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. 
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


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


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.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Sherlock Finale

The BBC Sherlock series has finished its fourth season, which might be its last. The series has definitely had its ups and downs, and often there wasn't much worthwhile to critique.

But that last episode was the best Sherlock episode there has been, by far.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Horror Movie Recommendations

I don't usually recommend movies, but I don't really have the tools to analyze what are two very good movies. If you like, or can even stomach, gruesome horror you should really check these two out which have received extremely high critical acclaim.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Rogue One: Characters? Characters!

R1 is a polarizing movie, and of the biggest complaints seems to be its lack of characterization. For example:
The truth is that Rogue One commits the same sin as most modern action movies: there is too much action.
As a result, you can't really tell much about the characters, as they spent 95% of their time being shot at, shooting people, or running away from stuff. The characters certainly seemed serviceable enough, though I don't really remember their names or much about them.
But this isn't to pick on that blog, you've probably had similar conversations with your friends.

But this ignores that in an action movie, the action is the characterization. Part of what has made Star Wars so memorable hasn't been intricate monologues and flackbacks of backstory or other humanist fare, but rather extremely good and brief archetypes. Boba Fett is the epitome of this, but really you have Lando, Palpatine (in the OT), Tarkin, Greedo, Ewoks, Admiral Akbar, Wedge Antilles, General Grievous, Mace Windu, Boss Nash, even Jabba the Hutt. None of these are characters with a "rich backstory" but their character design and costume and appearance gave us a bright image that could stick with us. We don't know Boba Fett's internality, we just know that he is really cool.

Rogue One does this with the entire cast. It plays to Star Wars' strengths.

Image result for rogue one cast

As proof of concept, I'm going to list what we know about these "shallow" characters, just from the brief action they get.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017


The new Martin Scorsese film is as good as expected. In particular it delivers a vicious satire of Slatestarcodex's Archipelago (and modern non-political-multiculturalism), that sadly can't really be summarized in any way but seeing the film itself.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Rogue One: Review of Reviews

Walter Chaw's review of Rogue One:
It's beautifully shot and its action is clear--testament to Edwards's bona fides as an action director. It's about self-sacrifice for the greater good and, as in when these films were at their best, it's about human relationships and how positive ones inspire the best in us. There's a speech somewhere in the middle where someone says that when things seem darkest is not when we should surrender, but when we should fight the hardest. The word "hope" is the one bandied about the most. We've elected Presidents on "hope." "Hope," as a concept, is what defines who we wish to be, even as all this venal division and hatred reveals who we are. Hope was the last thing in Pandora's Box; some say it was the only thing. The film sketches its world and ours in terms of light and dark and suggests that it's painful to do the right thing, but it's still the right thing. We're powerful when we aspire to transcend what we are most easily. The picture makes an entreaty to the angels of our better natures.

Armond White's review of Rogue One:
In a tired attempt at making this Death Star battle a quasi-political allegory, Disney’s screenplay hacks (including Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy) cajole the Occupy generation with the phrase “Rebellion is built on hope” — uttered twice, as if Star Wars had not been appropriated by Reagan’s defense department but was now in sync with contemporary student protest. But it’s a deceptive, Machiavellian mantra. Rogue One isn’t sophisticated enough to see past the phrase’s falsehood or adult enough to dramatize the current administration’s betrayal of “hope and change” and how its media sycophants eventually lost public trust in hope or change. Rogue One’s juvenile politics recall how, in Revenge of the Sith (2005), Princess Amidala (Natalie Portman) whimpered, “So this is how liberty dies . . . with thunderous applause.” Liberal reviewers hailed the line as a rebuke of George W. Bush’s reelection.

SMG's commentary on both:
There's no real contradiction between White's leftism and his relatively conservative attitudes. 
White had extremely high praise for Edwards' previous (and similarly-themed) film, Godzilla. His criticism of Rogue One is that it isn't leftist enough; he views CG Princess Leia's appearance at the end as a straightforward endorsement of the liberal Rebellion To Restore The Republic.  
And I think that's a fair interpretation that simultaneously misses the key theme of exploitation of the authentic left by liberals. The nuance of the phrase "rebellions are built on hope" is that the rebels aren't the good guys. They are the Obamas of the galaxy, taking advantage of other people's hopes, building their republic on the backs of the people.  
White shares this interpretation, but simply asserts that the film doesn't do enough to criticize these caped elites, with their gold butlers.
To be very clear: Armond White's very accurate concern, with Rogue One, is that it is easily appropriated by the unselfaware liberals who still perceive themselves as the underdog heroes. 
As White points out in his review of Allied, there's a persistent liberal fantasy of being the last heroes holding back the nazi hordes. Some end-of-history horseshit.
So you need to be careful. Unless read carefully, Rogue One can be - and has been - facilely appropriated as a pro-Hillary narrative. A paperclip to add to the lapel of those who declare Trump the next Hitler and fantasize that roving gangs of redneck stormtroopers are going to lynch Muslim women in the streets. 
See Walter Chaw's review: "[Krennic is] engaged in a kind of political double-speak, in gaslighting--things that until this year were the scourge of banana republics and other backwards backwaters. [...] In a very real way, Rogue One (and much of Disney's recent output) is like Disney's WWII propaganda work. In terms you can understand: Stop it before it's too late. [...] The word 'hope' is the one bandied about the most. We've elected Presidents on 'hope.'"  
My italics. Chaw does not mean this in a critical way. He's straightforwardly praising the film as pro-Obama propaganda from the Disney corporation.
So Jyn - a former insurgent fighting imperialism in space-Iraq, currently an escaped convict - is held up as a Hillary figure. She's presumed to be an American democrat - because she's a girl, right? People assumed the same about Rey and FN: they must be liberals and democrats because of their identities. 
That is what White is responding to.


