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Dave's Other Movie Log

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X-Men***

How appropriate that on my way to see a movie about mutants at the AMC 18 in Fashion Valley, I should find myself standing on an escalator behind a young man with a bar code tattooed on the back of his neck. Once upon a time, in old science fiction movies, such a stigmata would have been the tell-tale evidence of an individual's having been taken over or even fabricated by aliens or the forces of evil, like the robot-like inhabitants of Jean-Luc Godard's  Alphaville who all bear tattoos. But no more--the mutants in X-Men, directed by Bryan Singer, although feared and even persecuted by humans, are for the most part  not inimical and want to be left in peace. While the "men" of the title take their name from their patron and protector (see below), the name could just as easily suggest "ex(perimental) men" or even "ex-men" who have overcome the limitations of the human condition. 

Nevertheless, for the sake of providing some dramatic conflict in the movie, whose action takes place in the near future, there are actually two feuding bands of mutants . One band, dedicated to furthering the mutants' powers for good, is led by the crippled, Prospero-like Charles Francis Xavier (Patrick Stewart), while the other, led by the vengeful, rebellious Magneto (Sir Ian McKellen), is more or less hell-bent on finishing off the humans before they liquidate the mutants. Although the movie is directly based upon a now legendary series of comic books created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby--the screenplay is by David Hayter from a story credited to Tom DeSanto and Singer--the underlying premise of X-Men's story line has deep roots in the cultural past.

The notion of humans who are endowed with special powers such as clairvoyance, telepathy, and telekinesis is a common one in both fantasy and science fiction literature--Theodore Sturgeon's novel More Than Human (1953) is probably one of the most well-known examples of the subgenre. On the other hand, Xavier's school for helping mutants to understand and beneficially use their special talents almost resembles a thaumaturgical counterpart to the sinister institute for training parapsychologically gifted youths in Brian De Palma's The Fury--another striking sign of how the polarities human/mutant have changed over the years. 

However, I would not wish to give a misleading impression of the movie, which is not out to rival in speculative depth Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey or Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris. Its futurological pretensions notwithstanding, X-Men is first and foremost a quite entertaining, CG-powered trip in time back to the days of George Méliès, by way of American science fiction films and serials of the 1930's. After the debased aestheticism of Gladiator and the more perniciously debased "realism" of The Perfect Storm, both of which used computer graphics effects to beat the audience into submission, what a relief to see a film that tosses off its effects with cavalier abandon.

The review of X-Men by Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times Calendar (7/14/00) begins with the following words: "To be a teenager is to feel different, misunderstood, perhaps even a bit of a mutant. It was the gift of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the creators of the Marvel comic decades ago, to realize with "X-Men" that conflicted twenty-something and teenage superheroes would tap into that universal "I don't belong" feeling and raise it to another level." While I do not doubt there is a good deal of truth in this statement, especially in accounting for the popularity of the comic, to read the movie as mainly an allegory about the pangs of adolescence would be to wildly underrate some of the themes it is tapping into. 

X-Men is in no sense a profound movie, and it has nothing of the darkness of the other famous "X"-named picture--the one about Scully and Mulder--yet it belongs as clearly in the apocalyptic corner as does The X-Files by fusing a recollection of the ineradicable horrors of the past with a look into a future in which traditional definitions of what it means to be a "human being" have begun to unpredictably crumble. Nevertheless, by revealing its mutant "supermen" as plagued by anxiety and faced with the constant danger of persecution or even extermination, X-Men, to its credit does not try mint apocalypticism into messianism as The Matrix contemptibly did.

X-Men commences with the most powerful episode in the entire film, depicting a scene in a concentration camp in Poland in the 1940's, where the boy who will become Magneto has been brought with his parents. When he is separated from his parents and attempts to rejoin them, the boy is brutally beaten by the Nazi guards. The concisely edited sequence concludes with a chilling shot of the smokestack of the crematorium where the parents are being led to their destruction. 

On the face of it, this prelude has two evident dramatic functions. The first, and principal function is to provide a rationale for Magneto's subsequent hatred of humans. In addition, X-Men also uses this allusion to the Holocaust to draw clear parallels between the persecution of the mutants, the Nazi "final solution," and contemporary manifestations of intolerance such as anti-Semitism, racism. homophobia, etc. At the same time, however, intentionally or not, the episode opens up an abyss between itself and the rest of the film by effectually posing the question: What kind of history is possible after the Holocaust? From this point of view, the episode's function is more apotropaic than dramatic. 

