Monthly Archives: June 2010

Movie Doubles – ‘Human Centipede’ & ‘Unthinkable’

The Horror, The Horror

I don’t know what’s more frightening; knowing you’re going to be hit with something and being hit with it, or not suspecting what you’re about to be hit with and being hit with it. That’s exactly what we had here with these two films and really, moral repugnance of the subject matter in both these films is quite extraordinary.

I knew what was going to happen in ‘Human Centipede’ and when it hit, it was as gruesome as I had been told. But I was totally blindsided by just what ‘Unthinkable’ was going towards and in many ways I found the latter a lot more challenging to digest. What separates the two might be scale of the depravity in one and the consequences of the depravity in the other.

So here’s the spoiler alert. I will have to talk about pretty specific things to make this movie double entry work. There’s just no choice.

Both films are horrifying but one goes in a very transgressive personal way while the other commits to pushing the logic to the point of absolute horror. How do we in the civilised world countenance torture, let alone conceive of a methodology and a system for torture? Both these films shed immense light on just what it is that takes us to torture

The Sadean Vision

First, ‘Human Centipede’ is not as bad as the reviewers say it is. It actually has quite a bit of artistic ambition and pretension. In many ways it lives up to its ambitions as it goes inexorably to its central image, the human centipede. The human centipede is the surgical combining of 3 human beings, anus to mouth so that one long alimentary tract is created.

The logical ramification of this is that the second party is forced to eat the shit of the first party, and the third party is forced to digest the shit of the shit coming out of the first party through the second party. Why exactly a mad scientist wants to do this is not really well explained except for his one line, “I hate humans.”

As gruesome as it is, there is a great deal of black humour in the conception. The director Tom Six is reported to have said that the film started a s a joke in a pub where he argued that child molesters should have their mouths sewn to the anus of fat truckies and forced to eat their shit. Well, this is that film all right in all its loving rendering.

It is a horror worthy of something straight out of the Marquis de Sade’s collection. Indeed, even the story of how 2 tourists end up in the dungeon of despair (as Frank Zappa would have sung it) is similar to de Sade’s ‘Justine’ where a girl wanders through the forest and wanders into an inn full of evil people. It’s even in line with Hansel and Gretel, except the genders are reversed and the horror is coprophagy instead of cannibalism.

The Orwellian Vision

Compared to ‘Human Centipede’, ‘Unthinkable’ is flat out Orwellian. The film is about a desperate interrogation that entails significant amounts of torture. We don’t quite know where the film is going until well into the second act when Samuel Jackson’s character ‘H’ starts hoe-ing into Michael Sheen’s Yusuf. This film is what happens in Room 101, extended out to its logical extreme.

There are a few caveats on this point. In 1984, the state’s motive is gratuitous or so arcane as to be indecipherable. In ‘Unthinkable’ the state’s motive is clear as daylight – it seeks to stop a nuclear catastrophe from taking place.  There is a big reason for the torture to take place because the guy is holding some vital information, It has to be extracted or millions will die. To that end of extracting the information, ‘H’ pulls out all stops from his bag of torture tricks trying to break Yusuf. Representing our relatively civilian and thus cozy point of view is Carrie-Anne Moss’ Agent Helen Brodie.

Agent Brodie’s moral dilemma is thus, should she be willing to commit acts of evil in order to  save a great many lives? She recoils in horror, but gradually her duty to the state forces her to tacitly condone H’s methods. H, has long ago made ethical choices to affirm torture as his means of extracting information. In H’s view, it is a moral weakness not to embrace the full ramification of committing to interrogation and thus torture. It’s a joyless sadism in stark contrast to the joyous sadism of Dr. Heiter in ‘Human Centipede’.

The Point Of Cruelty

It’s never explained why the evil character Dr. Heiter came to hate humanity so much that he could commit such atrocities as they are portrayed in ‘Human Centipede’. We can’t even begin to guess at his disgust and thus it is hard to understand the whys and wherefores of ‘Human Centipede’. Dr. Heiter is not seeking to squeeze out the truth or information from his victims like ‘H’. He just likes the look of three people daisy-chained through surgery, which is to say his choice is an aesthetic one.

The aestheticisation of violence and cruelty is the hallmark of Marquis de Sade’s work, which in turn explains things like Nazisms and the curious pleasure its meanest bastards took in devising concentration camps. Many people ask “how could the Nazis have done such terrible things?”  The answer was already written down by the Marquis who at least lived to see the French Revolution’s high ideals devolve into the ritual of the  guillotine.

What then is the point of cruelty but pleasure?

At least, that is the point put forward by de Sade, and when you plug that through Freud, you can see how pleasure and cruelty can be conjoined and suddenly you have Nazism and concentration camps and Josef Fritzl the Dungeon Dad. Josef Fritzl for instance would not be such news if his crimes didn’t push upon a bunch of our taboos but also our self-understanding about cruelty and pleasure.

The Torture Never Stops (The Uncle Frank Vision)

What if you then found joy in your work as a torturer? Or found that you were good at it, and that the state had great need of your services? The addition of duty makes for heady mix. Perhaps this is the big difference between say Fritzl’s essentially domestic and private atrocity and the humanitarian catastrophe that was the Extermination Camps?

The character of ‘H’ is possibly the most honest representation of the ugliest face of American Imperialism. It is the face of all imperialism that has taken place in history. Here are the lyrics to Frank Zappa’s ‘The Torture Never Stops’. Check out this verse:

Flies all green ‘n buzzin’ in his dungeon of despair
An evil prince eats a steamin’ pig in a chamber right near there
He eats the snouts ‘n the trotters first
The loin’s ‘n the groin’s is soon dispersed
His carvin’ style is well rehearsed
He stands and shouts
All men be cursed
All men be cursed
All men be cursed
All men be cursed
And disagree, well no-one durst
He’s the best of course of all the worst
Some wrong been done, he done it first

That is how the character of ‘H”s handler works. ‘H’ is the very instrument of torture of the state.

