The Ethos of a Genre
Every now and again circumstances seem to conspire to burst the bubble of one’s pretensions. This happened to me recently when I mistakenly chose to review this film. Our DVD editor sends out a long list of DVDs available for review on a regular basis. She used to include descriptions of the films but as the lists grew in size this was no longer feasible. The lack of descriptions has never proven problematic before inasmuch as I tend only to review titles I know—except when it comes to documentaries. I choose documentaries based on subject matter and it is this habit (as sensible as it might seem) that got me into trouble this time.
I could have sworn that I offered to review a documentary on the “Internationale”—you know, the French socialist anthem. It seemed like the perfect subject for me, combining as it would politics, history, and music. However, what I had actually offered to review was the Hollywood action film The International, directed by Tom Tykwer (familiar to many as the director of Run, Lola, Run) and starring Clive Own and Naomi Watts.
Action films not being my cup of tea, I had absolutely no interest in this film upon its release nor did I develop such interest subsequently. In fact, the film is so far removed from my tastes that its appearance in the mail caused my wife some consternation. When she opened it (yes, she opens my mail—take her away USPS), she uncharacteristically saved the packaging just in case it was sent me by mistake and I wanted to return it. Indeed, I seriously considered doing so. But then the idea that I mistook a thriller for a documentary on a socialist chant was just too amusing, so I popped the disc into my DVD player.
I won’t say that the experience surprised me or that I was instantly converted into an action flick fan. It didn’t and I wasn’t. I also won’t pretend that this is an unbiased review. No review is without bias but at least I’ve stated mine up front. I also won’t say that the film was all that bad even though the writing was vapid, the acting wretched, and any semblance of logic was not-so-kindly shown the door. But you see, what I think I realized was that, by and large, none of these things matter to the genre per se, even if they are the ingredients that mark the best examples of that genre.
What began to fascinate me was even in the absence of basic narrative structure, the film held together on the basis of what one might deem a genre-specific ethos that on its own merit is able to guarantee the coherence of the film. Such things are difficult to quantify and I am clearly no expert but I thought it might be worthwhile conducting a brief examination into two characteristics of the genre-specific ethos of the action thriller. There are, no doubt, many more but these are the two that strike me as important in this film.
Characteristic No. 1: the shootout. Let’s get this one out of the way first. There almost inevitably will be a shootout but, as this film proves, there need not be scene after scene of gunplay. Indeed, The International really only features one real shootout but what a shootout it is!
If you are not already aware, it takes place inside the famed Guggenheim Museum of New York City. The point is to build up to the shootout so that it properly becomes the centerpiece of the film. The International falls somewhat short in the build-up department inasmuch as it consists of a rather flat-footed scene of cops trailing the assassin (not-so-great pun intended). The shootout scene itself, however, is rather phenomenal and it rightly dominates the discussions in the extras included with the DVD.
This fact in itself reveals the priority of the shootout. In the extras, we witness the construction of a faux Guggenheim interior and the amount of thought that went into this sequence underlines its generic importance. In the moment of viewing, all improbabilities of plot are forgiven just so long as the bullet ballet continues. Indeed, Tykwer does so well with this scene that the film never really recovers from its premature climax. The remainder of the film—the resolution of the tiresome plot—is hopelessly anticlimactic.
Characteristic No. 2: the overwhelming severity of the threat. The makers of thrillers have a choice: they can emphasize the chase (which, if done well, guarantees that the audience assumes the severity of the evil that is either fled or pursued) or they can emphasize the mysterious, looming malignancy of the threatening entity and attempt to convince the audience that this threat is nearly insuperable.
The latter is a gamble and it is one that this film takes with rather desultory results. There is a neat trick to be pulled off here: say too little and the audience is either confused or underwhelmed (although sometimes, like in the classic The Big Sleep, confusion is the perfect form of suspense), say too much and mystery devolves onto prolixity. This film says too much, way too much. There is a big bank and it is getting involved in arms deals, not for direct profit but so that it can control war debt, and blah, blah, blah.
However, and this may be the film’s most winning attribute, Tykwer compensates for the feeble nature of the writing through a masterly use of perspective and an astounding eye for setting. The architecture used as a backdrop in this film is simply stunning. (There are three different features included as extras with this DVD that focus on this aspect of Tykwer’s achievement alone.) The characters are continually dwarfed by their surroundings and, with Tykwer’s penchant for these open architectural vistas, the characters also seem constantly exposed.
Large, impressive buildings are the perfect visual metaphor for what Tykwer attempt to communicate. A building (no matter what its grandeur) is the product of human labor—generally the work of a lot of human labor. And yet upon completion, it becomes a whole greater than the sum of its constituent parts. It becomes something that people move through, that they inhabit. And it is this idea that connects the buildings to Tykwer’s portrayal of big business. After all, businesses are also constructed by human effort and then other human lives interact with those businesses and they become a condition for the state of our lives and our understanding of those lives.
The International is not likely to make you think. It is not going to amaze you with verisimilitude; if people actually talked the way these characters do, we would never stop laughing at them. But it is a delight for the eyes and perhaps it is that visual involvement—whether it be an involvement with the movement of a shootout or the gorgeous stability of architectural design—that is at the center of the genre’s hold upon us.