Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Cast: Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz
Director: James Mangold
Runtime: 109 min.
Verdict: A most important movie to analyze movie criticism of our times. And the gender politics of movies in general. And a most charming romantic adventure
Genre: Romance, Action, Adventure

        A friend walks out of the Sunday morning show, calls me, and says Knight and Day is typical Hollywood fun with lots of actions and wit thrown into the grinder, along with two stars, or judging by the box office fate of the movie, two actors who were stars. A cursory scroll through the reviews down at Rotten Tomatoes, and you wouldn’t be blamed for believing that this is just another globe-trotting romantic-comedy-action-flick. Which it is. Barring of course the “just another” part, which I realize as I watch the movie a few hours later, and wonder how skewed the gender-equation is in our movies, in them and behind them, and how shallow and inconsistent some of the film criticism is. I feel the inconsistency might be because we’re all hardwired to be conservative, and true empathy is not a natural involuntary reflex; rather it is an emotion that causes a certain bit of inner conflict and hence a certain degree of effort. Empathy, unlike most other emotions, is quite purely a cerebral exercise. But then, philosophy ought to be for another day, and tonight it is the hard facts of our movies.
        And I am reminded of Manohla Dargis’ essay in the NYTimes about women in Hollywood. And I search if she reviewed the film, and instead find one of those atypical A.O. Scott redundant reviews. I search for reviews by other critics, female critics, and I stumble upon Victoria Alexander’s love letter. And in the process, I even manage to find this (you need to scroll down, or preferably word-search the title), which I believe is the best summation of the film, though I have no idea if the critic is a male or a female. Of course, the hope that female critics would offer me a deeper insight leads me nowhere, and I am no closer to finding external justification of my analysis of the film.
        Still it stays, because, believe me dear reader, there is complete evidence to it that Knight and Day is best described as a feminine fantasy, much like the Twilight films. The fantasy is much the same, the ages might differ, for it is not necessary that only teenagers have teenage fantasy. Yet we do not see the same disdain and vitriol. I wonder. Maybe that is because The Twilight Saga is quite obvious, and quite obvious for two reasons – (a) the gender of the author (b) the subject (vampires and women). Knight and Day is not. James Mangold directs it, that wonderful filmmaker behind that male-driven western masterpiece 3:10 to Yuma, where the feminine vulnerabilities of a man are ripped out open. Patrick O’Neill is the screenwriter. It has loads of action. Bikes and cars tumbling and jumping. Explosions. Quite a handful of them. It indeed fits the billing of your summer action blockbuster.
        But only on the outside. Think of the thrilling romantic capers the Bill Paxton character sells to desperate housewives in True Lies. And, for a moment, think of the demographic that watches Daniel Craig walk out of the sea, and would fantasize about a tryst with the superspy. And reader, Mr. Cruise, has enjoyed the luxury of a female fan following that most actors, including Mr. Pattinson, would be much envious of. And much like Collateral, which opens to the image of the instrument of fate than the fateful subject himself, Knight and Day sees Roy Miller (Mr. Cruise) walk through an airport looking for potential female passengers for, well, something. He picks up a Burger King toy, a little knight, and “accidentally” bumps into June Havens (Ms. Diaz). And from then on, Ms. Havens has little to no idea what ride she has signed up for.
        This makes for a fantastic setup for an action-thriller, but, despite the wham-bham, this is fairly and squarely the story of a woman, and the fantasy-adventure she is on. That is because the wham-bham is almost never the point. We’re thrust into all those action scenes from the perspective of June Havens, and as far as I can recollect, almost none of them seem to have a suitable ending to them. June walks into them, and when she runs away, or faints, we are disconnected too. Even with the wonderfully pleasurable climactic bike-car-bull chase, the thrill of the action is almost never the point; it is all about the fantastic adventure and the pleasure of its romance. The action scenes are just a backdrop. You see, there is a significant difference between, say a film like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, where the woman is nothing but a manifestation of a male fantasy, and this one here, where the female is very much a simple average Mrs. Joe. Mind you, she isn’t a verifiable damsel in distress either, another male fantasy manifestation. June is just, well, a woman, caught in the ride with a gorgeous man, who is more importantly a charming guy. As my wife would address it, the combination is just, well, irresistible.
        And here is further evidence, and how the idea that first strikes me 15 minutes into the film, gradually consolidates into a theory, and then into an analysis. The opening action scene is set within an airplane, and strictly speaking, is from neither’s perspective, where Roy shoots bad guys as June changes and redecorates herself in the restroom. In hindsight the scene confuses me.
        But let us go on. Pilots die, and Miller is forced to take upon the reins. And just as the plane crash-lands in some remote farm, Havens lets out a groan. Or a moan. The sound mixing is most deliberate. And then the preceding imagery strikes me. Dear reader, I might be last person to ever bring this up, because I hate symbols in any medium. Yet, the plane feels like a phallic symbol, and just as it thrusts the boundaries of the frame, the groan makes itself heard. A theory was born, and I wondered if this is what the case is.