Talk about misanthropy. ‘H’ has done so much torture in his life, he no longer feels any joy in it any more. He is jaded by his one talent, that used to give him so much joy. What he doesn’t understand is that the duty allowed him to do all those tortures, but it is duty that slowly killed the joy in him. If it isn’t perverse enough that our most important character is a Sadist, he is a sated Sadist.

Dr. Heiter can’t restrain his joy as he yells, “Feed Her!” as the first person in the centipede defecates into the mouth of the second character. There’s none of that with ‘H’, because he’s just done it once too often. This is more frightening than Dr. Heiter, though that may be hard to believe. ‘Human Centipede’ is a black comedy next to the ethical direness of ‘Unthinkable’.

The Utilitarian Ethos As Challenge

The direness of ‘Unthinkable actually stems from a philosophical challenge that is being laid down to us. It’s the re-imagining of the ‘Star Trek: Wrath of Khan’ and ‘Star Trek: The Search for Spock’ problematic of “Needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” versus “The Needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many”, but applied to the present day problem of terrorism.

Let’s imagine for a moment we take the irrationalist Kirk position of the latter “needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many”. Just how many of the ‘many’ are we willing to sacrifice or ignore before we come back to the rationalist “Needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” position of Spock? In ‘Unthinkable’, it is made very clear that the rational view has to prevail when there is a nuclear threat to 3 cities – enough to compromise high principles of the society not to commit torture. Is this good? Morally speaking, absolutely not. But if you want to save those millions of people, then it becomes incumbent upon the interrogators to use any and all means necessary to squeeze the answer out of the one person.

And this is the horrible little secret of our society with all its wealth and privilege over other parts of the planet. It is exactly the truth we cannot handle, as per what Colonel Jessup says in ‘A Few Good Men’. All our high principles and morals and ethics are luxuries upheld by the willingness of certain parties – the armed forces and black ops – to undertake unspeakable brutality in order to preserve the lifestyle of the many.  Every day we in the so-called civilised world are the beneficiaries and the many whose needs are outweighing the needs of the tortured.

If ‘A Few Good Men’ took us to the portal of understanding this problem, then ‘Unthinkable marches right in and shows us how the house of horrors is furnished. Compared to that very real house of horror, the house of horrors created by Dr. Heiter is very tame. ‘Unthinkable’ grabs our moral sensibility by the scruff of the neck, and shoves its snout into the shit that comes from the hypocrisy we practice by preaching our moral sensibilities. For some this would be a surprise. If you’ve been reading politics for a while, you will know that this is indeed the be all and end all of our pretty civilisation: that we live and die by our hypocrisy. Mostly, we thrive happily, oblivious.

Coprophagy And Other Taboos

Any time a film is made that transgresses a taboo, the critics line up to condemn the film for getting made. For instance, ‘Pink Flamingoes’ by John Waters has Divine eating dog shit and caused a furor. Incest in ‘Chinatown’ also disturbed critics. ‘Happiness’ which featured a family man who happened to be a child rapist could not get rated. ‘Salo’ continues to be a problem for the Australian censor board.

It’s interesting that ‘Human Centipede’ gets this critique from Roger Ebert:

I am required to award stars to movies I review. This time, I refuse to do it. The star rating system is unsuited to this film. Is the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don’t shine.

It’s funny that he thought it was that bad. It’s not. Meanwhile there’s hardly a review for ‘Unthinkable’.

Between the two films, you’d think that ‘Unthinkable’ would be the film that might be the most threat to the decency of our society given what it says about who we are. What’s perhaps even more disturbing is that critics and censor boards think that torture by the state is okay, but private torture is not.

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History In The Faking

No Do Overs For Ruddie

It’s a weird day when you wake up and the Prime Minister of the day is replaced by the ruling party. In a clear case of panic, the ALP faction chiefs went and did what they did best, which is politic-for-politic’s-sake and rolled their own Prime Minister and replaced him with a much more amenable figure for their own rank and file.

I guess I’m not a very politically insightful person because I can’t get over the rise and fall of Kevin Rudd, let alone comprehend the alleged benefits of installing a PM like Julia Gillard. You could say that so far, to date, I am mostly immune and unmoved by her supposed charms. She comes over like a shrill party apparatchik. While you can’t hold ambition against a politician, Gillard’s brand of ambition seems more in line with that of a Soviet Komissar than say, Margaret Thatcher’s sweeping grandeur. This may be good on the ideology stakes for some but it is uninspiring in the extreme.

However, going back to Kevin Rudd, I want to say a few things now that it is time to say, the king is dead, long live the king. I held three counts against Kevin Rudd, and in chronological order they were: his commenting on the Bill Henson case; the shelving of the ETS instead of talking to the Greens; and his equivocation on such things as why we were in Afghanistan or why we had to reform the tax system. Those are very minor quibbles against the big, big big thing he did, of spending big to stave off the recession when the GFC hit. He was decisive and uncompromising. It was admirable.

What I don’t get is how the Australian electorate that got bailed out in a big way by Kevin Rudd have essentially forgotten how effective the man was at the time of greatest need. He was there, and he did what he had to do, and Australia as a whole was a great beneficiary of his leadership. So now that the same man says ‘Super Profits Tax’, the billionaire miners quibble and it turns into a massive drop in his standings at the poll. In this instance you have to blame the stupidity of the people polled, not the Prime Minister who can’t communicate the whys of the tax reform. It’s the same man who staved off the global “shitstorm” of the GFC for Australia. You’d think the electorate would stop and listen closely to what the man had to say.

