Monday, January 22, 2018

12 Strong: Uncle Rico Goes to War

The War in Afghanistan, aka Operation Enduring Freedom, turns 17 this year, making it old enough to see 12 Strong, the new R-rated account of its first battle, without parental supervision. (And it's not the only Afghanistan movie this year - Infinity War comes out this May!).

Just because the actual war might be depressing and pointless doesn't mean the movies it inspires have to be. Our misadventures in Somalia produced maybe the best movie of the genre, Black Hawk Down. The doomed German attempt to assassinate Hitler created another gem in Valkyrie. Any war is going to generate examples of heroic self-sacrifice or, better yet, opportunities for slow-mo battle scenes with shrapnel flying in sync with mournful Gaelic wailing. I'm all about that strife.

Sadly, 12 Strong is not. Despite the tragic source material and the epic demands of the genre, 12 Strong has virtually no interest in the horror of war. I say that not in the preachy way - no one hates self-flagellating anti-war pics like Platoon more than me - but as a connoisseur of the cheap thrills and emotional manipulation of a good horror flick.

Bizarrely, 12 Strong fancies itself as more of a victory lap. And in a war without much in the way of victories, it really has to stretch to keep it going for a whole movie. The exhausting lengths the writers go to make us this set of little mountain skirmishes feel like a huge deal are the closest it comes to epic.

See if you can spot the problems in the (true) story. Fresh off witnessing 9/11, a team of twelve special forces guys, led by Thor as Captain America, are chomping at the bit for justice and vengeance. So they leap at the chance to be embedded as air force spotters for a random Afghani warlord in his campaign to wrest control of an obscure mountain town from a another Afghani warlord. Thanks to a lot of precision bombing, atrocious Taliban aim, and Thor's Rambo on horseback skills, that campaign is wildly successful (and boringly so). That success leads to some hearty self-congratulatory back-patting... and another two decades of inconsequential mountain fighting.

Again, there's much to be said for looking for silver linings in wartorn hellscapes, but trying to pass off a few dull guerrilla exchanges in a barren wasteland as both a deeply meaningful and satisfying response to 9/11 and a sizzle reel of American military might is the dictionary definition of cringeworthy, right next to the picture of Uncle Rico.

For you uncultured brutes, Uncle Rico is the most pathetic and pitiable of all the small-town caricatures in Napoleon Dynamite (which, despite its title, is NOT also about an ill-fated land war in Asia). He's a middle-aged, steak-eating ex-jock who still dreams of a pro football career when he's not selling junk to stay-at-home moms or bullying his nerdy nephews.

Like Uncle Rico, 12 Strong wants to go back to glory days that weren't all that glorious, and thanks to the magic of Hollywood, the time crystals actually work this time. The resulting vision of the good old days is hopelessly lost in delusions of grandeur. No matter the epic trappings, it plays a lot like Uncle Rico's audition tape - some rando in the middle of the nowhere, facing down imaginary competition, prancing, flexing and chucking like a fool.

In the words of Napoleon, this is pretty much the worst video ever made.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Spam Takes Over The Menu

An army marches on its stomach. This adage holds the key to understanding how our present globalist masters succeeded where Hitler, Napoleon, Stalin and the other world-emperor hopefuls failed. Whereas Hitler and Napoleon starved their soldiers on exhausting treks into Russia and Stalin skimped on the pleasures of life (all purge, no binge), the corporate giants treat their regulars to an unending buffet of earthly delights.

I am reminded of a haunting scene from Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away. A family on vacation stumbles on an empty restaurant with heaping platters of steaming, delicious food. Ignoring their anorexic 10-year-old's hysterical warnings, the parents stuff their faces in an orgy of gluttony. Of course little Anna Rexia was right - they quickly transform into huge fat hogs to be herded into the pens of the master spirits that run the place.

"Wow, that's really disturbing, but a great modern parable for the dangers of consumer-powered globalism," I burbled as I chugged down a gallon-sized Disney jug of imported Miyazaki. The anti-globalist revolution should get underway any day now. In fact, we might even get some good ideas from next Sunday's Game of Thrones! In the words of a homegrown possum, we have met the enemy and he is us.

A dictatorship of the proletariat's stomach is upon us then, and our diet is trending towards complete garbage. Remember all those crazy urban legends about KFC about how they used the acronym because they couldn't call their vat-raised GMObominations chicken? Well that's what came to mind when I read today's NY Times piece on the modern movie business.

Reporter Alex French follows producer Tripp Vinson on his Journey 2 the absolute rock bottom of Hollywood's brain-dead IP harvesting. (Note that it's referred to as IP, not intellectual property, presumably because the intellect is gone). Vinson is no stranger to the bottom of the barrel. French charitably describes him as a producer of popcorn flicks. More accurately, he delivers well-casted badly scripted stink bombs that happen to fill the right genre slots on the periphery of major studio slates.

As audiences have largely rejected lazy, soulless genre pieces, Vinson has joined his fellow producers in pivoting to lazy, soulless IP conversions. While the strip-mining rights to the really juicy IPs, like George Lucas' severed brainchild, are already long gone, there's always another layer to frack. Like board games, toys, bad TV shows and mobile games. Vinson struck pay dirt with the popular time-killing app Fruit Ninja, getting the rights and then setting a team BS artists to farting out an ad hoc narrative. Their winning take? Read it and weep:
Every couple of hundred years a comet flies by Earth, leaving in its wake a parasite that descends on a farm and infects the fruit. The infected fruit then search for a human host. The only thing keeping humanity from certain doom is a secret society of ninjas who kill the fruit and rescue the hosts by administering the "anti-fruit." The produce-slaying saviors are recruited from the population based on their skill with the Fruit Ninja game... The action starts after each of the story's heroes returns home after a horrible day and plays Fruit Ninja to relieve some stress... this aligns with the Fruit Ninja brand: "Anybody can play. Anybody can be a master."
That last bit sounds remarkably like the new Hollywood brand: "Any IP can be a movie. Any bot can be a screenwriter." I'm also reminded of the amazing kid's book pitch session from Elf. I'd love to see a tribe of asparagus children team up with these Fruit Ninjas and maybe end up less self-conscious about the way their pee smells.

