Monthly Archives: June 2011

Hollywood On The Ropes

Problems On The Horizon

I stumbled upon this interesting article that talks about how Hollywood is narrowing and therefore shrinking in significance.

A generation of directors who thought they owned the business as kids in the 1970s had to decide whether to stay part of it or be artists. Steven Spielberg is the only one who may still be able to convince us he’s both: we will see with “War Horse” and “The Adventures of Tintin”. Francis Ford Coppola has gone back to being an artist, while moonlighting in wine and eco-villas. George Lucas exists in the gloom of his own big business. And Martin Scorsese is something of a wreck, trying to have it both ways, making music documentaries (George Harrison next) and television (“Boardwalk Empire”), and still directing movies without firing on so many cylinders (“Shutter Island”). Mostly born in the 1940s, they are of an age still to be our great directors, but they have yielded to a generation of new kids who do what the money demands. You see, we don’t have great directors any more. The computer makes our movies. Its efficient anonymity is the new style: look at the anonymous figures and the metallic sheen of “Black Ops”. That style, a kind of subtle fascism, haunts our films, from “Black Hawk Down” to “Battle: Los Angeles”.

The picture business likes to tell us, and itself, that it is doing very well. In the first decade of this century, America’s annual domestic box office pushed over $10 billion ($10.89 billion for 2010). But $10 billion, you realise now, is not so great. And in the small print you find that in 2010 1.37 billion tickets were sold, whereas in 2002 it was 1.58 billion—so in eight years, 13% of the audience has melted away. In the 1940s, as war ended and families were reunited in the dark, the figure was 4 billion tickets a year. And the population of America was half what it is now. That’s what “mainstream” once meant.

In that light, our venerable Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, now in its 80s, looks a little shaky. It has two physical incarnations: the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre on Wilshire Boulevard for tributes and events, and an exceptional research library, named after Margaret Herrick, the first librarian at the Academy, and an invaluable source for film historians. There are wistful hopes for a proper movie museum—something LA has never had. Mainly, it puts on the big show, the Oscars telecast. The bulk of the Academy’s revenue (about $70m a year) comes from that one show, and its audience has been wilting.

If anything, the demographic support for cinema may actually be collapsing in the traditionally strong demographic. There are many reasons for this, but I think the main culprit is that there’s just too much competition for that same disposable dollar, while piracy offers a valve for the need for cinema to be met with much less cost. After a good 20years of mining the 18-35 demographic, it is finding it hard to get the next generation of the 18-35 demographic to be as hooked into cinema as the previous generation, Gen-X. Gen-Y just isn’t into cinema like that, and it’s showing up in stalled growth and diminishing audiences.

The repetitive adaptation of comic book content an the retreat of mature, general content from films has made Hollywood cinema itself a little disjointed from its marketplace. It’s not developing its own content, it’s buying it pre-packaged so we’re not even getting proper story development on the screen like we used to. Worse still, the impact of world events have been such that cinema no longer seems as inviting as it once was. ‘Armageddon’ is harder to watch after 9/11. Movies about war are hard to watch after Iraq. All the while cinema itself is cocooning itself into a world of violent fantasies more than offering insight or understanding. It has to be a bad step.

Which brings me to the next bit. Here’s an interesting article sent in from Pleiades.

War, violence and death have become the organizing principle of governance and culture in the United States as we move into the second decade of the 21st century. Lacking a language for the social good, the very concept of the social as a space in which justice, equality, social protections and a responsibility to the other mediate everyday life is being refigured through a spectacle of violence and cruelty. Under such circumstances, ethical considerations and social costs are removed from market-driven policies and values just as images of human suffering are increasingly abstracted from not only their social and political contexts, but also the conditions that make such suffering possible. Moreover, as public issues collapse into privatized considerations, matters of agency, responsibility and ethics are now framed within the discourse of extreme individualism. Unexpected violence, aggression and the “‘masculine’ virtues of toughness, strength, decisiveness and determination … are accentuated,” along with the claims of vengeance, militarization and violence.(1) The collapse of the social and the formative culture that make human bonds possible is now outmatched by the rise of a Darwinian ethic of greed and self-interest in which violence, aggressiveness and sadism have become the primary metric for living and dying. As the social contract is replaced by social collapse, a culture of depravity has emerged in American society. The spectacle of violence permeates every aspect of the machinery of cultural production and screen culture – extending from television news and reality TV to the latest Hollywood fare. Of course, this is not new. What is new is that more and more people desire spectacles of high-intensity violence and images of death, mutilation and suffering and their desires should no longer be attributed to an individual aberration, but instead suggest an increasingly widespread social pathology.

It’s worth reading on. It’s an article that highlights my own misgivings about where cinema is going wrong.

They’re Still Talking About This?

Ugh. *facepalm*.

Certainly, positive momentum came to a shuddering halt in March, when four Australian films came and went quickly in cinemas. The Reef, Griff the Invisible, Wasted on the Young and A Heartbeat Away cost millions to make but only returned a fraction of that in cinemas. A report, to be released this month by Adelaide firm Convergen, confirms that in inflation-adjusted terms, Australian film has failed to tap into the boom in overall box office returns during the past 30 years. So, while overall demand has increased at the box office, Australian films haven’t expanded their share.

