Monthly Archives: March 2010

Shutter Island

Not A Dog

I shouldn’t read reviews. Especially those in the SMH giving it 3 stars. I can’t remember the last time Martin Scorsese made a dog a of a film, even taking into consideration ‘The Departed’, so I really shouldn’t have just bypassed this movie. It’s surprisingly good.

Then again, it seems the SMH readers give this film 2 stars, so what hope is there really?

What’s Good About It

It’s good to see Martin Scorsese go back to a more kinetic style of shooting, with more modeled lights and cinematography. He was further away from his hallmark style in ‘The Departed’ with much flatter lighting in that one. This film is much more interesting to watch from a technical point of view as well as an artistic point of view.

The performances are generally good, but you expect that from a cast that includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Mike Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow. These guys aren’t exactly chopped liver. It’s good to see Max Von Sydow not phone in his performance in this one. The full Max is quite impressive but there’s not enough of him.

Ben Kingsley looks quite like Freud except without the grey hair. He has the head shape and goatee, but the wrong glasses. Max Von Sydow supplies the white hair and the glasses.

What’s Bad About It

Michelle Williams is not good in this film. I just didn’t much like what she brought to this film. Considering she’s an understated sort of actress, she comes across as tentative and fringey.

Also, the Holocaust references were a bit gratuitous. Yes, we know the greatest horror humanity has visited upon other humans is the death camps under the NAZIs, but they don’t exactly have a monopoly on those stakes. To see the old trotted out to portray Dachau were a bit of thematic overkill. Especially when you find out that what’s really ailing the main character has nothing to do with NAZIs and concentration camps. This is just gratuitous Holocaust-porn whereby a film maker or fiction writer just waves around the Holocaust in order to signify horror as if there’s nothing else that’s ever been horrifying before or since.  It’s disingenuous.

What’s Interesting About It

I don’t think trick endings work. A lot of people fail to grasp the trick ending. The worst kind of trick ending is where you find out it was all a dream. If it’s all a dream of a mad person, then you always wonder if it was all that worthwhile going for a ride, watching the film. The best comparison I could think for this film was ‘Identity’ (which coincidentally starred John Cusack and Amanda Peet who I mentioned in the previous post on Apocalypse movies). ‘Identity’ is a film that looks like a modern re-imaging of ‘Psycho’ which turns out to be all a story inside the mind of a psychotic serial killer.

The notion that all the irrational things shown to us on the screen is justified on the grounds of psychosis is, to be honest, a bit weak as narratives go. Where ‘Identity’ succeeded was in having all the seemingly irrational elements tie into a rational explanation of why they had to be the way they were.That tying together process doesn’t exactly take place in this film, so we’re left wondering if the insanity is real – and given the narrator’s already lied to you, you don’t feel like you should take on board the new narrative reality. It’s awkward.

Those Damn NAZIs!

The film Leonardo DiCaprio did coming in to Shutter Island was ‘Revolutionary Road‘ and you all know what I had to say about the presentation of the war experience in that film. Well, unfortunately Leo DiCaprio is wandering around a World War II terrain that leads into Dachau in this film and he looks awful serious as he watches the NAZI commandant die. Well a quick look at the Wikipedia entry on Dachau shows the commandant fled, so that clearly didn’t happen but the Dachau massacre of German guards did happen.

In the film you see the gate that says in German ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’/’Freedom Through Work’, but of course that gate belonged to Auschwitz and not Dachau*. I mean, if you’re going to go to the trouble of working in the Holocaust into a story, you might want to get this stuff right, even if you’re Martin Scorsese (or perhaps especially if you are Martin Scorsese).

It’s really no dispute to say the circumstances of Dachau’s fall to the Americans is worthy of some kind of cinematic treatment, and the story of the Dachau massacre is even worthy of a cinematic treatment, but in this instance, they’re reduced to sideshows in a film about the inside the head of a crazy American guy. He may as well have survived the Titanic in his childhood or something, but it doesn’t add more significance to the main beef of the story.

The Operation Paperclip Legacy

At one point before the big reveal that the main character is insane, he touches on a few possibilities about Shutter Island’s purpose. One of the things he imagines in a cave is that Shutter Island is indeed like Dachau where unspeakable experiments are being carried out on the insane. The presence of Max Von Sydow’s character as some kind of NAZI scientist who was brought over to the USA after World War II adds some credibility to this notion as it is explained by a woman who is presumably a figment of the main character’s imagination.

When the film is all said and done, it may have been more interesting if the film concerned itself with that possibility rather than the conclusion it staggers to at the end. After all, it would be brave to start dissecting the wild possibilities of the evil science that may have been brought to America by these ex-NAZI scientists. Like, say, Werner von Braun. It seems it’s easier to write such episodes of history off as us being crazy for being suspicious, rather than perhaps there lurking some awful truth in there somewhere. I guess that would make us paranoid – but that’s just how plausible deniability works, isn’t it?

