Ten Years Ago: The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie

21 Nov

Kelly Buetter lets a hyperactive, talking spongemonster teach her lessons about remaining young at heart in the face of adulthood in this week’s re-view.

We, the general populace of cartoon-watching adults, are absolutely spoiled. As I sit here, I am listening to the dulcet tones of moonshine-addled redneck squids while, on deck, I have cartoons about an adventurer and his shape-shifting dog, three kick-ass superheroines, and a show where two kids tricked the grim reaper into being their best friend forever. I could probably find a cartoon exploring every crazy, ridiculous, stupid premise that pops into my mind. But these cartoons would never have had a place in the world if the shows before them sucked. Thus, we must pay homage to them. The Simpsons, Looney Tunes, Ren & Stimpy, all giants in their respective fields. And then there was SpongeBob.

To tell you the whole story about The Sponge would take far too long, so instead I will tell you my personal experience. When the first episode of SpongeBob came out, I was nine years old. I had been an instant fan, looking for any excuse to use the Jacques Cousteau voice or sing SpongeBob’s version of the Krusty Krab Pizza jingle (you’d understand if you watched the show). So early on, there really was not all that much merchandise based around SpongeBob, so I had to find any and all posters and T-Shirts at Hot Topic. Around ’99, Hot Topic was still that kinda-scary store in the mall, and I was always waaay too embarrassed to be around so many *Gulp* teenagers (who would totally think I was a little kid and way too dorky and OMGPLEASEDON’THATEME) to go in. So, I had to have my mom do it. Yes, truly, there is no better way to feel cool then to make your bouffanted, dew-drop glassed, mom-jeans wearing mom to go in an purchase a shirt for you because you’re too much of a chicken. I could feel the leather jacket on my back and sunglasses on my face right then, boy howdy.

Fast forward to 2004, and The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is coming out. I am currently in my freshman year of high school, and although it is cool to like cartoons, it is kinda not cool to still like obviously kids cartoons. Most of my friends had discovered anime at this point, or at most, watched most of the [adult swim] lineup. But I was certainly still curious, and so I went with my brother to a matinee. And I loved it. As someone who appreciates adult humor in cartoons, every single little nod, from SpongeBob and Patrick getting drunk on ice cream to The Hoff’s glorious appearance to Patrick in fishnets at the end, every joke was exactly what I was looking for.

And man, if watching this movie again isn’t like reliving 15 all over again.

The plot goes like this: SpongeBob, a fry cook at the Krusty Krab, wants to be promoted to manager of the new second location his boss, Mr. Krabs, is building. Instead, Mr. Krabs appoints Squidward, the dour co-worker and neighbor of SpongeBob, as manager. Meanwhile, Plankton, owner of the Chum Bucket and Mr. Krab’s rival, has a plot to steal the formula for Krabby Patties (and then to take over the world) by stealing King Neptune’s crown and framing Mr. Krabs for it. Crown stolen, they find out that it has been sold to someone in the dangerous Shell City, and SpongeBob and Patrick must steal it back.

Now, that’s what happens. But the biggest concern of the film itself, as is the biggest concern of most of the film’s viewers, is maturity. SpongeBob is considered to be immature (or a “goofy goober”). He has never been able to get his driver’s license, he isn’t thought of as mature enough to manage the Krusty Krab 2, and no one thinks that he will be able to face the perils involved in finding and returning Neptune’s crown. In fact, SpongeBob and Patrick start to lose faith in themselves halfway through, and Mindy (Neptune’s daughter) has to give them “magic moustaches” to make them official Men who will be able to finish the journey. So of course, they lose their moustaches and realize that the ability was in them all along, blah blah blah. We as kids (and kids-at-heart) are supposed to see that we can do anything, even if we like doing silly stuff. But my favorite thing this movie shows us is that there are absolutely no adults in this movie. Adult One, Mr. Krabs, is only looking out for himself and his money, instead of maturely concerning himself with the welfare of others. Adult Two, King Neptune, petulantly wields his power over anyone who dares to point out that he is going bald (played to a T by the himself-thinning Jeffrey Tambor). Even magical mermaid Mindy, future queen (played bafflingly by Scarlett Johansson), instead of going and getting the crown her ownself, with magic, instead makes SpongeBob and Patrick go for her. (To be fair, it is his movie, but one would hope a magic mermaid could do more, you know, magic.)

The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie not only examines what it means to be someone treated as immature, but shows that no one is immune from immaturity.

Every person around my age (of the “Millenials” or “Gen Y” or Gen YOLO or WTFever) has been informed that they were too immature, too ridiculous, too self-obsessed. Like SpongeBob, we beg to be taken seriously and seen as worthy of attention. We struggle with school (and the debt that comes with it), we change industries, we move mountains. But still, those movers and shakers are seen as less-than. We haven’t achieved as much as our parents, we haven’t paid our dues.

What, however, of our parents? Hadn’t they heard the same thing? They are our gods, the people we look to for guidance and for approval. They teach us to be adults. But, like Mr. Krabs or King Neptune, they are fallible. Everyone remembers the first time they caught their parents failing, and they finally realized that they are not in fact the superheroes we imagined them to be, but the human beings they really are. But I must ask, what is the great thing about being an adult anyway? Who among us actually wants to be the grownup?

And on that note, who cares what our parents think? Who cares what all the rest of the grownups think? We are finally reaching the point of enlightenment that being an adult sucks, and so we should stop doing that. If we hate striving to impress our parents, we should stop doing that! If we hate listening to lite jazz and watching interpretive dance we should stop doing that!

I walked out of that theater in 2004, realizing that just because I was on the cusp of becoming a young adult did not mean I had to put away childish things. It just meant that to keep enjoying them, I had to be proud of them.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I am going to go slip into my feety pajamas and watch cartoons. I hear Gravity Falls is rad as heck.

NOTES SELECTIONS

Movie poster near concessions, “The innermost limits of pure fun”

374 consecutive employee of the month awards (If this is a monthly award, SpongeBob has been working there 31 years)

Somehow an anthropomorphic peanut is WAY less creepy then Chuck E Cheese

Tom Kenny does every voice ever. We should start a show were Tom Kenny and Rob Paulsen just do every single voice

How is Mr. Krabs on fire?

Creepy laughter torture

Ten Years Ago: Kinsey

19 Nov

Despite some evidence to the contrary in her re-view of Bill Condon’s Kinsey, Megan Bertelsen would like readers to note that she did actually like the film as a film.

Kinsey’s Speedy Mustache Ride to Moral Oblivion

I approached re-viewing Bill Condon’s 2004 biopic on Alfred Kinsey, Jr with a fair amount of excitement. And a rum and coke. Well, two. One for Timothy Curry’s performance as a simpering servant of prurience and prudery and one for Timothy Hutton’s anachronistic but fabulously louche portrayal of an ambulatory porn-star mustache.

Kinsey is a meandering tale based loosely upon the life of the zoologist turned patron saint of sexuality studies (particularly for those who deem Freud a driveling douchebag whose impact upon the study of eroticism and human interaction has been immeasurably detrimental to the field’s potential). Kinsey’s body of work still represents the most comprehensive study of sexuality in the U.S. ever undertaken—but Kinsey isn’t particularly concerned with that.

Instead, the film hangs its hat inoffensively on an expiating the sins of the father theme. Ultimately, it’s a flick which reduces a fascinating sociocultural phenomenon and opportunity to interrogate the ideological underpinnings of research methodology to a bland morality tale concerned with a tragic hero’s doomed recapitulation of his father’s sins by reenacting his father’s obsession with sexual behavior and its impact upon society. I’m definitely not saying that I hoped the film would indulge of the fantasy of scientist as cipher, boldly dredging Truth from the dark depths of the unknown. This narrative frame/origin story was present—and equally depressing in its dull simplicity.

Rather, I was interested in what the film afforded at its best moments. The film is intercut with black and white sequences in which the Kinseys are having their own sexual histories taken. These sequences constitute a micronarrative which simultaneously binds Alfred Kinsey into his work, pulls upon the legitimacy of documentarism, and cuts the bodies of interviewees into mouths, eyes, errant tics at the corner of the lips, before undermining the ostensible naturalism by demonstrating that Kinsey and his wife are training their research assistants in interview techniques. These sequences could have been used as a frame for a far more interesting film.

Unfortunately, they are instead subordinated to a predictable biopic narrative in which Kinsey tragically duplicates his father’s life out of a lack of engagement with emotional realities. That’s not to say it doesn’t make a few lunges at being a more interesting film. The film just never quite breaks free of the affective structures which characterize its genre.

When I saw promotional material for Kinsey, my ever-optimistic brain substituted “Kinsey Report” for “Kinsey.” I fantasized about an exploration of methodology, contemporary norms, anything, really, drawing on the resources of film as a form to present and contextualize Kinsey’s body of work and its legacy for sex nerds like me. AWhere the Buffalo Roam for sexology.

And, really, I knew this was absurd—like expecting a Hunter S. Thompson film to focus more on his coverage of racialized housing segregation or the criminalization of poverty than on drugs.

2004 Me, starry-eyed sociology buff and sex-obsessive flat out ignored that small, cautionary voice. I’d sighed over the limited theatrical release of the film, then increasingly twitchily awaited the DVD release. I was anxious, but my expectations were not unreasonable. I knew the dangers of building up a serious anticipatory charge over a film. After all, I had come of age in dark days for geeky folk: in those grim months between the release of The Phantom Menace and Highlander:  Endgame.

I was prepared to be generous. However, Kinsey had so enraged me so much upon my initial viewing that I’d been unable to finish it.

Normally, I’d no more leave a movie unfinished than I would a book. So, as I re-watchedKinsey, I was most interested in figuring out why I would leave a fairly decent flick unwatched for a decade? Re-watching confirmed that the acting and dialogue more than compensate for the uninspired, unobtrusively competent Oscar-bait cinematography. Laura Linney and Liam Neeson as Clara Mackmillan and Alfred Kinsey manage to pull off not only the most convincingly awkward sex scene I’ve ever seen, but also what I consider the rarest of on-screen feats:  an interesting romance. Oh, certainly, there’s a dull courtship bit to sit through, but it’s not insufferably twee, and they pick up steam subsequently.

Beyond this, the film features Veronica Cartwright, John Lithgow, Timothy freaking Curry, and sex as attention-grabbing, if vastly underutilized, resources. As the film progressed, however, I was increasingly reminded that 2014 Me is no better at watching biopics than 2004 Me had been.

When Kinsey came out, I absolutely did not do biopics. I harbored a monumental disinterest in the narrative pruning of lives which biographical work almost necessarily entails—and, really, a bristling disdain for the tedious reconstruction of figures who had done interesting things as intelligible characters for assumed viewers who lacked the empathic capacity to see a person as real or interesting until they had been presented as similar to the people assumed to constitute a viewing audience.

Now, as then, it’s not a lack of facticity or comprehensive presentation that bothers the flat-out-fuck out of me. Rather, it’s the attempt to compress a figure to an ostensibly comprehensive characterization, a grand explanation for everything they may have been and done. A negation of everything that doesn’t fit the structure—a denial of the lived experience, save as can be articulated through a narrative arc structured by the pompously unwieldy pretensions of documentarian legitimacy which stave off any acknowledgement that such undertaking must be deemed, to some extent, fictional.

But really, fuck the academi-speak. This re-view immediately allowed me to confirm that while I find biopics interesting as a concept, they will apparently never be my cup of entertainment tea. But, I went in prepared this time. Between booze and lowered expectations, I hoped calm, forgiving, 2014 me would be able to watch the film with, at the very least, a different sort of irritation than 2004 Me.

I couldn’t help but note, this time around, that Kinsey is a film at war with itself. It gathers up all sorts of aesthetic capital and errant moralizing, then throws it indiscriminately at the viewer’s head as though hoping something, anything, will stick. This can be done effectively—it just isn’t in this instance. I hadn’t noticed this flailing in any conscious way the first time around, and even in re-view, it made me more sad about lost cinematic opportunities than angry over its awkwardness.

This profusion did, however, draw my attention even more strongly to the abysmal narrative which reduced an interesting subject to a clear cause and effect chain grounded in intergenerational strife and…*sigh.* I nearly stopped the film again at the point I had when it originally came out, and for the same reasons.

Specifically, the nadir of the biopic’s mandatory “protagonist plummets into the depths” component featured Laura Linney entering a bathroom to find a distraught and distracted Liam Neeson sitting on the edge of a bathtub, blood dripping from beneath his terry cloth robe. Neeson’s response to Linney’s demands to know where the blood is coming from ended the film for 2004 Me.

He looked up, vague, huge, sheep eyes shining with Oscar-fodder agony—and with just enough befuddled alienation to suggest declining capacity for autonomy (as conventionally understood). He stated he’d pierced his foreskin in an attempt to understand why it afforded pleasure for one of his research subjects. But that there’d been no pleasure.

This could have been presented within the context of other experimentation. Really, in a thousand other ways. Instead, it represented rock bottom. A fall. A fundamental deviation from the “normal” with which the film is preoccupied. It reeked of the narrative need for any excessive deviance from social norms to be punished. The need to frame outliers as tragic heroes. As doomed—not by material conditions, but by their own built-in flaws.

The clumsy pathologization of eroticism, framed by the way Kinsey and his research team had increasingly been portrayed as debauched and unethical or incompetent was an easy out for the film. After all, why delve into the ways in which socialization and economic actualities inflect and compromise research when one can simply default to condemning eroticism as a gateway to decline?

Thank goodness I stopped watching when I did. Had I persisted through the film’s final sequence, 2004 Me would probably have gone on a flat-out rampage. Not content to follow the tired deviance-ends-in tragedy formula which characterizes the way in which so many cultural artifacts address people and behavior on the margins, the film closes on Kinsey embracing sustained heteronormative domesticity as fundamentally natural, beautiful, and the cure for his emotional ills. I don’t even. Just. Argh.

Early in the film, Neeson informs Timothy Hutton, who plays a member of his research team, that Hutton needs to shave his (fairly impressive) mustache. That facial hair represents deceit and obfuscation. The hidden. The corrupt. He points out that the villain of a film always has a mustache. Hilariously, the villains in Kinsey do all, at one point or another, sport a mustache, whereas Kinsey’s allies are clean shaven. As a background conceit this is funny, if a little self-consciously clever. It’s unfortunate that the overall narrative structure of the film is confined by the same moral conflations as the film’s central running gag.

Free-Floating Thoughts

–Poster:  “Lets talk about sex”—precious little of this beyond that which is used for titillation and distancing. So much material, wasted.

