With The Hulk, Ang Lee transforms medium of film
A shock emerges by the end of Ang Lee’sThe Hulk, a surprise so wild it’s difficult to express without sounding a little crazy.
Is it that Lee, the art-house director of The Ice Storm and Sense and Sensibility, has created the first transcendental comic book film? No.
Is it that Lee has pulled tender, carefully human performances out of actors Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliot and Nick Nolte, all while they play through the story of a scientist who turns into an apple-green monster when he gets angry? No.
Is it that while telling this story, based on the Marvel comic book, he is able to pack in more tightly wrapped and intricately textured gradations of human struggle, worry and mystery than any 10 tiny ambitious “character” films? No.
Is it that while doing this Lee has shed none of his masterful talents but instead used them to bring mythic grandeur to a movie that, at one point, thrills and truly horrifies with a mutated French poodle? No.
None of these surprising things is the surprise.
It is this: Lee is transforming the very medium of film.
Since 1915, films have used the visual grammar of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Reviled for its racism yet acknowledged as the first true feature film, it defined how a series of shots, scenes and sequences would communicate a story. It codified movies as grandiose stage plays, the audience seeing figures set on a background and reading the story from the external features of actors and action. Since then little has evolved.
But over the last few years a new movement has been emerging in, of all things, Hollywood “effects” films. Call it “Neo Film,” maybe, or “Movies 2.0.”
No longer does a director have to worry how to show a character’s thoughts or fret over how to illustrate the emotions twisting within the recesses of the human heart. The final limitations of the medium are being dissolved.
Fight Club was one example of this filmmaking. The Matrix is another. Here, Lee has produced the best example so far.
He uses the newest effects to meld one scene with the next until they form one continuing image that changes like mercury running down granite. An elevator dropping into the earth might deposit the audience’s attention into the personal nightmare of the army general whose job it is to contain the green rage Bruce Banner (Bana) has become. The blade of a helicopter or a billow of hair might usher in the next image, as a hand might open a curtain. It is a hallucinatory experience as different from most films as Mozart is different from cave paintings.
The experience is so smooth, it is like watching the film in a screening room inside the director’s head. Viewers are as likely to see Bana transforming into the Hulk as they are to see his childhood nightmare ripple across his mind. We’re as likely to see Connelly’s romantic daydream visually wrap around us as we are to see the Hulk leap a mile into the sky.
Who would have thought Lee would redefine film in such a revolutionary way with, of all things, a studio-driven comic book flick? The Hulk replacing Birth of a Nationas a definitive expression of the medium? Shocking. And a little crazy, right?