In the somewhat recent past, we could rely on the English-speaking world having just enough taste to throw dreck like this right out of the theater and into the dustbin known as the HBO movie library. Sure there were embarrassing exceptions, like Adam Sandler's entire career, but for the most part, American audiences and the smaller Western markets on the periphery were pretty good about enforcing a quality standard.

But nowadays, unfettered access to global markets has essentially eliminated American audience's veto power over Hollywood. French references two doozies -  Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters and Battleship - that were saved from domestic hostility by the intervention angel of consumers from abroad. Last year I was one of the few American masochists to brave the Independence Day sequel and Warcraft. They sucked but international audiences sent them to the moon. Warcraft made more in its opening weekend in China than it did in its entire domestic run in the states.

In the build-up to World War II, FDR answered allies call for help by calling on America to serve as a "great arsenal of democracy," devoting the bulk of American industrial might to the military needs of country in Europe and Asia. Today, Hollywood is converting our cultural might into a great arsenal of mediocrity to serve the least common denominator demands of the global market.

For the moment, America is less than enthused with the development but not yet in open revolt. We still go to see movies, but ticket sales have declined significantly since their peak in 2002. That decline has meant little to nothing to Hollywood however as international markets have more than doubled over the same time frame.

Our situation is growing more and more like the cafe patrons from Monty Python's famous spam sketch. We are seeing our own cultural preferences sidelined to cater to foreigners' preferences for the worst stuff on the menu. Our favorite menu items are gradually being pushed to the periphery or omitted altogether, their places taken by endless reproductions of the same gelatinous mystery meat. And while our current choices may be Dunkirk, Atomic Blonde and SPAM, no amount of domestic protest can prevent the progression to SPAM, SPAM and more SPAM. Take it away, Viking chorus.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Artificial Gravitas

Born and raised a Bible-believing Christian, the only post-earth scenario I've ever seriously entertained involves a new heaven and earth of God's creation. I wouldn't say exactly that I'm comfortable with this scenario, as anything earth-shattering is inherently discomfiting, but it sure beats the secular alternative I encountered in places like my astronomy textbook.  I remember the author droning on with scholarly detachment about the inevitable burnout of the sun and the ensuing end of all life – the nihilist eschaton. I imagine the normal secular response to such a depressing future to be something akin to John Maynard Keynes' famous shrug: "in the long run, we're all dead." But the more optimistic of the secularists turn to science fiction, projecting their trust in the power of the human mind, whether manifested in technology or evolved intelligence, to furnish a new heaven and earth.

The Nolan brothers (the brains behind Memento, Inception, The Prestige and The Dark Knight trilogy) with Interstellar have provided the latest secularist entry into the optimist's column.  Sure the world's ending - an infectious blight wiping out our crops and turning the earth into a vast dust bowl - but there's a way out.  Some mysterious force, alien perhaps, has opened a wormhole in Saturn's backyard, offering a shortcut to a host of new habitable planets.  With new friends like these, who needs an old-fashioned deity like the Lord of Heaven and Earth?  To answer heaven's new call, a heroic band of scientists and astronauts take up the mantle of Moses and set out in search of a new promised land. Of course to perform the miraculous feat of launching earth's remaining millions into space, our heroes need some additional guidance from their mysterious friends.  This help can only be found in a close encounter with a black hole, which serves as a sort of inverted burning bush.

The many parallels to Exodus are not coincidental. Interstellar is a powerful new voice in a familiar chorus of secular prophets calling the West out of the bondage of Christian ideology.  Not that Interstellar directly attacks any Christian doctrine - the plagues have already been meted out on Christian hegemony by earlier generations of culture warriors.  All that remains is to offer the people a new faith to comfort them.  Thus, Interstellar looks forward, articulating a 3rd stage replacement theology, with the species taking the place of the Christian church and super-evolved transdimensional beings filling God's shoes.

In taking such a positive, constructive role, Interstellar wisely avoids a direct confrontation with Christianity, a conflict that mired its ideological relative Contact (incidentally starring a younger Matthew McConaughey as the smarmy liberal peacemaker between faith and science) in Baby Boomer preachiness.  The Nolan brothers also sidestep the alienating art house vibe of 2001: A Space Odyssey by grounding the cosmic stakes in a heartwarming father-daughter relationship that literally transcends space and time.

Forcing a feel-good narrative into the core of a black hole greatly diminishes the awesome and terrifying grandeur of outer space, much like the Cuarons largely neutered space with the imposition of a stock Sandra Bullock character arc on Gravity. Or, on the extreme end of the Hollywood spectrum, how Michael Bay and his collaborators turned Armageddon into a work of high camp. Still, the Nolans are defter screenwriters than the Cuarons and Christopher Nolan is infinitely more serious a craftsman than Bay, so much of the violence to logic and ideological coherence has been better disguised.  It’s artificial gravitas – not quite as powerful as the real article, but not as lightweight as the hackery that is so dominant in modern Hollywood. More importantly, it palliates the optimistic longings of the human heart while suspending the thoroughly justified disbelief of the human mind.

