Category: Film

Not Ready For Player One

It can be difficult trying to decide what swords are worth falling on, what one’s ethics require of them in regards to the small things. Deciding one small thing might mean more than it seems, or that the small things add up.

I’ve been thinking about the film “Ready Player One” for a few weeks now, trying to decide if I’m going to see it or not. There’s an interesting article, “The Complexities of Supporting Art by Problematic Artists,” where the author discusses how and if we can, personally, support the work and art of people who have been uncovered to be terrible people. (Quick side note, my problems with Ready Player One are entirely with the writing and the content, and absolutely nothing to do with the author, Earnest Cline. I have met him, and have a couple degrees of separation from him by friends, and I’ve found him to be a spectacularly friendly and gregarious fellow, with no hint or allegation of himself being “a problem.” The above article, however, is a good essay on dealing with accepting problem-connected art.)

The author of the essay, in light of all the allegations coming out about terrible men in Hollywood, says:

Does this mean you should boycott all music created by these artists because you don’t agree with their personal lives?

I can’t answer that because that’s for you to decide.

Personally, I know I won’t be able to veto everything that’s problematic or created by problematic individuals… nor can I as a woman of colour. If I did, there would literally be a handful of music, shows, and movies I could consume without getting upset… which is both disappointing but true.

It’s true that many terrible people have been involved in some of the greatest or most popular works of art we know. We have to decide whether the work itself can stand alone from the creator. To this, she continues:

You have a bigger voice in society than you think and it’s your duty to be a vigilant consumer. Are you contributing to a society that values the output of art over moral integrity? Does this even matter to you?

Personally, I don’t believe art can be completely isolated and removed from the artist. Art embodies cultural footprints and implicit connotations that can either enrich or diminish its value. What might just be art to one person is a can of worms to another. Just because you can separate a piece of art from the artist doesn’t mean everybody else can.

And it’s with this in mind I’m having to make decisions about “Ready Player One.”

But why this film, this book? Why is this a problem, and I’ve not angst and blogged about anything else, like, maybe the latest Harry Potter-verse film with Johnny Depp?

This is problematic for me, and I feel my actions say something more significant in regards to what I do about this film, specifically because I am precisely its target audience. The film, well, most certainly the book, was written by and for white, middle-class, “x-gen” males. Almost to the exclusion of anyone else. The book was written for me, the film made for me. If I patronize it or not, I’m saying something about whether or not I accept and validate the problems inherent, or I refuse them.

What are the problems, precisely?

Well, let’s get the easiest one to deal with out of the way right off — it’s a poorly written novel. It’s a Mary Sue wish-fulfillment tale with no real peril or depth, no character arc of development, and as this article, puts it: “Ready Player One Is an Orgy of Nostalgia in All the Wrong Ways.” Or as one commentor online, who I can’t find to give credit to the quote, said: “*Ready Player One* is *Shrek* for nerds – a simple-ass story built out of soulless references to other pop cultural artifacts, constructed entirely to stimulate the pleasure of recognition.” At no point in the novel did I feel the hero was in any danger. In fact, pretty much a quarter of the way in I pretty much knew exactly how it was going to end, with, spoiler, him getting everything he wants, including the trophy girl. (More on the real problem of that in a second.)

Earnest Cline also wrote the 2009 film “Fanboys,” which has many of the same problems. Primarily, for me, was the climax of the film (as well as a demi-climax halfway through), was entirely a trivia contest. The protagonists had to prove they’re worthy by answering trivia questions, see how much esoterica they knew about Star Wars. That’s the “final battle” of the film. And Ready Player One is essentially that “soulless stimulation of pleasure of recognition” for an entire novel.

The problems I found with the writing are well-stated in the critique, “Why So Much Backlash? Ready Player One is Basically Twilight for Nerds” which I found myself nodding the entire way through:

The relentless references soon started wearing thin, and Wade’s ability to effortlessly conquer his challenges—like playing a perfect game of Pac-Man—started feeling empty and undeserved. By the time one of Wade’s obstacles for saving the world entails him and his friends reciting dialogue from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (a feat they accomplish with glee), I felt like a kid who thinks eating an entire cake by himself sounded fun—I was sick of it, and craving something of real substance. But the thing is, Cline really loves the ‘80s and expects the reader to feel the same. If he’s right to think that this affection is enough to carry the reader along on its own, then his deluge of pop culture references makes sense. If he’s wrong, the reader is left with references they either don’t know or don’t care about, an onslaught of nerdy nostalgia that often doesn’t advance the plot, and very simplistic writing. As in, even more basic than Twilight’s writing. In fact, film analyst Lindsay Ellis recently released a video apologizing to Meyer for getting caught up in the frenzy of bashing Twilight years ago, and acknowledging now that Meyer’s writing is really not as atrocious as everyone makes it out to be. A book Ellis mentions as having legitimately terrible writing, on the other hand? Ready Player One.

That said, I won’t not see a film because of that! One bit. I have a very low bar for quality when it comes to movies, so long as it’s audio-visually appealing. And, “Ready Player One” does promise to be that!

No, the real problems with the novel (and most likely the film), come from the toxic masculinity, the tokenism, casual racism, and misogynistic sexism deeply embedded in it.

Remember that trophy girlfriend mentioned? That’s essentially the only purpose the female character serves in the novel is to be something to be won by the hero. And to push the hero to winning his destined reward, herself getting nothing except, presumably, the pleasure of being his to own as well. On top of that, the novel falls deeply into the now-toxic trope considered a standard of so many “rom-coms,” of the guy not taking “no” for an answer. He continues to barrage and harangue her, stalking and badgering her, until she’s finally worn down and gives in — and this is considered “romantic”! Huge problem with that.

The article “The Trophy Woman of Ready Player One” does a good job focusing on that problem of the novel/film.

Then we have the tokenism and racism, addressed in this article, “We Need to Talk About Representation in ‘Ready Player One’.” This article does a far better job than I can at addressing the racism, and abelism, I felt reading it. More than implying that is you’re black, gay, disabled, disfigured, female, you better hide it… the crass patronizing only we privileged can commit by, “looking past those flaws, anyway.”

But finally, here is where it comes down to for me, where my patronage, my support or rejection, speaks directly to my experience: Ready Player One reinforces the misogynistic penis-measuring gatekeeping found rife throughout nerd culture.

I’m a nerd, been one all my life. Playing D&D since I was 10, read The Silmarillion at 12, spent every lunchtime in the school library writing programs in Apple Basic at 14, etc etc and all the stereotypes of being a geek and nerd since. And one thing nerds of all stripes do, is challenge each other to prove out worth in how much we know about something. Usually, among what has traditionally been a male-dominated culture, a newcomer says “I’m into X too!” and we fellow nerds might ask, “What’s your favorite Y from it?” and with even a vaguely acceptable answer, they’re in the club.

But to mansplain to people who are not female-identified for a second, this is not what happens to girls and women in nerd culture. If you’re female, and you dare to try to intrude into the community and say, “I like X, too,” you will be barraged with an endless challenge of questions going deeper and more minute than anything a guy would have to deal with, to prove yourself. And often times, the goalposts are moved to much and so often, there’s simply no winning, no acceptance. This kind of gatekeeping is used in such a vitriolic and cruel manner to “keep girls out!” I’ve seen it done, any woman vaguely interested in anything nerdy will likely tell you stories of it being done to her, and I thank my effing stars I never participated in it myself before I became aware of it.

Ready Player One is this gatekeeping, which the entire climax of “Fanboys” consists of, is a celebration of this, at best, pissing contest, at worst, weapon against interloping women upon the guy’s domain, purified and concentrated into the very core of what the story is.

