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.


True Lies


A lot of people are giving Kathryn Bigelow’s new flick, Dark Thirty Rock, or something, a lot of free publicity by jagging off over whether it does, or does not, embrace torture as an effective tactic of interrogation. The filmmakers have elsewhere claimed to have been engaged in something akin to an act of journalism, and that’s supposed to imbue their work with a sort of virtuous truthfulness that makes their depiction of an instrumentally useful waterboarding all the more despicable, or their depiction of a sordid act of ambiguous and questionably efficacious torture all the more morally compelling, depending upon your take as to their authorial intent. But these being filmmakers and this being a work of fiction, when they say “journalism,” what they mean is something more like “realism,” a bit of Anglo-American narrative artifice in which action and affect are supposed to synch up like Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz. Well, the point is that the film may or may not depict torture as having been necessary, or at least instrumental, in the killing of Osama Bin Laden, and the filmmakers either are or are not morally compromised for having included it in their otherwise realistic tale.

It’s interesting that we should take up this particular narrative detail as a mark of the movie’s verisimilitude (or lack thereof), given that the entire story is patently bogus. The tale of the gangland killing of Bin Laden is carved out of the stankiest pile of official bullshit: the fake vaccine program that may or may not have occurred; the wife who was or wasn’t there; the mansion that may or may not have been a hovel; the firefight that did or didn’t happen; the body unceremoniously dumped in the ocean; the national security cabinet watching a livestream, just like in a movie. Leave the gun, take the canoli. The tale is pure confabulation, a bunch of cinematic set-piece details straight outta Hollywood, which makes Bigelow’s film a sort of exercise in entertainment doping, blood extracted, saved, and re-injected into the veins of its own originator.

“People are gonna come out of this movie thinking that torture is how we got Bin Laden.” The problem isn’t the torture, but that they think we got Bin Laden in the first place, that this whole episode sits in a neat official history that traces a through-line from the World Trade Centers to the dusty exurbs of Abbottabad. As critics, the question we ought to consider is not, how does this film deviate from reality and, in so doing, become propaganda, but rather, what sort of reality can be so innately and inherently cinematic that it satisfies the artificial demands of narrative realism without significant alteration? If the question of the film’s realness and accuracy is simply, did torture work?, then we should ask: how could it be that a piece of actual history, but for a detail or two, is so neatly constructed that it fits without change into a wide-release, cinematic format? Consider that the movie contains assassination scenes filmed in real time based on assassination scenes filmed in real time. How do filmmakers make less true that which was arranged to give the mere appearance of truth in the first place?