At heart, the Nolans are meticulous, highly skilled entertainers and careless ideologues – ideas are to them as magic to a magician.  Whereas Kubrick and Clarke used space as a grand canvas on which to paint their atheistic vision of life, the universe and everything, the Nolans pull rabbits out of wormholes. Yet the bent of the artist matters less than the content of his work, and Interstellar, for all its sacrifices to sentimentality and artifice, ultimately worships at the same bogus altar of human technology and evolution. Indeed, by pandering skillfully to the tastes of the common man, Interstellar outdoes its predecessors as an apostle, reaching into the heartland passed over by the elitist 2001 and maligned by the belligerent Contact.

Interstellar offers a more entertaining and hopeful endgame for humanity than my old astronomy textbook, but the entertainment is fleeting and the hope is false.  A sober examination of infinite space will yield one of two images, both of them terrible to behold: the face of almighty God or an abyss of nothingness.  The secular Interstellar, unwilling to acknowledge the face of God yet shirking the nihilism of the black hole, settles for smoke and mirrors.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Nuggets of Wisdom from George Lucas' Severed Head

Safely ensconced in a simpler age, Hitchcock observed that drama was “life with the dull bits cut out.” Clearly that is no longer the case. In this postmodern age, our lives are wrapped in so many layers of entertainment that what Hitchcock would have recognized as “life” is increasingly irrelevant as a primary source. Now more than ever, popular entertainment is our foundation, and we construct our dramas by excavating previous generation’s favorites, hammering away the duller bits to hone in on whatever was awesome about the originals.  A case in point is the defining hit movie of the year thus far, Guardians of the Galaxy.

In the most intriguing, and illuminating, bit of Guardians, our ensemble of strangely familiar heroes stumbles upon the giant severed head of an ancient celestial super-being. Inside, a guy named the Collector has set up a pirate mining operation, drilling into the decaying nervous tissue, presumably to discover the wondrous secrets stored in the great old brain. The movie plays coy until the very end as to the identity of the decapitated being, when the surprise Howard the Duck cameo makes it clear (as the ever-keen Steve Sailer points out): the ancient celestial super-being is none other than George Lucas.

The Collector then is the Disney-Marvel entertainment-industrial complex, in this case represented by writer-director-foreman James Gunn, and this film is the first nugget of the box office gold that was Star Wars to be successfully refined into something shiny enough for this postmodern age. And shiny it is, gleaming like a newly-forged golden calf. Gunn has developed into a capable refiner: having earned his stripes as screenwriter on a pair of successful reboots of Boomer-era hits Scooby Doo and Dawn of the Dead, he exhibits a near perfect accord with the zeitgeist in Guardians.  

Along with co-writer Nicole Perlman and the creators of the original comic (which in turn, I understand, is derivative of a Marvel universe too vast for me to comprehend), Gunn strip-mines the Star Wars universe for elements most readily recognized as “awesome,” leaving behind the less compelling bits. Guardians happily scratches the painfully earnest Luke and preachy old Obi-Wan to showcase Peter Quill, a beefed up, geeked up version of everyone’s favorite scoundrel Han Solo.  Also reforged in new forms are Leia as a kung-fu fighting Green Goddess, Chewbacca as a Space Ent, R2D2 as a pissed-off tech-savvy raccoon, C3PO as a socially-awkward bodybuilder, and the Death Star as the Dark Aster. The dated Star Wars trappings have also been scrapped like so many yards of shag carpet (ironically to make way for judiciously applied retro stylings). For instance, instead of the bombastic classical scores that Star Wars made synonymous with the blockbuster epic, we get an “awesome mix” of catchy 70’s pop hits.
The resulting film is simultaneously impressive and pointless. It’s a pastiche imitating a portrait - like a Lego version of a Rockwell painting - a characteristic that is at once central to its charm and damning of its overall value. It has an unapologetic self-awareness of its derivative nature that frees it from the silly pretensions of so many other comic book adaptations. Where a movie like The Watchmen trudged grimly onward, grunting under its own importance, the lightweight Guardians lassos pop hooks with one-liners and leaps nimbly from spectacle to spectacle. All this, however, begs the question: what does it matter how skillfully the Guardians fly circles around lamer fantasy heroes? They are all still stuck orbiting the same lifeless objects, whether it be Lucas’ head or Stan Lee’s or any other misplaced centers of “expanded universes.”

It’s not that Guardians or its lesser comic book inspired brethren are merely derivative, but that they are derivative of a derivative that renders them of so little cultural worth. Their growing popularity and sophistication is symptomatic of the broader cultural phenomenon described by the postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard and condemned by the Second Commandment. Baudrillard pointed to the “precession of the simulacra,” when the real is preceded (essentially replaced) by its imitation in the culture. God forbade the Jews to create graven images lest they worship them in place of him.

In the past, boondoggles like Guardians tended to be amateur projects, usually the work of adolescents and/or antisocial single guys who would expend their creative and productive energies in exploring and expanding fantasy worlds of others’ creation. Today, they attract the attention of some of our best craftsmen, the bulk of the funding of our major studios, and the brand loyalty of the broadest segment of the market. As a recovering nerd who suffers the occasional lapse, a part of me wants to embrace the success of Guardians as mainstream validation of a misspent youth.  As a new father, however, I worry about the stability of a crumbling cultural foundation reinforced with Legos.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Mr. Sith Goes to Washington

