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Things are not what they seem: Bad heroes in 'Super,' unnerving art at Chambers

Rainn Wilson in "Super"
Courtesy of IFC Films
Rainn Wilson in "Super"

It's almost entirely impossible to describe the film "Super"; it's likewise impossible to recommend it, although I appreciated the film very much. The movie is being marketed as a comedy, and one presumes this was a decision of necessity, as a film must be marketed as something. And so the trailers show Rainn Wilson, best-known as Dwight Schrute on NBC's "The Office," dressing in a red superhero costume, bonking villains with a wrench. Wilson also shows up with a hyperactive kid sidekick (Ellen Page) and an oblivious catchphrase: "Shut up, crime!"

It looks great fun in the trailer, like an indie film take on last summer's "Kick-Ass," with which it is being compared by most reviewers. It's a fair comparison, as both films seek to deconstruct the superhero story by focusing on heroes with no real powers. Both films also propose that this sort of vigilante war against crime will inevitably be an arms race, in which the winner will be determined by whoever is willing to be the most violent the quickest. But there the similarities end.

"Kick-Ass" featured a naive, sympathetic lead in Aaron Johnson, a comics-obsessed teenager who decides to try his hand at this masked-avenger business, and ultimately discovers he's better suited to being a sidekick than a hero. Rainn Wilson, in the meanwhile, plays a brooding wretch of a man who can only point to two moment in his life that really made him happy — a moment when he helped the police apprehend a criminal (by pointing out the store a purse-snatcher went into) and the moment he married his beautiful but damaged wife, a recovering addict played by Liv Tyler.

He loses her to an aspiring drug kingpin, played with twitchy, unctuous energy by Kevin Bacon, and this sends him into a downward spiral of self-loathing. Wilson has a long, uncomfortable scene in which, weeping, he castigates himself as ugly, stupid and strange, and pleads with God for help in getting his wife back. This scene is not played for laughs, and is terrifically uncomfortable, as is the religious vision that follows. Inspired by a ridiculous costumed televangelist, Wilson sews a hideously stitched garment, grabs a spanner, and sets out to crack heads.

The film relentlessly, manically changes tone — as a result, there is a lot in the film that is legitimately funny — but it never shies away from showing violence as being an appalling spectacle. When Wilson hits somebody, the head breaks open and blood pours out. When he adds in Ellen Page, who is less a sidekick than an oversexed and gleeful budding psychopath, the blood begins to pour in a river. The climax of the film, in which the two attempt a barely considered assault on the kingpin's compound while a heroin deal is taking place, is tonally closer to "Taxi Driver" than any American comedy.

Every few years, under the banner of comedy, a film like this comes out — in 2009, there was "Observe and Report," a gleefully anarchic and pitch black character study of a mall cop, played by Seth Rogan, who, thanks to an unaddressed mental illness and a sort-of low-rent security guard power trip, goes spontaneously berserk. It's hard to know why these sorts of films get green-lighted by studios, who generally panic at the completed film and try to pass them off as juvenile entertainment — but I'm glad the films get made.

I think Salon's Andrew O'Hehir has it right, that these movies are closer to art films than genre pastiches. Much of "Super" seems to be deliberately provocative, especially in that the film refuses to let the audience know how they are supposed to feel about any scene, and some will end up roaring with laughter while other will squirm in their seats. We are used to films that clearly signal the audience as to what reaction is expected, but there is great value in the discomfort of not knowing.

"Super" was written and directed by James Gunn, who previously helmed a similarly uncomfortable horror film called "Slither," which mashed up convention from Z-grade science-fiction films and the sort of nauseating bodily transformations of, say, the '80s films of David Cronenberg. He also penned an early version of the "Dawn of the Dead" remake script and, oddly, the live action "Scooby Doo" movies, and there is something useful here. The structure of "Super" is very like that of a monster film — heck, the climax, in which a group of strangers in a rural cabin fragments under the assault of monsters, is lifted directly from the original "Night of the Living Dead." Except there are no zombies outside the cabin, just Rainn Wilson.

Gunn hasn't made a superhero comedy at all. He's made an avant-garde horror film, in which every character turns out to be a monster. In fact, this is similar to a film from the independent studio Troma, where Gunn got his start, called "The Toxic Avenger," in which a bullied manchild is dumped in a vat of toxic waste and emerges with super powers, which he immediately uses to murder his tormenters. (Full disclosure: I played the bullied manchild in the first musical stage adaptation of this film.) It's hard to say this sort of film will find a contemporary audience — "Toxic " did, but was made for peanuts and intended for the direct-to-video market; "Slither" didn't. But there's something appealing about the fact that films will, now and then, engage in such reckless experimenting.

Of course, the most frightening thing in Minnesota is a different work of art, a sculpture at the Chambers Hotel by South African sculptor Evan Penny, and it's always on display, unnerving whoever spends the night at the tony downtown Minneapolis hotel. The piece is a bust of an older human male, made out of the same sort of synthetic skin used in films; Penny's first pieces were photorealistic, and then, in 2003, he suddenly began stretching and compressing his sculptures.

In this case, the result is a portrait of an older man that looks perfectly normal when you look at it straight-on, albeit realistic enough to give pause. But as you look at the piece from the side, you realize it's been pancaked, it's three dimensions compressed, like a steamroller had gone over it. The results are, for me, like those eye teasers that you stare at for a while and then suddenly, say, a silhouette of a ballerina that seems to be spinning in one direction seems to spin the opposite way, or a picture of two vases suddenly becomes two faces. Except, after looking at the Penny sculpture, the whole world suddenly become suspicious, its dimensions no longer trustworthy. It's the closest thing I have ever experienced to the madness-causing non-Euclidean geometries horror writer H.P. Lovecraft detailed, and it's the only sculpture I have ever seen that causes me to doubt, for a while, at least, the stability of the entire world. Needless to say, whenever I wander by the Chambers, I duck in to get another dose of dimensional dysmorphia.

The Chambers is a great place for an art fix in general. They have other, similarly terrifying pieces in their permanent collection. They also house the Burnet Art Gallery, which is currently offering a retrospective of their first five years, featuring the work of 10 artists, including photographer Angela Strassheim. This means that Strassheim is currently in at least three local galleries, including the Walker Art Center and the Institute of Arts, and that's quite an accomplishment. In the other galleries, Strassheim is represented by the photos she took of crime scenes. Here, her images are drawn from life, rather than death, such as a piece titled "Untitled (Breaking Up)," which shows a young woman with a distant look leaning back in the driver's seat of a car as a man leans in the window; it's a scene fraught with implied meaning, especially considering the title of the piece.

"Pigs" by Megan Rye
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
"Pigs" by Megan Rye

There's also a series of images by Megan Rye called, collectively, "Pigs," although they should probably have been called "Pig Bits," as there is hardly a complete swine to be founded. No, most have been dissembled by a butcher, and so their heads, or their entrails, or their split torsos, are what we see. Far from being ghastly, these images are rendered in a light pink, perhaps in watercolor, with just a hint of gray shading, the way a flower might have been represented on a Victorian Valentine card -- as a nearly translucent thing of beauty.

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Comments (2)

I just want to say I'm a fan of your writing, Max. I enjoy your articles. Thanks!

Thank you'