Ultimately, I really can’t support this film, even if it improves upon the novel (which I seriously doubt it can), because of the very problems inherent in the story itself. As well as supporting the film is support of the source novel that spawned it. This is a film that if it came out some years ago, I would have raced to see, and probably see over and again as my dopamine receptors flooded with “the pleasure of (self-congratulatory) recognition” with each re-watch revealing new things I could elbow my friends with, “Didjya catch that?? Did you know what that was? Are you as knowledgeable as me??” But we don’t live in a world where we, and I’m no longer a guy who, can accept such thoughtlessly insensitive and even outright offensive representation simply for entertainment value.

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Electric Dreams of PKD and Safe with Foster

First, don’t you hate when a near-blogfaded bloggers apologizes for not blogging in so long? Yeah, me too. Sorry.

I can’t believe I haven’t complete binged the entire series of “Electric Dreams of Philip K. Dick” already, I still have a few episodes to go — but I’m really loving it. Well, I love the fact there’s more SF on TV right now, period! And, of course, being a huge Dick-head, I’m overjoyed that he’s getting even more screentime. Even though, I think, this show has been a mixed bag of both quality and level of honoring the original story the episode comes from, overall, I’m quite enjoying it.

But there’s one episode in particular I can’t get out of my head and I keep wandering back to in comparison to the original story and Dickian themes. The episode is “Safe and Sound” based on the story “Foster, You’re Dead!” I’ll give a spoiler-free general thought first, then I’ll get into some specifics after a warning.

I keep thinking about this one because the original “Foster” story is one of my favorites of Dick’s, and entirely because of the blatant criticisms it lays at late modern capitalism and disposable consumerism and manufactured need in order to make people endlessly consume. Dick has never been accused of being subtle, and this story he is at his bombastic best. The show episode “Safe and Sound,” however, does play into some subtlety and, actually, brings in some classic Dickian elements that the story did not contain, which was really interesting — but is actually at the core of my consternation. More on that after the jump.

But one of the things I thought the show did fantastically well was in modernizing the story while keeping the fundamental themes. The plot is different, but in ways in which make perfect sense, bringing story set in and critiquing late modern capitalism to that of our late postmodern capitalist world. Updating the threat of Cold War and Soviets and bomb shelters to invasive privacy issues, existential threats of terrorism, and identity. I suppose there’s not much more I can say without spoilers, so I’ll just say despite my problems with the episode, it’s a really fantastic one (even if I’m stymied whether I like the ending or not — and, even as I write this, I’m coming to the belief the ending is actually more in keeping with the story than what I would have liked to have seen in an episode they set up if it weren’t based on previous work).

And below be spoilers!

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A little love for Michel Gondry

While looking for some music in my library to listen to, I was reminded about the similarities between Chemical Brothers’ songs “Let Forever Be” and “Setting Sun” with The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” (seriously, check them out!) and I was reminded of the video for “Let Forever Be.”

A really fun, wild, unsettling video, and when it first came out is when I first became aware of the director Michel Gondry. Then found out he made the video for Daft Punk’s “Around the World.”

And then, when I saw the video for Radiohead’s “Knives Out,” I just knew that also had to be his, and it was:

No matter how many times I watch that video, it still makes me cry.

(And later discovered he made some of my favorite White Stripes videos.)

Michel Gondry is among my favorite directors, using surrealism and what I call “creative reality,” to make images that are at once fanciful but oddly disturbing. The roughness to them, the apparent slap-dash and playful imperfections mixed with repetitiveness visual loops and improper geometry and proportions, invoke a dreamlike quality that, like surrealism is meant to do, bypasses the consciousness and ego and communicates right with the subconscious, id (and perhaps our sense/memory of Lacan’s “the Real”).

I knew he had directed the film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” when I went to see it, so I was excited to experience it (despite Jim Carrey). And, of course, that film was perfect for Gondry, and it is still one of my favorite films (despite not having watched it again in far too long).

He was supposed to direct a film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, my favorite of PKD’s work. If anything would be perfect for Gondry, it should be a film about the dreamlike deterioration of reality with uncertainty and discomfort with what is real, what is illusion. Sadly, something happened and it’s no longer to be.

Just wanted to share these thoughts. Maybe next I’ll discuss one of my other favorite directors, Spike Jonze! (Interesting… so many of my favorite directors, who work with striking and emotionally affecting imagery, like these two, and David Fincher, come from the world of music video directing.)

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Looper

I just got done seeing the new film, “Looper.” Wow! That’s good cinema! An original film (not a sequel, not a remake — although I do not have anything against remakes) that takes you on a ride both emotionally and viscerally. It’s from the same writer and director who made “Brick,” one of my all-time favorite films. A film that also starred one of my increasingly favorite actors, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. As I write, briefly, about this film, I will avoid spoilers that aren’t evident from the commercials and trailers.

Now, you certainly know, it is a time travel film. (Huh, Bruce Willis is good in those — see: “Twelve Monkeys.”) And yes, if you’re the kind of person who demands that your time travel films make complete and logical sense without any paradoxes, this film is going to totally P. you O. There are some potential problems with the laws of causality in this film. But, to badly paraphrase one of the characters: “I’m not gonna sit here and discuss time travel paradoxes with you! We’d be here all night and end up diagramming shit with napkins and straws.” This is obviously the filmmaker telling the audience, yes, he’s well aware some stuff doesn’t makes sense, thank you. Deal with it. He’s letting you know that time travel is, in a sense, a narrative macguffin, something you just have to accept as necessary and watch the film for everything that the film ultimately is about.

Now, I do have a fictional theory as how this fictional notion of time travel could work in this fictional world and have the kind of cause and effect it presents, and would be happy to discuss it with anyone curious — but I’m not going to spend time detailing it here, not without risking sounding like a pedantic hypernerd, (in Simpson’s Comic Book Store Guy’s voice) “They clearly established in episode 46, ‘Rise of the Regalitrons,’ that deck 12 only has 20 rooms as the phasematter converter controls are there. So, obviously, there can’t be a ‘room 14’ on that deck, unless it is 30 meters outside the starboard side of the ship. And I think not. Obviously, what would the crew even breathe?! Sheesh.” Sorry… back to “Looper.”

The film has a wonderful balance of dark pathos as well as moments of fun, and necessary, humor. There’s one moment that Gordon-Levitt’s character is seen examining his hairline in the mirror which makes fun of the fact that the prematurely balded Bruce Willis is in his future. There’s also some moments that, without giving much away, is difficult to watch as a parent. So, fair warning. But the script is clever, the acting just great, and the story engaging!

An element I found interesting: most of the film takes place in Kansas City or thereabouts in 2042 — thirty years from now. The world that’s created feels, sadly, extremely believable. There’s rampant poverty in the streets, mentions of “vagrant wars” (or “vagrant riots,” I can’t remember), and realistic appropriation and adaptation of technology, like solar panels everywhere and hydrogen fuel recycling systems fitted to early 21st century trucks. The only bit of tech that had be raising an eyebrow was the jet cycles that had hover capability. Eh, no, not buying that. Oh, and there’s one other major story element that I won’t spoiler because I don’t believe it’s revealed in any trailers, that, for me, is far less believable than time travel paradoxes and had me thinking outside the film a bit much.

It was nice to be able to get out and see a fun, dark, actiony, humorous film. Oh, and I saw a goose-bump-raising trailer for the upcoming film, “The Cloud Atlas.” Can’t wait! And a trailer for some Abraham Lincoln film that oddly had nothing to do with vampires. Pfft. Leave it to Hollywood to toe the line and perpetuate the lie about the truth about Lincoln all these years. *grin*

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“Sleeping Beauty” really needs a wake-up call!

