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On The Snyder Cut
The Snyder Cut makes motion into spectacle, and cinematic appreciation into a fact-checking exercise.
is a verb
that does not
mean to watch.
the Latin root
means to watch;
it is wrong
you spectate me;
but not wrong
you watch me.
If you spectate
to the spectacle.
— From Monica Youn’s poem Exhibition of the Hanged Man
This difference between being a spectator and a watcher is something that I have been thinking about since theaters shut last year. The transition from the former to the latter has been shaky; even with the abundance that has been poured over us during lockdown, the anticipation of viewing is completely gone, and the joy of viewing, somewhat discounted. This asks a more fundamental question — do we just watch movies and shows to make time spent feel less stretched? I feel like I am digging deeper into everything to mine more heft that it can give—the shovels are sharper— to explain the time I spent with the work of art, to make a monument out of it. This substack came out of such an anxiety, as a compensation for the consummate experience of spectacle that I was and we were missing out on. (While we are at it, do subscribe, and do tell friends, lovers, followers, etc. and do write to me, especially if you disagree. Last week’s post had a phrase, “female-gaze” and a friend pointed out that it doesn’t exist much like misandry doesn’t exist. Because the “male-gaze”, like misogyny is not about instances, but about an institution. It’s a fair point.)
My first instinct after watching the Snyder Cut (or Zack Snyder’s Justice League) was anger because I hated each of the four hours with decreasing grumbles, and then anticipation— of what I would do to morph the 4 massively-stretched hours I spent watching it. It must make meaning, even if it is irredeemably dull, the icy-grey and muffled colour-correction notwithstanding.
Snyder Cut As A Reactive, Relative Work Of Art
The part of the Snyder Cut that moved me most was the dedication at the end, “For Autumn”, Snyder’s daughter who died by suicide, and whose grief, among other things, caused him to step aside from the 2017 Justice League. It struck me as the most cinematic part of the film — to create something as a monument for the dead, by resurrecting the very thing that grief took away. Post the 2017 relative-debacle of Justice League, described as a patch-job, Snyder’s fans demanded his return, his vision, and the commerce-that-be listened, and this 4 hour mess — part heavy-metal-video, part zen-visual-meditation, part ode to style, part funeral to substance — was ours to wade through.
I find this incredibly motivating— that art can be reactive. When the critics took issue with Mrs Maisel’s icebox parenting in the second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel — where her two kids, one a toddler, are barely there while the mother tickles funny bones, and the father sleeps around in mopey Jewish guilt — the third season became a corrective. Her children are there almost everywhere, and the logistics of parenting them become crucial scenes. The makers listened, and the reality of the series was buoyed even as its fantasy struck a chord.
The Snyder Cut too is a reactive work of art. It is also a relative work of art, and this is the most annoying part of the film and its reception. The question “Is the Snyder Cut any good?” is replaced by “Is the Snyder Cut better than the 2017 hack-job?” The terms of a film’s reception is re-oriented, and thus the terms of our viewing should also, ideally, re-orient. But I didn’t care for this re-orientation, not bothering with the 2017 version. Its badness, or blandness was almost celebrated, almost courted, and this is the awful part of this re-orientation. To be able to see goodness in the Snyder Cut, one must, necessarily, celebrate the badness inherent in the 2017 version. That is not to say that badness mustn’t be listed out, and it’s also not to say that bad things can’t be improved upon. It’s to say that if the only way to see and critique a work of art is to see it as a vis-a-vis product, we have lost something. It’s the same way I feel when I watch a film after reading the book it is based on. There is very little differentiating the viewing experience from a fact-checking exercise.
The Slow Motion
One of the things the movie (or mega-movie) made me re-consider was my love for slow-motion. The philosophy behind my love for slo-mo is simple. Movies barter in stretching and snapping time, moving timelines, and daylight per-will of the narrator. But to take a given moment in time, and show it by stretching it to the smallest possible unit that is both visually effective and viscerally affective, is to give them both space and time to luxuriate in feeling. When Paro runs towards Devdas in the climax, the sari unfurled like a nine-yard white flag in slow motion as she screams, I felt the feeling. I still do, even after watching it as many times as it has come on B4U.
But what if there is no feeling? What is, then, the point of stretching time, of “turning actions into objects, verbs into nouns”?
Like Nolan’s time-fetishism, it can produce excuses to ponder and pivot the narrative. Or like Snyder’s time-stylization, it can be an empty spectacle of awe. There’s no deep love for characters or moments that propels this elasticity of time. (I am not talking of Flash’s scenes where slow-motion is a narrative necessity. I found these rather charming, even if over-done.) Slow-motion, an aesthetic of pleasure, becomes a cliche. It is pointed out by Snyder fans that he mostly uses slow-motion in flashback sequences lending memory a stretchy, exaggerated feeling, like inhabiting looser, bejeweled pants. And there might be some logic here. But there’s just no feeling.
Part of it is how we now consume awe — how Snyder made a spectacle for people who watch, and not spectate. I get this argument. I have never watched a Snyder film in the theater, and perhaps that would do the trick.
The darkness, and the smallness of being in a theater produces a relation to film unlike nothing else; I never understood why people have a preference to sit at the back of the theater. How is that different from watching a film at your home in the dark? I loved sitting in the front row, tits up, the ends of my vision barely meeting the ends of the screen. That is one part. The other is the communal aspect—folding into a fetal position in my seat, holding the hand of my friend in the theater while the stranger sitting beside me was laughing at my squeamishness during Mother; feeling quietly triumphant when the entire theater burst out in whistles and claps in Gaiety Galaxy when the men kissed in Shubh Mangal; walking out of La La Land and my room-mate looking at a petrol station right outside and asking me if the colours in the world are more colourful than they were before, if the world, lit neon, now had more joy and more longing.
