In the Critics this week

Žižek on Batman, Leo Robson on McEwan and Tracey Thorn on the novels of Elizabeth Taylor.

Revolt, violence and class struggle are the themes jostling to the fore of this week’s Critics pages, most explicitly in Slavoj Žižek's essay on Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise.

Žižek writes that “The Dark Knight Rises shows that Hollywood blockbusters are precise indicators of the ideological predicaments of our societies.” “The trilogy of Batman films follows an internal logic … they show in short, how our civilisation has to be grounded in a lie – one has to break the rules in order to defend the system.” Its villain, Bane "reveals himself, as the critic Tyler O’Neil has put it, to be 'the ultimate Wall Street Occupier, calling on the 99 per cent to band together and over-throw societal elites’.” Yet “the occupy Wall street (OWS) movement in reality was not violent… the film absurdly misrepresents its aims and strategies.” Just as telling is Žižek's examination of Batman’s wealth, “arms dealer and speculator – this is the secret beneath the batman mask. How does the film deal with it? By resuscitating the archetypal Dickensian theme of a good capitalist who finances orphanages (Wayne) versus a bad, greedy capitalist.” Yet for “all the characters, Batman included, morality is relativised and becomes a matter of convenience, something determined by circumstances. It’s open class warfare – everything is permitted in defence of the system when we are dealing not just with mad gangsters, but with popular uprising.”

One imagines that among the 1 per cent cheering into their gold-dusted popcorn at The Dark Knight Rises are those described in Tim Burt's book, Dark Art: The Changing Face of Public Relations, which the NS's reviewer Elaine Glaser believes to be “revealing – perhaps unintentionally so – about how corporate ‘leaders’ and bankers really think.” “Burt’s despatches from the world of corporate self-justification show how precarious our poor, put-upon multi-millionare chief executives feel themselves to be.” Their answer? PR, which "treats" us to “better performances of corporate probity while the reality occurs someone else.” “While business and finance may feel under attack from public opinion and a hostile media, those institutions wield more power than ever. And if big money continues to hire clever people such as Burt, malpractise and corruption won’t even see the light of day.”

Though the messages of PR and The Dark Knight Rises may be pure fantasy, Harriet Sergeant’s book Among the Hoods: My Years with a Teenage Gang examines a demographic that really did explode into violent rioting last summer. Alan White says of it: “read this book and the events of August 2011 make a whole lot more sense,” and though “not revelatory, this is still a magnificent book.” Yet the picture painted bears no resemblance to the dark masses of Batman. “Harriet Sergeant… who does most of her writing for the Daily Mail… was never going to convince us that three years she spent in the company of a south London gang was a daring foray into a hard-to-reach societal fringe. She’s just a concerned mother who befriends some very troubled young men and tries to help them.” The result is “a tale that will provoke harrumphing from both sides of the political spectrum.” “How the right will wail as she increasingly sympathises with the gang, begins to conclude that there is no option for them other than commit crime to survive." "But how the left will gripe when they see, time and again, examples of how their values have let these children down.”

Another tale of politicised violence is the IRA thriller Shadow Dancer. Ryan Gibley notes that “surprises that could have been cataclysmic tend to register here as muted tremors, which is not to say the movie isn’t powerful – only that Marsh is unfashionably interested in aftershock, rather than explosion.” As “a film that insists its characters are unknowable is in danger of relegating them to enigmatic specks in the distance but Shadow Dancer gets the balance about right, maintaining the urgency of [IRA agent] Collette’s predicament without explaining or sanitising her.” This subtlety carries through to the film’s exposition and characterisation, with “pregnant glances filling in for pages of dialogue.”

A quiet tale of conflict and espionage also forms the setting of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, which follows the story of a young woman who works as a spy during the Cold War. Like much of McEwan’s recent work, Leo Robson finds that it “rewards rereading, but not reading” as “a triumph of the most negative kind, a novel  that turns out to have been tiresome for a good reason.” “Ample precedent has taught the reader not to trust McEwan’s books any further than one can throw them (the thicker ones tend to be sneakier). His every sentences seem capable of slipping its skin to expose another.” It also “follows to an almost caricatural degree McEwan’s well-established version of the male-female dynamic” and his trademark “belief in the indispensability of solid, not to say exhaustive, scene-setting.” “It is knowing without being exactly postmodern. Another way of describing it is that McEwan is trying to resolve the conflict between humanism and postmodernism.”