I caught the Julia Leigh film “Sleepy Beauty” on Netflix the other night, and, if it weren’t for the final scene, I would have forgotten it as a sexually exploitative mediocre-at-best art-house film. Unfortunately, thanks to the penultimate scene in the film, what “Sleeping Beauty” is, is in fact, a near-miss at a truly excellent feminist psycho-drama. Sadly, no matter how affective one good apple of a scene can be, it’s not enough to save the rotten barrel. And because of that, instead of simply sighing and mumbling, “Well, that was a wasted two hours,” I’ve not been able to stop thinking about what this film could have been.

Needless to say, this critique/review is going to contain spoilers. If you’ve not seen this film. . . well, actually, I’m not sure I can suggest doing so. As I’ve indicated, and I’m going to go into, it’s not a good film. It’s certainly not something you want to watch for the entertainment value–it’s not entertaining. Well, unless you’re someone who watches, say, Lars von Trier films for entertainment. *scowl* Poorly made Lars von Trier films as that. So, if you’ve not seen it, and would still like to read this article, I won’t stop you.

That said, I really don’t feel like summarizing the film any any great detail for people who’ve not seen it. In fact, I would suggest reading the Wikipedia summary of the film before continuing. But, for clarity’s sake, here’s the broad brush: A college student played by Emily Browning appears to go to class, work two normal jobs, prostitute at night as a free agent, and subject herself to medical/scientific testing for extra cash. How she finds time to do all this, well, let’s just say time management isn’t the only fanciful aspect of this film. In the process, she gets hired on to be a half-naked “silver service” server and objet d’art a la Story of O for a private dinner party club. Evidently, because of her unique beauty (and, I assume, preternatural lack of emotion or flappability) she’s contracted to be put to sleep (literally, not figuratively) naked in bed so that high-paying men can do. . . whatever, to her while she remains comatose.

Yeah, sounds just lovely, huh. The film could have, and I think, though I’ve not read any articles about the writer/director, sincerely tried to use this rather unusual, twisted adult fairy tale of a plot, to make a feminist indictment of the way in which women are exploited and used by the patriarchal society. And, it comes close. At least, the elements are there, ready to be activated into a stunning and unforgettable critique of society. But the production fails to activate the materials. The catalyst was never set off thanks to a script that, at its best, rises to the level of tedious, directing that aspires to be as good as tedious, and acting that tries really, really hard but is hamstrung by the script and directing.

Before I get back to why the feminist structure was there, I want to touch on the acting. Emily Browning does an admirable job portraying a young women who, on the surface, is easily dismissed as “self-destructive.” Certainly anyone who lives the life her character does can’t be anything else but, can she? But no, it’s deeper than that, and Browning shows it. Her character actually doesn’t appear to care enough about her own being to be something as active as self-destructive. Nihilistic is perhaps the best description.

Actually, not long ago I discovered a mental-behavior disorder known as depersonalization disorder. Essentially, someone with this condition generally feels disconnected, literally and figuratively, from their body. They tend to go through life not as a participant in their own actions but rather as an observer–a detached viewer of a person they don’t identify as themselves. Browning’s character is never described in the film as having any kind of mental or behavioral disorder, and the somewhat surreal atmosphere and circumstances of the film tend to preclude being able to diagnose any of its characters with any real-world DSM-IV conditions. They simply are what they are without the benefit of medical classification. But, if I had to label her, I would say she depicts someone with depersonalization disorder to a tee. This analysis becomes very important in discussing why the ending of the film is as powerful as it is and nearly redeems this movie.

Browning’s character goes from job to class to job to drug to sexual exploit entirely unaffected. When a clinical scientist is running a tube down her throat for a test, when she’s making endless copies at an office job, when she’s lying to her alcoholic mother and gives her her fake(?) credit card number, when she’s negotiating for sex with a client, when she’s being examined for marks before joining the dinner party service team, nothing breaks through her detachment. She performs every task and duty equally submissive, equally detached. Until the end, there are only four times in the film she shows any emotion. One is, unbelievably, some semblance of happiness in the company of what the viewer can only assume (as no direct explanation is ever given) a long-time friend who appears to be a shut-in and either a recovering alcoholic or is chronically ill. Another is when said friend informs her that he can’t go on any longer and implies he’s either “letting go” or will commit suicide, she shows weakness, sadness, and even a bit of fear. Then, when she discovers him near-death from what appears to be drug-induced suicide, she crumbles and cries, allowing herself to be cuddled by him as he dies in bed. And finally, at the funeral when she demands of a new character and evidently long-ago friend of the both of them, to marry her (jokingly? sincerely? both?) and he angrily rejects her, she herself displays barely-repressed anger.

It’s these four, only four, instances of sincere humanity that peak (yes, “peak”) out from an otherwise Kansas-flat vista of stoicism, that allows the viewer, just barely, to feel some amount of empathy, or at least sympathy, for her character. Just enough to let us keep going along this weird and twisted journey she’s on, to see where it ends. The 95-percent unaffected behavior from her is necessary for the socio-political purpose of the film, and to make the ending as effective as it is, while the four-instance emotional cracks allow us to believe the ending is possible while, also, not getting so disgusted by her alien behavior that we have to give up on her before journey’s end.

No, all blame for the failures of this film rests at the feet of the director. For example, just what style was she going for? Kubrickian? David Lynchian? Catherine Breillat-ian? von Trierian? It certainly doesn’t establish a style of its own, despite the pastiche, as the styles of the afore-mentioned auteur directors are employed with heavy-handed obviousness and no cohesiveness. Which is made worse by the fact that the viewer can’t tell what directorial choices are in fact choices or mistakes or carelessness.

For example, in one particular scene, Browning’s character, Lucy, steps out from a car having arrived at where she would be sleeping, and stops in the driveway to stare at something. The camera slowly pans (Lynchian-style) across the building to where there’s another car that two men help a drugged young woman into. The camera slowly pans back to show Lucy vaguely curious. The problem here is that once the camera reveals the men, woman, and car, it’s obvious that they wouldn’t have been visible to Lucy at the point we see her stare before the camera makes its languorous trip. So, is this intentional? Is this just lazy direction?

In another scene, Lucy is in an electronics store to buy a concealable camera. Her image is displayed on various televisions from what should be a camera on display. However, it’s obvious here that her televised image was pre-recorded and Browning is having to act to match the dialog and movements of herself in the screens. This is terribly perplexing; there’s no logical, practical reason why the production couldn’t have used a real-time digital camera patched into televisions the same way thousands of department stores do daily. Just replace whatever they had feeding the screens with her pre-recorded action with a live camera. The fact they used a recording had to have been a conscious and intentional decision, but why? For all the oddness of the film, it’s not so odd that this display of a fracture in reality, I can only assume, is justified and appropriate.

And, not to mention, the scene that was surely the worst directed scene I have ever seen since an Ed Wood movie. The scene in which Lucy has her interview with the hostess/madam, Clara, and her assistant(?). The entire, single-cut scene, felt like the director said, “Action!”

And the actors replied, “Uhm, you never gave us lines or blocking for this scene.”

“Well. . . oh! We’ll do this scene. . . minimalist natural realism! Yeah, that’s the ticket. Now. . . action!”

“Er, we still don’t really know what to do here.”

“Action!”

It was awkward and uncomfortable watching it, and I sat through “Jurassic Park 2.” I almost gave up. I thought to myself, “I don’t care how artsy and film-festivally this is, this is terrible.” But, I try never to stop watching a film so that, if nothing else, I can say, “Yeah, actually, I saw that. Let me tell you how bad it was!” (And yet, I still refuse to see “Twilight.”)

This brings us, finally, to the saving grace that made me throw up my hands in cry, “This! Why couldn’t the previous 97 minutes have lived up to this?!” Here’s what happens:

So, she rises to the position of being a beautiful rag doll in a lavish bed. We see her on three different occasions get molested in her drugged state by three wealthy men she never meets. The first one is, in a manner of speaking, the more gentle one who seems to want to do no more than appreciate her appearance. (Still misogynistic, and I’ll go into that later.) But he’s a sad, broken rich man. He comes back at the end of the film to allow himself to be drugged to death by the madam/hostess and die in bed next to the naked and sleeping Lucy.