It’s all said and done now, but what all this leads me to think is that the Australian electorate on the whole, taken as an aggregate is like a spoiled child with fantasies about who they really are. Whatever the polled electorate thinks they’re kidding themselves. While I wasn’t the biggest fan of Kevin Rudd, I’m even less enamoured of his successor, so all of this strikes me as a very big joke.

I dare say in the light of latter day analysis, history will be kind to Kevin Rudd. If you could separate the man from the office, you might not be impressed with the man. Yet as the man in the office, he was formidable.

Should I Be In Awe?

The ALP panic move brought about the change that installed Julia Gillard. So we now have Australia’s first female PM but she is unelected. Is this a good thing or a bad thing for feminism? Here’s something that was in the SMH.

“The important thing is really for Australian girls growing up in this society, I think if there’s one girl who looks at the TV screen over the next few days and says ‘Gee I might like to do that in the future’, well that’s a good thing,” she told reporters.

But it’s bigger than just an inspirational role. Having a woman running the country will continue to challenge our collective notions of what it means to be Australian, to be a leader, to be a woman.

This country, where our concepts of identity, heroism and even friendship have for so long been wrapped up in male stereotypes and male pursuits, is now being led by a woman who has eschewed marriage and children, and climbed a steady and determined path to the top of a party and a parliament traditionally dominated by blokes.

Now, if Barack Obama, the United States’ first black president, does get around to visiting Australia in the next few months, he will be greeted by Gillard, our first female leader.

Milestones like a first black president or first female prime minister are never simply fluke events, or just brought about by a hard-working or charismatic individual. They’re the culmination of years of hard work from all those that paved or pushed the way through.

And so it goes. For my money, I am more reminded of the Premierships of Joan Kirner, Dr. Carmen Lawrence, Anna Bligh and dare I say, Kristina Kenneally. Sort of the froth the ALP throw up in order to distract the jaded electorate from the real problems going on. I guess we’ll  get to vote for Julia Gillard soon enough, but I am feeling very anti-Labor about all these shenanigans. I’m intending to vote for anybody but the major parties in both the state and federal elections this year. It’s a vow I’m keeping.

Am I the disaffected? No, I am the severely disenfranchised and none of these assholes are helping to bring me back to the mainstream. And I’m not the one that’s stopped thinking or stopped following what’s going on. We’ve gone from ‘Rudd versus Turnbull’ to ‘Gillard versus Abbott’ in a matter of 7 months. There is no way you’re going to convince me our polity isn’t stupid and fucked up.

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IWC Meets Behind Closed Doors

Give Whaling A Chance?

Of all the practices that gets reviled on the planet, one imagines whaling comes in at o.1% ahead of child molesting, hiding child-molesting priests and lying about weapons of mass destruction to invade Iraq. Still, there are people who want to do this stuff in spite of all the opposition. If it were up to me I would have walked away from the messy discussions (and quit too) except the opposition managed to make it a matter of principle – which means they’re not going to back down.

Which is in a roundabout way why these IWC meetings have become more and more acrimonious and the tone of discussion more inflammatory from both sides.

It only took an hour before talks were shut down at the IWC meeting in Morocco.

Representatives from more than 80 nations had gathered for the annual IWC meeting, set to be the most controversial in years.

But the deputy chair of the IWC has called for private talks to break the deadlock.

Australia is concerned by the development and says it “shuts down the official process which has been underway for two years”.

The sticking point remains over a proposal to overturn a 24-year ban on commercial whaling.

Here’s the SMH story on this stoppage.

A key negotiator said of the meeting’s suspension: “This is one last attempt to see if there is any common ground. We will be split up into small groups, and we won’t be coming back until Wednesday.”

Patrick Ramage, the global whale program director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said Mr Liverpool had ordered the closed-door meetings with a view to fast-tracking the proposal when the formal session reopens on Wednesday.

“Whatever one’s view on the proposal, its adoption under the present circumstances will destroy any remaining credibility for the whaling commission,”  Mr Ramage said.

I love how if people don’t get their way in negotiations it means the the credibility of the process gets shot. If the whaling nation used this excuse and left the IWC to do as they liked I imagine there would be a furor. Anyway, they’re having an argy-bargy.

Here’s an interesting article from the UK.

Despite becoming a pariah, Japan insists it has right on its side – and not without justification. The moratorium was originally imposed while new methods of estimating whale populations and setting quotas were developed; though both were done, a conservationist majority kept the ban in place. And until recently, Japan killed only minke whales, whose numbers – if much reduced – are still plentiful.

Next week’s proposal has been brewing for the past three years, as governments and environmentalists have been meeting in secret to see if a deal could be struck. As it stands, it would give formal blessing to Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean, even though the IWC declared the area to be a “whale sanctuary” in 1994, and allow official quotas to
be set. It was heavily pushed by America, and – though Barack Obama has now modified its stance – it still wants a deal.

The sticking point is likely to be in the chilly waters around Antarctica. Greenpeace, WWF and some anti-whaling nations would accept a general lifting of the ban, so long as it stayed in place there, and other safeguards were adopted, such as banning trade in whale meat. But these conditions may be too much for the whalers.

“It is very delicately poised,” one delegate told me yesterday. Much depends on whether EU countries are allowed to vote individually or have to act as a block, in which case, since they are divided, they would all have to abstain. But whatever way it goes, a week of high drama and much emotion lies ahead. I wonder if Agadir has a lifeboat.

In a nusthell, it’s time everybody made a deal about it instead of continue all the rancor and name-calling, and in turn behaved like mature adults instead of squabbling kids in a schoolyard. Of course Australia is playing up its role as teacher’s pet by going to the Hague with this stuff where it hopes the international juridical community share in its prejudices.

