Friday, March 9, 2012

John Carter & the Political Language of Barsoom

John Carter is very good and extremely complex.
I could be working on this one for awhile, but if you get a chance to see it this weekend, here are some things standing out for your attention (and for those interested in the Therns--the characters played by veteran bad guy Mark Strong--please see my in-depth analysis of them at John Carter And . . . the Anti-Christ?).
Why is the film so complex?
It's heavily encoding itself.
After John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) has been transported to Mars, he's taken in by the tribe of green martians with many arms and one of them, Sola (Samantha Morton), gives him a drink which permits him to understand their language, saying, "You can understand the language of Barsoom if you listen" but here's the trick: she's not saying that to John Carter, she's saying that to us and we have to be willing to "drink the drink" and listen to what's being said and, if we listen, we will hear (Barsoom is what Mars is called in the film).
An additional factor complicating the narrative (in a good way): the whole story is told via the personal journal of John Carter left to his nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs. Why does the narrative create an extra layer of meaning? Call it a question of reliability. Not only do we have John Carter as a narrator, but Edgar, hearing the story, then passes it onto us, so that becomes a "twice-told tale." You know the problem with how information passes and loses information or gains new information, and the same holds true in art with multiple tellings/narrators.
Another great example is (and this is how I am feeling) John Carter has been buried in his tomb, but in his journal, beseeches his nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) to protect his body so he can return to Mars. Edgar goes to the tomb but there is not key, it can only be opened from the inside, but Edgar has to figure out a way to get in and protect his uncle. Noticing the Latin words above the tomb, Edgar realizes, "I'm the key to the tomb," and tries to open it by spelling out his name within the letters but realizes that doesn't work, then he remembers that John always called him Ned. Spelling out Ned opens the tomb.
The film does a great job of communicating through costumes. John wears the fashionable clothing of a Victorian gentleman in New York City, the soldier clothes of a Confederate soldier, the work clothes of a miner, the cloak of a US Cavalry captain, the baby clothes of martian hatchlings, prisoner clothes and the trappings of a tribal leader, the clothes of a prince and the clothes of a man who has died. Since clothes present our identity, they communicate what (socially) and who (in terms of personality) we are, all the costume changes reveal the changes of thoughts and how those changes are changing him. The film accentuates this when John Carter realizes that his life on Mars is only a copy, a duplicate, so as long as his body on earth is safe, he is safe on Mars; in essence, his very being becomes a pair of clothes he can wear.
This scene calls to mind Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade of 1989 when Indy has to spell the name of God by jumping on stones with letters written on them; starting out spelling "Yaweh," Indy realizes he has to spell "Jehovah" instead. Yet the film itself (hopefully you guessed where I was going) is like John's tomb, we are the key, and like Edgar trying to find the right combination, we have to find the right combination to enter in and find the most important pieces of the puzzle.
Even though it is stilled called "Marxism" today, the academic approach which focuses on the economy and exchange, on money and production, isn't really Marxism anymore (Karl Marx is only occasionally quoted for his insights into the functions of economic structures within a culture). Yet it is interesting how money and production characterizes the worlds of John Carter. The green martian in the scene above, Tars Tarkas (William Dafoe) was the leader of the green martians until he couldn't defeat a rival in a challenge. Their "tribe" is a very natural one, using the resources from nature as opposed to manufacturing products, such as space ships. This relationship of how they provide for themselves correlates their identity to that of the Apache Indians earlier in the film which cornered John Carter into the cave wherein he was transported to Mars.
Why does a film hide its message?
If it has something to say, why not just come out and say it plainly so everyone can understand it? As in the Iranian film A Separation, the message of the film could (as in the past) have gotten the film makers arrested because of the criticisms of the government the film contains (for my analysis please see A Separation: Sacrificing the Future); I am not saying John Carter contains anything critical of the American Government, . . .  that is, I'm not saying it yet, but the purpose of a story, the purpose of art, is to present us with a persuasive argument about how things could be otherwise, how things became the way they became, and what we need to do.