* CORRECTION:

I was wrong. They did have the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign at Dachau. It’s just not sitting above the gate as it does at Auschwitz. Those NAZIs were decidedly sick.

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Movie Doubles – ‘The Road’ & ‘2012’

Apocalypse How

Today’s movie double is an attempt to draw together two films about the end of the world as we know it, and see what exactly it is that makes us want to watch this stuff. ‘The Road’ is based on  Cormac McCarthy book with some serious intention of exploring the human existence in extreme conditions, where society has simply ceased to be. The film is therefore somber and portentous with moments of genuine questioning about the human condition. It garnered much high praise and as such, belongs to the recent spate of depressing films I’ve watched.

‘2012’ on the other hand is a film about the end of the world co-written and directed by Roland Emmerich who brought us such trashy marvels as ‘Independence Day’, ‘Star Gate’ and ‘The Day After Tomorrow’. Now, when I say trashy, I’m not putting down Emmerich’s work for his choice of genre, but rather the lowbrow tone he brings to all of his work. The themes are always promising, but the execution always seems to go through the Hollywood lobotomy machine and comes out as the king unto the stupid.

With that out of the way, I also want to share with you that I am about to watch ‘Until the End of the World’ and ‘The Quiet Earth’ soon just because I picked them up recently and felt this rush of ‘Oh wow! I remember these”. If I seem to be writing a lot about the end of the world movies a lot, it’s just coincidence of a commercial kind.

Apocalypse Why?

So… the world as we know it ends. what do you do? ‘The Road’ is situated in some kind of post-apocalyptic landscape where most people are dead, and those remaining have reduced themselves to the most desperate means of survival. The choice is between scavenging and cannibalism and in Cormac McCarthy’s vision the strong choose survival, the weak choose suicide; good choose scavenging and the evil choose cannibalism. The reason why the world ends is never made entirely clear.

One of the more annoying things about ‘the Road’ is that if the end of civilization was indeed a nuclear holocaust, these survivors are getting off way too lightly. The whole film seems more like a rehash of the ‘Mad Max’ kind of junk culture sci-fi minus the glorious action by a powerful protagonist. Instead, the trip on the road is mostly a grueling trip through a devastated landscape trying to dodge bands of evil cannibals – but the underlying Mad-Max-ist vision is throbbing pretty hard. And by throbbing, I mean, the masochistic heart of this film is just joyous as it wallows in the wreck.

The problem I have with this vision is that it seems to be set up in a way that suits the survivalist NRA vision of a post-apocalypse more than anybody else. You can smell the gun-toting types yearning for a lawless human landscape where it might be permissible to abuse and shoot strangers on sight. Indeed, the whole scenario supports that vision in the same way that the whole of the Star Wars universe supports light saber duels. I mean, come on, if there were a serious exchange of nukes, you won’t have this version of a post-apocalypse.

‘2012’ is a different kettle of fish. Where ‘The Road’ relishes in the masochistic journey of desperate survival, Emmerich celebrates the desperate escape against sadistic CGI forces unleashed by ILM. People die off screen a lot in 2012, mostly to prevent us from really getting a handle on the violence that is being presented in the narrative. I guess if the whole of California slides off into the bottom of the sea and the only people who get out are on airplanes, then you take it as read that it’s tragic. Not so in this film. ‘2012’ goes a fair way to excite the audience with the endless row of near-misses and near-death moments both implausible and absurd. People die comic book deaths or simply get left behind by the bounding narrative.

Neither film is terribly realistic in any scientific way, but ‘2012’ makes no excuses about it. It just wants you to enjoy the apocalypse. ‘The Road’ wants you to share in the misery. Naturally ‘The Road’ gets more of a critical acclaim, but this is probably because it’s the same critics who like the miserable films giving it the thumbs up. It has to be said, the director of ‘The Road’ John Hillcoat, is an Australian. While I commend his good fortune in directing this film, I tend to think it has all the hallmarks of an Australian movie. It’s bleak, it’s dull, it’s sad, it’s got long stretches of miserable tedium followed by a triumphant downer of an ending you see coming from halfway through. Naturally Charlize ‘Monster’ Theron agreed to be in this too. As movie experiences go, it has the worst of all worlds.

Casting As An Art Form

Casting stars is a dicey business. Sometimes it’s just right – as with ‘The Men Who Stare At Goats’ – and other times it totally betrays the picture – as with ‘Brooklyn’s Finest’.

Seeing Charlize Theron looking pained and upset and suicidal was one of those, “oh that again” moments which was bad. Viggo Mortensen looking as pained as he does in ‘The Road’ only evoked moments from ‘Lord of the Rings’, but I liked him better in that. At least the pain had a pay off – he gets to be king.  Similarly, seeing Woody Harrelson play yet another human missing a few cards from a full deck made me think it was the latter in ‘2012’.

