Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Someone's Fargo Video Review

This is not by me, and I don't even entirely agree with it, but it's someone at least talking in the ballpark of blatant themes in the show, which is better than the interminable "oh hey did you see this Easter Egg referencing No Country for Old Man? It's the same brand of cigarette!"


Of course the flaw with Subjectivity vs Objectivity is a theme already explored in this work: the randomness of the universe belies neither truth. It's just pointless, cold, and uncaring, and we forge our subjectivity out of that. But you know, good for him at least having the discussion.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Adapting to the Eighties: Little Drummer Girl

Combining the themes of the last two posts, let's talk about a book that was adapted into a movie in the 80's, by John Le Carre. "Little Drummer Girl", starring Diane Keaton. The experience of watching this movie is positively bizarre.



So the book. As described elsewhere, the introduction is an excellent and romantic depiction of the class differences between Palestinians and Israelis. You can read it for free with the Amazon preview.

But really, it is Le Carre's most disturbing book. Sexual relations have always been a metaphor for the spy-business in his novels (usually adultery), and LDG is about Israeli black ups recruiting a young, radical actress to be a mole in Palestinian terrorist organizations. So he makes the metaphor seduction, and is extremely in your face about it. The mood of the book can only be described as "incredibly uncomfortable" as this actress is exploited and seduced by both sides, and her mental world collapses as she can not keep up the difference between reality and her illusions (a disintegration encouraged by her cynical spymasters, and the sheer surrealism of life under occupation for the Palestinians.) None of the sex would pass modern standards of consent, and it only gets worse from there.

It is terribly dark and disturbing. One might even say "sick." And from the introduction, it's quite clear this is what the author was going for. There's nothing light-hearted about any of Le Carre's novels, but especially this one. (It's still very good, so if you can stomach it, definitely read the book.)

Which makes this movie so very tonally different. Now, often when books with intense psychological depths are adapted, losing the main character's inner dialogue changes the presentation dramatically - we no longer have the anchor of their explanations for everything, only the appearance of their surface behavior, and so the story becomes much more archetypical. We have to do the interpretation for ourselves. ("Twilight" is an excellent example of this: Bella goes from someone we know is deep in thought about everything to... a rudely brusque and spacy persona.)

But as you see from the trailer and the star, this movie has the surface of... 1980's action film. It cinematically feels like... "Ghostbusters" and "Big Trouble in Little China." The alluring bell sounds about something being revealed, the bouncy music of a romantic or exciting night happening, or Diane Keaton proudly-but-naively demanding to know just what the hell is going on (until a big strong man comforts her.)

Watching the movie feels like someone demanded absolute fidelity to the plot of the book, and keeping certain key lines, and then looked away when the director changed everything about the tone and delivery. It's a wacky adventure story of a girl falling into a hidden magical world, with all the same visual and audio cues that we've gotten from fighting ghosts.

You want to yell "No, Diane K, stop getting flustered and then soothed by these men who know what's going on, you're supposed to actually be losing your mind at all this, never recovering."

Which is a pity, because the surrealism of what Charlie thinks is going on, contrasted with the "objective" point of view of what is being orchestrated by the intelligence unit, would make some fantastic cuts. Instead all attempts at that - such as the climax where she hands a bomb sent by the terrorists to the intended victim, surrounded by a disposal team in hazmat suits with guns, but has to go through the dialogue she would have had if she was faking being an innocent student returning the victim's briefcase - just read as funny and confused.

This all of course raises the question: are these 80's film techniques necessarily trivializing and comedic? Or have they just gained affective association, and we think they are action-y because that's what all the other movies who use them (and have survived) are like?

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Eighties Adaptations

I guess we're talking a lot about filmed adaptations now, and that's good, since too often discussion of adaptations devolves into "Is it good or bad? Were they LOYAL to the original? Is actor X perfect as classic character Y?" instead of interesting questions like "Why does a visual medium benefit from this change? What is different about the themes now, than when the previous version was written three decades ago?"



So we've got "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" and "The Tick", both originally written work from 1986. Despite very different plots, they are fairly similar thematically: the main character is extremely weird, with unexplained supernatural phenomenon going on with them, and a complete unwillingness to follow conventional society. This character surreally interacts with the rest of society, who are stubborn in focusing on their normal concerns and methods of interaction, and generally willfully blind/dismissive to how much weird shit is going on around them. The title protagonist has a sidekick who acts as a bridge between them and the normal world.

There's a lot of differences, but these parallels aren't coincidentally. The fundamental theme of both is a sort of existentialist "how we let the psychological absurd into our lives."

(I can't believe there isn't more writing on the influences of French existentialism on the Tick. It seems really obvious, from the way "French" is their default variable for "foreign" and the way characters resemble French wrestling costumes, which have always been more about abstractions of our inner selves more than American professional wrestling, and just the way everything is both very erudite in its references (Die Fledermaus) and abstractly non-specific (The City).)

And fortunately, both of these have recently come out on internet streaming prestige TV series.





You can get both from Amazon, and they are pretty worth it.

And they are of course substantially different from the original - but precisely in the way you need to to capture the themes of the original. We're in a different time and a different medium than we were in 1986, and so you have to approach this differently to get to the same place.

What's most notable is... neither of these shows are about the title character. The protagonist and focal character is unmistakably that "somewhat boring sidekick figure" from the written work. In the Tick this is the perennial butt-of-jokes Arthur, and in Dirk Gently it's a completely new character (played by superstar Elijah Wood), due to fact that Gently has a new buddy in each of his novels. But we open with them and their boring life, see their personal struggles, their shock and resistance as this bizarre extrusion from the weird invades their lives, and eventually their embrace of absurd adventure.

We've gone from the main character being Don Quixote, to focusing on Pancho.

And it works really well. The quasi-normal sidekick is a much better stand-in for our modern audience than the mythic figure. We easily identify with Arthur and Elijah. And then the title character now works very well as largely an extension of the main character; both Gently and the Tick are hinted as as figments of the imagination.

(The Tick much more so: he disappears so conveniently that they lampshade it with a moment where Arthur has the revelation that he's imagining the Tick, only to be anti-climactically put down by someone else seeing him. But that doesn't really take away that the Tick has no identity outside Arthur: he doesn't remember anything before meeting Arthur, he's incapable of acting on his own much, and he literally says "I am the you that you always wanted to be." The entire series so far is about Arthur's battle with sanity as represented by the Tick and the emotional state the Terror.)

As always with my reviews, I'm not saying anything very insightful. (I should have a lot more to say about what the Tick and Dirk respectively say about the mental health of the person they are orbiting, for instance.) I'm just really struck no one else is saying this yet. The new Tick series is about Arthur mostly! The Dirk Gently series relegates him to a side character! Why is this so under discussed? Why can't we watch a film and say what we see in it?

