More on The Hulk, Crouching Tiger, etc.

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A couple days ago, I was asked about my critical appreciation for The Hulk (2003), and how I could find that much seperation between that film and Ang Lee's other film Crouching Tiger - the question being in part whether I viewed the latter much as Native Americans might view Dances With Wolves. I haven't been able to get it up to write much online since I responded, so this is just what I sent back.

V. Interesting. Yes, there is an extent to which for me and monkey, we are more familiar with the genre that Crouching Tiger inhabits, and so we really see the generic aspects of it. There is an extent to which we feel it panders to western audiences, and that's not something we like, though I have to say I have much more substantive issues with the film.

Having said that I'm at least as familiar with the genre The Hulk inhabits, though my memory of the original Hulk series on TV is a little fuzzy. But I place it very squarely in terms of the 80s/90s Superman franchise, and certainly in contrast to the Batman films, more recently the X-Men films etc.

So purely in terms of genre, I'd have to go with the Hulk, if only because if how Crouching was very much an exhibition of a genre, rather than the adding of a new sophistication and refinement on a genre that has had rather uncomplicated antecedents.

But that's not the extent of it by any means. The one thing that stands out to me, and I'd say this about both Crouching as well as (the god awful) Brokeback, is that both find themselves plotting around very conventional notions of family and responsibility. Fair enough. But in doing so it seems the narrative they tell is very much bound by that convention - of straying away from the strictures of how you were brought up (ie: this taking up the middle of the respective films) and then having to pay some kind of price or consequence for the transgression. Not that I have any real trouble with this kind of moralism (though I do to an extent), it's simply that it breeds rather unsophisticated narratives. The Hulk is much more interesting in this respect. The argument it makes about childhood and about the fluidity of time and moment, not to mention the much more subtle point it makes about a yearning for convention and control in tension with liberation, marks out a new complexity with Ang Lee's filmmaking that he's been at pains to achieve since.

In comparison, while I still have fond memories of it, The Ice Storm is far too MFA to have that kind of resonance. And while Lust Caution was very insistent on a bending of sympathies beneath subterfuge, the way it handled that movement from purity of conviction to the muddying of reality was so awfully melodramatic.

But in the end, for me the final litmus test of the rigour of the film I would argue always has to rest on the way the filmmaker uses image, composition and frame to affect the way we understand the narrative, and in that respect while Crouching was persistently pretty, it was only with The Hulk that that aesthetic sense really marries with a depth of sophistication when it comes to meaning and rhetorical intent. I've talked about the tableau when The Hulk is flying through the air. It's telling that Crouching uses it's flying moments very much as spectacle, as something of astonishing beauty and skill, but I would argue little else. In contrast with the Hulk, the close up on the Hulk's expression as it flies through the air is central to how we understand that experience of flight for this otherwise supposedly self-indulgent monstrous figure. The Hulk brings a new legitimacy rather than simply excitement to the notion of transgressing against the controls of society. And it's telling that this takes place most rigorously in the filmic aspect of the production, rather than purely from the spoken script.

Part of me wonders though, how much of this conversation is the same conversation we always have - where you privilege films with larger more intense emotional effects (Midnight Cowboy springs to mind), whereas I prefer things of perhaps less mimetic rigour, and choose films for their intellectual depth. That you privilege affect and the honesty of emotional engagement in a way that I cannot help find manipulative - such as when films use an extremity of circumstances as a means of evincing emotional responses.

I suppose it makes me wonder what you'd think of Bicycle Thieves - the old Italian black and white film, that while I'm sure if I watched it now I might react to badly, but I just remember it as a film that while hugely affecting, did not feel overtly manipulative. As it is I can't watch section of Sullivan's Travels now just because I know how awful it gets, though I'm still glad of the place that extremity has in terms of the integrity of the film's rhetoric.

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