The Rebel in Red Tights: Deadpool

Is Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) the comic messiah destined to save the superhero universe from its own trappings?

Much has been written, about the opening title sequence of Deadpool, which is quite tongue-in-cheek about the people who made the film (Written by The Real Heroes Here…Directed by An Overpaid Tool), and mocks archetypes employed in superhero movies (A British Villain… A Comic Relief). But as the movie progresses, (meta as it may be) you realise that these proclamations ring hollow, because the film fulfils all the cliches that it pokes fun at.

The majority of the opening sequence plays out in flashback since the actual plot of the film is pretty shallow. The camera glides over a car, suspended in mid-air, in ultra-slow-motion as our wisecracking protagonist, destroys the convoy carrying his arch-nemesis, Ajax. This sequence with its ironic titles and subtle visual genius promises a countercultural movie that is strikingly self-aware.

In a series of flashbacks that follow, we learn of Deadpool’s civil existence as Wade Wilson, a former special forces agent turned mercenary assassin. He falls in love with a prostitute called Vanessa Williams (Morena Baccarin), at a seedy bar where his best friend Weasel, serves up drinks and places bets on which bar regular would die first. “I just want to get to know the real you, not the two-dimensional sex object peddled to me by Hollywood,” Wade tells Vanessa on their first date.  

The next few scenes, proceed to show the both of them, having raunchy sex in every imaginable position, until Wade asks her to marry him. Their domestic bliss is cut short by an untimely diagnosis of cancer, that is fast spreading across Wade’s body. Desperate to live, our romantic badass decides to sign up for Project X; a workshop run by Ajax (Ed Skrein), that aims to create mutants by torturing them until the genes in their body, mutate and create self-healing properties. Unfortunately, Wade soon realises that a long-lasting side effect of immortality is having a severely disfigured body. For a movie that claims to subvert the genre’s tropes, it sure seems comfortable using a cookie cutter origin story.

Once he escapes from the laboratory, the rebel in red vows to find an absconding Ajax — the only person who can help him fulfil his true mission; to look hot again and win back the affection of his lady love.

Like any postmodern work of art, Deadpool manages to reject the grand narrative and spews forth pop-culture references at the speed of a bullet. The writers of Deadpool, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who worked together on Zombieland have perfected the irreverent tone of a postmodern superhero.

Ryan Reynold’s motormouth performance delivers hard punches in certain action sequences (when Deadpool is hunting down Ajax’s aides, he hits a woman and then apologises profusely, “Is it sexist to hit you? Or is it more sexist to not hit you?”), despite playing safe with a standard origin story and massive action set- piece ending.

The protagonist’s shallow endeavour and penchant for smutty masturbation jokes are in line with yet another R-rated superhero movie — Matthew Vaughan’s Kickass. Director TJ Miller’s debut is a high energy flick, but what Deadpool sorely lacks is the insight and earnest sentimentality of Brad Bird’s The Incredibles. In comparison with The Incredibles, which deals with real world ramifications of leading a superhero’s life in a subversive yet sympathetic way, Deadpool is completely devoid of emotional depth.

 

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Slipping into Outsized Roles: The Salesman

While conversing with a friend last night, I confessed to him that I’d been reduced to tears by three films that I’d watched recently. In return, he asked me why humans love sad endings so much. Of the three films that I’d watched, only two of them had “bittersweet” endings, the third one — Wonder Woman — briefly induced tears of relief during action sequences. But his question about our affinity for stories with tragic endings made me think about what makes tragedies so compelling.

Aristotle, who along with Socrates and Plato, laid down the foundations for much of Western philosophy, also wrote the earliest surviving book on dramatic theory — Poetics. In Poetics, he offers that when one watches a tragedy unfold on-stage, emotions such as pity and fear get purged; one experiences catharsis.