Monday, September 25, 2017

Satire, Adaptation, and My Dumb Mistakes

One of the challenges in talking about critical analysis of films and the ideological content they display, is how people view satire. You may argue that Jurassic Park or the Star Wars Prequels are satire, and your interlocutors will grumble. After all, we know what satire is - it's loud and outrageous. It's Gilbert and Sullivan or the "Scary Movie" franchise. In real "satire", every line is comical and non-believable, and it has as much understatedness as the Something Awful Political Cartoon Thread.


I know this attitude is wrong, but I can lazily fall into, and why I flopped on watching a "serious" movie: John Le Carre's "The Looking Glass War."


The Looking Glass War Poster

Check out that grim poster and that IMDB page. It's a dry espionage thriller. And all the European talking heads giving dry dialogue give no other impression than that these players are somewhat unpleasant, and rather slow. Hey though, at least it has a young Anthony Hopkins.

Now unfortunately, watching this movie now is tricky. You've got two options. You can buy a DVD off Amazon and wait for it to arrive, or for whatever reason, sketchy warez sites are happy to provide.

For the latter, follow this link or ask Google, it works fine, but make sure your anti-malware is up to date and for gods sake don't click on any ads.

As you see, the plot is so difficult for us to follow (well, for me anyway), that it's challenging to be critical enough about what we do understand of the characters to see it all as satire.

In particular what is up with this scene at 15 minutes in.



















Two of the officers go to a rundown apartment building, trying to find someone, but all they see is a little girl speaking through a mail slot. She tells them her mummy is at work, she's left home alone to take care of herself, and her dad has gone on an aeroplane to get money. It's very surreal, and didn't advance any plot I could understand.

***

So then I read the book. Which has a great, bitter introduction by Le Carre.







So yeah, actually reading the book with this spelled out for me, it is goddamned hilarious. It's still very dry and bureaucratic, but I can understand that the fact that everything they are saying and doing seem out of place or misguided is the bloody point. I have the all important context.

Take the hallway scene I mentioned before. Leclerc, the department chief, is permanently lost in sentimentality about the heroism of World War 2. He pushed one of his non-combat desk clerks to fly into Soviet allied territory to retrieve some photographs (of a military facility that turns out not to be there), and thinks he's launched the next Normandy invasion. Leclerc isn't some loud Teddy-Roosevelt caricature though; he's sad, a little noble, a little foppish, and muted enough to be respectable. When he finds out his "agent" has died, he begins reminiscing about all the times he had to tell wives and girlfriends and mothers that pilots under his command in WW2 had died.


This terrible confrontation is the core of Leclerc's identity. He'd like a prouder department and all the perks that come with it, sure, but they really only serve to remind him of the emotional duty he once carried. He even slips up and gives his agent an alias that was the name of his favorite pilot who died on a mission. It's weird to think "his desire is to tell women their husband/boyfriend is dead and he can't tell them why because it's classified", but that moment has become such a mawkish touchstone that yeah, it can become a fetish for the right identity.

American movies are no better:

And now, after twenty years of sleepiness, Leclerc gets to do it again. An agent died in the field, and in the wee hours he must immediately rush and tell his wife in person. He is too understated for gleefulness, so it's hard to see his eagerness, but off he goes in the middle of the night.

Except it's not a beautifully lit farmhouse, with a domestic woman waiting at home on her man. The man in this case has drunk most of the money away, and certainly wasn't paid enough by the department in the first place, so he lives in a shithole with the rest of the underclass, and his wife is off making ends meet while his six year old child sits home listening to the radio. And Leclerc can only relive this glory moment by trying to explain it through a mail slot to a young girl and her doll. (It doesn't even have the dignity of being classified; of course the terribly trained "spy" told his family right away.)

This scene is bizarre, and hilarious in its absurdity. After reading it on the page, you immediately want to actually see this, in all of its gory detail, because of just how surreal the imagery is. There is no way flat text can capture the perfection of this anti-climax.

Right. This was the movie I just saw. I couldn't understand the scene then, but once I did, I immediately needed it realized in full technicolor. That really explains the entire tragedy of the movie: it lacks the necessary context, but is full of the superficial viscera that makes it real.

***

Now, I hate to fall back on "see, the author said so." If the author's words were the sole truth with regard to their work, then we could just read the foreword and be done with the hassle of reading the whole book itself. But in this case they taught me that yes, even very dry things with somber characters and no laugh track, are written to skewer the foibles of those misguided fools. We've got to look at their actions ourselves, and determine what this says about the universe of the story.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Murder in Triplicate

There's a new trailer for Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot's "Murder on the Orient Express." It looks marginally less bad than the last trailer.


But really, this is just a reminder that the David Suchet series production of this was AMAZING. Just go watch that.

Amusingly, it's the most controversial of the classic Suchet series by far, because it's so atypical for the cozy mystery series. But this episode builds off of the fidelity from everyone other episode of the series to make the point "the crime is so sacrilegious that it drives Poirot to towering heights of anger." The difference between this and his attitude in every other episode (and every other production) matters, directly contradicting the ending of the award winning 1974 movie.

If you care about justice, watch the David Suchet episode. It will be interesting to see if this new movie offers anything remotely as passionate.

Video submitted until Youtube takes it down. After that just go pay $2 on Amazon.


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Comments

For the first time ever, we have multiple, good comments.

1angelette writes in reply to Fountain Creed Runner
You've really helped me to understand the shortcomings of humanist critiques about the objectification of women in archetypal films. It's more effective, for that goal, to start from the ground up in that kind of movie instead of writing a couple lines about a maiden being a math major, isn't it? 
lol

Yeah, exactly.  If you want more of that, make sure to read my post a while ago on the best character from Hancock, Mary.

For the recent best, most extreme version of archetypical critique of sexism, check out Sucker Punch.