An industry debate about how to improve the overall performance of the local film business is in full swing, with a push to give distributors greater influence in the movie-making process. The argument is that the current model relies too heavily on the funding and development relationship between Screen Australia and producers, which does not provide audiences with enough of what they want.

Just what that is, however, remains the $100 million (annual box office) question.

I don’t know. It’s almost not worth talking about here any more. It keeps going in circles, nothing gets better, and then Julia Leigh makes a movie that tanks. The rest of cinema are going through major ructions, and there’s Screen Australia continuing with the tried and true formulae for failure. I can only shrug.

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The Greek Mess

Euro-Sceptics Party On

There’s probably no greater joy in a sceptic’s life than the ‘I Told You So’ moment, so one imagines there is a great deal of champagne corks going off in the private residences of Euro=Sceptics back in the 1990s for a point well-proven. At this juncture in time, it is really hard to refute the claims that the Euro zone and the Euro currency with it was unworkable without binding agreements on expenditure. To be sure, a country like Greece was always going to be the test case and Greece has failed with spectacular style. Now, as it threatens to unravel the Euro with it we’re seeing some articles appearing saying it could unravel the whole Euro project.

Most economists think Greece has no chance of paying the debt it already owes, currently approaching €340 billion ($500 billion) or 160% of GDP. Earlier this month, Standard & Poor’s credit-rating agency cut Greece’s rating to CCC, the lowest in the world and only two notches away from the benchmark default rating. Over the next few weeks, fellow E.U. members are expected to offer Greece further bailout funds, probably around €120 billion ($170 billion), but again the consensus is grim, with analysts figuring that this is a delaying tactic at best.

At some point, the E.U. may have to bite the bullet and accept that Greece will default on its debt in some way. “The debt burden and interest rates are simply too much,” says Zsolt Darvas, a research fellow at Bruegel, a Brussels-based economic think tank. “Unless the E.U. is ready to fund Greece up to infinity and forever, then Greece will have to default on its debt.”

That’s Time Magazine. The Economist has a raft of articles about Greece but this one that goes into detail but has this to say about the various scenarios:

Least damaging for Greek banks in the short term would be some form of agreement among creditors “voluntarily” to roll over their holdings of government debt. But that would not reduce the country’s debt burden. Nor would it allow Greek banks to reduce their exposures.

A second option could be some form of “soft” restructuring in which Greece extended the maturities of its debt while still promising to repay it in full. This is the option favoured by Germany. A rescheduling would reduce the net present value of the debt held by Greek banks, which might lead to impairments. But there would probably be only a limited impact on capital because accounting rules give banks wide latitude in calculating the net present value of the bonds, enabling them to reduce the hit they would take to capital.

A rescheduling of a specific chunk of their government bonds, such as those maturing between 2012 and 2014, would have an even smaller effect and could be easily weathered by the country’s biggest banks, according to Standard & Poor’s. Such losses could probably be absorbed by existing capital and, if need be, topped up by the €10 billion set aside in Greece’s 2010 bail-out package to recapitalise banks in a Financial Stability Fund.

A more radical third option, a “haircut” on the value of Greek debt, would have a significant impact on Greek banks because losses would have to be recognised immediately. Some analysts use a simple rule of thumb, given that holdings of Greek government bonds are about twice as large as their capital buffers, of doubling the size of a haircut to arrive at the reduction in capital. A haircut of about 20% would leave banks standing but probably in need of capital injections greater than those already budgeted for. A haircut of 50%, close to current market values for ten-year Greek bonds, would largely wipe out shareholders and require a significantly larger bail-out to recapitalise the banks (see chart). None of Europe’s leaders likes this option but it would be money well spent if it put Greece’s debt on a sustainable path.

That is to say, if it all works, the Greeks won’t run on their banks and neither will the Germans or French. That’s some serious ‘contagion’ they’re talking about and trying to stave off. Closer to home, the SMH had this article.

The Greek predicament is a system failure. Democracy works only where accountability bites, where taxing and spending within a given time frame are related to voting for party representatives. It arose in Greek city states, where people knew and could discipline each other in the arts of war and peace.

European union requires richer nations to subsidise poorer ones. These cross-subsidies, especially those supporting sovereign debts in Greece, Portugal and Ireland, enjoy no democratic accountability. They are the creation of banks and browbeaten ministers at late-night meetings. The ministers are the FIFA of high finance, an oligarchy in thrall to lobbies and special interests.

I assumed that one day Germany would get fed up with having its war guilt exploited by a spendthrift Europe. But that day is not today. German and other banks need Europe’s taxpayers to bail out their Greek and other loans. Everyone seems to agree that what should happen will not happen – that is a shrinking of the euro zone, a devaluation of Europe’s peripheral ”currencies” and a corresponding cut in their indebtedness. Germany and France, joint custodians of ”Europe”, are not ready for such a step.

It goes on to soundly chastise the EU, the ECB and the bankers, but it seems moot. You can just tell the joy in watching the Euro stumble so badly over Greece, bitten hard by the reluctance to do due diligence on a country that was totally unlike Germany.

