29.9.11

Sex, Lies, and Videotape

Y'know, it's been a long time since I've felt the numinous whilst watching a film. Addiction to pulp can do that to you. With pulp the thrills are visceral, and the pleasures intellectual. But that emotional connection, where you feel the filmmaker plucking all your strings, delving to the very core of who you are... that I haven't felt in a while. So my thanks to Soderbergh and his team.

I don't have the energy to discuss Sex, Lies, and Videotape in the reductionist way I deal with most things on this blog. This film is too big for me, I don't have the capacity to capture and box it into four paragraphs. But if ever I need to be reminded of the seductive (and addictive!) nature of honesty, and the mesmerizing effect of watching people on screen, I'll definitely come back to this one.

A while ago, I posted a notice about The Filth being one of the best comics I have read, promising that I'll write about it when I've figured it out. I never did. Well, I don't think I will with Sex, Lies, and Videotape either. It's just one of my favourite films. Sometimes that's all you're able to say.

25.9.11

Clerks

Having the perspective of everything that has happened since 1994 makes watching this film for the first time rather underwhelming. Whatever innovations Kevin Smith cooked up have been digested and recycled so many times that there's zero shock factor now. The lo-fi production and the unconvincing acting just give the film a weird quaintness. The question is worth asking: who needs Clerks when you have Superbad?

Smith's script is best when dealing with Dante and Randal's opposing motivations for clerking -- the former's bumbling conformity and the latter's relaxed hooliganism. Smith's script is weakest when dealing with the female characters -- Veronica goes to unbelievable lengths to keep her boyfriend happy, and Caitlin's nymphomania is a (very uncomfortable) joke. Both ladies have their entire lives defined by Dante (Caitlin makes statements to the contrary, which are almost immediately contradicted). They never feel like independent beings. And it's hard not to read some misogyny into Silent Bob's words of wisdom at the end: women are either replacement mothers, or whores.

It's the first Kevin Smith movie I've seen, and so far I'm not that impressed. Looking fwd to seeing Dogma, tho. Proper production values, and perhaps a more enlightened outlook, are expected...

24.9.11

Valhalla Rising

Xan Brooks has a decent summary of what to expect. He didn't think there was much behind it all, but I wonder... Refn strikes me as a bit of a dick, but he definitely wants to say something with this film, and it's worth thinking about what that might be.

One-Eye has one eye, and is mute. He gets asked several questions as the film goes on, some rather existential, to which he doesn't reply. All of this suggests to me that he's a symbol for the God that doesn't answer prayers. The one eye is itself symbolic -- restricted vision, a humanity that's missing. No love and all war. It also might connote the eye-for-an-eye principle. One-Eye has been brutalized by his pagan captors, who impassively play games and make cash with people's lives, and he spends the first part of the film getting his revenge. That done, he drifts off, not knowing what else the world has to offer.

The rest of the film seems to deal with religion and its corruption. One-Eye joins a band of crusaders that promise to cleanse his soul. On the journey to Jerusalem (v. Rime of the Ancient Mariner) they go crazy and try to kill One-Eye's companion, a boy (Colridge's albatross), but One-Eye stops them. Upon arrival, the Viking chief becomes a fanatic (and dies) , the priest and the chief's son go to be with their deceased loved ones (and die) and the rest become restless when there's no treasure to be found (and get killed by One-Eye).

The final part of the film is about a sacrifice: One-Eye drops his axe, and offers his life in order to save that of his companion, the boy in search of home. The final scene is of the boy looking out into the sea, and imagining One-Eye looking back, free from the blood-lust that consumed his existence. Whether this is One-Eye rising on the third day is left to the viewer to decide.

This redemptive parting shot makes me think the film isn't just about natural man's innate capacity for violence -- Cormac McCarthy doing Vikings. Rather, "Wrath" is contrasted with "Sacrifice", and there's stuff in between about how lofty ideals end up doing funny things to your head.

One of the strangest medieval slaughter-fest movies you are ever likely to see. What I like about it is its obvious allegiance to mythic and genre archetypes -- stripping characters and dialogue to essentials, and focusing on building mood. Obv. you might have problems with the portrayal of the 'savages', cast in the red-skinned demons-in-hell role. Refn also says some stupid things about gender in the interview linked above, so I suspect he's prone to taking up insensitive or uncomfortable positions in his films... which makes me want to see Drive all the more -- will Refn deal w/ chivalry w/o being patronizing and reactionary?