SMG has written a lot on this most controversial Zack Snyder film, in the original thread, and more recently:
Well, exactly: even an idiot can understand that Sucker Punch depicts a triad of imaginary, symbolic and real. And the imaginary fantasy sequences are blatantly ideological fantasies: you have the 'Strong Female Characters' cutting down hordes of faceless drones that stand for a generic totalitarianism. 
These 'propaganda' sequences are the ones that obviously look like 300. But this is not fascist propaganda at all; Sucker Punch's women are creating liberal propaganda. They are multicultural time-travellers from 20XX, wielding present-day spec ops weaponry to fight the failed ideologies of the past. This is exactly Black Widow in the Avengers: inexplicably fighting Egyptian mummies using wire-fu, tasers and dual-wielded handguns. 
Predicting his work on Wonder Woman, Snyder puts these propaganda heroes in a WWI setting weirdly mixed with WWII and Lord Of The Rings fantasy. The message of the propaganda is plainly that WWI was not the result of industrial capitalism, but simply caused by the evil Nazis. Let's get some strong liberal feminists to refight those Nazis, and we'll maintain world peace. 
But again, as you point out, there are two more levels. Beneath the Buffy/Avengers fantasy level, we have the symbolic level - the level of everyday reality where 'Buffy' is actually the actress Sarah Michelle Gellar and 'Black Widow' is actually the actress Scarlett Johannson. On this level, the actresses have some formal freedom, get money, but are still working in a sexist industry - being pressured to fuck director Joss Whedon and so-on. 
Finally, beneath everything, you have 'the desert of the real' from The Matrix, where the capitalist exploitation is laid bare. The heroes 'put on the sunglasses' and are fully aware of the ghouls and their messages. "They Live, We Sleep", etc. 
Sucker Punch is branded sexist because it is not a liberal feminist film. It is not Joss Whedon feminism; it is a left-wing feminist film.
***

 And AG writes in reply to Genre:
It's just the heist genre, stylistically, as applied to a less traditional heist. A systemic heist rather than a MacGuffin object heist.  
Showtime's House of Lies applies the format to management consulting, and not coincidentally resembles a white-collar version of a classic fast-talking con man film. Non-violent Guy Ritchie by way of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean remake, set in a world where the bag of cash is now a number update on a screen. But the pacing, the music montages, the dialogue rhythms, they're all out of the heist genre playbook.
Well you're half right. There is something shared in the quasi-documentary meta-storytelling style of both films, told with sly self-awareness and shock value. However, they are as different as a comedy versus a tragedy. The whole second half of a heist movie is about "it sure looks bad now" when you know the heroes will pull it out in the end, whereas this genre is the mirror opposite: it's too good and you know the crash is gonna be epic. It's a tragedy, one that dominates the entire style of sad narration, but one that tries to educate you "the real villain is systemic corruption."

(Which isn't wrong, and why I appreciate more recommendations.)

@jadagul on tumblr mentioned that 21 (based on the true story "Bringing Down the House") was also this style, and yes, I just forgot to mention it. I watched it for exactly this reason.


(When I say "Based on a True Story", that's the tongue in cheek tone from someone who's a fan of the Coen brothers.)

***

And unsurprisingly the Wonder Woman review got several comments, so you might want to go read the discussion over there.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Genre

I'm trying to identify a movie genre that seems a) really obvious and b) I have not heard anyone else describe. If anything I would call them "Lewisian" because they all seem like they come from a book by Michael Lewis.

This is movies that are a recounting of "that time I made a shitload of money unethically exploiting an inefficiency or loophole in the system. We are talking hilarious amount of money for me, a working class joe. This epitomizes how morally bankrupt the system is. Eventually it all came crashing down and I am telling you this from a jail cell."

So, you know, we've got Big Short.


Now I am not referring to the above as plot elements, but rather it's the film-making style that unites this genre. It's got a lot of first person narrating, and "you're not gonna believe this" flashbacks, along with fairly preachy moralizing about how wrong it was that this sort of thing was allowed to go on. There's a lot of montages, and therefore a lot of well known pop-music on the soundtrack to go over these pop montages (usually of excess.)

Compare it to the non-Michael Lewis-based movie "War Dogs."


See? Very similar styles. Or, the upcoming movie "American Made" with Tom Cruise.


Now from purely the style elements, I also count the Lewis movie "Moneyball" among this genre. Obviously it's not about breaking the law, but it is about "exploiting the hell out of an inefficiency, and going from laughingstock to hailed as genius" in a way that allows a lot of these same filmic elements to work.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Fountain Creed Runner

Extremely pithy summary: the Assassin's Creed movie is the story The Fountain wanted to be, but done with the superior film techniques of Blade Runner.

***

Long version: As we've discussed before, there are two approaches to movies that make them truly powerful stories:
  • Humanist storytelling: emphasizing the complexity of characterization, the source of their motives, their deep and multifaceted personality. (Logan is a good example of this.)
  • Archetypical storytelling: characters aren't really people, so much as masks for mythic concepts. The Star Wars Original Trilogy was extremely good at this.
There are great films in both camps, but usually when popular critics attack a movie it's with the perspective that a movie needs to be more successfully humanist. Such criticism complains that the characters' actions "do not make sense" and are shallow stereotypes, and we need more dialogue and backstory to "flesh them out." Sometimes it would be a good idea - but other times it goes against the entire point.

For instance in Star Wars, Darth Vader is iconic as the dark overlord figure. Finding out that his genes have midichlorians, how his mom died and why it made him angry, and the exact circumstances that he lost track of his son and daughter, just undercut his archetypical appeal. (Which is fine, because in this case the Prequels serve as a satire of the follies of humanism.) That's the problem with most "expanded universe" type world-building and fan-fiction, that it's often applied to stories that don't need it.

This leads you down the dark path where movies like Prometheus and the video-game adaptation Assassin's Creed are criticized for their shallow characterization and emphasis on imagery.

Of course, you could make the exact same complaint about a classic like Blade Runner. It's full of holes! What is the backstory that led to Rick Deckard being the asshole that he is? Why is the "best scientist in the world" sitting at the top of a golden pyramid playing chess with hobos? What sort of life are the replicants running away from? How dare Deckard treat Rachel like an object? And dear god why is there so much time spent looking morosely over the blasted cityscapes of Los Angeles?



Except that's all the point of the movie. It's not "inside" that counts, but the actions you do that make you "human." And it's a very good movie because we understand all these characters immediately - Deckard is the archetype of the bitter detective, Rachel just is the femme fatale even though she never thought she would be (and her rich backstory is just a lie to deceive her,) and Tyrell is playing God.

Which brings us to the unpleasant truth of this post: acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky's attempt at a sci-fi masterpiece The Fountain is just not very good.



The Fountain is an ambitious attempt at mixing together three timelines: one story about a medical scientist who can't accept that his wife is dying, one story about a conquistador searching for the fountain of youth to save his beloved queen from the Spanish Inquisition, and one story about a post-human monk taking a dying tree of life across the galaxy to find renewal (which are united by having the protagonist always played by Hugh Jackman.) The moral at the end is that the search for immortality succeeds, but only in providing a chaotic, destructive/creative jouissance that is far beyond what the explorer was hoping for.

Except everyone talks too damn much. For instance with the conquistador story, we understand the figures of Knight, besieged Queen, and greedy Inquisitor very quickly. But we get scene after scene explaining the Inquisition's intentions and the Queen's desperation when yes we get it already. The first modern day scene with the doctor's lab doesn't come across as Jackman playing god and toying with the very elements of the universe, but much more like Tony Stark in a lab being witty with his subordinates and hoping a banal experiments works. It's all completely unsublime.

(The scifi scenes are closer to the pure imagery, but even then rely too much on monologues and turn the whole story more into the internal dialogue of a self-doubting monk, rather than a mystic voyage across space and time.)