Big movies tend to suffer more because of the need to cast recognisable faces, who in turn ruin the film with their baggage from previous roles. Oliver Platt and Amanda Peet were completely miscast in ‘2012’. Which brings me to…

What Are You Doing, John Cusack?

The weirdest thing about ‘2012’ might be the casting of John Cusack as Jackson Curtis. After a career of playing all sorts of writers, here he is again playing a novelist who has one published work, with 422 sold copies. He keeps playing writers which is nice because he’s sort of credible playing writers because he’s played so many, but was there really a big need for this character to be a writer? And if there was, did they really need to cast John Cusack to play this writer?

I dunno. I just think it’s getting a bit too silly. Then again, he’s in Hot Tub Time Machine, headed straight for 1986. Clearly he doesn’t take himself too seriously, and that’s a good thing for ‘2012’ because the scenes where he meets Woody Harrelson’s Charlie Frost, the conspiracy-theorist radio dude, are just plain stupid. The rest of the implausible-ness just keeps ballooning as the movie goes on. What are you doing in this movie, John Cusack?

The Biblical Landscape Of The Texts

The text most associated with the world ending has to be the Bible, so it’s no surprise the motifs from the bible end up as the backbone of these texts. ‘The Road’ is a replay of Job, while ‘2012; is clearly working towards Noah’s Ark. The Bible is full of this sort of stuff, from parting of the Red Sea to Armageddon in Revelations and even the central motif of crucifixion all forms the jumbled archetypal mess from whence these films draw their images. That being said, there’s very little religiosity in either film – which is a blessing.

In its place though, are loaded insinuations that morality ought to be carried over into ethics in the case of ‘2012’ or that morality should be defined from an inner intuition as is the case with ‘The Road’. What is ethical gets short shrift in ‘2012’ precisely because if the world is going to pot, ethical behaviour is going to be the hardest to sustain, the film makers know this and exploit the angle just to set up a love story. Meanwhile, ‘The Road’ brings up a discussion of what is good and and what is evil, and it all seems to hinge on not being or being cannibals.  “Are we the good guys?” asks the boy. Viggo Mortensen’s character doesn’t really have a framework to explain good or evil, let alone ethical positions such as utilitarianism.

In ‘2012’, the ethical problem gets addressed in The Big Speech.

The Big Speech

Most films have a tub-thumping, ultra-loaded, highly motivated Big Speech. The Big Speech is the speech the main character gives in order to make sense of the paradigm by which the film is built. We like Big Speeches like the one Al Pacino gives in ‘Any Given Sunday’. We hate the ones that say too much or not enough or don’t get us over the emotional line. It’s the moment in the film where some ideological package is being sold. We love the ones that lift our spirits, laugh at the ones that don’t work. The Big Speech is the one you wished you said when you came to the big important fork in the road in your own life. It’s the single, meaningful articulation of what a film’s concern is about. Indeed, the Big Speech is the whole point of some of these movies. Even ‘Andrei Rubylev’ by Andrei Tarkovsky has a Big Speech. It might be as short as ‘Use The Force Luke.”; it might go for days like a filibuster. We are dying to deliver the Big Speech in our ordinary, imperfect, humdrum lives but can’t; so we watch movies and watch these characters say for us what we cannot in our real lives.

The Big Speech in ‘2012’ is about ethics of surviving while leaving behind others. It’s a plea to help some people. It comes way too late in the film after the vast majority of the planet has died off, but it’s a big speech intended to be rousing, heartfelt and convincing. It’s not – but you get that.

There is no Big Speech moment in ‘The Road’. It’s very ‘Australian’ that way.

Painting The Disaster

T.S Eliot said… yes, a whimper. Lately Hollywood has been painting a picture whereby it won’t even end when it ends, which reminds us of David St. Hubbins’ Big Speech about ‘The End’ in ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ and whether we really know it is the end. Even as these films come to an end, they finish off with a new dawn for humanity – complete with the formation of family motifs shoved down the gullet like so much stuffing for the Thanksgiving turkey. And in some weird way, that simile is exactly what we are getting in these films.

In the 1970s, disaster movies used to be about airplanes and airports or single buildings going up in a towering inferno. This side of 9/11 we seem to be a bit more obsessed with a high definition kind of special effects movie where the world gets wiped out. I sort of wonder about these more and more as the memory of 9/11 haunts even more with each passing year. I’m haunted by the memories of those people jumping out of the burning World Trade Center. Having a movie that exalts in that kind of disaster magnified to a million doesn’t actually speak well of us as humans. I guess you could call these films a progressively guilty pleasure.

The image of the USS John F. Kennedy flipping over and on top of the black President played by Danny Glover was more than enough heavy-handed symbolism, I thought this was a strange kind of indulgence on the part of Roland Emmerich.