As per the events in Iceland, perhaps the best article of them all is this Michael Lewis article in Vanity Fair which had this choice bit:

Just now the global financial system is consumed with the question of whether the Greeks will default on their debts. At times it seems as if it is the only question that matters, for if Greece walks away from $400 billion in debt, then the European banks that lent the money will go down, and other countries now flirting with bankruptcy (Spain, Portugal) might easily follow. But this question of whether Greece will repay its debts is really a question of whether Greece will change its culture, and that will happen only if Greeks want to change. I am told 50 times if I am told once that what Greeks care about is “justice” and what really boils the Greek blood is the feeling of unfairness. Obviously this distinguishes them from no human being on the planet, and ignores what’s interesting: exactly what a Greek finds unfair. It’s clearly not the corruption of their political system. It’s not cheating on their taxes, or taking small bribes in their service to the state. No: what bothers them is when some outside party—someone clearly different from themselves, with motives apart from narrow and easily understood self-interest—comes in and exploits the corruption of their system.

If the story of Iceland before it was about the strange aberrant behaviour of the Icelanders when thy found themselves at the centre of finance, then it appears that the story of Greece is that just about everybody in Greece was in on looting their own government, but now that the day of reckoning has come, they can’t figure out why they have to pay up. It’s laughable really if there weren’t so many high finance types caught in the eye of the needle, trying to squeeze money from spend thrift debtor Greeks. Michael Lewis is right to the extent that there isn’t a culture in Greece that would enable them to begin paying off that debt. It’s a write-off, baby.

On the face of it, defaulting on their debts and walking away would seem a mad act: all Greek banks would instantly go bankrupt, the country would have no ability to pay for the many necessities it imports (oil, for instance), and the country would be punished for many years in the form of much higher interest rates, if and when it was allowed to borrow again. But the place does not behave as a collective; it lacks the monks’ instincts. It behaves as a collection of atomized particles, each of which has grown accustomed to pursuing its own interest at the expense of the common good. There’s no question that the government is resolved to at least try to re-create Greek civic life. The only question is: Can such a thing, once lost, ever be re-created?

And there’s the rub. It would actually be interesting in a really sadisitic sense to see what would happen to a country should all its banks fail and suddenly it couldn’t afford to pay for any imports, couldn’t get loans except at high rates and see what happens. It would be terrifying and brutal – but that’s exactly the option the Greeks are staring down and there are still people opposed to the austerity measures. One can only attribute this to valuing the short term over the long term so much, they’ve totally discounted the long term consequences. But if the Euro-Sceptics really are right, then this might have to be the way it goes. Somewhere, Maggie Thatcher and John Major are laughing, although it’s really hard to see the fun in the chaos.

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News That’s Fit To Punt – 23/Jun/2011

Champion climate change denier Lord Monckton likened Professor Ross Garnaut to the Nazis over night.

The climate sceptic Christopher Monckton has accused Ross Garnaut of having a ”fascist point of view” because the adviser to the government on climate change said he accepted that on ”the balance of probabilities” mainstream global warming scientists were right. In an address to the American Freedom Alliance aired on Seven News last night, Lord Monckton used PowerPoint slides decorated with swastikas and put on a mock German accent as he quoted experts from around the world who he claimed ”accepted the authority” of climate scientists without question. After quoting Professor Garnaut, who he said was an ”eco-fascist”, Lord Monckton said ”Heil Hitler”.

Well, there’s Godwin’s law in action for you. I guess Lord Monckton is finding it harder to convince his listening public that he is on the right side of the argument against overwhelming evidence. All the cherry picking of his stats and facts isn’t enough, he has to call his opponents fascist Nazis.

Last I looked, I notice that he’s some kind of lord with peerage with a distinct laissez faire view on the changing environment and its impact on the economy. I told you he was an idiot. Of course Tony Abbott denounced the statement but he’s still willing to share the stage with this man because deep down (in whatever shallow depth he can call depth) Tony’s a climate change denier as well. I guess it’s a good sign that at least he can make the proper distinction to see likening Professor Ross Garnaut to Nazis is beyond the pail.

Here’s another article on the matter:

Liberal MP and climate-change supporter Malcolm Turnbull said Lord Monckton was a “sensationalist” and he didn’t think Professor Garnaut would lose any sleep over the matter.

“He is increasingly a rather sick, vaudeville character who makes more and more outlandish charges in order to get attention for himself,” Mr Turnbull told Sky News.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the comments were “offensive and grossly inappropriate” but the decision to attend the conference lay with Mr Abbott.

Labor backbencher Michelle Rowland was less reserved. “The fact that Tony Abbott aligns himself so closely with Lord Monckton is absolutely repugnant,” she said.

Greens leader Bob Brown said he believed in free speech but there were limits. He said Mr Abbott should ‘‘reconsider’’ his attendance and called on AMEC to take action. “I think the mining hosts of Mr Monckton should demand an apology before their sponsorship of his trip continues,” Senator Brown said.

And so it goes. Anyway, I think this just about disqualifies Monckton from being taken seriously but Andrew Forest seems to think he’s worth inviting. Why is it that it’s always these super rich fat cats that have the money to throw around who get behind these kinds of crackpots? As for Tony Abbott, even if he decided not to go, he’s not convincing anybody that he *isn’t* a climate change denier, so he may as well go and we’d all be secure in the knowledge that he has head firmly in the sand on this issue.

