Apocalypse: A Long Time Ago and Very Far Away

Art, Culture, Media, Movies, Uncategorized

There aren’t many problems Hollywood couldn’t solve by hiring me to fix all of their scripts. Now, as a caveat: I really enjoyed The Last Jedi. It was fun. It had three really good performances. It was often visually arresting. But it wasn’t good, and that’s because it had a lousy screenplay. So here, spoilers, I’m going to fix it for them.

The good story is Benicio del Toro’s character, who a lot of folks disdained as a needless B-plot distraction, a weird device met at random in search of a different device, trusted for no reason by a couple of other characters, and hauled through forty minutes of distraction only to peter out in an anticlimactic recapitulation of the Lando Calrissian bait-and-switch from Empire. But Benicio is interesting, and not only because he has a huge screen presence that entirely outshines the dim John Boyega and the desperately underwritten Kelly Marie Tran. Hey, he says, you cruel, violent idiots, Rebels and First Order, have been grinding the galaxy beneath your endless stupid war since the Rebellion and Empire ground the galaxy beneath its endless and stupid war thirty fucking years ago! And he’s right.

That, of course, is also the interesting—and abandoned—idea underneath the Kylo/Rey relationship, the other good performances here: that Kylo is not entirely bad, and Rey is not entirely good. That there’s a spark between them, some frisson, a kind of passionate compassion. That a thousand generations of elder conflict seem suddenly gray and less-than-heroic due to the telepathic instragramming of a conflicted millennial and her fuccboi counterpart.

Well, here’s how you’d make a good movie out of it. You’d start it in the same place: the rebels on the run and the order in pursuit, but you’d rewrite the pairings. Poe Dameron, this series’ Han Solo, is in desperate need of a romantic foil. He is the one who’s grown disillusioned with the Rebellion, with imperious Leia and her stupid orders, with the endless battles he’s called upon to fight, with his friends who keep dying for no reason, to no end. He is the one who’s angry at the loss of all those heroes in the attack on the dreadnaught: good men and women, comrades in arms. This makes his pairing with Rose, a true believer, on a last-ditch effort to find one guy, who turns out to be Benicio, really work; this gives it tension: Poe and Rose are deeply attracted to one another, and she thinks he’s a hero, but he is wracked by doubt and really wants to run away. And when, at last, Benicio shows him that the same guys are selling weapons to both sides of this terrible war, it breaks him, setting up his arc for the next inevitable movie.

Finn is paired up with Leia, the Phasma-less acolyte finding a new matriarch into whom he can pour his new-found zealotry. Leia has been hardened and radicalized by forty years of war. She’ll risk it all; she’ll do anything, compromise anything to win. She is the one who sends Poe and Rose on the suicide mission. Luke is gone; Han is gone; she has nothing to live for but the war. Finn is her Ren; she operates in parallel to the evil Supreme Leader. She’s Picard from First Contact, a powerful Ahab whose many losses to the Empire and First Order have hardened her. She’s a general, not a princess. Laura Dern (or, as she should be known in-universe: Vice Admiral Lorah Durn), is the call-back to the original Princess Leia: noble but kind; a hopeful realist. Her big role isn’t coming until the next movie anyway.

Luke, Rey, and Ren are all the same. Luke is defeated and broken. Rey and Ren are powerful but lost, the children of failed teachers and parents who both sense that the orthodoxies of the older generations are a lie.

The plot works the same way, except it’s Leia who sends Poe and Rose on the probably suicidal mission to find the guy who ends up being Benicio del Toro (Lorah Durn thinks it’s a baaaaad idea). We end the film with the rebels on the run, getting picked off one by one. Luke is back on his island moping. Kylo Ren still kills Snoke; he and Rey still fight the red samurai dudes; Ren says to Rey, “Join me, and we’ll start anew.” She says no. “You’re nobody,” he said, “but not to me.” He reaches out his hand. She hesitates for just a moment, and then she takes it. Cut to credits.

Simulacra and Simian

Art, Movies

Ape . . . not . . . kill . . . ape . . . unless . . . situational . . . ethical . . . concerns . . . dictate . . . a . . . temporary . . . revision . . . of . . . practical . . . application . . . of . . . apes’ . . . moral . . . code. I suppose it lacks the declarative grandeur of the more abbreviated thou-shalt-not, but it has the more singular advantage of being accurate. That Whatever of the Planet of the Apes finds itself praised as a great movie, a great scifi movie, or even just a pretty good summer action flick for what it’s worth is testimony mostly to just what a lot of lousy crap Hollywood puts out these days. At least the Marvel flicks are buoyed—most of them—by a degree of humor and insouciant pleasure at bringing a grab-bag of oddball superpowers to life; Planet of the Apes is dour, rain-soaked, and cod-epic: grim, overlong, humorless, and suffused with an utter weariness that comes to life only when it butts up against an even more boring stuffing of cliché.

What was it that Chekov said? If in the first act there’s a moral precept on the wall, then in the second or third act there’d better be a father vowing crazy revenge? I dunno. A global pandemic of MacGuffins has rendered humanity nearly extinct and apes, or at least, a cadre of apes, super smart. I am quite convinced that our childrens’ generations will regard our belief that laboratory viruses will perform such dubious miracles with the same amused contempt we reserve for the giant atomic insects of the 1950s. The apes have decamped from San Francisco to Muir Woods, and despite the fact that there are hundreds or thousands of apes and hundreds or thousands of surviving humans not twenty miles apart, they’ve gone ten years without noticing one another. Then they happen upon each other. Violence ensues. The Leninite apes overthrow the Trotskyite apes in a manufactured coup that image-checks the Reichstag fire. I shit you not. The whole thing would be a glorious hash if it managed a single joke over its geologic running time. The preceding are not jokes, by the way. They’re carried off with the gravity of a Bayreuth production of Parsifal.