I’d say Netflix’s House of Cards was a guilty pleasure (not that Hollywood produces guiltless pleasures anymore), but that would be underselling how deeply disturbing its success has been. On the surface, its appeal is readily understood: its sleazy shock factor conducts an electric new energy and lurid vibrancy to a tired old narrative. It’s Shakespearean tragedy fully modernized with graphic sex, violence and profanity: Iago Unchained. The result is intoxicating, addictive – I plowed through the first two seasons in the space of a few weeks – but with the hangover comes a chilling realization. This story is not set in some Machiavellian medieval state where murder and coups d’état were routine, but in America, land of the free and home of the brave. Nor does Frank Underwood fit into the tragic anti-hero archetype: this is Palpatine, not Vader. Here he comes, the Evil Emperor, marching through our most revered and cherished political institutions, corrupting and subverting all he touches, trampling all who resist, and at times I catch myself rooting for him!
Let’s assume that I’m not a lonely deviant and other viewers feel similarly. How were we so easily seduced to forsake the red, white and blue for the dark side?  It was only a few generations ago that Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart made us believe that one good man could foil a corrupt D.C. establishment in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  So how did we go from Mr. Smith to Mr. Sith? Thankfully, a greater mind than mine has already tackled these questions in exhaustive or at least exhausting fashion. In case my excessive Star Wars references hadn't already tipped you off, I am speaking of George Lucas and his prequel trilogy.
Moving away from the elegant moral simplicity of his original trilogy, Lucas set out to answer a pair of dilemmas with obvious parallels to my own: how could a peaceful republic give rise to an evil empire and how could a righteous defender of said republic transform into a minion of its destroyer? Like Queen Amidala in the third film, the resulting movies are stiff, overwrought (if occasionally pretty) and mostly incomprehensible, but pregnant with valuable insights that can be rescued from their moribund host.

Our first clue comes from the glaring absence of a crucial element of the original trilogy: likable good guys.  The qualities that made Luke, Leia and Han likable are the same that made them successful in defeating the Empire: infectious enthusiasm for their cause and a powerful combination of moral clarity and courage. These were the same type of qualities that made Jimmy Stewart so powerful a figurehead for American optimism in Mr. Smith and similar roles in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and It’s a Wonderful Life (heck, we can even throw in Fievel Goes West). They were also the qualities that got Ronald Reagan elected – it’s no coincidence that Reagan felt so comfortable co-opting Star Wars terminology for his policies. And it is the utter lack of these qualities that doom the prequels’ Anakin, Amidala and their Jedi friends to failure.
The prequel heroes are so fundamentally dislikable that I’ve almost convinced myself that it was intentional – that this was Lucas’ version of Idiocracy (no one hates on Mike Judge for populating his worlds with irritating morons). Amidala is one of the most flagrant examples. Lucas has surgically removed any organs producing charm, character or feeling. Under the pretext of shielding her from assassination, he has surrounded her with look-alikes and rendered her indistinguishable from them under metric tons of make-up and fabric. The same pretext prompts her to affect a mind-numbing monotone when pleading to the Senate for justice; imagine Ben Stein as Mr. Smith in the famous filibuster scene and you’ll get the idea. Or just watch C-SPAN. Of course Amidala isn’t the only offender.  Anakin’s a pouty psychopath with all the charisma and sex appeal of Elliot Rodger. Obi-Wan and his Jedi confreres squint and squirm their way through moral dilemmas in a constant state of mystic constipation.
Perhaps the best case for the prequels as Lucas’ Idiocracy is Jar Jar Binks, the alien rube who gets set-up in the exact same role as Mr. Smith – as a patsy Senator for a nefarious conspiracy.  If it were Mike Judge instead of George Lucas, Jar Jar would win the Chancellorship and run the galaxy into the ground a la President Hector Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho. But Lucas, uninhibited by the comedian’s tendency to prophesy the most ridiculous outcome, offers a soberer outcome: Jar Jar makes the decisive motion to confer dictatorial powers to the evil Palpatine.
Can it be a coincidence that it is the failure of Jar Jar – the most blatantly idiotic and universally reviled character in the prequels – to live up to the example of Mr. Smith that paves the way for the rise of the Sith Lord? Or that Ian McDiarmid’s Palpatine is the only character with anything approaching gravitas in the entire trilogy? Whether coincidentally or intentionally made, the argument is the same: that a dearth of likable heroes leads to increasing appeal for even the most despicable tyrants. Given the choice of benign mediocrity and malignant excellence, the majority will choose the latter.
The absence of a credible champion like Mr. Smith or Luke Skywalker to validate our belief in the Republic is felt as keenly across the culture as it is in the Star Wars microcosm. In the years since the close of the first trilogy and the end of Reagan’s presidency, our on- and off-screen political heroes have fallen precipitously in the public graces, drifting into irrelevance or stumbling into ridicule. Harrison Ford was the heir apparent – part John Wayne, part Jimmy Stewart, all American – but his various American heroes were always too busy saving their own families to serve any public interests.  Kevin Costner had the earnest idealism and the common man bona fides but deep-sixed his career on post-apocalyptic bombs.  Independence Day’s idea of a neo-Stewart to restore a fallen America was Prince Valium from Spaceballs.  Dennis Haysbert and Morgan Freeman both got turns as soothingly deep voiced statesmen, but their generic appeals to the American people are now almost indistinguishable from their ubiquitous commercials. Aaron Sorkin made perhaps the most serious effort, attempting to recreate the Kennedy urbane crusader persona in American President and West Wing as an alternative to the Stewart archetype. It failed to catch on, overwhelmed by the torrent of anti-Presidential snark unleashed by 16 consecutive years of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, interspersed with Bob Dole’s Viagra ads.
With such competitors for public affection, it’s no wonder that Frank Underwood’s bloody march to the highest office in our Republic should elicit more cheers than tears (or even fears, to keep the poetry flowing).  Our pride in our political institutions has eroded under a succession of buffoons and mediocrities to the point that we can’t help but celebrate strength and competence in whatever form it arrives. When we've run out of real American heroes, we run into real American villains.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Burn Book Burning: Mean Girls, Donald Sterling and the Culture of Hysteria

"Raise your hand if you've been personally victimized by Regina George."