Let’s look at the deal as it was leaked. In exchange for abolishing the scientific whaling regimen, the commercial ban would get lifted. However, the number of whales taken would fall from 850 to 200. the sticking point for the whaling nations is that the drop in numbers is too much while the in principle resumption of commercial whaling  is too far against the principles of the anti-whaling nations. I am guessing that the Anti-whaling nations would walk away from the negotiating table sooner than the whaling nations because they have to sacrifice their own principles and go home and explain why. If they do, the whaling nations will most likely say, “we knew you couldn’t live up to a deal, see you next year.” and prepare for next year’s hunt.

But that’s just my guess. Peter Garrett has ‘ambitions’:

“A compromise … had been supported by some countries on the basis that some compromise was better than nothing,” Mr Garrett said.

“Australia doesn’t take that view, we have more ambition in relation to this matter, and I’m really confident that there’ll be some support around the table for our views.”

In other words, it’s my-way-or-the-highway, same as before, so I imagine my guess is going to turn out right.

It’s interesting that the discourse is so strained that on the one hand the whaling nations such as Norway and Iceland are ready to walk out of the IWC and join Canada as a whaling nation operating outside of the IWC. The Minister for Agriculture of Japan, Masahiko Yamada has indicated that Japan is willing to cut numbers for a deal. They have categorically ruled out that they would walk out of the IWC.

At the other end of the spectrum, Australia is trying to couch the IWC as corrupt and possibly trying to get out of any IWC agreement that might include a compromise. I don’t think there’s a middle ground and the last decade has shown that therewon’t ever be a middle ground. So maybe it is time that people start drawing up plans for a post-IWC kind of world where nations set their own quotas and go whaling.

For instance, South Korea (remember how they go ‘accidental’-whaling?) want to be dealt into to the deal if commercial whaling is going to resume. Russia will want a piece too, though they’ve been very quiet.

The best argument against whaling is that eating whale gives you mercury poisoning. The world’s seas are so polluted with mercury thanks to coal fire emissions now, that most whales of any species are too high in mercury to eat. The arguments for the whalers to stop is never going to be successfully couched in terms of ethics of animal cruelty – as traditionally done – when there are any number of cruel industries around. And it’s hard to mount an attack on the cultural argument for whaling when you have loopholes for such things already. If you can’t give up the beef industry, why should they give up their whale industry on account of your sensitivities?

The worst arguments are the ones mounted by Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace. If you really want to save whales, then make real cuts to carbon emissions and abandon coal fire stations. Really, the rest of it is literally showboating. The drop in krill population due to climate change will decimate the whales – much more so than a bunch of whaling boats from Japan, Iceland and Norway combined.

BTW, where’s the Sea Shepherd crew protesting BP over the oil spill? They’re not? Gee why doesn’t that surprise me?

UPDATE:

The latest news seems to be that everybody has agreed to disagree. There’s no deal.

【アガディール共同】モロッコ南西部アガディールで開かれている国際捕鯨委員会(IWC)の年次総会は21日午後、日本など捕鯨国3カ国と韓国が非捕鯨国と非公開で個別の折衝を続け、日本は六つにグループ分けされた非捕鯨国のうち、オーストラリアやモナコを含む反捕鯨強硬派グループなど計3グループとの協議を終えた。

協議筋によると、反捕鯨強硬派側は「(日本が調査捕鯨として行っている)南極海での捕鯨を段階的に減らし、最終的にはゼロに」などと訴え、厳しい原則的立場を示したという。

一方、舟山康江・農林水産政務官は同日、反捕鯨国であるニュージーランドのマカリー外相と会談。日本の水産庁によると、捕鯨国、反捕鯨国間の妥協に基づく合意形成に向けて努力を継続することで考えが一致した。

According to the Japanese source, they’ve agree with the anti-whaling nations to “keep working towards a compromise”. That means there will be another research hunt pretty soon. Jesus. Nobody compromised this year, nobody compromised last year, nor the year before that nor the year before that; what makes them think there will be a compromise next year?

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Movie Doubles – ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’ & ‘Better Off Dead’

1980s Nostalgia, Generation X Wasteland

O-o-o-okay. Today’s movie doubles links two films through the prism of John Cusack movies, skiing, and the 1980s. Since ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’ explicitly goes back to 1986, it started to ring bells in my head. The more obvious doubles partner for ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’ – ‘HTTM’ from here – would have been ‘Back to the Future’ which kicks off in 1985 and talked about 1980s teen mores in the present tense as it happened, as opposed to ‘HTTM’ which looks back and wonders in nostalgia. Not coincidentally, both films feature Crispin Glover, and in both films he is transformed by the adventure undertaken by the time travelers.

Still, the reason I dug up ‘Better Off Dead’ is because it too hails from 1985, also stars John Cusack and seems like a good point to understand just what it is that the 1980s were about in real time as opposed to nostalgia. In that sense I thought it might open up a more interesting vein of discussion than simply comparing two time-travel texts. The other thing is that ‘HTTM’ just isn’t a good a film as ‘BTTF’ and I didn’t want to get bogged down in the inferiority of ‘HTTM’ when I could be digging up some interesting ideas by comparing it to something in its own weight class.

Snow And Ski

The 1980s the ‘HTTM’ crew go back to is more a parody of the 1980s than an attempt to recreate a proper look. If you want a proper look, you get closer watching ‘BOD’. It really is the snow and ski experience that links the film and in each instance the snow forms the test of character for John Cusack’s characters.