Briefly—and I suppose these are spoilers, if you’re an idiot—the movie takes as its central principle that in acquiring human intelligence, so too have the apes acquired our human flaws. Their society is destined to recapitulate our own. Four legs good, two legs bad, but some animals are more . . . oh, fuck it. The apes, in living memory the captive medical test subjects of we vicious, baldy simians, don’t trust us and have an interest in self-preservation. There are good guys on both sides whose efforts to broker a peace are doomed to fail because of the plot of the movie. “If . . . no . . . inevitable . . . conflict . . . then . . . no . . . third-act . . . CGI . . . battle . . . scene,” the apes’ soon-to-be-deposed leader grunts at one moment. I thought it was a little weird that they included that line in the script, but hey, you know. What do the kids say these days? That’s so meta? Personally, I thought it was pretty ratchet.

By the way, the bad evil ape is a scarred victim of torture. Needless to say, he is an Insane Psycho Killer, as are all victims of torture, as well as all disfigured people. One of the glories of cinematic science fiction is that it permits us to recreate the phenotypological shorthand for moral character content that out-of-control political correctness ruined in art and literature, sometime between Dickens and the Civil Rights Movement, if my facts are correct. The noble appear noble, the evil are orcs, and you can’t trust a man in glasses.

The movie is supposed to be a new revolution in CGI, but in fact is back in Jurrasic Park territory, ape feet that don’t quite seem to touch the ground and fur that doesn’t quite move in the wind or rain. An early stampede of elk–these, too, are computer-generated–is especially appalling. The big orangutan’s face manages to fool you most of the time, but only because the architecture of an orangutan face is alien enough that the human eye has a hard time detecting its fakeness; the more human-standard chimps and gorillas look ridiculous. As hokey as the prostheses in prior runs around this particular fictive property now appear to us, this is worse. Small inconsistencies are often worse than big ones. An overabundant realism makes it impossible to suspend your disbelief.

Anyway, this movie is bad, but it’s so emblematic of a prototypical American cultural attitude toward conflict. “Poor Africa.” “The situation in the middle east.” “President Obama needs to be tougher on Putin.” It imagines war as fundamentally gestural, a signifier rather than a graveyard. Oh, if only two leaders could learn to trust each other, then the underlying questions of land and resources could all be banged out. Alas, evil monkey and Gary Oldman can’t get along. Yeah, yeah. Meanwhile, the apes launch a frontal infantry-and-cavalry assault on a fortified position, which would be crazy were it not for the fact that apparently the humans left the armory undefended? Boy, apparently the Simian Bird Flu also genocided common sense. As it hauls itself out of its climactic battle, the movie leaves one deep philosophical question unanswered. Could a chimpanzee really survive an uncontrolled vertical fall of greater than fifty feet onto a platform of steel rebar and remain effectively unharmed? Reader, the answer to that question is also the answer to the question of whether or not you should see this movie.

Theme: Amazing

Media, Movies, The Life of the Mind

Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive opens with blood-red titles in a font I will call Third Reich Martin Luther Sans Serif against a very slowly rotating star field. The text is so remarkably crisp at the edge and the rotation so leisurely that the impression is of words floating out of a deep field into your eyeballs, the sort of three-dimensional effect that none of the bogus 3D efforts of the last several regrettable years in cinema history has managed to accomplish. The opening credits disappear. The stars revolve more quickly, resolving into a spinning short play record. The pace is—I use the word advisedly—majestic; it’s languorous. There’s a point to this. I’ll get there in a moment.

Spiderman The Amazing Man 5 opens with a scene from Television’s Revenge. The reboot has retooled/retconned Peter Parker’s father into a sort of whistleblowing scientist for the Oscorp corporate octopus whose various executives and research mishaps are the source of all woe in the Spideyverse. It isn’t an inherently bad idea, although it could have all been sketched with a few lines of dialogue rather than shot as a broadcast-quality teaser episode on a fake-looking Gulfstream set. It’s all loud, cheap, and makes very little sense. Cut to hectic scene of Spiderman doing his thing and Paul Giamatti getting, if not earning, a paycheck.

You might say it’s unfair to compare the films, because one is a zillion-dollar tentpole blockbuster and the other is a stately art flick. In fact, one of the things I like about Jarmush’s picture is that it really isn’t an art flick; if stylized, then it’s still a genre flick, full of plenty of fun tropes pulled from every other vampire movie ever, including some pretty hilarious digs at the old Interview with a Vampire rock star conceit. I mean that as a compliment. Even its goofy literary references are as clunky as you’d find in a costumed flashback on The Vampire Diaries. Ohhh, Byron. Ohhhh, Marlowe. I choose to believe this was intentional. The movie is slow and quiet, but never not trashy fun.

Look, really, I’m not going to go to the trouble of reviewing either film. I’m only interested in a particular and pretty technical comparison of how to render a particular aspect of sense and consciousness in a filmic medium, and what it is that this says about a good movie versus a bad. Both movies, you see, have to find solutions to the question of how to display, on a practical level, superhuman sensitivity and sensory perception. Marc Webb, of Spiderman, does this in the same rote and over-produced manner as every other action movie that’s contemplated the question in recent memory. He slows down the frame, then the not-actual digital eye of the non-camera moves through the rendered images to record all those things that Spidey would notice with his Spidey sense. Sometimes, zip-zoom-boom, the whole thing then re-transpires at normal speed. Yawn. Chewing sounds from the audience. The collection of red pixels that is the movie’s star bounces around some more.

