Like millions of other people, I ran to see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 at the earliest opportunity. The first installment of James Gunn’s Marvel Universe series won my heart in 2014, principally for the moment when its ragtag band of misfits, at last outfitted as a team, strode toward the camera in heroic wedge formation, with Zoe Saldana as the warrior Gamora puncturing the visual cliché by letting out a slow-motion yawn. I’d hoped for further acts of insolence in the sequel, and I was not disappointed. But then again, I was.
In explaining why, I can fortunately dispense with both a synopsis and a spoiler alert, given that Gunn has rummaged through Gene Roddenberry’s beloved Star Trek plot catalog and dug out Story No. 3(b): A being with strange powers, encountered on a pseudo-paradisiacal planet, makes his bid for universal domination. That this dusty trunk item did not originate with Gunn, or even with Marvel Comics (despite the film’s obligatory cameo by Stan Lee), isn’t a fault in the Guardians aesthetic, but rather the main point.
Outdated pop culture gives Guardians its master joke, as well as its carefully judged position among other special-effects blockbusters. The ostensible central character, Peter Quill, was kidnapped as a child by bandits from outer space and so has no earthly references beyond those he learned in 1980s Missouri. Mentally frozen in time though grown into the strapping form of Chris Pratt, he continually cites the songs and TV shows of his childhood. To his fellow characters in the wildly high-tech settings he now inhabits, this stock of information is utterly meaningless. To us, it’s a storehouse of nostalgia, if not downright embarrassment.
We settle in happily between fantasies of future worlds (rendered with the shiniest new digital imaging available) and memories of the clunky, mass-marketed analog products of our past. The joke’s on us, of course, because the movie we’re now enjoying is stamped with its own sell-by date. In 2047 (should humanity make it that far), the latest movie about an earthling kidnapped from 2017 Beijing will have her talking excitedly about Guardians to her bored, uncomprehending ET abductors. But who wants to think ahead? It seems we’re all comfortable knowing that today’s prized entertainment is tomorrow’s junk-shop item. Meanwhile, Gunn and his accomplices have made themselves considerably more than comfortable, thanks to their strategy of both fulfilling and mocking the conventions of the superhero extravaganza.
It’s tempting at this point to dismiss Gunn’s project as just another instance of Hollywood’s making money by having things both ways. Plenty of other blockbusters practice self-referential humor, sometimes with an ingrained defensiveness so habitual that their winks at the audience turn into a facial tic. But in its frank, playful acknowledgment that pop culture’s products—including itself—are both flimsy and nonbiodegradable, Guardians touches on something essential about these movies. Yes, they’re formulaic in concept and repetitive in execution, frequently thoughtless about anything except their own marketing and production schemes, and far too often heartlessly bloody. They’re also amazing—if you’d never seen one before, you would walk out of the movie house agog at the wonder and majesty you had just witnessed, to declare (with Preston Sturges’s convertible-sofa salesman) “There is no limit to man’s ingenuity.”
So how much real ingenuity—the potentially lasting kind—is on display in the new Guardians?
I would put into the “wonders” column the white plastic egg that the strange being uses as his spaceship. I also like the way he repurposes the egg’s form as a display case for mannequins that illustrate his life story (this is an alien intelligence with a consistent design sensibility); and I like Kurt Russell’s commitment to the role of this swaggering interplanetary stud, who sometimes cozies up seductively to Earth females and sometimes beams with a great-bearded patriarchal sincerity that you shouldn’t trust more than you would a beer commercial. He’s exactly the father figure that Peter doesn’t need, and (of course) the one Peter wants.
But then, there are multiple family romances in this Guardians; almost everyone gets to have his, her, or its own emotional catharsis. On the one hand, this is appropriate for a series that has moved away from being the story of the straight white guy and is now realizing its destiny as a platoon movie on LSD. On the other hand, I’m disappointed: Guardians has become earnest in preaching forgiveness, reconciliation, comradeship, and half a dozen other virtues that are ill-suited to a movie that pretends to razz the whole superhero business. Leave it to Spider-Man to tell us that with great power comes great responsibility. In Guardians, an ill-tempered bionic raccoon is supposed to pull down responsibility’s pants. But Rocket, voiced by Bradley Cooper, now has the duty to live up to his own cinematic reputation—such are the snares of success—and his buddy Groot the talking tree has gone cutesy on us.
I had a fine time, all the same. And considering that one of the movie’s best jokes is about a desperate, extended search for Scotch tape—once again, the analog takes its vengeance on a digital world—it’s to the credit of Guardians that I didn’t even mind paying extra for 3-D. But the lesson here is that the sell-by date for the cleverest pop-culture insolence comes more quickly than you might think. Watch out for Vol. 3—by the time it arrives, we might have to ask which Guardians will mock the Guardians for us.
Andrzej Wajda, age 90 and full of honors, died on October 9, 2016, about a month after critics at the Toronto International Film Festival watched the premiere of his final contribution to world cinema, Afterimage, and decided that it wasn’t what they wanted to see. La La Land was evidently more to the reviewers’ taste, with its pep and bright-colored mediocrity. The story of characters who have some talent but not too much, as portrayed by stars who kind of sing and dance, La La Land purports to be about following your dreams but secretly dedicates itself to settling; whereas the uncompromising central character of Afterimage is an artist of historic stature—the modernist painter Wladyslaw Strzeminski (1893–1952)—whose drawn-out suffering and death at the hands of Poland’s communist regime is the sole action of the film. Critics complained of claustrophobia and a surfeit of gloom.
