right-wing-dominated political power that is in the hands of the Church hierarchy will have a negative influence on the world, despite the fact that there are pockets of wonderful, progressive thought within the Church and some delightfully liberatory readings of Bible. The fact that this political reality has the potential to have an impact on my life and the lives of people I care about make it legitimate, I think, for me to talk about it and express opinions, even while I do wish to avoid the trap that many liberals fall into of going beyond an analysis of politics and denigrating people's faith. In that light, it is important even for non-Catholics to have some understanding of the right-wing forces that are currently in charge of the church. As such, having such forces portrayed as cartoon villains, as was done in The DaVinci Code, is profoundly politically unhelpful. I mean, seriously, I kept wondering when the Evil Bishop that got shown a lot was going to paste on a handle-bar mustache, cackle maniacally, and tie Audrey Tautou to some railway tracks. This kind of ridiculous portrayal allows the right within the Church to rally even those who do not necessarily support their agenda to their cause in the name of supporting the faith as a whole from attack, and has the potential to be used as a tool for further marginalizing progressive critiques within the church.

X-Men 3

I have developed a slowly growing interest in comic books as a medium for storytelling as an adult, but neither growing up nor recently have I read any of the X-Men comics. Well, I think I maybe read one issue of one series at my piano teacher's house while waiting for my lesson when I was twelve, was completely confused by it, and never thought to seek one out again. Nonetheless, I do like speculative fiction as a genre in general, and I have had some modest affection for the film incarnation of this franchise. Admittedly, some part of that is probably an expression of a more general enjoyment of people who are or who appear to be English stage actors doing more popular kinds of projects -- Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in these films, but also people like Judy Dench, Alan Rickman, and John Hurt in others.

This film was okay, but I was disappointed in it. From things I have read, one of the problems with the X-Men comics in a number of eras has been spreading the story far too thinly across too many characters and too many storylines, with unrealistic expectations of reader continuity across large numbers of issues. I thought that the emotional impact of the film was similarly (though not to the same extent) diluted -- too much of why we should care about these characters was assumed from past installments in the series, and was spread across too many different storylines in the present installment that did not really get knit as effectively as they could've been into one overall narrative flow.

I was also displeased with issues of representation in the film. The "politicized" mutants are divided into two camps, the moderates centred around Dr. Charles Xavier and the militants around Magneto. The way the films are written, it is obvious that though we are meant to have some limited sympathy for the militants on some occasions, by and large the moderates are to be read as the "good guys" and the militants are to be read as the "bad guys." I wish they would show more of the actual complexities that would result from such a division, but this is Hollywood and it is a relief that they do occasionally in the series show any complexity at all, as with the still-existing friendship and sense of shared cause to a limited extent between Xavier and Magneto. But in particular in this third film I didn't like how membership in each group was coded visually. Both have members that are more visibly mutant than most, i.e. by being blue and hairy, but the human-looking members of the "good" mutants are all coded as middle-class and straight, whereas some of the members of the "bad" side are visibly poor, working-class, "freaky" (in their human atributes), and/or queer. That's not so cool.

More important, though, was that the film was politically unrealistic and vapid. It is even more important in speculative fiction, because of the inclusion of elements of the fantastic in the story, to portray basic things about how human beings behave and interact, at the individual and social levels, in ways that will be credible to the audience.

In this film, part of the premise was that a corporation, with government support, had found a mutant whose biological tissue could be used to produce a "cure" for being a mutant -- something that suppressed the mutation, and made mutants back into normal human beings. There were quite reasonable concerns about this development on the part of many mutants early in the film. The relationship between mutants and the state in this universe has been rocky, and though there is currently a "liberal" administration, politically savy mutants on both sides of the divide in their movement are aware that this can easily change. And then...the problem is portrayed as no longer being a problem. At the end of the film, after a battle with tangential relevance to the central motivating problem, the writers felt no need to deal with the fact that the underlying problem of control over mutant identity, which can easily be administered involuntarily and/or in a weaponized way, is in the hands of a corporation and a state that may only be tolerant temporarily. Suddenly and for no apparent reason, with the militants defeated, the moderates are shown as being happy with the situation. There was no conception that there might, even among the social democratic mutants, be further demands for community control of this important tool that goes to the basis of mutant identity, for its removal from private sector control, for the renunciation of its weaponization by the state, or anything else. One mutant is appointed ambassador to the United Nations and everyone is happy.

What's more, Ian McKellen's character -- Magneto, leader of the militant faction -- is written as being stupid. He is arrogant and evil, no doubt, but stupidity is most definitely not in character. In organizing his movement as a whole, and in the assault on the "cure" production facilities on Alcatraz Island that provide the climactic battle scene for the movie, he is shown as having no idea how to do things that are based in history and might actually win. I'm sure this is because either the writers themselves have no idea how such a thing might be done by someone who is doubtlessly a student of political uprisings throughout history, or they are counting on the fact that the vast majority of their audience has no idea so they don't need to bother being credible. And I'm not arguing that the militants be shown as "good" -- I want realism and nuance, not partisanship. I want them to be shown credibly.

Though I have thought, particularly in the first movie and in this one, that it would be nice if the storyline could get beyond shallow Cold War-era polarization in the portrayal of the mutant side of things, and show that it is possible to have a position that both rejects the integrationist and liberal tendencies of the moderate wing and the more cartoonish and gratuitously violent aspects in which the more militant wing is shown to indulge. I know that would be removing the stories from some of their key moorings in the popular imagination in North America, but of course I see that as a good thing.

And....there you go. No conclusion, no attempt to turn this into a unified narrative. Be on your way!



rabfish said...

I like how the plot spoiler warnings are at the end.

Scott said...

:) They're at the beginning, too...I hope this didn't spoil you for something you want to see because I didn't make 'em noticeable enough up there!

But, yes, you never know what angle someone is going to come at a post from on a blog, so it's best to be prepared...