‘HTTM’ is a little disappointing in that the test of snow is largely metaphorical whereas in BOD, his character has to conquer his fear and ski down a dangerous mountain. The physicality of the task actually comes off a lot better than the metaphor of John Cusack’s character Adam’s frozen emotions in ‘HTTM’. By watching these two films together, you get the feeling that these John Cusack characters have lost a lot of dynamism in the intervening years, and it’s a bit of a shame.

The Cold War And Reagan

I’ve written about this elsewhere but the quintessential Gen-X experience was the fear of Ronald Reagan pushing the button to turn the Cold War into a Hot War of Mutually Assured Destruction. Thus it is no surprise that in going back to the 1980s, the ‘HTTM’ characters end up in the cold. They are pretty explicit about this when they arrive in 1986 and the news on the TV screen shows Ronald Reagan.

The paranoia also informs the plot as the villain Blaine is motivated in stopping the ‘HTTM’ crew because he was inspired by ‘Red Dawn‘ and suspects the ‘HTTM’ crew are Russian spies. What’s remarkable is how much the villain character of Blaine – a garden variety alpha male jock bully – is just like the villain from ‘BOD’, Roy Stalin. Get that surname? Yes, the Cold War paranoia was rampant enough that the bully kid’s surname being Stalin didn’t strike anybody as weird.

It is thus a bit of an irony that the means by which the ‘HTTM’ crew can return to the present is by reacquiring a can of some weird Russian caffeine-boosted soft drink. It seems America is much less worried about Russia today because they’ve joined the consumerist system, but they are worried now about the competition they’re getting from them.

If Gen-X is not too worried about the War on Terror, it’s because they learned not to be too worried about the Cold War.

The Gen-X Conundrum

‘BOD’ features John Cusack’s teen protagonist Lane Meyer with David Ogden Stier (Charles from the TV series of MASH) as his conservative father. They seem to be a well to do family living near a ski resort town. The central conflict between father and son centre around the broken down communication between the generations that was so common in the 1980s. After the tumultuous 1960s and chaotic 1970s, the narrative of the alienated teenager had set itself into a pattern, and in ‘BOD’ we see signs of formalising these relationships. Clearly it’s an attempt to re-assemble the meaningful bits of society that make sense to his character but the comedy lies in the futility.

The film has one particular exchange where Lane’s father attempts to talk to his son from cribbed notes on juvenile lingo. It’s an excruciating scene even after all these years. What seems to be happening is not so much independence as an absence of adult supervision for kids which is refreshing as it is novel to watch.

The absence of adult supervision is a theme that is revisited in ‘HTTM’, but this time the characters are wondering how it is that their lives turned into such a mess. The mirroring of meaning is stark. The kids of the 1980s made themselves away from their parents, but in making themselves they have become stilted and unfinished. Yet, when looking back it is obvious the parents couldn’t have been there when the world was changing so fast. Gen-X made itself into what it is – i.e. we made ourselves the way we are, that’s why we’re so fucked, but there wasn’t much else choice about it.

Going Back In Time To Fix …What Exactly?

There are 2 rough genres of time machine stories predicated on where they choose to go. If you choose to go to the far future, then it’s all new and amazing but from a story-telling point of view you’re better off making a film simply set in the future and remove the expediency of having to explain  time machine in your story.

The alternative is go into the past and face the “grandmother dilemma”. Invariably time travel stories to the past face the problematic of what happens if you change anything, and should you try to recreate the past or not. This is what connects ‘HTTM’ to ‘BTTF’ more than ‘BOD’, so I’ll quickly talk about this point.

Needless to say both ‘HTTM’ and ‘BTTF’ go back into the past by a generation to effectively ‘fix’ things in the present, and return to the contemporary moment from whence their journey started. What’s interesting in each instance is just how little America has changed between 1985 and 2010 in terms of what it thinks is ‘fixed’.

What’s particularly unchanged is how success is measured in material terms and then superficial, cosmetic terms after that. So for all the spiritual growth the characters go through in both films, the rewards for their growth are mainly material. This is pretty solidly bourgeois and one shouldn’t be surprised that it is the case, but it is pretty stark how even in 2010 the only kind of success that is meaningful for the characters in a movie are material.

It’s enough to make you wonder if there are any other ways of expressing this kind of thing in cinematic terms, or whether cinema is so fundamentally bourgeois that it can never escape the materialist position for anything. These are not necessarily faults of the films or film makers, but rather an observation about American cinema as a whole. We all know for instance that Australian cinema is decidedly tragic and anti-climactic out of ideological choice and so naturally flounders at the box office. I guess I am more impressed with how unflinching and unchanging the ideological position is between 1985 and 2010.

The Reconstruction Of Social Meaning

After the tumult of the previous decades, certain things were very matter of fact by 1985. Such as drugs and kids’ inordinate interest in experimenting with them as well as dysfunctional families. Everybody growing up knew a whole bunch of kids at school whose parents had either split up or were splitting up. These kinds of things were old hat, so to speak, and thus you can see in ‘BOD’ an attempt to re-configure the family. The heterogenous interests of Lane’s family members – his mother’s cooking and his brothers’ projects – represent the early attempt to re-imagine a nuclear family in spite of everybody’s quirks. It’s significant because it comes a good few years before ‘the Simpsons’ came along and institutionalised the tolerance. Compared to ‘the Simpsons’, the ‘weird family’ gags look lame today.

And so the 1986 in ‘HTTM’ is so exaggerated for comedy, it couches 1980s mores in an ironic manner. While both films remain loose comedies, the gap between the two films tells us quite a bit about how we have moved on. For a start in ‘BOD’, none of Lane’s friends are black. There is a French exchange student, some Asian kids who have adapted to America, there is a freaky fat kid, but nobody is black. In ‘HTTM’, one of the friends is black. In the mythically recreated 1980s of ‘HTTM’ the racial divide has been overcome. This is underscored by the gag exchange:

“What colour is Michael Jackson?”

