Ang Lee and the visible


(versão em português aqui)

Since the beginning of the decade Ang Lee’s concerns have moved towards the visible. An unusual decision for a filmmaker mainly associated with drama and a supposed eclecticity of themes and approaches. It is not a particular well-received decision, especially when considering the focus on new technologies and observing the reception for a film like Gemini Man I notice a tendency to think of its existence almost as a demo for future films, a flawed experiment, if not in the face of such.a pulp material, a mere for hire assignment animated by the possibility of experimenting with new toys. For my part, I would say that Gemini Man’s drama only interests Lee to some extent, but the most useful question is what is the uses behind the film’s technological breakthroughs, rather than their value in themselves.

If there is something that unites Life of Pi, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Gemini Man, it is not the technological spectacle they propose by themselves, but how they all exist from the contradiction of the spectacle image: a plunge into artifice combined with maximum clarity in its staging. The truer the cinematic image in these films, the more artificial it reveals itself, and the more fraught with falsehoods they are, the more the drama carries some beauty. The greatest desire in all of these films is to deal with these contradictions and the fascination they awake.

So now comes Gemini Man which is by definition an old movie. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer who between Beverly Hills Cop and the rise of Marvel movies machine had always been at the forefront of this type of Hollywood product. Starring Will Smith who was the quintessential action movie star of the early CGI era. It is literally an old drama given that the script has been in development for over twenty years. At some point, for a character to explain the logic of cloning, the Dolly sheep is even resurrected. The central plot with Smith’s retired government killer being hunted by a young clone of himself is the kind of high concept action that is long very old-fashioned. It would not be difficult to imagine this film in 1998 starring the same Smith, Tom Cruise or even Arnold Schwarzenegger. Lee for his part does little to modernize its sensibilities and is too earnest to even offer it the relief of any sense of humor.

As drama Gemini Man offers little: Twenty years of writing have not improved the script, Smith plays the two only real characters in the movie (Mary Elizabeth Winstead deserves much credit for working so hard for a role that only exists so Smith has someone to exchange exposition), the fatherhood and responsibility themes exist as essentialist pulp, the dramatic effectiveness of the climax involves such a primary revelation that it would be obvious for a twelve-year-old boy. Lee films all of this with a transparency that only underlines more the drama’s weakness. In the hands of someone like Bruckheimer’s favorite Tony Scott, who was attached to the project at the turn of the century, none of this would register amid the hyperactive baroque images, in Lee’s everything comes to the fore.

If Gemini Man’s drama works at all, it does so throught its surfaces. In the effort of contemplating Will Smith’s faces. In a decision that is central to the film’s appeal, the young Smith is not the result of the digital rejuvenation technique used in The Irishman or Captain Marvel, but a virtual creation from the start. A computerized mirror who produces a non-presence. He is never believable by the traditional logic of American cinema diegesis, and especially in close-ups always remains with a certain videogame look. Much of the movie’s dramatic effect lies in this virtual creation dealing with the discovery of his own artificiality. The old Smith, in turn, must face himself. The expiration date of star power much more than a midlife crisis is what is at stake there (in that it comes very close to the scenes with Di Caprio in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood). In one of the film’s most curious decisions, it does not digitally reproduce the Smith from Independence Day or Men in Black, but the Smith of the sitcom Fresh Prince of Bel Air, the one American audience first came into contact with, a return not to the peak of his popularity, but its origins. Lee’s biggest bet is on the resonance possibilities of this overlapping images, of this meeting between virtualities and pre-established images. For example, is the “real” Smith so much more truthful when he is the sum of all our previous experiences with him? In the face of Smith’s obsolescence drama, it can be observed how stars like him – almost extinct in American cinema – are less than a human figure yet more than a celebrity, existing as a well-defined fictional presence that is far removed from the bunch of tics that in different ways dominate the characterization of contemporary American fiction (be it through the superhero movie or the television series).

Gemini Man includes the best action sequences of any American movie of the last two or three years. We’re not here on the grounds of John Wick’s baroque choreography, the brutality and physical immersion of Scott Adkins films, or the ingenuity and grandiloquence of the last couple Mission Impossible ones (and even further from the computer generated mass destruction that became the main mode of the post September 11 action movie). The focus here is also on choreography, but the emphasis is on lightness and clarity. In particular, the motorcycle chase after the first encounter between the Smiths is a mixture of freedom of movement and unusual precision. A short film inside movie that in itself would justify it. The model in such scenes as in Couching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is classic Hong Kong martial arts movies, especially here those by Lau Kar Leung. When I wrote about Leung for the catalogue of the Hong Kong film retrospective I curated last year, I observed that if it one wantes to bring choreographies from action movies and musicals closer, Leung’s cinema in its contemplation of the grace of the human body approaches Fred Astaire.

The same grace exists in Gemini Man’s action, but there is a much larger layer of artífice. Leung was first of all a martial artist who was interested in what the human body was able to express,despite all the economy and precision of the scenes that Lee and his crew create, they exist on a much more immaterial terrain (one of the main bodies often glimpsed stands out for being virtual for starters).All the good examples of contemporary action cinema cited above exist at least to some extent as reactions to the dominant model, a cinema of choreographers and stuntmen, in which the age of digital destruction is opposed by a radical literalism, a paradox pushed to the limit by the last Mission Impossible. whose coverage not only repeayed time and again how Tom Cruise did not need stuntmen, but that its action scenes had became increasingly dangerous.One of these days Tom is going to kill himself for us fans, the advertisement material seems to say, and the mix of masochism and narcissism in the film confirms this idea with religious fervor.Gemini Man shares with these films many of the same beliefs about the possibilities of body expression in motion, but it radically rejects literalism.The clarity of the images goes hand in hand with the artifice.It just reinforces it even more.

These changes in the rules of the visible have dominated Lee’s interests since the beginning of the decade. A visible that exists on the surface of the image, which reflects through the little that exists of drama. Much of these ideas were articulated quite directly in his previous feature film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, one of those films that read itself in a very didactic way. Gemini Man is superior for pushing those ideas more organically throughout action. These are sister films even in the way they present the industries of the society of the spectacle and the military complex as complementary mirrors. Their apparatuses inseparable. Intellectual and commercially. After all, the only big difference between the privatized army mogul Clive Owen plays here and Bob Iger, Disney’s capo, is the materiality of their modes of destruction. When Lee sets out to investigate the visible, when he clashes hyperrealism and hyper-artifice, this other encounter also comes to the fore. A matter of seeing.

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