Ten Years Ago: A Home at the End of the World

25 Jul

Jessica Campbell, who previously re-viewed The Hours, examines another Michael Cunningham adaptation and praises the progressive found family narrative and genuine affection at the center of A Home at the End of the World.

A Home at the End of the World isn’t anybody’s masterpiece, but it’s a thought-provoking movie. I would have said the same thing walking out of the theater ten years ago, with some change in the thoughts provoked. The film is based on Michael Cunningham’s 1990 novel of the same title; Cunningham also wrote the screenplay (his first), with direction by Tony winner Michael Mayer (whose non-stage directing resumé includes Flicka, several episodes of “Smash,” and “Hatfields & McCoys”; you can’t say the man’s not versatile). I was on a serious Cunningham kick following the 2002 movie version of his novel The Hours, so I had read A Home at the End of the World in the past year or so. I didn’t reread it for this review, but my recollection is that the movie is largely faithful, though inevitably streamlined.

Even so, the plot’s a bit involved, so here’s a refresher: The two central characters are Jonathan and Bobby (played in the early part of the movie by Harris Allan and Erik Smith, respectively), who become friends on the first day of high school in 1970s Cleveland. Bobby has lost his brother and his mother by the time he and Jonathan meet; his father dies before they graduate. Their friendship begins with listening to records and smoking weed and evolves, with no dialogue, into a relationship that includes sex. Jonathan goes off to college, but Bobby stays behind for several years living with Jonathan’s parents as he has done since the death of his father. Before long, both boys have reached 24 years old, and the teenage actors have been replaced by Dallas Roberts (of “The L Word,” “The Good Wife,” and the occasional movie) as Jonathan and Colin Farrell (of everything) as Bobby. Jonathan is living it up as a gay man in NYC in the 1980s (yes, you know what’s coming), living with his best friend, a bubbly, slightly older straight woman named Clare, a hat designer always sporting a new hair, makeup, or clothing style (played by Robin Wright then-also-Penn, obviously in view these days for her portrayal of a rather steelier Claire, the wife of Frank Underwood on “House of Cards”). It turns out that Jonathan and Clare have planned to have a child together even though they are not involved romantically, and that Jonathan still has feelings for Bobby. But Bobby and Clare begin sleeping together, so before the three really have time to settle into their friendship, things get complicated. My mother always told me three was a bad number. She was right. Jonathan soon gets fed up and goes to his parents in Arizona. His father, though (played by Matt Frewer, lately Dr. Leekie on Orphan Black), soon dies of the respiratory condition that sent him to Arizona in the first place. When Bobby and Clare come west for the funeral, Clare reveals that she is pregnant by Bobby. Suddenly everything changes: the three of them decide to move to upstate New York (Woodstock, in fact – Clare had been to the legendary concert) and raise the baby together. They hold things together for a while. The baby is born. Bobby starts a restaurant called The Home Café, at which he works as the chef and Jonathan works as a waiter, while Clare stays home to take care of the baby. Bobby and Clare continue sleeping together. While Clare becomes increasingly uncomfortable with her role as traditional stay-at-home mom in this supposedly non-traditional arrangement, Jonathan discovers telltale spots on his body that clearly forebode AIDS. He tells Bobby but not Clare. Ultimately Clare can’t take it anymore and leaves for good with the baby. Jonathan and Bobby stay on together, but Bobby knows of Jonathan’s condition. The movie ends before Jonathan dies, but we know what is coming.

Cunningham’s story was damned progressive in 1990, and it was unconventional in 2004 and 2014, too. As far as I know, hardly anyone was even talking about marriage equality in 1990. And in 2004, back in good ol’ Oregon where I grew up, “we” passed a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage even though we went for Kerry. I was still going to a high school where they pretended homosexuality didn’t exist at all; for real, they wouldn’t let our English teacher show us Far From Heaven, solely because homosexuality was a theme. If only we don’t tell them, they’ll NEVER find out! Obviously, things have changed. Ten years later, Oregon is scrambling to pass gay marriage in November because they’re embarrassed that Washington beat them to it. And there are plenty of cultural and legal indications that the U.S. and many parts of the world more generally are becoming far more willing to consider gay rights.

And yet. That’s not actually what A Home at the End of the World is about. Nobody’s trying to get married, for one thing, and I know many people who are upset that marriage has become the banner gay-rights issue in recent years. No, this movie is more about interpersonal structures more generally, and about the cobbling together of a family. I could imagine someone who has had successful open relationships objecting that this movie seems like fear-mongering; better not try it, since somebody’s bound to get hurt. But A Home at the End of the World isn’t ultimately about that. It isn’t ultimately about sex, for one thing. In the end, the trio doesn’t fall apart because Jonathan isn’t sleeping with anyone. It falls apart because Clare feels like the odd man out emotionally, and because she gets stuck with most of the baby tasks while Jonathan and Bobby are both away from home working too much. Because the delicate emotional and practical balance of the home doesn’t work for her. They’re trying to make a functional home, not just a relationship. Needing to match up the sexual orientations is part of this trio’s problem, certainly; since it turns out that Clare had been hopelessly in love with Jonathan through much of their friendship, that means that both Jonathan and Clare struggle with romantic and sexual love for the one of the trio who doesn’t/can’t reciprocate it. But that problem is one they can get past; Jonathan moves into the house in Woodstock knowing it’ll be Bobby and Clare in one bed and him in another, and Clare is willing to pursue the relationship with Bobby that she originally wanted with Jonathan. Finding love isn’t nearly as difficult or as complicated as making a home.

In fact, there’s no shortage of love. Something I really like about this movie is that the three main characters seem genuinely to care about each other. (The apparent lack of genuine affection is the main reason “Girls” drives me crazy.) They come through in times of bereavement and enjoy each other’s company. The script suddenly gets funny when Clare announces her pregnancy and the three make their plans for choosing and setting up a house. For several minutes, we are reminded of how well these three people can fit together. They reassure each other throughout the story (as I recall Cunningham doing throughout the novel as well) that each one of the three is essential to the balance of the group. Speaking of love, I have to comment on Sissy Spacek as Alice, Jonathan’s mother. She gives a beautifully understated performance; as a midcentury suburban housewife, Alice keeps most of her feelings to herself, but Spacek always lets just enough seep through that you get the sense could have had her own movie. One day when the boys are teenagers, she overhears them playing “Desiree” and walks in to listen. Bobby, now without his own mother, has always been affectionate with Alice. In this moment, while she stands in the doorway with a laundry basket, he offers her a hit from the joint the boys are sharing. After the shock and the sense of motherly responsibility wear off, she says “Don’t tell your father” and takes one, and pretty soon the three are dancing together. Jonathan is of course mortified at first, but soon it feels natural – a little awkward, but natural. A few scenes later, Alice stumbles on Bobby and Jonathan kissing in the car. Nothing is said at the time, but later that night, Bobby finds her in the kitchen making a pie. She tells him she doesn’t know what to say to him, and he offers to move out. Instead of responding directly, she asks if he’d like to learn how to make a pie. He gives a surprised smile and says yes (and soon becomes a professional baker). This scene is one of my favorites in the movie. At first they’re standing around the kitchen several feet apart and without making much eye contact. They genuinely don’t know how to behave, but they love each other. I like that they don’t make Alice into a “cool” hippie mom; she isn’t so sure about what the boys are doing, but the fact that she loves them wins out. Within minutes, her hands are guiding Bobby’s over the rolling pin, and she has given him a livelihood.

Although there is never really any sexual tension between Alice and Bobby, she is certainly Clare’s precursor as something of a third wheel to Bobby and Jonathan. Then again, once Clare enters the picture, it’s often up for debate exactly which one of the three is the third wheel. It’s significant that, not having seen this movie for several years, I couldn’t remember which one of the trio bowed out. What kinds of love matter most? Who do you want to build a home with, if your best friend and your lover are two different people? Watching it in 2014, this movie reminded me of Jennifer Westfeldt’s Friends with Kids (2011), in which a heterosexual but not (initially) romantic pair of friends decide to have a baby together. One of them gives a rather rousing speech defending that decision, essentially saying, she’s my best friend, she shares my values, we know each other inside and out, so why in the world shouldn’t we build a life together? It’s a damn good question. Looking back at the people I’ve known over the last few years, I honestly couldn’t say those things about a single person I’ve dated or wanted to date. But I could say them about several friends. I’m not on the brink of making some sort of arrangement, but having dipped my toe into some different kinds of love, I can understand why Jonathan might decide to move to the middle of nowhere with Bobby and Clare instead of staying in the city where romantic partners are everywhere.

