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Films
by Lucius Shepard

eXcreMENt

We have reached a point in the American journey where it is plain to see that the millennium was the approximate moment when both the idea and reality of populist art became extinct, when the intellectual environment of the culture sank beneath a level necessary to sustain the life of the public mind, when an evolution---a mutation, if you will---in the efficiency of marketing made the entire concept of product irrelevant. This should not come as news except to those who will not understand it, those whom the marketers have lobotomized or those who were of diminished capacity to begin with. There is no going back from this moment. The consumerist religion whose roots found purchase in the previous century, whose first unwitting prophets are the unheralded shapers of our present, has sounded its evangel and like a great wave has washed over every shore, immersing all but a few unreceptive souls in the dayglo colors and unsubtle music of its innocuous paradise vision. We sit side by side in darkened temples and worship visual displays of litany that are as childlike in their formulae as stories told in bible schools. We are ensnared in glittering webs woven of merchandise streams and celebrity. The world is afflicted by plague, famine, genocide, instability of every sort, and our next president will be a mannequin programmed to utter a carefully scripted sermon of platitudes and assurances. Our only hope is that intelligent machines will come to save us. We are surrounded by idiots.

That these fundamental observations should be expressed in a review of a film apparently targeted at a junior-high-and-younger audience may strike some as irrelevant snobbery---why focus even the most trivial of existential lenses upon a project that aspires to neither artistic nor intellectual credential? It's a comic book, for Christ's sake!, one might say. Chew your Milk Duds and shut the hell up! Yet as I sat in the theater watching Bryan Singer's latest film, X-Men, listening to the audience chuckle over the inane dialog, exclaiming at the second-rate special effects, such was the nature of my thoughts, and it occurred to me that not only was the film an exemplar of cultural decline, but a parable that might be interpreted as an illumination of our essential dilemma.

In the "not so distant future," when the incidence of human mutation is on the increase, producing men and women with uncanny powers of mind and body, the mutants have separated into two opposing groups, one led by the telepathic Professor X (Patrick Stewart), the other by Magneto (Ian McKellen). X runs a school for young mutants, one of whom bears a startling resemblance to the celebrated student Harry Potter. He is determined to mainstream mutants, to bring them into human society, despite the fact that humanity fears and loathes them. Magneto, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto who can control electromagnetic fields, has darker designs. Into this circumstance comes a newly awakened teenage mutant named Rogue (Ana Paquin), whose ability to drain the life force and personalities of others proves an allure to Magneto---he wants to let her drain a portion of his electromagnetic power, then use her as a battery to energize a machine that will---he believes---change all normal humans into mutants. Aligned with Magneto are the shapeshifter Mystique (latex-clad supermodel Rebecca Romijn-Stamos); a mesomorphic lionman, Sabretooth (wrestler Tyler Mane); and Toad (Ray Park), whose rather pornographic powers include a whiplike tongue and the capacity to give slimy, suffocating facials. On the side of goodness and niceness are Storm (Halle Berry), who controls the weather, redirecting lightning, snow, hail, and---I suppose---the humidity in order to confound her enemies; telepathic and telekinetic Jean Gray (Famke Janssen) who functions as a healer; and Cyclops (James Marsden) who has to wear Raybans or else his optic blasts will incinerate whatever he sees. Standing with them, but not truly part of the team, is Wolverine, a mutant surgically altered by the mysterious hooded figures who haunt his dreams; he is invulnerable to injury and sprouts a nasty set of adamantium claws in times of stress.

After the first twenty minutes or so, X-Men slumps into a predictable sequence of action scenes mixed in with campy dialogue and mutant soap opera, much of this aimed at promoting the film's simplistic message (Just because people are different doesn't mean they're bad), as the X-Men battle not only Magneto and his minions, but also a right-wing Senator (Bruce Davison) intent upon Hitlerizing the situation and forcing mutants to register with the government. All this has been done before with far more deftness and style, yet just as I was on the verge of losing interest I came to notice a more significant message embedded in the film's subtext.