Out Of Afghanistan

No, that’s not a new Meryl Streep movie. It’s President Obama laying down a plan for a draw down from Afghanistan.

The US will pull 33,000 troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the next northern summer, sooner than previously anticipated.

The first 10,000 troops will leave this year, starting next month.

The drawdown was announced today by US President Barack Obama, 18 months after he ordered the so-called “surge” in troop numbers in a bid to defeat al-Qaeda and Taliban forces and hasten an end to the conflict.

I guess discretion really is the better part of valor. Now that Osama bin Laden is dead, it is arguable that the main mission to Afghanistan has been fulfilled. The rest of worrying about how the polity of Afghanistan survives – or not as the case may be- can be decoupled from the cipher that started at 9/11.

Doubtless it’s going to leave everything in the lurch over in Kabul but in many ways it’s probably for the best if the Allies  pull out. Maybe Afghanis will be able to put together a proper government for once. I doubt it, but it’s worth trying after 10 years of war.

Peter Parker Dies

Spidey’s dead, long live Spiderman, apparently.

In the comic, Parker is killed by his nemesis the Green Goblin, dying in the arms of Mary Jane following a valiant battle.

Writer Brian Michael Bendis told USA Today that he wrote the story “with tears in my eyes like a big baby”.

“I went upstairs to my wife, and I go, ‘I am so embarrassed. I think I’ve literally been crying for 45 minutes.’ I’ve had real things happen in my life I didn’t cry about, and yet I’m crying about this,” said the author.

According to Marvel.com, the death of Peter Parker sets the stage for the upcoming debut of an all-new Spider-Man.

“We’ve never seen a world without Spider-Man, a world without Peter Parker, so his death is a significant event for the Ultimate Comics Universe and we’re going to see how quickly it changes everything,” said Marvel Entertainment editor-in-chief Axel Alonso.

“But Peter’s death doesn’t signal the end …. it’s the start of one of the most ambitious stories you’ve ever read in comics.”

I note this with interest because when the writers of ‘Star Trek Generations’ reported a similar lancunae of emotion after they wrote the death of Captain Kirk. I remember thinking, if you’re going to cry about it and get all emotional about it, why do it? I guess some of these beloved characters need to find an end, much as Robin Hood or King Arthur in ‘Le Morte  d’Arthur’; the dying bit is all part of the tapestry of life-likeness of the fiction. Otherwise the fiction is one long denial of death and that”s never really going to be a mature kind of fiction. It may even be why comic books are seen to be such low level fiction.

In which case it makes sense to kill off these characters. A good death is always better than a bad life in fiction. Sequels suck because authorial voices invariably get sentimentally attached to their characters and so they become impervious to the risks and obstacles. This is typified by the ennui of Bond movies after successfully changing actors. I’m not sure I’m comfortable that Peter Parker dies, but within that discomfort is a sense that maybe, just maybe, the spiderman comic book can rise to art. It would be interesting to see.

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Can’t We Just Have The ETS Now?

No Style, No Principles, No Spine

Apparently it’s been a year since Julia Gillard ousted Kevin Rudd. It’s remarkable how time flies in politics and in that time since we saw an election that hung the parliament an a 17day marathon negotiation to form a minority government, not to mention a Senate where the Greens will hold the balance of power from 1 July. Kevin Rudd went on to be Foreign Minister and has been jet-setting ever since. In the mean time, Julia Gillard has now clocked a fifth bad poll in a row – one more than Kevin when the factional heads moved in – and she is now the last popular PM in a long time. 27% is pretty bad. There are even noises from the electorate that suggests it wants Kevin back (his support is 60%).

You wonder about the electorate if it basically said it didn’t want Rudd because he walked away from an ETS, but when Gillard moves towards a Carbon Price regime to lead into an ETS, it gets up in arms about whether a minority government should be allowed to pass such legislation. It’s either the case that you want the ETS or you don’t, and if Rudd’s fault is that he walked away from it, then Gillard’s fault as such shouldn’t be that she wants to negotiate her way to one.

A lot of this kind of confusion owes to Tony Abbott running around trying to scare up as much fear as he can, but when you think about it rationally, he won’t be able to repeal any of it because it’s going to be immensely retrograde as well as expensive. The reason the original ETS – as proposed by the Coalition itself – came into play was because essentially the big end of town needs some kind of clarity as to what the government was going to do about controlling emissions, and by extension how they were going to arrange investments. Once the carbon price is in and the businesses make their investments accordingly, they’re going to be very irate with Tony Abbott if he comes in an repeals it.

The worst aspect of all this is that neither Gillard nor Abbott seem to be able to talk some sense into the electorate. Gillard can’t because the left wing of the ALP has taken leave to the Greens and won’t be coming back any time soon while Abbott has decided the best thing he can do is to side with the lunar right fringe of the conservatives, so in short, he chooses not to talk sense. It’s a shame because this kind of fractious politics over something that once had bipartisan support hurts our polity in the long run. If Australian politics is heading towards an extreme polarisation, then it won’t be long before we allow in extreme voices from the far left and far right. A good example in history is none other than the Weimar Republic that gave rise to the Nazis.