I found myself getting impatient with Bobby this time around, a reaction I don’t remember having ten years ago. Back then, I mostly just thought it was really interesting that they were trying to live in a group of three at all. But this time it grated on me a little bit when Bobby so frequently said things like “No, it’s fine, this is great, things are perfect just the way they are.” Bobby’s older brother, before his dramatic and visually striking death by running through a very clean sliding glass door at the opening of the movie, always reassured Bobby about things like drugs and sex by saying “There’s nothing to fear, man.” I mentioned the thing about the death by glass door, though, right? The truth is that there’s a hell of a lot to fear. And obviously, as evidenced by the fact that both Jonathan and Clare give up at certain points, the arrangement isn’t perfect.

Now, I know that there’s a good reason people say “Oh, no, it’s great.” It’s an implied response to comments like “You can’t do that” or “That isn’t what people do” or “That’s weird.” And I think a lot of us today, even more than ten years ago, are very invested in saying “This isn’t traditional, but it’s fine. It’s perfect. It’s what I want.” Because we don’t want to be those conventional naysayers. And sometimes it really is fine. But sometimes you have moments like Clare’s, when she realizes, “I think maybe I’m not this unusual. Just my hair.” Yes, in fact, you can have wacky hair and want a traditional family. You can be gay and otherwise conventional. You can be a hang-loose pot lover and a virgin (as Bobby is when he moves to New York). You can love two people at once in completely different ways. But the fact that you can isn’t the end of the story. It isn’t necessarily perfect. It’s hard. For one thing, your wacky hair seems to signify that you are that unusual, both to other people and to yourself. Just before they start sleeping together, Clare persuades Bobby to let her give him a haircut on the grounds that his hippie hair doesn’t match who he really is: “If you walk around looking like someone other than who you are you could end up getting the wrong job, the wrong friends, who knows what-all. You could end up with someone else’s whole life.” Bobby protests, but he lets her cut his hair. I hate to say it, but Clare has a point, as her own realization later in the movie bears out. I had a conversation this summer with a fellow femme-y lesbian friend about how we’d both thought off and on about cutting our hair short so that it would be easier to meet people. Neither of us has done it. For me, it’s partly because I have a hang-up about the shape of my chin (oh, shut up, everybody’s got something), but largely because I get mad when I think about there being a specific way to “look gay.” If that were the reason I did it, chopping my hair would be no different from, say, a straight girl not cutting her hair because her boyfriend likes it long. The haircut doesn’t ultimately change much for Bobby, but Clare is preemptively talking about herself. Her hair ought to signify someone who’s ready for anything, even a household in Woodstock with a baby and two men who love her very differently, but she discovers to her own surprise that it doesn’t. Sure, you can wear your hair any way you want, and you can live with whomever you want, but that doesn’t mean it will work the way you planned or make you happy.

Ultimately the home these three friends try to make doesn’t last. But you get to the end of the movie feeling glad that they tried, because the attempt was true to the way they felt about each other. This is a far cry, thankfully, from a ménage-a-trois, sexy partner-swapping kind of movie. It’s really just about a handful of lonely people who try to make a home together. A Home at the End of the World doesn’t have the beauty or power of The Hours, which I would also say of the novels on which they are based (both by Michael Cunningham; check out his latest novel, The Snow Queen, which I’ve just started and already found to be a pleasure). I would have liked to see more visual attention to place, since the movie is so deeply about making a home and finding a place, and since there’s so much variety in the places they try (Cleveland, New York City, Arizona, and finally Woodstock). The soundtrack of ’70s and ’80s music is nice, and tone-setting; someone who knows more about the music of that era than I do would be needed to say anything more than that. I have to confess that watching Robin Wright in this movie mostly made me want to watch “House of Cards”; she just doesn’t have as much to work with here. Colin Farrell is rather one-note but charming as Bobby, always gentle and wide-eyed, like he’s a little dazed that he’s still around. The young actors who played the characters as teenagers successfully conveyed the combined awkwardness and joy of adolescence; I was sorry to learn from IMDb that neither has gotten a great deal of work since then. But Spacek was excellent, as I’ve said, and all the actors do a nice job of making it seem they’ve known each other intimately for a long time; it’s an ensemble you believe in, even though it isn’t a very vivid one. I wouldn’t mind seeing A Home at the End of the World as a play, actually. It isn’t spectacular, but the passing of ten years absolutely has not made it obsolete. Two hours spent watching a movie that makes you think as much as I have the past week about how you cobble together a family and a home is two hours well spent.


Additional Comments on the Important Matters of Fashion and Classic Cinema:

–I love Bobby’s striped pants.

–I’d forgotten that they go to a screening in NYC of All About Eve! If you haven’t seen that, WATCH IT. Come watch it with me, I own it! In A Home at the End of the World they briefly show a three-person scene with Broadway star Margo, lover Bill, and pretender Eve – not an accident, as those characters have a bit of a three’s-a-crowd situation themselves, though a more cut-and-dried one. Bobby is clearly seeing the movie for the first time, but Jonathan and Clare are holding hands and lip-syncing enthusiastically to every word. Awesome. I wish I could say the family that watches All About Eve together stays together. Alas.

Ten Years Ago: Anchorman

11 Jul

Sex Panther aficionado Maggie McMuffin loves the 1970s and Adam McKay’s Anchorman. And pandas. And ten years later, she still loves all of these things.

I do not have any strong associations with Anchorman. Rather I just remember it being quoted incessantly all through high school. Like any teenager with a love of crude but smart comedy, I fell in love with Anchorman. So many one liners. So many cool outfits. Sex Panther, amiright? I probably last saw Anchorman three-to-five years ago. Maybe with my parents. Maybe with college friends. And going back for this re-view I had to wonder if the way this movie isn’t limited to one time in my life was due to it being good or if it was due to how much it seeped into our culture and how much people still reference it. Does this film have anything to offer outside of a bunch of really good quips?

It does. It really does.

As this movie opens I am reminded that Judd Apatow produced this film. I had forgotten that there was a time when he made really awesome movies that I couldn’t wait to see. And thinking about his other films that came out within the next few years and are still coming out today, I have to say I am disappointed in him for not keeping up this level. Anchorman is roughly an hour and a half long and does not need to be longer. Because the film rarely deviates into sub-plots or side stories, the pacing is great and the movie stays at a steady rhythm of jokes and melodrama for its entire run. Even the moments that could be cut are so hilarious that I don’t care that they’re in the film. One of my favorite scenes in this film and the one I was looking forward to the most is the newscaster fight. Aside from introducing rival news teams that show up during the climax, this scene doesn’t need to be in the movie but I would be sad if it wasn’t. I mean, Tim Robbins cuts off Luke Wilson’s arm. Steve Carell holds a hand grenade and yells. There’s a Planet of the Apes reference and god knows I will give points to anything that references Planet of the Apes.

This scene also gave us one of Anchorman’s most lasting lines—”well that escalated quickly”—a phrase which has become so ingrained in our culture that many people have no idea it came from a movie and not the internet or that it’s a quote from anything at all. It’s like how people quote Casablanca and All About Eve without getting the reference, but it took less than a decade to reach that point.

And for good reason. Anchorman is a good story with a good cast of characters and it combines all of the actors committing to the truth of their situations while also playing a heightened reality. There’s a good deal of soap opera levels of drama in Anchorman, with few moments where people are acting like real people act or even really talking like real people talk. But everything is played so honestly that it makes the comedy just happen. Everyone in this cast is clearly having fun while taking the project seriously and honestly this movie should be a prime example in acting schools about how to do comedy. Because comedy like this is deceptively difficult to pull off. If the actors took time after every joke to be like ‘see what I did there?’ then this movie would be twice as long. The speed that jokes are fired off mean that not only could one bad casting choice have thrown off the rhythm, it also means that audiences have to pay attention and keep up with this film. Even though not all of the jokes are highbrow or super intelligent, they come so quickly that lazy audiences would miss a lot of stuff on the first viewing. And why would you want to do that? People wrote those jokes, let’s fucking pay attention to them.

As for the story, Anchorman keeps it simple. Ron Burgundy, award winning news anchor, has his professional and personal world shaken up by the addition of a woman, Veronica Corningstone, to the news team. Soon after her arrival, she and Ron begin dating and become each other’s biggest competition.

Despite the fact that Anchorman’s subtitle is ‘The Legend of Ron Burgundy,’ Veronica gets her own story going. She never gets to overshadow Ron but we learn that she’s worked at multiple news stations and experienced sexism at each one. Veronica puts up with a lot of shit during this film. Ron announces their affair during a broadcast after she expressly asked him not to tell anyone. When she first arrives, every member of the news team hits on her in increasingly pathetic and insulting ways. Her periods are brought up as a safety concern despite the fact that women already work for the station, just not on the news team.

