“Beyond the Lights“, the hair arc
Thoughts on the commercially successful superhero movies Guardians of the Galaxy and Lucy. Apparently, superhero movies are a bad place to look for heroes.
Guardians of the Galaxy is full of clever jokes and features a disarmingly charming actor as its protagonist. It was clearly made by very talented people whose greatest achievement is to leaven the emotional impact of a plot that hinges on a nonstop parade of death and destruction.
Guardians presents as its hero a man-child whose emotional development is arrested by the absence of a father and the early death of his mother. Where a normal child would have had to adapt to reality, this hero is kidnapped from Earth (reality) and is thus free to develop outwardly, physically, without developing inwardly, emotionally. In a fantastical version of space, he enters into a prolonged adolescence of sexual experimentation and solitary expeditions based on role playing (“code names”). He is without society. He is blissfully ignorant and thus boundlessly optimistic.
At the end of the movie, when his moment of emotional reckoning finally arrives, when he unwraps the lesson / gift of his dying mother, it is empty*: a song that promises only a future tale. The prospect of growing up has been deferred and we are meant to revel in that postponement. He lives to grieve again.
Many film critics, including some of the most astute, have written praises for the 2014 movie “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”. I greatly enjoyed a few scenes and marveled at many shots that are visually stunning. I also found it an offensively lazy and shallow commercialization of its predecessors. This is why.
In the 1963 novel “The Planet of the Apes”, the society of humans has regressed such that men and women live like foragers while the society of apes has advanced such that it has stratified into “aggressive gorilla soldiers, pedantic and politically conservative orangutan administrators, and liberal chimpanzee intellectuals.”
Written by Pierre Boulle, who also wrote about a society in crisis in The Bridge Over the River Kwai, the original “Planet of the Apes” is a satire of ideological blindness and post-war European society. When Boulle’s novel was adapted into a movie by the gifted polemicist Rod Serling, it became a critique of progress: a stark reminder that human society does not always advance.
Like many, I found the sequence in which the new Ripley gives “hacks” a sexist computer to giver herself a Caesarian to be the best and truest to form. The magic of the original Alien movie was largely the alien in all its unsubtle sexuality. That is, the species will or drive for self-preservation programmed into all life.
Yes, the movie Prometheus is about creation, but, like its predecessors, its strongest when the creation being interrogated is literal, carnal. The Engineers are decorative, alabaster figures carved into the exterior of a vessel for serving up black goo. Its strongest theological argument is ontological.
About 15 years ago I saw Tyler Brule, then just two years into Wallpaper, give a presentation that would forever change my understanding of art and commerce. He explained how Wallpaper was cajoling its clients into letting the magazine’s art team redo their ads so that these would play better as facing pages to the editorial.
I wonder if, say for the final season of Mad Men, AMC’s clients could be talked into having their creative redone to match the time period depicted in the series. (For example, the early 1970s.) Would it make those spots all the more talked about, noticed, viral?
in the actor-spectator relationship, both participants experience self-knowledge by “trading places” with another person.
for the actor, self-knowledge is gained by looking inward, as if into a mirror. the actor is trained to master her own mind and body so that she may produce the gestures and voice that convey another person. the better the actor is at playing someone else, the more in control she must be of her own mind and body.
for the spectator, self-knowledge is gained by looking out at someone else, as if through a window. the spectator hopes to be transported elsewhere: into another room, seeing the world through another person’s eyes.
this experience of being somewhere and someone else would be incomplete if it did not come to an end. the spectator expects to be returned feeling refreshed, renewed, rejuvenated. the more enjoyable the show, the more the spectator has come to recognize, albeit unconsciously, something about themselves.
the drama has to “hit home”. the joke has to be “so true” it’s funny. the elaborate plot has to, ultimately, “make sense”.
in a successful actor-spectator exchange, none of the participants are fully “there” – each is someone, somewhere else. the person most present has been conjured, as if by a seance.
For Europeans and their former subjects, the making of planet Earth – a process better known as globalization – begins after the Renaissance, as newly empowered groups embrace the idea that, contra the Church, the world is both knowable and mostly unknown.
The frontier – the unsettled terrain – is thus not just an economic and political prize but also, importantly, a stage for intellectual and spiritual advancement. To travel to distant lands is to make the world known.