“He’s black of course!”

“Aaaaaaaaghhhhh!!!!”

The certitude of Michael Jackson’s colour is somehow meant to overshadow the certitude of the racial divide as it existed in 1980s America. It’s a nice attempt to rewrite history, but it is what it is – an attempt to rewrite history. This sort of has odd flow on effects…

You Call That Heavy Metal?

I remember in the 1980s, people talking heatedly about music from the 1950s and 1960s and it was such a bore. This is going to be very boring for people born after 1985.

There’s an animated sequence built around Van Halen’s song ‘Everybody Wants Some’ in ‘BOD’. The Heavy Metal band of choice in ‘HTTM’ is Poison. If you asked me the relative merits of the 2 bands I’ll tell you Van Halen wins hands down. I mean really, if you played guitar it was Jimi Hendrix, then Eddie Van Halen, who truly revolutionised lead guitar playing.

Also if you check out the wikipedia entry on Poison you can see they were still a relatively minor act in 1985-1986. If you asked me, Poison really weren’t on anybody’s radar in that period unless you were a metal head. This average crowd of youths getting off on Poison just wasn’t true in 1986.

The ‘lie’ so to speak in ‘HTTM’ is that when the band hits the stage in 1986, it’s a multi-racial band with a black singer. In ‘BOD’, it’s a blonde girl in a really short skirt fronting an all-white band. Even the music sounds ‘wrong’ in ‘HTTM’. The 1980s don’t sound so nuanced so much as having a sheen. Guitar tones are light, the voices are pitched tightly and high, the beat is almost bionically ‘up’. The stage act in ‘HTTM’ would have gone down as lame in 1985.

Some contemporaneous 80s albums that were on high rotation on my Walkman in 1985-1986:

  • ‘1984’ by Van Halen
  • ‘Drama’ & ‘90125’ by Yes
  • ‘Ghost In The Machine’ & ‘Synchronicity’ by The Police
  • ‘Beat’ & ‘Three of A Perfect Pair’ by King Crimson
  • ‘PG4’ & ‘So’ by Peter Gabriel
  • ‘Service’ by Yellow Magic Orchestra
  • ‘Gone To Earth’ by David Sylvian
  • ‘Invisible Touch’ by Genesis

I was a prog geek. Still am, but that’s another story.

Anyway, I mention all that in passing because none of the nostalgia invested in the music in ‘HTTM’ moved me in the least bit whereas listening to the music playing in ‘BOD’ actually felt like the 1980s I remembered. It’s not music I liked, but it was music that was of its time.

The gap between the two positions is interesting in that it highlights the shift in perception as to what exactly was considered commercial then and how much of it can still be sustained. The music of the past is often not how you imagine it to have been contextualised.

The Camaro Was The Car

Oddly enough the two films are connected through Chevrolet Camaros. A 1967 Chevy Camaro is the featured sports car in ‘BOD’ while ‘HTTM’ shows the character of Lou attempting suicide in his up to date Chevy Camaro.

You can chalk it up to coincidence or have a think about what a Camaro is. The first Camaro went on sale in 1966. It’s a Gen-X car.

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Mental Health News

The System Is Crazier Than You Think

Here’s some disturbing news.

THE death of a prisoner bashed at Grafton jail has put further pressure on the tough sentencing culture of the state government’s law and order policies.

The man was serving time for a traffic offence and a psychiatric report to the magistrate who jailed him recommended against a custodial sentence.

It said Ian Klum, 53, a refrigeration mechanic from Woolgoolga, could not read social cues, had been admitted to a psychiatric unit three times and had had shock treatment.

The magistrate Darryl Pearce, known on the provincial court circuit as ”Fierce Pearce” for the rigour of his sentencing, has a reputation for having judgments overturned.

So, they arrest a guy who is mentally ill for traffic violations and throw him in prison. In prison, he’s beaten to death. Nobody pays. Everybody washes their hands.

This business of locking up mentally ill people in prisons has got to be questioned. Thanks to the Richmond Report they reduced the size and number of mental hospitals and put mentally ill people into the public with some kind of support. The problem over the years  has been that they’ve been cutting that support for years and years, and that when these people stop taking their medication, they an be fully blown crazy. For instance this business with Anthony Waterlow late last year. When they go fully-blown crazy in the community and commit crimes – large and small – the police an the justice system become involved.

It’s most likely that these mentally ill people would not have committed the crimes had they been locked up – even if it isn’t nice to be locked up. In turn, if the end result is that they get locked up and are kept in prisons instead of hospitals, then what good is it to have a system where the mentally ill person could easily fall afoul of the law and end up in prison instead of a hospital ward?

It’s a little more disturbing when you read:

Yesterday the Attorney-General, John Hatzistergos, said the government made no apology for its tough approach in sentencing. ”That has assisted in reducing the incidences of crime by deterring people and incapacitating people from committing offences,” he told ABC Radio.

Somewhere along the way you’d think he’s missed the point. By all means, lock up criminals but locking up mental patients with criminals is what has caused this death. I don’t think it helps for the NSW Government to be beating its hairy chest with the “Law-and-Order” issue when in fact it’s disguising a huge problem in NSW Mental Health services.

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Character Assassins ‘R’ Us

Strange Fortnight From SMH

What has the Hon Prime Minster Kevin Rudd and Socceroo Harry Kewell have in common? Both had scathing things written about them by journalists which, no matter which way you read them you wonder how the writer came to such outrageous conclusions. First off there was David Marr with his long article here.