While Judd Apatow has been criticized for not having many decent female characters in his films (and most of those going to his wife), he does a better job here. And Christina Applegate, who went through her own fight to be taken seriously during her time as Kelly Bundy, brings a groundedness to Veronica. Veronica’s story isn’t a joke and while her harassment is played for laughs, it is also done in such an outlandish way as to parody the men in the film more than the struggling woman. Veronica doesn’t accept her treatment lying down, calls all the male characters out, and we see the other women in the film rally around her. After becoming the nation’s first female news anchor after Ron is unable to make it on time, Veronica is shocked to learn that Ron did not actually support her dream and thought she was joking. When he breaks up with her, Ron becomes increasingly more childish in his attempts to make her quit but Veronica remains steadfast and eventually gets Ron fired on her first try. She regrets it because she’s in love with him and it also derails his life but she also never gives up her position as his replacement.

Meanwhile, Ron and the rest of the Channel 4 news team are introduced more closely at a party. “We’ve been coming to the same party for twelve years now. And in no way is that depressing.”

As a teenager I really believed that the news team was cool and I knew a lot of guys who wanted to grow up to be like Ron Burgundy. I can see now that this film is not really advocating being like Ron, Champ, Brian, or even Brick (who is, unfortunately, a character I now see as a walking ableist trope who also happens to be hilarious to watch because I think they just let Steve Carell do whatever he wanted). Ron and his friends are all stylish man-children who invest more time and effort into drinking scotch and getting laid than they do at their jobs. They’re all resting on the success of their high ratings and cool hair-dos and are rewarded for it while women like Veronica are “chasing down leads and practicing my non-regional dialect.”

(By the way, as someone who went to theatre school, I can verify that a non-regional dialect is a fucking difficult thing and Veronica deserves kudos for putting in that sort of thankless effort.)

But this movie can’t be about Veronica. Because if it were really her story, this film would be a drama and Applegate would have been nominated for an Oscar. Or it would have been a romcom where in the end she chooses love over her job. Hollywood has enough issues making films with strong female leads and it’s a shame that we haven’t come further in the past ten years. Because Veronica is the sort of woman I’d see a movie about. She’s smart, capable, and still sexual on her own terms not on the terms of the male gaze. She dresses nicely but professionally and while her body is the source of many comments she’s never really flaunting it in the way that the romantic interest in male-heavy comedies tend to. Even though when we first meet her Ron says she has a breathtaking hiney, there are no lingering shots on her ass. Also, in the end, Ron learns that how he’s been treating Veronica is awful. He apologizes for everything (and she apologizes for getting him fired) and while she lets him do the panda birth story, he turns around and offers to let her do it with him. He even refers to her as his ‘co-anchor.’

So really this movie is about a man learning what feminism means. Because Ron and the rest of the team (not so much the producer, even though he only hires Veronica to keep funding) start out thinking that bringing a woman onto the news team will mean that women will take over and ruin them. In the end, Ron and Veronica become the first man/woman anchor team on an international network. Veronica changed nothing to get to where she was, she just kept fighting. Ron, however, learned that Veronica wasn’t trying to take over, she was simply trying to have the same opportunities he and other men have and that this can be much easier to achieve if men aren’t such gatekeeper about shit. Ron doesn’t even have to change his hypermasculine self to be a decent person. All he has to do is stop being such an asshole.

Unfortunately, and I include myself-as-teenager in this, a lot of people sort of missed that part of the movie. Maybe it’s because there wasn’t a t-shirt worthy quote summing it up. Which sucks because comedy is a great way to do social commentary and this movie was seen and is still seen by tons of people.

So yeah. Anchorman definitely holds up.

Now go back to making things this good, Apatow.


Other Thoughts

–That fight scene also sadly has Ben Stiller playing the Spanish News lead and that’s sort of a weird cameo to give him. And by weird I mean problematic and racist.

– The panda watch story is a great device because it gives us a steady timeline to follow and also we get to see a picture of a panda a lot.

– I have a weakness for 1970s style and a lot of the people cast in this movie. I have in my notes ‘this movie is just a parade of people I want to fuck wearing clothes I want to own.’

– I have dated two people who hated this movie/Will Ferrell. I do not understand how either of those are possible. Especially since Ferrell is essentially just tweaking his Robert Goulet impression for this film and I fucking love his Robert Goulet impression.

– Oh I forgot to mention the dog, Baxter. Baxter is cool and gets punted by Jack Black (and lives!). Jack Black being a belligerent biker is honestly my favorite thing I have ever seen him do. And I’ve seen Clone High.

– There’s a scene where Champ talks about Veronica’s ‘big ol’ behind’ and says he wants to slather it with barbecue sauce and bite it. For the past ten years I thought he was saying “butt butt butt butt“ but according to subtitles he was saying ‘bite bite bite bite’ and I like mine better.

– The feminism thing is presented well by side characters to. Danny Trejo shows up as a bartender and tells Ron that “Times are changing. Ladies can do things now. You have to deal with it.” Meanwhile the public news anchor tells Veronica that “we’re really down with the women’s lib thing” before pushing her into a Kodiak bear pit and that is just the best example of shitty male feminists I’ve ever seen. Because if you don’t think Hugo Schwyzer would do that you are just wrong.

– This film’s version of “Afternoon Delight” is the best version of “Afternoon Delight.”

– I have one burning question though. There’s a running joke where the producer/director/whatever is always on the phone talking to teachers about his troubled son and he says “I don’t know where he could have found german dungeon porn.” And I have to wonder, back before the internet, where a 17-year-old would have found that.

Ten Years Ago: Before Sunset

4 Jul

Erik Jaccard looks back on Before Sunset, Linklater’s dream-like second entry into the Julie Delpy-Ethan Hawke trilogy, and wonders if perhaps the film itself is a romantic dreamscape.

Before Sunset

Dir. Richard Linklater/Screenplay by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke


The Beginning Part

It’s probably coincidental that two of my favorite ‘romantic’ movies of the last decade happened to be released within months of one another and I guess it’s merely lucky that I get to be involved in a project like Ten Year Ago, which allows me to reflect on both in such a short period of time. Only on fleshing out and finishing what now constitutes the middle and later parts of this piece did I actually realize that it had grown into a kind of twinsy sequel to my March 2014 re-view of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a film which, thinking about it now, shares more than a little in common with the film I take as the subject of this current offering, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset. Both are films primarily about love, memory, forgetting, and dreams [if you disagree with the dreams part, I’d ask you to consider why it is that the Before films’ central protagonists fit so effortlessly into the extended dream sequence that is Linklater’s Waking Life]. Both ask us to question how and why we come together with certain people, what we make of it when we do, and what it all means. I think it’s possible to see Before Sunset’s quiet interpersonal drama contained within the larger sf kernel of Eternal Sunshine’s conceptual and visual flair, just as it’s possible to see Eternal Sunshine’s daring ‘what if…?’ scenario played out subtly in Before Sunset’s fleeting implication that its two lovers “[aren’t] real anyway…[and are] just characters in [an] old lady’s dream. She’s on her deathbed fantasizing about her youth…”[1] Sure, this is a bit of stretch, and whether what we see is ‘real’ or simply the final neural sparks of a dying human mind is a fun question to ponder, but it’s hardly the point. The point, I guess, is that two very differently conceived and stylized films ultimately meet somehow around the same cluster of vectors, whatever their differences. At the end of the day, I think it’s possible to see them both as honest films about specific, memorable people coming together in a kind of fantastic dream space to negotiate and possibly resolve experiences of loss, regret, and hope. However, as much as I love both well-done sf and romantic drama (why can’t we have more quality hybrids?), the real reason for my devotion to both films, and to Linklater’s Before trilogy more generally, is balance. All of them manage to revel in a sense of wonder and romantic magic without abandoning completely the necessary condition that real romance can’t be all fantasy. Nor, I would add, do they fall back into the trap of abandoning the magic of romance for the sake of the practical or the everyday. Instead, they hold both in a fruitful tension and allow us to glimpse the possibilities and the pitfalls of veering too sharply to either side.

Clearly, then, I’ve no reservations saying up front that Before Sunset, like Eternal Sunshine, and like its trilogy namesakes Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Midnight (2013), remains an odd, wonderful little eccentric wonder of a film, just as it was upon its release in 2004. I say this for the reasons I’ve named above and for others which I will explain below.  I’ve no doubt that there are some—many, even—who find the film’s limited action dull or repetitive, its dialogue tiresome, or its characters unlikeable. If such people disliked the film in 2004, they’ll probably still dislike it now. While I don’t begrudge anyone their opinion, I think reactions like these have a lot to do with how we sometimes forget that life—to which I prefer my art to have some kind of connection—is often built from these raw materials: talking, walking, existing as complex, uneven people who long for things, make mistakes, and have regrets. It’s not a flashy or heroic premise, but then again, as Ethan Hawke’s Jesse explains in the film, most people’s lives are neither of these things. And if I can understand people needing a little action in their lives from time to time, as entertainment and/or escape, I can also understand us needing to reflect on the conditions of our need for escape and entertainment. For my part, I adore the way that Before Sunset allows us to do that by challenging us to be not only comfortable with, but actually interested in, a film that features no car crashes, giant robots, or superheroes, but only—at its most basic level—talking.