The system which emerges, beginning with the colonization of the Americas and ending with the Cold War, is the largest cosmos to date; so ubiquitous, it is capable of viewing itself from orbit.
A new self-image, a more unified self is the destination of every figurative voyage. Thus, the lore of the traveler is that of self-discovery. In such representations, any vessel is a means to a psychological end.
The more perfect of these vessels are mirror-like. Such reflective ships move the traveler, inwardly. To a world always in creation, one that can never be fully known.
Surely, for every lover who says “I love you” (which is to ask “Do you love me?”) there is another who asks “What went wrong?” – or, simply, “Why don’t you love me anymore?”
Few movies so deftly tackle this whodunnit as well as Blue Valentine. Using the techniques of a mystery – the withholding of information, presenting events out of sequence, framing characters as suspects – it offers an honest account of romance; the falling in and out of love.
Perhaps, all love stories are mysteries, filled with ambivalences, contradictory accounts and unknown motives. For what is love but a suspense: the suspension of doubt, of self and even of reason as the distinct perspectives of two people merge together, drift apart and, sometimes, reunite.
As in Julio Cortazar’s novel Hopscotch:
You look at me, you look at me closely, each time closer and then we play cyclops, we look at each other closer each time and our eyes grow, they grow closer, they overlap and the cyclops look at each other…
The questions come later because they were always already there.
Related: Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together.
In the vein of Todd Haynes and Tony Kushner, Liza Johnson’s movie Return dramatizes an intimate, personal crisis to make intelligible a broader social catastrophe.
The plot is achingly simple: Kelli is a reservist who returns from war, loses her way, then her job, her car, her husband, her children and finally her freedom.
Why do these bad things happen to her? Time and again, Kelli is asked if something happened to her while she was at war. Each time she declines an easy answer, noting that nothing special happened to her over there. She has no story that would make sense of her confusion, her misfortunes or her increasingly reckless behavior.
And that’s the brilliant conceit of the movie: Kelli isn’t the only one who lacks a war story, it’s everyone around her – the audience included – who want for an explanation.
Through Kelli’s search for meaning, Johnson reminds us of the gaping holes in our grand narratives, from the missing weapons of mass destruction to the alleged benefits of creative destruction.
That the movie, like its protagonist, declines to provide an explanation for the circumstances that afflict its protagonists is to Johnson’s credit: that responsibility lies with us and the policies we support.
Soderbergh’s Contagion is a movie about the ills of globalization, right down to the ridiculous closing sequence in which deforestation by a multinational is blamed for a viral pandemic.
But viruses are more than a MacGuffin, they’re the intersection between the organic and the inorganic, between that which lives and that which exists. Viruses may be responsible for some of the biggest upheavals in human history and they continue to impact human behavior in ways that undermine our identity.
Consider Kathleen McAuliffe on T. gondii and more:
But T. gondii is just one of an untold number of infectious agents that prey on us. And if the rest of the animal kingdom is anything to go by, says Colorado State University’s Janice Moore, plenty of them may be capable of tinkering with our minds. For example, she and Chris Reiber, a biomedical anthropologist at Binghamton University, in New York, strongly suspected that the flu virus might boost our desire to socialize. Why? Because it spreads through close physical contact, often before symptoms emerge—meaning that it must find a new host quickly. To explore this hunch, Moore and Reiber tracked 36 subjects who received a flu vaccine, reasoning that it contains many of the same chemical components as the live virus and would thus cause the subjects’ immune systems to react as if they’d encountered the real pathogen.
The difference in the subjects’ behavior before and after vaccination was pronounced: the flu shot had the effect of nearly doubling the number of people with whom the participants came in close contact during the brief window when the live virus was maximally contagious. “People who had very limited or simple social lives were suddenly deciding that they needed to go out to bars or parties, or invite a bunch of people over,” says Reiber. “This happened with lots of our subjects. It wasn’t just one or two outliers.”
Footloose (1984) had tension because it was of the moment.
The Moral Majority was just entering its apex and small town America was a pop cultural phenomenon (months after Footloose was released, Farm Aid hit the air and Small Town reached #6). There was also, generally, lots of dancing in the streets.
Fast forward to 2011 and covens of sexy but celibate vampires play a bigger role in the popular imagining of white adolescence than uptight congregations. So while Footloose (2011) had no problems putting butts in seats, I don’t think anyone – not even its makers – believes it put its fingers on the pulse of young Americans.