Even the notion of wandering around a post-nuclear holocaust landscape in ‘The Road’ seems like a misplaced kind of indulgent entertainment. How sick are we as an audience if we’re enjoying this stuff? It’s almost as if we want it to happen. The thing is, some people really do.

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Defendor

Canadian ‘Fight Back’

Canadians make great films. It’s embarrassing how good their films can be when compared to Australian films. It’s the flip side of Australia’s cricket team thrashing their cricket team at the Commonwealth Games. When it comes to movie making, the Canadians just slay us.

There. I said it.

Nobody says it out loud, but Canada is the cultured, well-educated, bookish, serious  brother to the sporty, happy-go-lucky, pretentious Australia. Here’s something for people to chew on: the film that kicked off the Australian film renaissance in 1970 was ‘Wake in Fright’, directed by Ted Kotcheff who is a Canadian.

Canada is the land of Glenn Gould and ’32 Short Films About Glenn Gould’. Australia is the land of David Helfgott and ‘Shine’. Their premier pianist defined the playing of Bach for generations to come. Our pianist is a guy who had a breakdown trying to play Rachmaninoff’s third and went crazy. The movie about their guy is one of the most significant biopics of all time. Our biopic is an Oscar winner but really just another movie.

Another Canadian, John Ralston Saul is a front line top of the heap intellectual. We don’t have anybody who can go toe to toe with John Ralston Saul. Canada produced Northrop Frye. We don’t have a single literary critic that can hold a candle to Northrop Frye, then or since.

So you see, when it comes to cultural stakes, the Canadians just leave us behind. ‘Defendor’ is just another fantastic film in a long line of fantastic films that just slays us.

What’s Good About It

Script. Acting. Execution.

Okay, there’s more. The music is fantastic. It’s an incessant ominous rumble of heavy minor key tones that in other movies would keep you on the edge of your seats, but in this on, serves to highlight the farce. It’s a great work in irony.

Considering the near-glut of the comic book super hero movies in recent years, it’s nice to see a down to earth ironic view of such cultural influence. Especially because we now know there are real people going out there donning costumes to do good these days, it seems like it’s appropriate to take a shot at the growing influence of comic book culture.

What’s Bad About It

Woody Harrelson is great, but he’s such a ham. There a re moments watching this film and you think, “oh come on Woody, that’s so close to being “the Full Retard”. He’s been playing a few hammy lunatics lately and this one had moments of being on the nose.

Also, you worry about narratives that feature stock characters such as the hooker-with-the-heart-of-gold. Maybe it’s worse in a film like, say, ‘Pretty Woman’. The point though is that the film is at its best when it is ironic about these characters and not when these stock characters push the narrative on by dint of being a stock character.

That being said, it’s not a film with a whole lot of faults. Even the narrative no-no of the flashback didn’t bother me at all.

What’s Interesting About It

There once was a film called ‘Hero at Large‘ starring John Ritter, about an actor who dons the costume of a superhero for advertising purposes, and on the way home from work one day, he ends up fighting crime on the New York subway. So this idea that somebody ordinary would don a costume and fight crime isn’t exactly new or fresh. What’s fresh about this one is that the main character is so intellectually challenged that he has problems distinguishing between literal meaning and metaphors.

One of the metaphors he mistakes is who he thinks his nemesis is in Captain Industry. Of course, there is no super villain calling himself Captain Industry. It is a garbled misunderstanding that takes place inside the head of a not-very-bright lad called Arthur. What the whole setup of the film evokes is ‘Don Quixote” where oblivious to the real world, a character decides to tilt at windmills as monsters.

The structure of the irony is exactly the same as Cervantes’ great work as Woody Harrelson’s Arthur explores the ramifications of taking up a life of crime-fighting in costume. What at the start seems absurd slowly transforms within the text to key moments where Arthur’s delusions matter so much. It is precisely the dynamic in Don Quixote.

The other text the film evokes is of course ‘Le Morte D’Arthur’ by Thomas Mallory simply because of the chivalrous quest of the main character Arthur, who by name alone evokes King Arthur, but also because the chivalry ends with a conflict that is at once material but also existential. One of the crucial problems for Woody Harrelson’s Arthur is whether he can ever be defined by his actions, and he can only define himself by donning the costume of ‘Defendor’ to fight crime. To that end he must fight and so he fights to the end. The symmetry in meaning is actually managed quite well.

The film also parodies the recent Batman ‘The Dark Knight’ film where a motivated but low-powered vigilante by the name of Brian gets killed by Heath Ledger’s Joker. Woody Harrelson’s ‘Defendor’ is indeed that guy with the hockey pads, but the film goes to great pains to demonstrate his cause is no less noble than Batman’s. It’s a splendid riposte to the borderline fascism of ‘The Dark Knight’. As such, the film is filled with a fundamentally humanist and democratic impulse.