For those out of the Before loop, Before Sunset depicts the reunion of Before Sunrise’s young paramours, last seen saying an emotional goodbye on a Vienna train platform after spending a winding, romance-soaked day together on a whim. Determined not to let their relationship peter out prematurely, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) agree, in the finale of the first film, not to exchange contact details and to instead meet six months later on the same platform. Sunset opens nine years later in a Paris bookshop, where Jesse is performing a reading of his new novel, a fictionalization of that memorable night. When Céline shows up near the end of the reading, the truncated romance is rekindled, and the two wander the streets of Paris, discussing their lives, loves, memories, disappointments, and dreams. Like the first film, nothing much ‘happens’ beyond this and, like the first film, this ‘nothing’ is Before Sunset’s major strength. It takes our conventional attention to ‘plot’ and ‘dramatic action’ and refocuses it on a conversation, tied together by a shared memory, and fused simply by an almost Aristotelian unity of place, time, and purpose. Again, in an era of big-budget blockbusters, it’s worth remarking on how rare it is to have such a ‘small’ film continue to make such a big impact on the cinematic world. That the first small movie has grown into a trilogy of small movies, all similarly driven by collaboration, care, and honest to gosh heart and soul (yes, I said heart and soul), is nothing short of remarkable in our ‘bigger is better’ world.

Because it’s so simple in so many ways, it’s difficult to conceive of a film like Before Sunsetaging per se. While we may one day look back at the first couple decades of the 21st century as the years of the massive adaptation blockbuster and index many of the period’s films in this way, it’s unlikely that we’ll also look back and think about the time as the era of the small, dialogue-driven, chatty romance. Outside of the characters’ stages of life and the actors’ appearances, there is very little to mark any of the Before movies as emblematic of their time. Even the locations to which we are treated all seem in their own way utterly timeless, a fact only further driven home by Before Midnight’s stroll around the Peloponnese. While Before Sunrise could, and probably should, be linked to the boom in independent filmmaking in the mid-1990s, no such thing can be said of Before Sunset or its sequel. In fact, as all three of the film’s co-writers have said on numerous occasions, the only remarkable thing about the appearance of the film in 2004 is that it was allowed to happen at all.

While I initially toyed with the idea of examining the film in terms of its filmic merits and so forth, much of what follows is very personal to me. In some ways it takes much of what remained abstract about my re-view of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and personalizes it. Part of this is just how I operate in this context, while part is that there is really no way to separate my experience of the movie from my experience of my own life. Some films have this effect on you, some don’t. This one did. So while I won’t apologize for that, I will make the caveat up front. That said, here’s the rest.



The Second Part, in which I explain the personal stuff and try for a comparison

In order to really get at what I thought of Before Sunset in 2004, not to mention what I thought of it this time around, it’s necessary to provide a little backstory on how I first encountered its predecessor. I watched Before Sunrise on VHS sometime in the summer of 1999, only a couple months after returning from a six month solo backpacking trip around Europe, during which time I’d had the usual adventures, made new friends, partied a lot, and enjoyed living in a small and self-sufficient bubble of my own making, entirely removed from practical concerns or responsibility. It’s hard to overstate how profoundly that half-year affected my twenty-year-old self. That trip, along with a few other scattered moments in my twenties (all related to traveling), was one of the few times where living and dreaming seemed most similar, where practicality and desire were able to coexist productively without any annoying ‘real’ intrusions. All I had to do was wake up each morning (often in a new place), figure out which cool thing I was going to do or what amazing thing I was going to see, and see or do those things. In between, I got to mix and mingle with other young folks, talk about and read lots of books, ride on trains, flirt with girls, and generally exist free of worry about the future. While I occasionally considered what would happen ‘when I got back home,’ the quotidian concerns of my old life retreated from view to the point that my ‘real life’ all began to seem like so much blurry photography glimpsed out the back window of a speeding car.

What mattered was the now and the now was a mostly ideal dream in which I could control everything. No, the trip wasn’t always perfect, and was in fact very lonely sometimes. All the same, it was as close as I’d ever come to feeling really free at that point. Reading through my amateurish journal entries, it’s clear I’d started to idealize the experience before it was even over, nostalgically elevating it to the status of ‘that moment which I can never again have.’ And by the time I got back I was bummed. By way of keeping the moment alive, I talked about it all the time and began writing bad short stories set in cities or towns I’d adored (Barcelona, Prague, and especially the south Bohemian Czech town of Český Krumlov), populated by characters I hoped would sound like they were straight out of early F. Scott Fitzgerald. I even selected an unofficial epigraph for the trip, borrowed from the finale to Fitzgerald’s 1922 short story “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”: “Everybody’s youth is a dream, a form of chemical madness.” Looking back at it now, I can see that my pose was much more Peter Pan than it was Amory Blaine: I didn’t want to grow up, and branding myself as a kind of righteous ‘romantic egotist’ (as Blaine fashions himself in Fitzgerald’sThis Side of Paradise) was one of the ways I went about avoiding the adult world and keeping my youthful dreams clutched tightly to my chest.

If you’ve seen Before Sunrise, you can probably gather what I found so refreshing about it in 1999. For one, it was about an American guy rambling around Europe and finding a dream-space with a girl, a moment in which time stops just for him, hell, just for love. It was about sweet young things living life for no other reason than because living life with others in beautiful, grandiose places is something worth doing. It featured an extemporized, unpredictable plot, like so much travel, and it glorified how bloody cool it can be to just walk around and talk with a new person equally as alienated from his/her surroundings, getting lost together and having that experience—every little detail and conversational point—mean everything. It seemed then that if you hadn’t done it, you couldn’t really understand, nor could you understand the loss [which is stupid, as one needn’t travel across the world to experience nostalgia]. Before Sunrise was a door onto that world that I’d glimpsed and seen slide out of view, and I loved it for that reason. I also loved it because it tries so hard to recreate the same magic which I’d consciously applied to my experience. It literally glowswith the overwhelming sense of unbearable, fleeting satisfaction and revels in the idea that its protagonists will memorialize it as such. Being honest, I also loved it then because I found it a very coherent film with clever, honest dialogue and two generally likeable characters who spent time exploring a city I’d only three months earlier also explored. All of this made me both tentative and eager to see Before Sunset in the summer of 2004, not long after I’d returned from another of my adventures. I was tentative because, on the one hand, watching a new installment of a film I’d so enjoyed carried the risk of disappointment (as sequels tend to do). On the other, I really wanted to know what had transpired in the interim between the two characters whose brief meeting carried all the weight of my unfulfilled longing to return.

Looking back on it now, two significant things had changed in the five years between when I first watched Before Sunrise and when I got myself down to the theater to see Before Sunset. The first was that I’d had another of those supposedly-glowy travel experiences. This one, however, had been remarkably different in a couple important ways. The first was that it had been much longer and had actually involved working, which is bound to inject a whole lot of ‘real world’ into your fantasy travel scenario, even if the work isn’t hard and much of what you enjoyed about ‘traveling’ still animates it. The second was that it involved people from my ‘real life,’ in particular one person with whom I’d long had a somewhat fraught romantic connection. Having had that relationship undergo its final death rattle while traveling somehow merged with the much more pragmatic nature of that ‘working holiday’ to produce in me (probably in conjunction with a few others things) a deep respect for the practical side of love, romance, and dreams. At that point I still harbored a great deal of idealism about love and travel and how effortlessly the two seem to mix (I would take off again only six months later on another adventure), but by the summer of 2004 it had been tempered by age and experience and a bit of overcompensation toward the ‘real world’ of relationships.

Not surprisingly, I latched on hard to Before Sunrise’s glimpse at Jesse and Céline coming together again in their early 30s after nearly a decade of disappointment. The last word is key here, as I think that by then I had come to see romance as always involving some element of disappointment. While I didn’t want to go so far as to give up on love, as Céline says she has, and I certainly didn’t want to find myself in a loveless marriage, as Jesse has, I nonetheless had decided that relationships were justifiable, worthwhile ‘work’ (my twenty-year-old self just shrieked at the idea of romance and work being placed in the same sentence). While I still harbored a lot of romantic tendencies, and could still very much get behind Jesse and Céline coming back together after all this time, what I really focused on wasn’t the nostalgia both clearly had for their past, but the futures they’d made in the interim. Relationships were supposed to be hard, I’d decided, not easy, and therefore ‘effort’ was the key, sticking with it and making sure that you didn’t let the practical stuff bog down the good, honest feelings. If you had misgivings about romance, that made sense, because romance required day to day effort and time and a lot less (I thought) of all that hooey-gooey sentimental yearning and so forth. So, weirdly, I loved Before Sunset in 2004, but for the complete opposite reason I had loved Before Sunrise in 1999.