They go to so much effort to over-explain what's going on in each timeline specifically, that the rhythm that unites all three timelines is almost completely lost. And even if some fan video explains it for you, you're not really left with any satisfying experience as you watch it yourself. It's not good, because it takes too much of the humanist criticism to heart.

So we have the movie based on the Assassin's Creed videogame franchise, which as far as I can tell, mostly ignores the games and provides very little fan service, and instead tells a very abstract, austere story.


Now that's a very regrettable trailer for a number of reasons, but most amusingly is that it basically provides as much exposition as we get in the entire two hour movie. There is an object of desire that represents freedom and the will to violence. Authority wants to possess this object and thereby destroy both. The protagonist goes on an internal journey to their hereditary past that will reveal the location of this object. There are not elaborate explanations for how this object can "get rid of violence/free-will" and whether it will require submitting all of humankind to genetic therapy or something, or for how the Animus works, it just expects you to accept this Science Fantasy.
Again, the point is that sci-fi and fantasy are relative.
We can all read Lord Of The Rings as alternate-universe Sci-Fi, and the orcs as clones - but that means asking basic questions about, like, where the food comes from if there are no onscreen farms outside Hobbitsville. That stuff doesn't matter in fantasy because, in a fantasy, you don't need food to live. The difference is clearly expressed at the start of Mystery Science Theatre 3000:
"If you're wondering how he eats and breathes (and other science facts), just repeat to yourself: 'it's just a show. I should really just relax.'"
Fantasy begins at the point where you stop wondering. 
-SMG
There are instead a ton of debates between Patriarchal Figure and Athena Figure arguing over the ethical implications of this all. And the actors chosen for this - Jeremy Irons and Marion Cotillard - are the best you could ask for such abstract scene chewing dialogue.

The scenes from the Inquisition time period serve as an effective metaphor for the doomed battle between rebellious violence and authority, and no exposition needs to explain to death why.

Assassin's Creed is a step in the right direction for video game movies but slick action and beautiful visuals are undercut by a hollow hero story. 
-- Ben Kendrick, Screen Rant

No, the slick action, beautiful visuals, and hollowness of the hero are the entire point of the story - right up to the psychedelic ending where the walls of reality between the two timelines start collapsing and every modern day prisoner becomes their past life assassin, complete with cosplay cloak. And there's no attempt at a "scientific explanation" for why the hero suddenly sees all his ancestors appear in the real world and talk to him.

If you read the quotes than its few fans have pulled from the movie, they would usually sound like failed attempts to be Epic in any other franchise, rare peaks above the witty dialogue that are crippled by the self-awareness of the characters. But instead, this dialogue is all there is! Every single line is only intelligible in a grand, metaphorical sense, and is surrounded by silence and statue-esque delivery.

Dr. Sophia Rikkin: Violence is a disease. Like cancer. And like cancer, we hope to control it one day.
Cal Lynch: Violence is what kept me alive.
Dr. Sophia Rikkin: Well technically, you're dead.
or

Dr. Sophia Rikkin: We're not in the business of creating monsters.
Alan Rikkin: We neither created them nor destroyed them. We merely abandoned them to their own inexorable fate.
or

Cal Lynch: You're here to save my soul?
Father Raymond: I understand it's your birthday.
Cal Lynch: Huh... Yeah. The party's just gettin started.

No one talks any other way in this movie.

(Compare this with the dialogue from Blade Runner:

Batty: I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time... like tears in rain... Time to die.

or
Tyrell: [Tyrell explains to Roy why he can't extend his lifespan] You were made as well as we could make you.
Batty: But not to last.
Tyrell: The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long - and you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy. Look at you: you're the Prodigal Son; you're quite a prize!
Batty: I've done... questionable things.
Tyrell: Also extraordinary things; revel in your time.
Batty: Nothing the God of biomechanics wouldn't let you into heaven for.  )

Everything the Fountain should have done, Assassin's Creed does more effectively. This is how you should talk (and I haven't even gotten into the slow crawls along vistas) in a mythic story uniting multiple historical periods to discover the meaning of life.

I haven't done a very good job yet explaining the AC movie, because it feels like there's so much work to even get people to take movies like these seriously. "Oh hey it's about videogames and critics didn't like it. Why would I waste two hours on this?" Except it's fucking amazing, and they didn't like it because it didn't fall into the videogame ghetto of movies. So go watch it yourself, and form opinions about what it's saying about freedom, violence, and ahistoricity.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Brigsby Bear and Evolving Irony

I just saw the indie flick from the SNL comedy group "Good Neighbor".




Some points.

1. It's very good and you should go see it. I expect it will leave theaters soon (and is only showing in LA and NY as far as I can tell) but then you should be able to watch it on Amazon or something.

Everything after this will assume you saw it and don't mind spoilers.

2. The reviews of it are dreadfully misguided.


Monday, July 31, 2017

Pointed Elsewhere

I've got one review in me, but otherwise for the next two weeks, I will mostly be writing at the new website "Exploring Egregores", about Lovecraft and existential horror. If you like my writing style, you'll probably enjoy that.

Fans of the themes of this blog will particularly appreciate the posts on Hastur and Azathoth.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Cargo Cults: 17776 and Homestuck

Jon Bois' epic about the future of football, 17776 just finished. If you haven't read it, you should, or at least read the first page/chapter.

A number of commentators, both on tumblr and reddit have said it's very similar to Homestuck, the MSPA adventure, and there's definitely an overlap of fandom. Homestuck, remember, is a meta-textual experimental piece of outsider art about kids who find themselves going on fantastical quests in a computer game after the world has been destroyed.



They're not wrong, but they're not right either. And their comparisons are a great example of cargo cults.

The phrase "cargo cult" refers to island cultures that would make first contact with Western civilization, and would see all the material goods they brought, and so try to replicate this process of receiving cargo by building runways or statues of planes or whatever else looked like the Westerners.
So the term refers to worshiping the superficial aspects of something complex, and ignoring the true reasons it works.

The basic explanations for why Homestuck fans like 17776 is "they are chatlogs with different colored text and typing styles to represent different characters" and "JUICE is a lot like Dave" (sarcastic, mean, but so enthusiastic that he can't resist info dumping about things he cares about) and "it's a mix of video and bad, static html" and "it references pop culture."

Except this is a pretty bad explanation. Why? Well for one it's really easy. To make, that is. Like do you know how many Homestuck fan artists have made fanfic with "different colored text" and "someone who sounds like Dave?" It's not a hard thing to try. And yet "capturing the feeling of Homestuck, enough to enthrall fans" is much harder. Why is that? They're mistaking the tactile details for what is actually compelling. Cargo cults.