Marr famously kicked it off with a mention of the phrase ‘rat-fucking’ and then went on to wind through Kevin Rudd’s emotionally challenging childhood to come to the conclusion that what drives the Prime Minister is anger. This bit caught my eye:

“He doesn’t trust his advisers to give advice, so they become glorified research assistants. Because everything is on the go at once and he’s interrogating the detail of everything, nothing comes out until the last minute. Bringing work to a conclusion was focused around the next media hit. He loves an announcement.

“He is a strange beast behind closed doors. He is so focused on the day-to-day tasks that he loses the social niceties. They are neither here nor there. Staff are interrogated beyond what’s reasonable to expect them to know. And if you don’t know, the atmosphere changes. Not a blow-up. It becomes very quiet. But he doesn’t deliberately push his staff to this point.

“For all the effort, he doesn’t come up with particularly interesting solutions to problems. His policy positions aren’t breakthroughs, not particularly new or exciting. After all that work, they are dull.”

That above could possibly be accurate (or totally inaccurate). The problem is that it is not attributed to anybody, and it’s a pretty damning opinion of the man’s work at the end. In all honesty, I would hate to b damned by such hearsay, so even if it were true, the lack of attribution is a bit of an issue for me. This next bit of opinion spinning ad hominem stuff had me seriously wondering:

If Australia saw him through Canberra’s eyes, he would be done for. Though he has led until now a formidably disciplined first-term government – few leaks, only one minister lost – negotiated the global banking crisis of 2008 with exemplary skill, pulled off the great symbolic coup of the Apology and routed two opposition leaders, the capital is tired of him.

He’s seen in that little world of power as a weird guy and a failing prime minister. He puzzles his caucus, frustrates his ministers and irritates the press. A habit of making endless speeches at big public events has earned the man – known at various times in his career as Dr Death, Pixie and Heavy Kevvie – a new nickname: the Castro of the South Pacific.

Colleagues from his time as the key back-room boy in Goss’s reforming government have an old joke they trot out whenever they meet to talk about those days of high hopes and disappointment. They don’t remember him kindly. The joke: Rudd is a creature from outer space. The proof? Who but an android would say so often, “I am only human.”

What’s really worrying about this is that none of this concluding section of the account has any substance worth spit. Yet here are three paragraphs that are essentially bagging the guy in the name of reporting on how other people bag the man behind his back. It’s hard to tell how this serves as journalism or serves political discourse in this country. David Marr went on to talk about his encounter with Rudd here. Kevin Rudd went ballistic at David Marr, and David Marr took that anger as proof that Kavin Rudd runs on anger.

Kevin Rudd’s riposte this week was that it wasn’t so much anger but incandescent rage that drives him. And that he has a long memory.

Now, I’m no Kevin Rudd fan. I understand he got voted in because of who he wasn’t more than who he was. I preferred Mark Latham as leader of the ALP, and I don’t really understand why Mr. Rudd likes making moralistic opinions on art be heard through his office as Prime Minister. The man is a joke when it comes to understanding the transgressive nature of good art. Even so, David Marr’s article is as unfair on Rudd as Rudd was unfair on Bill Henson – and maybe that’s why Marr did it – but I can’t prove it. Whatever the case, it’s a very misguided piece.

Then, there was Michael Cockrill is covering the World Cup over in South Africa, and after Australia’s dismal loss to Germany, filed this article about Harry Kewell.

On Saturday (midnight, AEST), in Rustenburg, he gets the chance to prove he’s got something left to give. At times in his career, Kewell has been a genuine star. And his long, arduous battle to keep his body together remains a tribute to his bravery, and resilience. But he’s never been able to accept his diminished circumstances. Instead, he’s chosen to deflect the scrutiny with hype. Kewell Inc is on the way up. Kewell, football player, is on the way down. And has been for years.

Now there is nowhere left to hide. If he’s got any petrol left in the tank, he’s got to show it, against Ghana. Preferably by starting the game, and finishing it. Preferably by providing a point of difference. Preferably by giving glimpses of the Harry of old. Anything less, and there’s no more excuses. None.

If the Socceroos lose to the Black Stars, they’re out of contention. With a new coach coming on board, there’ll be a broom swept through a squad creaking at the joints. Believe it or not, Kewell is likely to be part of the clean out. A few years ago that was unthinkable. But a few years is a long time in football. ‘Our Harry’ knows that better than anyone.

Again, here’s a bunch of statements about a man that has no attribution or evidence.

Now, you all know I hate soccer and Harry Kewell’s stardom is neither here nor there for me, but it seems the guy has done more right for the cause of Australian Soccer than he has done wrong (or ill). He’s been a stalwart, at the edge of his endurance at times. The characterisation here is that he’s a prima donna who doesn’t know he’s washed up.

Naturally, Harry Kewell reacted with incandescent rage, and called out to Cockerill to show his face. Cockerill responded with this tart and nasty little article.

HERE I am Harry, where I was always going to be and where I’ll be for the next few weeks. Covering the World Cup.

Not covering you, exclusively, I must admit. I like to get around. On Wednesday afternoon, when you seemed to be rather upset that I wasn’t squeezed among the press pack at Ruimsig, tape recorder in hand, I was actually in Pretoria. Months ago I applied, and received, accreditation to report on South Africa’s game against Uruguay. You can check if you like.

Perhaps if I’d known you were going to front the cameras – we’re not generally told who Football Federation Australia are ”putting up” in advance – I would have changed my plans. Come to think of it, no I wouldn’t have.

You see, Harry, I spent a lot of years, a lot of energy and a lot of effort chasing you for quotes around the world. I was there when it all began for you in 1996 – in fact, I was there a long time before that – and I’m still here now.