In fact, the "future" that X-Men forecasts is not the post-Holocaust future in which the audience now lives nor a future it is likely to be experiencing in its lifetime. X-Men's "future" is the "future" as envisioned in 1930's proto-science fiction vehicles--themselves the lineal descendents of Méliès' trick films--like James Whale's Frankenstein (1931), Chandu the Magician (1932), directed by William Cameron Menzies and Marcel Varnel, or Lambert Hillyer's The Invisible Ray (1936), with their heavy-duty transformers and flashing lights, although X-Men's  larger budget enables it to go far beyond anything that would have been feasible in those days. And what does a name like "Magneto" metonymically evoke if not the 1930's fascination with electrical technology? Similarly, the name "Xavier" harks back to a famous thriller of the early 1930's, Dr. X, directed by Michael Curtiz--whose title character, played by the redoubtable Lionel Atwill, is also a prominent scientist, the head of a research institute--a remarkable movie that features stylish art deco sets by Anton Grot and some fabulous high tech gadgets, including a device for the purpose of manufacturing "synthetic flesh"--already mutants in the works!  

To really imagine a future after the Holocaust would be highly problematic unless it were possible to imagine a future immunized against a recurrence of that catastrophe. And who today would be so rash as to jump in and accept the challenge? X-Men certainly does not attempt to do this. Instead X-Men begins by portraying this uniquely horrifying event and then retreating in spirit, if not in fact, to a far simpler world. If it might be possible here to detect intriguing parallels between this regression and the one which occurs in Frequency by means of another out-of-date gadget--an old amateur radio transmitter--but the advantage goes to X-Men over the heavy-handed Frequency, which only intermittently manages to get much mileage out of its effects.

In an article entitled "What Makes a Bravura Baddie?" that appeared in the same issues of the Times as Turan's review, Stephen Farber, who apparently prefers whining about movies these days instead of writing about them, complains that "X-Men falls short" because "its story line doesn't offer Magneto enough opportunities to flaunt his power...Magneto fails to demonstrate the diabolical cleverness the best movie villains exhibit." Moreover, in Farber's opinion the movie's attempt to provide a rationale for the character's villainy "by invoking one of the monumental tragedies of the 20th century seems awfully cheesy; images of the Holocaust don't fit comfortably in a comic-book melodrama." 

In fact, I think Farber raises a quite valid point about the risk of trivializing the Holocaust by simply throwing it into a movie for shock effect. Apart from the fact that I believe this material is no invention of the movie but shows up already in the comic, I think X-Men can be defended of this charge on two grounds.  First, if anything, the movie itself takes the risk of alienating the audience--in all likelihood, a very young one without a strong interest in or knowledge of events that took place over a half-century ago--by starting on such a stark note. 

Secondly, Farber might ask what kind of fictional villain could be plausible after such actual fiends as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, or Adolf Eichmann? What mad scientist out of the pages of an old time science fiction pulp novel could even imagine crimes against humanity on the scale of the atrocities perpetrated in fact by the Nazi leaders? To find anything comparably horrifying in literature, it would be necessary to go back to Sade. But the monsters who populate his novels like Saint-Fond or Minski are aristocratic dilettantes of pain whom the masters of the Third Reich would have despised for being incapable of sublimating their personal lusts to the task of making the world 100% Aryan.

But where X-Men tacitly employs the props and narrative conventions of older science fiction productions in its visuals and scenario, it goes back much farther in its quest to find a suitable antagonist for the rather smugly benevolent  Xavier. Magneto is a "villain" straight out of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, a latter day Captain Nemo who acts not out of evil but out of a warped desire to avenge the wrongs that have been done to him.  I would not argue that this is either a morally courageous nor an artistically innovative choice--but considering the standards, moral and artistic, currently prevalent in commercial filmmaking it seems quite a reasonable one. What Farber seems to overlook is that whatever Magneto lacks in sheer malevolence he makes up for in the sympathy he can command. His actions may be wrong, reprehensible, but the audience can identify with his desire to gain retribution--and this is very coherent with the rest of X-Men and its pleas for understanding the plight of outsiders. 

The film's strongest asset, in fact, even beyond its special effects, is Sir Ian, who brings to his role the panache of old time heavies like Lionel Atwill or George Zucco. By contrast, Patrick Stewart is quite competent as his adversary but far too bland to be very exciting, especially in comparison to some of the more colorful mutants like Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) or Storm, played by the beautiful Halle Berry. In a profound sense, however, all the characters are lost in time, haunting the ruin of a genre that passed into desuetude after 1945--and which like any ruin attracts visitors precisely because of the melancholy nostalgia it evokes. 

For complete credits check the Internet Movie Database 

 The Perfect Storm

Titan A.E.

IMAX® Adventures in Wild California

Mission: Impossible II

Gladiator

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E-mail Dave: daveclayton@worldnet.att.net

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