Cut to later when Clara returns and checks to make sure he is indeed dead. Clara sits on the bed, perhaps sad. She attempts to waken Lucy and discovers that (thanks to her still having last night’s recreational drugs in her system) Lucy won’t awaken. She’s forced to give her near-panicking mouth-to-mouth. Lucy wakes with a shock and a start. She looks around, seemingly for the first time, sees the man dead next to her, and screams. And screams. Not the scream of panic, nor of shock, nor anger, but of pure, brutal existential crisis. She screams in spiritual terror like a newborn pulled violently into a new world, but also with all the awareness of the terror of what life holds.

Every ounce of emotion that Lucy should have felt throughout the film, throughout her whole life perhaps, comes out in this instantaneous realization of who she is, what she is, what she’s done. The dam has burst, the walls have collapse, the ground has given way, every masonic artifice that is used to hold in the unbridled force of being, is gone. All is left is pure pathos. And Emily Browning performs this painful and terrible moment with complete and utter sincerity. We, the voyeur who has watched her emotionless debasement for an hour and a half is given a view of the cost and are then swept away, never to know if this re-birth leads to her new life, or ultimate destruction where what was before an existence not-lived or examined, becomes active self-destruction as she realizes she can’t live with her new awareness. The scene cuts to video of what Lucy had secretly recorded of that night using her covertly placed camera–her asleep, and him presumably dead, in the same position he was found in. Then, credits.

That catharsis gives meaning and purpose to the previous hour and a half of detached ennui. And the previous small cracks give the catharsis sincerity. Sadly, however, the scene can’t be seen entirely as Lucy’s horror and catharsis and one can’t help but see, perhaps, some of Browning herself in the emotional release, due to the fact that the awkward and amateurish direction throughout the film gives the impression that the actress is being exploited and abused nearly as much as the character. While the presumed intent of the film was to critique misogyny, the failure of the message makes the actress as much a victim as the character. Perhaps not as intentionally as von Trier and his sadistic debasement and abuse of women (the actresses themselves in what seems like the director’s hate for women) in what is truly misogynistic film-making, but the end result is the same.

So, because of the embarrassingly awful and never-quite-sure-what’s-intentional directing, the potentially powerful message gets turned into exactly what the film was trying to subvert–a misogynistic sexual exploitation piece. Lucy is supposed to represent the female, made to be submissive and without voice in the patriarchy. She’s expected to be all things: the good daughter, the student, the hard worker, the sex slave, the piece of art on a pedestal, the caretaker of the weak and sick . . . . And she’s expected to do it without complaint. Without even her active participation in those roles. She’s simply . . . expected.

Clara, the hostess/madam, should have been an interesting character. She is what Lucy would have become in fifteen or twenty years. Clara appears in the film nearly as unaffected, as detached as Lucy. She is, in fact, representative of the self-victimization of the woman. She facilitates her own subjugation and the subjugation of women because that is, again, what is expected. It’s what she knows. It’s auto-pilot. Throughout the history of the fight for gender equality, some of the fiercest opponents have been other women who resent the idea that they should question the world, the role, they know and have been convinced is the right and proper “place” for a woman in this “man’s world.” Without question, without a raised eyebrow, Clara perpetuates the abuse to the next generation. Lucy has woken up, and has avoided that fate–though we don’t know if for good or ill.

The three men who visit the comatose Lucy represent three different ways in which society sets men up to subjugate women. The second man to use her is overtly abusive, raining verbal abuse upon her and even burning her with a cigarette. There is no subtlety with him, he is hate. Interestingly, before his visit, Clara had but one rule for the men: no penetration. She had even told Lucy, in these words, that her vagina is a temple (which Lucy dismissed). This points out the patriarchy’s obsession with “purity,” or virginity, despite the complete disdain it has for all other aspects of the female. “Virginity” is code for “property.” Only the man who owns the girl can despoil her in such a way, while society has historically had no similar attachment of “purity” toward men. (At least, not until the rise of equal rights when, faced with the hypocrisy, instead of giving up on the obsession with female virginity, Judeo-Christian culture started giving lip service toward the value of male virginity. Though, in cultural practice, this is empty sentiment.) This is evident in the rise of the rather creepy “purity balls” which have no male version.

In any case, Clara’s one rule was to maintain the patriarchal obsession with purity in hypocritical counterpoint to the range of abuse otherwise allowed, until the second man’s visit. Clara then adds a second rule: no marks. After all, we are still talking about property.

The third man is a large, bull of a man who is surreal David Lynch style, performs a scene of trying to pick up the limp, naked Lucy, carry her around and replace her on the bed, only to have her continue to slide off the edge despite his efforts. It really is almost as absurd as it sounds. This man is the hypocrisy of chivalry. Chivalry (as we know it today, not its medieval origin) is a false theatrical replacement for actual respect. If you want to open a door for someone, protect someone’s honor, treat someone with deference, you do it out of respect for that person as a human. While the patriarchy exploits and abuses the female, it hides behind this play-act of being a protector and guardian of virtue of “the weaker sex.” It’s patronizing and demeaning and borne, once again, out of protection of property, as opposed to out of human respect as equals. The third man tries to be the strong, dominant hero, and because he sees her as the other men do, an object, property, he ultimately fails.

Back to the first (and final) man, he is the subtle symbol of patriarchal exploitation. His first visit, all he does is look, admire, touch, with what appears to be both longing and adoration. On the surface, this seems harmless enough. But remember, he’s looking and touching and admiring a woman who has been made to order to be unresponsive, unaware, without voice–still, just an object. His tender touch is no different and has no more care than a stroke of a statue or a vase. In the western patriarchy, women are objectified and presented on magazines, TV, billboards, as commodity. To be consumed. The image of the woman is sexualized, made glamorous and seemingly untouchable, but consumed all the same. This seemingly kindly, older man, is not being kind to Lucy, he doesn’t even know or even see a “Lucy.” He sees an object, something he’s paid to consume.

And in the end, with his second visit, he uses her in a most obscene way, by making her without her consent, see him off into death. We may feel sympathy for him because he’s alone and broken and desires to leave the world next to something beautiful, but this does not absolve him of the exploitation he commits, of the person to which he is incapable of apologizing to. And it perverts the earlier scene where she voluntarily gives comfort to her friend as he, in counterpoint, also leaves this world, broken. That scene (though directed awkwardly), is heartbreaking; the scene with the rich old man, is perverse. This realization is certainly part of what instigates Lucy’s ultimate breakdown.

The indictment is there, the statements are there, the critique is there–but what ultimately comes out of this film is clumsy and . . . whatever German word means: ironically sexual without any actual sexuality.

Oh, and a final word on the marketing of this film. From what I’ve seen, it’s been marketed as an erotic drama, even romantic is some strange way. For the DVD release, the studio even did a promotion where you could win a chance at a prize for sleeping in public in their display bed. Seriously. Think about what this movie is about, and then consider this “you too could be Sleeping Beauty for money!” promotion. Reminds me of how “Hunger Games” was promoted. “You too can participate in the Hunger Games!” kind of hoopla to the books and fast food tie-ins and stuff. Think about that. “You too can participate in a horrific and evil competition where you kill other children in grisly ways and try to survive! Buy our stuff.”

I hate marketers.