Our culture generally perceives the upper class English accent to be an indicator of erudition, intellect, refined sensibility, and I found it curious that both Professor X and Magneto spoke with this accent, that in the X-Men universe these qualities were associated with both good and evil. But soon I realized that Professor X and Magneto were only superficially representative of good and evil. Magneto's intention to supersize human potential might well be seen as a desire to elevate, to improve, to brighten the senses---the same goals attributed to great art, to any profound intellectual endeavor. On the other hand, Professor X maintains a purely reactionary stance and voices no positive goals; his sole intention is to thwart Magneto and maintain the status quo. He is, in effect, a kind of intellectual quisling. This infant metaphor can be extended when one examines the opposing mutant teams. Cyclops, with his fratboy looks and glibness; Jane Gray, the All-American mom, the sexy nurturer; Storm, the white-haired, light-skinned black woman who expresses almost no personality and is used, rather slavishly, as a weapon---they are all conservative emblems, symbols frequently employed (whether cynically or sincerely) to denote the forces of restrictiveness, to make the state of restriction seem cozy and attractive. Magneto's team, however, seems emblematic of the messiness of art, the risk of intellectual experiment: the unhouse-trained Toad with his quick, vicious tongue, itself a symbol of verbal acuity; Sabretooth, the untamed natural man, his uncontrollable violences contrasting with those of the leash trained Storm; and Mystique, the image of sexual danger, embodying the ephemeral, the mercurial, the transforming power of the mind. And of course these two groups are contending for the heart and mind of Wolverine, the prototypical blue collar guy, conflicted, angry, confused, soulful, manipulated by mysterious forces beyond his control---the man with whom the audience most identifies.

Was it possible, I asked myself, that the Orwellian message stated in the opening paragraph of this review was buried in the script of X-Men, that some capybara-skin-booted, Hugo-Boss-clad producer had this much clever self-consciousness? Or had Bryan Singer, years removed from his one good film (The Usual Suspects), teetering on the precipice of hackdom, decided to incorporate a hidden statement, a final subversive bleat, before toppling into the abyss of the once-promising? Whatever the case, the more closely I examined the film, the more certain I became that the message was there. The metaphor was consistent on every level. For instance, the X-Men's stealth vertijet, the high-tech machinery that enhanced the Professor's telepathic skill, the precise geometries of lightning and snow and so forth generated by Storm, and Cyclops's surgical laser strikes, redolent of our military adventure in Kuwait---these were the nifty, sterile weapons of Ronald Reagan's wetdream American Paradise that helped bring about the New World Order, whereas Magneto's foaming, chaotic tide of electromagnetic plasma might be taken as the ultimate expression of unbridled creativity. I wondered---no, I suspected---that if I were to go back for a second viewing of any of the summer's apparently unending string of unaccomplished movies, Gone in 60 Seconds, The Patriot, Shaft, and etc., I might find a similar message embedded in each.

The film raced toward conclusion, the X-Men triumphed in a battle fought atop the Statue of Liberty---that matronly French insult to the Land of the Free that we've adopted as irrefutable proof of our long-fled compassion---and Magneto was locked away in a prison of white plastic where there was no metal that would enable him to use his power. (Are we not all so locked away from the wild desires of our natures by the plastic bonds of culture, kept separate from the necessary metal of our individual potencies?) With visions of a sequel dancing in their heads, the audience began filing out. The majority of them were considerably older than junior-high age, and most were unsmiling, gaping---they had consumed, been filled and dulled by what they'd consumed, and were now headed home to practice other varieties of consumption. And I saw that this was good. It certainly made my job easier. I'd planned to analyze the acting, the direction, the writing, to discuss X-Men in context of more artistically successful comic book treatments, movies such as The Crow, The Matrix, Batman, and to cite the film's few interesting moments, most of which occurred at the mutant school, an environment Singer would have been smart to mine further. But I realized now that these things were of no consequence---indeed, they did not really exist the way they once had. Actors had morphed into fashion statements, directors mutated into crafts-morons, and scriptwriters . . . well, soon there would be no scriptwriters, only directors with a beautiful dream and a Scriptomatic Story Program for their PCs (if you want a preview of this reality, check out The Phantom Menace). Quality was no longer an issue, or more precisely, the old critical standards had been abolished, and an entirely new range of judgments was required. Thus in the interests of the new cinematic order, I have decided to review all future Hollywood films as though they were fast food. X-Men, I believe, is best looked at in terms of pizza.

The film is not a top-of-the-line pie, not the well-seasoned, cheesy, crisp-crusted food item you might find at Pagliacci's in Seattle or Patty's in Brooklyn. Yet neither is it the slimy cardboard with orange sauce you buy by the slice on the streets of Newark. It's a step up from the average Domino's offering, spicier and with mushrooms that do not appear to have been lying on a countertop for most of the day. However, the toppings are sliced wafer-thin, the crust is on the doughy side, and the sauce contains far too much oregano. Pizza Hut, I think. Nothing out of the ordinary. A medium mushroom and pepperoni. It won't come back on you, you will likely not be exposed to E-coli or any infectious diseases, but you probably won't want to hang on to the leftovers. If you need a nosh, hey, go for it. If not, you might just as well wait for Paul Verhoeven's Hollow Man, which, I'm told, promises to be a Pizza One large bacon and pineapple with extra cheese.

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