Ten years ago this weekend, Mean Girls hit theaters.  At the time it seemed little more than a sleek Millennial turn on the pop anthropology studies of high school that have been a Hollywood staple since Andy Hardy.  Sure it was chock-full of insights into the pettiness of teenage girls, but you don’t have to dig very deep to get to the bottom of the shallowest age of human development. As far as I was concerned it was Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul interlaced with a few undissolved cubes of salty comedic bouillon.

What a difference ten years can make. When I watched it again this week, my once cavernous yawn became the slack-jawed gape of wonder.  This was no mere teen comedy, but a prophetic vision of the future of American society startling in its clarity!

Not that Mean Girls has gotten any better with time; it’s still as shallow and superficial as ever. Rather, society has sunk so low that the leaders of culture and industry are now seeing eye-to-eye with teenage brats. Indeed, we may already be looking up to the Plastics (the movie’s nickname for the elite faction of mean girls) as artifacts of a more civilized age.  Forget the serious business of civilization that occupied previous generations of adults: this society is consumed with assessing popularity, finding an advantageous place in the byzantine hierarchy of demographic cliques, eagerly trafficking in illicit gossip and shrieking hysterically over any perceived slight.  Case in point: the hubbub surrounding Clippers owner Donald Sterling.

The scandal might as well have been ripped from the scented pages of the Plastics’ “burn book” – a giant pink bible of scathing “burns” heaped on the other girls in school. In a private phone conversation with his mistress V. Stiviano – secretly taped in a manner strikingly similar to the sneaky 3-way calls the Plastics use to entrap each other – Donald Sterling hisses his disapproval of her public associations with star black athletes. Whether his distaste for these black men is driven by envy or prejudice isn’t quite clear from the tapes; perhaps it’s the same blend of both that drives the Plastics’ queen bee Regina to ravage the girls around her.
While Sterling and Regina are seemingly secure in their wealth and status, they still keep their most anti-social inclinations private.  In public, they make nice: Sterling with his ostentatious displays of charity and eager accumulation of humanitarian awards; Regina with her phony compliments and thirst for prom queen affirmation. Though their peers privately revile them – Sterling’s cocktail of sleaze, greed and racism has been an open secret for years – they reciprocate niceties in public. Only when a rogue Plastic takes disruptive action do the underhanded hostilities break into open conflict.

Enter Sterling’s mistress V. Stiviano, the incarnation of everything Plastic - still fighting the good high school fight at age 38. Apparently firing back at Sterling over a lawsuit (his wife trying to recover all the luxury items Sterling bought for her), Stiviano betrayed her sugar daddy and leaked their taped conversation to TMZ.  It’s not quite as neat as Regina posting the pages of the burn book in the halls, but the reaction has been the same: mass hysteria.  In both cases, the uproar springs not from material damage but from hurt feelings.  Apparently the realization that someone really loathes someone else is far too much to take sitting down.
Unfortunately, in the real world Tim Meadows isn’t around to bring the sprinklers down on the rage parade. Instead we have NBA commissioner Adam Silver joining the fray with a lifetime ban for Sterling, a $2.5 million fine and a push to force him to sell his team. Meanwhile, the pitchfork media clamors for anyone with any past connection with him to publicly denounce him, reverse Manchurian style: “Donald Sterling is the meanest, coldest, most despicable human being I have ever known in my life” (though with Sterling’s rap sheet, you wouldn’t think they’d need the brainwashing). A bunch of LA nonprofits are even sending his donations back - UCLA cancelled his $3 million pledge for kidney research.

Nor does the real world seem to believe in the healing power of inclusiveness, preferring inquisition to acquisition. Whereas the Plastics were ultimately broken in by the compassionate authority figures and reacclimated to a nicer (albeit utopian) world, there are no such better angels of our nature to be found on the modern scene. Whereas Mean Girls preached a message of overcoming evil with good, envy with empathy and arrogance with humility, in the real world we've reverted to an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and 2,000 minutes of public hate for 2 minutes of the private variety. There is no longer any humanization of the offender, no self-analysis. Before removing the speck from our neighbor’s eye, we take the plank from our own and beat him to death with it.

Cady, the heroine of Mean Girls, becomes obsessed with Regina in much the same way that we have been consumed with Donald Sterling for the past week.  She hates and envies her just as we hate (for his racism) and envy (for his money) Sterling.  By the end of Mean Girls, Cady had come to an important realization: “Calling somebody else fat won't make you any skinnier. Calling someone stupid doesn't make you any smarter. And ruining Regina George's life definitely didn't make me any happier. All you can do in life is try to solve the problem in front of you.” It’s a lesson the leaders of the Sterling witch hunt would do well to learn.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Post-Man Always Rings Twice

'All the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house.  They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.” Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them."' - Genesis 19:4-8

Here's the rest of the passage to show you how it turned out, but the Tl;dr version is below.

Suffice to say, the next time eHarmony offers you a choice between extraterrestrial visitors (however angelic their looks) and a pair of teenage virgins, take the virgins and don't look back.  Hellfire and Brimstone might be breathtaking to look at, but they are lousy for intimacy.  What's that?  The Bible not your thing?  Then take it from the Greeks - nothing good ever came from submitting to Zeus' animal charisma. Semele got incinerated by his divine form, Io got turned into a cow and poor Ganymede ended up spending eternity as Canteen Boy to Zeus' Alec Baldwin.