The first thing that really makes it work is the "rapid recontextualization." Already on chapter one, you have this slow dialogue happening between Nine and Ten over the course of years, slowly revealing stuff but mostly a) entertaining us with their dopishness and b) slowly doling out facts that explain the situation. It's agonizing. And then, on a dime, something unpredictable happens that accelerates the fuck out of the story, giving them instant communication and explaining who the satellites are, complete with dramatic screenshots of satellite related stuff. And after that point everything in the story is in this new context and new speed.

Hussie did that a lot too, with interminable dialogues between John and whoever, point and click hunts by John (or whoever), until a random thing happens and then bam, we know a whole lot more about the (much wider) world in one instant. This is frankly some kind of operant conditioning that addicts a non-negligible part of his audience. It's no surprise it would grab the same people.

Bois in particular does this with the video pieces. It's not just "it uses both static html and video", but the way it uses video. Which is to provide a sudden jump in information, showing the project exploding to a whole new scale. Compare the first video at the bottom of chapter one, with something like Act 2 End: Ascend. They are very similar feelings of suddenly "everything gets real now."

In this way "dialogue, dialogue, snarky/self aware dialogue -- eye opening video of sublime realization (followed by similar dialogue commenting on that video-enlightenment)" operates as a tandem pair, neither entirely working their full effect without the other. This is where Homestuck draws its power, not "someone is snarky like Dave."

Although it's not a coincidence the Dave voice repeats either.

I mean, the most important voice is not the Dave/JUICE voice, but John/Nine. They are, in Tarot terms "the Fool." They are the blank slate protagonist who is only just now learning everything about the world, along with us. Many critics would call this "the audience identification character", but it's not really who we see ourselves as, they are just the lens we can most easily learn about the world from.

Well, it makes sense that the Fool is first introduced to the world by someone smarter than us, but patient and benign. That is the Rose/Ten character. Only after we have the discoverer character, and the teacher character, can we have the third: the meta-aware character. That's Dave, that's JUICE, and that's our actual audience identification. We're genre-savvy, detached from the story, and prone to snarky comments. So both MSPA and 17776 have this same introductory tryptych: Fool, Teacher, Irony-master. It's a good combination for laying out a fictional universe (and explicitly stating to the audience the literary themes of this universe, as Dave/JUICE often does), and that's why people feel such similarity between the two.

Same with the pop culture references. Every work of art references pop culture these days. The key here is that 17776 and Homestuck both blatantly reference pop culture, and aspects that are not at all relevant. You get Con Air and Steely Dan coming up (but not Hillary Clinton or I lik cow or the Wire.) It's decidedly silly stuff, that tells us a lot more about the characters involved, than really makes us feel a connection to them.

Of course, both artworks explore a post-apocalyptic scenario. Homestuck deals with an Earth that has been destroyed, and what the relevant kids do beyond that, and 17776 deals with an apocalypse that ended all struggle and meaning to life, forcing people to discover new meaning. It's about what happened to our world after something major destablized everything important about it. Post-apocalypses are just commentaries on the world as it currently is, but laid bare. And with this tryptych we can get an accessible explanation: the Fool asks what's going on, the Teacher answers in the Watsonian sense, and the Ironist answers in the Doylist sense, explicitly telling us why the author is doing this here.

This works well with the middling desires of most of the audience: they are reading webfic because they want to explore something new, they want world building that is interesting and makes sense diagetically, but they want a little bit of thematic awareness that makes them knowledgable art critics.

Once we have gotten used to this trio (or rather, right before we have gotten used to them, and when we feel we are just getting the groove of the conversation,) both works then suddenly switch gears and add new voices. These are very down-to-earth voices, that assume a high degree of context to understand. (Often when switching scenes, you're coming in mid-scene to the next thing, and the first few lines of dialogue will be the reader trying to catch up to what's going on. It's mildly intellectually challenging, but more, it's constant and addictive.

Now in Homestuck, those new voices are eventually built up and worked into the diagetic plot, whereas in 17776 those voices are instead worked into the overall thematic message (often as explained by JUICE.) This split between emphasis on building plot, vs explaining its themes goes all the way through to the two very different endings (one of which was fulfilling, and the other of which... was really not.)

There are other thematic and mechanical parallels that make 17776 and Homestuck work similarly, and you can play around with them yourself.

**************

However, this obsessing about cargo cults can be a trap, like the old lady asked about what supported the turtle who carried the world on its back. "It's cargo cults all the way down."

The phrase cargo cult creates a dichotomy between that which is superficial and misleading, and that which is deep and the real meaning of the work.

But, breezy thematic analysis (like my own) can be just as cargo-cultish. You list off some words like genre-savvy, paganistic, or ironic detachment and at least some people will just nod along to how cool you sound. There's no guarantee you've found the real meaning, and haven't just found another idol to worship.

This is of course because there is no core, essential meaning to the work.
Holloway’s desire is to ask the alien-gods the meaning of life. This goal is utterly unobtainable, and the film establishes elsewhere that life has no inherent meaning (existence precedes essence) and, even if one could speak to the alien-gods, the message would be something unsatisfactory like 7*7=42 or horrific like Event Horizon’s ‘we don’t need eyes to see’.  
SMG on Prometheus
Especially in art. There is only the superficial.
One should thus invert the usual opposition within which true art is “deep” and commercial kitsch superficial: the problem with kitsch is that it is all too “profound,” manipulating deep libidinal and ideological forces, while genuine art knows how to remain at the surface, how to subtract its subject from the “deeper” context of historical reality. 
Zizek
So you're peeling back the layers of the onion. On the first layer is "different colored text, and sounds like Dave," and the next layer is "uses video as a climactic way to broaden the scope of the work." And in some ways that next layer can be more useful - in this case I think it explains affinity between these two works better, and offers a more reliable predictor of what else fans will like.

But it's still layers of the onion, and you'll never reach some inner kernel of pure meaning. You can never guarantee that you have found "what audiences want."

To address the original analogy, you could imagine some start-up entrepreneur who laughs at the cargo cults of Pacific Islands, and thinks the real idols you need to worship are the global supply chain, and synergy, and strengthening the free market. Now they might have a practical understanding of how to build their company, or they might just think that if they say enough buzzwords then investor capital will be drawn to them and they will get rich.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Gods of America

I've been catching up on American Gods, the prestige TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman's book, by cult favorite Bryan Fuller, of Pushing Daisies and Hannibal. It's a combination made in indie Heaven, but the show has gotten rather little traction.

Which is unfortunate, because it has two sizable virtues that set it apart from the fairly generic Gaiman novel that puts folklore scholars in a disdainful lather.