All in all, this one is very much worth watching.

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The New Hominin

Expanding The Human Family

This news completely took the world by surprise. They’ve identified a strand of humanity that is neither on the Neanderthal or the Cromagnon-modern man line.

The paper that describes the finding comes courtesy of the Max Planck Institute’s Svante Pääbo, who has been actively pursuing the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome. It seems likely that this particular bone fragment was targeted due to suspicions that it might also provide an additional Neanderthal sequence. The site, called Denisova, is in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia, an area that has had hominins present as early as 125,000 years ago. The sample itself came from a layer of material that dates from between 30,000 and 50,000 years ago. Neanderthal DNA was found in a sample from the same time period less than 100km away, while artifacts indicate that modern humans were also present in the region by 40,000 years ago.

So, there was no apparent reason to suspect that the bone would yield anything more than a familiar sequence. And in fact, most of the first half of the paper simply describes the methods used to construct a complete sequence of the mitochondrial DNA, including over 150-fold coverage of the genome, and an alignment program designed to account for the errors typical of ancient DNA sequences. About the only surprise here is that Pääbo’s group has switched from using 454 sequencing machines to those made by Illumina.

Various checks indicate that the sequence the authors obtained contains damage that’s typical of ancient DNA, and that it all comes from a single individual. So far, quite typical.

Things got quite unusual when they attempted to align the sequence to the mitochondrial DNA from the hominin species that were likely to be present at that time and place: human and Neanderthal. Instead of clustering with one or the other, the Denisova mitochondrial genome was a clear outlier, having about 385 differences with the typical human mitochondrial genome. In contrast, Neanderthals only differ from modern humans by an average of 202. The obvious interpretation is that the Denisova lineage split off before modern humans and Neanderthals did. If we accept that Neanderthals are a distinct species of hominin (and we do), then this sample clearly represents yet another one.

Building a tree with the chimpanzee genomes and assuming a divergence time of 6 million years, the data indicates that the Denisova lineage diverged about a million years ago. At that point, Homo Erectus was already a global species, but our human ancestors were still in Africa. That suggests that the Denisova variant probably originated in, or at least near, Africa as well, although there’s no way to tell whether it was a distinct species before it started migrating, or whether it became an isolated population because of a migration.

And so the article goes. The most interesting thing about this population is how recently they were living. Keep in mind, 40,000 years ago places it about the time Homo Sapiens is moving into Australia. The Neanderthals don’t disappear until 24,000 years ago. The hotly disputed Florensis hobbit population existed between 94,000 years ago through to about 12,000. What we seem to be getting a picture of is a variety of Hominin species cohabiting this planet. The conjecture would lead to the distinct possibility that our ancestors eradicated these populations to become the dominant ape.

Here’s another link which suggests that the ‘X-woman’ aka the Denisova Hominin split off the common line of humanity about 1.04 million years ago.

Professor Stringer commented: “Another intriguing question is whether there might have been overlap and interaction between not only Neanderthals and early moderns in Asia, but also, now, between either of those lineages and this newly-recognised one.
“The distinctiveness of the mitochondrial DNA patterns so far suggests that there was little or no interbreeding, but more extensive data will be needed from other parts of the genome, or from the fossils, for definitive conclusions to be reached.”

Experts have been wondering whether X-woman might have links with known fossil humans from Asia, which have controversial classifications.
“Certain enigmatic Asian fossils dated between 250,000-650,000 years ago such as Narmada (in India), and Yunxian, Dali and Jinniushan (in China) have been considered as possible Asian derivatives of Homo heidelbergensis, so they are also potential candidates for this mystery non-erectus lineage,” said Prof Stringer.
“However, there are other and younger fragmentary fossils such as the Denisova ones themselves, and partial skulls from Salkhit in Mongolia and Maba in China, which have been difficult to classify, and perhaps they do signal a greater complexity than we have appreciated up to now.”

All the same, the world of ancient humans got a whole lot more complicated as a result of this discovery.

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Movie Doubles – ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ & ‘The Blind Side’

The Family As Project

I got asked about the myth of the family after I posted my movie double on ‘The Hurt Locker’ and ‘Revolutionary Road’. As in, I guess, “tell me of movie examples where this myth is operating!” A quick look through some stuff I’ve watched recently turned up ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ and last night I watched ‘The Blind Side’ which ultimately is nothing less than the myth of the family writ large.

The family is emphasised greatly in Hollywood cinema because affirming the family allows it to affirm other socially normative things, from heterosexuality to gender roles to social status and subsequent acceptable interactions. Quite often, Hollywood betrays the illusion that America is a class-less society when compared to the old world, only to write in the privileges of wealth.