–Don’t make judgments=Don’t allow a judgment to show

–Timothy Curry, Timothy Curry for fuck’s sake, as the villain, embodiment of prurience and hindbound assaults on capital-S-Science(!)

–Framing Kinsey’s work as a preoccupation/obsession almost entirely in terms of a mirror for his father (Lithgow) is an easy out.

Actually, I would have happily watched an entire film featuring John Lithgow describing technological advance as society’s descent into lust-addled damnation. The film peaked for me when he characterized the zipper as, “Speedy access to moral oblivion.”

–Film is deeply invested in the linkage between embodied life and the environment as realm of sociality. Legitimizing sexual behaviors by framing them as natural, by virtue…weird shifting between emphasis on diversity and alterity and normalcy.

–Why on earth did the screenwriter think this film needed a villain?! Let alone three??? Casting Timothy Curry as Kinsey’s nemesis? Too motherfucking easy. Lone black actor used to establish Curry’s villainy (as manifest in closet jokes, classism and racism)

–Preoccupation with penis size, thickness of hymen, blah blah blah

Ten Years Ago: The Polar Express

19 Nov

Resident musicologist Max DeCurtins contemplates the American character of Christmas music, hurdy-gurdy playing hobos, and what it’s like to be a Jew watching The Polar Express in his re-view of Robert Zemeckis’s mo-cap fantasy.

As a Jew, I have a platonic fascination with all things related to Christmas. While I can’t speak for any other Jewry of the world, I think most people know that American Jews love Christmas. (We don’t love having to dip into our personal reserves of paid time off to observe our holidays while Christians never need to worry about using their personal or vacation time to observe their holidays, but that’s a matter for another re-view.) Like many American Jews, I don’t come by my Jewish heritage from both parents; I come from a mixed family. Count me among the lucky; were I ever to make aliyah to Israel, the Israeli government would consider me Jewish because my mother is Jewish, and Judaism is a religion inherited, by law, through the maternal line. I know many fellow Jews, dating back to my days as a very involved student at UCSB Hillel, who would not get the same treatment from the Israeli government because they inherited their Judaism from their fathers. Previous generations of American Jews (my mother among them) don’t necessarily find Christmas so attractive because it evokes memories of experiencing—if not outright anti-Semitic sentiment—the feeling of being different from everyone else. It’s why, to this day, my mother has never liked having a Christmas tree in the house, even though my father probably does (presuming, of course, that he can get past the $50 or $60 price tag for a Douglas Fir, which I think entirely reasonable for a few weeks of seasonal beauty in the house). And let’s not forget, of course, that Christmas is a co-opted holiday, which puts it on some questionable moral ground.

That said, something about Christmas still fascinates me. I think because—despite the WASPy assumptions about Christmas that reside in the popular imagination of Americans—the ideal Christmas world depicts a quiet, polite, family-oriented environment enveloped in pillowy snowbanks where we slow down and take the time to appreciate a seasonal change and the good things in life: elegant decorations, friendly company, good food, time not spent at work. Mind you, we find the reality of Christmas in the world located some several thousand light-years away, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a nice thing to think about.

With climate change already wreaking havoc with certain areas (and I think of my parched home state of California), this kind of seasonally indulgent Christmas seems more and more like a fantasy. And yet, I think, in some ways it proves a somewhat useful fantasy, because it holds the allure of what benefit we might derive from slowing down our lives, a benefit that we might yet attain if we could only reform ourselves, and that’s why it endures. What doesn’t, however, endure so well is The Polar Express. Ten years later, I see a movie with an impressive pedigree—Chris van Allsburg, Robert Zemeckis, Tom Hanks, Alan Silvestri—that fails to fulfill the potential greatness that these formidable talents lend their work. It’s the little engine that…almost could.

The Polar Express does a magnificent job of realizing the world of Chris van Allsburg’s book, but somehow it makes for a bizarre and sometimes creepy movie. I should say, rather, that the writers and producers (which include van Allsburg) somehow failed to create a potentially great story for a movie to tell. Americana lives at the heart of this story; set in Grand Rapids, MI, there’s a more-than-implied paean to the American manufacturing behemoth that powered middle-class jobs that enabled people like the protagonist’s parents to buy a house in the suburbs and have the vaunted one boy, one girl nuclear family. The department store that the train passes on its way out of town (bearing, by the way, a distinctly Jewish-sounding name) has a distinct place in American history, evoking a time of fewer TV channels and greater cultural homogeneity. In short, it’s the kind of America that glossed over many injustices but made for excellent nostalgia; nostalgia that the American right has taken up and twisted into irrationality.

What I can’t decide, though, is whether this story, and the movie’s interpretation of it, is, at its core, an apologist take on religion. The protagonist, ever full of doubt, constantly asks the question: “Are you sure?” This, if we read between the obviously widely-spaced lines, clearly means: Are you satisfied with the answer that God is leading you down the right path? Doubt runs deep as a theme in the movie, and I wish I could find a broader message in this theme, such as the crippling effect of doubt that goes unchecked by the belief that we can surmount whatever obstacle currently obstructs our path. If we sit on our couches, paralyzed by self-doubt and fear, we’ll never get anywhere. When Santa finally does emerge, the protagonist has to make a leap of faith before he can hear the bell ring, but the leap of faith isn’t necessarily in service of anything. Belief offers us some help when it comes time to make important decisions: whether to take that job and move to a different city or country, whether to invest money into something, whether to have a baby despite a slight risk of some inheritable issue. These things all benefit from a leap of faith telling us that, after doing as much homework as we possibly can, our decisions will turn out all right in the end. This, I think, could have been a wonderfully useful message to emerge from the movie. Alas, The Polar Express never projects this message beyond a religious mapping; belief in Santa seems to be the beginning and the end of the protagonist’s journey.

I mentioned that the movie, though adapted from a classic children’s book, also comes off as bizarre and, at times, rather creepy. The hurdy-gurdy-“Good King Wenceslaus”-playing hobo appears at various points throughout the film, helping the protagonist avoid danger and saving him from near-disaster, but that doesn’t make his character any less creepy. And Santa’s city at the North Pole had me thinking more of the Overlook Hotel than of Christmas Town. I can imagine few things creepier than a track of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” skipping and echoing throughout a cavernous empty space, as happens when the three children—who don’t even seem to like each other all that much—get out of the caboose and start making their way back to the square. All of these things tie back to the central issue of doubt with which the protagonist struggles, of course, but even in context they seem like creepy ways to depict doubt.

Just as The Polar Express strains against a limited storyline, so too does the visual rendering display its limitations. For all the rich detailing in the landscapes and architecture, the characters themselves display remarkably poor rendering, which might seem like a natural quirk of history given that CGI movies have existed for less than twenty years, but even in 2004 we had already had two Star Wars prequels, all of the Lord of the Rings films, andPirates of the Caribbean, among other specimens featuring well-executed CGI work. It seems to me that Sony would have done better to have contracted the animation to a studio more experienced than Imageworks, at least with regard to mo-cap work.

The voice characterizations fare far better, demonstrating once again that Tom Hanks, who plays what seems like half the characters in the movie, is an indefatigable badass. The elves’ voices in particular inject much-needed levity to counteract the creepiness of their characters’ graphics. The mixture of Jersey and New York accents for the elves on the ground and the British accent for the elves piloting the blimp craft that hauls Santa’s bag of toys makes for a bit of Tim Burton-esque creativity that certainly helped the movie’s case through several re-views.

The Polar Express joins a long list of movies whose flagrant violations of the laws of Newtonian physics color my father’s impression of them, and not for the better. I think he sees such patently absurd mishandling of physics as symptomatic of Americans’ deplorable dearth of proficiency in science. Given that I hold similar views about Americans’ musical education, I can’t entirely blame him. Even granted that, The Polar Express still presents some flatly impossible feats of physics, which I find highly ironic given that CGI animation depends intimately on virtual objects being assigned physical properties and informed by algorithms that utilize physics in minute detail. The movie highlights such tricky aspects of CGI physics, such as the punched paper flakes wafting down from the Conductor’s hole-puncher. Some sequences—such as the tracking of the leading girl’s ticket as it flies away from the train, gets moved by wolves, regurgitated by birds, and eventually ends up back on the train—simply weigh down the movie with unnecessary diversions.

The movie does, however, feature some rather beautiful shots, and here I think specifically of the train sloughing around on the ice as it approaches the narrow gap where the tracks reappear. We get a wide-angle shot from the perspective of the upcoming tracks, and see a majestic sweep of the train’s headlight. The splash of the water as the train soars up out of the valley onto the tracks feels fairly magical, and I think CGI movies have a particular ability to capture this kind of expressive imagination in a way that live action movies don’t. To further emphasize the emotional peak we’ve just reached, the orchestra lets loose with a full tutti. And speaking of the score…

American-ness also finds itself woven throughout the score. The score for The Polar Express, where it doesn’t rely on Christmas songs composed in the first half of the twentieth century, takes a fair amount of inspiration from two Russian composers, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky. In places I hear resemblances to The Nutcracker, though I couldn’t say exactly where, as about three-quarters of the ballet never makes it into recordings of the work. Elsewhere, I hear references to Stravinsky’s Firebird ballet, particularly the closing sequence in which the palace of Kashchei disappears. I think a majority of the American public remains incredibly unaware of just how recently their musical idea of Christmas came into being. Our great-grandparents’ generation did not know The Nutcracker; it did not premiere in the United States until 1944, in San Francisco. Rightly or wrongly, The Nutcracker provides for a significant portion of the operating budget of most ballet companies in the United States, just as Christmas shopping provides a significant portion of annual revenue for many retailers, and I think to most Americans, The Nutcracker is Christmas. It certainly explains why the music for most every Christmas movie references The Nutcracker in some way. Christmas music, whether in the form of ballet, carols, or other types of pops orchestral music, seems to occupy its own sonic space, and somehow, no matter the composer, it still ends up sounding like Christmas music.

Alan Silvestri sounds curiously like himself in this score, and the score itself bears some interesting resemblances to the score for Back to the Future, perhaps Silvestri’s best-known work: the little runs of scales in the harp and the celesta that introduce a longer passage of music, for example. And as much as some of the orchestration and thematic elements borrow from Russian music, another influence makes itself very much felt throughout the score, that of Aaron Copland. Aaron Copland—a Jew from New York who composed mostly avant-garde music—has come to represent American-ness in “classical” music, largely on the basis of hisRodeo Dances. This musical ideal took form at the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, not long after 9/11, when we needed to express national solidarity. These days, this music most often sees performance by pops orchestras, tainted, perhaps, by its associations with what many musicians and music historians have come to see as a political-cultural agenda. Though I don’t feel like The Polar Express pushes such an agenda, its score and Copland’s music do share one element in common: widespread use of the clarinet.

The clarinet has always struck me as a particularly “American” sound. It features prominently in Copland’s well-known ballet and orchestral suite Appalachian Spring. Without getting too subjective—if that’s possible when talking about music—the sound of the clarinet evokes youth, simplicity, and wonderment. Having a cylindrical air column, as the flute does as well, the clarinet produces a uniquely plaintive and sometimes child-like tone, unlike the incisive and complex sound of the oboe, which has a conical air column. Americans didn’t invent the clarinet, of course; the Europeans did, but Americans found new uses for it in jazz and blues. The score for The Polar Express closely allies the clarinet with Billy, the boy from the poor end of town who must find new friends to help him navigate unexpected challenges.

While I don’t care for any of the songs composed for the film (as opposed to the iconic Christmas songs recorded by the likes of Bing Crosby), I do think the score overall counts as one of the better aspects of The Polar Express. Like the story and the animation, it too is not without its flaws and limitations. To me, the movie stands as a classic example of a film that held a lot of promise, and maybe even proved memorable in some ways, but that otherwise fell short of its potential.

Ten Years Ago: Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason

14 Nov

In her re-view of Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, Maggie McMuffin reveals her fervent anglophilia and Hugh Grant-philia.

Quick question: Would you rather have to put up with a child obsessed with werewolves or a child who becomes an unbearable anglophile?

Trick question! Because if you were my mother, you had to go through both.

Like many American girls, I went through a phase of lusting after older British men. The pasty hunks that Britain churned out during the 1990s were my sexual bread and butter for the last two and a half years of high school, placing me squarely in the company of middle aged women everywhere. Sometimes this led to great things (seeing An Awfully Big Adventure, a movie I would otherwise have missed) and sometimes it led to not so great things (that day I viewed The English Patient and Schindler’s List back to back). Mostly it just meant watching period films and literary adaptations in the hopes of seeing some dude in a wet shirt.

It also meant watching both Bridget Jones movies a lot.

I mean, come on, it had Hugh Grant and Colin Firth fighting each other. It had a London backdrop which, to a small town high schooler, seemed so beyond hip. And it featured a narrator who was awkward and less than perfect but still going after sex. Because Bridget Jones may not have always had a life worth aspiring to, but damn it she presented a future I felt I could achieve. And even when her life wasn’t perfect, it seemed much better than my life. My high school relationship drama was much more Wuthering Heights than Pride and Prejudice, so Bridget’s life seemed like a goddamn dream to me. I read the books. I watched the films. I affected a terrible accent. My best friend and I would carry journals around and write stuff all the time (her way more than me because I’m lazy). When I went off to college, the Bridget Jones books were two that I packed for my teeny dorm room and I opened to random pages to read passages when I felt overwhelmed. I would watch either film whenever it was on television, considering it a gift from the syndication gods. Maybe that’s why I’ve seen Edge of Reason more than the first film.

As I’ve grown up, my life has become awesome in its own way. Like really. My life is fucking grand. Still sometimes full of drama because I’m 24 but it’s different now. I don’t romanticize it like I did in high school where I thought being mature meant having problems. I just hate drama now and while I often have a hard time getting out of it, I still turn to writing to get through it. Something about putting my problems on paper (or computer screen) makes it easier for me to process and I owe that coping mechanism to Bridget Jones.

I left her behind a few years ago. The books are in my mom’s storage unit. The films have gone unwatched. Let’s see if Hugh Grant still does it for me.

This movie is supposed to be Bridget and Mark Darcy’s ‘happily ever after.’ Which is odd because they’ve only been dating 6 weeks, 4 days, and 7 hours. “Or 71 ecstatic shags.” Like, I know they’ve known each other their whole lives but that’s still a very brief time to be dating. Especially since the first movie told us Bridget has spent a good portion of their lives disliking Mark immensely. But hey, they’re heavy in the honeymoon stage. They’ve given things up for each other (or at least Mark thinks Bridget has given up smoking ‘which is practically the same thing’), Mark loves Bridget’s ‘wobbly bits,’ and they’re super adorable. But a relationship without drama is not a relationship worth watching for two hours so let’s get down to petty squabbles.

