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Nashville Scene High on X

'X-men' mostly does justice to its comic-book origins

By Noel Murray, Jim Ridley, and Donna Bowman

JULY 24, 2000:  It took a while for the X-Men comics to hit their stride. Launched in 1963 by the Marvel Comics braintrust of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the first issue of The X-Men promised superhero action "in the sensational Fantastic Four style"--meaning that these new costumed adventurers would have personal problems just like the stars of Marvel's flagship book. But it was a struggle for Lee and Kirby to make The X-Men distinctive. They had a great premise--a group of teenagers who had acquired superpowers through natural genetic mutation--but from issue to issue the team never seemed to thrive in a consistent environment. Were they public or covert? Beloved or feared? The creators couldn't decide. In 1970, production of new stories ground to a halt, and eventually the title was canceled.

In 1975, Marvel revived the concept as "The All-New, All-Different X-Men," and hired writer Chris Claremont to rethink the team. Now out of their teens and into their early 20s, the X-Men were also multiracial and multinational. They fought epic battles that the world never knew about, and carried chips on their shoulders that led to plenty of internal bickering. In 1977, Claremont's compelling vision was paired with the dynamic art of John Byrne, and the newly titled Uncanny X-Men became a smash hit. Relentless action, multiple subplots, and constant crises kept the characters hopping and the fans reading, while Claremont and Byrne explored themes of bigotry, ethics, morality, friendship, and even desperate romance.

The creative heyday couldn't last. Byrne packed up his pencil in 1981, and as the comic book got more and more successful, Marvel added more X-Men-related titles to their roster--most of which were written by an overtaxed Claremont. The writer burned out, and the entire series got corrupted by too many characters, too many timelines, and a general loss of coherence. Marvel now puts out roughly eight X-titles a month, all of which sell relatively well in a depressed comics market; but despite several more changes in creative teams, these noble figures now stand more for marketing run amok than for the value of good fantasy/sci-fi storytelling.

What does all this have to do with the new big-screen version of the X-Men? It explains what's at stake for director Bryan Singer, Marvel Comics, Fox Studios, and millions of fans. No one wants to see this property screwed up any more than it already has been. And the movies are notorious for misinterpreting comic books. Even well-intentioned producers, writers, and directors iron out interesting kinks in characters and simplify plots to make cult figures palatable for the mainstream--which instead only makes the characters and their fans look stupid.

So the makers of the cinematic X-Men had to find a way to deliver a meaningful, profitable action movie that would not only show real people in ridiculous costumes with inexplicable powers, but would also boil down almost 40 years' worth of stories into a two-hour movie. Singer and first-time screenwriter David Hayter (assisted by scores of uncredited writers with a personal interest in getting the movie right) wisely chose to start fresh, with a pared-down team and only the barest hint of a history that predates the opening credits. There is a school for mutants, run by the telepathic paraplegic Charles Xavier (played by Patrick Stewart), and there is an older team of X-Men who have graduated from Professor X's training program. The optic-blast-wielding Cyclops (James Marsden), his telekinetic girlfriend Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), and the "weather witch" Storm (Halle Berry) all assist Professor X in locating and recruiting new mutants.

As the film opens, the X-Men are tracking down Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), a savage mutant with a metal skeleton, razor-sharp claws, enhanced senses, and the ability to heal rapidly; also in their scope is Rogue (Anna Paquin), a meek teenage belle with the ability to absorb others' powers and memories with a touch. Simultaneously searching for Wolverine and Rogue are the "master of magnetism" Magneto (Ian McKellen) and his nefarious Brotherhood of Mutants--including the shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), the agile, long-tongued Toad (Ray Park), and the feral Sabretooth (Tyler Mayne). Meanwhile, the misguided, bigoted U.S. Sen. Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison) is pushing a nationwide mutant registration program that will affect all superpowered people, good and evil.

Despite all this intrigue, the main plot of the movie is fairly silly: Magneto and his Brotherhood are planning to unleash an energy field that will speed up the evolutionary process and make everyone into a mutant (or perhaps a corpse). No matter how clever the machinations and internal struggles of a superhero story, the fundamental flaw of the genre is that the stories wrap up with people standing around shooting colorful beams at each other (or throwing each other against the wall, as the case may be). X-Men is no different. There are some nice effects in the action sequences, and some decent (if indifferently staged) fight scenes, but when all is said and done, the climax is basically uninteresting.

What works is the peripheral stuff. There are sops to X-fandom in the cameo appearances of some well-known characters, and in the vivid recreation of Xavier's school. But even non-X-lovers with an affinity for fantasy will appreciate the resonant themes and distinctive characters, and the fact that the entire movie isn't in ironic quote marks. The best performance is by the charismatic Jackman, who has the important task of rolling his eyes whenever the rest of the heroes say goofy things about "our powers"--thereby affirming for the audience that elements of this movie can't be taken too seriously. But the use of muted costumes rather than brightly hued spandex also helps the team's credibility, and even if the final standoff is weak, the team's banter during that finale and during the closing scenes solidifies the film as a likable first installment of a viable movie franchise.