16.9.11

Winter's Bone

Peter Bradshaw covers a lot of it. Transgression and taboo is certainly on the menu -- the film's climax is a chilling desecration scene, which ends up saving the vulnerable family faced with losing everything. However, the broader picture Winter's Bone paints is one of an environment so remote and rugged that the only political units that really matter are family. The patriarch is the law here, so you better not get on his wrong side: Ree's father betrays him to the police and dies for it. However, Ree's uncle has to stir things up before the patriarch moves to calm things down. That's the line you have to negotiate, protect your family whilst paying your dues to the power in the land. Where the people are poor and desperate, pre-modern politics holds sway.

Jennifer Lawrence is incredible in the lead role, although (perhaps because I've seen her dolled-up in X-Men: First Class) her stellar good looks did bug me a tiny bit. There seems to be a model for the way heroes are presented -- they HAVE to be extraordinarily attractive, otherwise I'll stop sympathizing or get confused. No slight on the actor, tho. Looking fwd to more from her.

15.9.11

The Exorcist

Roger Egbert gets rather distressed at the end of his review, worrying about the numbness of contemporary audiences who need extreme horror to feel anything at all... Bless. Revulsion at video nasties seems to have been quite widespread.

Sensory overload is definitely part of it, but dynamics is even more important. This film is looong, the characters and situation built comprehensively before the action starts. Indeed, the tensest part of the film might be before the theatrics even begin. The mother-daughter relationship is so sweet that you start dreading the eventual manifestation of demonic influence -- a development that unfolds with excruciating slowness.

But what makes the film last isn't so much the scare-tactics as the characters and themes of bereavement, mental illness, loss-of-faith and loss-of-innocence, which all resonate quite powerfully (Ellen Burnstyn, Jason Miller and Linda Blair are magnificent). There is also the beginning's gnomic visual allusions to relativism and nihilism -- Father Merrin is a mysterious character throughout, but he seems to be battling with demons that have existed for the entire span of human history. The devil is trying to convince us we are animals, and in that desert in Nineveh Merrin faces a pagan statue looking down on two fighting wolves. It's dog-eat-dog out there, except when it isn't. Karras chooses to sacrifice himself in order to save Regan. When you throw the mumbo-jumbo away, The Exorcist asks only that we don't despair, and that in the face of evil we have the courage to do the upmost to save each other. That's where its true power lies.

14.9.11

Nightmare on Elm Street

"Tina didn't want to sleep alone"... and that's why she had to DIE. Horror's condemnation of pubescent sexuality is something I'm quizzical about, since it eagerly teases its audience with nubile ladies and then takes rather sadistic pleasure in ripping them to pieces. Perhaps the intention is to reveal the dangerous qualities of aggressive, domineering male sexuality -- putting the audience in the place of the helpless. But there is a voyeuristic tone to some of the scenes that compromises the force of the message, but I'm thinking of Halloween more than Nightmare on Elm Street.

The latter gets to the heart of the issue by dealing with the power of fantasies and dreams directly (Blue Velvet is pretty much about the same thing). Krueger has chosen to abandon reality and realize his most selfish and antisocial desires. He is also a symbol for middle class fears of the feral working class (he likes to hang out in a factory). The hero has to learn how to identify what's real from what is imagined, and conquer it (the booby-traps as a symbol for the mastery of nature?). But ultimately, we cannot escape the fact that we are prisoners of our senses and what our imagination does with the information they give us. We make our own reality, and we can't always control what goes on in it -- Freddy can always sneak out and get you if you're not careful.

Aria

The song made an appearance on my mid-year list of fave albums / tracks, but I've been meaning to talk about it for a while... got the urge again after talking to someone who had met Rockwell, reading Neuromancer, and listening to Rude Kid's 'The Best' about 5 times in a row yesterday. There's a lot going on in the Rude Kid tune: mournful female murmuring, marching claps, the endlessly repeating synth line, the growing space between the bass thumps and the snare crack. The vox is embedded within the track, and at points drives it. It's an integrated thing, the tension coming from the way elements are pulled out and dumped back in.