Looking back on it now, though, I think there was something else. I think that, no matter what I told myself about how realistic and interesting and witty and smart and honest the film seemed, I still loved it for its magical moments. I’d say that I generally misunderstood what those magical moments meant, but I loved them with that same vague yearning I’d learned to treasure for something ineffable and far away. You might call it nostalgia for my nostalgia, a brief simmering flare-up of that original fire. In a film about two people talking, you really have to look for them, even find the ones you like the most and simply label them ‘magical’ for your own reasons. But they were there, in the original shock on Jesse’s face at seeing Céline, a fantastic dream-vision from his past, in the latent passion between the two as they discuss their own thoughts on love, and on way they effortlessly resume the amusing and often insightful chatter which animates their first encounter. So I came away having had both of my then-needs met: one the one hand, I’d had my new perspective on adult relationships verified in many ways, and that felt good. On the other, I’d still been allowed to grab a few gooey romantic moments and furtively keep them in my pocket for later digestion. I didn’t see it then, but there was still a problem with the way I kept these two impulses separate. 


The Third Part, in which I attempt to bring together parts one and two.

At this point I want to return to the subject of dreams and their relationship to reality. Reading back through what I’ve written above, I haven’t really abandoned the topic, but have instead let it fade into an abstract shell hovering over the more personal narrative. I suppose my goal here is to somehow fuse the abstraction of the first part with the specificity of the second by way of coming back around fully on the big ideas with which I began.

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that Jesse and Céline meet one another at the intersection of dreams and reality. This is true of all three films, but perhaps most true ofBefore Sunset, where their long-held notions of that night and what it meant are tested by their actual reunion, so long held at arm’s length by an unfortunate twist of fate (i.e. Céline’s perfectly good reason for not meeting Jesse in Vienna, as planned). Each claim at one point that their failed connection has resulted in a rejection of romance, wherein the reality of their lives has come to take precedence over their dreams. For Jesse this means half-heartedly throwing his lot into a relatively loveless marriage with the mother of his otherwise adored son. As he insightfully explains, in the wake of his disappointment about Céline, this result came about as the byproduct of an internal negotiation between his idealized ‘best’ self (i.e. a married, responsible father) and his ‘honest self,’ the person that would chase satisfying human connection no matter the cost. I say ‘insightfully’ because, though I’d never externalized it to myself in quite this way, this rationale is a perfectly concise explanation for how and why my own marriage flowered and wilted in the years between my two viewings of the film. What I missed in 2004, long before I was married, is how easy it can be to separateyourself into those plural selves, one which goes on living life in real time and place, drawn and tied to expedience and forward momentum, and one which you divide and hide off somewhere as a cherished secret, the self you always wanted to be. Nor did I realize then that buried somewhere in the pile of photographs and stories and memories of that European trip were the seeds of the same splitting in myself. Somehow it never occurred to me that actually sharing a life with someone would prove difficult if a good portion of the affective content of that life was devoted to a realm to which only I had access. While I had certainly let go of the specifics of the earlier nostalgia by the time I watched Before Sunset, the deeper structure remained.

Like Jesse, I threw my lot in and hoped that feeling ‘respect, trust, [and] admiration’ for another person would be enough. It wasn’t. And I know now that, because allowing these two worlds to coexist is dangerous, threatening to break the security and stable ‘happiness’ of the real, Jesse maintains his marriage at the cost of his own satisfaction, channeling everything else into his novel, a private paean to the dream scenario of his night with Céline. The novel [which, one wonders, might have made his wife fairly nervous] is an interesting artifact in the film. More than just a story, it comes to seem like the desperate cry of someone trapped on both sides of a looking glass, always looking both out and in, but unable to cross the dividing threshold. The presence of the novel also tells the lie to Jessie’s claim to have rejected romantic love. He doesn’t reject it; he just compartmentalizes it, finds it a secure hiding place (usefully, in the past, where no one else save Céline can touch it). It is only when he sees her again in the film that the two compartmentalized worlds are allowed to coexist and rupture the tedious calm to which he’s grown inured. While my story didn’t shake down this way (I never had a Céline), I nonetheless kept a vague sense of hope separate from any real-life expectations. Two worlds, two sets of conditions. In inhabiting my ‘real’ life I got to have that ‘best self’ of which Jesse speaks, but without the corresponding sense of honesty. In inhabiting my honest world I was able to dream and live a fulfilling life, but only at the cost of seeing my ‘real’ world in less than genuine terms—and what’s more, always feeling pretty guilty about the fact. It was never as clean as this explanation implies, of course. For instance, in revising Jesse’s theory to fit my own reality, I’d say that the ‘best self’ exerts an enormous influence that often comes to take on the totalizing appearance of reality. That’s why, no matter what you always knew you felt, it’s such a shock when the world that fantasy propped up comes crashing down. Moreover, because my ‘honest self’ wasn’t tied to a specific person, there was nothing more than a vague sense of discontent lurking at the edge of my affective vision. When it actually all did come apart, the seams were suddenly so obvious that it hurt all the more for realizing the extent to which one can fall back on a part of themselves and fail to see the forest for the trees.

If you read back through my piece on Eternal Sunshine and consider Jesse’s actions (and my own, I suppose) in light of the discussion I have there about Nietzsche’s amor fati (the love of fate), you can see that Jesse originally says ‘yes’ to fate in name only, assenting not to all that fate has to offer (his entire life, good and bad) but rather to a particularly failed version (which he has extended to become his entire life). Much as Joel is allowed to do in the earlier film, Jesse is then granted a fairly miraculous chance to remake that choice in the context of a dream-scenario, for better or worse (given the romantic context of the film, we assume better, but Before Midnight has a lot to say about what it actually is that both Jesse and Céline actually want and need in each other). In choosing to embrace the ‘failure’ of his real married life, a choice left much less ambiguous at film’s end than some would claim, he opts to accept all possibilities. The point is that he chooses to live.

For Céline the process is a little different, but mostly similar. As she explains in one of the film’s most poignant and gorgeously filmed scene (so gorgeous it made the cut for the primary poster), since her night with Jesse she’s learned to separate herself from romance because of how the process of splitting and forgetting is built into the process of coming together and loving. For Céline the emotional weight of each individual romance becomes—or so she says—too much to bear, and so she doesn’t even bother. If we juxtapose this perspective with Eternal Sunshine, we can see that what she really means is how hard it is—or would be—to have to deal with three, four, or however many Joel and Clementine moments. The comparison I make between Eternal Sunshine and Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being in my earlier re-view is equally as applicable here in that Céline’s objection is to saying yes to fate too many times, to having the burden of numerous fates compounded. The idea provides a much more realistic dimension to the ‘fated lovers’ story in that it more accurately depicts the average person’s reality: sure, some of us will easily find that one person with which we click, but most of us will take a few stabs at it before we get something right. And each one of those attempts is, as she notes, heartbreaking and debilitating. Céline’s problem, as Jesse is quick to point out (because he suffers from it, too), is that she’s trained herself to treat her life as a failure (see the extended debate the two have in the car on the way back to Céline’s place for more on this) and has thus essentially said no to fate. Like Kundera’s Sabina, she lives a life mostly unattached from lovers, with the important difference that she, unlike Sabina, hates herself for it.

If what I gleaned from the film in 2004 was an emphasis only on the practicality necessary in love, what I took from it this time around was the bigger picture. The dream space of the film that both Jesse and Céline occupy exists precisely so that both can come together and negotiate these two conditions and find a middle ground. While it may seem facile, there is definitely something to the idea that any good romance requires the practicality of the real and any practical connection requires the fantasy of romance. Without the romantic side the experience will feel incomplete and surreal, as though it were lived separately from one’s desires. Without the practical side, the romance remains complete fantasy, unbound by the reality of actually needing to exist with and accommodate another human being. Without sounding too philosophical I’d say that the best of the couples out there manage to entertain this productive potential of this paradox, and to do so in such a way as to create a commonspace in which there is no longer a difference between the practical and the romantic, between the fantastically lovey and the tediously ordinary. This is no small feat, and as we see in Before Midnight (spoiler alert), it’s one that not even Jesse and Céline are able to navigate without significant stress. But here at the end I feel much more comfortable stating that these films have helped me reach a point in my life where, no matter how difficult, this rough synthesis seems not only possible but desirable. What Before Sunset demonstrates that Eternal Sunshine, perhaps, does not, is that we need not have recourse to see what’s really in front of our faces the whole time: two people talking and trying to live together. 