Ninety per cent of that time, you’ve blanked me. The last time, four years ago in Yokohama, I made a decision there wasn’t much point in the charade any more. Something I conveyed, quite clearly, to your manager, Bernie Mandic. So you got on with your life and I got on with mine. That’s fair enough. There’s plenty of athletes and plenty of journalists who don’t get on. Nature of the beast and all that.

Except he wasn’t there to take the anger (nay, incandescent rage) from Kewell. And he won’t turn up to take his well-deserved beatings from the man. He’s just talking tough from behind his keyboard, protected by the reputation of the Sydney morning Herald itself. Kewell’s management issued a statement pointing out the actual errors in Cockerill’s original article.Here’s an example of one of the points rebuked and it’s interesting:

Today you wrote that I told you, ”the football media was a joke, utterly irrelevant”. Again you are playing with the truth. Not only is the location of the conversation wrong but you have conveniently left out that I was speaking specifically about Australian newspaper journalists that cover soccer and quoted what Rupert Murdoch said about newspapers in general – ”Only 9 per cent [of the people] describe us as trustworthy, a scant 8 per cent find us useful, and only 4 per cent think we’re entertaining (14 May, 2005).”

Yes, one does wonder about journalists, as does Harry’s manager Bernard Mandic.

In both instances, one wonders why on earth the editor at the SMH thought either one of these character assassinations were worthy pieces of journalism to print, because in both instances the subsequent discussions have devolved into fierce rebukes and slanging matches. It’s this kind of thing that’s lowered my opinion of the SMH even more.

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Spin Control

Meet The F*ckers

Pleiades convinced me to go and see what the top Film Bureaucrats had to say for themselves at a function at Trackdown, at an ad hoc event organised by Tristan Milani. Fronting up for their policies were Screen Australia boss Dr. Ruth Harley, Screen NSW boss Tania Chambers and Ausfilm boss Jackie O’Sullivan.

The gist of the presentation was that the numbers are up and so far everything is much better than 5 years ago. The bad news is that the Australian Dollar is playing havoc with the part of the industry that subsists on American productions. The banality of the presentation was breathtaking and Dr Ruth Harley closed off her segment with a couple of trailers for films to come.

Maybe the numbers that were read out by both Dr. Harley and Ms Chambers bear out a recovery in the film industry in general, but it struck me more as spin. They were all busy predicting a trough to come, as if to forewarn and foreshadow bad news ahead. An unkind mind might suggest that if they’re willing to take the credit for the peaks, perhaps they should take the rap for the troughs, but these bureaucrats were so wily, there’s a reason they’ve got their cushy fat jobs and chumps like us are looking in.

There is a lot of angst in the wider film making community at various levels and in various sectors of the business. The gathered faces were surprisingly older faces. Some of whom were my instructors at AFTRS way back when, which while it is encouraging to see, was also depressing in that it showed the industry had let them down as well.

James Ricketson got up and in their faces about the ‘anonymous assessor’ process that has been put into place. Clearly this is is an abominable procedure but the top bureaucrats expressed the strong opinion that the anonymous nature of the assessment allows the assessors to be more frank.  Well, let *me* be frank – I think these film bureaucrats are full of themselves if they think this process is in any way helping the film maker. Yet, there they were, defending the process on the basis of numbers. Numbers of projects submitted, number of projects funded and number of projects that eventually went into production. And when you stop to think about it, you think, what if they just changed the rules so they *didn’t* have to be accountable to the submissions?

Inquiring minds wanted to know, but these film bureaucrats were decidedly defensive on this point, saying it was a good thing. Clearly they have no idea what it is like to submit a project to these bodies. I started to laugh – I couldn’t stifle my giggle response when Dr. Harley said with a straight face for the third time that they got better information through the frankness of anonymous assessors. Well of course you would. Much like NAZIs would from secret informants – but they just didn’t seem to care that they came across as really hostile.

Some e-mailer made the charge that Screen Australia were only interested in genre pictures, to which Dr. Harley trotted out some statistical breakdown to show it was not, but in so doing, she entirely ducked the issue of accountability raised in the question. As in, “why do film bureaucrats get to keep their cushy jobs when they pick losers to develop and lose money?” No answer was forthcoming.

At one point Tom Jeffrey got up in support of a North American dude who complained about the intractability of the process and the procedures. Both men were politely told that they should get with the times and simply navigate the website and put in some study hours dealing with forms because the bureaucracy simply didn’t have the man-hours to deal with all the inquiries.

And if you thought that was a bit rude – and let’s face it Tom Jeffrey’s an old bull of the business who deserves respect – these people were quite snide about it. The North American Dude made a metaphor that he wanted to  discuss Alaska, but the process involving forms always tried to reduce the discourse to a shoe box. The snarky remark from Dr. Harley was that they couldn’t help him because nobody at Screen Australia knew how to reduce Alaska to a shoe box either – which ignores the fundamental question being asked. Why are these forms so difficult and contrary to the creative process, and why do they keep insisting on these mountain of forms?

Tom Jeffrey also got the short shrift by both Tania Chambers and Dr. Ruth Harley when they suggested it was all available online and it was his own fault or being so old so as not to be up to the times. How insulting was that? Pretty extreme in its insult, I thought. And Tom’s not somebody I would consider a friend. Tania Chambers said that they simply didn’t have enough people to talk through each project, so it had to be through forms. It seems they use forms and e-mails and bureaucratese to distance themselves from having any moral responsibilities.

Some of the ex-NSWFTO people made the point of saying that they would never try to go through these bodies for development. You could see why. The whole event was an interesting exercise in bureaucrats trying to substitute discussions of quantities in place of discussions about qualities, and thus try and avoid any moral responsibilities. All in all, it was a very poor showing.

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