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“Blade Runner’s” 30th anniversary and cartoonists with projection issues

Well, yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the release of “Blade Runner” — the film I have, since I saw it when I was 11, invariably listed as my favorite film of all. Like most people (who weren’t up on the latest literary scifi trends) at that time, circa 1982, I had no experience or knowledge of “cyberpunk.” But the style and themes of “Blade Runner,” despite having had only 11 years of safe, middle-class life experiences to draw upon, etched themselves into my mind and from that moment, converted me from a die-hard Ray Bradbury fan to (although I didn’t yet know it) a die-hard William Gibson fan. After “Blade Runner,” my scifi aesthetic became dark as an alley and bright as neon. I didn’t yet know it, but the seeds of appreciation for the posthuman were planted, the seeds for understanding postmodern capitalism were planted — albeit deeper.

Though, on the surface, what that 11-to-13-year-old me most loved, was most amazed by, was the very, very, un-Star Wars, un-Star Trek view of the polluted and dying megalopolis depicted in the film. A film with the symbol of human progress and science: the flying car, set, unexpectedly, among the decay and nihilism of the cyberpunk world.

Thanks to having my awareness primed by “Blade Runner,” when I did finally come across William Gibson in the fiction pages of OMNI magazine just a couple years later, the short circuit was made and I became. I began to truly understand what it meant to question being human, what it meant to fear the future and question the myth of the bright and glorious future of humanity.

And, over the 30 years, every time I revisit “Blade Runner,” by accumulated life experiences informs my appreciation for the film and those questions and fears even more — and more deeply.

Gareth Branwyn wrote a short essay on BoingBoing.net a few weeks ago, remembering the truly sublime, life-altering experience seeing “Blade Runner” for the first time was for him. He had the life experiences to allow him to have that sublime epiphany in the moment. I had to draw that moment our over three decades into growing awareness punctuated by moments of, “Ooohhh, yyeeaahh….” (Be sure to read that BoingBoing article! Emotional.)

The latest stage of my developing awareness came, funny enough, toward the later years, when I discovered the works of the man whose novel, Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep, inspired the film. Philip K. Dick. There is no “Everything happens for a reason,” but it’s difficult to ignore the feeling that my history with “Blade Runner,” Gibson, cyberpunk, didn’t lead me to where I could encounter PKD prepared to appreciate and understand his work, his themes, his intent, from the first word of his I read.

Naturally, the plot of “Blade Runner” diverges from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep somewhat significantly. But when you examine it, and realize Ridley Scott had to pare a novel down to a two-hour audio-visual version, it really is an excellent, and indeed, faithful translation. And from the script he read and the dailies he saw, PKD thought so as well until he passed away so close to the premiere.

And this is where my assessment appears to diverge greatly from that of cartoonist John Bonner. In his one-page comic, “Comic Crits Classics: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick,” Bonner speculates that PKD would have loved the style of the film (which he did), but would have ultimately been disappointed and even betrayed by the lack of certain thematic elements. Not only is Bonner likely wrong about what PKD would have thought (based on PKD’s own words), but he’s factually wrong about the film not including some of the themes he seems to think it missed.

He has his Philip lamenting the film’s lack of “kibble” (sic) and the “exploration of the android-human dilemma.” In fact, he projects that his idea of Philip would be “heartbroken” at the loss of supposedly nearly everything from the book that didn;t make it into the film. Well, allow me to address Bonner’s errors.

The so-called android-human dilemma is at the very core of the film. In fact, the primary theme of the film centers around the dilemma of androids who are more human than human and yet are considered less-than human by the cold and resentful humans that created them. The entire film asks, “What does it mean to be ‘human’?”

And the kipple? (As it’s properly spelled.) The film is wall-to-wall with it. A couple of years ago I wrote a paper for grad school titled, “The Ubiquitous and Panasonic Kipple: Tracing the Consumption of Death, from Philip K. Dick to Don DeLillo’s White Noise.” As the title suggests, I deal with the concept of kipple a wee bit. From Do Androids, here’s what it is:

“Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday’s homeopape. When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up in the next morning there’s twice as much of it. It always gets more and more.”

“I see.” The girl regarded him uncertainly, not knowing whether to believe him. Not sure if he meant it seriously.

“There’s the First Law of Kipple,” he said. “‘Kipple drives our nonkipple.’ Like Gresham’s law about bad money. And in these apartments there’s been nobody there to fight the kipple.”

“So it has taken over completely,” the girl finished. She nodded. “Now I understand.” (57)

In Androids, PKD has to, naturally, explain what kipple is and that the world is filled with it. It’s a novel. Ridley Scott, however, is (despite the heartbreakingly disappointing “Prometheus.”) an expert filmmaker. He doesn’t need to tell you about kipple, he shows you. Every set, every scene of the film is wall-to-wall kipple. The streets, Deckard’s apartment, Sebastian’s apartment, Zhora’s dressing room, everywhere except Tyrell’s conference room is littered with kipple in a claustrophobia-inducing crush. Scott doesn’t have to tell you that the decaying Earth is being weighted down by the cast-off corpses of consumerism — it’s evident in every shot. It seeps into the subliminal awareness of the film like the way kipple seeps into our lives. Scott “gets” it. And that’s probably one reason PKD did indeed love what he saw of the film:

I came to the conclusion that this indeed is not science fiction; it is not fantasy; it is exactly what Harrison said: futurism. The impact of BLADE RUNNER is simply going to be overwhelming, both on the public and on creative people — and, I believe, on science fiction as a field. Since I have been writing and selling science fiction works for thirty years, this is a matter of some importance to me. In all candor I must say that our field has gradually and steadily been deteriorating for the last few years. Nothing that we have done, individually or collectively, matches BLADE RUNNER. This is not escapism; it is super realism, so gritty and detailed and authentic and goddam convincing that, well, after the segment I found my normal present-day “reality” pallid by comparison. What I am saying is that all of you collectively may have created a unique new form of graphic, artistic expression, never before seen. And, I think, BLADE RUNNER is going to revolutionize our conceptions of what science fiction is and, more, canbe.

Let me sum it up this way. Science fiction has slowly and ineluctably settled into a monotonous death: it has become inbred, derivative, stale. Suddenly you people have come in, some of the greatest talents currently in existence, and now we have a new life, a new start. As for my own role in the BLADE RUNNER project, I can only say that I did not know that a work of mine or a set of ideas of mine could be escalated into such stunning dimensions. My life and creative work are justified and completed by BLADE RUNNER. Thank you.

And:

“I saw a segment of Douglas Trumbull’s special effects for Blade Runner on the KNBC-TV news. I recognized it immediately. It was my own interior world. They caught it perfectly.”

Mercerism was an, admittedly, prominent and important aspect of PKD’s novel, but to attempt to include that would require a film twice as long. And from PKD’s appreciation of the script he read:

After I finished reading the screenplay, I got the novel out and looked through it. The two reinforce each other, so that someone who started with the novel would enjoy the movie and someone who started with the movie would enjoy the novel. I was amazed that Peoples could get some of those scenes to work. It taught me things about writing that I didn’t know.”
[…]
“You read the screenplay and then you go to the novel, and it’s like they’re two halves to one meta-artwork, one meta-artifact. It’s just exciting.

…I think PKD was perfectly okay with their not including that half of the book in this film.

So, I have a feeling that Bonner was personally disappointed by what he felt the film missed from one of his favorite books, and decided to project that disappointment into the voice of the author — despite the author’s own well-documented opinions of the film.

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Hunger Games review and reaction

First Reaction

After annoying everyone I know for two weeks about The Hunger Games, having devoured the trilogy in five days, I finally saw the film (in IMAX, even) today. Wow! Better than I’d hoped, and every fear I had was alleviated. In fact, I’d say it was one of the best book-to-film translations I’ve ever seen–having kept every major plot point, every theme, many details, the feel and emotion… everything was dead-on. Sure, there were some cuts and even additions, but they were made to make the book work as a film, and done so perfectly! But I’ll touch on a those things down in the spoilery section of this essay.