In Only Lovers, by contrast, the whole affair is deliberate and slow—also, very quiet, other than the music. When the rare outside sound intrudes—a group of nosy fans outside Tom Hiddleston’s vampire dump, a soda can opening and cutting a man’s finger on a plane—it registers so deeply against the quiet, and so intensely on the faces of Hiddleston and Swinton, our vampire pair, that we in the audience experience it in the same three dimensions as we experience those red letters against that background of stars. If you think of those times when you’ve watched TV late at night—you can’t sleep, but as the hours tick till morning, you find that the volume becomes oppressively loud, so you turn it down, only to find a few minutes later that the feeling’s returned, so you turn it down again—you have some idea of the sensitivity this implies; the weird feeling of noting everything. The effect is subtle and clear, and it renders the characters as simultaneously supernatural and real.

Only Lovers is 120 slow minutes that seem to be over the moment they’ve begun; Spidercorps 2: Not Without My Aunt May is 140 fast minutes that seem interminable. These are both schlock films about mythological creatures, but one of them is good. Its director and its stars give us time to notice; noticing is engagement; engagement is participation; participation is enjoyment; enjoyment is joy, which is why we go to the goddman movies in the first place, no?

Sometimes You Eat the Bear and Sometimes the Bear Tortures, Rapes, and Murders Your Entire Family for No Particular Reason ¡Boobs!

Art, Books and Literature, Culture, Movies

Game of Thrones is supposed to belong to a post-Tolkienian form of fantasy that dispenses with the pewter trappings of the high-fantastic sword-and-sorcery formula, where, in Miéville’s game, funny description, “morality is absolute, and political complexities conveniently evaporate. Battles are glorious and death is noble. The good look the part, and the evil are ugly. Elves are natural aristos, hobbits are the salt of the earth, and – in a fairyland version of genetic determinism – orcs are shits by birth. This is a conservative hymn to order and reason – to the status quo.” The GoT series’ creator, George R.R. Martin, obviously and self-confessedly mined actual history as inspiration—he notably cites the War of the Roses as a source.

As literature, his writing is no better than Tolkien. If Tolkien is, per Miéville, “like opera without the music,” then Martin is Tom Clancy without the helicopters. Workmanlike would be too much praise by half. But, like Tolkien, Martin manages despite the sentence-by-sentence weakness of his work, to maintain an impressively consistent air. Tolkien’s was dread and doom; Martin’s is fear and gloom. To his credit, his most beautiful and noble (in the genealogical sense) characters are often the ugliest and most irredeemably evil and cruel. He is a misogynist, but his misogyny is at least in service of his deliberate atmosphere of unrelenting brutality, unlike Tolkien, whose Pre-Raphaelite maidens gaze virginally out of their frames while fey, faygeleh menfolk seem ever on the verge of the wrestling scene from Women in Love.

Martin’s fantasy world is distinguished by its impossibly long seasons, each lasting many years, and there’s at least some passing mention of storing up food for the long winter that approaches. HBO’s version effectively forgot about this peculiarity of its fictive setting once it killed off the majority of its Northerners—the nobly flawed Stark family’s motto (its “words”, in the in-universe terminology) were, in fact, “Winter Is Coming.” That’s fine. The show’s first season was pretty good TV, an improvement, if you ask me, over Martin’s turbid and overlong volumes, and it helped that it had a compelling central plot. Good art is frequently made not in spite of formal constraints, but because of them. Martin’s York-and-Lancaster framework keeps the story from wandering too far into the weeds. The bad guys, such as they are, win in the end, which subverts the genre but not the narrative; in fact, when the shock of it passes, it feels inevitable, which is a mark of good storytelling.

Subsequent seasons have dissipated into a series of parodically violent picaresques with occasional jump-cuts to various scenes of sub-Verdian scheming nobility. I’ll leave aside, for the moment, the white girl, her brown army, and her three dragons on the other side of the world. By its end, the third season resembled nothing so much as the Black Knight sequence from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, though carried off with such an air of dourly amoral self-seriousness that I half expected Kevin Spacey to stop into the capital’s whorehouse and mention his Congressional campaign. The level of violence is cartoonishly absurd; I mean, we are in, like, Itchy and Scratchy territory, here. At one point, a warrior woman fights a bear. It isn’t meant as a punch line, yuk-yuk, but it is.

Now, as we enter the fourth season, the overwhelming question is: how do these people eat? Fiction, of course, necessarily dispenses with plenty of fundamentals of actual existence in order to force life into its linear format, and no one, not even Houellebecq, wants to write a novel in which everyone spends all of their time opening doors, sleeping, pooping, and remembering that they need to buy mouthwash and paper towels on the way home. But the world of Game of Thrones is meant, despite its fantasy-genre affect, to feel lived-in and real. No one stops to wonder, amidst the depopulated and desolate marches of Middle Earth, how Rohan gets all that meat and mead, any more than they do in the middle of Beowulf, but it is impossible, as we wander into one more Westerosi tavern, rape all of the women, kill the cook, and burn down the village, just how on earth these people, from peasants to princes, manage to fill their bellies from time to time.

The portrait of feudal society as unremittingly violent and bleak, a never-ending, failed-state, crypto-Hobbesian war of all against all, is the really fantastical element of all this, far more so than a trio of squabbling adolescent dragons. This is not to say that Europe between Rome and the Enlightenment was a Hobbit-y idyll, verdant and free of war, plague, and exploitation. It was not. And yet, this fundamentally agrarian society lasted for a millennium, with the various forms of feudalism as social mechanisms for organizing productive land and the Church, for all its earthly corruptions and abuses, serving a complementary social organizing role. What is the manor, after all, if not a farm? Lords may have exploited their peasantry, overworked them, and taken too large a share of the crop, but they didn’t devote quite so much time and effort to randomly and wantonly terrorizing, raping, and murdering them, because, after all, who else is going to till the fields? Warfare in medieval Europe was limited due to primitive technology and low population, but also by the demands of the fields. It would not do to destroy all of the farms. The fundamental activity of this society was feeding itself, not, I don’t know, not mindlessly murdering everybody all the time in incoherent wars of dynastic succession. Game of Thrones makes the very worst excesses of the Crusades an hourly occurrence, an entire civilization an unrelenting, pre-mechanized Stalingrad.