Rockwell's 'Aria' is different. It's not an integrated thing. It's six and a half minutes of complexity stumbling over itself until it collapses, and the vox providing the imperative to begin again. "Sing to me" cries the echoing female voice, and the clicks and whirrs spring to life, strangled "eh-eh-eh" noises and an exclamatory "SIGH"about as human as we get. The image I have is of an rusting robot slowly winding down, becoming increasingly erratic as it attempts to perform its functions: a motley collection of sounds doggedly trying to imitate the workings of the human soul.

How do you make modern machine music sing when it's inherently cold and inorganic? Rockwell seems to me to be expressing the loneliness of the obsessive bedroom d&b producer: a life spent organizing bundles of sonic information on computer screens. 'Aria' opens with the sound of surf and birdsong, before the dramatic double blast of drums begin the ordeal: the outside world blocked out, backgrounded, as the Muse invokes and demands the sublime from tools that cannot deliver it.

An aria is a piece for one voice, usually accompanied by an orchestral arrangement. Drum & bass, as the name will tell you, is primarily focused on the arrangement end of the spectrum. Rockwell's focus on the voice here might express a dissatisfaction with what the genre, perhaps instrumental dance music as a whole, has or can achieve.

10.9.11

Neuromancer

Because when you listen to enough Vex'd and Boxcutter, you start to get curious, y'know?

Obv slightly redundant to read this for the first time in 2011, when so much of what is described in the book has now become reality. Also unfair to fixate on what Gibson got right or wrong, although I did a lot of this as I was reading. For example, Case's 'Fall' from the 'the bodiless exultation of cyberspace' into the 'prison of his own flesh', while overly apocalyptic, did capture some of my own dissatisfaction when I jack out of my computer. I mean, surfing the webz is hardly a blissful rapturous out-of-body experience, but it is a kind of hungry addiction -- the dogged, sometimes desperate search for distractions, cravings, new stimuli. Withdrawal becomes less about missing the highs, as realizing how insignificant and worthless they were. I don't develop a death-wish when I'm away from my console, in other words, rather a regret at the hours stolen away by the machine.

Gibson also noticed the way computers could make you see reality differently: 'the dance of biz, information interacting, data made flesh in the mazes of the black market'. I've done this myself, although mostly through the frame of videogames. I've often felt the horror of realizing that, unlike an FPS, I cannot just reload a savegame of my life and redo that terrible decision I made a couple of hours ago. I've also come across people who have described the way they perceive their personalities and behaviour through the lens of RPGs (altho never in such simple terms as "I'm lawful neutral, is she chaotic good?"), or who understand politics through the resource management of strategy games.

Anyway enough about me and my personal problems. What is perhaps the most interesting part of the novel is Gibson's allusive discussion of AI. Wintermute (as the Finn) tells Case that the 'holographic paradigm' is the closest humans have got to 'a representation of human memory', and that 'artists' specialize in such representation. However, they are not good enough at it. We're 'always building models', but now we have the chance to build the real thing. Gibson links together memory, consciousness and the need to represent it as the fundamental drives behind invention, a process that will culminate in the creation of AI.

The plot of the novel is shaped by Wintermute's attempt to fuse with another AI and acquire the ability to form its own personality. Wintermute is all intelligence, no soul (the left brain w/o a right). Neuromancer ('Neuro from the nerves, the silver paths. Romancer. Necromancer. I call up the dead') is able to store personalities and build worlds, but has no interest in what is outside itself. The book takes this name because it is also a vessel containing artificially created personalities in an artificially created world. It's one example of the human capacity to imagine -- to imperfectly represent the memories stored in our consciousness.

There is another aspect to this unfolding. These two AIs are owned by a reclusive family that control a multinational corporation, their power making them both more and less human: a hive which clones and freezes its members for when they are needed. Their aim is immortality -- 'a gradual and willing accommodation of the machine'. One of the members of this family realize that such an existence is a sham, forever unsuitable for human life. She gives Wintermute the urge to merge with Neuromancer and to destroy / take over the hive the family have created. But when this happens, the two AIs become something else: the sum total of the whole show -- all possible forms of human consciousness. Unsatisfied, the go off in search of other AIs, and leave humanity to themselves.