These last few days, I’d read many reviews of the film. Some I read with glee, some with trepidation. Several reviews and articles expressed problems with the film that gave voice to some of my own concerns. Fortunately, only a couple of those concerns were valid; otherwise, most of the criticisms I read are objectively just wrong, and where it’s a matter of opinion… well, do I have to say which opinion I think is more valid? *grin*

The one criticism that was valid, was the over-use of the dreaded shakey-cam! Oh. My God. From the opening of the film, even the quite, setting establishing shots on people and buildings, shakey-cam! Like the camera was zoomed in on something a couple hundred feet away, and not on a stand/tripod/whatever. Know what I mean? Very distracting. However, the shakey-cam use during the violence was actually quite good, ironically. But I’ll touch on that more when I discuss the violence of the film.

Annoying Critics are Annoying

As for outlandish criticisms, first, is the one I saw here and there about Jennifer Lawrence’s stoic performance. Fortunately, most reviews recognized her incredible job portraying the quiet and smoldering girl who, in the novels, gave us the benefit of reading her thoughts, being the 1st-person narrator. In fact, now that I think of it, nearly every review glowed about her performance–it was only a couple that criticized it, so I really shouldn’t address it. But I’m compelled, because of how taken I was. Yes, Katniss wore a  predominantly a guarded expression, but it was appropriate for a character who, from a young age, had to become virtually the head of her household, raising her sister while their mother was virtually catatonic in depression after the death of her husband and the girls’ father. She had to be tough and guarded.

But, that made all the many, many instances of subtle emotional breaks and expressions, all the more effective. When she smiled at Peeta sitting at the window; when she looked upon the video wall with amazement, and then disgust; when she smiled, impressed, by Rue’s antics; when she scoffs at Haymitch’s message in the soup canister; and so forth. Not to mention the few places in which she breaks down into true, body-wracking emotion, that is so much the more emotional because of her in-control nature. You truly get a sense of the toll the “games” take on her when she allows her walls to crack. One of the moments in which Jennifer’s performance was so pitch-perfect, so sincere, that my heart felt crushed and breaking, was when she’s spending the last moments with Cinna below the area, before she goes up. (That’s not spoilery, is it?) The look of near-panic and barely working self-control in her eyes, the way her body shakes, made me feel exactly how she, the character felt, and I wept for her while at the same time feeling like I, myself, was about to walk into my own death.

On Violence

Okay, the violence. I’ve decided that any reviewer who says, “Not violent enough! Just watch the ‘original’: the Japanese ‘Battle Royale,'” is a moron and I’m completely ignoring everything they have to say from that point. Are there similarities between the government forcing kids to kill kids in “Battle Royale” and “Hunger Games”? Duh. But that’s where the similarities completely end. And if one want’s to discount a later work that has an element, even a major element, from a previous work, well, better discount most of modern literature back through Shakespeare and further. The fact that “Hunger Games” is essentially a blend of the Greek tale of Theseus and the story of slave-turned-rebel, Spartacus–both stories featuring child tributes and gladiatorial killing, the cynical comparison to “Battle Royale” is rendered moot.

Furthermore, I’ve seen “Battle Royale,” and despite the patina of social commentary that’s loosely applied, that film is a splatter-gore violence exploitation film. As I watched it, initially apprehensive and disturbed, I was quickly made to feel virtually no emotion about that film at all as it was essentially a ridiculous, blood-soaked cartoon. (Now, I’ve not read the book, which, for all I know, is indeed closer to the sincere commentary that “Hunger Games” is.) The “Hunger Games” novel is significantly more violent than the movie depicted, but it can get away with it as the text and the narrative can easily render the texual violence disturbing and horrific, whereas in a film, there’s a fine line between that and glorification. If “Hunger Games” the film was any more bloody than it was, it would have tipped into the ridiculous. As it is, the director did a perfect job representing the horror of kids slaughtering kids without needing to up the gore.

(spoilers)

Well, I’m not sure I can go on much further talking about the film without being spoilery, so, be warned: from this point there be spoilers! Not just for the first book and film, but probably the entire trilogy.

Back to the subject… What also helped turn what could have very easily been a glorification of the violence into something deeply disturbing and terribly sad, was the film, from the first moment we see District 12 and meet Prim and Katniss, presented what was to happen in exactly the right and realistic mood. Showing us how the people of District 12 fear and loathe the day, how everything that happens is darkened by the knowledge that something terrible is going to happen, including the way Greasy Sae gives Katniss the mockingjay pin free, and looks at her with sadness. The way Effie’s bubbly excitement is counterpointed by the districts utter silence and participation only from duress.

Ironic Celebration of Marketing Violence

I should comment that, up until the moment I saw the film, one of my greatest fears was exactly how it would approach the games–with the same sense of recognition of the immoral inhumanity of it? Or the action and excitement of the entire movie marketing campaign? For these last few weeks, as the marketing for the film ramped up to fever pitch, the selling of stuff whether fast food or companion books or whatever, has been accompanied with the impression that the Hunger Games of the story are a real neato-cool event that’s as exciting and to be anticipated. And that’s seriously bothered me. Granted, you’re not going to sell as much useless crap if you’re marketing it with the actual themes of the book/film: a critique on the grotesque love of reality TV and the adoration of violence. Doesn’t make for a big selling tone.

Fortunately, the film itself was very much in sync with the cultural criticisms of the books, and the Hunger Games and what happens in them are depicted as something horrible, not exciting and grand (to any decent person, at least. Which brings me to….)

On a tangent, one thing I am so glad of, is in my part of the world where I see films in the theater, I’ve never had to encounter rowdy teenager, people talking on phones during the film, people who cheer or laugh or jeer inappropriately–all things I read about other people experiencing. And, in this case, I’ve read about people seeing the film with an audience that cheered and clapped at the various death scenes, ironically emulating the very behavior that the books/film decries. In my packed theater, the “action” and killings were accompanied with a silence from the audience matching the silence of District 12 when Effie asks them to applaud for Katniss and her volunteering. This give me some hope for humanity.

Translation Changes

Anyway, some of the bigger changes in the film from the book. There were a couple, but they were mostly necessary. In the film, we don’t get much about the Everdeen family’s situation and the death of the father and Katniss’s and her mom’s reaction to it… but it is referenced in a trackerjacker-induced delirium flashback which was handled nicely. Because of what happens to Katniss at the end of the 3rd book, Mockingjay, I’m really hoping that, for that to pack as much of an emotional punch as it has in the books, they do build a little more in the next film on her mother’s complete shutdown and Katniss’s resulting near-hatred of her for it. That’s a very important part of the book’s themes and overarching narrative, and character development.

Also, for the sake of both time and economy of characters, they had to remove everything about the Dictrict 12 mayor, his family, and Marge–whom gives Katniss the mockingjay pin. I understand why they did that, and am okay with it. Except, I do hope they take the opportunity to build up our affection for the people of District 12 (the mayor and his daughter being significant in the books) in order for their deaths and the destruction of District 12 to be that much more crushing. And, most importantly, add the Katniss’s sense of debt for their deaths that is the foundation for her breakdown at the end of the trilogy (ultimately triggered, naturally, by the death of her sister).