Okay, they aren’t entirely petty. These are real concerns. Bridget thinks that Mark looks down on her because she doesn’t fit in with his peers, a bunch of upper class lawyer types who think that charitable giving is detrimental to society and encourages people to want to be poor. When she criticizes them at a big function or brings up class issues or isn’t as smart about some things, he doesn’t stand up for her. Sure, he loves her ‘just the way she is,’ but he’s way more prone to proving that in private which honestly isn’t good enough.

Also, someone plants it in Bridget’s head that he’s cheating on her with a 22 year-old ‘with legs up to here.’ Rebecca is quite attractive and, due to being a coworker, constantly hangs out with Mark. Bridget gets a little jealous which turns into very jealous, and when she confronts Mark about the possibility, he doesn’t see where she’s coming from and it turns into this big thing. Mark is upset over the lack of trust and Bridget jumping to conclusions. Maybe he doesn’t tell her she’s wrong because he feels he shouldn’t have to.

(Note: He should. He’s been cheated on and Bridget was cheated on in the last film. Given the history of both these characters, I do think he should have dignified it with a response rather than getting huffy. But then I’ve also been in that situation with partners where a lack of trust plus a lot of evidence that I was right about built up into me needing to just get some reassurances. But this is a modern update of Mr. Darcy so, you know, repressed emotions and all that.)

The other big fight that happens occurs on their mini-break (Bridget Jones movies have taught me that mini-breaks are big deals romantically) where, while trying to come down off a ski mountain, Bridget realizes she hasn’t had her period in nearly two months. What follows is a hilarious scene where she tries obtaining a pregnancy test by miming sex and her stomach growing while speaking in fractured German. After that we get a three-minute argument between her and Mark. They’re both pretty happy about the prospect of a child until they start daydreaming about names and schools, and it turns into this class issue where Bridget makes fun of boarding school twits who are raised to have sticks up their asses (Mark is one of those) and Mark derides public schools for being too lenient and preaching expression over knowledge.

Mark brings up a very good point: “What would be mad would be having a child if his parents can’t have a single conversation without shouting at each other.”

The pregnancy test turns up negative and they both give halfhearted ‘oh how sad’ grumblings before sleeping on opposite sides of the bed for the night.

I realized around this point that I hadn’t seen this film since before I started really dating. I was a late bloomer and didn’t have my first boyfriend/partner/whatever until I was 21. And I recently got out of a relationship that was full of its own ‘ecstatic shags’ but also featured frequent arguments over, well, pretty much everything. So while in high school I thought Bridget and Mark seemed a bit bumpy but ultimately a pair to root for, now I’m thinking that they really should break up. They could be decent friends. They’re obviously going to see each other, having parents who are friends and often inviting them to holiday parties. They could even have sex with one another. But as a long-term relationship, it’s the sort of opposites attract scenario that lends itself to romantic comedies more than reality. Still, at least this movie is being pretty honest about fighting. And Zellweger and Firth have the right chemistry to go seamlessly from gooey and cute to bickering about things. Everything falls apart quickly and these scenes feel quite natural.

Meanwhile, back in London and Bridget’s workplace, Daniel Cleaver has reared his stupidly pretty head and is hitting on Bridget in the workplace. When her and Mark do break up (nearly right after saying I Love You for the first time) he’s ready to strike. She resists him, though, because while he is charming, he’s also a jerk.

By the way, the answer to ‘does Hugh Grant still do it for me’ is a resounding yes. I am embarrassed by how hot I find him in this. He’s slick, charismatic, transparent, and I just want to pull his perfect hair and fuck him. And you know what, there are way more problematic British hotties out there (looking at you, Fassbender) so I’m just gonna roll with this. Everyone be prepared to roll with me. Are we rolling? Good. Let’s get to Thailand.

Oh yeah, they go to Thailand. Daniel has a new show (because publishing is dead and everyone works on TV now) about travelling and Bridget gets assigned to be his partner to bring in male viewers. There’s no commentary on how it’s pretty rad that a 33-year-old woman who owns that she will ‘always be a little bit fat’ is the woman they decide will bring in male viewers but that’s what I’m here for. It’s awesome.

But Bridget’s friends Gaius Baltar, Moaning Myrtle, and (the third one but has that actress done much else?) say she can’t go alone because Daniel Cleaver is a sexy, sexy snake in the sexy grass and so Shazza (the third actress who I can’t attach to other pop culture properties) goes alone with her. They split up on the plane. Shazza goes and hangs with Jed, a young cute dude, and Bridget gets pulled into first by Daniel. He immediately lays on the smarm-charm and requests (false) dirty stories. Bridget is flattered and sort of into it but also against it because she knows better.

He spends the rest of the trip trying to bang her and almost succeeds, with his talk of being in ‘shag therapy’ and being a ‘changed man’ and reciting her poetry and junk. As they work on their travel show, Bridget covers food and temples and other stuff while Daniel goes to a massage parlor. Because if you go to Thailand you have to mention the sex industry. Which is also how Daniel fails to bed Bridget. Even after he overcomes her hesitancy to sleep with someone new because it really marks the end of her and Mark, a Thai sex worker comes to his hotel. She won’t leave because, well, Daniel called her and also called another woman the night before (and apparently tipped really well) so she knows she’s got the right room. He offers a ‘I’m game if you are’ to Bridget but Bridget is so not game and leaves.

(Spoiler alert: Daniel, ever consistent in his love of getting laid, still sleeps with the sex worker. It’s implied he does this even after learning she’s a trans woman. So just remember that if you’re transphobic or a shitty customer to sex workers, you are worse than one of the most dickish characters Hugh Grant has ever played.)

And now it’s time to go back home to London. Shazza’s young buck has given her a ‘fertility snake bowl’ that Bridget ends up throwing in her bag. Unbeknownst to our merry heroines, the snake bowl is filled with cocaine and Bridget is arrested at the airport. She’s thrown in Thai prison, told it may be only ten years if she’s lucky, and waits.

This is a brief sequence and I was thinking maybe it would be more racist than I remembered but it was pretty okay. Sure, the Thai people speak in heavily accented English and that’s a problem but the women in the prison are very lovely and Bridget teaches them the correct words to ‘Like a Virgin.’ She trades her bra for cigarettes. There’s a lot of solidarity. Sure, the story is still based around our white lead, but primarily Bridget is upset about being in jail period, not being in Thai jail specifically. And it’s not some hellish experience that has her wasting away; it’s just a generally shitty one as I’m sure being thrown in prison for accidental drug muling would be. And when she leaves, thanks to some assistance from Mark Darcy (who claims to just be a messenger here but he totally isn’t, don’t act like that’s the case), she brings everyone gifts. It is a touch white-centric and there’s a scene where the women in prison tell stories of abusive boyfriends, making Bridget have an epiphany that Mark’s an okay dude** (which smacks of ‘thank you kindly POC for making me appreciate my life’), but ultimately this whole section of the film could have been way, way worse.

(**However, we should note that okay dude =/= okay boyfriend. And if your standard for good boyfriend is ‘he didn’t hit me or get me addicted to heroin,’ then you need to learn to love yourself more.)

Bridget heads home. On her way, we get one of the best scenes in the film as Mark confronts Daniel in an art gallery about abandoning Bridget at the airport. He challenges Daniel to a duel and they end up fighting like men who do not know how to fight. It’s awkward and they end up in a fountain. Of all the redone/callback jokes to the first film, this is the most important.

Bridget gets home, learns about Mark getting her out, rushes to his home, and finds Rebecca. We learn Rebecca is a lesbian and is actually quite taken with Bridget. She kisses her and Bridget is like nope, totally straight. One time I watched this movie at my grandma’s house and she came home right before this scene. During the kiss she declared ‘Those two women must be lesbians.’ And she said the word really dramatically and that’s always stuck with me. Maybe because my grandma didn’t tend to acknowledge gay people? Like ever? I tried explaining that Bridget isn’t, just Rebecca, but hey lesbians aren’t…oh why am I bothering, grandma doesn’t care. Now I’m wondering if my mom ever told my grandma that I’m not straight and, if she did, if my grandma’s reaction was similar.

Back to the film. Bridget gets in a cab, takes a ‘quick’ detour to find the right outfit, rushes to Mark’s work, declares her love for him, he proposes and we….still don’t see them get married. The movie actually ends with them walking through a cemetery after Bridget’s parents renew their vows and Bridget narrates that ‘happiness is possible. Even when you are 33 and have a bottom the size of two bowling balls.’

So does this movie hold up?

Some of the phone stuff is dated. I realized that no one is ever really going to have to deal with calling their boyfriend to tell him his bottom is adorable and then find out they’re on speaker to some ambassadors. We have texting now. Texting will solve these problems.

And honestly, even though I didn’t get the ‘need to be married’ thing as a teenager, I really don’t get it now. Like, seriously, Bridget and Mark shouldn’t get married. They definitely shouldn’t have a kid unless they both sit down and do some heavy compromising. It’s clear that they love each other very much, but love isn’t enough to save a relationship. And I wish the movie actually went there because it’s not entirely unrealistic about everything else.

And as a romantic comedy lead? Bridget’s pretty great. I still find her absolutely relatable. She’s not just quirky; she’s self-assured and confident but we also get to see her doubting herself in private. And while she does want to get married and be in a relationship, she wants to do it on her terms. She calls Mark out on his shit and how he treats her. She refuses to give Daniel Cleaver another go and consistently fights her attraction to him despite the fact that, once they start flirting, she’s really comfortable around him. (And depending on how you take one scene, he’s better in bed than Mark.) They laugh over his continued love of her granny panties and the tease each other in a way that is unlike her having to stand up against his workplace harassment. But she tells him she doesn’t just want to shag anymore. Sure, he’d be great for that, but it and he are not what she wants and she’s not going to fuck some guy who doesn’t appreciate her as more than a sexual partner.

Bridget’s also always giving herself pep talks, which I like. She tells herself she’s doing amazing journalism, even though they’re fluff pieces. Bridget, despite her body image issues and feeling like a loser in love, believes in herself in a way that a lot of the people around her don’t, and even when her love life fails, she doesn’t stop believing in herself entirely. That’s pretty great.

Other notes

– There are magic mushrooms in Thailand, courtesy of Shazza and her dude. The scene where Bridget frolics in the ocean, patting her face and saying ‘pretty, pretty’ is my favorite thing Renee Zellweger has ever done.

– Colin Firth playing Mr. Darcy three times is always going to be his legacy. And I remember on the DVD there’s a bonus feature where Zellweger interviews him as Bridget Jones and won’t let up about the pond-diving scene. Apparently it was a spur of the moment thing and is mostly improvised and it was hilarious. It’s also based on a scene in the book that didn’t make it into the film because, well, you can’t have Colin Firth play a character and himself. I guess.

– I’ve rolled with the ‘still finding Hugh Grant attractive thing’ through this whole review, but I would really like it to stop now. I’m both too old and too young for this.

Ten Years Ago: The Incredibles

7 Nov

Max DeCurtins revisits the politics of the superhero in Brad Bird’s The Incredibles and finds that the real villain isn’t Syndrome, but complacency. 

It’s November in an election year. As I write this, Americans have just done what I can only describe as unthinkable: They have returned control of the Senate to the Republicans, as well as installed them in a number of House seats, governorships, and state legislatures. As I come back to this piece to tinker and revise, the New York Times reports that the extent of the damage became apparent over the course of Wednesday (incidentally, the exact release date, ten years ago, of The Incredibles, as listed by Wikipedia). Though more than a few editorialists have invoked Seinfeld’s anti-premise to describe this election, I think we all know damn well by now what this election was about: Our corruption no longer feels the need to cloak its existence; almost all major institutions of journalism have reported on the torrent of unregulated money producing substanceless attack ads. Depending on the state in which you live, this means that your television, radio, newspapers, and public spaces were essentially commandeered by Rich Persons Wishing to Remain Anonymous (RPWRA, because acronyms). That we knew perfectly well what was going on, but hadn’t the wherewithal to protest, to refuse to hold the election until the RPWRA either revealed themselves or got the hell out, speaks to the Orwellian times in which our country now finds itself. In countless interviews, the self-proclaimed Priority Number One of most voters was to escape the endless barrage of cheap political theater. It’s sensory degradation in a different guise, and when faced with dehumanizing treatment like sensory degradation, we’ll do anything to make it stop, including—in a spectacular example of misguided action—not voting.

When The Incredibles came out, we had of course just come through another election, the 2004 presidential contest between W. and then-junior Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. It was my first election after becoming eligible to vote, though I had been interested in elections since 1996. At the time, my naïve self thought the country had ample reason to boot W. out of office, and no goddamn hanging chad, idiot state Secretary of State, or court was going to fumble the true outcome of the election, this time. I think, like many, I thought that 2004 would correct the grievous error of 2000. We were wrong. The 2004 election got ugly, but in comparison with the election of 2014, it was a civil, dainty afternoon tea. We didn’t yet know it, but things like swiftboating and the odiously-named Patriot Act offered a mere taste of what would transpire over the next decade.

Complexity in discourse all but evaporated and, if anything, has seen a wider adoption of the language of violence: “death panels” and “job killers” and so on. Privacy would become the last asset of the poor and the last refuge of the RPWRA. Less than a week ago, Mitch McConnell, whose ugly mug we now have to endure for at least the next two years, stood in front of a crowd of Kentuckians and crowed that “They think they’re smarter than us, better than us.” I died a little inside. No, not a little. A lot. Somehow I’ve always thought this the kind of line only uttered in satirical sketches, political movies, and House of Cards. I think that, re-watching The Incredibles, I finally realized just how political the superhero movie is, with its reductionist take on good versus bad, on Us versus Them, and I read it now in an entirely different manner than I did ten years ago.

As we all know, superhero stories have good guys and bad guys. At first glance, the “bad guy contingent” of The Incredibles strikes many, I think, as strangely non-threatening. Syndrome, the movie’s villain, presents us with an outright formulaic explanation of what tipped him from fanboy to fanatic. Even in adulthood he still appears childish. His assistant Mirage comes off like someone paid to put on a pep rally for a political campaign: smart but bored. Against a whole family of superheroes, there’s no real sense of danger to the good guys, at least, in the eyes of this jaded re-viewer anyway. There’s enough traditional bad guy behavior to convince the younger viewers of the movie, but Pixar, famous for creating movies that can operate at two levels of complexity (one for young audiences and one for adult audiences), did something altogether different and unusually abstract for the adult viewers. What’s interesting about the villainy in The Incredibles is that it depends on a subtle idea: When everyone can boast exceptional qualities, then those qualities lose their exceptional character and cease to be meaningful, and, by extension, so do the people who possess them.