It appears, however, that my generation (Gen Y, though as a 1985 baby, I can claim both X and Y, just like my sex chromosomes) has dismissed the conclusions of the existing literature on extra-human relationships. The anti-miscegenation laws that once governed our mythology are falling to a new breed of progressives. One by one, disenfranchised classes of Gods & Monsters are gaining unfettered access to the relationship classifieds: vampires & werewolves (Twilight), aliens (Avatar), demons (Hellboy, the revised Beowulf), pagan gods (Thor), mutants (the various X-Men), zombies (Warm Bodies), robots (Terminator Salvation, the Battlestar Galactica reboot), hamsters (check the latest Kia commercials), even cartoons (Enchanted).  In some cases, real humans are dropping out of the picture entirely, making way for a new set of post-human couples.  Slum with a bunch of muggles and bald simians and they're likely to pee in your sparkling new gene pool.

Why should my generation be so eager to cuckold good old homo sapiens?  Previous generations have flirted - Spielberg's fetish for the inhuman has spanned generations (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., A.I.) - but this widespread, blatant cheating is unprecedented.  I can see three possible reasons for this infatuation:
  1. Peak entertainment - with so much entertainment at our fingertips and so much time devoted to its consumption, we've reached (to paraphrase Wikipedia's peak oil definition) "the point in time when maximum satisfaction extraction from existing entertainment forms has been reached." Boredom encroaches, prompting the urge to subvert even the most fundamental norms to create new combinations and new experiences. When you've messed around with the full spectrum of humanity, the eyes start to wander.
  2. Inhuman rights - with the Boomers having planted their flag on all the real world social issues, the pioneering crusader impulse has to have an outlet somewhere.  Getting out in front of a future alien encounter with a solidly progressive take on the issue merits a hearty clap on one's own back.
  3. Self-esteempunk - with technology charting an exponential course to sci-fi utopia (and special effects that can bridge the gap) and a culture that seeks to overwhelm any self-doubt with waves of positive reinforcements, it's a lot easier for this generation to believe in its own superhumanity.  Having gracefully bounded a mile in Avatar's alien moccasins, we are not only more likely to be sympathetic to inhuman rights, but we have an inflated opinion of our ability to walk 500 more.
We can see evidence of each of these generational attributes on display in one of the first post-humanist romances and the quintessential Gen Y movie: Shrek (released in 2001 - the coming of age year for the first crop of millenials).   

Bored to exhaustion with the dominant Western fairy tale formula, Shrek sets about subversion from the opening frames (Shrek using a storybook ending as toilet paper). Cherished humanist icons including Pinocchio (he wants to be a real boy!) and Robin Hood (the original venture philanthropist) are recast as punchlines and villains.  The only fully human character among the leads is the villain Farquaad (voiced by John Lithgow, building up quite the CV of post-humanist roles), whose defining characteristics (other than his name) are his puny stature, impotence and unattractiveness.  The role of hero falls to the ogre (after he demolishes an assortment of nondescript human knights in try-outs).

The subversion stops abruptly after the embrace of post-humanism.  The cheeky snark crosses paths with Shrek's character arc and flees headlong into maudlinism.  Deep down, Shrek just wants to be loved, and his misanthropy stems from man's incessant meanness towards him.   The sticks, stones and burning torches of the bigoted humans can't break his bones, but words hurt him every time.  By taking poor, ugly Shrek's side, we show our evolved sensibilities - that Gen Y mutation that allows us to see that beauty is exclusively on the inside. 

We millenials have also evolved a helpful cognitive dissonance that allows us to claim victimhood and supremacy simultaneously.  Shrek is a case in point: while he mopes about ugly discrimination, he suffers no equal on the field of combat.   The closest he comes to a worthy opponent is a huge dragon.  Not that Shrek need worry about a hard fight - the dragon joins his side for the 3rd act, rendering all attempts at human resistance even more futile than they had been for the rest of the movie. 

Shrek's fairy tale ending prophecies a blissful post-human marriage and a happily ever after-party, but I remain unconvinced that this generational romance with the alien and the unclean is a progressive (in the original sense of the word) development.  A movement driven by  boredom, misplaced pity and delusional self-image can hardly be constructive and will almost certainly become destructive, if it hasn't already.  This is not a marriage but an affair with a mysterious stranger.  If the warnings of the Bible aren't enough for you, check out the endings of some noir films from the 40's - Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice for starters - to see how those types of decisions pan out.

Mankind might be too old and tired and genetically inferior to keep up with our postmodern imaginations, but the only sensible means of addressing the gap is to slow the latter down.  Whenever we experience the urge to leave our own kind in the dust to pursue some beautiful chimera we should weigh the costs.  How foolish would we be to discard so rich a heritage and find nothing? How much worse still to seek the chimera alone and find him.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Fairy Sue

"Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky," thought Mary Sue as she stepped on the bridge of the Enterprise. "Here I am, the youngest lieutenant in the fleet - only fifteen and a half years old." - "A Trekkie's Tale"

There wouldn’t be much need for hyper-vigilant critics (or hyper-critical vigilantes) like me if Mary Sues were always so obvious. Unfortunately, Mary Sue technology has advanced significantly since the early appearance of the clunky wish-fulfillment bots in the ghettos of 1970s Star Trek fan fiction.  Nowadays, they've become so sophisticated that they walk among us, undetected, infiltrating our favorite stories - books, movies, TV shows, you name it.  Your favorite movie could be harboring one right now.  Tragically, that’s the case for The Brothers Bloom, one of my new twitter follower Mae Batista’s faves. Fortunately, I’m Sam “Reese” Lively, Sergeant Tech-Com, DN38416, sent back in time (2009 in this case) and assigned to protect you from faulty entertainment choices. 

Or, if Reese is too intense, think of me as one of those Terminator-sniffing dogs, poking my big wet nose where it isn't welcome. Speaking of dogs, in the time-honored tradition begun in last week’s Usual Suspects review, let’s introduce the companion dog to Bloom’s cheetah: Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.  Both released in 2009, both highly stylized, and both fairy tales centering on con men.  Parnassus is also a dog of a film, so there’s that.