And I don’t say this lightly because the more fractious and confrontational and polarised we become over issues that are essentially in agreement such as the ETS, then we’re simply opening the door to populists and demagogues – and heaven only knows there are plenty of those on the radio waves doing talk radio. Basically, our public seems to be getting dumber and less well-advised about our options as a society. If we use our harshest language for the most trivial differences, then how are we going to confront true evil when it walks into the room presenting itself as the final solution? Or maybe Tony Abbott would welcome that? Or maybe he wants to be that fascist hero? He sure seems like an opportunist enough.

Yet, it’s not all about Tony Abbott and his inflammatory two-faced rhetoric. The ALP and Julia Gillard also have to cop a lot of blame in letting things get out of hand. In Julia Gillard, I think we have one of the least media savvy politicians in a long time.  It’s not that she doesn’t present well on camera or has no sense about words or culture; it’s that she has no sense of how to stand up for her office of Prime Minister first. I guess she *is* the first female Prime Minister of Australia with no previous model to work from, and we are egalitarian; but she needs to confront the media with the weight of the Prime Minister more, not less. She needs to run the “how dare you address the Prime Minster that way?” a few times at some of these media cohorts. Part of the reason her support has dropped is because she keeps trying to be reasonable. Well, neither Bob Hawke nor Paul Keating were reasonable. John Howard less so, even though he liked to be seen as a genial  sort of bloke. Now that it’s been a year since the Rudd-removal and there’s been an election as well, she should tell the electorate to get over it. Were stuck with her.

Maybe she doesn’t feel the legitimacy much, but if she is going to survive, she needs to throw her weight around as the Prime Minister more. After all, if she fails, then the ALP are going to be forced to look at taking back Kevin Rudd. And if that is such a bad idea, they need to work a lot harder to restore their standing.

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Movie Doubles – ‘The American’ & ‘The Mechanic’

Surviving The Manhunt

Today’s movie double is one where I’m going to put up two films with secret agents working in a high tech post-terror laws world. They’re both fanciful and largely entertainment, but I’m stringing them together because it seemed worth looking at this growing trend of paranoia.

What do I mean by this paranoia exactly? It’s been a growing trend lately where the CIA goes rogue and creates problems to solve for Hollywood Action heroes. This was the case in ‘The A-Team’ and ‘The Expendables’ and I noted it at the time, but since then it seems to have grown into an assumption about the way things work to the degree that it is foregone that the agents get lied to and set up to do dirty jobs they may need not have done.

In fact, ‘The American’ kicks off with an attempt to kill George Clooney’s character while the the real first cause of the action in ‘The Mechanic’ starring Jason Statham is he is set up to kill Donald Sutherland. Acts of treachery kick off both films’ stories and more to the point neither of the agencies involved ever get a mention as to who they are and what they are working towards. This isn’t political fiction, this is a kind of metonymy of living under the auspices of an out-of-control state. The films both embody a survivalist distrust of the state. Is this healthy? Probably if it keeps you alive but that is exactly what paranoiacs would say as they line up to vote for the Tea Party in the US.

Sensate Function First

The fundamental interest of these action films are fairly tactile and concrete. George Clooney’s character Jack is a gun smith so a fair chunk of the action is taken up with assembling a gun with a silencer. ‘The Mechanic’ is literally concerned with mechanical contraptions to kill people in such ways as to make them look like accidents or heart attacks. Neither films characters are terribly interested in the abstract so they don’t seem to think about how their actions fit into the scheme of things. The level of abstraction employed by both films’ characters is so low that you wonder if it is some kind of character necessity to be blind to the larger picture.

‘The American’ is based on the novel ‘A Very Private Gentleman’ which is surprising because I couldn’t imagine a novel with more tedium than sitting inside the head of character whose sense of abstraction cannot allow him to understand the how and why of his existence. ‘The Mechanic’ is in some ways worse because it is a re-make of an old Charles Bronson movie. IN the earlier version of the film, Charles Bronson’s classic impassive, somewhat Central-Steppe-asiatic mien contributed to the stoic story, but in this modern version with Jason Statham, you quickly note that it is a kind of intellectual laziness not to wonder why you are being sent to kill a particular person.

Still, you have to have a movie and the movie has to have action, I guess it shouldn’t matter what the cause of these men might be. The opaquenes Jack’s cause and the obliqueness of his handler who sends him into a remote Italian village where he would stand out rather than blend in seems dumber than dumb, but I guess it comes straight out of the novel from which it was adapted. It’s enough to make you wonder who commissioned the novel in the first place but I guess it doesn’t matter.

Hooker With The Heart Of Gold

There always seems to be one of these in a lot of American fiction. Indeed, Julia Roberts’ first big triumph was starring as one in ‘Pretty Woman’, so it’s not surprising that a film called ‘The American’ has one. What’s a little disconcerting is that it’s an adaptation from a novel, which is to say, there was a novelist who sat down to write this story and the best he could think up as a romantic entanglement for the main character was a hooker with a heart of gold. I’m trying to wrap my head around that. An American gunsmith is my main character; he’s going into hiding because somebody’s tried to whack him; so he’s told to hide out in an Italian village; so he gets romantically involved with a hooker; but she has a heart of gold and they fall in love… Tell me to stop when the cliches get a bit much – but no, the author wrote this and somebody published this and somebody thought this was so good that its rights got sold to Hollywood and it got developed and before you know it it’s a movie starring George Clooney.