As human beings, we have an innate valuation of rare things: precious metals, gemstones, artworks, historical artifacts, and so on. I won’t hesitate to suggest that an intrinsic valuation of rare (and often unique) things defines us; indeed, it may prove an essential evolutionary characteristic of an egocentric species in possession of higher-order thinking. In the rarity of these things we see reflected our own, egocentric sense of our individual worth to the world; after all, who among you is exactly like me? I am like a gemstone: I have something brilliant and valuable to contribute to the world, I will strive to make my sparkle seen, and the world would be a poorer place without my presence. (I exaggerate, of course, and we hardly—if ever—compare our lives to coins and jewels, but we do espouse a line of thinking very similar to this as a component of self-affirmation.) I think rarity also fascinates us because it brings us closer to awareness of our own temporality; its uniqueness and durability outlasts the frail mortality of our bodies, and it surprises no-one that rarefied things have close connections to death: a tomb splendidly adorned clearly indicates, how great was this individual in life.

When it comes to imagining something rare that would confer great value on its possessor, about the most alluring thing any of us can think of is supernatural powers, whether they be of the superhero, Jedi, or Harry Potter variety. Having powers makes one a rarity; those in possession of such powers find themselves in a perpetual minority relative to the masses, whether they are the handful of outcast X-Men, the few thousand Jedi, or those pseudo-Latin-equipped Hogwarts alumni. The superheroes of The Incredibles not only possess rare superpowers, but each of them has unique abilities, cementing their super status that much more. Imagining that we have our own special superpowers marks most every childhood; we can just about all relate to wanting to be able to fly, or to disappear, to have some other preternatural ability. And yet, The Incredibles asks, what if the most fantastical and valuable thing you can imagine has no meaning? It’s a particularly terrible thought, because it leads to questions of moral equivalence and moral relativism. Does putting super power, attained through technology, up for sale to anyone willing to shell out the greenbacks really make all average Joes super, or does it just make the world a really fucking scary place where many people are trod underfoot?

On re-viewing The Incredibles, I found the political and philosophical connections too hard to ignore; the real enemy in the movie isn’t Syndrome, it’s the moral vacuum he threatens to create. It’s a life of complacent conformity; of bureaucracy; of Bob’s job at the insurance company; of government that lives and dies by public opinion, a government that can force a whole subset of people underground (or deeper into the closet); of being overrun by those who generate bogus research in order to drown out actual academic study. It’s a preoccupation with the “Us” vs “Them” dichotomy, often more perceived than real. Helen (Elastigirl) invokes this several times; she tells Violet that “right now, the world just wants us to be normal.” The real enemy is the culture of fear: though Ebola threatens only a very small area of West Africa, alarmists here clamored so loudly for an outright travel ban that—despite the opposition from educated professionals in medicine and public health—a few state governors adopted, then relaxed, ill-advised quarantine measures. We can’t know what an expert opinion in the world of The Incredibles might have recommended, but it may just have provided a counterweight to the political mob mentality that forced the supers into hiding in the first place.

I think it easy to read Syndrome’s plan to change the public’s valuation of the rarity of superpowers—and the people who possess them—as analogous to the various campaigns ongoing in the United States to devalue the work of scientists, teachers, policy researchers, and so on. What Syndrome knows that Mr. Incredible doesn’t is that context determines reality. The right—and the right-wing—in America knows this all too well, and over the course of recent decades they have succeeded in breathtaking ways at changing the tenor of the conversation on issues ranging from abortion rights to taxes, and have set up factories like the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, and the Heritage Foundation to churn out work designed to make ill-informed ideas appear as valid as well-researched ones. Linguist and political scholar George Lakoff writes that morality and politics intertwine intimately through the mediating prism of metaphor, which enables political behavior that is both highly coherent (under the surface, at least) and also deeply emotional; in less academic works he has argued that conservatives have largely outstripped liberals in controlling the context within which Americans must decide how to discern reality, and I think few would deny this assessment.

What I take away from The Incredibles is the message that being legitimately super, and not just playing at it, matters a hell of a lot. Notice that when his chance to play hero finally comes, Syndrome quickly loses to the Omnidroid of his creation; he’s sent flying out of control and crashes into a wall. When our need is dire, pretenders won’t do. And our need is dire: reversing soul-crushing levels of inequality, mobilizing against climate change, improving education, public health and health care, protecting rights such as civil marriage and its benefits and voting, among others. Hacks and spooks and bigots…the Syndromes of the world won’t do. We need people armed with the best, most thoroughly-vetted knowledge who actively seek to implement well-informed policy and who have a minimal tolerance for bullshit. We need people with, as The West Wing’s Sam Seaborn calls it, gravitas. We need people who are legitimately super, who own up to supporting morally defensible causes. The duality of good/bad always on display in superhero movies, often enough manifested as an internal struggle between two competing halves of the superhero’s id, finds itself reflected in the duality of the American electorate; every two years, a different America votes: one younger, more diverse, and overall more liberal, and one older, whiter, and vastly more conservative. And, increasingly, the one American electorate can’t abide the other. This particular election cycle has given us all the evidence we need: when money matters above all else, mediocrity and intemperateness win the day and everything—and everyone—else loses.

As for the mechanics of the movie, though The Incredibles stands the usual assumption about the cultural status of superheroes on its head, and though I think the writers meant us to find this novel, it feels relatively predictable to me. Keeping one’s superhero identity secret hardly qualifies as novel for such narratives. I can’t say it detracts too much, though, for The Incredibles excels in several ways.

Firstly, I think the most positive story in the movie belongs to Violet’s character; in a limited fashion, I can see her self-empowerment as the germ of a type of narrative that ultimately gave us Frozen. She learns that her power to disappear doesn’t have to serve in the capacity of literal self-effacement. Her two superpowers to each of her family members’ one makes her perhaps the most powerful member of her family, which underlines the importance of learning to be assertive. She learns that it’s okay to be different, and that’s a huge lesson to teach and to absorb.

Until I looked up the voice performers, I didn’t realize that the director Brad Bird, who also has 2007’s uplifting Ratatouille in his filmography, voiced Edna Mode, one of the more popular characters from The Incredibles. Knowing this has put a delightfully queer spin on Edna’s character, an impression I’d always had. The writers clearly intended for her personality to outstrip her small physical presence, yet another challenge to the reign of conformity and stereotype that the movie positions as the true evil force to be defeated, as I have explored above.

I don’t get much from any of the other characters, and some of the mild annoyances I remembered now make me wrinkle my nose in distaste. If we find complexity and something uplifting in Violet’s character, we find the exact opposite in Dash’s character, a bratty reinforcement of the idea that boys are hyperactive, unfocused problem children who don’t take interest in school. His name fits his superpower to a T, and if it weren’t for his power he’d probably have been put on Ritalin or Adderall a long time ago. Mr. Incredible himself doesn’t make for a particularly compelling character, though I suppose we could point to him as an emerging example of a different type of masculinity, one that recognizes that strength comes in many forms. To me, though, this feels like a secondary—though still worthy—message among other, more immediate ideas. So although, on re-view, most of the characters seemed rather bland, The Incredibles still holds up on the basis of two characters who have embraced non-conformity and learned to own it, Violet and Edna.

Secondly, The Incredibles has a phenomenal score, albeit one that has the unusual trait of not being especially memorable. It’s not “catchy,” which doesn’t bode well for it when so much pop music resembles processed food—specifically engineered to get you to want more of it. I’m reminded of a discussion captured in one of the special features for Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Two Towers, the second installment in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He’s discussing the genesis of Howard Shore’s leitmotif for the people of Rohan, and Philippa Boyens comments that she knew that Howard had succeeded in composing a great theme for Rohan when Peter, riding in a car from one remote New Zealand location to another, started to hum the theme that Howard had composed. It reveals an interesting trope about what we consider “great” music. One of the more interesting judgments applied to music is the idea that great music sticks with you; the degree to which it doesn’t leave your mind’s ear or you can recall it easily later, sometimes even after not hearing it for years, somehow defines its greatness. This naturally creates a bias against certain types of more “abstract” music, particularly music closely allied to instrumental jazz, as is the score for The Incredibles. Abstract music, which might present less identifiable themes, or might prove harmonically complex by meandering chromatically through many keys, doesn’t naturally lend itself to sticking in your ear. But music is an ephemeral phenomenon, a fact more often than not lost to us, we who have never known life without recordings. Because we can just rewind the track, or hit seek on our iPods, the incentive to listen closely to every minute of music as it unfolds just doesn’t exert the same influence it used to. Didn’t hear that word the first time, or catch that auto-tuned twang? Just play the track over and over, as many times as you need to, until you’ve heard what you want. But back to The Incredibles.

Big band music informs much of the score, but none of it follows the neatly-packaged 32-bar song format that makes other types of jazz and ballad crooning popular and easy to remember. The rest of the score, like the architecture in the movie, owes a heavy debt to spy and caper flicks of the 1960s and 70s. One can almost feel the spirit of the Rat Pack or John Barry’s work for several classic Bond movies emanating from the soundscape of The Incredibles. As with the storytelling, I marvel at the ability of the artistic teams involved with Pixar movies to create multiple layers of complexity and cultural reference for audiences of vastly different ages, and the music and the architecture certainly speak to the more seasoned viewers, and make the movie for me—neither a kid nor a Baby Boomer—a surprisingly engaging work.

Ten Years Ago: Saw

31 Oct

Stevi Costa sees Saw again, and she has some things to say about “torture porn,” serial killer narratives, and the long-running CBS crime thriller Criminal Minds.

It’s Halloween once again, which means it’s time for me to revisit one of the most resilient (and pretty silly) horror franchises of the 21st century. While I wish I were writing about my favorite stupid horror series of all time, Final Destination, I am instead writing about Saw, an early piece of millennial “torture porn.”

First, I wish to discuss this term. “Torture porn” is a pejorative which refers, typically, to horror films that titillate viewers through a combination of graphic violence/gore with nudity. Although David Edelstein technically coined the term in a review of Eli Roth’s Hostel, which fits the definition to the T, it is often retroactively applied to films like Saw, which certainly rely on graphic violence and gore, but rarely on nudity. To call Saw torture porn is a misnomer, although a convenient one. There is nothing sexual about the violence in Saw. It is not erotic to the viewer, or to the serial killer character engineering these acts of violence. I watch an awful lot of police procedurals and serial killer narratives, and Saw’s distinct lack of erotic attachment to violence is notable. In many serial killer stories or true “torture porn” narratives, the camera dwells on the body of the victim, often in close-ups that show the murder weapon penetrating the flesh, and blood/guts/abjecta spraying everywhere. Saw, by contrast, tends to imply most of its violence by showing us, via the villain Jigsaw’s tapes, how his devices work, to heighten the sense of fear about what could happen to a body because of it. We do, of course, see the aftermath of the torture, but rarely the actual act of killing. (This is true of the first film specifically – other entries in the series dwell more on the moment of death.) So there’s not really a moment within Saw in which the viewer can eroticize torture, nor is this eroticized for Jigsaw.

It’s important to make note of his motives here as a serial killer type. Jigsaw is unlike most serial killers we encounter on procedurals or in real life. (NB: Most of my data on serial killers on police procedurals is drawn from Criminal Minds, which is arguably one of the most grotesque shows on television AND I LOVE IT.) Unlike a Ted Bundy or a John Wayne Gacy, Jigsaw isn’t interested in taking personal or sexual power over his victims. Other than the moment of abduction, he interacts with them only voyeuristically and from a distance. His goal, revealed by the tapes and videos he has prerecorded for his victims to play upon waking, is to test the moral mettle of the abductees. As Danny Glover’s Detective Tapp points out, Jigsaw never really kills anybody, actually. He always provides his victims with the option of escape. The tragedy is that most of them are not smart enough (or in Jigsaw’s point of view morally right enough) to win the game. Though voyeurism can have an erotic component to it, and the lingering camerawork of most horror films cements, voyeurism functions less erotically in Saw and more like surveillance in the panoptic, Foucaultian sense. Jigsaw isn’t watching his victims to get off on their deaths. He’s watching to police them into making the right choices. 

Saw is an interesting take on a serial killer narrative because it shifts perspective so frequently over the course of 90 minutes. Viewers experience the narrative through the victims, Adam and Larry (screenwriter Leigh Wannell, pretending not to be Australian, and Cary Elwes, pretending not to be the Dread Pirate Roberts), as they struggle to understand how they came to be chained to pipes in a disgusting bathroom that crustpunk Helen fromWetlands would really love to live in, as well as through the detectives, Tapp (Danny Glover) and Sing (Ken Leung), who have been following some of Jigsaw’s earlier murders. The Tapp and Sing narrative actually takes place prior to the Adam and Larry narrative, which we learn when Tapp and Sing walk into what is obviously a trap, during which Tapp gets his throat slit and watches Sing take a shotgun blast straight through the brain. There’s also a Tapp-trying-to-solve-the-case narrative that continues until the film’s climax, and a small plot involving Larry’s wife and daughter, who might be killed by one of Jigsaw’s disciples (playing his own version of one of Jigsaw’s torture games) if Larry doesn’t murder Adam by 6 pm.

Got all that? Good, because these interlocking stitches of narrative go to show that Saw, as an experimental, low-budget horror film, is anything but linear, and these temporal, spatial, and narrative disruptions make it much easier for viewers to invest in the bottle narrative of the two men trapped in the dingy bathroom, being tasked with death. Further, the shifts in narrative focus also make it clear that this is not a film that’s endorsing the viewpoint of the serial killer or the cops, which I suggest are the dominant ways that serial killer narratives are structured on Criminal Minds. Viewers are either meant to understand the violence from the perspective of the killer (camerawork might follow someone on the street before an abduction occurs, and linger on instruments of violence or acts of violence), or the perspective of the people trying to catch the killer (scenes in which evidence is looked at and discussed, emphasizing the aftermath of violence rather than the violence itself). Saw doesn’t adopt Jigsaw’s cinematic perspective at all – even the stylized scenes of violence to early victims are narrated from the point of view of the cops or the point of view of Amanda, the one surviving victim. Saw is distanced therefore from any pornographic tendencies because viewers are never watching a single perspective long enough to internalize a viewpoint. Rather, it shows that, unlike Jigsaw’s clear-cut moral games, there is a lot more going on to horror than can easily be categorized.

