Sunday, February 5, 2012

Comica Obscura: Rocketeer rebuttal

This article will contain some mild spoilers.
In order to better understand what this article is discussing, please go read Bill's review of The Rocketeer, published last Sunday.

It is with a decidedly peculiar twist that our Comica Obscura marathon began with last Sunday. What was obvious to anyone who paid a visit to your Movie Emporium and Between the Seats is that we each published our respective The Rocketeer reviews, in which we espoused the merits of Joe Johnston’s lively comic book adventure film heavily influenced by the adventures of a period long past our 21st century hipster era. Indeed, those who read articles came away with the idea that both us enjoyed the film. True enough.

What I did not overlook was the manner in which we both reacted to the film. In a sense, today’s article will not be in the spirit of a true ‘rebuttal’, but rather a response, a bit of dialogue, a bit of intellectual masturbation, if you will. Facts are facts and nothing will change them. I am Canadian, born and living MontrĂ©al while you are a born and bred American, living near Chicago (correct?). We bring personal baggage to the films we watch, which consequently the ways in which we assess and digest them , and life goes on. Rather than pursue this ultimately useless posturing, I guess I’ll get straight to the point of my ‘response.’

You really brought a particularly American perspective to your evaluation of The Rocketeer.

Again, there is nothing wrong with that (and to emphasize another point, this won’t be much of a rebuttal in the truest sense), you saw the film through the only eyes possible: your own. Briefly reading over my own article, I do, in fact, mention the protagonist’s American quality. The gusto, the energy, the belief in himself to come out on top (you astutely made reference to the proverbial ‘American dream’, albeit not in exactly the same context in your review, but I think it applies in this case too), etc, etc. I wrote that down last Sunday because I too felt to have come across that in The Rocketeer. That being said, the remainder of my review was obviously from a more, I don’t know how exactly to write this, ‘objective’, or non-American perspective. I guess what left me wondering was the extent to which you used an American slant in the evaluation of the film. Also, and I insist that you correct me on this because I’d much rather not come across as a bastard, it seemed as though that idea, that The Rocketeer embodied a lot of what ‘Americana’ consists of, sufficed for you to appreciate the film. By that I mean that a more in depth evaluation of other aspects, like supporting performances, or plot devices, or action, or music, was never really part of the plan. The movie was ‘fun and very American and that’s good enough for me’ was the overall idea that I could extract from your article. Yes, there is some of that there, it is part of the film's structural fabric, we are actually agreeing on that matter, to an extent. I was merely taken aback by how much that drove your summation of the film.

To get into specifics, you cite two scenes which struck you in that fashion. The first the combat between Cliff and Sinclair in the zeppelin (which I erroneously called a ‘blimp’. That was dumb). The strategy by which he defeats Sinclair, gumption, was very American? I’m not sure I follow. A character from another nation would not have demonstrated such a quality? Agent 007, a Brit, acts with gumption in almost every Bond movie. In fact, it actually pretty difficult to think of too many popular heroes, American or not, that don’t resolve challenges with at least a bit of gumption. The Belgian Tintin? Frodo, Sam and the rest of the fellowship in The Lord of the Rings? The latter don’t even have a real country from this earth and they frequently demonstrate gumption.

The same goes for the second scene you pinpoint, that in which Howard Hughes donates a gift to Cliff for his heroism but Cliff prefers his real prize: Jenny and what will most certainly be a happy marriage. This happy, emotionally driven conclusion would be, in your opinion, another slice of Americanism. Again, anybody, in any country (at least in the Western world where we have a lot of money, food and convenient roofs over our heads) could react the same way. How many French and British novels have there been in which the protagonist(s) strive for love above all else? Three Musketeers, anyone? Hello, All for one and all for love (great song!... awkward silence…)? I guess what I’m saying that is that, while The Rocketeer does live and die by some individual qualities often associated with American culture (or behaviour, however you choose to call it), they are not restricted to said culture. I guess I just felt it odd that you held on to that idea in such a pronounced way in your review. It pretty much dominated your review, even.