The criticism of Game of Thrones—that it is a violent, sexist, rape-fantasy farrago whose fantastical-historical setting is little more than moral excuse-making for the fact that it wants naked women to beat each other with spiked clubs—is now wholly correct. The proof of this is in the fact that it has not the slightest interest in engaging with or depicting an actually realized world. How many times must it be said: realism is not the quality of set design. Nothing about this world makes any sense, unless the world is taken only as a convenient exercise in excuse-making for the dullest sort of murder-rape fantasy. Its setting is a moral excuse constructed solely to absolve viewers of their own interest in a pornography of sexualized bloodshed. Even a show as crassly, unnecessarily gory as The Walking Dead, for all its silliness and perversity, challenges its audience with some vague hint of complicity; there, but for the grace of the fact there is no such thing as a zombie apocalypse, go we. Game of Thrones just gives an otherworldly hall pass to our own unseemly tastes.


UPDATE: Commenter Patrick links a great post from cool Tumblr People of Color in European Art History that covers similar territory, and better.

Life, Satisfaction, Help, Comfort, Refuge, Healing, Redemption, Forgiveness, Atonement, Relief and Salvation

Art, Culture, Media, Movies, Religion

The mind may sort it out and give it names—
When a man dies he dies trying to say without slurring
The abruptly decaying sounds. It is true
That only flesh dies, and spirit flowers without stop
For men, cows, dung, for all dead things; and it is good, yes—

But an incarnation is in particular flesh
And the dust that is swirled into a shape
And crumbles and is swirled again had but one shape
That was this man. When he is dead the grass
Heals what he suffered, but he remains dead,
And the few who loved him know this until they die.

-Galway Kinnell, from “Freedom, New Hampshire”

The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman has been met in equal parts by deservedly effusive praise for the man’s art and the bizarre, prurient, voyeuristic, and pornographic interest in the particulars of his demise by apparent opiate overdose; heroin remains one of the few real taboos left, one of the few almost unspeakable deviancies, and, as such, some people just can’t stop talking about it. The prolific internet presence, General Gandhi, in his Twitter incarnation, noted maybe the most egregiously awful example, published in Esquire and Elle:

The sentence is pretty astonishingly tasteless on its own, but to appreciate the depth of its stupidity, you have to read it in context and realize that its author, Tom Junod, hasn’t just stumbled into a graceless or infelicitous comparison, but has deliberately and knowingly set up a pair of competing schemas: on the one hand, you have George Clooney and Matt Damon, who “have too much to lose,” and are therefore psychically and spiritually immune to the lure of addiction; on the other, you have Hoffman and Gandolfini, “whose work has the element of ritual sacrifice.” This kind of casual, causal linking of transgressive genius to substance abuse has the fetid scent of an adolescent bedroom. Put down your bongs, guys. This shit’s about to get real.

My brother died in 2009 in similar circumstances—not, as the ghoulish, now-standard description goes, “with a needle in his arm”, but alone in a cheap motel room that our parents had rented for him, because, when they’d allowed him into the house, he’d stolen, and yet by that point, he’d have otherwise been living in his car. But, you have to understand, the last six desperate months of his life were sudden and alien to him, and to us. He was far more Matt Damon than Hoffman: a handsome, athletic man with an unaffected smile and uncanny personal charm; old high-school teachers who’d given him nothing but Cs (when he probably deserved to fail) remembered him as one of their favorite students; old girlfriends never seemed to get angry with him. He bounced from job to job (a signal, in retrospect, but at the time, we saw it as an overly gregarious and under-focused twentysomething’s natural fecklessness and indecision; it would eventually correct itself). Mostly he bartended, and he was an excellent bartender. He was never much of a drinker—mostly wine and beer, and rarely in any quantity. Like a lot of bartenders and other such nocturnal creatures, he dabbled in cocaine. If you’d have asked me a year before he died what his biggest problem was, I’d have told you it was that he partied a little too often, although that, too, seemed like nothing more than the kind of mild, youthful vice that we all, mostly, grow out of.

In fact, my brother had been a daily opiate user for the better part of a decade. He never did finish college, but he spent a few years at West Virginia University, and as a freshman, he’d badly broken his leg during a game of pickup soccer. After the surgery, he’d started on pain killers, and when the prescription ran out, he got them elsewhere—codeine, oxy, and eventually, Fentanyl and heroin. I was anything but naïve about drugs myself; I’d at least tried most of them; my best friend struggled with heroin; my boyfriend at the time was a recovering alcoholic and drug addict—and for all this, I never saw it in my brother, never suspected, never knew until it was too late. He was locked in that motel room, and he was dead. Would Nathan Bacharach ever be found dead with a pile of broken pills hidden in the sock drawer?

I don’t suggest that we turn away from the circumstances of death—the opposite of pornography is a prudish sterility that’s equally awful. But if George Clooney died of prostate cancer, would we take the occasion to make it a reflection on the type of roles he chose? It is one thing to learn to gaze without flinching at the cause of a man’s death, another entirely to treat his illness as a mere foible of his eccentric genius. Hoffman had a family. They knew, or they did not know, the extent and late stage of his disease, but what consolation is it to them, or to anyone who knew him, for a stranger to offer his sickness as a slick metaphor for his professional artistry, a cheap window-dressing on his soul? An actor’s art is doubtlessly informed by his person and his inner being, and Hoffman doubtlessly drew on his own sense and memory of darkness in performing it, but he was a great actor not because of his addiction, but in spite of it, and he did not die because he was a genius, but because he was a man—all of us have our end, but none of us deserves it.