        And the movie ensues. And I see the damnedest thing. Knight and Day, as it goes along, starts to sacrifice action sequences, just to confirm to Haven’s perspective. It runs away from one. It faints in another. A glorious montage has her drugged and change from one of transport to another, as a beeping sound in the background brings a most romantic feel. And the climax, where a June, drugged with truth serum, quite outrightly wonders if sex between her and Miller would be extraordinarily fantastic. This is where the film drinks the truth serum too, and brings out the feelings hitherto hidden under the layer, right into the daylight. It is quite marvelous.
        You see, Knight and Day feels like Charade, feels like It Happened One Night, feels like Notorious, but from the perspective of the female. And that is what I believe is the cause of the film’s conception, where one might come to the conclusion that it is an inversion of Mr. Cruise’s very own MI2(a remake of Notorious itself). Is the film secretly paying homage by this inversion, I don’t know, but the cinematography very much feels like it. June wakes up with an upside down view of the world, much like Ingrid Bergman. In a glorious scene, where June’s face is studio-lit, we see them driving around in the night, gliding as if in those reverse projections, only to reveal a fantastic movie-moment. So yeah, we almost have no idea about Miller, and to his intentions. We only trust him to be the good guy. There are moments where the film seems absolutely incoherent, and as if on auto-pilot, and the sequence do not seem to be well thought out and executed. I am referring to the scenes in Austria and at Miller’s parents house, and I say dear reader, it is one of the most brilliant flashes of subjectivity acquired by a movie I have seen in a while. Ms. Havens is confused, and her mind is digesting this fantasy ride much as we process a dream, where we glide from one moment to the next, with not much sense. That is what it is, Knight and Day glides.
        Oh, I might be making this sound like a great movie. I think that is immaterial. Rather, Knight and Day, much like films of The Twilight Saga, is an important film not for what it is, but what it represents. Within its inherent contradictions, where a male filmmaker is trying to somehow hit upon the notes of a feminine fantasy, it challenges the predominantly masculine tastes, notions, verdicts, aesthetics that so staunchly drive our movie-going sensibilities. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is a great film, while the Twilight films are trivial ones. I pick up the Sergio Leone masterpiece, because reader, it is one of my favorite movies ever, and yet I know there cannot be another film so utterly drenched in the fantasy of cinema. It might even be a shallow film, considering it has little to do with human nature. Or is it that, within its masculine aesthetics, it harbors something so profoundly true, that it pampers everyone from Quentin Tarantino to our fathers to us? But I show it to my wife, and I double dare you, she would be caught snoring one quarter of the way. And if she doesn’t, by god, something ought to be wrong. I ask of you, why is a James Bond movie (pick any) better than any of the three Twilight films? I ask only to start a discussion, where we ascertain if much of our criticisms are derived by honest means, and not just trivializing others’ viewpoints. So yes, I ask, what is so wrong with any of the Twilight films? It might be pitifully ridiculous in its worshipping of the male body, the objectification of a male as a thing of beauty, but then, how many times do we even see it happen? Woman in the Dunes is a great film I have never seen, but intend to for that very reason. Why then, a film as cheerful, as sprightly, as happy-go-lucky, and as frivolous as Knight and Day be imposed such harsh reviews just because it harbors ambitions of a film made with a completely feminine aesthetic, and one which although might be charmingly mediocre, intends to pamper a certain kind of feminine fantasy? It also is a wonderfully ambitious film, because not only is it satisfied with being part of the fantasy, like Bella Swan, but it intends to be an object of fantasy too. So seriously tell me, look up at the picture above, and think – wouldn’t you be want to be the one holding Tom Cruise real tight? And it is the movies where we all come to realize these fantasies, don’t we?


!Teq-uila Del Zapata said...

the movie is utter crap, way too predictable, i annoyed the chics with predict almost everything including dialogues. it was boring as hell, with bringing smiles say once or twice.
BTW, i was bit surprised that you are fan of 3:10 to yuma(new one), its not really a western i liked at all. Why do all new westerns make the protagonist or antagonist extremely good or bad even morally and even skillwise and then all of sudden he has change of heart, what the hell?
anyway Satish, requesting a review of Toy story 3 and air benders please.

Ronak M Soni said...

You raise a legitimate point about gender inequality in the judgment of trash.
I suppose one other possible reason is that female trash, much more than male trash, asks for your feelings, and people just put the bar higher when feelings come to play. For example, I strongly enjoyed Speed Racer, but wouldn't even look up if the guy died while he wasn't racing, but when I was watching the series Gossip Girl, I stopped watching as soon as I stopped caring. Another piece of evidence is that 21 -- male trash that asked for your feelings -- got worse reviews than Mean Girls, which has much the same story arc.
Of course, this doesn't discount that there is inherent sexism, and maybe I'll look at female trash with more respect now.

The Kid said...

Me and my wife loved the movie. It is a nice entertainer :)

Had lots of action without being gory.