The Final Part, being the part with the ‘free floating thoughts’

  • While I adore nearly everything about this film, I sincerely dislike the “You promised to stay in touch” song which plays over the film’s opening credits. Sure, there’s something ‘fitting’ about it, but it’s a cloying, annoying kind of aptness that makes me cringe rather than nod in approval.
  • It was interesting this time around to consider the various ways in which the actors’ autobiographical details played a role in determining character growth. For example, given the timing of the film’s 2004 release, it’s difficult not to see Jesse as intimately related to what must have seemed like Hawke’s very fresh divorce from actress Uma Thurman. I suppose I could have noticed that back then, but it didn’t occur to me to do so. Delpy’s biographical connections were also easier for me to see in 2014, for a couple of reasons. The first is that, after watching her directorial debut, 2 Days in Paris(2008), as well as its follow-up, 2 Days in New York (2012), I found it easier to see the overlap between the Delpy-protagonists of both films, where certain details (like descriptions of both Céline and Marion’s childhoods) seem very consistent. Six years ago I attended a talk with Delpy as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival’s lecture series and I kind of regret now not having the gumption to ask her about the connections between her biography and the writing of those two characters.
  • It’s probably a necessary evil of these kinds of movies that national stereotypes, and especially American stereotypes about Europeans, play a role in characterization. That said, it annoys me that when we first meet her in Before Sunrise, Céline is attending university at La Sorbonne, just as it annoys me that, in Before Sunset, Jessie and Céline meet at Paris’s famed Anglo hideout bookstore, Shakespeare and Company (Which is, of course, her favorite bookstore). Of course, it could very well be that Céline attends the most famous French university (actually 13 different universities) in the world and that her favorite bookstore in all of Paris is a famous expat hangout. But these decisions reek of Jesse’s romanticism and of the film’s decision to indulge it. Perhaps this is simply a way of communicating to the audience the greater romantic/idealistic quality of the pair’s encounters….but it still bugs me.
  • Sorry, Ethan Hawke, but this Skeletor-skinny version is not the best looking you. On another note, I’m pretty stoked that you got rid of that facial hair from the first film and added facial hair that seems a lot less…teenage.
  • Is it me, or are Céline/Delpy’s random asides simply more interesting than Jesse/Hawke’s? Her more general and philosophical insights always attract my attention in a way that his do not. In this film, I love her story about visiting relatives in Poland and finding shelter from the overstimulation of the modern world. It was the direct inspiration for my comment, made in my June 2013 re-view of 28 Days Later, about dreaming of a world without advertising.
  • This type of talk usually goes in the main observation section of these things, but this time I thought I’d leave it as an ending aside: Outside of the occasional references to the tense political climate which characterized relations between the USA and European nations like France and Germany following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, there is very little in the film that ‘dates’ it as such. At one point Céline remarks that she is glad that Jesse isn’t “one of those ‘freedom fries’ Americans,” a direct reference to the (thankfully brief) cultural spat in the USA over the name ‘French Fries,’ wherein some supposedly patriotic Yankee apologists for the Iraq war rebranded the ubiquitous snack to remove its association with French dissent. But otherwise, the film is refreshingly ethereal and removed from real time. The Paris to which we are exposed is generally that which retains the ‘timeless’ quality we filmgoers adore so much about the city (no visible fast food chains, thank you) and the locations—likely carefully chosen—all reinforce its most charming aesthetic stereotypes: winding cobblestone streets, lush garden paths, the Seine, lovely, hidden courtyards and seemingly sophisticated apartments (I guess there’s nothing really ‘French’ or ‘Parisian’ about sophisticated apartments. Maybe only in my mind).
  • Notice Delpy’s parents, Albert Delpy and the now-deceased Marie Pillet, near the end, as Jessie and Céline walk into the latter’s apartment. If you haven’t already, you’ll see them both again in the cute and very amusing 2 Days in Paris (2009), where they play—surprise—her parents.
  • For a long time my favorite part of Before Sunset’s many scenes was the one with Jesse and Céline riding back to the latter’s apartment near the end. It’s where they’re finally able to break through their outer walls and meet on somewhat even emotional terms. It’s also where we really see how deeply the events of Before Sunrise have affected them. But this time I have to admit that my favorite bit was the one just before this, when they—at Jesse’s eager bidding—decide to ride one of the scenic tourist boats down the Seine from Notre Dame to Quai Henri VI. It’s here where the seeds of that later scene are planting firmly in the ground, where both are able to open up about how that night has affected the way they view their selves and their partners. Watching them again, it became clear that both scenes essentially express the same deep content, but in very different ways. In the first the expression is safer and more carefully worded, so as to keep the emotion bubbling underneath contained, while in the second the gates come down and the two finally speak to one another honestly. What I found myself appreciating about the first scene is the way the emotional content of the second is forced by the situation into a kind of coded articulation in language. If you look back from the vantage point of the emotional crescendo in the car, the earlier scene drips with a desperate tension.
  • The ‘day’ in which Jesse and Céline’s Parisian encounter takes place looks resplendent, all golden hues and fresh late spring colors. But apparently the actual climate in which the film was made—during the European heat wave of 2003, the hottest yet on record. So, yeah…hot.


[1] This quote, while taken from Before Sunset, is itself a reference to the conversation between Jesse and Céline in Waking Life.

Ten Years Ago: Spider-Man 2

2 Jul

In our first re-view this week, Max DeCurtins compares Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 to a Passover Seder. This means its time to intro this re-view with our favorite fact about the filming of this movie: While Alfred Molina was suited up as Doc Ock, he would rehearse his songs for his upcoming turn as Tevye in the Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof. Now that you can properly imagine this image, please keep it in mind as you read the following re-view.

“Time to teach these Stoli-drinking Tchaikovskys a thing or two about free press, American-style. You don’t ban those who supported your opponent, you make them wallow in their loser-dom by covering your victory; you sit ‘em in the front row, you give ‘em a hat!” Thus declares Toby Ziegler, White House Director of Communications, on one of my favorite shows of all time, The West Wing.

While anyone whose home pro sports team has competed in a national championship can recognize this behavior, Toby’s snarky comment actually speaks to an under-explored attraction of stories that feature a protagonist with a mild-mannered alter ego: the thrill we get when the protagonist, usually an underdog-type character, finally reveals his/her supernatural abilities to the character who most made the protagonist feel vulnerable and ashamed. As the shy, geeky kid for most of my school life, I certainly imagined at times what it might feel like to shed my alter ego and bust out some magic or superpower, to the manifest amazement of my peers. Years later Lee Pace, as the Piemaker, would articulate exactly what my then-school-aged self had thought: “I wanted to be a Jedi.” I call it an under-explored attraction because, for all the magnanimity that we can dream of in becoming a superhero or sorcerer, one of the chief guilty pleasures of imagining ourselves as these characters includes imagining ourselves using their powers to kick some serious ass.

Toby’s little moment atop the soapbox acknowledges that simply having the antagonist go down in fiery agony doesn’t really satisfy our sense of poetic justice in the way that witnessing the antagonist understand his error satisfies that craving. As—and here I reach deep down to scrape the bottom of my barrel of geekhood—Gul Dukat explains in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, true victory involves making your opponent see that they were wrong to oppose you in the first place. Say what you will about the climax of Return of the King (and I could say plenty), I find it incredibly important that Gollum, having reclaimed the Ring, shows a momentary flash of understanding that the Ring has betrayed him, that in fact the Ring never really belonged to him at all, before he gets swallowed by the molten lava of Mount Doom.

Spider-Man 2 itself resembles a Passover Seder in its structure: one must slog one’s way through most of the ritual, only occasionally nibbling on something bland (matzah), something spicy (maror), or something sweet (charoset), before finally—after what seems like an eternity—getting to the desired bit, the festival meal itself. (Full disclosure: Passover counts among my favorite Jewish holidays, and I actually enjoy very much the long slog that is the Seder. As the structure for a movie it meets, however, with far less enjoyment.) InSpider-Man 2, we get bland things, spicy things, and sweet things, but in the end we pretty much have to sit through the whole movie to see what this chapter really accomplishes.

In many ways the movie is written to function as the perfect middle act: good things, important things tend to happen in second acts; characters endure trials, but major questions and plot points necessarily go unresolved until the third act. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) has his relationship with Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) and his friendship with Harry Osborn (perpetual gay tease James Franco) tested as he seeks to reconcile the strength of Spider-Man with the frailty of his mild-mannered alter ago. In particular, the question of Harry Osborn’s destiny has us all wound up tighter than a web of spider silk, and over the course of the movie he displays frustration with Peter Parker for what he views as his friend’s collusion with Spider-Man. When he discovers that Spider-Man and his best friend inhabit the same body, he finds himself torn in his loyalties. Spider-Man 2 proposes an interesting idea: that a superhero’s superpowers depend on the hero’s emotional health and the strength of identification with the superhero ego. Spider-Man has a more difficult time becoming Peter Parker than Parker does becoming Spider-Man; for all his powers, Parker is powerless to prevent Mary Jane’s engagement to John Jameson (Daniel Gillies) or Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) having to leave her house.