Think about it for a moment: A remote Italian village where somebody might be able to hideout. What kind of woman ends up as a hooker in said village and how attractive can that woman be? How can you make your plot hinge around this stuff? But they do.

Compared to the adaptation that is ‘The American’, doing a remake of ‘The Mechanic’ might seem a lot less original, but at least it doesn’t have some hooker with a heart of gold as the romantic entanglement.

Nihilism And The Gun, The Gun, The Gun…

Spoiler warning…! Don’t read on if you hate spoilers.

It’s always the gun. In ‘The Mechanic’, it is the gun used to shoot Donald Sutherland’s character that gets discovered by his son. In ‘The American’ it is the very gun we see Jack build that is rigged to blow up in the face of the assassin sent to kill him. In both instances the guns fall under the Chekhov-ian rule where if a gun makes an appearance in the story, it must get fired. I wonder what Chekhov would have made of American action cinema where lots of guns make an appearance and they all get fired as often as possible.

In fact it is is pretty hard to write anything that is a thriller without a gun in this day and age, for the gun is ubiquitous in America fiction and increasingly in European fiction. The gun is such a leveler compared to swords in stories that the expert use of a gun is not that much lethal than an inexpert use of the gun on the screen. I’ve covered the Freudian analysis of the gun so I won’t bother, but I do want to mention Chekhov because it seems that where we are in the development of fiction is at a point where there are so many tropes and plot mechanisms we’re familiar with, it doesn’t seem to matter much any more how a plot turns.

And if the plot turns are arbitrary, then we’re in an era of arbitrary characters. This is interesting because it ties into the apparent un-interested-ness of these characters when it comes to their causes. We don’t care about why or how these characters fit into the world because they don’t. They’re nihilistic outsiders with no accountability to laws or rules which makes them escapist fantasies but at the same time they make us paranoid because it seems if the world really is every man for himself, then there is a complete breakdown of moral responsibilities. In a sense this kind of fiction feeds on itself to generate the next generation of even more nihilistic, disconnected dysfunctional ‘heroes’ wielding ever more and ever more specialised guns.

It’s as if we’ve committed to a kind of course of emotional retardation in exchange for getting our kicks – and yet the climactic action in both films are not momentous. They’re both struggles that take place that won’t change the world exactly because  they have no cause. The spectacle of trucks and explosions in ‘The Mechanic’ is a kind of empty display while the shoot out at the end of ‘The American’ is hardly satisfying or interesting.

Why Do The Agencies In Movies Go Rogue These Days?

This one’s actually been doing my nut in. Back in the 1990s, the CIA were more or less the guys we rooted for in Tom Clancy adaptations. The only exception that pops into my mind is Robert Downey Jr.’s character in the ‘Fugitive’ sequel, who turned out to be the real villain trying to frame Wesley Snipes’ characters. (Turns out Mr. Snipes don’t pay no taxes but that’s another story.) It’s in the decade after 9/11 that we start to see these movies with rogue CIA agents. For instance there’s the Colin Farrell vehicle, ‘The Recruit’ where Al Pacino plays a guy who has gone rogue. Lately, we keep seeing the bad guys in black suits riding black four wheel drives and firing M-16s and such at the heroes. It’s becoming more than a cliche, but an identifiable block of narrative.

What’s actually doing my nut in about all this is that it seems Hollywood’s development culture has bought into conspiracy theories of all colours in the quest for a catchy story and has distilled the essence down to this *thing* where there is a large contingent of black ops being run out of  the CIA’s auspices that are basically rogue. We just don’t know it. To what purpose? We don’t know. For what reasons? We don’t know. Yet the sense of paranoia about this keeps expanding out, feeding in to conspiracy theories. Gone are the pseudo-rational exploration of say, UFOs by the FBI in the X-files, instead we’re in a culture of accepting as premise that our governments are secretly doing bad stuff all the time and our heroes are more or less emotionally stunted action men who destroy lots of stuff for our entertainment. Not to to get moralistic on everybody but this is pretty weird.

Even in the heyday of action movies, the main characters were government agents in line with government protocols. Whether it be James Bond with a license to kill or Steven Seagal playing some kitchen-knife wielding ex-Navy SEAL, they were government agents. Now the main characters are these marginal agents who are without boundaries or accountability. They’re interesting fantasies but you wonder about the absence of a social vision. It’s like we’ve all joined the name-less rider and we’re not even out there trying to do good.

Stoicism As Virtue, Sadism As Threat To Integrity

Both Jack and Arthur Bishop are stoic types. Jack more so than Arthur Bishop who enjoys his LPs in his own private comfort. I understand that discipline helps a great deal in a career of killing people, but these films play up the stoic to mythic proportions. It’s hard to believe these characters actually find no particular joy in hat they do. In the case of Jack, I guess sleeping with hookers is a fine pursuit of pleasure but even then you get the feeling he’d rather not be enjoying it and that’s just too much.

I know it’s a trope that’s developed over time that the stoic disciplined dude tends to beat out the undisciplined epicurean, but sometimes you think this line of plot construction itself is a cliche. How do we know that stoicism pays out such magnificent dividends in success? Yet the insistence on the stoicism as virtue is also hitting some crazy pitch.