I am desperately trying to come up with a fictional comparative statement of opinion that might be help me get this notion across. This is the best I can come up with at the moment. What if I reviewed David Cronenberg's Videodrome and hammered home the point about how Canadian is it, specifically because it is unafraid it explores the relationship between sex and violence (ratings about sex and violence are, in fact, comparatively more lax in Canada than they are in the U.S.). What about anything Takashi Miike has made (Japan), which maybe the exception of his two latest films? How about Park Chan-wook, like in Thirst (Korea)? Oh, here's a real kicker: Lucky McKee's The Woman, from non other than the United States of America? Suddenly my opinion seems to have taken on too narrow a focus.

Setting aside this notion of perspectives, which is a tricky way to aboard a rebuttal post anyhow (and I’m not entirely convinced I’m doing an adequate job at it either), you do overlook some of the film’s weird plot holes, like how Cliff becomes a master at manipulating the rocket pack without any hints whatsoever as to how or when he becomes so good at it. Another eye rolling moment was when Howard Hughes shows Cliff and Peevy a German-made cartoon revealing why Nazis were after the rocket in the first place and how the planned to go ahead and use them as a military weapon. My immediate thought when watching the cartoon, as the characters in the film all had aghast expressions which read ‘My god!’, was: ‘I have an idea. Use planes. Done!’

Look, I admit that I was nitpicking somewhat in that last paragraph, but even pulpy scripts need to hold up a little bit, and if a script as pulpy as The Rocketeer’s has moments where it lets me down, I’ll call the movie out on it. I won’t, however, back down on my comments about Timothy Dalton, with the sort of character he plays in the film, bossing Paul Sorvino around like a dog. As much as I bloody love Dalton, and Bill, I’m sure you know I do…I just don’t think so.

This article should come to an end right about now. For one, I am running out of arguments to make and, second, I feel as though I haven’t even made much of an argument despite having now surpassed 1,000 words. We came with different perspective and were influence by them, which all fine and dandy. I simply did not anticipate you evaluating the film strictly, or mostly, through the prism of Americana, in addition to the fact that some of the critical points you make do not pertain to just America. Overall, it felt like a very, I don’t even know, simple (?) way to view the film.

I guess you are a true (New England) Patriot after all.
Oh my god! The game is on! I’m out of here!


Bill Thompson said...

Chicagoan through and through my friend. :)

About the Americana aspect of the film. I don't feel that made me care less about the other aspects of the film. Rather, I believe that Joe Johnston, and Dave Stevens in the comics, used all of the elements of the film to serve a very pulpy American message. I don't think the film was necessarily pro-America or anything like that, but the film served to bring to life a very American point of view that was present in the era it depicts, and I thought it handled this with great aplomb.

With the Zeppelin fight it comes down to context, the foe Cliff was facing, and the greater theme of the film. The context of the film is important because it establishes an American everyman against the very important foe of a Nazi aristocrat. This ties into the very era specific themes of the film because Nazis were known for their technological advances and were in the war when faced with American s were not thwarted by generally superior technology but greater numbers and resolve. For me it all comes down to context, and I think within the context, era of the film, and theme of the film it does represent America gumption when an unarmed Cliff takes down the technologically superior Nazi.

The same holds true to the final scene, it is very much tied into the idea of the American dream. Other countries have their own dreams, their own ideals, and so forth. But, in the context of World War II and the spoils of war the American experience was much different. When the war was over America did not have to rebuild like Europe or the Far East, so the focus was more on moving ahead and prospering through family and the attainment of the ideal American life.

I think that in the end my take on The Rocketeer wasn't narrow because it is a film where the focus is very narrow. It's a very specific pulp film, and while some of its themes may be universal the context is very specific to the concept of Americana. I believe it was a conscious decision by all involved with the film to go that route and for me it worked wonderfully.

It appears we are on different pages as far as the thematic depth of the film goes, or even what said themes mean. That's fine, and good even,l because if we agreed on everything these joint marathons of ours would be awfully boring. :)

edgarchaput said...

It might very well have been a conscious choice to develop the story and themes with an a sense of Americana, given that most everybody involved was American. I think our differing views stem from the fact that we are from different countries and therefore will look at one film through different prisms. There was maybe an inevitability that this film would produce different reactions.