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Violent Femme

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Scarlett Johansson as the title character in Luc Besson’s Lucy

Scarlett Johansson as the title character in Luc Besson’s Lucy

It’s a thoroughly mediocre movie—I’m sorry to say that, considering that its predecessor in this new cycle, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was so unexpectedly good—but instructive for the way it has altered a durable, and adaptable, pop-culture myth. The Apes series began in 1963 with a satirical novel by Pierre Boulle—in effect, a late voyage of Lemuel Gulliver—that addressed anxieties about complacency and conformity in a society fascinated by its own affluence. In Boulle’s story, the apes evolved to fill a niche abandoned by humans, who had devolved through sheer passivity. By the time the first Apes movie was released in 1968, with a screenplay by the formerly blacklisted Michael Wilson and The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling, the reason for humanity’s downfall had changed. The focus of the anxiety was now aggression and militarism; we humans were bomb-wielding “maniacs” who had willfully blown up our own world.

In the new Apes cycle, the anxiety has shifted again. Although the latest film still dwells on an irrational propensity toward warfare—among humans and apes alike—the immediate cause of all the trouble is genetic engineering. The satire now tells us that we are too clever and powerful for our own good when we meddle with our cells, and not nearly humble enough toward other creatures.

Perhaps this fear about the unforeseeable consequences, internal and external, of medical science tells us something about the need that Scarlett Johansson has begun to fulfill. She has become the sex kitten who repeatedly goes beyond sex—all the way to digital self-propagation in Lucy—provoking thoughts about physical urges even while escaping the body’s limits. She is the product of advanced artifice (by Soviet spymasters, American computer scientists, creepy aliens or Asian drug lords) who nevertheless feels a twinge of benevolence, or at least pity, for those of us still mired in nature. A public worried that their own bodies might be spinning out of control—from toxins, viruses, electronic self-alienation, Frankensteinian self-modification—might want to feel excited, threatened and reassured all at once about the biological future. If so, the figure of Johansson in her Black Widow iterations is answering that desire, and doing so, more often than not, with a light touch and a wink.

But if Johansson represents something new, she also represents something tried and true at the end of Lucy. As so often happens, especially with a writer-director like Besson, the movie ultimately refers only to other movies—and so it’s possible to see Johansson’s evolution in this picture as an ascent through the film-production hierarchy. When she is approaching full mental strength, for example, she finds she can relax in a chair and make time and space scroll back and forth with a flick of her hand. In effect, she’s become a film editor, sitting in front of a digital console. But when she hits 100 percent, the need for such technical tricks falls away because she is now all-pervasive, like the air that everyone breathes.

In other words, she’s attained the omnipresence of a true movie star. If you can say nothing more about Johansson in Lucy, that much is beyond dispute.

* * *

Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos’s wrenching, disturbing, engrossing and beautiful Rich Hill might be described as a less hopeful documentary counterpart to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. It gives you a yearlong slice of no fewer than three boyhoods, all taking place in the present day in the small town of the title in western Missouri (population 1,396 at the time of filming). There’s some money in the town (you know that from the big Fourth of July celebration, which includes a pie auction that attracts the high rollers), but none for the film’s subjects, who live on the desolate outskirts.

Harley, a bundle of nerves proudly ornamented with a little mustache and an eyebrow ring, lives with his grandmother—his mother’s in jail—and shows an alarming fondness for knives. Appachey, a morose, chubby, chain-smoking 13-year-old, has an exhausted and disgusted single mother, a dilapidated house strewn with garbage, a semi-submerged fondness for visual art and no friends. Andrew, by far the most energetic and appealing of the three, refuses to feel inferior because of his poverty and speaks warmly of his love for his family—though his father is incapable of holding a job, his mother is too medicated to do much of anything, and the whole family has to keep moving from house to house, town to town. Andrew knows how to heat bathwater using a clothes iron and a drip coffeemaker.

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Astonishingly intimate and unflinching yet also impressionistic—it’s the kind of documentary that takes time out to gaze at a passing streetlight or observe a tractor trailer pulling into traffic—Rich Hill stays too close to its subjects to suggest any context for their poverty. It does not explain, excuse or plead. All it does is sympathize, with a full heart, as it immerses you in the lives of these boys. They are the sort of people who are sometimes called “forgotten.” Rich Hill makes them unforgettable.

* * *

Nation readers are sure to want to seek out Dan Krauss’s excellent documentary The Kill Team, which tells, from the inside, the story of two scandals. The first, which was widely reported, was the deliberate murder of civilians by US forces in Afghanistan. The second, which Krauss exposes, is the punishment meted out to young Pvt. Adam Winfield, who tried to alert the chain of command to the crimes and was thanked with an indictment for first-degree murder. Krauss is too responsible to do anything flashy with this material. He tells the story directly and in depth, then concludes with this devastating question from one of Winfield’s fellow soldiers: If you didn’t want us to kill people, why did you send us there?

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