First, its imagery. Only about half of any episode is about plot and characters, but just as great a portion is scenes of some American subculture and gods associated with them. The show combines fluorescent American "kitsch" and modern day depictions of what a god would be like, extremely well. You can see it in the intro credits:



Where you have this totem pole made of religious iconography, turned into neon regalia reminiscent of a fifties diner. All of the religions are like this, with saturated imagery representing both "America as it sees itself" and "the otherworldliness of gods." It combines really well, and is worth watching for this aspect well beyond its generic plot.

Check out for example, the contrast of the Mexican-version-of-Jesus, alongside the decorated rifles used to shoot at him.



Every episode covers a different subcultural religion this way, portrayed alongside Americana like this.

This aesthetic applies to the "New Gods" as well, who represent forces like media and technology. They're done up in an extremely 80's technicolor way, with bad CGI and David Bowie ripoffs.



It's perfect for this hyperrealism which the Prequels and Prometheus approached. They're larger than life manifestations of our modern pathologies, and they're drawn brighter and larger in order to capture that.

This is frankly, the opposite of Gaiman's normal Gothic aesthetic which is dark and fairly drab (see Neverwhere, or Dream from Sandman.)

***

The other large part of American Gods is class. Gaiman is a British writer, so he writes in his novels about class the same way American liberals write about race: he openly acknowledges it a great deal, usually making his hero from the oppressed group and his villain from the oppressor group, but it's very shallow and condescending portrayal. It's decaffeinated class - Other deprived of its Otherness. This stays the same even as Gaiman writes about America, with characters like Shadow and Laura nominally being from the lower-class and mixed up with prison, but acting and talking like a New York power couple who are suitably diverse, empowered, and self-aware. There is never anything intimidating about Shadow's Otherness (either his race or his class.) He's just a guy like you and me, and not super different from Mr World.

Bryan Fuller took this nominal inclusion of class, and made it a visceral theme of the entire series. Laura really is a nihilistic trailer trash fuck up (and a zombie to boot.) Shadow is still frankly a decaffeinated black man, but Wednesday, Mad Sweeney, Salim and most of the characters from the god-of-the-week short stories actually take care to depict a different, uncomfortable, and somewhat threatening manner that reflects how we actually feel about the lower class.

It's very hard to do this story without class really. Gaiman is describing an axis of the world portrayed more comprehensively in Max Gladstone's novels with lower-class tribalists who worship their fallen, old gods with blood sacrifice, social conservatism, and communal sharing, who are in various stages of conflict with upper-class ascendant lawyers who have crushed the gods and seek to structure society and reality around absolute rules where the most ingenious can flourish and be free of prejudice. More recently, columnist Ross Douthat described it as "ethnonationalist backlash against cosmopolitan finance capitalism."

So the ascendant New Gods are best represented as these upper-class figures. Which Gaiman does with his normal "dark and mysterious aura of entitlement to control everything." Fuller updates them to the current modes of the American upper class and the dialect they use, being less about shadows and luxury, and more about moral presumption and fashionableness.

For instance, after Kid Technology has hung the protagonist Shadow from a tree, he later is forced to apologize for this:

I'm sorry. For lynching you. Hanged a dark-skinned man. Ugh. Was in very poor taste. We're in a weird, tense place racially in America, and I don't want to add to that climate of hatred.

Which is a perfectly hilarious sendup of "I just brutally tried to kill you, but let me frame it in terms of racial symbolism" which our upper class is much more comfortable talking about. (And if it is at all unclear, this is definitely depicted as an insincere, cop-out apology.) It's glib and distancing from the real pain, like a corporate diversity seminar at a company that manufactures tasers.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

MGS5: Quiet Revulsion

The most controversial figure in video game auteur Hideo Kojima's last installment in the Metal Gear Solid franchise was the scantily clad sniper "Quiet."


It's even more disturbing in the game, with motion, and rain, and dancing, and Kojima's typical "in your face" blocking.

But we need to remember that when something is disturbing in art, that's truth. We need to move towards the discomfort, and find why we are so unsettled. So let's fully investigate this character.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

RIP SMG (and Alien Covenant)

Well, megaposter SuperMechagodzilla has gotten himself permanently banned from the movie forums at SomethingAwful, It was over his general style so even if he were to get unbanned somehow, the mods have made it clear they don't want him. He's not the type to go start his own blog or something, he seemed to only emerge from that particular forum-context, so that is probably it as far as his contribution to film analysis goes. Truly it is the end of an era.

It's fitting that on the same day Freddie deBoer wrote a subcultural analysis piece that pinned SA as the origin of "ironic left" chatter that has taken over the remains of the Bernie movement
Something Awful spawned Weird Twitter, the presidential primary and elections of 2015–2016 caused Weird Twitter and Left Twitter to merge, today the default form of engagement in online left spaces is that weird, aggressive descendant of Something Awful style, and as online life drives membership increases in real-world left organizations, that style of engagement threatens to colonize those spaces as well. 
I find it all unhealthy, for many reasons. One of which is that Corbyn-style sincerity is much healthier for left discourse than nth-degree irony.
SMG was one of the most sincere left-wing commentators out there, deriding irony and "just my opinion lol" as a cowardly escape from responsibility for your opinion. So how does a brutally sincere voice remain in a sewer of irony?

Well, it was that anti-relativism they got sick of. From the explanation for the banning:
No, I banned someone for being a condescending asshole in literally every post he's made in the last year, after being told to cool it down multiple times. 
I posted something similar to this when I gave him his month probation, but I'll do it again. I don't hate SMG. I think his style of film criticism and reading is something that is unique and often adds a lot to a thread that isn't just whitenoise "this shit sucks/this owns" bullshit. But constant "my opinions are better than yours and you're an idiot for not agreeing with me" posts are probatable, and always have been. SMG's good at coming up with interesting takes, but he's also good at being a condescending prick. It takes two seconds to remove the "You're reading me wrong, pay attention or go away" from that post and there's no problem with it. That's my bottom line.
Heaven forfend in liberalism that someone think their opinion is better than others, and actually say so. On a website known for its caustic rudeness, I guess slurs are less verboten that defending what you say.

Anyway, SMG was in the middle of an exhaustive analysis of Alien: Covenant, so I'm going to put what he had written so far here. It was good stuff!


Everything below here is written by SMG, who is not me. "***" separate different posts.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

What Would Wonder Woman Do?

I usually take more time to reflect on a movie and analyze "how it worked" before I can post really thorough reviews. The text does not need immediate reaction, and that sort of pressure usually leads to meme-style analysis. (Plus it's 10 days until SMG is off his ban, so I can't even see his contribution.) And once more DCU movies have come out, hopefully I'll return to them.

But Wonder Woman's themes were so pronounced, that it's easy to at least write something the day after. Obviously, spoilers below (in fact, this really won't make much sense without seeing the movie.)