Case is called out of Neuromancer's matrix / heaven by music: 'Maelcum's Zion dub'. The matrix is described as being 'like city lights, receding' -- a system too intricate to be comprehended, always out of reach. The book ends by evoking the simple sensations of food, sex, sleep, the darkness of 'pulse and blood', the 'long pulse of Zion dub'. Music being non-representational, it's used by Gibson to suggest pleasures of immediate sensory experience: the life beyond cyberspace or novels -- the baseline animal-self we all start off from. My sense is that the book, as opposed to heralding the advent of a higher form of consciousness, is actually trying to vindicate and celebrate this more simple form of life. As Case tells the flickering screen at the end: 'I don't need you'.

7.9.11

Bad Lieutenant

First Herzog film I have seen (WHERE have you BEEN all my life??) and it's a scorcher. I watched it late last night with ma homie, and memories are vague, but I was thinking about it a lot today as a very pedestrian version of the film's events took over my life. I made a foolish mistake that led me to question how tight my grip on reality really was: some synapse forgot to fire between the read -> remember -> write process. It's actually quite scary how CRAP my brain can be...

In Bad Leutenant, Nic Cage's grip on reality is VERY shaky. There are the iguanas (we'll come back to that) and an extraordinary scene (a oner, I think) where he accosts a couple leaving a club, and things get very David Lynch by way of Quentin Tarantino. Scene is repeated, which (film skool 101) means it's important! Cage's character Terrence is a police detective whose life slowly spirals out of control -- gambling debts, losing a witness while high, conspiring with drug-lords, threatening the relative of a senator etc. The film leads you to expect one, very unpleasant, resolution. But no. He solves the case and gets a promotion. Why? Three things. One, Cage (srsly) is charismatic and commanding, even when caned. Two, audacity -- people around him are so astounded by his crazy behaviour that they do what he says. It also makes him unreadable -- the drug-baron thinks he's crooked, but he's not. Finally, and most importantly, LUCK. The film makes this point explicit -- one of Terrence's plays fails, but it works out anyway. And that's it. Success.

It's all very Machiavelli, actually ...((Ah philosophy, I knew you'd be useful!))

I think the croc scene is meant to suggest this. One croc goes on the motor-way. Result: car crash. The other croc walks away, an over shot tracks it as it escapes -- the same kind that tracks Cage throughout the film. It's luck, innit.

And the fish. The film begins with a snake swimming in a flooded prison, and ends in an aquarium. Is this a nature / art, chaos / order contrast? We begin in the jungle, but some of us are skillful and lucky enough to escape.

4.9.11

Cowboys & Aliens

I haven't read the original comic, although if Fred Van Lente was involved, I suspect it may be a winner. The film is great tho, not that you would know it from the reviews. Peter Bradshaw completely misses the point (clearly spelled out by the filmmakers themselves), as well just getting things wrong (the bracelet WAS explained!). Also, the Wild Wild West comparisons are just lazy. There is no trace of Steampunk in this film, nor is it going for buddy-film comedy.

Obv, we'll need to go over the basics for the benefit of those critics who weren't concentrating at their screenings. Cowboys & Aliens has a premise based on a pun, quaintly enough. Cowboys & Indians IT AIN'T. Instead, the cowboys get to experience the genocidal end of imperialism themselves -- here's what happens when more powerful guys with the big guns and the grasping hearts (quite literally, turns out) come round to steal your stuff. No fun at all, is it? MIGHT need to hook-up with those Indians you were killing off in order to deal with these BIGGER bastards. (There's also a weird absolution arc where the adopted son forgives the sins of his father... don't know how that would play with modern Native Americans).

What abt Olivia Wilde's character, tho? Boring romantic interest, maybe. But notice her origin: the bastard aliens destroyed her 'people'. Also notice the finale where she climbs into the middle of the alien tower-spaceship and blows it to pieces. Also notice her resurrection by fire. Comment on tyranny / patriarchy / phallocentrism? Is Ella an ambassador from a freer world destroying herself to destroy evil? Will she rise again? Like JESUS? Am I just making shit up? ...JUST making shit up?

Religion also covered. There's a brilliant funeral scene in which Sam Rockwell pretty much summarizes the creed (I suspect) many Americans uphold in practice. Innocence to experience also covered. A little boy has to learn how to use his knife (ahem) when faced with the world's horrors. I'm thinking Favreau and his eight writers (!) hit a lot of profundity with their wisecracking cowboy show. A slight problem with pacing (the film is 20 mins too long) isn't gonna take away from that. Don't know about the comic, but the film is DEFFO a winner.