“I Shall Live”

Culture, Movies

Like so many of their films, Coen Brothers obscure but lovely new period piece, The Hobbit 2: The Desolation of Smaug, is both a shaggy dog story and an exercise in inertia, or more properly, a lack thereof. Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), a renowned figure of indeterminate but impressive background, lives alone, cloistered with a fortune of equally uncertain vintage, uninterested and otherwise withdrawn from the world outside. The “desolation” of the title is a fair portrait of his state of mind; like so many Coen protagonists, he is at once self-involved and depressed—his pomposity cohabits with anomie, and more than anything, he is suffused with an air of melancholy depression.

Indie filmmakers of a more ordinary Sundance-circuit variety might take this as the template for a quirky tale of mild uplift; surely a girl would be introduced, an indiepop score sounded; a homecoming home-come. The Coens, though, have darker interests. As was the case in A Serious Man, where they mischievously combined their own Midwestern Jewish upbringing with a pastiche-retelling of the Book of Job, here too their subject is Jewishness—in this case, they have chosen for their setting England in the mid-Nineteenth Century; indeed, there are startling echoes of Daniel Deronda throughout.

Like Deronda, Smaug is of some vaguely aristocratic extraction, perhaps having been fostered by another wealthy nobleman. His parentage is unclear. In an interesting twist on Eliot’s tale, Smaug’s love interest is not a beautiful young woman, but rather a midget homosexual circus performer, played with charm by an almost unrecognizable Martin Freeman. The two find themselves frequently harried by a phantasmagorical collection of Jewish gargoyles—Zionists with an eye on recapturing a homeland that may or may not have ever existed. The English, meanwhile, are equally grotesque, portrayed as a group of impossibly lovely but thoroughly effete, decadent, and largely closeted inverted racists. What other directors in the relative American mainstream would risk such stylistic outrageousness in this age of $200 million corporate sequels?

Again, as in A Serious Man, the Coens have created an ambiguous ending; and as was the case in Deronda, there is a hint that Smaug intends to “go east” as he departs the comfort of his longtime home. After True Grit, their appealing but relatively insubstantial 2010 Western, The Hobbit 2: The Desolation of Smaug represents a real return to form.

Schnell! Eeeeaaasssy. Um?

Culture, Economy, Media, Movies

I walked into Elysium a few minutes late, and Matt Damon was getting the beat-down from a robot, to whom he’d had the temerity to back talk. This robot was the only character in the film whose motivations were clear and whose actions were a function of its character. Nothing else made any sense.

In the future, an orbital post-scarcity society with the capacity to manipulate complex organic systems at the sub-molecular level maintains Fordist manufactories on Earth. Is it just to give the proles something to do? A single line of dialogue to the effect of, “We gotta keep them busy or they will revolt,” might have covered this flaw, although how an earthbound population could revolt against a well-armed space station, manifest numerical superiority or no, is quite a question, and in any case, most of the people on Earth don’t appear to have work, so there goes that theory. William Fitchner plays the vicious capitalist who runs this robot mill. He does most of his via computer terminal in a hermetically sealed office; naturally, we wonder: why is he on earth at all? Couldn’t he just Skype? Rather more to the point, in an orbital society capable of manipulating individual atoms, why is there still enterprise capitalism? Is it like contact sports, a vicious and anachronistic entertainment, practiced by only a few professionals, kept around for entertainment and kicks? Well, our industrialist suggests that it’s essential he get his company back to profitability, and he is willing to assist Jodie Foster in a coup to do so. Wait, wait, wait a minute. She offers him a 200-year contract to build Elysium’s missiles and robots. Does this not imply a competing firm, or firms? But there’s only one space station. How are these other firms in business? Who’s buying their robots and missiles? Am I going insane? What day is this?

The movie desires to be an allegory of illegal immigration, the hispanophone have-nots of a SoCal favela relentlessly throwing themselves over the Rio Grande of Near Earth Orbit in order to get to the better lives Elysium has to offer. Wait, what? Oh, no, I’m sorry. They’re going for miracle cures. Elysium doesn’t offer a better life. It just offers to fix your boo-boos. Three out of every four shiploads of immigrants gets blown to smithereens, so, like, it appears that you do not increase your chances of beating that cancer, if you consider the actual odds. Here again, the motivations are completely nonsensical, and needlessly so. We could understand people risking their lives to escape this wretched Earth in order to make a new life in space, but all evidence suggests that even those who get there and get their thyroid problems and sugar diabeetuss cleared up get deported right back to our little ball of pollution. Your cancer’s fixed, but you’re still going to starve to death. Hm.

Meanwhile, on Elysium, Jodie Foster plays a French fascist. Fascism, like capitalism, seems an odd ideology for a post-economic paradise, but I suppose assholes will always be with us. She plays some kind of secretary of defense, and she growls that the feckless leadership of Elysium is going to get them all killed, or something, despite the fact that everything on Elysium seems to be going absolutely swimmingly, and the few Earthers who do manage to crash land in this vast La Jolla in the sky appear to be swiftly rounded up and returned. Again and again and again, nothing about this world justifies her snarling aggression (nor her French, but I suppose it’s just meant to convey aristocratic awfulness, so we’ll laissez-faire).Why not make immigration a really confounding problem? The smugglers have figured out how to get hundreds, thousands of people onto Elysium. It’s upsetting the political order. They’re voting for OBAMA! The white peoples is gettin’ restless.  Jodie Foster seule pouvait eux sauver !

So Jodie Foster wants to take over Elysium for no reason, and she has William Fitchner rewrite the code for the Elysium operating system. Which he can do, because he or his company built it? Why is he in such desperate straits, then? Why is he bugging Jodie Foster for contracts? Why doesn’t he take over? I don’t know, I guess he read the script, and it says that he didn’t. He’s motivated by money in a world where money is irrelevant. Elysium has no stores, no ATMs. It’s just houses and swimming pools. Robots bring you champagne. At no point do we see any sort of transactional exchange, except of course when William begs Jodie for a contract. No one has a reason to do anything. William Fitchner goes to Earth, writes the magical spell to take over Elysium, and gets shot down by Matt Damon. Damon is dying because he got irradiated building robots in the factory that exists for no reason. Apparently this happens all the time, because they have a robot whose design features make it useful solely for the purpose of pulling irradiated humans out of a robot chamber. Yo, why didn’t you just send a robot into the radiation chamber in the first place, guys? No, Jim! You’ll flood the whole compartment! He’s dead already.