These are the things I like about Saw, but they’re also what makes Saw seem very silly to me. The narrative takes itself so seriously, but is actually quite funny. I am pretty sure that I spent the entire climactic scene where Larry starts to cut off his own foot in order to escape his torture cell laughing uncontrollably. The complexity Saw strives for, in retrospect, strikes me as amateurish, even though I admire the attempt. It’s actually a very small story about a series of interconnected people who’ve spent a lot of time fucking each other over, and it has no stakes outside of itself. Yet, amazingly, as Saw developed into a series, the mythology of Jigsaw grew even more and more elaborate, each film winding around the previous one like some kind of horror ouroboros, and soon Jigsaw’s vengeance against a specific doctor who told him he was going to die ballooned into moral punishment for the real estate bubble bursting (Saw V) and, in something of a return to the series’ roots, the health care crisis (Saw VI). The attempts at stakes and commentary in the latter films is also pretty hilarious to me, and that’s because the early parts of the series, especially the first film, are so much about the personal stakes of a character and the world in which the film is set is so small that there’s ultimately nothing fear-inducing about it. Would it suck to be chained to a drainpipe in a basement and be forced to cut my own foot off? Yeah, that would suck hardcore. But a situation like Saw is never going to happen, and that’s why I find it funny. No serial killer chooses to torture victims into behaving like moral human beings. Other serial killer narratives are actually frightening because they are plausible, and this is why Criminal Minds (which also takes itself far too seriously) is actually scary. Serial killers don’t try to teach people lessons. They strike a series of victims that map onto their own individual neuroses/psychic traumas/etc. They perpetrate violence against these people randomly, and that’s violence from which escape is frequently not an option. Criminal Minds is terrifying at times because the randomness of violence is really real. And because most of the victims are women. And because most serial killers are white men. Anything that ever happens to a woman onCriminal Minds has a far greater chance of happening in the real world than does anything inSaw. I give Saw kudos for choosing to have male victims, and to have Shawnee Smith play the “final girl,” the sole survivor of Jigsaw’s games. But this is also why I find that it isn’t scary at all: it does not conform to a serial killer narrative in a way that would actually produce fear.

And that’s why I can laugh while watching Cary Elwes cut off his own foot and then crawl out of what should have been his tomb on his bloody stump of a leg. It may not be scary, but it is a pretty cool image. Even cooler? The corpse that had been lying between Adam and Larry throughout the entire film standing up, peeling off his latex head wound, and revealing that Jigsaw had been among them the entire time.

Free-Floating Thoughts

- Tapp and Sing are … interesting choices of names for detectives. Sing is played by an Asian-American actor and is a common Asian-American surname, so that’s not so odd. But when it’s paired with Tapp . . . I can’t help but notice that this is a strange combination of verbs to choose. I feel like they shouldn’t be detectives, but rather a vaudeville duo.

- Ken Leung and Michael Emerson from Lost are both in this. New theory: everything that happens in every Saw movie ever actually takes place on the Island inside the Pearl station.

- Returning to Tapp & Sing for a second: These guys are awful detectives. It’s no wonder Sing takes one in the head because the minute they both walked into that obviously very staged crime scene, they should have known it was a trap. If the crew from Criminal Mindshad happened upon this scene, Hotch would have immediately gotten on the radio, announced that it was a trap, and called in backup. Then Derrick Morgan would have taken down Michael Emerson with one clean shot as he tried to run away. Easy.

- My favorite scenes in detective narratives are scenes in which the characters analyze evidence and theorize. This is sorely missing from the detective scenes in Saw, and it’s really disappointing. There’s one brief scene in which Sing looks up some medical records and then triangulates a building on a map and I think it might actually be the most exciting part of the movie for me.

- So, one year, for some reason or another, my husband, editor of this here website, purchased a Billy doll, which Jigsaw uses as his surrogate in all of his video messages. I found this a confusing gift, and so we forgot about it for awhile. But then my husband decided to start putting Billy in random places around the house to see if I would notice. Sometimes, it would take me weeks to notice that Billy was in a new part of the house, which was obviously quite shocking to come upon when you’re not expecting it. The worst/best incident I’ve had with Billy was last October, in fact. I’d had a late night Halloween gig, and didn’t unpack my gig bag for a week. When I finally did, Billy was sitting inside it, ready to terrify me. This is the one time I can saw that something related to Saw had legitimately scared me.

Ten Years Ago: Sideways

24 Oct

In her “re-view” of Sideways, Stevi Costa tells us of her jack-of-all-trades stepgrandfather, revisits her college days in Santa Barbara, and reveals the story behind her back tattoo.

As a life-long West Coast resident, I’ve had the good fortune to always reside within an hour’s drive from “wine country.” My family home is just an hour south of the Napa Valley, the now-moneyed-former-upstart patch of land along the Silverado Trail that changed the face of viticulture in the 1970s. I currently reside in Seattle, only forty minutes or so from some small vineyards in Woodinville. But for a brief time in the early 2000s, I lived in Santa Barbara, California, a place which lauds itself as the “American Riviera” because of its plush coastal location. The beaches are great, that’s true, but just a half an hour up the 101 you’ll find miles and miles and miles of grapes all the way from Solvang to Paso Robles.

It was in Santa Barbara that I first saw Alexander Payne’s Sideways. Because of its proximity to L.A., vast number of celebrity vacation homes and AMPAS voters-in-residence, and the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, UCSB’s two campus movie theatres were often used to house Academy screenings, which were also open to students.

My roommates and I at the time attended many film screenings around campus, Oscar-affiliated and non. It was something to do that was either free or cheap and a good social alternative to getting shitfaced all the time (or, sometimes, a nice warm-up to getting shitfaced). We also liked going to these because my roommate had a huge crush on the guy who organized many of these screenings, so attending gave her opportunities to talk to him. (Reader, she married him!) The circumstances of seeing Sideways were as ordinary as any of the other screenings we attended (although it was our first Academy screening), but seeing the film was something of a watershed experience in and of itself. Sideways was the movie that made me fall in love with wine.

Because until I was in college and nearly-of-drinking-age, I had forgotten that wine was and could be cool. I had forgotten this fact because I grew up making wine.

My grandmother’s second husband was practically a character out of Steinbeck novel. He was raised in the Sierra foothills and eventually made his way to the Italian-American factory town of Crockett, where I grew up. Ed drove an avocado green Chevy pick-up truck from the 1970s and always wore jeans and a plaid shirt with boots of some kind (cowboy or workmen’s boots) and a signature hat: an olive green Smoky the Bear hat with a carefully rolled up brim. He was well-known in town and well-loved. He was a property owner, a journeyman plumber, jack-of-all-trades handyman, and the Scoutmaster of the town’s Boy Scout troop. He also had a unique hobby, which he basically charmed the whole town into participating in at one point in time or another: winemaking.

In the basement of one of Ed’s buildings, he had constructed his own wine cellar, filled with all of the supplies necessary to the craft. A large vat for initial fermentation, a press to clear the skins from the fermented grapes, a half dozen barrels in which each varietal would continue to ferment, bottling equipment, etc.

My father – and subsequently my mother and I – got involved in Ed’s winemaking adventures in Broglio Cellars shortly after he had begun courting my grandmother. I think I was seven or eight at the time. We would wake up early on a Saturday or Sunday, pile into a series of cars, and caravan from Crockett up the interstate to whatever vineyard Ed had made a deal with. The deal was always about access to someone else’s leftover grapes. We’d offer our labor in exchange for grapes, helping the vineyard owner cut expenses in the long run by clearing any bunches that were missed by picking machines. We’d pick a ton or so of grapes before noon most times and load them into the back of Ed’s truck or some other old Italian man’s truck and drive them back to the wine cellar, where my grandmother practiced being Italian by setting up trays of cheese and salami and little sandwiches while we started processing the grapes. Once the grapes were safely fermenting away in the vat, we’d eat Grandma’s indoor picnic spread and drink last year’s wine.

We did this once or twice a year for many years, but when I was fourteen or so I stopped going. I was a shithead about it. I didn’t want to get up early on a Saturday to do things with my family, let alone anything that involved manual labor. My father has a photograph of my utter disdain for this process as his desktop background on his computer. In it, I’m standing in front of a truck load of grapes with my arms crossed, and an expression that would seem to indicate, “These grapes are sour.” Meanwhile, Ed’s friend Hank Triglia stands beside the truck with his hand on the grape boxes, looking out onto the golden hills behind us. He looks majestic. He is so proud of the work he has done and the land that gave us these grapes. It is a perfect book cover for The Grapes of Wrath and I am ruining it. My father thinks this photograph is hilarious.

So I forgot about wine for a long time. I didn’t want to have anything to do with this weird hobby my family had. But in June of 2004, our family winemaker passed away after a long battle with mesothelioma. Ed’s property passed to his children, but he passed his basement winery to my father. Shortly after Ed died, I went on an exchange trip to Italy where talking about my grandfather and the family wine cellar was completely commonplace. Everyone over there has an uncle or a grandfather who knows how to make some kind of booze, and it’s usually wine. Italy, like my California home, has the right climate for grapes: temperate, where warm sunny days are cooled off by sea breezes and thick blankets of fog. Plus, in Italy, nineteen-year-old me got to really drink wine. And do so with practically every meal. In the old country, as Ed would have called it, wine was a way of life.

I came back to Santa Barbara after that summer and made the long drive down 101 and was suddenly so aware of all of the grapes. I may have tried to forget all the things I knew about wine, but they were always there all along. I thought about Steinbeck a lot on those drives – the way in which people would travel on horseback between King City and Paso Robles, how it must have taken days; the weight and expanse of the land; the vineyards that neatly sorted the hills into organized rectangles of cultivated property. And I thought about Ed, and how he knew California in exactly this way.

So by the time the academy screening of Sideways came to UCSB, I was ready to love wine. And to love the places it came from. Sideways, I find, is very much like Steinbeck in its approach to capturing the essence of the part of California in which it is set: Santa Barbara County. It is a special thing to see a movie in Santa Barbara that was filmed in Santa Barbara because Santa Barbara audiences get extremely excited to see themselves on film. Even though it’s a place where a lot of movie stars live, filming there is a rarity. (I recall tittering in the movie theatre at the sight of a hotel in Ventura during Little Miss Sunshine, for instance.) And Payne’s film really does work within the register of the every day. A portion of the film is set in Solvang, a strange little Danish town just a half hour from my college that my roommates and I would take day trips to every few months. We’d have Scandinavian food for lunch and eat ebelskivvers and buy pastries and drive home. So when we watched Sideways,we were watching our world on film – even if it was a world we only visited on weekends. It felt very natural and very real even then because of the Santa Barbara-ness of the film. Many of the actors in the restaurant and winery scenes are not actors, in fact. Just folks who worked in and around the wine industry. (Including a high school classmate, who thought she might become an actress, but instead became a waitress in Los Olivos.) Payne’s emphasis on everyday human beings, and movie stars who don’t look like movie stars, as the subjects of this film make it feel particularly easy and comfortable. Very slice of life.

But what I noticed in my recent re-viewing of Sideways is just how much more natural it feels because of its focus on landscapes, not people. The film dwells on the act of driving to and through wine country, dwelling on long walks down country roads to the Hitching Post II, and on the act of holding a finger of grapes in your hand. Sideways is a film that recognizes the everyday not just in its population, but in where they dwell. The irony of this is that for the characters – Miles and Jack, who are heading up to wine country for a bachelor weekend before Jack’s wedding – this is their escape. This is not the seaside cities in which they reside (San Diego and L.A.). They retreat from the city to the earthy, rural spaces of the wine country in order to shed parts of their lives they don’t feel at home in (marriage, divorce, work, a lack of work) to revel in the down-to-earthness of the countryside. This is, in essence, the same plot as many British novels from the early 19th century, only updated for men in the 21st century. And Americanized via its emphasis not on lush Italian villas, but the ruddy dirt of California’s central coast. It is a strange amalgam of plot and setting from East of Eden and A Room with a View.

It’s an achievement on the film’s part that I am so willing now to compare it to literary works like those mentioned above, and how much Steinbeck has come up in this review. I say this because Sideways is, to some extent, a literary endeavor. Like most of Payne’s films, it is an adaptation from a book. I did read the book a couple of years after the film had come out and I hate to tell you all that Sideways is one of the sad cases where the film is actually better. The book is awful. It’s a screenwriter’s attempt at creating a novel, and all of the characters are utterly terrible – particularly the women. In the novel, Jack pays one of the women they meet in wine country to be Miles’ companion for the weekend, so she and her friend (played by Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh in the film) end up in what becomes a pretty damn misogynistic portrayal of women’s fidelity, and turns Jack (who is an asshole, but a sweet asshole who’s kind of trying not to be an asshole after he gets hitched) into no better than a pimp. Perhaps that’s the writer’s attempt to make Miles seem pathetic, and therefore likeable, serving to cut through his faux pompousness? I’m not sure. But I think Payne’s adaptation serves these characters much better. He makes the characters make mistakes, but not cartoonishly evil ones, and allows Paul Giamatti’s Miles room to be pompous and sad all at once instead of by turns.

The one thing the book has going for it is the metaphoric conceit that wine, like people, is inherently complex. Some of the film’s most philosophical scenes illustrate this, especially the one where Miles and Maya sit out on Stephanie’s porch, drinking expensive bottles and discussing their favorite varietals. Miles, who is perhaps best remembered for screaming “If anyone orders any Merlot, I’m leaving! I’m not drinking any fucking Merlot!” outside a restaurant earlier in the film, confesses his fondness for Pinot Noir, a grape that’s meticulous and testy, growing and flourishing only under the tender care of a vintner. It’s an unsubtle metaphor for Miles’ own need for love and care, for his prickliness that might get smoothed by someone who can recognize a good set of legs in a glass of wine, like Maya. The metaphor works. We are what we eat and we are what we drink. And wineries all across the country began to realize this after Sideways. Walk into a winery in 2005, and you’d find any number of wine accessories declaring “I’m a Merlot” or “I’m a Syrah,” like the wino version of the oldSex and the City merchandise.

After Sideways, I started taking wine seriously, or at least as seriously as my family of hobbyist oenophiles did. I started talking to my father more about making wine, recommending the movie to him because it had a winemaker’s humor to it that only he and Ed would have understood. I started bringing the family wine back to school with me when I’d come back from family visits. I’d share the story of Ed and Broglio Cellars and its legacy with anyone who came to my apartment and tried a bottle of it with me.

What you need to know about Broglio Cellars wine is this: it is perhaps not good wine, not by any professional tasting standards, but it is wine. And it’s strong both in flavor and in alcohol content. The family wine was pretty popular in my circles at UCSB for that reason.

Eventually, I started writing about wine and the business of winemaking. During my brief stint as a business journalist, I tried to make my beat Pacific Coast viticulture, but my time in journalism was short and there were only so many big stories about the wine business to tell. But I did learn a lot at that time, and I got to drink a lot of good wine in the process.

