2 November 2009

Mr and Mrs Smith - Spectacle vs Aristotelian Action

In this essay, I will examine Mr & Mrs Smith as an essentially anti-Aristotelian action film. I will argue that it favours spectacle at the expense of dramatic, Aristotelian action by highlighting its lack of concern for a morally challenging, ethically inspired, character-driven resolution (Leitch 112-113). I will illustrate how this anti-Aristotelian film engages its audiences primarily through spectacles of a sexual nature until it is forced to adopt staged violence to sustain further interest. Finally, drawing from the essential masculinity of female action figures (Leitch 117), I will explore the way Mrs Smith’s positioning in relation to Mr Smith successfully lends credence to her potency as action figure while her combined male-gendered and female-gendered traits create an element of surprise which contributes to the film’s spectacle.

The action in Mr & Mrs Smith is anti-Aristotelian because its characters are not concerned with making decisive actions that would morally distinguish them and which would shift events in the direction of a resolution. In Mr & Mrs Smith, disagreement is a prelude to physical violence rather than debate and as such, the film is “invested in the staging of conflict as spectacle rather than in its resolution” (Leitch 112). The ethical question posed quite early in the narrative is whether a husband or wife, each a professional assassin, would kill their spouse if hired to do so. This is a morally confronting question for two married individuals, one which, coupled with years of mutual secrets should lead to much painful decision making on behalf of each party or at least several heated discussions that would make for engaging dialogue. However as Leitch asserts, today’s action films have little to gain from presenting dialogue to their viewers (112). Instead, the issue of marital miscommunication is hushed to make way for exhibitions of the couple’s expertise as assassins and showcase their highly trained, skilled bodies. Thus follows a series of episodic, fast-paced, physically charged scenes where husband and wife flaunt their perfect bodies and attempt to outrun and outsmart each other.

Mr & Mrs Smith evidently sees spectacle as more important than resolution. The scenes immediately preceding and following the revelation of the couple’s double identity are executed through rapid editing, with repeated attention to stunts, technological know-how and verbal sparring. Apart from a scene where Mrs Smith angrily reviews her wedding video, there is no evidence of deep psychological introspection in either character and as such, their Aristotelian agency towards maturation and transformation is limited. The couple occasionally exchange bitter words which reveals their competitiveness and introduces a comic element but which nevertheless evinces a lack of depth or negotiation given the circumstances. Stunts seem to equate the bodily mastery over space as action, in an attempt to testify again and again for the Smith’s credibility as action figures (Leitch 115).

"Look what I can do!"

For example, Mrs Smith fearlessly escapes from her high tower by gliding across the city on a pulley, a feat which would be remarkable if it did not already recall her descent from the top of a hotel. The film also repeatedly showcases technology not only as “extensions of the body” (118) but also as testament to the film makers’ up-to-date-ness. This technological parade includes heat tracking binoculars, an array of monitors running complex applications, Mr Smith’s impressive guns and even some strategic product placement as Mrs Smith operates a Kodak camera.

In terms of spectacle, Mr & Mrs Smith is also underlined by an exciting, sadomasochistic economy with Mrs Smith being the dangerous, “unconventionally active and aggressive” woman and Mr Smith “as submissive and wanting” (Aaron 80). The suspenseful sexual tension combines with a destructive spectacle and rises to a peak as husband and wife physically trash each other and their house, reaching levels of excitement that eventually and violently consummate them, affording audiences with a pleasurable release. In what seems like a moral dilemma, Mr Smith challenges Mrs Smith to shoot him and for a second, her face distorts under the pain of the decision. But in fact, once the couple is reconciled, their decision not to kill each other, far from having arisen from some real transformation, is assumed to have resulted from the renewed spark in their sexual life. As if it were not enough, the indirect allusion to the actors’ off-screen relationship imbues this make-out scene with added voyeuristic pleasure. It is this sexually tinted spectacle that unravels at the expense of Aristotelian action.

"This is what we get up to offscreen, as well!"