The con man/fairy tale dichotomy is the heart of both narratives.  In Bloom, Adrien Brody is the reluctant con man who wants to believe in the fairy tale webs his brother Mark Ruffalo weaves for their marks. In Parnassus, con man Heath Ledger is the carnival barker for Christopher Plummer's traveling fairy tale generator.  Each film eagerly casts asides at the thematic parallels to their own craft: are they telling stories to deceive and profit or to teach and edify?  Is it about the money or the magic?  Or, better yet, is it some deliciously bittersweet combination of both – a juicy mouthful of the pluot that is human nature?  These are the immediate questions that leap from the material and they were tantalizing enough to capture Gilliam's and Bloom writer-director Rian Johnson's full attention.  In their eagerness, however, both artists left another, more fundamental question that they left unconsidered: when a storyteller tells a story about a storyteller, is he really exploring human nature or is he just writing fan fiction about himself?

The answer to the last question lies in the ability of the teller to find some objectivity.  It can be done.  The pioneers of the reflexive fantasy genre – Charlie Kaufman and Wes Anderson – have provided us with successful examples: Kaufman’s Adaptation and Anderson’s Life Aquatic. Their combination of exhaustive attention to (and disciplined application of) detail and a firmly established perspective keep the risky process of critical self-portraiture from degenerating into a montage of preening, posing and flexing in front of the mirror.  To the degree that they deviate from these object lessons, Bloom and Parnassus drift away from the canvas and towards the mirror.

In matters of detail, Johnson wields his brush with the panache of an accomplished BS artist, with one hand calling your attention to a nice bit of detail work here (e.g. Rachel Weisz' allergy to the alloy in hypodermic needles was a clever little touch), some high culture name-dropping (Herman Melville, Russian novelists) over there.  Meanwhile, he's using his free hand to fill in the blank expanses with broad strokes of arbitrary color (e.g. the ridiculous - and feebly animated - juggling of chainsaws and camel-chugging of whiskey flasks) and hide unfinished or ill-conceived details under blobs of quirkiness (give your hazy outline of  a villain a silly name and costume and you're all set!).  I’ll give Johnson credit for trying; in Parnassus, Gilliam forsakes all pretense of discipline, eats all his crayons and proceeds to barf color all over himself for 123 horrible minutes.

But all that is just confetti for the parade.  The narrative is where the Mary Sues rear their implausibly beautiful heads.  Don’t let the Brothers in Brothers Bloom fool you – they are both Rian Johnson, even more so than Charlie Kaufman and his made-up twin in Adaptation are Charlie Kaufman.  They both display the tell-tale signs of a Mary Sue: they are fantastically gifted from a young age; women everywhere throw themselves at Brody, while Ruffalo has his own pet Asian chick; they are witty, hipster-stylish and they literally have cards up their sleeves. 

Their problems? Poor Brody feels guilty about all the illicit booty (I’m just too tragically attractive!) and Ruffalo’s con writing, though impressive, isn’t quite convincing enough to assuage the guilt.  Enter Weisz – an adorkable heiress who can give Brody the loving & lifestyle he needs, some additional quirky-cred and, by virtue of her magical virginity (on loan, along with epilepsy, from Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State), return his own lost innocence.  Meanwhile, Ruffalo manages to die the cleverly heroic death he always dreamed of (with sense of humor and style intact), and his passage is mourned with much sobbing. 

See if you can spot Gilliam’s Mary Sue: Dr. Parnassus is an aging British entertainer, unappreciated and underfunded by the masses. Little do they know that he’s actually an immortal sorcerer, waging a battle with the devil for their souls. Gilliam could tell you who he’s really talking about, but modesty prohibits.   

Lest my haughty tone deceive you, I am not unsympathetic to the filmmakers’ plight (just condescending). As an avid amateur navel-gazer, I know well how easily a well-intentioned introspection can succumb to the mighty undercurrents of vanity and be swept off into indulgent daydreaming.  How much more difficult, then, to stay afloat when your mode of introspection is a fairy tale, a format built around wish-fulfillment? The overwhelming temptation for Johnson and Gilliam and any other artist entering their own incipient fairy tale universe is to start granting all of their own wishes.  

It seems an innocent enough mistake to indulge that temptation, but doing so undercuts the premise of both films, as well as a central tenet of the creed that motivates artists to spend so much time, money and psychological energy in telling stories.  The sacred, philanthropic power that Bloom and Parnassus ascribe to the storyteller is wasted on self-delusion.  The fairy godmothers, having taken all the seats in the pumpkin carriage for themselves, leave Cinderella in the dust.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Details in the Devil

“Who's Keyser Söze!?”
 “What’s in the box!?” 

You can stop screaming, mid-90’s detectives.  I've got your answer right here (in the form of an extremely belated double movie review).    I’d say spoiler alert, but as both movies in question are now legally of age – 18 this year! -  I figure I can spoil with impunity.

Why dig into a pair of cold cases like this, you ask?  Easy: I’m desperate for attention and I’ll review the favorite movie (The Usual Suspects) of anyone (Rob Kirby) who follows me on Twitter.  Also, I have a weakness for analyzing 90’s movies (among other cultural artifacts) – a dusty VHS cover is my idea of nose candy.   And there are important lessons to be learned, gosh pound it! 

I’d review Suspects on its own, but I find that a movie is easier to break down with a companion, kind of like those cheetahs at the zoo that have dog friends to keep them in line.  Se7en is a natural fit for this role: both movies released in 1995, both featuring Kevin Spacey as the villain, both crime thrillers, both famous (and much imitated) for twist endings, both playing fast and loose with genre expectations and religious themes.