When I moved out of California, I spent 10 and a half hours in the tattoo chair having a finger of Zinfandel grapes and a spray of California poppies tattooed on my back. The irony of this is that I can’t really drink wine anymore. I have some rather unpleasant sinus reactions to wine these days, so I’ll indulge only occasionally in a glass. (Gin is my preferred spirit these days.) But Zinfandel has always been my favorite varietal. It’s bold and rich, often jammy and spicy, and you just can’t get it everywhere. It grows best in Northern California, in the Napa Valley. And whenever we got second pickings of Zinfandel for Broglio Cellars, we knew it would make an especially strong wine.

Ten Years Ago: I Heart Huckabees

13 Oct

To coincide with 10YA’s upcoming film series (more on that very, very soon), here’s Erik Jaccard on David O. Russell’s existential comedy I Heart Huckabees.

I ♥ Huckabees: A Re-View in Four Theses and an Honest Admission

I am having trouble collecting my thoughts today and this inability to focus, and to decide what I want to say about David O. Russell’s gleeful existential dramedy I ♥Huckabees. In fact, I should say up front that part of the reason I’m having this trouble is that I have so much to say. Ten Years Later, this can only seem like a good thing to me, despite the fact that it’s caused me no lack of trouble in throwing something together. In any case, what I’ve come up with here gels somewhere near the end, but it could never really decide what it wanted to be. So I apologize in advance for any confusion. That said, here you have the fruits of my labor: a review in four disconnected theses and one fairly long honest admission. 

Thesis 1: I ♥ Huckabees is a film at least partly about the failure of liberal politics in the USA.

Motherfucking cocksucker motherfucking shit fucker what am I doing? What am I doing? I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m doing the best that I can. I know that’s all I can ask of myself. Is that good enough? Is my work doing any good? Is anybody paying attention? Is it hopeless to try and change things? The African guy is a sign, right? Because if he isn’t then nothing in this world makes any sense to me. I’m fucked. Maybe I should quit. Don’t quit. Maybe I should just fucking quit. Don’t fucking quit, just, I don’t know what the fuck I’m supposed to do anymore. Fucker! Fuck! Shit!

This idea is something I mentioned a while back, in my May, 2014 re-view of The Day After Tomorrow. The gist of my comments back then were that Huckabees dramatizes a sense of inner turmoil and frustration within the political left in an era when its fundamental premises have been undercut and marginalized by the triumphant emergence of neoliberal globalization as the dominant ideological force shaping human social and economic life. While it doesn’t take issue with the actual structural adjustments and policy initiatives which characterized this massive shift, the film nonetheless expresses a profound despair at the triumph of the logic which underpinned it and at the impotence of the progressive left to challenge it in any meaningful way. While it’s difficult not to oversimplify, the major conflict as I see it expressed in the film can be reduced to a fairly simple choice between a society conceived as a larger interconnected entity with moral and ethical obligations to the whole, or as a society composed of atomized individual actors populating a marketplace (whose primary loyalty is to their own self-interest). The ‘logic’ of the latter is the one that has won out in our twenty-first century social landscape and its enshrinement as the fundamental structuring principle of social reality is the condition against which the film’s existential crises unfold.

I didn’t catch any of this the first time around, content as I was to just sit back and enjoy the film’s random, intermittent humor. But this time through it was everywhere. I saw it Albert’s egotistical battles with his corporate nemesis, Brad, over the cooptation of Albert’s efforts to save some wetlands from development by Huckabees. Tricking Albert into including him in the campaign as a partner, Brad completely squeezes Albert out of his coalition by changing the logic on which it runs. Albert wants to save open spaces for their intrinsic value as natural space—a reminder of our connection and obligation to the natural world of which we are a part. Brad, on the other hand, sees it as capital which can be exploited for financial or political value. I saw it in Tommy’s frustrated rants about petroleum consumption, which for him is indicative of the country’s shameless, self-serving arrogance in the face of the suffering such consumption might cause around the world. I saw it in the maddening—if hilarious—confrontation between both men and a family of prototypical Bush-era Republicans whose blank refusal to consider any reality outside their own sends Albert and Tommy into apoplectic fits of futile indignation. Finally, I saw it throughout the film in the subtle implication that—as a number of Bush administration politicos might have put it in 2004—“the political battle is over. You lost. Get over it or fuck off.”

While I don’t think this is the only way to read these instances of crisis and despair in the film, it’s very difficult for me now to read them only as crises of individual subjectivity. So much of the film is an overt play on this subject, and on the contrast between ‘the blanket theory’ of holistic interconnectedness offered by ‘existential detectives’ Bernard and Vivian Joffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) and the ‘nihilistic’ theory championed by their former student, Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert). But even these two competing philosophies—reduced to clumsy caricatures of existentialist thought—seem like relics of a faded twentieth century counterculture that has parlayed its own failed social revolution into a kind of neurotic melancholia. But while each side has devised its own therapeutic method for dealing with this condition, neither can provide much more than a list of useful concepts for analysis. Such is the problem with philosophy, one supposes, but ideas like ego, identity, and holism don’t operate in a vacuum. They require context to give them meaning and in this film that context is a political philosophy which goes out of its way to separate human beings from one another in the name of their own freedom. And maybe the point is not that we’re supposed to buy into the concept of ‘existential detectives,’ but rather that we’re meant to read their existence as an indication that current conditions have created individuals who are essentially sick at the thought there is literally nothing else beyond the world in which they live. If the left has often considered its vocation as an affirmation that other worlds are possible, then part of what Huckabees is getting at is the sheer, flummoxed, uncomprehending anger at being told that your dreams don’t matter, that they’re foolish and dangerous and ill-informed, that the best we can do is look out for ourselves.

Maybe I should quit. Don’t quit. Maybe I should just fucking quit. Don’t fucking quit, just, I don’t know what the fuck I’m supposed to do anymore. Fucker! Fuck! Shit

Thesis 2: I ♥ Huckabees is a film at least partly about the role of art and the artist in modern society.

What happens in the meadow at dusk?

Nothing!

Everything!

I didn’t notice it the first time around, but this time I found myself puzzling over the place poetry plays in the film, and, in grander terms, whether we are to read Albert as a model for the alienation of the poet/creative artists from the modern world. There’s certainly nothing overt in the film to suggest this, but I also think that the way Albert wants to use poetry as a means of communicating some larger truth about the validity of his political work speaks to a long established dissatisfaction on the part of artists over who is allowed to create truth in the world. For example, in a relatively famous 1821 essay titled “A Defence of Poetry,” the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley argues that poets—because they possess a special sensitivity to all things beautiful, pleasing, and harmonic—are no less than the guarantors of moral and social value and the true source of the laws which undergird civil society. As opposed to the prosaic vulgarity of rational science and economics, poetry for Shelley is the form of imaginative art best suited to the expression of higher truths. Shelley’s assertion that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” thus attempts to reassert the centrality of the artistic imagination against the rising tide of empirical science which was then feeding the industrial revolution and transforming European (and in this case, British) society. For many Romantic poets like Shelley, one of the poet’s primary roles in society was to use their overlarge imaginations to see and report on reality for the rest of us. Ever since this time, artists of all stripes have continued to maintain that this is their vocation in defiance of a world which often rudely relegates them to commercial props or ignored seers.

This time it was difficult not to see Albert’s futile—and largely embarrassing—attempts at poetic truth-telling as an amusing play on this tradition. On the one hand, Albert’s reliance on poetry has a social function insofar as it attempts to carve out alternative space for neglected or trammeled values such as the solitary contemplation of nature and its infinite, indefinable qualities. This act has value precisely because, much as the Romantics would have claimed, the dry, formulaic, empirical world of business and technology and social progress actually turned humans away from the truth of the world by quantifying, controlling, and explaining it. If the world becomes suddenly explicable and ordered and controlled, then there is very little for a prophet-genius-poet to do but hammer his or her fists against the wall when their truth—undermined by the ‘factual’ basis of science—falls on deaf ears.  This is why it’s so important that we understand ‘what happens in the meadow at dusk.’ Connection with things bigger than you happens in the meadow at dusk; an appreciation for both your own place in the world and also its overpowering sublimity happens in the meadow at dusk; truth, for all intents and purposes, happens in the meadow at dusk. And if mega-corps like Huckabees pave over every inch of natural space, there will be no more private artistic contemplation in the meadow at dusk. One does not contemplate the sublime in a Huckabees parking lot at dusk. Therefore, Albert’s wants his poetry to mean more than just some lonely, crazy guy reading out words aloud in a concrete wasteland. He wants to be one of those unacknowledged legislators of the world.

On the other hand, though, Albert’s big problem—as it also was with many of the Romantics—is that much of his righteous indignation derives from his inflated ego. The Romantic poet was the beginning and end of all things. Genius flowed through ‘him’ and his strong, overwhelming personal feelings bound him to his reader in a flux of natural power and originality. Albert—threatened by Brad’s charisma and his refusal to acknowledge poetry as essential to the Open Spaces movement—reacts throughout the film in defense of his own personality and its perceived denigration at the hands of Brad’s influence. Most insultingly, Brad, who boasts that he has no interest in art or books, is nonetheless accorded to poet-role by Albert’s flock of Open Spaces collaborators. He speaks and people listen; he hands out kitschy presents and people fawn. He seduces the world with an allure meant only to be the province of the artist. Brad’s artistry—schmoozing, dealing, driving the company profit margin up—is the art of the day and his role as ‘artist’ is verified and legitimized while all Albert can do is stand meekly in front of the one rock he saved from developers—his private, contemplative space—and recite poems which sound like they were written by a 12 year-old: “nobody sits like this rock sits/you rock, rock/the rock just sits and is/you show us how to just sit here/and that’s what we need.’ The courage required to seem this ridiculous is actually one of Albert’s strengths—after all, we do need to learn how to just sit and be—but it’s an artistry that is too easily shouted down and shoved to the side, leaving Albert spluttering and indignant. 

Thesis 3: If Bells, Keys, or Strings are tinkling, you are in a Jon Brion movie.

I kid—Brion is an accomplished musician, producer, and composer, not a screenwriter or director. Also, he does not own the patent or copyright on the sonic tinkle. All the same, watching Huckabees this time around, with its floaty, effervescent score punctuated by tinkling of all kinds, I was repeatedly struck by the thought that I’d heard the score—or some version of it—before.  A little research confirmed for me that I was not actually crazy or dissolving into synesthetic delirium. My first thought was that it all sounded very much like what Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh has done for and with Wes Anderson. Instead, as I learned, it was the other Anderson (Paul Thomas). I also learned that from 1997 to 2004 Jon Brion WAS AN AUTEUR COLLABORATION MACHINE, producing the scores for Anderson’s Hard Eight, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love, as well as Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and, of course, David O. Russell’s I ♥Huckabees (and, later, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York). Now, this revelation doesn’t in any way detract from the achievements of any of these films, which are considerable. However, I feel a certain sense of unnamable disappointment in discovering that all of these films are tethered together by the same master of ethereal sonic quirk. I’ve re-viewed two of the films above—surprisingly, without saying word one about either score—and have treated them both as fantastic one-off marvels of cinematic delight, easy to enjoy and impossible to duplicate. Yet, I now find myself bothered by the fact that one of the reasons I like all of them could be that there is a reproducible tinkle-effect created by the Brion sound sensorium. The dude’s a multi-instrumentalist (like any good composer), so we’re not talking the same tinkle here. But there’s a palpable overlap in what his music does in those movies with what it does in this one. I guess that’s the point, and there probably shouldn’t be anything to complain about here. It’s not like I’m going to stop watching Tim Burton movies because of Danny Elfman or ‘70s Westerns because of Ennio Morricone. Nor should we hold up at the sound of a Brion-esque score simply because we’ve heard those tell-tale tinkles before. The only reason to object to Brion’s influence on all these films is if his scoring somehow flattens them out, reducing them quirky iterations of the same ‘artistic’ or ‘independent’ impulse. There is probably some of this going on—these are commercial products, after all, and each is its own eclectically produced filmic thought experiment—but I’m not willing to judge Brion or his collaborators for indulging in a successful approach, because in each case that perspective is ranged against a different product. It’s the man’s style, diversely applied. Jon Brion, Tinkle Master of your Auteur Dreams.

Thesis 4: Mark Walhberg is at his best as a comedic anti-hero.  

I’m at the fire! Where you guys at?

As an actor with pretensions to both the drama and action genres, Mark Wahlberg is often called on to demonstrate a certain muscular gravitas, and to take himself very seriously. However, I don’t think I’m alone in arguing that Wahlberg is at his best when the size and seriousness which make him a popular action-drama stalwart are put to ironic comedic effect. Because so much of what Wahlberg does as an actor is reduced in commercial blockbusters to his ‘hero’ persona, the moments when he’s given the chance to step outside that stereotype are often gleefully amusing. Such is the case with his character in Huckabees, the tortured firefighter anti-hero, Tommy Corn. To see a big bulky hero of a man reduced to the depth of despair by questions of being and nothingness is inherently funny because it’s so rare to see blockbuster heroes question themselves in this way. Heroes are vulnerable to self-doubt, yes, but usually as a function of their hero-quest, where such doubt becomes the ultimate test of their heroism and the impetus for their redemption. In a funny, postmodern twist, then, Tommy is a hero-character who has begun to question the very category of the hero and to reject such an identity being foisted on him. When the Republican family Tommy and Albert visit want to enshrine Tommy as a hero simply for being a firefighter, Tommy has to remind them that this role does not make him heroic in itself.

One of Tommy’s main problems is that he’s a hero who has begun to question whether there can even be such a thing in our world. As he amusingly attempts to explain to his daughter, it seems impossible for him to be a hero to little girls in the USA when his heroism as a privileged American means that other little girls in Third World countries must suffer to provide the shoes that he heroically provides for his family. Rather than providing the stability, certainty, and strength which his archetype would imply, Wahlberg’s Tommy can only spread uncertainty and confusion and angst, in the process tearing down the very possibility of heroic behavior. Wahlberg’s plays this tortured position with an amusing mix of boyish charm and the same bumbling incomprehension for which Family Guy writers once skewered him.