The theater is thus the only place that can fill an empty spectacle with space, with reason, with necessity. Without the theater, how does one then consume pointless gestures of drama?
Surely to give violence an operatic impulse isn’t the end-game. I have watched enough of Snyder to note his films hint at deeper meaning, without doing the labour of grappling through the philosophical weeds, like Nolan did with his Batman. His films’ “personality”, a word a lot of people have used to describe his movies, is “style”. If style is his quiver, the arrows he pulls out every now and then is slow-motion. (The writing is, largely, an embarrassment. When a villain says “I don’t believe it!” Wonder Woman replies, “Believe it.” Even in Batman VS Superman all the good writing was showcased in the brilliant trailer, that makes my point — Snyder’s “style” is Music Video, where experiments with style as empty spectacles is cushioned by its quickie run-time. It is striking as much as it is quick. But what do we do with a 4 hour music video?)
As noted above, his stoppage and stretching of time has rarely if nothing to do with feeling. It’s entirely about motion. In the Snyder Cut there is an entire sequence of slow-motion football that comes out of nowhere, without its context being established. The emotion of the scene comes after, when the slow-motion ends and he looks at the empty seat beside his mother’s; his father didn’t come to watch him play this time as well. What was the point of slow-motion if there is no emotional beat attached to it? If it is merely visual awe, it is useless because visual awe discounts exponentially as the size of the device you’re watching it on decreases.
I am also thinking even of the visual spectacle of the pearls in Batman VS Superman, where a gunman pulls at the pearls on the neck of Bruce Wayne’s mother. When he shoots her, she falls backwards, and the gun recoils, snapping the pearls as she thuds to the ground. I remember thinking, “Oh how beautiful”, and not “Oh how sad”.
The issue with this is Snyder thinks he can create feeling through drama. But drama can only accentuate feeling, amplify its consequences. Drama can never create feeling. When someone proposes in a football stadium it isn’t “Oh he loves me” as much as it is “Oh he loves me enough to book the fucking stadium to propose”. The love has to exist. The hyperbole only amplifies it. So, when Lois Lane holds out her hands to touch the pillow on the other side of the bed, now empty since Superman died, it is hard to feel anything for her. This is because we have never seen Superman and Lois Lane share the same bed, ever. To create longing without love, how ridiculous.
When Godard was asked how different would the scenes in Every Man For Himself look if it weren’t in slow-motion, he gave a very interesting answer, lending time’s elasticity a narrative quality — that by stretching and squeezing it, you can create meaning.
This is precisely the point. I did it when, at the normal speed, it was not possible to see things, or at least indicate a possibility that there is something different to be seen. [In the scene] they were fighting together, but you had to indicate they were still in love together.
I honestly thought Snyder would do something interesting with ideas here. But there’s a slouching informality in the way he uses words like “free-will” and “freedom” and “absolution”. The main villain, Steppenwolf, clothed in sharp metallic plates with a flopping massive metal dick that goes un-commented upon says something with philosophical promise.
This world is divided. They are a primitive species, unevolved and at war with one another. Too separate to be one. Their free will must be ripped from them. Given absolution in one glorious belief - to serve him.
An assumption here — that free will exists for it to ripped from us. But what does free will look like? When Barry Allen aka Flash gets into criminal justice, he tells his father, "This path has clearly chosen me, Dad." Is this free will?
Snyder doesn’t provide much for answer. If we don’t know what free will looks like, how can we picture us being without it. And if we cannot imagine what being without free will looks like, what are the stakes here? Mere existence?
There’s something very rotten at the core of the super-hero genre, and the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that this genre is life-propaganda. We know the living is a scam. That we must work to live and barter paper notes for pleasure; thus pleasure is built on the bedrock of toil. For my father to get his two week vacation with family, he had to spend the rest of the year in corporate menace, hair falling, the mercurial aftertaste in the evenings. As a friend noted emphatically, life is a scam. The superhero genre puts this life at stake, as the thing that can be lost if a superhero doesn’t intervene. The moment life is at stake, it acquires value, an immediacy.
Snyder was, I thought, infusing this existentialism with more philosophical heft. That maybe if we think of villains not taking human life, but human free-will, the stakes might be higher? It’s a brilliant premise. But he just doesn’t speak of it beyond the stylized dialogue above. There’s also a brief convoluted mention of the “anti life equation that controls all life and all will throughout the multiverse” but by this time I realized it’s as airy and vacuous as the slow-motion in the film.
This is not to say that Snyder’s tale is entirely stale. There are flashes of push-back against the idea of a “superhero”. The Cyborg’s father notes, “The question, no, the challenge won't be doing it. It will be not doing, not seeing. It is the burden of this responsibility that will define you and who you choose to be.” It’s the same thing we ask when we question god’s existence—if he is as powerful as we say he is, why is there poverty, and pain? Why does he selectively give satin and success? Snyder gives his superheroes a band-aid brilliance, where they’re just trying to fix what’s immediate, what’s most pressing. His Superman is given an Odysseus-like quality. He is powerful but not powerful enough to will himself into existence, into the bustle of life — he needs to be found, to be resurrected. His Batman has a glint of the benevolent trust-fund-kid, replying to Flash’s “What are your Superpowers again?” with “I’m rich”. I get the humour. But I dig the fact.