Many of the things that happen in the Spider-Man series focus on how fundamentally good people deal with hardship and loss; as a result, we don’t really hate on those characters who fall from grace, like Doc Ock and Harry Osborn. We want them to experience redemption and, as Toby’s self-assuredness suggests, we also want to gloat a little. I know I do, and not just over the defeat of the villains.

Arguably, Spider-Man 2 contains the scene we’ve all waited for since Peter Parker first got snacked on by that radioactive spider. In order to get Doc Ock to reconnect with his humanity, Spider-Man has to remove his mask and reveal himself as the familiar Peter Parker. Doc Ock rises and goes to the fusion reactor to shut it down while Peter looks on; turning around, Peter stands unmasked in front of Mary Jane. Ever since that upside-down kiss in the rain in Spider-Man, we’ve waited for this. Finally, finally Mary Jane knows the true identity of Spider-Man. We revel just a little bit in her sudden understanding of why her relationship with Peter has never gone according to expectation; her character, ostensibly, is not redeemed until she leaves Captain Pretty Boy at the altar and shows up in the doorway of Peter’s Bohème-worthy studio. Though the end of the movie clearly sets up the expectation for the third installment, the resolution of this chapter with regard to the central love story between Peter and Mary Jane does much to bring most of the narrative to a satisfying end. Had Peter and Harry had a true reconciliation (and had it not been contractually ordained), Spider-Man 3 might not have needed to happen.

As I re-viewed the movie I caught myself at times sneering at the somewhat lackluster dialogue and the rather bland acting, but the more I’ve thought about it the more easily I can see these things as deliberate artistic choices that respect the two-dimensionality of the comic book as an artifact printed on paper. Mark Batalla, of Daily Nexus fame, found fault with the acting in his re-view of the first Spider-Man, but I think the quality improved in the second movie, and in any case I can’t be certain that the two-dimensionality of the movie doesn’t deliberately pay homage to the art and artifact that is the comic. Admittedly, I haven’t read the comics, so I can’t speak from a position of knowledge with regard to the source material, but I’ll try a bit of armchair humanities anyway. The art of the comic book transcends its physical limitations even as it enables the genre of the superhero comic to get away with a certain amount of cheesiness that works precisely because of the medium that expresses it. Movies like Superbad play on this cheesiness to great effect. Simplistic lines and basic delivery don’t necessarily come across that way when written on paper and accompanied by rich illustrations; movies, obviously, come with a different set of expectations and face commensurate judgment from the public that consumes them, just as comic books do. I imagine that handling the movie in this way would require a much more sophisticated approach than that taken by director Sam Raimi.

Ten years later, I can see why the doctor ordered a reboot of the franchise. Spider-Man 2, though better than the two installments surrounding it, doesn’t escape the middling performances from just about everyone save JK Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, editor of the Daily Bugle, whose exaggerations account for a significant portion of what is actually entertaining in this movie. Honestly, for all that happens in it, and for the not one but several times that Peter Parker reveals his superhero identity, Spider-Man 2 should have packed a much bigger emotional punch than it did.

Free-Floating Thoughts

  • Hal Sparks’ terse conversation with Spider-Man in the elevator was quite possibly the best scene in the entire movie. Michael Novotny would have jizzed his pants. That elevator would have been great for a little man-on-Spider-Man action.
  • Is it me, or is Octavius’ transformation into Doc Ock comically self-aware?
  • The busking violinist is so awkward. SO AWKWARD.
  • Wagner has never sounded so tonal as during Mary Jane’s flight from the church to Peter Parker’s front door. Go figure.

Ten Years Ago: Fahrenheit 9/11

27 Jun

This week, Bri Lafond re-views Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and examines Moore’s penchant for style and rhetorical fallacy of substantive argumentation. Moore has yet to learn the basic principles of composition: the casual presentation of facts does not an argument make.


Fahrenheit 9/11 Re-View

by Bri Lafond

I’ve owned a copy of Fahrenheit 9/11 since shortly after it was released on DVD in 2004, but I’ve never actually watched my copy of the movie until this week’s re-view. It’s not that I hated the movie or anything—I mean, why would I buy a movie I never wanted to watch again?—it’s just that I found my initial viewing experience of the film in theaters to be both so powerful and so profoundly depressing that I never had the desire to re-experience it until now. The reasons for not wanting to re-live this movie are both because of the film’s content—at times very disturbing and graphic—and because of the place I was in personally at the time I first watched the film.

In 2004, I was home from my first quarter and a half at UC Santa Barbara and I was re-adjusting to life back at home and on different meds. Shortly before transferring to UCSB, I’d been diagnosed with panic attacks and social anxiety disorder. During my second quarter at UCSB, a doctor made a bad call (I’m being intentionally vague here as in the inquiry that followed, this doctor was found to have made an “honest mistake” and I don’t want to open myself up to potential libel claims) and instead of treating the allergy symptoms I went to see him for ended up prescribing me an overdose level of medications for my social anxiety that caused me to have a break from reality and necessitated a medical withdrawal from school.

The first month or so, I barely left the house. I was having visual and aural hallucinations and I felt like a failure for having had to leave school. By the time June rolled around, I was going out occasionally with friends, but I was very skittish and sensitive.

This was clearly the perfect time to go see Fahrenheit 9/11.

I don’t remember much of the lead-up to going to see the film, but I remember that there was some level of anticipation among my extended group of friends to go see Michael Moore’s new movie. The cliché happens to be true: 9/11 changed everything. While the tragic events of September 11, 2001, seemed at first to bring people together, as the United States responded by invading first Afghanistan and then Iraq, attitudes became more divisive, to put it mildly. As to where I fell in that particular debate, let’s just say I remember listening to NOFX’s “Idiot Son of an Asshole” more than a few times during that period.

I went to the local megaplex with a couple of friends and we coincidentally ran into a group of my professors from my community college days. Because of this, I ended up sitting between my best friend and my former American lit professor and sobbing as the sounds of planes crashing and people screaming filled the theater. That was the moment that I remembered most about Fahrenheit 9/11 going into this re-view: Near the beginning of the film, the screen goes black and the viewer is immersed in sound so as to feel as if they are in the midst of the chaos. I remember it being chillingly effective.

Upon revisiting the film for this re-view, that moment was still particularly chilling, but so much of my re-experience of this movie was not nearly so immersive as that initial viewing. Ten years ago, I was twenty years old and sick and vulnerable and in the midst of both personal crisis and the larger national crisis of a country still raw from the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Watching the movie this time, I’m thirty years old, not nearly so vulnerable, and jadedly used to the idea of the United States’ continued involvement in the Middle East.

Though I teared up re-watching Fahrenheit 9/11—particularly during the previously discussed immersive black screen moments and the footage of the immediate aftermath of the attacks with raining storms of ash filling the streets of New York—so much of the time I spent re-watching the movie was noticing the seams of Michael Moore’s argument.

As of this month, I have a Master’s degree in Composition (with dual emphases in Literature and Applied Linguistics, thankyouverymuch), so I’ve spent the last few years immersed in notions of rhetoric and how arguments are crafted. As such, while I still found myself emotionally overcome by certain scenes, I also can’t help but recognize a “bloody shirt” appeal when I see one. This movie has several literal bloody shirt moments when the dead bodies of Iraqi children and American soldiers are hoisted up for the viewer to see. These moments clash wildly with the film’s more irreverent moments when, say, the soundtrack launches into the chorus of The Animals “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” over footage of airplanes taking off or when Moore says of Saudi investment in the Bush family’s business ventures: “Who’s your daddy?”

In between the bloody shirt waving and the classic rock music cues, Moore attempts to draw a connection between the powers-that-be in Washington and the powers-that-be in Saudi Arabia suggesting that continued war in Iraq and the Middle East continues to benefit the rich while preying on the poor. He does this not by laying out a cohesive argument, but by pointing out certain connections. For example, Moore draws a connection between Osama bin Laden’s father’s money and George W. Bush’s failed Arbusto drilling operation, points out that Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan met with George W. Bush days after the 9/11 attacks, and emphasizes that members of the extended bin Laden family in the US were allowed to leave the country without debriefing at a time when most air traffic was grounded, but Moore doesn’t bring these facts together into a cogent argument. I don’t know what to make of these facts: I do find them somewhat interesting—particularly that members of the bin Laden family were able to leave the country without questioning—but I’m not sure what to do with those facts. Moore wants me—and any viewer—to take these facts as proof that W. and the Washington elite are up to something sinister, and, ten years ago, that is how I read them, but now, with a more distanced perspective, I don’t know what to conclude. Of the meeting with Prince Bandar, Moore narrates an imagined super villain scenario: “What did they talk about as they stepped out on the balcony for Bandar Bush to smoke his fine cigar?” I mean, maybe. But part of me thinks: fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudi, so maybe meeting with the Saudi ambassador shortly after the attacks would, in fact, be prudent.