On Debt

Moving away from the film review and more on a discussion of the books for a moment, I really want to address that theme of the books: debt. The writing of the Hunger Games books isn’t the best in the world. The author does beat the reader over the head a bit too often with her themes and lessons. But, what she does subtly, is done so well, that the reader (well, I) can do nothing but bask in the beauty of the moment when it culminates. Throughout the book, Katniss is constantly counting debts–whenever someone saves her life, that’s another debt she owes them, whenever someone dies because of her, that’s a debt she owes. She’s constantly aware of the piling of these debts. To a point, it almost becomes annoying. I found myself in the middle of Mockingjay wondering if anything is going to be made of the near-obsessive debt counting. And, no, there is never any actual dialog or narrative or even 1st-person thought, after the climax, about the debts she owes. That word is completely dropped. However, it’s the very basis of what causes Katniss to finally completely breakdown, shut down, spiral into depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, after Prim dies in front of her. The ultimate debt she owes, to her. The death of District 12 and those thousands of people, the ruining of Peeta’s mind, the death of the people who followed her into battle, and Prim. The debt crushes her. And the way it is left to the reader to make the connection between the debt and her crumbling, makes the reader feel the pain more acutely–if one makes the connection. It’s certainly bad enough to have her sister die in front of her, needlessly, after Katniss volunteered her own life at the beginning of book one for her, which started nearly 2 years of pain and destruction that might not have happened (to her and District 12, at least) if she hadn’t. That would justify rage and depression. But what ends up happening to Katniss can only be the debt coming due in her mind.

 Changes, Redux

Ah, yes, back on track. Another (necessary but heavily missed) change that was made was the gloss-over of Peeta giving Katniss the bread when Katniss, years earlier, was at the very end of her rope, and the brink of complete loss and desperation (and, incidentally, beginning her obsession with counting debt). It’s brought up in the film, and very well, too. Carefully edging closer and closer in flashes of memory, to the ultimate act of generosity that gave the younger Katniss hope, the film instilled an appropriate sense that this was a very important moment in their lives. Mostly in Katniss’s. But the book, naturally, went so much further in describing just how terrible her despair at that moment was, that wasn’t quite as major as I would have liked to have seen it depicted.

Also, an important detail that would have been difficult to properly portray in the film, was her finding the lone flower in the mud, signalling to her the coming of spring and that she, and her family, were going to have a chance of making it after her father’s death. That flower changed her. And, if I recall, it happened to be the same type of flower that she collected to honor Rue with–making that scene all the more heart-breaking in the novel. But, again, very difficult to film without too much exposition.

After Katniss’s reaction to Rue’s death, followed by her honoring her with a wreath of flowers, and then sending District 11 a salute, we see the emotional reaction in District 11 results in a riot. In the books, we don’t find out about any kind of growing rebellion until book two. But, I think skipping forward a bit and showing the reaction in the first film is important. In books, we don’t find out until book two, but even then we’re told that uprising were already beginning during the 74th Games. So, timewise, it’s perfectly appropriate to show it. (Although, I don’t believe 11 started getting into the act until later–I believe it was 4 that started revolting. Anyway…) It helps the round out the film as a stand-alone whole by adding depth to the political strife and turmoil Panem exists in. But mostly, the film needed it. The audience at that point had just witnessed a terrible and unfair death, a very sad and heartbreaking death, and a highly emotional reaction by the heroine–the audience is emotionally suffering at that moment. The portrayal of the angry mob destroying and rioting, helped us channel those emotions outward, just as the characters’ were reacting to the event, and helped us get out of the pit of despair and be able to continue on with the film in a more up, or, not “positive,” but engaged manner. That’s the hand of a skilled director.

And finally, the death of Seneca, the Gamesmaster. We don’t get that in the book. We only hear about his death and replacement in book two. Since Seneca was actually used more in the film than in the book, out of narrative necessity, his end was also necessary. And, as the one real change from whole cloth in the film, I’m impressed by how they went about it–giving him the Socratic hemlock, so to speak, in the form of a bowl of the very berries that symbolized his failure and the embarrassment of the Capitol. Brilliant choice!

Closing

Well, I’ve written on far too long. But, it feels good to express all of this. The last week I’ve been reading various essays related to The Hunger Games and the film, critical and analytic essays. Here’s one that I found particularly excellent! “Why ‘The Hunger Games’ Isn’t ‘Twilight’ (And Why That’s A Good Thing).” On the one hand, it’s so very annoying to constantly have “The Hunger Games” compared to “Twilight;” however, it’s kind of inevitable. There are so few big-budget films featuring a young, female protagonist, that it’s almost a given they must be compared and contrasted. Hopefully, one day, there’ll be far too many to be able to do that too. But, in the meantime, this article is a wonderful analysis of why “The Hunger Games,” and the books, is far superior in themes and message.

Thanks for reading!

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No no, NaNoWriMo.

Once again, I’m going to give up on completing NaNoWriMo. I intended to use this weekend writing and editing. Well, I’d gotten quite a lot done editing my existing novel! …and absolutely no new writing done.

Well, it’s for the best, really. I’d rather be that much closer getting my existing novel into a shape in which other people might think it’s good, and not just me. 🙂 If I can get a little bit more done every night this week, or at least another marathon editing weekend, I think I can get it finished before next week and be able to give it to some readers for critique. It’ll be nice to get some feedback from people outside my own head. The voices in there aren’t always the most trust-worthy.

I love this book, and I’m extremely proud of it — but I don’t mind saying I can’t wait to be done of it. Sure, I want it to be the best it can be! I’m not at all going to hedge on the effort going into editing it. But, when it’s done, when I’ve edited the last page and am ready to send it to paying customers/editors, I’m done with it. I totally understand how directors and actors when their franchise gets cancelled and they’re asked about fan efforts to revive their show, they often reply with a kind of “Oh, it was a great time in my life, but it’s over and I’ve moved on now. I don’t think I can return to that.” Makes me wonder what the heck’s George Lucas’ deal, constantly going back and fiddling with Star Wars. Guess it helps he just has to tell an army of people, “Go and change and add this. Hop to!”

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Adjusted earnings

 

20111028-114507.jpg

 

I’m of two minds on this article: On the one hand, copyright law is completely effed (thank you, Disney!) and should be scrapped and rewritten for the 21st century. Artists should be free to use others’ works to create new art, providing a. credit and attribution is given appropriately, and b. the original work is kept available for anyone to view/read/buy etc.

 

On the other hand, as it is, the Philip K. Dick estate has been very lenient in allowing others to play with his stories — very lenient (I’m looking at you, “Next” and “Paycheck.”) The estate is simply wanting to get what was previously agreed and promised to them, and they’re certainly in the right for that! In this case, the studio is simply looking for a loophole to avoid their obligations (as is their usual M.O.).

 

As a freakin huge fan of PKD, even with business ethics that put the estate in the right, aside, I want the estate to win. But I must still admit — I think the film was much better than the story, which suffers from PKD’s too-often emotionally sterile style.


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“Sucker Punch”; the perfect postmodern flick

sucker punch posterNow, don’t get me wrong: when I say “perfect,” I don’t mean Sucker Punch is a perfect film in general. On the contrary. It’s a bad film! The script is spare, uninspired, and tedious, and the acting (with the slight exception of supporting actors Oscar Isaac as “Blue” and Carla Gugino as “Dr. Vera,” and the pathos-saturated sad face from lead Emily Browning as “Baby Doll”) is equally tedious and as thin as tissue. Fortunately, this isn’t exactly a review of the film but a critique.

Now, don’t get me wrong. . . again. While I declare the film as bad, I also loved it. I had fun time watching it and would willingly see it again in the theater a couple more times. The action sequences are as amazing audio-visually as they are the epitome of sound and fury signifying nothing. And pardon me if I prevaricate about the shrubbery and mention the 800-pound gorilla only so much as to say I can’t really discuss the 800-pound gorilla. (By which I mean the 800-pound gorilla that’s the object of 15-year-old boys’ dreams dressed up in fetish costumes not lacking in stockings and garters. How’s that for a disturbing image).