Takeshi Kitano opined in one of his columns in Japan that America is a society that sells lottery tickets to its own citizens, and the name of the lottery ticket is ‘The American Dream’. He suspected that American society might go on the brink of revolution when they found out how unlikely the said dream was. One could contend that the recent ‘Tea Party’ activism is a sign that this is already happening. The point of this is that the socially normative function of reaffirming the myth of the family is in effect a very important part of the American ideological control over its own population.

So, that’s why it’s important to see the con as it comes, so to speak. The con is always in the pitch, and what American films like to pitch is the formation of families.

What Kind Of Family Is That Anyway?

‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ actually kicks off with the courtship of Mr. and Mrs. Fox, as voiced by George Clooney (this man is in everything good lately. How does he do that?) and Meryl Streep. The family expands when they have a son, and they take in Mr. Fox’s nephew. Mr. Fox’s partner in crime, Opossum is recruited into the family fabric. Once the conflict sets in with the human farmers, Mr. Fox’s family expands to loosely include Badgers and field mice and other assorted creatures who have been flushed out of their habitat. By the end of the film, Mr. Fox is toasting quite a menagerie of animals as part of his family.In doing so, he and his wife accept everybody.

Similarly, ‘The Blind Side’ is a story of a white family who take in a black youth and make him a family member. Remarkably it is one of those ‘True stories, loosely based on fact” numbers, but the source book happens to be written by none other than Michael Lewis. Sandra Bullock’s character Leigh Anne Tuohy exerts a great deal of maternal influence to bring Michael Oher into her family and in turn Michael sublimates his Oedipal complex sufficiently to succeed in his new white-person environment.

In both cases, the family is heterogenous across species, and race. It’s oddly couched in both films so as to obfuscate the dividing line, but the obfuscation itself brings attention to the act of obfuscation. That is to say, they make the point that the characters we are supposed to like are not species-segregationists or racists, but this bringing to our attention inadvertently points to fact that the text is about species or race.

Another way of reading all this is that in the Hollywood vision of America, it’s not what race you are that is important; it’s how normative you are in respects to sexuality and gender that is more important.

The Oscar Goes To The Politically Correct

It’s one of those odd things that occasionally a very limited sort of actor or actress gets the big gong. This year it was Sandra Bullock – who also won a Razzie for her film ‘All About Steve’, which makes it a rare double. While she might not be as bad as a Razzie suggests, she’s not as good as ‘Oscar Winner’ suggests. She does an okay job in ‘The Blind Side’. She clearly won it on the politically correct vote as well as the ‘She’ll never be in a position to win the Oscar ever again’ vote. I’m inclined to think they’re right.

The degree to which this ‘PC’ factor works can be seen in the frown as you read this and say, “but, but, but…” Look, if it looks politically incorrect to you that I point this out, then it must have been pretty politically correct for Sandra Bullock to win with this film. There is no way this is a historically great film, but it is a lot more watchable than some of the more feted films of recent years. I didn’t suffer watching this the way I suffered watching some of the other films.

The Blind Eye To Class

I’m not a class warrior but some times I just have to drag the Marxist stuff out to make a point. There’s nothing like a couple of films that proceed to brazenly hammer down bourgeois values that get my hackles up. So you’ll have to bear with my momentary lapse into rabid Marxist critique for a moment. I guess I did get that from AFTRS, but in this case, believe you me, it’s relevant.

One of the more pernicious projects in American cinema is how they essentially place  everybody as ‘middle class’ and this middle class seems to cover the whole vast tract of the demographic, unless it is specifically a story about coming from the wrong side of the tracks. That is to say, the ubiquitous white collar status is the zero-zero coordinate from which all values emanate, but it only addresses blue collar as the other – not the wealthy.

This gives rise to a really strange tension in ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ which is an adaptation of a text by Roald Dahl. Dahl actually is somewhat of a class-ist snob when he portrays the meanness of the 3 farmers, and the 3 farmers in the film are played by Englishmen with broad accents. In turn, there is a strange demarcation of consciousness that takes place in the text vis a vis, who has any consciousness. The Fox and Moles and Badgers have equivalent consciousnesses, but the chickens and turkeys that get eaten, do not. They die silently and are quickly consumed. The contradiction of this structure only goes to delineate Dahl’s own class-consciousness and betrays a weird kind of elitism of the urban middle class. When voiced by Clooney and Streep, this elitism actually steps forth as a strange kind of demarcation of the American bourgeois sensibilities rather than a British quirk of the source text.

Similarly, in ‘The Blind Side’, we are shown a fantastically wealthy white family and are expected to absorb the wealth we see as just another middle class family. The bourgeois sensibility carried by Bullocks character is so powerful, it drives her to adopt Michael. Her kindness extends out of her Bourgeois ideals, and later in the film she reflects on whether she is good or not. The irony is clearly lost on the writers because it seems to me it’s a story of a woman who has no self-reflection about her own bourgeois values.