I’m not saying stoicism is wrong; far from it. It’s just that the way in which it is portrayed in these films is simply ludicrous. I suspect that the reason they work so hard at is because if these characters enjoyed their jobs as gunsmiths and assassins, then that opens the door to the thinking of Marquis deSade, and so the film makers (and novelists alike) insist to us these characters don’t enjoy all the killing and mayhem. No, of course not! Because if they did, they might just be Sadist perverts who will drop in our estimation; or perhaps expose that the audience is fundamentally sadistic but is repressing such urges. I just figure it’s worth noting, because lately these films’ belief in stoic heroes is getting silly.

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Why Don’t They Get Angry In Japan?

Explosive Allegations About Fukushima Plant

During this week it’s come to light that radioactive Iodine, Cesium and Tellurium were found in the areas around Namie and Ohkuma nearby the Fukushima plant on the 12th March this year. That is, they were detected shortly after the plant was hit by the Tsunami.

In the linked article Kenichi Ohmae argues (and remember, he studied nuclear physics so he’s as good as any commentator on this) that the only way the radioactive Tellurium could have ended up in those areas is if there was a meltdown of the reactor core immediately after the tsunami. What’s worse than that, it seems NISA – the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency – knew about the meltdown of the reactor core but didn’t make it public. I can’t emphasise enough how absurd and malicious this omission is, given that the US immediately wanted a 50km exclusion zone around the Fukushima plant for its personnel during the short-lived Operation Tomodachi.

How could the US have jumped to that conclusion so early? What does this mean?

What Kenichi Ohmae is saying is that the US knew of the meltdown, either because it has expert means of detecting reactor cores and radiation leaks because it has developed tools to detect activities in places like North Korea, or because NISA told them but then didn’t tell the people of Japan. Think about that for a moment. It’s outright treachery. Then this week, NISA turn around and claim “we forgot to release this information. We had no intention of hiding this information.” Ohmae argues that the only reason they would say such a thing as they had no intention of hiding, is because it is exactly the intention that they had.

What kind of government organ fails to inform its people of such vital facts? But wait, there’s more.

Ohmae then goes to suspect that the only reason they would hide it is because if anything is a dead give away that the reactor core had melted down after the 11th, it would have been the radioactive isotopes of tellurium found in the neighbouring townships -and they must have known the meltdown of the core took place shortly after the tsunami event. Which mans the government as led by Naoto Kan knew about this and covered up this information. It’s a perfectly reasonable suspicion. Heck, it makes more sense than the actual sequence of events as described by the government. Which means all those workers getting the reactors under control were probably working in much worse radioactivity than first reported.

Hidehiko Nishiyama of the NISA was only put into his position of Assistant Vice-Minister of NISA after Koichiro Nakamura was fired from the same post for letting slip on 12th of March that there was a distinct possibility that the reactor core had indeed melted down. That is to say, they fired Nakamura because he wouldn’t “maintain the fiction” that there was no reactor core meltdown, and installed Nishiyama who would expediently play along with the Prime Minster’s office to cover up this vital fact.

I know he recently survived a motion of no confidence, but seriously, if members of the Diet knew about this cover up, then they seriously should look at putting in that motion again immediately. All this is quite an abnormal state of affairs, as Ohmae points out – but then again the chain of events and the susequent revelation of poor risk management has also been abnormal. This is beyond the pail. I don’t understand why there isn’t more fury and expressions of anger about this cover up. So the question is, why aren’t there people marching in the streets trying to get rid of Naoto Kan right now?

Oh I forgot, everybody’s indoors, afraid of the radioactive fallout.

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Movie Doubles – ‘Rango’ & ‘Five Minutes of Heaven’

The Myth of Redemptive Violence

We all need redemption it seems, so the movies continuously feed us with myths where we can be redeemed; and most of the time it is through violence that our main characters are redeemed. It’s just not a movie without people beating up on one another or shooting each other or yelling and screaming at one another in court. It makes for great entertainment but you often wonder just how deep this impulse goes in the audience. After all, if the audience didn’t want it so much why would the film makers be providing so much of it as product?

In that vein I thought it might be interesting to at least tackle the mythologies inherent in a couple of totally disparate films. ‘Rango’ hails from the cutting edge of Hollywood CGI animation while ‘Five Minutes of Heaven’ comes in from the terrible social realist terrain of the troubles and its aftermath in Northern Ireland. About the only thing they might have is that they both feature revolvers – and of course if there is a gun in a film, it ends up being fired.

I won’t be covering the gun myth today. I covered that in considerable detail way back when here. Also, as usual, here’s a spoiler alert if spoilers annoy you.

Destiny As Guiding Myth

It’s weird how we try and pin the action on a character. The weirder, the stranger, the unlikelier the character happens to be, the better fodder it becomes for comedy. After all, Clint Eastwood is a likely gun-slinger in any of the movies he appeared in. Martin Sort, Steve Martin and Chevy Chase were far less so in ‘The Three Amigos’. In this instance, a heavily carricatured chameleon voiced by Johnny Depp seemsas unlikely a main character in a western as you would get, but that’s what the film makers wanted to do.

The film might have been equally good had it been shot and none of the characters were animated animals, but that is not what you have. So when destiny comes knocking, we are watching a green lizard talk his way through a dusty hot wild west. Rango starts as a pet that is accidentally thrown on to the desert, and as he ponders the existential question of who he is, he arrives at a town of animals where his destiny lies.