Having a good discussion about ideology on Tumblr.

I'd should emphasize that this "ideology is contradiction" is part of what makes the Prequels so good.

As we know, most ideological systems are obsessed with a pre-lapsarian past, some Garden of Eden, where everyone was harmonious, before the bad guys ruined it with their excessive greed.

Now a critic can easily point to the factual details, and say "no the 1950's had plenty of problems, there were racial tensions and Cold War paranoia after all and..." as a way to empirically dismantle American traditionalist ideology. And golden pasts are so rare in our history that you could be sure to always find some way to context their details, as a way of critiquing a particular ideology (be it racist, or Capitalist, or Nazi, or liberal ideology.)

But, by operating purely in fiction, the Prequels attempt something much bolder. They say even in the most convenient fantasy of our minds, this myth of a harmonious past is unworkable. Fans dreamed about how awesome the Republic was for twenty years, but since it necessarily had to fail, then it could not have been that great. There must have been serious problems if it became the Empire.

(Or maybe Lucas intended to draw a perfect past, spoiled only by one mischievous Sith Lord. It just so happens that depicting this in detail was impossible, and so the attempt to do so revealed its internal contradictions.)

Friday, January 6, 2017

Rogue One: From a Certain Point of View

This comment from yesterday's post is a good opportunity to talk about class and perspective.

The OT is told from the perspective of the protagonist heroes, who are the aristocratic elite heroes, saving the Galaxy in Great Man of History style. They see the bad guys like Tarkin and Vader as roughly opposite-equals.

The PT is told from the perspective of Chancellor Palpatine, a cynical all-knowing point of view that is mostly laughing at the idiocy of everyone else, both the "heroes" and his own pawns, but especially the lowest class scrubs like Jar Jar.

Rogue One is told from the perspective of the low-class grunts. We've got the orphan jailbird, the jailbroken droid, the begging monk, and a space trucker pilot. None of them have midichlorians, or the fastest ship in the Galaxy, or political influence - and they're aware that the people above them make the real decisions and are much more frightening.

Some of this means that their perspective on the aristos is one of awe and terror. Which is how the weird CGI actors fit in so well, or rather don't. Tarkin and Leia and Vader are obscene, other-worldly intrusions with their computer generated difference. They are too smooth for this rough world. This mimics the weird distortion when you and your colleagues are having a normal day and oh shit someone super-famous walks in.

From the perspective of the grunts, these aristos have a lot more in common with each other - note the repeated fashion choice for the upper class of "all white with a small cape". Krennik vs Mothma is Space Jeb vs Space Hillary.

Image result for rogue one krennic Image result for rogue one mothma

But the other thing the working class sees in their managers is how stupid and petty they are. So instead of these chilling board room dramatics we got in A New Hope, now we just see the top brass whining at each other over their various power plays and excuses. They're jokes and we're supposed to laugh along as Tarkin humiliates Krennik, until we realize that these insecurities will cost thousands of lives.

This continues the tradition of Rogue One being a war-movie, or rather, a war-novel like Catch-22, where the average soldier views the decisions and political maneuvers of the officers with satirical disdain.

EDIT: One of the best ways to identify the point of view in a movie is which character is the most competent.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Rogue One: We Got Death Star

Rogue One also provides a good opportunity to ask "What Is a Death Star?"

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Rogue One: Fathers

Not only does this movie invite comparison to the other recent Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, but the heavily marketed white female protagonists (with slight British accents*) invite comparison with each other. There are some really interesting story telling in the differences between them.

Image result for rey poster Image result for jyn poster

Monday, January 2, 2017

Rogue One: We Need to Talk About Galen

Rogue One doesn’t leave audiences arguing about much, but one point of contention is the role of Galen Erso. Galen was the leading scientist on the Empire’s greatest weapon of mass destruction, and the Rebellion and the Empire alike treat him as necessary for its development - but Galen insists that it would have been without him anyway (and that working on it allowed him to sabotage the project from within.) We must confront this unpleasantness before moving to our discussion of the themes of fathers and god.

Yes, Galen was responsible for the Death Star.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Just A Reminder

Going through old SMG posts about the Prequels, I saw this image again.

What's that in the lower right quadrant?

Enhance. Lower. Enhance again.

Senatorial Sex-Droid Escorts are canon.

Rogue One: Chain

There's a lot more to say about Rogue One than The Force Awakens, so this blog will hopefully spend the week scratching the surface of this weird, profound, deviation in the Star Wars franchise.

Let's start with explaining the quote from last week:

“We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it."
- Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard

Mikey on Grand Budapest Hotel

Yeah, a second review of his in a row that's worth watching. Keep sticking to the filmic aspects, man.