Thus, the wrong side of the tracks where Michael comes from becomes the other that must be cut away from Michael. The film explores the notion by having Bullock’s Leigh Anne visit the biological mother of Michael Oher, and exculpates the fact that she takes over from the biological mother through the force of her character. There’s no crisis a la ‘Revolutionary Road’ in this bit of super-wealthy suburbia. Sandra Bullock’s Leigh Anne joyously embraces the naked, lurid, materialism of her existence. For her, there is no hopeless emptiness that plagues Kate Winslet’s April. I guess this sort of issue doesn’t decide who wins an Oscar at all – which suggests the Academy in general actually holds suburbia in contempt.

As character studies go it is interesting, and in some ways could be an American version of a Madame Bovary. Except being an American film, it doesn’t rush headlong into self-destruction, it rushes towards a super-affirmation of the bourgeois values inherent in her own milieu.All this happens hand in hand with affirming the new American family.

The Republican Soul

The strangeness of ‘The Blind Side’ is probably best characterised by the irony of its white characters. These white people are really nice. They’re really good. They’re nice and good because they have solid values; and the fact that Leigh Anne is a member of the NRA and packs a pistol in her purse are more character quirks than signs of a deranged social paranoia that is endemic in certain parts of America. The point of the film is, she’s nice: She takes in a disadvantaged but talented boy and makes him family – in spite of his colour/race, which makes her extraordinary. The film doesn’t let up that she is a good person and these are good deeds she is doing.

That’s all okay with me… except she’s a Republican. Presumably she is exactly the sort of person who joins the Tea Party and objects to the recent Health Bill getting passed by the Democrats. You sort of marvel at the contradictions that reside in the American political consciousness.

I mean, what is that?

The Family And Consumerism

The ultimate haven the Fox family find towards the end of the film is a supermarket where there is an abundance of food. In other words, heaven is participation in consumerism itself. The fact that the formation of the mega-family around Mr. Fox is celebrated this way is no accident. The formation of the family powers demand which is met by economic supply and capitalism finds its optimum expression where demand meets supply. The expansion of a family thus means expansion of the capitalist system itself.

The same dynamic is displayed in the Thanksgiving scene in ‘The Blind Side’. When Michael sits at the dining table to eat on his own, this prompts the Toohey family to come together around the table with their abundance of food, discussing where things were bought, and then they celebrate a God that allows them this big consumerist feast.

Considering I sort of grabbed these 2 films as random examples of the formation of the family being a central myth to American cinema, it’s pretty amazing how both these films have these scenes.

Sharing of food in American cinema possibly deserves a greater deal of analysis which I won’t go into here, but I will point out that Woody Allen often uses Thanksgiving dinners as occasions to explore the family. He bookends ‘Hannah and her Sisters’ with Thanksgiving feasts with one in the middle, and the penultimate scene of ‘Broadway Danny Rose’ features a Thanksgiving dinner shared by Danny and his hapless acts. The discussions about food that takes place in each of these scenes are critiques of the family and consumption. The capacity to deliver a sizable feast on Thanksgiving affirms the providing power of the patriarch in each instance, and underscores the symbolic transfer from God to Capital to stomach.

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Woods Envy

Moralism Sucks – Today’s Edition

Do we really need to have some dufus moralising at the top of his moral tenor? Do we need it on the Herald? Are we better served as a community when we dish out gratuitous sanctimony when it seems it would be on moral firm ground to wind up and have a kick at a fallen idol? I tend to think not.

This one is pretty repugnant for its high moral tone delivered with the utmost self-righteousness.

Now I am as disgusted with Woods and his secret life as I have always been about his on-course behaviour, which runs the gamut of foul language, ugly fist pumps, the throwing of clubs (nearly decapitating a spectator at our Masters at Kingston Heath last November) and spitting. He was untouched by a fawning media that has since become increasingly feral.

About the only comments we should believe from his statement are that he has been ”selfish and foolish”. And, more tellingly, ”I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled.”

How very true that is: ”I felt I was entitled.” ”Selfish.” It sums up everything about Woods. He feels he is not only bigger than the game he has dominated but also beyond the bounds of all moral and social behaviour.

His colleagues, good unionists that they are, have all said they welcome him back. Of course they do. When Woods turned professional in 1996, the total prizemoney for the PGA Tour was $US70 million. This year it is around $US270 million ($295 million). In 1997, Woods’s first full year as a professional, 18 players won more than $US1 million. Last year, 87 players earned $US1 million-plus. They’ve filled their pockets on the back of Woods.

Give me Ernie Els any time. He is everything that is great about the game of golf and the most engaging bloke to have a chat with over a cold one. He was world No.1 for a week in 1997 and for eight weeks, in brackets of four weeks, in 1998 but then Woods began his mesmerising march into the history books with very little left to achieve, save Jack Nicklaus’s mark of 18 majors.