1995 was a watershed year for movies.  As much as movies like Jaws and Star Wars get credit for changing the Hollywood landscape back in the late 70s, it wasn’t until the mid-90s that the changing of the guard was complete.  In the 80’s it was still possible for a Lifetime movie like On Golden Pond to rule the box office.  By the early 90’s, special effects extravaganzas like Jurassic Park and Terminator 2 were starting to flex their muscle and crowd out the lower-concept hits of yesteryear.  Then in 1994 came the swan song: Forrest Gump, a sentimental non-action dramedy, somehow took the box office crown.  But come 1995, Toy Story took pole position, and the big budget action epics haven’t looked back since.  All that to say that by the mid-90’s, if you wanted to make a splash you had to have some kind of visceral wow factor.

Suspects and Se7en both embraced the wow or bust philosophy with near unprecedented gusto (Silence of the Lambs had beaten them to the punch-up of the crime genre, but the body was still fresh).  While Pixar was breaking the technology barrier to put out the first fully CGI movie, the writers of Suspects and Se7en were in the story structure workshop trying to build a better jack-in-the-box thriller, fine-tuning every cog and gear in the script to goose the impact of the inevitable reveal.  They were undeniably successful in their goals: Suspects won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and Se7en made it into the box office top 10.   

All that success did not come without some collateral damage.  Selling out for the twist ending in these cases meant selling many of the other story elements short.  Consider one of the golden oldies of the crime thriller genre: The Maltese Falcon.  More than 70 years after the fiction, the shocking reveals in the third act pack all the punch of a geriatric baby, but the delicious moral ambiguities of the story and the rich characters are still intoxicating.  In contrast, Suspects and, to a lesser extent, Se7en deploy their characters more like one of the automatons in Geppetto’s workshop, following predetermined, diligently synchronized paths.  Moral ambiguities are present, but only as decorative detail carved on the surface.

The various Spaceys are examples of delicately crafted but thoroughly artificial characters.  Even their names are conspicuously made-up: Verbal Kint, Keyser Söze, John Doe.   Keyser Söze in particular reminds me of the Rollo Tomasi moniker Guy Pearce made up to give a name to his father’s nameless killer in LA Confidential (another Spacey movie). The artificiality goes well beyond their names.  They lack consciences or vulnerabilities– all that would just gum up the works of their convoluted and impossibly cunning plans.

Söze suffers no ethical qualms and meets no real challenge in conducting his crime and murder spree.  Other than the challenge to his ego (the detective declares that he’s smarter) that apparently motivates him to lead the detective (and the audience) on the thrilling goose chase, Söze does his screenwriter master’s bidding with all the soulless efficiency of a T-1000, or, given the amount of plot twisting required, a non-alcoholic bending unit.  John Doe is another robot, matter-of-factly sacrificing his life to produce a thrilling conclusion and keep the plot’s gears grinding towards perfect synchronicity with the seven cardinal sins.

The rest of the cast (with exceptions in the case of Se7en) are kept to fixed paths.  Pitt of course is a vessel of Wrath.  Baldwin the Younger and co. never tread far outside stereotype – the insignificant exception being Benicio del Toro, who was allowed to riff freely on the basis that his character’s only function was to die.  Even Gabriel Byrne, the putative conscience of the story, appears to be nothing more than a common crook once everything is revealed.  The desire to go straight, the love angle with the criminal attorney, the hesitance to kill, the friendship with Kint – all of it was just a red cape (or herring) Söze was waving to incite the bullish detective to waste all his energy “proving” that Byrne (his longtime nemesis) was a bad guy (which the screenwriter doesn’t seem to care about answering one way or the other.  He’s wholly concerned with establishing Söze as the baddest guy).

While the characters dutifully adhere to their routes, the abundant moral and religious themes get plastered onto the walls of the jack-in-the box as decoration. Suspects’ Charles Baudelaire quote “the greatest trick the Devil pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist” is pregnant with religious and philosophical implications – it’s a quote from a 19th century French poet about the Devil for crying out loud!  None of those implications are explored in Suspects – it’s there because it sounds slick (just like the title, lifted from Casablanca) and because it fits the big twist so well. Kint’s line “I believe in God, but I’m afraid of Keyser Söze” neatly sums up this topsy-turvy world where God takes a backseat to the sleek super-villain with the cooler-than-real name. 

Se7en takes its metaphysical content more seriously, but I’d argue that’s more the stylistic effect of a much darker tone than proof of more philosophical rigor.   As evidence, I present John Doe’s thoroughly unconvincing confession of Envy in the finale.  Chopping off a pretty lady’s head to inspire Wrath is not indicative of envy, nor are any of John Doe’s other crimes.  His conduct is characterized by a dearth of emotion and an absolute dedication to completing his riddle.  The clumsy handling of Envy reveals the conceit: the cardinal sins have been chopped up and sanded down into a set of serious-colored, neatly interlocking plot devices.  Their ultimate importance is how much force and flair they contribute to the final spring.

Returning now to the questions raised so vociferously by the detectives.  Who is Keyser Söze and what is in the box?  Technically speaking, the answer is Jack – a disembodied head, covered with all sorts of charmingly gruesome details, made up to look like a devil, and shot out at the audience to elicit the greatest reaction.  When the shock wears off, however, ankle-biting critics like me are left to pick up the detectives’ line of questioning, though no one is left on screen to answer.  Who do you mean by Keyser Söze? What was in the box, really?  What does it signify?  To which the body of work might as well reply, in the manner of a mother shushing her overeager child on Christmas Eve, “It’s a surprise.”  Nothing more, nothing less.