Another source of the Wahlberg’s humor derives from the casting decision to pair his brute size and strength with Jason Schwartzman’s short, scrawny Albert Markovsky. Nearly everything Wahlberg does in relation to Schwartzman is funny in a slapstick-y kind of way because of the contrast in their sizes. When beating one another in the face with a rubber ball in order to produce an evacuated sense of ‘pure being’ (as Caterine Vaubon terms it), Tommy takes all of Albert’s blows without flinching while Tommy’s first blow knocks Albert off his seat. Similarly, the sight of the two riding their bikes around LA (out of a mutual respect for the environment) is equally as amusing because, again, heroes don’t ride bikes. Nerdy Albert Markovskys, yes, but not the Tommy Corns of the world. While Albert careens around town full of suppressed rage and lust, Tommy is ironically called on to be the soft, gentle giant, a well-intentioned boy stuck in a hulky man’s body. This reverses the expectations we would naturally attach to each character, thus producing the comedy.

Now for my honest admission:

I really like this film, I do. In fact, I probably love it. Just as I did when I first watched it at Seattle’s Guild Theater in the fall of 2004, I laughed my ass this time off at certain parts and thoughtfully considered some of its more poignant and self-consciously serious moments as well. But back then I wasn’t all that concerned with finding any coherent meaning in the film’s presentation of existential dilemmas and the humorous and sad situations they produce. In fact, as I recall, I only saw I ♥ Huckabees in the theater at all because I received a free pass to an advanced screening. So I had no idea what to expect and, therefore, wasn’t disappointed.

This time around, however, I could not help but admit that it is easily Russell’s least coherent film to date and that this makes for a viewing experience that is, if not boring, then at least uneven. Now, I think there are ways to read that make it coherent, such as this fine gentleman’s analysis of the film’s deeper philosophical structure (careful, as it’s likely to make your head hurt). But the only way one can really make such readings work is by squeezing out or marginalizing the film’s many other social and cultural narratives (see above). One might also argue that the genre blurring which is otherwise one of Russell’s unique strengths as a filmmaker is something of a liability here, as it’s never entirely clear what kind of film we’re watching. A variety of different types of comedy vie with one another for prominence, among them absurdist comedy, black comedy, slapstick comedy, and vignette-ish situational comedy, with some farce and satire thrown in for good measure. If this were it, we’d at least have an amalgam of comedic modes functioning under the umbrella of the ‘independent comedy.’ But humor—while foregrounded—is not the only mechanism through which we can or should understand existential crisis in the film. And while its presentation is often comedic, its deeper currents of anxiety, doubt, and cynicism make for darker, dramatic undertones which are then also vying for one’s attention. In other words, this is a very ‘busy’ film that is probably trying to do too many things at once. And while it can certainly be an ‘existential comedy’ if read the right way, it is also nothing more than an at-times manically funny cultural and philosophical hodgepodge which never really sticks its landings because it has eight different feet and landing spots and isn’t always sure where each foot is meant to come down.

The film is also uneven in its overreaching surfeit of ambition and cleverness.  Part of the problem lies in trying to stage a comedy about real human sadness and psychological breakdown in terms of a philosophical dialogue. It’s a neat idea, as is the inspired flight of fancy behind the creation of ‘existential detectives’ (ha!). However, the comprehension baseline from which the film begins is fairly high. It demands that the viewer have an entry point into the complex discourse necessary to make sense of a great deal of the character development, if not the plot action (which is easy enough to follow). This is why a number of people I’ve encountered over the years have reacted to the film in aggressive, hostile terms. Like Jude Law’s Brad, the average viewer is likely to find that the deeper the film drags them into the “manure of human suffering” the more alienated and unsatisfied they feel. Many I spoke to felt that they were being talked down to, or worse, being talked at. This dynamic is part of the reason that the film can seem preachy, pedantic, or full of itself. As my friend and one-time 10YA writer Chris Martin commented to me, the film kind of feels like you’re sitting through a Philosophy 101 lecture.

While this can be disorienting for the average person, it also sets the bar frightfully low for anyone actually interested in philosophy. As is probably necessary for the medium, most of the actual philosophy in the film is watered down, oversimplified, and often reduced to pop culture icons which leech anything actually interesting out of what’s being said. Isabelle Huppert’s Caterine Vaubon is the best example of this, as her simplistic nihilism is the worst type of stereotype of postwar French existentialism. It reduces the existentialist demand that we make ethical individual choices because that’s all we have to the popular misconception that choices don’t matter because there exists no greater guarantor of truth that can make them matter. The only thing missing from Vaubon’s left bank cliché is a black beret and a dangling cigarette.

However, there are also moments where the film’s ambition and intelligence coalesce in wonderful, illuminating ways. For example, the film’s answer to the potential alienation of its less philosophically-inclined audience is to use visual conceits to illustrate existential crisis in understandable, two-dimensional terms. Thus, we get to see Albert’s aggressive psychological defense mechanisms translated from philosophical discourse into an amusing montage of Albert hacking up threatening subconscious projections with a machete. The same goes for the attempt at visually explaining the holistic universe thesis, where tiny particles of being float free of the characters’ faces, mixing and mingling with one another and even, as Tommy points out, exposing the tiny gaps in between. Then there’s the less inventive but still touching visual ploy by which the filmmakers trace Albert’s realization of his own interconnectedness with Brad (via shared suffering) by morphing Albert’s face onto a photo of Brad crying. These moments are wonderful for the viewer because they’re so goddamn simple. Now, simple can be bad and oversimplification doesn’t generally get us anywhere when it comes to real, honest to gosh thinking. However, as a form of storytelling,for the majority of filmgoers who have not read Lacan or Hegel or Heidegger or Sartre, it actually comes off as a kind of useful shtick. While I generally tend to value complexity in thought and style, I have to admit that this film’s true complexities are so unattainable for the average person that it forces us to sit back and appreciate the clever ways it goes about making itself intelligible.

All this said, I’m happiest falling back on my original reason for loving I ♥ Huckabees: at times, it’s inventively, side-splittingly, riotously funny. It is most funny, I’d argue, at moments when the unevenness I describe above flattens out and reaches a convergence point at which we can see the genius—so common to Russell’s films—in searching for comedy in dramatic situations and drama in comedic ones. This tension has always characterized Russell’s work, from his early independent films (Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster) to his more recent, award-winning Hollywood successes (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle). When these moments occur—you could probably pick and choose your favorite absurd quote—you find yourself on the floor laughing, and perhaps staying down there for fear of having to pick yourself up and then seriously consider the seriousness of what was actually said.

Ten Years Ago: Shaun of the Dead

24 Sep

In his rewatch of Shaun of the Dead, Maccewill Yip toggles on the Blu-ray’s special feature known as the Zomb-O-Meter and has a bloody good time exploring the film’s numerous in-jokes, references, and foreshadowing.

It had taken me a while before I first watched Shaun of the Dead. I first encountered it online in a clip that showed Shaun and Ed meeting the girl zombie in their garden. I thought it looked interesting and filed it in my mind as something to look into, but then I forgot about it until a couple of years later while browsing for films to rent at my local video shop (the now defunct Lunch Money in Seattle) and saw the movie on the shelf. It wasn’t until I rented and watched it that I discovered that it was the movie from where the clip came from. Since I am rarely frightened by scary movies, it was the additional mix of elements of what they dubbed as RomZomCom that quickly made this one of my favorite horror flicks. Over the years, I’ve been anticipating every new film by the director Edgar Wright, as well as looking into Spaced,the TV series he did with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost before Shaun. Although I enjoyed them all, I still hold a special spot for Shaun of the Dead.

Most fans of Edgar Wright know that his works are filled with references, so much so that there are people who see some that were never intended. I knew several of them going into my viewing for this review. For instance:

-The place Shaun was trying to get a reservation for, Fulci’s Restaurant, referred to the Italian director Lucio Fulci, who made an unofficial, yet iconic sequel to Dawn of the Dead.

-Nick Frost saying, “We’re coming to get you, Barbara!” A line similar to what one a character says from Night of the Living Dead: “They’re coming to get you, Barbara.” (Although the creator of Night, George A. Romero, loved Shaun, he apparently did not get this reference to his own movie the first time he watched it.)

-A short discussion of not using the word “zombie” because not only do they agree that it is ridiculous, some of the biggest zombie movies doesn’t use it as well. (Same with The Walking Dead, which uses the term “Walkers.”)

-Some of the songs used in the film are from Dawn of the Dead.

There was another one during this viewing that I was surprised I hadn’t noticed before: At the end of the film, a news station reported that scientists ruled out the possibility of monkeys carrying a virus was the cause of the zombie apocalypse (a reference to the rage virus from28 Days Later). To see if there were more that I didn’t catch, I decided for this viewing to turn on a feature of the Blu-ray I never really tried, the Zomb-O-Meter, a kind of pop-up trivia feature. There were lots of music titles cited, mainly electro and the Dawn of the Dead music mentioned earlier, and a few more name references that I didn’t get early on, both for people (the co-worker in the electronics shop whose out sick is named after Ash of Army of Darkness; Liz’s nickname for Shaun is Flash, after Flash Gordon) and businesses (Bud’s Pizza of Day of the Dead, Foree Electronics of Dawn of the Dead). I was surprised to learn of more references to Spaced than the ones I knew already. The ones I knew already were culled from the film’s commentary, such as the origins of the term “fried gold” (which I also learned from Zomb-O-Meter was coined by Nick Frost) and the running gag of whether dogs can look up (from difficulty of getting a dog to do so in the show). In fact, I had originally sought out Spaced because of hearing about it in the commentary. The ones I just learned about was (a) Peter Serafinowicz, who plays the roommate of Shaun and Ed named Pete, answers his phone in the movie exactly like the character he plays in Spaced; and (b), a character from Spaced called Tyres can be seen as one of the zombies outside of the Winchester pub.

Shaun of the Dead not only references other movies, but itself becomes one as elements from this film gets carried into the other two films that altogether forms the Three Flavor Cornetto Trilogy (AKA Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy): Hot Fuzz and The World’s End. As the names imply, all three films have lots of blood and each features a different flavor of Cornetto ice cream, or Drumstick here in the States. But they share more than that. The sound from the game that Ed plays in the pub can be heard in the other two films, and each film has their own unique fence jumping gag. Other than Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, there are other actors that pop up again in the other two films, such as Martin Freeman, Bill Nighy, Patricia Franklin, Rafe Spall, and Julia Deakin. Finally, there is the varying themes of friendship we see between the different characters Pegg and Frost portray for each film.

Besides the constant use of references, writers Edgar Wright Simon Pegg just loves to add tons of foreshadowing. A lot of it is throwaway lines that you only catch after repeated viewings. I would say that about sixty to seventy percent of the dialogue before the zombie apocalypse will hint at something that will happen later on in the film, and if someone at that time says “you’re dead” (soccer kid, Pete), then, well, you know what will happen to that character. Even the music does it, as you can hear at the end of the very first pub scene, the soundtracks lyrics goes: “This town is coming like a ghost town.” The most interesting one comes from the second pub scene, where Ed, trying to console Shaun after being broken up by Liz, describes what they should do the next day: “We’ll have a Bloody Mary first thing, have a bite at the King’s Head, have a couple at The Little Princess, stagger back here and be back at the bar for shots.” The whole line hints at exactly what happens the next day: Bloody Mary (Cashier Zombie Mary in the garden), bite at King’s Head (Shaun’s stepfather, Phil, gets bit), a couple at The Little Princess (couple David and Diane at Liz’s place), and stagger back to the bar (pretending to be zombies to get into the Winchester) for shots (the shoot-out at the pub). Going through the film again with the Zomb-O-Meter brought out more that I had never even noticed. For instance, in the pub there is a patron known as Snakehips that Ed says is always surrounded by women. Later in the film when Shaun and his group heads to the Winchester and one of them ask how far they are, you see Shaun stare out to see Snakehips body surrounded and consumed by female zombies as Shaun responds, “We’re pretty close.” A big one that surprised me was how each character’s name supposedly rhymes, some imperfectly, with their fate in the film:

Shaun: Reborn

Liz: Lives

Ed: Becomes dead

Phil: Gets killed

Barbara: Ends up a cadaver

Pete: Gets Eat

Yvonne: Moves on

Dave: Goes to his grave

Di: Dies (although there is a special feature that shows that she survives)

Along with all the foreshadowing are also a variety of callbacks. In the opening credit sequence, we see various people going about their daily lives, which itself is filmed in a joking manner to show how they mindlessly go about their routine. If you pay close attention, you will find that just about everybody you see in this opening sequence appears later as a zombie, the most noticeable being Mary the grocery cashier that becomes the garden girl zombie. One discovered from the Zomb-O-Meter shows that the dialogue from a discussion Shaun has while Ed is playing a shooting game is echoed during the bar scene when Shaun is shooting at the zombies. Another way Edgar Wright adds layers of callbacks is by mirroring an earlier scene. A good example is the two times we see Shaun head to and from the mini-mart near his home. They’re both shot the same way with the same people, but the second time happens post-apocalypse where we see Shaun oblivious to the devastation around him. He uses the same technique in Hot Fuzz and The World’s End (which not only mirror the two pub crawls between when they were kids and adults, but also in the in the kids version of the events uses an anecdote that foreshadows everything that happens later when they go through the same run again as adults, like the line Ed had in the pub on Shaun of the Dead that was mentioned earlier). Another interesting mirroring joke happens when we see Shaun’s gang running into the group lead by his and Liz’s old friend, Yvonne. Every member of Shaun’s gang has an alternate in Yvonne’s. However a closer look shows that everybody in Yvonne’s group still have their weapons and their clothes are a little bloodier, showing that Yvonne’s gang seems to be faring better than Shaun’s.

Beyond all that, the other thing I look forward to in all of Edgar Wright’s films is the energy that he infuses into each work he produces. Not only is it present in the Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy, but also in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, the movie he adapted from a comic series written by Bryan Lee O’Malley. In that movie, he brought in so much different gags, trick shots, techniques, etc. that for a lesser director, it would look cluttered and convoluted. However, Wright has a way of piecing it all together in ways that there is cohesion and flow, and the variety of the different elements help bring the energy I just mentioned. You don’t see as much of it in Shaun of the Dead, but you do see seeds of those elements starting to appear and see it build and grow with Hot Fuzz. One of those techniques is the quick action cuts of mundane actions, which itself became a director trait for Wright and all his films, but was born as a parody of sequences in action films that use those kinds of shots to show a montage of getting prepared for battle. Another technique is employing various different shots, many themselves references to past directors. These variety of shot prevent the film from becoming static, and he uses them just right so that they don’t become overdone and self-indulgent.