Mr & Mrs Smith remains anti-Aristotelian by concerning itself with the kinaesthetic performances and explosive spectacles that it provides, rather than with its “dramatic unity of action” (Leitch 105). If this were unified Aristotelian action, the Smiths would have combined forces and advanced against their common enemy since the start of the film. Instead, the couple is pitted against each other for a good part of the film. The happy revival of the Smith libido would presage the film’s conclusion were it not for the late introduction of the couple’s common enemy. Having staged yet another reason for more spectacle, where it is the duty of the couple to battle against a third party and protect each other and their marriage, the film does not hesitate to feature Mr and Mrs Smith in further mind blowing, explosive battle scenes. In light of the film’s narrative, the final battle scene in the store seems redundant. Yet it is the most explosive, the loudest and the most destructive on a large scale.

Oh no, the audience wants the set destroyed..what shall we do next?

Rather than succeeding by becoming more masculine, as Leitch would have it (117), Mrs Smith emerges as a potent adversary through her positioning in relation to the male action figure, Mr Smith. In addition, she provides an element surprise that not only disconcerts her male opponent but also challenges viewers’ expectations. Like many of her female hero counterparts, notably Alias and Charlies Angel, Mrs Smith retains her sexually alluring appearance (Coon 2). Mrs Smith’s surprise element resides in the implausibility of her characteristics. On appearance, she remains an icon of glamorous femininity: full, sensual lips; feminine curves; impossibly toned, thin limbs and glorious long hair. But as her dominatrix outfit semiotically suggests early on in the film, Mrs Smith is a powerful female. We have evidence that she is more technically proficient than her husband. When fighting him, she can deliver the punches equally well as take them. We also learn that unlike him, she has no qualms about using physical violence to extract information from a spy hence indicating that she is more aggressive in male-gendered terms. At work, she isn’t far from a bully. The high tower, all-female staff headquarters over which she rules, contrasts sharply with the flat structure in her husband’s rundown office. Far from showing mercy to her own sex, Mrs Smith derogatorily demands a cup of coffee as though to prove she can be more tyrannical than a man when dealing with women. Mr Smith is portrayed as more sentimental than his wife, more eager to make up, and a victim of her ruthless ways. He is seen as suffering from his wife’s cunning, especially when she takes away his backyard artillery stash. In terms of male-gendered personality and mental traits, the text elevates Mrs Smith vis-a-vis her husband. Her relative positioning justifies her credibility as a female locus of action. Yet Mrs Smith’s panoply of seductress remains intact as this is essential for audience pleasure and surprise.

The result is that the text paints Mrs Smith as an unlikely embodiment of seemingly incompatibly gendered features to surprise the viewer at least in the first half of the film. The unravelling of Mrs Smith’s hidden strengths is central to the spectacle. Mr Smith’s uncertainty concerning whether his wife would actually kill him and his foolish demeanour whenever she outsmarts him, contribute to the comical undertones of this spectacle as much as they evoke surprise about Mrs Smith.

This anti-Aristotelian film narrows action to spectacles of the body, technology and sexual intensity. It is prepared to stage violence at opportune moments even when the narrative has run its course. Mr and Mrs Smith are never morally or ethically engaged with their dilemma and fail to demonstrate agency in seeing through their marital problems. Aspects of their characters are only used to emphasise spectacle, with Mrs Smith, in particular, being positioned favourably as a feminine locus of action.

Works Consulted:

Aaron, Michele. Spectatorship: the Power of Looking On. London: Wallflower Press, 2007.

Coon, David Roger. “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: the Selling of Charlie’s Angels and Alias.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 33.1 (2005): 2-11.

King, Geoff. “Spectacle, Narrative, and the Spectacular Hollywood Blockbuster”. Movie Blockbusters. Ed. Julian Stringer. London & New York: Routledge, 2003. 114-126.

Leitch, Thomas. “Aristotle vs. the Action Film”. New Hollywood Violence. Ed. Steven Jay Schneider. Manchester: University Press, 2004. 103-125.

Mr & Mrs Smith. Dir. Doug Liman. 20th Century Fox Film Corporation, 2005.

I wrote this critical article in 2007 as part of an Advanced Film Studies course. And by the way, I love a good spectacle.

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