In Asghar Farhadi’s ( A Separation, All About Elly)  Oscar-winning tragedy, The Salesman, one experiences more than just fear or pity because of the auteur’s ability to wrench out complex emotions out of a seemingly facile setting. The film opens with a long tracking shot of Emad Estesami, (Shahab Hosseini) a lecturer and theatre actor, running up and down the stairs of a building that’s shaking with tremors. Cracks appear in the walls of the home that he shares with his wife, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti). The couple moves out of that home and into a quaint apartment, which is littered with the belongings of its previous tenant. The tenant was a single mother, and the haunting traces of her invisible life, urge the protagonists to get her property out of the house as soon as possible.

Salesman

Farhadi, who studied theatre in school, borrows the title of this film from a Pulitzer-prize winning play, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. While the association might feel superficial in the beginning, Farhadi is a gracious filmmaker; he uses both theatrical melodrama and stifling silences to draw attention to the ways in which fiction parallels real life. Like Miller, the Iranian-filmmaker is a political storyteller, whose work builds to a quiet devastation by disrupting societal norms.

The childless married couple belongs to a theatre troupe, engaged in the production of Death of a Salesman. Their roles as Willy and Linda Loman, whose desire for social mobility leads to crushing disappointments is an unambiguous reference to the Estasmis’ need to maintain the facade of domestic bliss, even when things go south.

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One night, when Rana is alone at home and taking a shower, the buzzer goes off. She unlocks the front door, thinking it’s her husband and steps into the shower again. The next time we see her, she’s unconscious on a hospital bed with a huge open wound on her forehead. Back at home, Emad attempts to rummage through the debris and looks for clues, feeling incapacitated because he couldn’t protect his wife. He pieces together a sequence of events — an intruder entered the house when Rana was taking a shower, an ensuing struggle leads to the glass door getting broken, the intruder leaves with bloody feet — which lead him to a murky quest in search of retribution.

salesman-makeup

When Rana returns home, she displays classic symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and refuses to discuss the incident with anyone including the police. While conducting his own private investigation (without Rana’s knowledge or approval), Emad finds out that the previous tenant was a prostitute. He infers that the intruder must have been a former client, who thought he was joining her in the shower and even left some money on the floor. Emad’s spiteful behaviour in contrast with his progressive appearance further alienates the audience from his character.

While explaining the characteristics of an ideal protagonist in a tragedy, Aristotle wrote that he must be, “A man who is highly renowned and prosperous, but one who is not preeminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice or depravity but by some error of judgement or frailty…” According to him, the flaw in the protagonist’s character — Hamartia-– is essential because it keeps him on a human plane. In The Salesman, Emad’s descent from a beloved schoolteacher to a man, whose antiquated ideas of machismo drive him towards violence, reveals unforeseen fissures in his marriage.  

In the climax sequence, when the threat of a phone call is employed as a final weapon it becomes apparent that shame defines the proceedings of the film. It clings to the couple as they try to piece together their life after Rana’s rape. It haunts the wings of the theatre where the co-actors are only too eager to know if Emad managed to nab the culprit. It brings out Rana’s underlying complexity and decency. It permeates Emad’s consciousness and converts him into a cardboard caricature of toxic masculinity as he succumbs to almost primal vindictiveness.

“Without mercy, man is not a human being”: Sympathy and Suffering in Sansho the Bailiff

Released in 1954, Sansho Dayu or Sansho the Bailiff is considered a masterpiece by Kenji Mizoguchi, not just because of its huge cast, its strict adherence to compositional rules of classic cinema, its elaborate sets, or intricately choreographed long takes. What draws film buffs to this film is a 20-year family history compressed into a two-hour long story about conflicts that are as timeless as mankind itself. Conflicts between — selflessness and the urge for self-preservation, civilised behaviour and bestial greed, idealism and realism — take the centre stage in Mizoguchi’s 81st film. One need not draw contemporary political references to explain why the film feels transcendental to this date, but it might be useful to understand why it remains relatable decades after it was first released.