Anyway, Matt Damon and a gang of dudes who have kept Mazda 626s operational for two centuries shoot down his airplane. Matt Damon has been technologically augmented, and they download the shit into his brain. They unscramble it on the Dell desktop that I had in my office when I was an administrative assistant 10 years ago. Aw, shee-it, it’s the codes to do something. Argue argue. Run run run run run. Jodie Foster sends an augmented assassin whose motivation is that he fucking loves killing shit after Matt Damon. Eventually, everyone ends up on Elysium, because although this is the future and they are able to manipulate matter at the atomic level, if Jodie Foster is distracted for a sec, any asshole can just roll right through the gate, because Elysium’s automated systems read the script and realized that’s what they were supposed to do because of the plot. For no particular reason, the assassin stabs Jodie Foster in the neck with a piece of glass and decides that now he wants to rule Elysium. Has he ever even been to Elysium? Who cares? Jodie Foster bleeds to death on the floor in a closet with a woman who is only in this movie to prove that Matt Damon is not gay, even though Matt Damon is clearly gay; the only person with whom he has a convincing emotional connection is the sexy DL Latin thug car thief who is his best friend, who gets killed, and whose death is Damon’s one moment of actual pathos. These two obviously were boning, but don’t worry, look, there’s this woman!

So the movie kills its main villain in the middle of the last act for no reason, and then reminds you of the narrative senselessness of this act by occasionally cutting back to the room where Jodie Foster is literally lying dead under a tarp, which is the one allegory this movie gets right, except that it is an allegory for this movie. Then some shit happens, and then it turns out that there is no reason at all for the material privation and medical hopelessness on earth, and then the movie is over. I suppose there was some decent production design, in the sense that it all looked better than Star Wars Episode I. Foster does a fine villain, but her character makes so little sense that her performance was lost, and although Damon does the everyman with some skill, he gets lost as soon as the action starts. Bourne proved him a capable action hero in the hands of a capable action director. Here, alas, no.

Look, the future as an allegory for the present moment is effectively the whole point of science fiction, so the movie’s intentions were in the right place, but Blomkamp didn’t think about his concept. You don’t need a Tolkienian backstory to build a realistic fictional world, but consistency matters. If no one has any reason to do anything, or if they act constantly in contravention of their own apparent interests, then all an audience can do is be confused. The movie struggles to present its characters in the tradition of psychological realism. This may be the future, but these people are just like us, etc. etc. And yet, because everything these characters do is in the service of a story that ought not be taking place at all according to its own rules and logic, all these emotions and psychologies are rendered not more, but less real.

As I Indicated, Admiral, the Thought Had Not Occurred to Me

Art, Culture, Media, Movies

This review is going to reveal Benedict Cumberbatch’s “secret identity.” The quotation marks are there to indicate that his character is neither secret, nor has an identity, unless hard puncher counts as an identity. I bet you never in your wildest imagination thought that Star Trek would end like this, with Spock karate-chopping a bad guy on top of a flying garbage truck in the middle of a bad CGI Star Wars set? I mean, sure, Star Trek had plenty of punching, but geez, man, it’s like, it’s like as if you hired, oh, I don’t know, Baz Luhrmann to make the Great Gatsby and he made it all about parties and clothes and dancing. Oh. Oh.

Like everything Damon Lindelof gets his hands on, Star Trek Subtitle Using Variation on the Word Dark begins with a MacGuffin, muddles into a non sequitur, and ends in a mess. Who hires this guy? My own editor noticed that a draft of my novel twice used fiancé instead of girlfriend, so presumably there’s someone, somewhere who could have read the script and told Lindelof and Abrams that none of this makes any sense. They could have very easily called back the original “Space Seed” episode, set it along the Klingon neutral zone at a moment of high tension when the Federation was searching for a strategic military advantage and had a fine, intelligent movie that also had punching, Klingons, and space battles. You could have had Khan as an object of fear, reverence, and intrigue. Kirk admires his prowess and poise; McCoy his immunological whatever; Spock his astonishing intellect; Uhura his, uh, substantial Cumberbatch. He would divide them and conquer them, but then, rediscovering their bonds of friendship and duty, the crew would defeat him, because there is no eugenically superior superman in TEAM. And hell, you could even throw in a necessary tactical alliance with the Klingons to set the stage for the Cold War plot that was the backbone of the Klingon storyline in TOS and the original films.

Instead. Now look, I’m going to spare you the “Where are the orbital defenses?” and “How come the Klingons didn’t detect ‘em on the long range scanners?” I’m gonna spare you the “How far away is Kronos even at high warp?” and “What’s the effective range on that communicator again?” You may, after all, think that the main storytelling conceit of Star Trek is faster-than-light travel, but really, the main conceit is that a spacefaring civilization resembles Britain, each planet an island, its Starfleet, literally, and Admiralty. Forget all that. Despite its science fiction trappings, Star Trek is really a procedural drama. Starfleet is just its convenient institution.

Yes, you heard it here first. The man who owes Gene Roddenberry the greatest debt is Dick Wolf. Star Trek is the weekly tale of people working within an institution. This, by the way, is also its principal connection to political liberalism—not its easily-dispensed-with humanism nor its integrated crew; rather, its commitment to a universe run, for the better, by enlightened bureaucrats. The prototypical Star Trek plot is a conundrum—cultural, technological, legal—that must be solved through the application of area expertise within the confines of organizational rules and the occasional call of a higher morality or duty. It’s Law and Order in space. Act 1: unexplained thing. Act 2: investigation and preliminary diagnosis. Act 3: unexpected difficulty, delay, or complication, sometimes compounded by institutional resistance. Act 4: renewed investigation, sometimes unorthodox, leading to unexpected solution. Act 5: resolution, explanation.