And, yet, if the 2011 retelling had been set in a city like a Salinas, CA (pop. 150,000, 75% Latino, 40% under 18) it could have represented a community at the crossroads: teeming with young kids rebelling against their hick parents, caught up in a mess of gangs, a shitty economy, starved government, fire and brimstone preachers, and a dance trend that combines (Mexican) country with techno.
Why does this image make us laugh?
The tattoo. It translates into the simple world of The Simpsons elements of our complex society. The tattoo as totem. The pirate as hero. The clown as pirate. (Krusty, meet Jack Sparrow.)
Using symbols, we take a familiar scenario and transpose it into a new setting so that it can be better observed. To translate or transpose, we must identify and carry over the telling details. This gives the seemingly superficial activity of play acting the potential to reward us with deep insights.
In popular fiction, everyday stories are crafted in novel ways. These vehicles are often deeply moving because they return us home via a new or unexpected path.
In the recent movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes, an actor in heavy computerized makeup helps play out a familiar father-son drama. The effect is not so much a displacement or avoidance of adult reckoning as it is an opportunity to experience a traditional conflict as if for the first time, seeing it assembled from scratch, piece by piece; one gene or pixel at a time.
The movie The Next Three Days is pleasurable not because most of us have had to or would like to spring a loved from one from jail, but because we have all experienced being separated, becoming estranged from an absent lover, the individual ostracized by the group, etc.
Likewise, the posters for these TV series promise us not so much tales of true crime as different ways to reckon with feminism, be it empowered females and/or feminine power.
The similarities: a badge that draws attention not so much to a cocked gun but to cocked hips. Tag lines that evoke the way we talk about a personality or personal issues. The differences: their rings. Their chests – the second even shown in profile.
Perhaps the reason why literalists have fretted over the popularity of books like Harry Potter and movies like Twilight is not that they fear children will learn to believe in wizards or vampires but rather that children will learn to make believe.
The pleasure of make belief is that it is a form of play – a game.
Literalism requires the believer to take someone else’s word for it. Literal belief is thus a question of power – of submitting oneself to another. (cf., struggle, surrender, kneel.)
Interpretation invites the audience to play along: it assumes an independent reader who must be seduced – the willing suspension of disbelief. Rather than submission, it requires co-operation.
“There’s nothing intelligent in Alien. It has absolutely no meaning. It works on a very visceral level and its only point is terror and more terror.” – Ridley Scott
To be self-aware about making art is an exceedingly rare stroke of fortune – probably, of the bad kind. But there is no such thing as a terrifying spectacle or story without meaning. If anything, Alien has too much meaning.
When we are astounded, awed, terrified, it is because what we already know is insufficient to explain what we are in the process of learning. The greater the meaning created, the more “viscerally” powerful the art work.
Scott is a genius precisely because he is focused on awing the audience: his goal is to produce the awesome which is necessarily the new, the disruptive, that for which words do not yet exist – ideally, that for which the appropriate words will never exist.
But it is incorrect to say there is no intelligence in art for intelligence, as we are reminded, consists of known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Whereas scientists are focused on the first category, the religious on the second, artists elaborate the third.
Computers have transformed music production and consumption by enabling the cheap and easy manipulation of sound. Digitization took apart music culture (industry included) and put it back together again in a very new way.
Using free software, consumers took apart the pop album ushering in an era of digital singles. Using samplers, producers took apart songs and then entire genres, converting rap and funk into hip hop and then hip hop into pop. And, after a series of missteps, record companies are beginning to take apart their business models, using sites like YouTube as A&R and dabbling with such technical and pricing innovations as allowing consumers to rent songs (i.e., new forms of bundling.)
Digitization is also having a transformative effect on video production and consumption.
The primacy of the network or channel is being usurped by that of the series, thanks, in part, to the digital video recorder. The new business of distributing short video clips is having a very healthy run on YouTube. Cameras and editing software are cheap enough to come standard on portable media devices like the iPhone and iPad. And television companies are beginning to shift their weight by taking cautious first steps into digital distribution.
One outcome of this transformation is already clear: consumers have signaled that they’re open to great variety in video entertainment. Properly developed, new formats could provide video producers with new revenue regardless of what happens to existing formats.