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Terrible Defenses of Good Things Are Still Terrible

Because click-bait and internet capitalism overall functions on a cycle of fashion where cool things must be called uncool to secure status, and vice versa, we're starting to see more defenses of the Prequel Trilogy. Well, a stopped clock still has a non-functioning gear mechanism and we can take it apart even when it happens to point to the right time.

Tor gives us "10 Reasons Why Attack of the Clones Is Better Than You Remember" and they are bad reasons. They are designed to convince with a liberal-humanist outlook towards movies that this movie fits that, rather than convince people that the archetypical storytelling it does really is worthwhile. Which makes them double failures, since no Episode 2 is not a good example of that sort of film making, and that film making is not superior (though there are very good examples like Blade Runner.)

1. The Unseen Adventures of Obi-Wan and Anakin

That doesn't occur in the movie, so you shouldn't be judging the movie by it. It's relying on a hoped for complexity that humanizes the characters and makes them sympathetic to us, when that does not exist and doesn't matter.

2. Count Dooku: It’s Christopher Lee.
Enough said.
While Lee was a good choice to play Count Dracula, you could at least say a lot more about him and his role. Why do you want a face synonymous with arrogant villainy to be the stand in for a dark clone of the good guys?

3. Jedi Noir
While Anakin and Padme were off…er…romancing on Naboo, Obi-Wan was following the trail of the assassin who tried to kill Padme. Like a Jedi Sam Spade, Obi-Wan operates in the shadows as he follows the trail of the assassin and uncovers a plot that’s bigger than he ever could’ve imagined. In the process, he fights Jango Fett in the rain, gets captured by Count Dooku, and come this close to being fed to the arena beasts on Geonosis. All part of the job for Obi-Wan Kenobi, P.I.

Obi-Wan is a bad detective. He ignores Anakin when it's protrayed as obvious that Anakin is correct and something much larger is wrong than just the assassination attempt. He couldn't find a missing planet unless his down-to-earth low-class alien friend told him things that aren't in the Jedi library he relies on. He walks into trap after trap, only to advance the enemy's goal of giving the Jedi an army to fight with. Nothing Obi-Wan does in Episode 2 is supposed to be good. The good part is supposed to be laughing at him.

Though that is still noir in a Chinatown sort of horrific way.

(Hint for viewers of Chinatown: you are not supposed to come away respecting Jake.)

4. The Nuances of Anakin’s Downfall

Just no.

Anakin is a whiny proto-fascist. We are not supposed to sympathize with him. We are supposed to see how badly the Jedi fucked him up and understand how someone could become a tool of dark powers. There's no nuance, it's an ethical pratfall.

5. Those Arena Monsters
Say what you will about the use of CGI in the prequels, but the three monsters who are unleashed on Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Padme in the arena on Geonosis looked terrific. And that scene is vintage Star Wars.
Okay this point is true, but doesn't explain anything beyond "they look terrific." Like how each monster is a metaphor for the sexuality of the good guy they menace, or how they are homages to film making legend Ray Harryhausen.

6. Jedi Battle

It's an anti-climactic battle that both diagetically serves as set up for a trap, and exegetically as lack of satisfaction so that the real, muscular military fight can feel much more cathartic, and for us to cheer when Anakin fires on and destroys a sheep of fleeing non-combatants.

7. Ewan McGregor

There are a dozen things that people have remembered for fifteen years from the Prequel Trilogy. Jar Jar. Chancellor "I am the Senate!" Palpatine. Mace Windu. CGI Yoda. Even Anakin is memorable. There are reasons no one ever talks about McGregor's performance.

8. Kamino.
Kamino has always stuck out as one of my favorite locations in the Star Wars galaxy. It’s also, to me, the place where the prequel aesthetic—which carried directly into the animated series, The Clone Wars (more on that soon)—really cemented itself. In The Phantom Menace, the universe doesn’t expand all that much. We return to Tatooine, and we’re never given much of a sense of Coruscant. Which leaves us only with Naboo, which was fine, but it was nothing like Kamino. Kamino exposed us to something new and, quite frankly, super weird and cool. That city on stilts in the ocean—occupied by tall, lithe aliens who specialize in making clones—kickstarted a fresher take on the look and feel of the Star Wars galaxy.
Okay yes this is true. Star Wars ultra-homogeous worlds are excellent representations of the characters' internal states.

9. Coruscant Nightlife

Eh? The point of this glitzy portrayal is that it's all a mask. Real Coruscant isn't like this - it's either halls of power, or the dingy underclass at the bottom of all those vaulting buildings. The nightlife act is full of fakery - it's a wild goose chase for a false lead, there's even a shapeshifter. Everything's not real and this is the sort of hyperreal CGI world the trilogy is mocking (which match its references to Blade Runner aesthetic.)

10. The Clone Wars

Again, you are talking about things outside the movie, hoping they add depth and complexity to things the movie specifically chose not to.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Prometheus: QUESTIONS WILL BE ANSWERED, AND YOU WILL BE LEFT HIGHLY UNSATISFIED BECAUSE WHAT YOU REALLY WANTED WAS LOVE.

Since the transformers.pdf went around recently, this reminded me that my favorite film analysis was by SMG on Ridley Scott's Prometheus. (paywalled link, but the relevant text is pasted below so don't worry.)

This is an insanely good thread about existentialism, horror, and simulation, which made me really appreciate the movie more and was largely responsible for my thoughts about horror and meaning (and of course my previous post on the movie.)

I've gone through the thread and selected the posts that present this analysis. It's very long, and you have to get used to the in-media-res of assuming SMG is responding to some argument without seeing it yourself, but it lays out the connections between film-making and how we define our own reality with clarity and wit. It's also incredibly arrogant and ungenerous to his interolocutors, but it's better to have an opinion strongly represented that lets the audience choose for itself whether and where it is correct.

Watching the film first is helpful, but not necessary.


Everything below here is written by SMG, who is not me. "***" separate different posts.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Some movies to see

Your Name


Colossal


Both explore very personal and quotidian issues of identity using extremely blatant metaphors. It's not even worth dissecting, but if you like "high brow cinema that is trying to be entertaining" then see these.

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Sources of All Our Troubles

"The Girl with All the Gifts" is a zombie story by Mike Carey. It takes the common themes about zombies, and is in no way subtle. So they made an incredibly faithful translation of it.


It was only available for a very brief time in theaters, but fortunately you can watch it now.

It's interpretation of zombies, as the degraded subject, is excellent but there's little analysis to do. It's so straightforward that reviewing it would be like the clown car theory of mockery. Just go watch it.

(Do you see the muzzle on the child in the poster? There, you've captured the entire movie in a nutshell.)

What's funny is that the other big work by Mike Carey, was the comic Lucifer.



Which was also translated, into the pseudo-detective television series Lucifer.