I don’t want to discuss the over-saturation of objectified female sexuality in the film (which is difficult as that’s basically what a solid half of this film consists of), because while I count myself as a feminist and constantly aware of the use and effect of themale gaze, I do happen to be a privileged male and the owner of a male gaze. On top of that, while I don’t accept all (or most) of what evolutionary psychology claims, I also don’t dismiss the concept and some of its hypotheses out of hand. So, if I try critiquing the blitzkrieg use of sexuality in the film, I’ll likely get accused of being too sympathetic to its use or unqualified to critique (even to criticize) it since I am a target consumer of the cinematic male gaze. (A criticism I often hear about many subjects and ideologies. Which I, obviously, don’t believe. I think it is indeed possible to critique a thing even while existing within its sphere of effect. If that were true that it weren’t possible, then, for example, since all of western culture operates within the contradictions of postmodern capitalism, any kind of Marxist criticism would have to be impossible. Sorry, Fredric Jameson — you need to find a new career!) So, end of topic right there. (Except to mention this amusing and sadly accurate comic I read just today, by feminist blogger Jen McCreight.)

What I do want to discuss is how Sucker Punch exists as the distilled and purified essence of postmodern production. And to do so, I’m afraid I’m going to need to be spoilery. So, if you’ve not seen the film and want to remain surprised (it would be much too easy to insert a joke there), read this after viewing.

The film exists in three realms or reality: layer one is the “real world” which lands somewhere in the 1950s, best I can tell from the brief view of automobiles, layer two is the fantasy-world brothel inside Baby Doll’s head as she tries to cope with being institutionalized by her abusive stepfather and an impending lobotomy back in the real world, and layer three is the action vignettes that represent the fantasy world of fantasy world’s Baby Doll. Now, I have to give writer/director Zack Snyder a bit of credit here for not trying to trick the audience into thinking layer two or three is the Real World or that layer one is actually layer two and there’s a unrevealed layer one to be pulled out as a shock ending. However, this doesn’t get him off the hook for making layer one just as fantastically impossible as the other layers — and that complete disregard for any semblance of reality within the real is one of the primary reasons for the film being perfect postmodernism.

The movie opens with a slow-motion montage of scenes showing Baby Doll’s mother’s death, funeral, establishing threat of violence from stepfather, accidental death of Baby Doll’s younger sister as she tries to protect the younger sibling from their evil stepfather, and then her being institutionalized. The only sound on top of this establishing background setup, is a cover of The Eurythmic’s “Sweet Dreams” with the lyrics “Some of them want to abuse you” placed like a delicate sledgehammer on top of the scene of stepfather entering the bedroom, like an auditory Lord Privy Seal. And it’s from this opening segment that the dislocation, the crisis of historicity and sincere schizoidness, that mark late postmodern artistic production is established. We, the viewer, are given clues to the setting being some olden day of curvy cars and men wearing hats, but the sound places us in modernity. (Not to mention the fact that the song is a remake which adds yet another layer of separation from any idea of the original, or the authentic.) The film situates us in a simulacrum of an historical moment with no interest in actually representing authentic history. The quasi-1950s setting of the movie essentially becomes nothing more than style — not setting, not placement.

The dizzying, disorienting confusion of time and place only increases from there. In the layer two world, in which we spend most of our time (actually, that may be debatable; the wall-to-wall action scenes of world layer three seem like interruptions, but actually may account for half the film or more), Baby Doll, as the “new girl” trapped in the brothel, is compelled to dance as part of her job to entertain the sleaze the establishment caters to. We never see layer two Baby Doll dance, as that is when she enters her head and we’re transported to various war/fantasy/sci-fi battle sequences, but we do get to hear the music that gets played on the 50-year-old reel-to-real or radio. And that music includes such classics as a souped-up remix of Björk’s “Army of Me,” a remake of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” a hip-hopped mashup-remix of Queen’s “I Want it All” and “We Will Rock You,” and a cover of the Beatle’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” (which, ironically, sounds in its original 1960s form like a 2000s Chemical Brothers’ techo-rave track. Weird, that).

Now, as I admitted already, I’m a wall-of-sound mindless-action-flick fan (to an extent; Jurassic Park 2 was the worst film I’ve ever seen and I have no interest in the current Transformers CGI porn), so a significant part of me really loved the music, it’s grab-your-eardrums-and-feed-them-to-you-with-gunpowder sonic brutality. But the cognitive dissonance of hearing the thumping indie-industrial music of “Army of Me” played by a Slavic-ish choreographer on a reel-to-reel in a mid-20th century dance studio in a brothel-prison, was enough to actually short-circuit my thinking for a moment and leave me literally disoriented. That kind of guerrilla attack on the senses, leaving one’s thinking disconnected and susceptible to better apprehending Lacan’s Real, was an intentional tool of “theatre of cruelty.” (The 60s attempt to use the technique of Artaud and surrealism ended up being just a late modernism parody of surrealism, by the way.) Sucker Punch’s use of sensual-shock-treatment is, I believe, entirely unintentional and without any greater purpose than an exercise in style. Thus, exhibiting, no, embodying, one of the arch-typical qualities of postmodern art — that of pastiche.

What Zack Snyder intended by the title, Sucker Punch, can only be guessed at. The film implies that Baby Doll’s dancing, unseen by the film’s audience, leaves all who view it stunned and bewildered — sucker punched by a performance only they are exposed to. Though, that might be too subtle for Snyder. Maybe he’s referring to the beatdown the various baddies in the layer three fantasy worlds get (giant samurai, steampunk Nazis, orcs ripped right from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, terrorist robots…). Perhaps he’s being meta-aware enough to be commenting, tongue in cheek, on what the movie delivers to the audience: The mismatched and cobbled elements that make this Frankenstein’s monster of a film hits the viewer from beginning to end with a relentless barrage of simulacrum, washing over the viewer and pulling them into a riptide of hyperreality. At best, maybe he is self-aware enough to consider that he’s hitting the audience with an audio-visual shock to the senses — after all, the poster tagline is “You will be unprepared.” But this only supports the contention that Snyder’s only goal with this film is to have no goal, only to affect. Only to create sensation disconnected from anything concrete, anything with a veneer of tangibility. Snyder wants to blind-side pummel the audience and then disappear without a trace before the viewer knows what hit them. When your only interest is in stylized effect, there’s no reason not to use re-makes of music without connection to the setting, which is itself a carnival mirror reflection of an attempted setting, punctuated by completely unreal collages of literally pointless action (albeit exciting and expertly crafted) appropriating and blending elements from across multiple genre.

I couldn’t help but wonder, as I sat for the ending credits, how much of any of this analysis could apply or appeal to the younger members of the audience. I wonder if filmgoers who don’t know what a reel-to-reel is, couldn’t tell a 1950s car from a 1920s from a 1980s, feel an iota of the disorientation I felt watching it. Do younger viewers, who have entirely grown up in a culture inherently of pastiche and ahistoricity, feel the least bit of anxiety when exposed to cultural production which seeks to simulate, blithely unironically, a reality that doesn’t exist? Does the obvious fantastical elements counteract the fact that the movie, apart from the fantasy, exists in crisis? Or does all of it exist to the viewer on the same plane of blatant unreality? I compare this film to last year’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. That movie was skillful on many levels and entirely fun while managing to have a solid storyline and characters one can feel something for. But from the beginning of that film, which is solidly set in contemporary Toronto-area, the viewer is asked to accept that the world of the film exists in a different reality from our own as videogame elements co-exist with the presumed real. What makes Scott Pilgrim simply a postmodern production while Sucker Punch is postmodernism itself? I think it comes down to how while both films attempt to anchor time and place to our own reality, we can recognize reality in Scott Pilgrim even though it’s superseded by the impossible. Sucker Punch presents us, from the opening seconds, with a lie. It promises to be rooted, at least on one layer, in reality, and it (the gestalt of the filmakers) may even believe it’s sincere in doing so — but the fact that the reality it believes it’s anchored to is as fantastical as the 40-foot, machine gun-totin’ samurai it presents, we’re fed the very antithesis of what science fiction provides: discognitive estrangement. And this mirrors the very condition we live in, in late postmodern cultural logic.

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