The Vanity Fair expose on likely Chinese hacking of many important corporations and government agencies by Michael Joseph Gross describes a ploy I’d only known from Hollywood movie: infiltrators intercepting calls to the victim’s security dept. in order to field these calls and prevent detection.
The scene prompted me to imagine a contemporary kind of international crime syndicate, wherein Chinese hackers are linked up with Mexican drug traffickers to insert in-the-flesh proxies in American companies via janitorial services.
On the one hand, it would probably be far more valuable to a foreign power to produce a “Manchurian CTO,” etc.. On the other, some people tend to really disregard the “hired help.” It’s easier for the butler (or maid) to have done it if he/she is considered “dumb” due to their foreignness.
I came of age at a time when outer space was a potent symbol in popular culture.
This quote from an interview with historian Nicholas de Monchaux sheds light on why:
[T]he space of outer space is… a space that humans cannot actually encounter without dying, and so must enter exclusively through a dependence on technological mediation.
If space is death, the space ship is also a casket – a vessel in which to cross the river Styx. In movies like 2001 and Alien, the protagonists mostly fight to live yet they are always already entombed, enveloped by the void of space.
What makes these movies thrilling is not a suspension of disbelief but the directness with which they can summon our innermost fear by projecting us into limbo; floating, weightless, ghosts in purgatory.
The ancient Greeks defined excellence as becoming one’s self – nothing less and nothing more. To become excellent is thus to recognize and fulfill one’s destiny – the recognition and fulfillment being one and the same achievement.
In contemporary America, the pursuit of excellence is often described as self-actualization or success. Both terms diminish the power of excellence – the pursuit of which can drive a person to madness and/or ruin. (Consider the fate of professional athletes, let alone artists.)
The agony of success, indeed.
I remember exactly where I was when I read the obituary for the music industry on the front page of the Wall Street Journal: it was a gray and cold morning in March of 2002 and I was standing in line to get a coffee at the Atlas Cafe in San Francisco.
While the report noted that there were many contributing causes it also suggested the main cause of death was a flawed risk model: record companies were spending huge sums on just a few albums in the hopes that these big bets would hit jackpot. Unfortunately for all involved, the labels were picking the wrong albums – perhaps, and ironically so, out of disdain for popular tastes.
This past week, I watched two movies at home: The Hangover, a seemingly vulgar yet entirely anodyne comedy from 2009 and Jeremiah Johnson, a potentially treacly yet startlingly ruthless western from 1972. Where the former attempts at being for the people while mocking their intelligence, the latter, despite its high-brow tendencies, is as blunt and dangerous as a rioting mob.
The movie series Carlos is a must-see thriller for anyone born in the last half-century. It fits neatly alongside other chronicles of political terror like Munich and The Baader Meinhof Complex – or, obliquely, The Falcon and the Snowman.
As only a movie can, Carlos transports the viewer into the foreign world of the recent past. Audiences born after the fall of the Soviet Union will likely be shocked at just how popular it was during the Cold War to regard terror as a legitimate political tool; a potentially endless sequence of wrongs trying to make a single right.
“We’ve always been at war with Eastasia.”
Terror is dirty but quick. Hence, its appeal to those who wish to accelerate the pace of political change. Get’er done. Whatever it takes. The ends justify the means.
Only they don’t. At least not when the ends are human rights, the foremost of which is liberty. The only legitimate and thus effective form of counter-terrorism is the rule of law.
Without a doubt, good people will be tested by bad acts. Law-abiding nations such as the United States will be thrust into illegality and illegitimacy by the lazy, the craven, the ill-prepared. Those diversions from the path of righteousness are heart-breaking and shameful. They cannot be without consequence.
It’s a testament to America’s resilience that our own Department of Defense is responsible both for maintaining and deconstructing Guantanamo Bay. That resilience is based on our popular culture, elements of which we share with every liberal democracy in existence or in the making.
How should America, as a freedom-loving nation, respond to terrorism? The answer begins on Main Street: how prepared are our citizens to choose good over evil? Movies that teach audiences to pose the question “What would a terrorist do?” are thus critical to defending liberty from those who disregard it.
The objective of any terrorist is to provoke a response. We have been misled into believing that the key to preventing terrorism is to be on the lookout for suspicious people or packages. That’s child’s play. The real challenge is being hyper-vigilant about our own behavior.