People and institutions exist in Abrams’ & Lindelof’s reimagined universe, but they’re just sort of there, clogging the frame until the next face punch. I don’t object to action in Star Trek; but I do object to getting rid of the old two-fister:

As with CGI, advances in fight choreography have proceeded right past the point of more gripping physical realism and into the realm of the unbelievably hyper-real. The action is so fast, the movement so “kinetic,” to borrow the Hollywood usage, that it appears faker than the stagey fisticuffs of the old TV series. These guys are naval officers, right? Not ninjas. They pilot starships; this isn’t The Matrix. Hey, remember this little rebooted show called Battlestar Galactica, how it imagined a really gripping sort of space combat—before, anyway, it got bogged down in crackpot Lindelofian metaphysics? Remember Star Trek: First Contact. Yeah, it sucked, but the opening skirmish with the Borg vessel was pretty damn cool, AMIRIGHT? Well, whatever. Let’s just have these guys run down some hallways with guns and punch each other.

So the camera certainly moves around a lot, but there’s nothing doing. Dialogue is declaimed against a clamoring background of exploding noise, and when it does rise to the level of your noticing, it’s less the sound of voices than the smell of ham. “You are my superior officer. You are also my friend. I have been and always shall be yours,” Spock tells Kirk at the beginning of The Wrath of Khan. It is a quiet moment that comes back at the very end of the movie without a flashing arrow; here, it’s all shouted above the din. “YOU ARE MY FRIEND! WE ARE FAMILY!” It’s a disco inferno. Any pathos is in any event squished beneath the steamroller of incomprehensible plot developments, as Khan is first a terrorist, then a fugitive, then a pawn, then maybe a terrorist again, then fighting Spock on a flying thingamajig. Kirk does nothing of consequence, which is just as well, because Chris Pine, while serviceable, is no match for Benedict’s genetic, uh, endowment. Zach Quinto is a better actor, but because he never convincingly fell in love with Kirk or Khan, his jilted anger is incongruous at best. And once more for the cheap seats, it appears to take place deep within the CPUs of Skywalker Ranch.

It’s all a terrible waste of good production design and some nice costume choices (love that hat, Zach; CALL ME). Meanwhile, I know we are meant to believe that the immense crap funnel of our current cinema to be an undistorted reflection of our culture’s degraded taste, and that may be so, but I yet believe that if we must have junk, it can at least taste sweeter and not smell so awfully past its expiration date.

100 Miles and Runnin’

Culture, Movies, Plus ça change motherfuckers

Everyone is all like, Daniel Craig is the best James Bond evar! Except, of course, for Daniel Craig, who is a fine actor and knows that the whole thing is shit or bollocks or whatever the Brits say. I guess James Bond was fine back when the casual murder of women could be chalked up to No Homo and a few laughs, but now it’s all Heath Ledger killing poor Maggie Gyllenhal in order to signify that this crap is “dark” and “gritty” and “realistic.” Well, it’s realistic that society hates women, all right, but at least the 60s were halfway honest about it instead of dressing it up as psychological realism and passing it off as a form of world-weary sophistication. I guess festooning your rapemurder tree with baubles of cosmopolitan disapproval makes for a better holiday, but you still have a rapemurder tree in the middle of your house.

Anyway. Daniel Craig knows that Bond sucks, and that’s why he’s subtly trying to get out of it. Like every other dead franchise, the 21st century has seen fit to torture Bond back into existence though the moody application of shadow. Getting blood on your shirt somehow imbues that fight on top of the train with the weight of actuality. Yeah, no. It just makes the unreality more noticeable; it sandbags the balloon that is your suspension of disbelief. That smoke coming from the engine under the right wing? That is your capacity for fantasy and wonder being overtaxed.

You see, James Bond has nothing to say about the world we live in now. It is about guns, fucking, and fast boats. The next time your grandma the Washington Post columnist disapproves of “those rap videos,” show her any Bond flick, which glorifies precisely the same acquisitive, casually murderous booty shaking, albeit with a crackpot post-imperial nationalism as the crispy white stand-in for the hood. Substitute Compton or the Dirty South or wherever for The Sceptered Isle, and you get the picture. Bond is a rap video for white people. Straight up.

What was I saying? Skyfall. Everything about it is tired, and what’s worse, this is a deliberate effect! Judi Dench is tired. Ralph Fiennes is tired. The pretty black girl who, surprise, can’t really hack field work is tired. Daniel Craig is tired. Javier Bardem? Tired. Also gay, maybe? And Spanish. Why a villainously homosexual Spaniard was ever employed by MI-6 is a question this realistic movie fails to pause and ponder. I leave it to you. Even the sexy twink they cast as Q is tired. Again, exhaustion is supposed to connote reality here.

Let me wander afield for a moment. The problem with realism as practiced in the anglosphere is that it’s supposed to act in a manner once reserved for metaphor and allegory. Thus realism crawls up its own, you’ll pardon me, arse and starts gnawing its own guts out. You see, the nature of reality, the real reality, is that nothing stands for anything other than what it is. My psychological exhaustion is not commentary on the state of the West, not until plucked from its tender stem and planted in the water of narrative construction. Bond’s enervation and fatigue are supposed to be real, and yet they are also supposed to be metaphorical vehicles for England, thereby becoming totally unreal. Suddenly nothing self-refers; everything instead reflects the state of something else. The result is profoundly alienating to both the sense of reality and the sense of fun. Insert “we’re getting too old for this” joke.