Well, fuck me dead. If I were Ernie Els, I’d be embarrassed to be endorsed in this way, by putting down Tiger Woods. This is not a man’s work. This is not a decent human writing this column. So much envy for the success of one man, and now that he’s been found out to be a bit of a philanderer, out come the objections to his character on moral grounds. All from people who couldn’t hold a torch to Tiger Woods on the golf course; all of them weekend hackers to pros with some lesser record; all of whom know in their deepest hearts that even if they could duplicate Woods’ dedication, they would still fall short of his talent.

Disgust, he says! Disgust? Isn’t it more like a projection of Peter Stone’s own self-loathing that he’s been a good little human who hasn’t gone philandering but God or Fortune or Lady Luck or whoever has denied him the greatness of Tiger Woods’ talent? Isn’t it the case that nobody in their right-proper mind would pick Peter Stone’s life achievements over Tiger Woods? If morality is the only ledger that Stone is trying to claim superiority over Woods, then maybe morality isn’t such a good yardstick with which to judge a man.

All this moralising is nothing but invidia. It’s the same kind of crap they threw at early black players in the MLB, it’s the same kind of crap the old guard at Wimbledon threw at John McEnroe, and it’s the same kind of crap that they keep coming up with in order to shore up their own sorry fucked up lives of non-achievement. He’s a super-charged, hyper-motivated athlete. It’s not surprising he comes with a super-sized libido. everybody who has read Freud knows this and at this point in history most journalists an columnists ought to be familiar with this notion.

Seriously folks, we should grow out of this bullshit that holds athletes up to being role models and model citizens. The expectation itself is unrealistic and immature. Historically, it’s never really mattered who fucked who unless it was Anthony and Cleopatra. In most instances, it’s always been “what have you don for me lately?” Pretending it’s otherwise is childish, and imprudent in the extreme.

They should all just back off and let the man do his thing. Woods may wow us all yet, and that would make us all feel better. Judging Woods’ secret sex life doesn’t make us feel one bit better. Peter Stone should just just the fuck up and put a bullet to his head and put us out of misery.

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Brooklyn’s Finest

This Is Decidedly Not It

Good God. If you’ve Never, Ever seen another movie, this movie might have a shot at impressing you. That’s about all the hope this dog of a film has got going for it because this thing is terrible. I grumble about films like ‘Revolutionary Road’ and ‘The Hurt Locker’ but this thing is a travesty.

What’s Good About It

Uuh… Not much. It has Don Cheadle and Wesley Snipes in it. Which already makes it a kind of a parody rather than anything tangibly held to ‘realism’. None of the cast ever look like they inhabit the world they’re portraying. Ethan Hawke was rehashing his ‘Training Day’ looks and Richard Gere was sort of re-running his pained look from ‘The Flock’. God knows what the rest of them thought they were doing.

At one point as we were watching this thing, anti-cineaste Rob Morgan said, “oh look, the background in that shot is beautiful.” – If a film making novice is noticing  stuff like that, you get the idea how disengaging this film is.

So what is good about it? You don’t know what’s going on so it makes you keep watching in the hope that you find out. Then you’re bitterly disappointed.

What’s Bad About It

Where do you start with a pile of dog shit this high?

The whole film is like 17 cliche setups in search of a story. We’ve seen ALL of these elements before – some, in the case of Richard Gere, he only did it last year when he played another dude days from retirement, rescuing people from abuse. Ethan Hawke’s cop struggling with money, playing poker with his cop buddies is like a bad re-make of Stallone’s ‘Copland’, and Don Cheadle’s undercover storyline is like a bad rendition of ‘Donnie Brasco’ except in a black neighbourhood, drug gang setting. By the time Ellen Barkin graces the screen, you’re grimacing going, “what? this is Basher and the Cougar from “Ocean’s 13!”

So many good actors cast so badly to play such boring, ordinary roles. It’s a travesty this thing got made. Really, it’s that bad.

Whatever they were aiming for, it wasn’t working because everybody in it was carrying too much luggage from their previous body of work, none of them were particularly likeable and there’s no real unifying story. It’s like ‘Babel’-In-Brooklyn. Or just more plain babble. It has nothing to say about human nature or existence or love or hate or ambition or betrayal or any of that, even though it talks about it and around it. It’s pathetic. You’d think the writer decided to do the “full retard”.

What’s Interesting About It

I rarely say this, but this has nothing interesting about it. Avoid it like the plague. It’s not even “so-bad-it’s-funny-good”. There is nothing redeeming about this picture and it’s all the director’s fault. This is the worst film I’ve seen in a very long time.

Okay, Wesley Snipes with cornrows kinda looked ‘interesting’, but he’s still Wesley Snipes.

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