This is another example of "noise" being employed to communicate. In this scene, John has escaped from a cavalry division in Arizona wanting him to help them wipe out the Apache Indians in the area; they accidentally ride into a small band of Apaches (off screen) and John attempts to communicate with them in their language, yet the cavalry behind him don't understand, so to them, the language is noise, the way the green martians' language is noise to John on Barsoom. Captain Powell, behind John, keeps saying, "What are they saying now, Carter?" and John doesn't answer him, but it doesn't matter, Powell wouldn't believe him anyway. We have to try and get through "the noise" of the film, the intentional static meant only for the "initiated" who want to know what encrypted message is presented for our consideration.
If we "enjoy the film" or story or the art, then we have unconsciously entered into the arena of the art and by doing examinations such as the ones I attempt to provide, we begin chipping away at the barriers to uncover what it is we knew in our heart was there, but didn't see clearly.
John Carter is a movie filled with references to other films.
Sometimes the most simple questions yield the most fruitful pathways of discovery in art, for example, Why does everything on Mars seem to have so many arms? That's not an easy question to answer, because there is a standard interpretation for the symbolism of the arm: strength. However, there are areas where that isn't satisfying, we intuitively know there is more to it than that. Tars Tarkas, pictured above, has a compassionate heart, he's always giving (love, friendship, trust) so that's why he has so many arms, he almost can't give enough away (and it goes for his daughter Sola); the One Horn, who challenges Tars can't take enough away from others so that's why he has so many arms, greed. Sab Tan (played by Mr. Dominic in st who you may remember as the corrupt senator in 300) is given a weapon that fits on his right arm. Where he is powerful, he is also destructive. The same arm used to destroy is the arm he uses to "wed" Deja the princess.
If you are ever watching a film, and something reminds you of another film, that is intentional on the part of the film makers, they want to trigger that database of knowledge you have to "cross-reference" so a connection (just as in Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest or whatever) can become a relationship with the other films; its a knowledge network for the audience. We've seen a lot of spiders, for example, in the films of the last year: The Skin I Live In, Journey 2 The Mysterious Island, Chronicle and, of course, the upcoming The Amazing Spider Man. Spiders are an ambiguous symbol (they mean one thing in The Skin I Live In and something completely different in Chronicle). They are diverse symbolically in John Carter, but I think they refer generally to the "web we weave when we practice to deceive" and the interconnectivity of the universe.
The beautiful princess Deja, who is being forced into a marriage. John has decided not to stay and fight with her so Deja gives him the words (with the medallion they hold together) to get him back; all "nonsense" words to us, but, again, wherein there is "noise" lies the power to transport John Carter back to earth and, later, back to Barsoom.
When John Carter is transported to Mars, he is in a legendary cave known as the cave of the spider. When we enter John Carter's study, after his death, Edgar sees strings connecting to pictures and then leading to connections in more pictures, but we have seen this before in both Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Watson tells Holmes, "I see your web of conspiracy has grown") and A Beautiful Mind. Web-like weapons are used on Mars but there is also the "web of deception," which both John and Deja think the other is guilty of, but it's really Sab Than who has trapped them in his web. Then there is the way that everything in the world is connected, like the strings of the spider's web. Towards the end, when John Carter's trap has been sprung, Edgar accuses John of using him "as bait," alluding to the web of deception John wove to get the medallion back.
The image in blue represents a spider... just bare with me. It's the nine root or something, a great power that is currently being used for destruction, but Deja had found a way to harness for good, until her experiment was destroyed. Icy blue and red are the dominant colors of the film just as the rock in Chronicle. It doesn't show up in this shot, however, the material they walk upon is "web-like," and it's the same web-like material which Sab Than has on his right arm to give him his incredible power. What's so interesting about this particular scene, is Deja tells us that these images are produced by machines, not nature.
What are other films we can "find" within John Carter?
Cowboys and Aliens, released last year, certainly shares quite a bit of aesthetic quality and storyline; Avatar, Star Wars, the remake of Clash of the Titans, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, the Wizard of Oz and probably several others, but what is important is, again, John Carter wants us to be thinking of those films. (We can also site Thor because, like the god of thunder, John Carter is separated from his home and true love by millions of space miles). How can I prove that? The princess' name is Deja, as in deja vu, the sense that you have all ready been someplace before or experienced something. But the film ties itself to current films just now being released, especially those reminding us of the Civil War (Cowboys and Aliens, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, Lincoln) the Victorian period (Sherlock Holmes A Game of Shadows, A Dangerous Method) and there are the plethora of "end of the world" films (Mars is a "dying planet" and war is tearing it apart, A Friend For the End for the World, Melancholia, The Avengers, Contagion, etc.).