 

The films opens on a hillside, where Tamaki, the wife of a virtuous governor is making her way through a difficult terrain along with her son, Zushio, her young daughter, Anju and a servant. Set in eleventh-century (Heian period) Japan, Sansho the Bailiff tells the tale of this family making their way to the patriarch, who has been banished by the eponymous slavemaster Sansho, for being kind to revolting peasants in his district. Before his exile, the governor imparts to his son the central motif of the film, “Without mercy, man is not a human being. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others.”

A young Zushio with his father

They halt for the night, build a shelter out of grass/ tree limbs and sit around a fire. While waiting for the servant to return with hot porridge from a house nearby, an old priestess chances by their little circle and offers them shelter for the night. In the morning, after discovering their destination, the priestess recommends they travel safely by water and leads them to “friendly” boatmen. The seemingly trustworthy priestess hands her guests over to mercenary boatmen, who will sell the mother to prostitution and the children into slavery under Sansho, who is the richest man in the district.

Sansho, runs a prison camp that the children’s father in his power as the governor, had attempted to dismantle before being banished. He is a wicked man, who causes prisoners to be branded on their forehead if they try to escape. It is here that the children will spend the next ten years of their life, working for a sadistic tyrant who is the antithesis of all that their father stood for. Many have wondered why Sansho the Bailiff was named after the antagonist, who appears in less than half the film’s running time, though it soon becomes obvious that the slavemaster is meant to indicate the arbitrary unfairness of life.

Sansho

Sansho the Bailiff

All the scenes in the prison camp are unsparing in their depiction of human grief and trauma. It is here that the film develops a spectrum of characterisation, with Sansho on one end depicting all that’s wrong with the world and on the other end is the sister, Anju, who remains hopeful and compassionate despite facing uncountable horrors. In the middle sits, Zushio, who upon hitting puberty becomes (temporarily) corrupted by his surroundings. He begins to engage with the cruel disciplinary methods employed by the bailiff; often holding down panic-stricken slaves and branding their foreheads with a nonchalant look on his face.

As the plot moves forward, we see the siblings being motivated to escape from the prison camp. They are driven by a song with a haunting refrain, sung to them by a prisoner in their mother’s voice, “Zushio, Anju, come back, I need you.”

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Tamaki calling out to her children across the ocean.

 

Mizoguchi, who along with Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa, is considered one of Japan’s greatest directors was known for making genre-defying films. But his pioneering films — “Sansho”, “Song of Oharu,” (1952) and “Ugetsu Monogatari” (1953), for which he won the Silver Lion, the grand prize, three years in a row at the Venice Film Festival, have a central and abiding theme; the historical condition of women in Japanese society.

His long-time frequent collaborator, Kazuo Miyagawa, (who worked as a cinematographer on Rashomon and Yojimbo) is known for his theory of “one shot, one scene.” The depth of such an economical and meditative type of storytelling is apparent in a scene, where the death of character by drowning is not directly shown, but indicated through the ripples on the surface of a lake. The camera is often a reluctant observer; it doesn’t move in most scenes and declines to notice certain gruesome actions.

Sacrifice Sansho Lake 1

 

A prefatory note in the title sequence reminds the viewers that the story takes place, in “an era when mankind had not yet awakened as human beings.” The original story was written in 1915, but it is still a searing indictment of nationalist militarism, and the inherent inequity present in ancient class systems. If observed through a political lens, the film expounds egalitarian values, which liberalism promotes. But a deeper analysis would reveal that Sansho is a religious film; it seeks to show viewers that message of compassion practised by Buddha is compatible with liberalism.

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The bittersweet ending of the film cannot be described in words. It is both low-key and high-pitched, as well as dramatic and meditative. Anthony Lane, the film critic for The New Yorker, did a profile of Mizoguchi a few years ago in which he wrote: “I have seen ‘Sansho’ only once, a decade ago, emerging from the cinema a broken man but calm in my conviction that I had never seen anything better; I have not dared watch it again, reluctant to ruin the spell, but also because the human heart was not designed to weather such an ordeal.”