Though compared to Hot Fuzz and The World’s End these techniques are pretty sparse, that is exactly why I still prefer to go back to Shaun. As much as I love all of Edgar Wright’s work, it often builds into the absurd and the ridiculous, although it is still a lot of fun to watch. InShaun of the Dead, although it is set in a zombie apocalypse, it somehow feels more grounded. It’s almost as if this could happen in the same universe as The Walking Dead, although not as grim. I believe this can be pinpointed beginning with one event: the death of Shaun’s mother, Barbara. In all of the commentaries, each of the actors mentioned how hard it was for them to see Barbara die, especially when she convulsed before she passed away. They then all talked about how the film got dark when Shaun was forced to shoot his mom after she turned into a zombie. In other Wright films, this moment would turn quickly back to humor; but in Shaun, this moment lingers, then continues going downhill. There are little funny quirks in between, but it mainly continues being bleak until Yvonne comes with the army to save them. As I mentioned earlier, this and other moments help ground the movie from going too far out into the absurd.

One thing upon re-watching this film that I admired was some of the acting. Most of the characters had something hidden that can be felt through their whole performance. Shaun’s mother might be the easiest to point out, where after an event of encountering a zombie who she thought was an old friend, she later seems to continually become distracted and stare out into space. It is later found out that she had been bitten earlier and was trying to hide it so as not to worry Shaun. David we have come to associate as being a “twat” who looks down on Shaun. However, it is hinted and later revealed that he had affections for Liz and was jealous of Shaun. Diane knew about it, which she revealed in the end with David’s admission, but can be seen a couple of times when she reacts to David trying to play ignorant to his feelings for Liz. All of these are surprisingly nuanced for a movie of this type and adds to its depth.

When re-watching for this review, I went through all but one of the commentaries. (There are four of them and I didn’t have time to get to all of them. Sorry, zombie acting commentators.) A lot of stuff in the first two, writers/director’s and actors’ commentary, mainly had a lot of facts and trivia that I have covered already. However, the commentary that caught my attention was the one with the actors that played Shaun’s parents, Bill Nighy (Phil) and Penelope Wilton (Barbara). There were constant praise and admiration for the young actors and director, but with a slight wisp of nostalgia for their own youth. There were a couple of times where Wilton admitted to having a crush on Nighy years ago, especially when Nighy mentions how self-conscious he is. In fact, that kind of became of running thing with him, where he feels embarrassed  whenever he comes on screen. He would keep saying “I can’t look” and “Oh, I am terrible at this.” However, his tone changes completely in the part where he becomes a zombie, because suddenly he goes from being self-deprecating and shy, to saying, “Oh yeah! Look at that!” I thought it was kind of adorable. Another moment I thought was cute was during the scene where Snakehip’s body is being devoured, Wilton excitedly describes how the effect was achieved to an attentive Nighy. They also mentioned relationships that blossomed on set: Mary the garden zombie dating the panhandling dog-walking zombie, and Edgar Wright dating the daughter of Patricia Franklin, the bar spinster. The most interesting fact I learned in the commentary, though, was how the filmmakers approached Wilton for the role by comparing what they are trying to do with the Tom Stoppard play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. In the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are going about their own issues amidst the grand events of Hamlet. Likewise inShaun of the Dead, Shaun and Liz are going about their relationship problems in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.

Revisiting Shaun of the Dead was as fun now as it did when I first watched it all those years ago. Sure, there are plenty of new zombie movies, such as 28 Days Later, zombie comedies, such as Zombieland. However, Shaun had the perfect mix that balanced each other out. It also doesn’t feel dated, at least not yet. Not only that, the plot and character motivations, although sometimes a little simple, are pretty spot on. It’s interesting to see how big Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have gotten. Especially Pegg, who has gotten into huge franchises likeMission: Impossible and Star Trek. Hell, it was even fun seeing the cameo by Martin Freeman, who has gone big himself as Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Watson in Sherlock, and Bilbo in The Hobbit trilogy. Although he had done a lot of television before, it is still surprising that this was Edgar Wright’s first film. For a while he was compared to Joss Whedon, popular in the geek culture, but have yet to make it big. That is why it is disappointing that he was dropped from the Ant-Man project, which could have been his big break into the mainstream, like what The Avengers did for Whedon. However, there is word that he has a new project in mind that would involve his old pals Pegg and Frost. If that is the case, then I will be one of the first in line, hoping for a big crowd behind me to follow along.

Additional Notes:

-This viewing was the first time that I noticed that a couple of calls Ed has on his cell phone was to Noel, the teen worker at the electronics store that talks back at Shaun. I mainly discovered this through the Zomb-O-Meter defining the term “Henry” as an eighth of weed and checking the subtitles to see that both Noel and Ed use the term in their respective phone calls.

-If you want to get truly meta, the name of the trilogy itself, The Three Flavor Cornetto, was said by Wright to be a reference to The Three Colors Trilogy (Blue, White and Red) by Krzysztof Kieślowski.

-Nighy apparently likes to use the terms “dig” and “hip” a lot.

-In the barkeep zombie fight scene, an alternative music choice to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” would have been Boney M.’s “Rasputin.”

-An early costume choice before Ed’s “I’ve Got Wood” shirt would’ve been one with a cat that says, “I Love Pussy.” This was instead used for the alternate Ed character in Yvonne’s group.

-Really, there are lots of references, foreshadows and callbacks that I just couldn’t mention. If you’ve seen the film already, it’s fun, at least to me, to look these up and find them in another viewing.

Ten Years Ago: A Dirty Shame

19 Sep

Maggie McMuffin explores the funnier side of kink, but not without a handful of critiques, in John Waters’ A Dirty Shame.

Ten years ago I was only vaguely aware of John Waters. I had seen Hairspray and Cry-Babyon TV a couple of times and liked the aesthetic. I had caught the second half of Cecil B. DeMented at 7 a.m. during a sick day and watched Melanie Griffith’s hair catch fire while lying on a couch in a haze. I had been exposed to John Waters but I hadn’t really been aware of him or his movies.

Then A Dirty Shame came out. And I had no way of watching it, being 14 and in a small town. My only piracy experience had been with Limewire and while my mother did rent me movies every week of high school, the film never ended up in my possession.

But I watched that trailer every time it was on TV. A movie about sex, debauchery, and fighting repression. Huge-breasted women. Bright colors. I wanted it. I didn’t get it for another five years when, in the throes of some really heavy personal shit, my friend Karl took me out on a weird pseudo-date that featured gourmet pizza and viewings of some of the John Waters movies I had never seen, which were most of them. In the five years since I first sawA Dirty Shame advertised, I had developed quite the fondness for Mr. Waters but still hadn’t managed to watch a ton of stuff.

A Dirty Shame was worth the wait and I fell in love instantly.

I’ve seen it a couple of times since then, usually with other people. But I’ve never sat down and given it my full attention or put much thought into the film besides wondering about the mechanics of Selma Blair’s inflatable rack.  And I haven’t seen it in at least a year and a half at this point so….let’s see if I still like it?

Oh, and this will be a review of the NC-17 version because who doesn’t love some extra penis in their reviews?

The movie opens sweetly with some lovely retro music playing. The soundtrack for this film is absolutely wonderful, with some actual vintage tunes and some retro-feel ones with dirty lyrics. The film also opens with suburban trees and shrubs doing their best impressions of human genitalia.

We are introduced to residents of Hartford Row. Sylvia Stickles, played by Tracey Ullman, is an uptight housewife with no time or interest in sex. I’d honestly be fine with that if she wasn’t so mean about it. There’s also her husband Vaughn (Chris Isaak), who masturbates because Sylvia won’t fulfill his “marital needs,” and their daughter Caprice, who prefers to go by her stage name of Ursula Udders. Caprisula (as I am going to refer to her) has had some major breast surgery and holy shit Selma Blair bouncing around in those inflatable tits is amazing. Also, Selma Blair really plays against her usual type here and it is doubly amazing. Caprisula is currently under house arrest for her continued indecent exposure arrests, including nude loitering and nude drunk driving. Caprisula insists, “I wasn’t drunk. I was on pills.” I don’t know much about drugs but I do know that’s an important distinction. Sylvia declares, “Something is the matter with your vagina” while delivering Caprisula’s breakfast and when she leaves for work runs into one of her daughter’s fans: Fat Fuck Frank. He’s in love.

We also meet the neighbors, transplants from D.C. who like how colorful Baltimore is. They like the crude people, the ability to restore houses with expensive vintage rocks, the debates about sex. They aren’t a big part of the film but I’m going to come back to them later so remember that they exist.

As Sylvia goes to work we meet other residents of Hartford Row. The three men who occupy the Bear House (they’re bears and they will constantly remind you of this), Sylvia’s mom Big Ethel (who is the leader of the neuters, people who hate sex and fight against indecency), swingers (I hate swingers btw), and some other neuters. And then suddenly, Sylvia suffers from a concussion, which transforms her from loud and proud neuter to ‘bonerfide’ sex addict.

And that’s when the plot kicks in. We follow Sylvia as she explores sexuality and sluts it up all throughout the neighborhood. She picks up a water bottle with her vagina during a dance at the old folks’ home. She steals leopard print clothing from a Goodwill drop box. She fucks indiscriminately and demands satisfaction, and she gets it with the help of Ray Ray (Johnny Knoxville), leader of the 12 sex addict apostles who are on a mission to discover a brand new sex act.

The film covers a pretty wide range of fetishes and acts while building up to the discovery. None of the fetishes are in the scary/edgeplay camp either. It’s all things like adult babies, gangbangs, tickle-tops, and dirt. Sure, bodily fluids get covered, but even the ‘gross’ fetishes like Roman showers and scat are presented in a lighthearted and comical way because, remember kids, sex is supposed to be fun. If it’s not fun, don’t do it. And whenever a sex addict is introduced, there’s a smaller screen that shows how they got the concussion that led to their addiction. Most of them are somehow connected to the actual fetish the person had hiding within them, which is a nice touch.

While the apostles fight to find a new act, the neuters mobilize to strike down indecency where it lives by…having rallies. They never do much more than that. But man, are they hilarious. This is also where Mink Stole ends up in this film, and considering all the filthy shit she’s done in earlier John Waters’ films, it’s great to see her being the over-the-top voice of conservatism.

And both sides are over the top. There is very, very little middle ground on the issue of sexual liberty vs. conservative panic. Vaughn is the closest we get, expressing a want for sex and sympathy toward Caprisula’s love of performing nude while also wanting Sylvia to recover from her concussions and then taking her and his daughter to sexual addiction meetings after another concussion makes her a neuter again. During that time, Sylvia gets a few lines about how sex addicts are everywhere and maybe they should learn to live with them, but then she goes back to wanting to be clean and pure. The only other people to hit a compromise are the neighboring couple who are attacked by horny lesbians and Mink Stole during the chaos at the end of the film. While the lesbians try turning the wife, Mink Stole lectures about how one can have their hymen replaced, causing the couple to declare, “All of you are crazy.” Which is true. Everyone in this movie is so extreme with their views that none of the arguments can be taken seriously. And while the sex addicts are technically nicer than the neuters, I still have some issues with them. Mainly that, like a lot of sex positive people in the real world, they place sexual superiority over consent. Ray Ray tells Sylvia, “You’ll learn to accept anything sexual as long as it’s safe, consensual, and doesn’t harm others.”

But the thing is, some of the sex addicts are harmful. The bears have sex on their front lawn where children can and do see it. The scat guy likes to shit where people can find it and then laughs about it. One woman is into frottage, a fetish that by its very nature is non-consensual. The swinger couple (two of the apostles btw) answers their door nude and openly hits on a couple that they know to be monogamous. None of these things are consensual and some of them can harm others since frottage is sexual assault and not everyone wants to be exposed to the sex lives of others. It can be triggering. I mean, yes we should all have open discussions about sexuality so people can be educated, but people also have the right to say “sex makes me personally uncomfortable.” While Ray Ray does say that consent is big for the sex addicts, we never see him or any of the others call out the sex addicts who don’t follow that creed. And considering how many sex positive and kinky people I’ve met who act like this in real life, I had a harder time rooting for the sex addicts on this viewing. They all reminded me of people I’ve met who make their whole person about their sex life, forgetting that being kinky is not a substitute for having a personality. People who hide abusers in their communities because they don’t want their community to look bad. I’m going to stop talking about this before I go on my usual rant about fetlife and kink-shaming so I’ll just say that while the movie doesn’t ever dive deep into these issues, I am at least glad that it features someone calling people out.

Not that I think the neuters are better. They aren’t. They shove Prozac down Caprisula’s throat to kill her sex drive. They shame people for wanting sex at all. Big Ethel demands that people with harmless fetishes be arrested and seems to go to the sexual addiction meeting just so she can judge.

All of those serious things said, this movie is hilarious and stupid and wonderful. The extremes do lend themselves to comedy and there are some great one-liners from both sides as well as some stellar comedic performances. Tracey Ullman’s face is perfect in this. Like I could just watch her scenes with the sound off and laugh.

In the end, the sex addicts win out. All the neuters end up with concussions and are turned over to the side of sexual enlightenment. Big Ethel dies and is then brought back to life through Ray Ray’s sexual healing. And the new sex act is discovered! It’s just people head butting each other. But hey, it works. Everyone levitates from their ultimate orgasms while Ray Ray floats into the sky and ejaculates out of his head. When I first saw this movie I thought the head butting was sort of a cop out, but a running conversation in the film is that everything sexual has been done before so I could imagine that actually coming up with a new sex act would be nigh impossible. And people try to make sex needlessly complicated all the time just so they can say they did something new, which I suspect is the whole reason sex swings exist.  Now watching the ending, it’s just ridiculous enough that I’ll buy it. I mean, the rest of the movie is penises and sex jokes and Tracey Ullman gyrating so why shouldn’t the last shot be a cumshot?

This isn’t Waters’ best film and it’s not my favorite film. But if you’ve got a night free and some filthy minded friends over, it’s a good thing to pop in. Just know that it’s not available on any streaming sites so you’ll have to get ahold of it some other way.

 

Random Thoughts

– There is a pretty touching scene after Sylvia becomes a sex addict where she reconnects with her daughter. Caprisula is reading a book and only jumps up to dance when she sees her mother coming, proving that while she is truly an exhibitionist she’s also acting out for attention because “You never listened.” Apparently, she tried talking about her concussion with Sylvia as a teenager but never got that conversation. They bond over sex and it’s vaguely uncomfortable before being really sweet.

– If you ever need new euphemisms for cunnilingus, this movie has them. Sneezing in the cabbage, whistling in the dark, and going way down south in Dixie are just a few that show up.

– Big Ethel gets several transmisogynist jokes thrown at her and that’s seriously not okay.

– Johnny Knoxville is in this and this is like the only thing I’ve seen him in. He’s good but I’m too in love with Ullman and Blair to really care about anyone else in this movie.

– Oh! There’s a David Hasselhoff cameo. It’s the sort of cameo you would expect someone to have in a John Waters movie.

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