Shortly after John finds himself in Mars, he himself is found by Tars Tarkas, who holds out the four hands of friendship to him. John identifies himself as "John Carter of Virginia," and Tars starts calling him "Virginia." Why? In the colonial history of America, Virginia was the premiere state of all the colonies, including through the Civil War, because it was the richest and the most important men had come from Virginia. Until the end of the Civil War, people didn't identify themselves as "Americans," rather, by the state from which they came. So John Carter saying "From Virginia," is him saying from a very, very specific culture, almost as if he owns it. But towards the end, when he has decided to stay on Mars, he identifies himself as John Carter of Mars, and likes the sound of that. The jump from the specific to the general (he could call himself of a specific region or tribe) means that he has become part of something larger than just himself, he has been successfully integrated into society. This isn't the real reason, though, I think it has to do more with the "virgin" in "Virginia": John Carter doesn't want to fight for anyone, so he is "innocent" of having a cause, until he has found something again worth fighting for.
But there's another aspect of the films in which it references: films yet to be released. As Tars says, the red man is fighting the red man (the people of Mars) and that Civil War is like the kingdom being torn apart as I anticipate we will see in Mirror, Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman and possibly Jack the Giant Killer. Speaking of Jack, there might be another reference to that one: beans. When John walks into the store/bar (pictured below) he wants to get beans but is too poor to pay for them. This poverty (like the original fairy tale Jack and the Bean Stalk) uses means to show upward mobility that singularly identifies the hero (a bean stalk for Jack and jumping for John).
The bar/store where John goes to secure supplies but is denied them. He lays down a gold piece with curious inscriptions, from the spider cave which has a ceiling of gold.
There is something singularly unique about John Carter: he jumps.
How bizarre is that? Who else jumps besides "Jack be nimble, Jack be quick?" but I believe the jumping has a twofold consequence. First, the scientific explanation: because the gravitational pull on earth is stronger than on Mars, John Carter's usual ability to walk translates as the strength to jump due to lesser gravity (which also explains his greater strength). Symbolically, however, jumping can be likened to his social status: on earth, he jumped tremendously high from the lower social/economic class of not having enough credit to buy beans, to being one of the richest men in the world. (His ability to "jump" economically also reminds us, as Americans, the reason why many of our ancestors came to this country: upward mobility. They were "chained" to their class in the motherland from which they came, and wanted a chance to "move up" in the world).
Another interesting aspect of John Carter is, he seems to always be chained. The chain, of course, usually stands for sin, as in Immortals, but John Carter seems more "chained to the past," like Jennet Humphrey in The Woman In Black, "hanging on" to her grudge against her sister.
Again, there is still another explanation for the jumping.
When he unwillingly returns to earth from Mars, John Carter "jumps" from place to place searching for the medallion, going from one end of the world all the way to the other, hoping to discover a place where another portal exists that he can get back to Mars. Not succeeding, he then creates a situation that will lure in a medallion by staging his death.
This scene particularly lends itself to a psychoanalytic interpretation. All alone, with no one but his dog-like buddy (who becomes really adorable) John Carter faces this oncoming enemy all by himself, as he remembers the circumstances causing the death of his wife and child, who were killed during the Civil War. As these thoughts race through his mind, all these warriors are coming at him and he attacks them with veracious strength. This is a cleansing moment for John, because that battle isn't real, it's all in his mind, his deepest darkest mind which must be cleaned out before he can really have the strength to fight the war that is looming.
These are just some of the ideas I am going through regarding this film. There is, for example, much that could be uncovered just by comparing the landscapes used in the film. For example, compare this rainy scene of New York City with the landscape of Mars. For example, John asks Deja what technology their ships use to fly and it's the light, abundant on Mars. Deja doesn't believe him, however, when he tells her that our ships (in the 1880s) sail on water.
Opening shot, New York City on a rainy day.
A dry martian landscape.
I have only just begun to scratch the surface of this film, and will continue putting things together, and working them over in my mind, but if you are considering seeing it this weekend, I hope I have persuaded you that it would be worth your while.