It didn’t seem to occur to the film’s detractors that Wajda, at the end of his career, no longer felt the need to impress people but instead wanted viewers to mold themselves to him. Such an attitude sometimes seeps into artists as they reach old age, with results that are well documented. “In the history of art, late works are the catastrophes,” Adorno wrote; and with rare artists like Wajda, who know they have made their mark on the histories of both their art form and their disastrous political era, this summing-up can be as brutally compressed and yet loosely strewn, as physically blunt and yet heartbreakingly fragile, as a wrecked car on the roadside.
This particular wreck clearly held deep personal meaning for its author; but not, as some might suppose, because he identified with Strzeminski. To understand why Afterimage propels itself forward, like its hero, in a kind of targeted flailing, you might first ask whether Wajda felt closer to the protagonist or, instead, to the gaggle of subsidiary characters around him.
A biographical note: Wajda entered the Lodz Film School in 1950, just when the Polish authorities forced Strzeminski out of the Lodz State Art School (which he’d co-founded) and made sure that he was unemployable. A young artist was on the rise; an older artist in the same city, who in different circumstances might have been Wajda’s teacher, was being lowered into poverty and the grave. Perhaps the two never met; but you can see Wajda working himself imaginatively into Strzeminski’s circle, decades after the fact, in the many scenes of Afterimage in which the old painter is surrounded by his pupils, all roughly the same age as Wajda was in those years.
If Strzeminski decides to roll down a hill, these disciples will giddily tumble after him. That’s what happens in the prologue, the only part of Afterimage filled with laughter and rural sunshine, when Strzeminski (Boguslaw Linda) takes his students to the countryside to paint in the open air. The real fall, the fatal one, hasn’t happened yet. But when the persecution begins, the young people continue to cling to Strzeminski, huddling around him in the lecture hall—he prefers to sit in their midst, rather than talk from a podium—or crowding into his tiny apartment to show their latest work. As the film turns dark and relentlessly interior, these garlands of open-faced, hopeful, deeply worried young artists still drape themselves over their master, warming him and the scenes they decorate.
But warming is about all they can do. They provide a little material aid and comfort; and then, as the claustrophobia worsens (the Toronto press corps was not wrong to observe the effect of suffocation), all but one or two fade away, leaving their teacher both trapped and helplessly exposed.
Will the audience going into Afterimage know about Wajda’s unstated backstory in Lodz and guess that, when he reflected on the past, he might have thought of himself as one of these young people? Probably not, and Wajda evidently didn’t care. Too preoccupied with his theme to bother with the niceties of addressing an audience, he seems to have figured that we’d catch up, if we wanted to.
Nor did Wajda indulge himself, or his viewers, in pretty fantasies of being the young person who rescued Strzeminski and changed history. His thoughts instead turned to guilt—and not just the regime’s. Beyond constructing a dramatic account of how the authorities crushed Strzeminski rather than allow him to profess a form of art independent of state control, Wajda made up a story of how the artist reluctantly and bitterly pushed away the young people (mainly women) who were most devoted to him, so they might perhaps escape with their lives.
One of these is Hania (Zofia Wichlacz), a full-lipped, dark-browed beauty who has come to the art school from Warsaw (Poles in the audience will automatically supply their own “war-devastated”) and fallen in love with Strzeminski. Never mind that he’s balding, jowly, nicotine-stained, stubble-chinned, and swings through Lodz on crutches, having lost his right leg and left arm in World War I. His eloquence about intentional vision and personal choice inspires Hania to stay with him after almost all of the others have dropped away; and like any other needy man, Strzeminski prefers not to acknowledge what’s going on with her but just keeps benefiting from the attachment, until she leaves him no choice except to practice the awareness he’s always talking about.
The other principal attendant is Nika (Bronislawa Zamachowska), Strzeminski’s middle-school-age daughter, a pigtailed, spookily deadpan kid with eyes so widely spaced they seem to sit over her ears. A child of divorce, Nika is suspended in the film between two deaths, her mother’s and Strzeminski’s, and while waiting for the latter to occur spends her time fending for herself at too young an age and trying to care for her father, who mostly pretends she’s not there. When Nika moves out of his apartment, packing up as abruptly as she’d moved in, Strzeminski goes on painting and lets her leave without a word. Even so, it seems he’s paid attention. “She’s going to have a hard life,” he mutters after the door has slammed, in the same tone of voice you’d use to remark on the weather.
Like Nika, characters in Afterimage are always walking into scenes and then walking out again. There are so many doors in the dramaturgy that you’d think Wajda had recycled a set of stage directions from a Feydeau farce. These comings and goings aren’t funny, of course; they mostly remind you that threats lurk everywhere waiting to make their entrance, and any hope of escape is futile. That said, it would be a mistake to neglect the ironies in Afterimage that verge on grotesque, despairing comedy. These begin with the appearance at Strzeminski’s apartment window of a gigantic poster of Stalin, which the artist matter-of-factly slashes with a crutch so that it won’t cast a red shadow on his painting. (Cut to two distressed cops on the street below, who comment, more or less, “Jesus Christ!”) Wajda picks up the joke later, when Strzeminski gets a job churning out more such pictures of the great leaders (he’s the best painter in the workshop, of course). And when little Nika is excited to carry a banner in the May Day parade, Strzeminski watches from the window; it’s the only time in the film you see his daughter smile.
Like other historical dramas by Wajda—Katyn and Korczak, for example—Afterimage memorializes the victim of a state-sponsored crime. But if we take the title seriously—the physiological phenomenon of a retinal afterimage was crucial to Strzeminski’s theory of art—then we should turn away mentally from the central figure in his moment of time and look instead at the lingering shadow that the regime’s actions imposed on those who followed. Afterimage is ultimately about what would ensue for Nika, and Hania, and Andrzej Wajda. The film, in its catastrophe, doesn’t show you any of that; but if you pay attention, you can glimpse the ghostly aura.