Over the weekend, Film Twitter went into a predictable war over superhero movies again. This time the battle began because of comments Ethan Hawke made about Logan during an interview with The Film Stage out of the Locarno Film Festival.
The screencapped quote that had Film Twitter going mad was:
Now we have the problem that they tell us Logan is a great movie. Well, it’s a great superhero movie. It still involves people in tights with metal coming out of their hands. It’s not Bresson. It’s not Bergman. But they talk about it like it is. I went to see Logan cause everyone was like, “This is a great movie” and I was like, “Really? No, this is a fine superhero movie.” There’s a difference but big business doesn’t think there’s a difference. Big business wants you to think that this is a great film because they wanna make money off of it.
You can probably guess how the battle lines were drawn. On one side, you had the defenders of superhero movies and Logan in particular. On the other, you have those who feel like superhero movies are too often crassly commercial and so should not be uttered in the same breath as true cinema. And lost was any sense of nuance along with what Hawke was actually talking about.
Admittedly, I eyerolled over Hawke’s remark. I didn’t initially read the full interview, but instead thought how he was an unexpected genre snob considering he’s worked in horror with movies like The Purge and Sinister. And it’s not that his quote is egregiously taken out of context. But it’s part of a larger conversation he was having with interviewer Rory O’Connor over the importance of film festivals like Locarno, where Hawke was accepting a Lifetime Achievement honor.
During the interview, the four-time Oscar nominee spoke about Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, his supposed comeback, and the tiers of his career. He gets personal, talking about how he focused on work to get through the pain of his first marriage falling apart, his early jealousy over Christian Bale, and the vexing fickleness of fame. He gives long, winding answers to simple questions. The Lifetime Achievement award seems an apparent influence as he generously steps through his career, life, and ponderings.
It was a simple question about his new directorial effort Blaze that sparked a ramble that ended on the Logan comment. He begins by expressing how it’s an exciting time where anyone can make a movie because digital cinema has changed the game when it comes to accessibility to the means of production. Then, he reminisces about how Linklater made Slacker for $16k, a feat that helped the film earn attention. “We’re living in a moment now where the hard part is how to distribute it and how we all can know what to see,” Hawke said, “Because there’s so many Slackers out there now and most of them are terrible, so how do you find them?”
Then right before the Logan bit, Hawke says:
I’m always astonished, I’m sure you are too, you can go on Apple TV now and see that Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow made a movie together that I never heard of. What? And like, Matt Damon’s in a Clint Eastwood movie I never heard of? So many things get lost in the cracks and if those big names are getting lost, where are the Gattacas of right now? It might be like other art forms where it might take 50 years to curate what’s happening right now. That’s why film festivals have become so important because you guys at film festivals are like curators of, like, what does the world need to be paying attention to. What should be seen? If we didn’t have these festivals, big business would crush all these smaller movies.
Within the context of the conversation of his life’s work and how filmmaking has changed over the 33 years of his career, Hawke was expressing a frustration about how superhero stories dominate the conversation and what is potentially lost are amazing smaller, riskier movies that don’t have studio backing or a star-stuffed franchise to garner notice. Was it a sloppy argument, absolutely. Especially as it undercuts something Hawke shared earlier, when discussing his work in Blumhouse horror movies.
He spoke about how Gremlins director Joe Dante exposed him to the oft-political subtext within horror. He gushed about how The Purge and Get Out get audiences in the door with their promises of scares, and serves up a meaningful message along with thrills.
Then he says:
I love that because there’s something punk rock about it, it’s not what it seems. There’s a Cassavetes quote I love, “There’s no such thing as high art and low art, there’s good movies and bad movies.” The definition is: did the people who made it put their best love and ideas, did they work hard to complete what that thing is trying to be?… That doesn’t mean that if he makes a movie with sex and violence that there isn’t art put into it. A lot of people just put the sex and violence and they forget about the art.
Initially, I rolled my eyes at Hawke. Now, I see we have more in common than I’d have imagined from the screencapped quote. However, he does have an apparent blind spot when it comes to superhero movies. But what he said above, that is how I feel about the horror and superhero genres. In both, there is a flood of mediocre movies that are more concerned with spectacle and getting people in the theater than saying anything of value or artful while they have that attention. Logan is not one of those.
Logan was a revisionist superhero movie that took cues from revisionist Westerns that re-imagined the heroic gunfighter, by focusing on the blood on his hands. It is a groundbreaking superhero film, not because of its curse words, nudity, and graphic violence, but because it dives into the weight and meaning of that violence. And it does all this with a political message, denouncing a bigoted government endeavor that declares people “illegal” and therefore dangerous. I mean, at its core, Logan is a movie about trying to get an “illegal” Mexican refugee out of the US to safety in Canada. Just because a movie is popular doesn’t mean it’s stupid, and Logan is a genre film with something to say.
Personally, I don’t understand how Hawke can praise Get Out in one breath and denounce Logan in the next. But I suspect his beef—fairly or not—is less with the movie and more with the genre he feels is drowning out all others.
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