Equally, in ‘Five Minutes of Heaven’ the horror of the blatant violence wherein a Unionist youth kills a Catholic as the younger brother of the victim watches, stunned, leads us into the horror of then untangling the emotional mess that ensues. My old screenwriting teacher used to say that destiny knocks three times, but in ‘Five Minutes of Heaven’, it is the sound of three bullets. What is important is that the boy becomes captive to the conflict as it destroys his family, and there is no volition on his part that places him deep into the story.

In both films, the initial disruption is not some act of volition but something that is done to the characters. The only reason we would and should accept these premises is because otherwise we cannot justify to ourselves why some lives turn out one way and how others go another way.

Reaching For Spirituality

Both of these films actually deal with a crisis of faith in one’s position in the world. Rango’s faith in his role as sheriff take a pounding from Rattlesnake Joe who exposes him in front of the townsfolk. Without a single shot fired, Rango is denuded of his self-respect. In ‘Five Minutes of Heaven’ Joe turns up to meet the murderer of his brother in the name of reconciliation, yet he secretly plots to kill Alistair. This bad faith is in fact stems from his immense self-loathing, which came from the blame thrust upon him by his mother. Alistair too arrives as ‘A broken man’, but more to the point in need of some kind of redemption. No earthly means will save either man it seems.

The lack, or deficit or absence in these characters expresses itself as a deep existential pain. I wonder if these kinds of characters a re imagined like this to make a point, or whether writers think this is the best way to have a story told: load up the characters with too much guilt and self-loathing and see how long before they fall apart on screen.

Of course ‘Rango’ being a comedy for children, Rango encounters a figure that is deeply reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s rider with no name. In ‘Five Minutes of Heaven’ the men meet one another in the house where the murder took place. In both instances, the lack is viewed as being filled by these encounters.

The “Who Am I?” Question

Pointedly, we never learn Rango’s real name. Just as Clint Eastwood’s gunman before him had no name, Rango passes for his made up name. All the while, he issues forth with his method acting questions about his true identity which lead him to the existential question of just who he might be. The search for an identity that he can be comfortable with leads Rango to embrace the west and its mythology.

Similarly Alistair in ‘Five Minutes of Heaven’ is driven by a desire to be somebody which leads him to the murder of Joe’s brother. Joe in turn has to internalise the trauma of not only the death but the collapsing family in its aftermath. To that extent Joe’s identity is not his own, but an imprint left by Alistair’s blind ambition to be one of the worthy Unionists. As such, the transformation of identity is crucial in ‘Five Minutes of Heaven’; and it is only through transforming identities that true reconciliation might be hoped for.

While identity being part of the problem in a British film about Northern Ireland is not so surprising, for it to be part of an animated movie for kids is a little different. ‘Rango’ isn’t your ordinary ‘fish out of water’ story. The power of the ‘Rango’ narrative lies in Rango’s active embrace of an evolving identity, and his ultimate embrace of that change that allows him to survive his plight.

While I’m on this topic, it’s also worth mentioning just how heterogenous the characters in ‘Rango’ are. There are lizards, toads and owls and squirrels. Insisting on an identity by birth doesn’t seem to carry much weight. It’s only when Rango chooses to be the transformed figure that he can live up to his promises.

Of course it’s worth mentioning the narrative debt ‘Rango’ owes to ‘Chinatown’. It’s pretty clever that way. Of course the control of water supply and the vested interests of development going hand in hand make for a splendid homage.

One Bullet, One Knife

What both these films share is a sequence dedicated to loading revolvers. In ‘Rango’, it centres around the notion of needing only one bullet to achieve a desired result. In ‘Five Minutes of Heaven’, the loading of the revolver represents the loading of the initial problem. In ‘Rango’, the gun is almost obsolete as the weird anachronistic mores of the wild west in which it is contextualised. In ‘Five Minutes f Heaven’, the gun is fired, kills its intended target, but is made obsolete by history. In that sense, both films are working against the myth of the gun.

At the climax, all the events of ‘Rango’ culminate on the myth of the one bullet – and the bullet isn’t even fired from a gun. In ‘Five Minutes of Heaven’, the knife is unsheathed but ultimately fails to kill the intended victim. In both films there is a strong desire within the text to cease the cycle of events – the lack of water or sectarian violence that immediately defines the actions of the characters. In that sense violence only prolongs the cycle.

While ‘Rango’ never quite leaves behind the promise of a redemptive violence, the outcome is far less violent than the trappings of a western might suggest. ‘Five Minutes of Heaven’ actually attempts to address the cycle of violence, as both Alistair and Joe face up to the meaningless of their violence. For Alistair, it is the declaration that he is nothing, and unworthy of Joe’s hatred. Joe in turn has to go to a group meeting and confess how he feels unworthy of his children because of his anger and desire for revenge. At the end we only understand the ending of the violence in terms of these men moving beyond the cycle of violence.

The interesting question for us is whether we buy into this assembly of ideas. Do we believe that people can leave the cycle of violence behind? Or does it simply stay dormant to resurface again down the track in history? I guess we still won’t know, but there seems to be a hint in both films that it is exactly what we the audience want to do.

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