Whereas this interpretation is the complete opposite, throwing out the major storylines and the sacred tone of the comic for something completely different. And it is glorious. Lucifer here is a sort of super-slick deity in the sense of nothing in the world affects him, and he only intervenes out of a sense of boredom. It's a detective show where half of every episode is spent convincing the Deus ex Machina to even care. I don't even know what I'm watching, or that I could recommend it, but it's different in a totally fantastic way.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Teenagers... With Attitude!?



The new Power Rangers movie is fine. It's pretty good even. If you want a modern tale of Breakfast Club-like diversity with DCU style cinematography and imagery choice, dealing with the current social and economic issues facing kids (in this case autism, caregiving, helicopter parents), then you're all set.

But if you want those things, you'll get them more and better just watching Chronicle.


This isn't a callow observation. The first half of the movie was pleasant reminiscence of the exact same style in Chronicle, and since I liked both movies, it's just fun to have more of. But a good reminder to go watch Chronicle.

Really all you get from Power Rangers above that in Haim Saban fan service, and Rita Repulsa.

The fan service is real. And not even inelegant. Of particular note was the reinterpretation where Zordon is semi-villainous, and Rita is a rogue Green Ranger, who has some pretty legitimate grievances against Zordon, that parallel the modern day Ranger's own problems with him and team building.

And Rita, cartoonish as ever, drips with a visceral intimacy. Low bar, but she's still a more engaging villain than anyone in the MCU. So if Enchantress and Harley Quinn weren't enough for you, you can buy the ticket to see this weird combination of them.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Logan: Review

Logan, the final Wolverine movie, was first introduced with a tone-perfect trailer that matched Johnny Cash music to the painful decay of an old warrior, called into battle one last time to protect a young girl. It hit the cultural moment just right, and like many trailers, worked well as a movie all by itself.


The actual movie was completely different from this. Full spoilers below the cut.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

They Live on Compassion

I finally got around to watching "They Live", a classic of eighties Leftist cinema. There's a lot to pick apart in this movie and reflect upon.

For starters, the glasses as the central object in this movie, that when you put them on show you the hidden authoritarian messages underlying popular culture are well worthy of analysis. In fact this is one of the very first bits in Zizek's "Pervert's Guide to Ideology" movie.

"According to our common sense we think that ideology is something blurring, confusing our straight view. Ideology should be glasses which distort our view, and the critique of ideology should be the opposite - like, you take off the glasses so that you can finally see the way things really are. This precisely, and here the pessimism of the film, of They Live is well justified, this precisely is the ultimate illusion: ideology is not simply imposed on ourselves. Ideology is our spontaneous relationship to our social world - how we perceive each meaning and so on and so on. We in a way enjoy our ideology. To step out of ideology - it hurts. It's a painful experience. You must force yourself to do it."

And the glasses really hurt (they also give a high if worn too long.) Even the rebel television signal trying to break through the mind control rays hurts. It's a little thing that isn't plot relevant and just conveys the themes of "breaking out of complacency" well.

Notably, the biggest fight scene of the entire movie, a prolonged set piece that was considered ground breaking at the time, is just a fight between the protagonist and his best friend to get him to try on some glasses. Leading to one of Zizek's most famous memes:

NADA (in movie): Either put on these glasses, or you're going to be eating out of that trash can! 
ZIZEK (as commentator): I already am eating out of a trash can. And the name of that trash can is ideology!

They Live also makes good use of setting to explain its ideas, rather than exposition. You have the hobo camp and the church and the underground gun distribution showing what sort of forces exist in opposite to capitalism. But also when they use the alien watch to "drop into" the tunnels beneath the city, it's using the same imagery as many other movies (Brazil, Matrix, Lucky Number Slevin, etc) of the machinery below surface society that supports it, the actual ugly reality underneath everything. These tunnels connect the shoot out of rebel HQ, the elites dining in celebration at the takeover, the spaceport to the whole alien-cosmopolitan sphere, and the TV station broadcasting their signal.

(Below is the 8 minute making of They Live short. It's good insight into Carpenter's aesthetic choices for the various actors and sets.)



It's a little disturbing how the "enemy" are ugly aliens who are revealed as hiding in society, and whom John Nada can massacre with no moral regret. This has led to some commentators claiming it's an allegory about Jews secretly running the world, which Carpenter has vigorously denied, but it's never good when your logic is close enough to the Nazis that you need to deny agreement (or fall back on authorial intent.)

But it's the nuances attitude towards the other humans that I want to discuss today. Holly, played by Meg Foster, is such a subtle figure in this movie. She provides the normal romantic chemistry with Nada, but their three scenes follow a very different path than the "production of the couple" Hollywood story.

In the two minutes of their second scene together, there's real sensitivity. Holly has seen the truth and is genuinely sad over almost killing John. He's glad to make a connection with someone who isn't an alien, and doesn't even think he's crazy. This woman now represents the innocent world he is fighting for! His hope of a happy ending, with true vulnerability and believe in him!

Except (in a twist familiar to fans of Utena), this victim believes the System is too powerful to fight, and betrays the heroes at the last minute.

HOLLY: Don't interfere. You can't win... Come inside with me.

She doesn't hate John or want him dead. She wants to offer him comforting security, back within the arms of the conspiracy. John must now choose between being with her and safety, versus attacking the transmitter antenna, breaking the masquerade, and immediately being shot by polices forces. He has nothing to gain from attacking the System anymore, not even to protect the helpless woman he cared for.

This calls to mind the debate over the ending of Star Wars Episode 6, and whether Vader rebelled in order to save the entire galaxy, or only his own son. "That kinda misses the radical dimension of the ending. Palpatine isn't phased by something as basic as compassion - he's employed tons of compassionate people, and that's not Luke's motivation." (Which of course Rogue One emphasizes - rather than love for a child being Galen Erso's connection to the Light Side, his attachment to his daughter is a way the Empire realizes it can use him to get more weapons.) Compassion is just one more of Kant's pathological incentives, incapable of being the foundation of a pure Act.

So They Live says that in overthrowing oppressive systems, even our compassionate instincts will be turned against us. John shoots Holly, turns around and destroys the antenna, having caused the death of everyone he cares about, but happy that he has saved the world. His very last gesture in life is giving the finger to cops looking on in horror. Was this spiteful vengeance, or heroic selflessness?

Rather than just eliminating the Jew-figure aliens, overthrowing the system will require the (hopefully few) deaths of innocent, normal people as well. What do we think of this? Is it just an excuse for continuing the eternal chain of violence, or is an admission that doing good is not simply a matter of beating up ugly aliens, but requires things that are much less pleasant.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Collected Philosophical Thoughts

Someone asked me to collect my non-movie philosophical thoughts and original content for easier reading. So I did!
This collects pieces from this here blog, as well as my tribalism blog and tumblr (reminder: those exist.) I’m still combing through tumblr and movie blog though, so if there are any posts you think are missing and should be up there, please let me know.