Monday, November 14, 2016
Dr. Strange, the latest film in the Marvel Studios franchise, is mildly diverting as drama. Of course, the narrative aspects of this movie are unimportant. What matters is the spectacle and, by that measure, the picture is astonishing. Dr. Strange demonstrates the vast degree to which special effects have outstripped story-telling – there’s nothing new in the world of narrative and, in fact, the plot to this movie is simple-minded and ancient, a tale that would not have surprised Homer except with respect to its naivety and lack of complexity. The Odyssey is a hundred-times more sophisticated in terms of storytelling, thematic development, and characterization. But that’s beside the point – the schematic and literally cartoonish story is merely an armature on which to hang special effects and some of the imagery in Dr. Strange is indescribably beautiful: the story is meaningless but the pictures are absolutely remarkable and, I suppose, a sensibility very different from mine might be able to find graphic profundity in this film, a new way of seeing, and, therefore, a new sort of imagination and, perhaps, a renovation of our vision. Two sequences stand out: first, there is a duel between bad guys and the hero in New York City – the hero enters some kind of alternative reality in which the city streets tilt and, then, break into cubist fragments, a mosaic of whirling tesserae of buildings, sidewalks, and whole city blocks, slipping and sliding apart, some of the blocks forming planetary islands rotating in space, a revolving landscape with neither up nor down, abysses opening and closing between facades that are suddenly rotating with a grave and awful motion. The city seems to have been shredded and its elements cast into a enormous, complex and mirrored kaleidoscope – intersections becomes strange gears, architectural features replicate themselves like the stages of motion in a Muybridge stop-action photograph. The effect is one of complete chaos that is nonetheless intricately ordered, like a vast crystal. At the end of the film, another fight takes place in a city that has been entirely destroyed by violent explosions and peeled apart by unearthly forces. Dr. Strange reverses time and so we see the (forward motion) battle between good and evil occurring against a landscape in which everything is running backward – corpses are hurled back into smashed cars and, then, sealed inside windshields that reassemble themselves from sprays of glass fragments, explosions suck pieces of debris together and form them into objects, streets, buildings. The combination of the forward motion fighting and reverse motion reconstruction of the smashed city is literally mind-blowing – it’s a kind of visual counterpoint for the eyes, a sort of fugue too complex to understand, but immensely spectacular all the same. A number of other sequences come close to matching these two episodes for visionary splendor – there is a sequence in which Strange tours the galaxy and a climactic battle with a cosmic evil presence in which time loops again and again in a sort of nightmarish frenzy of destruction. In one episode, Strange enters a fractal universe, looks down at this hands, and sees that his fingertips have become hands and the fingertips on his fingertips are also sprouting hands in an infinite recursive sequence – it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.