Hey, it's not like those Claremont/Byrne stories were Graham Greene, for heaven's sake. They succeeded in being busy enough to distract from the creaky genre conventions and corny dialogue; and in that way, Singer and Hayter (and company) are really heirs to the tradition of the best X-Men stories. This new version, this X-Men movie, has a sense of what makes the superteam special, and that's something to celebrate--especially since the comic book's creators have long since lost that particular superpower. --Noel Murray

Public Image, Limited

Giving as brilliant a pronouncement as anyone has ever made on the mysteries of pop music, Sly Stone sang that dyin' young is hard to take, but sellin' out is harder. The Sex Pistols managed to do both. The beauty of the Pistols' career was that it lasted less than two years, from 1976 to 1978, and even that was almost too long. Had they soldiered on woefully, like the Clash, they'd've wound up on some shock-rock oldies circuit. But the Pistols flared and flamed out so quickly that no one had time to make sense of what they'd done--to pop music, to fashion, to cherished nonsense about the separation of music and money.

Julien Temple's absorbing documentary The Filth and the Fury, a portrait of the Pistols' brief but brilliant career, has the benefit of nearly a quarter-century's perspective; that may explain why it leaves such a poignant aftertaste. Told through newsreels, archival clips, and interviews with the surviving bandmates, it's the flipside of Temple's 1980 Pistols postmortem The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, which portrayed the band as puppets of their manager Malcolm McLaren. Here the focus is on the Pistols as a band, not a product--although The Filth and the Fury is most fascinating when the distinction blurs.

Temple makes a case for the Pistols' calculated effrontery as hilarious political theater, depicting the band's artless assault as the yawp of a country on the brink of collapse. But outrage is a commodity with a short shelf life, and when safety-pin chic became safe, the Pistols fell victims to their own marketing. McLaren shrewdly made no secret of the Pistols' money-grubbing intent, but as Temple shows, the commodification of punk left the Pistols flummoxed: How does a band maintain its outsider status when it's packaged with Kansas and The Sylvers on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert?

The movie is good scurrilous fun. The cheaper the shot, the funnier the effect: A Pistol mentions Emerson Lake & Palmer, the director cues up a cheesy stop-motion dinosaur. Temple intercuts Archies-like animated segments with silhouetted interviews of the present-day Pistols; shot as if in a witness-relocation program, they come across as oddly circumspect. The big attraction, though, is the electrifying live footage, as grainy and evocative of time and place as a third-generation flyer on a phone pole. Commodity or not, the Pistols' ferocity made questions about their commercial taint into a sucker's game. By keeping the now-middle-aged Pistols in the dark, and by dodging the matter of their reunion tour--the last ironic affront they could manage--the movie preserves their young, loud, and snotty legend.

"Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" Rotten taunted the audience after the Pistols' desultory last show in San Francisco in 1978. Watching The Filth and the Fury, the answer is no. --Jim Ridley

The escape artist

It's a cinematic axiom that voiceover narration is usually detrimental to a film. In his DVD commentary on Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), director Philip Kaufman argues that narration causes the viewer to stop searching the frame, concentrating instead on what's being said as the primary source for information. The few exceptions--movies that use narration creatively, not as a crutch but as an essential film element--only prove the rule. And high on that list of exceptions would have to be Robert Bresson's 1956 French drama A Man Escaped, with its constant voiceover that keeps us locked behind the eyes of a French Resistance fighter plotting his escape from prison. The simple, spare narration belies yet another cinematic axiom--that film cannot portray a character's thoughts. Bresson's stated intent is to make a purely naturalistic depiction of a true story, eschewing device and artifice. In the process, he shatters the conventional wisdom about film's capabilities and limitations.

Even the avid film student will have to postpone analyzing Bresson's methods until the ride home, however, because it's impossible not to lose oneself in the most meticulous depiction of a jailbreak ever committed to film. Fontaine, the resistance fighter, is introduced in his spontaneous and ill-considered attempt to throw himself out of a slowing car and run away from his Nazi captors. His subsequent attempt to escape--working with a stolen spoon to take apart the panelled door of his cell, followed by a nighttime crawl over the prison roofs--begins in equal isolation and desperation. But against his inclination to self-sufficiency and his fear of betrayal, he finds himself depending on an ad hoc community of fellow prisoners: the man in the cell across the corridor, who coughs an "all-clear" signal; the privileged older prisoner taking the air in the courtyard, who smuggles out messages; the despairing, uncommunicative neighbor, who provides him with an extra blanket for ropemaking.

The minimalistic dialogue and narration tell a parallel, interior story as the escape plan progresses, week by agonizing week. Fontaine's core belief in the duty of each individual to fight his circumstances gives way to recognition of something even greater: Fate, luck, or predestination--call it what you will--is an undeniable element in his struggle. When he must trust others, he throws himself on the mercy of circumstance. The final test of that principle occurs when he suddenly acquires a new cellmate, Jost, just before the escape attempt must take place. Will Fontaine enlist this stranger, this possible traitor, in his plan, or will he kill him to ensure his silence? Will he take matters into his own hands, or will he hope for the best with what he is given?

Bresson's small but influential body of work depicts the director's personal struggle with a paradox: God is absent from the world, but grace--or fate, luck, predestination--is present at the oddest times. The subtitle of A Man Escaped is The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth, a quotation from Jesus' dialogue with Nicodemus. The strange, anti-voluntarist nature of this phrase reflects the ambiguous nature of survival and sacrifice, triumph and tragedy. Why does one man escape and another die? Is it the finger of God, the merit of the individual, the workings of necessity, or the luck of the draw? Fontaine--and Bresson, who called himself a "Christian atheist"--discover that the effects provide no information about the cause. The various results of fate, luck, or predestination are indistinguishable from one another. Bresson enlisted untrained actors and the whims of untrammeled narrative in the service of cinematic control; yet thematically he embraced contingency and chance while agonizing over the roads not taken. Our response can only be wonder, gratitude, and inescapable anguish. --Donna Bowman

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