Amongst these stories of earth shaking conflict and social upheaval, Tracey Thorn’s eulogy to the shy and underrated writer Elizabeth Taylor is a welcome respite. She notes that, “as in all great writing, the joy lies in the closeness of the observation.” “This reserve informs the very style of Taylor’s fiction, in which subtly, economy and understatement reign supreme. Even her humour – and she is an extremely funny writer – is dry and precise.” “She finds interest and drama in the tiniest details, the dustiest corners of our lives, and in revealing these details so accurately and gracefully she transforms the mundane into something vivid; she makes sometimes dull lives seem worth noticing, and so worth living.”

A man dressed as Batman (Image: Getty)
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Okja begins as a buddy flick – but ends up in the slaughterhouse

Korean director Bong Joon-ho works with British co-writer Jon Ronson on this tale of genetically engineered superpigs.

If Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for Spirited Away, were to branch out into live action, the result might be something like Okja – at least in part. It’s the tale of a genetically engineered breed of waddling grey superpigs, not so much porcine in appearance as manatee or hippo-like, created by the twitchy, imperious CEO of a multinational corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), in the hope of solving a global food shortage.

Each of these docile beasts is despatched to a different corner of the planet to be reared. The enormous Okja grows up in rural Korea, gambolling in the fields with her young companion, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun).

Okja is no dumb animal – she saves the child from falling off a cliff by using a rope to improvise a sophisticated pulley system. She should be working in crisis management, not ending up on someone’s fork. But eventually the day comes when Mirando’s representatives arrive to claim their several thousand pounds of flesh.

The early scenes borrow the leisurely rhythms of Mija’s idyllic days with Okja; she snoozes on the beast’s vast belly, softly rising and falling in time with her pet’s breathing. Yet once she follows the kidnapped creature to Seoul, where they are taken in by a band of animal rights activists, the film lurches from one style to another. What begins as a tranquil buddy movie finishes up in the blood-soaked slaughterhouse where Okja is due to end her days; it’s as though My Neighbour Totoro had morphed into Fast Food Nation.

The film’s Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, and his British co-writer, Jon Ronson, present viewers with a transaction that reflects the ethical and ecological implications of the story.

We can have our heart-warming tale of the bond between human and animal, but only if we accept also those parts of the plot which demystify that relationship and take it to its industrialised extreme. It’s a bold strategy that has worked before for this film-maker – in The Host and Snowpiercer he used the genres of horror and action, respectively, to smuggle through political and environmental messages.

But Okja risks falling between two stools. Young children who might enjoy the first third (and can see Okja on Netflix the very day it is released in cinemas, easily bypassing the 15 certificate) would be alternately bored and traumatised by the rest of it. Conversely, adults will have an awful lot of whimsy to wade through before reaching the meat of the movie.

There are compensations. The film is sumptuously designed by Lee Ha-jun and Kevin Thompson, and crisply shot by Darius Khondji. Swinton, who played the villain in Snowpiercer as a grotesque northern schoolmarm with oversized gnashers, puts in the distorting dentures once again in Okja as both Lucy and her sister, Nancy, with whom she is locked in an irresolvable rivalry. Lucy is bleached (pink skin, platinum hair, white robes) to the point of invisibility, whereas Nancy is a harrumphing Penelope Keith type in a quilted jacket.

Other capable actors are undone by the unreasonable demands placed on them. Shirley Henderson, as Lucy’s assistant, has been directed to talk at comically high speed for want of any actual funny dialogue, and Paul Dano would be more plausible as a winsome animal rights activist if he weren’t leading the Animal Liberation Front. The group’s portrayal here as a group of touchy-feely flower children (“This is a non-lethal chokehold, OK?” one member says, as he disables a security guard) is laughable.

But no one comes out of Okja quite as badly as Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr Johnny Wilcox, a wacky nature TV presenter who is like Steve Irwin trapped in Timmy Mallett’s body. The film is at its most wrong-headed in scenes where Dr Johnny, left alone with Okja, first forces her to mate with another superpig (a pointless episode that serves no plot function) and then tortures her.

It’s that risky trade-off again: enjoy the knockabout chase sequence in which Okja fires turds at her adversaries, and later you must endure the darker side of the same narrative. It will be a forgiving audience indeed that doesn’t recoil from this approach, which is too much stick and not enough carrot.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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