The penultimate sequence in Skyfall is the intercutting of three scenes: Judi Dench telling some parliamentarians that the world is more dangerous than ever because there are no more Russians; James Bond pursuing Javier Bardem through some tunnels; Q doing something on computers that’s even more embarrassing than your mom’s activities on Facebook. “He’s using a quantum core search algorithm password encryption matrix code branch substation key root data program,” or something. The Dench speech is all about our enemies among us—the standard post-9/11 crap about the obfuscation of once-clean lines of national enmity, and this again is there purely to lend the cartoonish affair some portion of Page A gravitas.

The whole thing then transports itself to the Scottish moors. The final action sequence was praised for its austerity, even as it emptied vast armories of bullets into our by-now mushy brains. Like everything else, the austerity was a metaphor, although at this point the film is as exhausted as its main characters and sees no point in making it a metaphor for anything in particular. Just a metaphor, you guys. Daniel Craig tries to drown himself, but Eon and Columbia pulled his ass out of the frozen lake and gave him a 2-picture extension. The next Bond film tentatively entitled Staight Outa Eastwaithe Moorheath, will be released in 2015.

We Need to Talk about Kevin

Culture, Media, Movies, War and Politics

There’s a sort of art whose existence says a lot more than its content. House of Cards, a Netflix-produced series starring Kevin Spacy, based on a BBC series starring Ian Richardson, based on a novel written by Michael Dobbs, based on Macbeth and Richard III, is one of these. Spacey plays a congresscreature named Frank Underwood. If Forrest Gump and Blanche Dubois conceived a child after a giddy night of reading Robert Penn Warren, Underwood would be the result. He speaks with some kind of low-country shrimpngrits accent even though he’s supposed to come from the Piedmont (or the Blue Ridge?). Spoilers y’all. The show opens with him killing a dog and closes with him killing a congressman. In both instances it’s implied that he’s putting the poor things out of their misery after each has had a hit-and-run encounter with SIGNIFICANCE. At least once, though it feels like a hundred times, Frank portentously drawls “Ah cannot ah-biyde.” You can imagine where it goes from here. His accent is the most convincing part of the show.

Superficially a revenge drama—Spacey’s Congressman Frank Underwood gets screwed over for a cabinet appointment and seeks, well, revenge—the series’ hook and appeal is really that it presents the dark seamy rat-infested underbelly of Washington and American politics. There’s plenty of mustache-twirling and scheming and secret meetings and deep-throating, not to mention the murder, but what’s really supposed to shock is the politics, in which everyone is out for themselves and all anybody really wants is power. Hush yo mouth. The plotting is operatic, but the visual style is the dour historical realism that afflicts so much American film and television these days, the zealous conviction that it is very important to get the letter openers and door hardware precisely correct in order to truly examine the human soul. As is often the case when High Definition meets reality, the result is solarized and pixelated; everything appears overwhelmingly fake. The shocking politics, meanwhile, are totally banal. Energy interests throw money around! The press colludes in palace intrigue! Hookers! Cocaine! Favor-trading!

Underwood’s scheme makes about as much sense as the plot of the Star Wars prequels. Partly I suspect this is the uninformed attempt to set a British parliamentary thriller in the world of American politics, which has the overdetermined quality of one of one of those overthought “We’ll do a production of Coriolanus set during the Iran-Iraq war with LOTS OF PROJECTIONS and a soundtrack by Nico Muhly” that pops up at BAM or wherever from time to time. The basic incentives don’t work. But largely, it’s just lazy writing, a sense that lots of shuffling around and portentous whispering will give a general air of conspiracy, never mind that the idea seems to be that if a butterfly flaps its wings in China, it’s guaranteed to rain in Central Park. Yes, people maneuver for power, and a good chess player thinks several moves out, but one doesn’t engage in thirty-seven convoluted nonsense schemes in order to achieve one exceedingly discrete and particular end. After 8 or 9 episodes of set-up, you start to see the payoff, and you say, “Wait, what?!” The magician asks you to pick a card. You do. It’s the Jack of Spades. He takes the card out of your hand, turns it over, looks at it, and he says, “Is your card the Jack of Spades?” Magic!

So, Underwood is written to be some kind of genius, but because the writing is bad, he comes across as a clever-but-middling intellect, which makes everyone else seem positively moronic, as they completely fail to perceive that they are being manipulated in the most grotesquely obvious manner. Robin Wright plays Joan Allen playing Glenn Close, who plays Frank’s wife Claire, at first a bit of a Lady Macbeth, but later sent off in a clumsy infidelity plot set in a bad World of Interiors apartment feature. Zoe Mara plays a plot device, and Michael Kelly plays that character that Michael Kelly always plays. Corey Stoll plays a character from Season 2 of The Wire.

I’m not, as a matter of principle, averse to the idea of Washington as a den of rich idiots fucking everyone and each other over in the pursuit of a higher station, but I do object to the notion that what makes for an evil Congressman is that he’s willing to strangle a dog. No, what makes an evil Congressman is that he weeps for the dog but votes for the war. An interesting story is how a guy like John Kerry goes from asking how a man can be the last man to die for a mistake to a suave elder statesman who does global PR for the architects of Skynet. A good story about our politics isn’t that Kevin Spacey cannot ah-biyde cheeldrin, but that Barack Obama simultaneously loves his young daughters and murders someone else’s son a half a world away. Well, look, I don’t mind a villainous villain either when the plot consists of People Shooting at Matt Damon Then Some ‘Spolsions!—filmic plots, by the way, that have a much braver, more iconoclastic, more unforgiving view of American power than House of Cards despite being total action schlock. What I do despise are portrayals of institutional evil being the result of individual villainy. House of Cards wants you to believe that it is a sophisticated look at the inner workings of power and the deeply compromised souls who operate its machinery, but it is a Saturday Morning cartoon with a better time-lapse opening credit sequence. If Spacey transforms into an evil fighter jet and blows up Chicago in Season 2, I will not be surprised.