While I think Fahrenheit 9/11 captures that period of uncertainty between the seeming unity of post 9/11 and the jaded malaise of continual Middle Eastern conflict that we still “enjoy,” I wouldn’t call it a good movie by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a very affecting movie with a lot of pathos, but there is little logos to be found here and I don’t necessarily trust the ethos of the locutor. Michael Moore is to the left what Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly are to the right and while I sometimes feel that the left needs such firebrands as Moore and Bill Maher to bring attention to liberal issues, I can’t help but wish we could instead just be more even-keeled and respectful altogether.


Free-Floating Thoughts

I re-watched Fahrenheit 9/11 with an interesting cross-section of folks: a close friend who had a similar first-viewing experience of the movie ten years ago; another friend, a Navy veteran, who got out of the service shortly before the 2001 terrorist attacks; and her twelve year old son who didn’t know what “9/11” meant until about fifteen minutes into the movie when he clarified: “Oh: I know about the twin towers and the people dying. We talk about it at school. It’s a holiday.” I feel old.

While Moore casts George W. Bush as his villain, watching the footage of W. on the morning of September 11, 2001, trying to follow along with My Pet Goat kind of makes me feel sorry for the guy. He has such a deer in the headlights look. I think that has kind of become many liberals’ reading of W.: he seems like a basically nice guy who’s probably greedy and just not very bright.

Some of Moore’s argument about the culture of fear that developed post-9/11 seems to fit in well with his arguments in Bowling for Columbine (2002): businesses developing products to prey on people’s fear and make a quick buck. I wonder if there are still companies out there selling skyscraper parachutes?

Moore participates in some of his usual theatrics, including renting an ice cream truck to read the PATRIOT Act aloud outside the Capitol rotunda and approaching members of Congress to sign their own children up for the military. These theatrics might satisfy certain primal urges to see folks held accountable for their actions, but I think sometimes Moore takes it too far. For example, if you think for two seconds about approaching the members of Congress to sign their kids up to go to war, you realize that an adult has to sign him or herself up to join the military, making the exercise pointless.

An interesting thread in the movie that I don’t think Moore does much with is the perspective of the young soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many are fed lies by recruiters—and we see some of these lies as we follow two Marine recruiters—and expect war to be like a video game, but, as one soldier says; “It’s a lot more gruesome than you’d think.” Some of the soldiers talk about their preferred soundtracks going into battle—again, playing out as if some kind of movie or video game.

One figure I find interesting in the movie is Lila Lipscomb who works for an employment agency in Moore’s hometown of Flint, MI. We follow Lila on a bit of a character arc throughout the movie: She starts out saying that the military is a good option for poor folks in Flint and that she’s a proud military mom and then we find out that her son died in Iraq. She begins to show cracks in that steadfast military pride. I know the film is edited to show this progression, but I think it would have been more interesting to learn about her conflicted attitudes more organically.

Another thread that would have been interesting to follow is the change in news media organization’s access to soldiers. Moore briefly touches on this idea, but my former Navy friend had more to say: “If you think about it, journalists used to largely make their own way in theaters of war: they were responsible for themselves. With Iraq and Afghanistan, journalists supposedly had unprecedented levels of access by being embedded with units, but by embedding journalists, the military also had more control over what those journalists would and wouldn’t see. My friend was a press liaison while we were in Serbia, and she knew not to bring the journalists around me or she’d get in trouble. I wasn’t exactly giving out the message the military wanted getting to the press.”

Ten Years Ago: À Cause d’un Garçon

20 Jun

Max DeCurtins examines the French coming out narrative in À Cause d’un Garçon in the context of the marriage equality movement, and asks why there aren’t more narratives about being a gay adult after closing the closet door behind you.

As a gay man, I have significant misgivings about the politically correct substitution of “LGBT community” where we might otherwise refer only to one of these letters, or perhaps even to the occasional trailing letters –QIA, for Queer, Intersex, and Allied [Editor’s Note: or Asexual]. Political correctness, by its very nature, attempts to paint a neater picture of ourselves than the reality actually reflects. Each of these constituencies faces slightly different forms of discrimination, and in this era in which we can log on to a website once a day to check that somebody out there still fights on our behalf, we can begin to see less solidarity between, say, the G and the T, or even within the G, than the “community” appellation implies. When we turn our focus inwards we find the divisions, biases—and yes, discrimination—glossed over when we speak of “the LGBT community.” As a society, and even as a “community,” we more or less understand the L and the G at this point, but give short shrift to the B and the T. When pint-sized British Olympic diver Tom Daley released a YouTube video (a popular medium for coming out) revealing that he is in a relationship with a man (but that of course he “still fancies girls”), some of the loudest reactions came from within the “community,” which overwhelmingly assumed that Daley—like other bisexual men—had merely avoided coming out as fully gay by invoking some kind of continued interest in women. Though eventually proven correct, the dissenters crowed so vehemently that the New York Times, among other major organizations, ended up writing about it.

I mention all this because we stand at an interesting point in the history of societal engagement with those of non-heterosexual orientations. With their rejection of key sections of DOMA, the Supreme Court has left a legal patchwork that the justices must surely have recognized as absurd even at the time of the decision (well, all but Scalia and Thomas, because they live in noxious pits of flaming goo). Awareness of discrimination against non-heterosexuals has reached an historical apogee, as have efforts to ameliorate it. Yet the faster we restore equal rights, the more we seem ready to pat ourselves on the back, to seize upon something to which our society can point and cry: “You see! We’re makingprogress!” It all feels sensationalist and vaguely commercial; the first history of the struggle for marriage equality has already hit shelves and e-readers. In case you should need a refresher, fewer than half the states (plus the District of Columbia, whose mostly Democratic population gets zero voting power in Congress) currently support marriage equality. Needless to say, to make money by rushing a history of the marriage equality fight to press before we have achieved a comprehensive victory struck a lot of people as highly crass.

With all due appreciation of and for the restoration of rights that, let’s face it, we should have had all along, I wonder if the cause of LGBT equality is in danger of becoming the latest distraction in the absence of real progress on other things (climate change, ridiculous socioeconomic inequality, global tensions, education, health reform, just to name a few of the humdingers). It is with this mindset that I sat down to re-view À Cause d’un Garçon.

À Cause d’un Garçon is a feature-length “It Gets Better” video from before the age of Dan Savage and the hashtag. Literally, the French title means “Because of a Boy,” though I suppose it could also translate as “Because of a Waiter.” (I’m guessing that the latter translation comes across as less sexy.) Its English title, “You’ll Get Over It,” continues a long tradition of foreign-language films having English titles that in no way correspond to their original titles.

The “It Gets Better” campaign focuses on getting LGBT teens through adolescence and the often horrid bullying that targets them. It doesn’t much address, however, the challenges of navigating gay life once free of the closet. That part gets far less attention, but gay life doesn’t begin and end with coming out, which is kind of what our society—or at least our media—has made of it. We prefer not to think of non-heterosexuals as sexually active adults, as whole people with needs and wants, struggling to find their footing. The recent focus on marriage equality has done much to improve societal awareness of the very ordinary needs and wants of non-heterosexuals (though society still squirms at the thought of non-heterosexual sex). Yet we all need to feel sexually desirable, and this informs a large chunk of our adult behavior. Garçon doesn’t delve into any of this, or even really hint that living life as a gay adult comes after coming out as a gay teen, and I think I find the movie irritating for this reason, particularly given that I came out as an adult and have been trying to figure out how to be a gay adult ever since.

Yet in a sense, this re-view proves timely: gay rights have progressed rapidly in one particular area (marriage equality), but still languish in others, notably in the hypermasculinized world of sports, by which we mean overwhelmingly American sports. Gay men don’t possess the masculine aggression necessary for success in professional sports—or so the stereotyping has gone—and, oh my goodness, they get naked in the locker room just like straight men. Garçon aims itself squarely at refuting this bogus stereotype, and perhaps has more relevance now than it did at the time of its release, given the string of recent high-profile comings-out of various athletes. And yet I can’t escape the feeling that this movie is perhaps also a bit passé; ten years on, it comes off as thoroughly average.

“Adolescent” best describes the narrative, the acting, and the dialogue: neither childish nor mature, but damned self-confident…arrogant, even? Garçon presents a great number of truths about the lived experiences of gay youth, bullying in particular, but unfortunately it doesn’t take these elements and synthesize them into something greater than the sum of its parts.  Story-wise, we might well call Garçon a conventional high school drama. Vincent Molina (Julien Baumgartner) epitomizes that most tried-and-true character of high school stories, a good-looking, popular athlete with a fetching ladyfriend, Noémie (Julia Maraval). He swims, and well. His best mate, Stéphane (François Comar), not exactly shabby himself, has a none-too-subtle crush on Noémie. His miscreant of an older brother, Régis, generally snipes at Vincent every chance he gets and picks fights with their parents Sylvie and Bernard, who seem ensconced in their “traditional” marriage dynamic. And finally, as an escape from this Norman Rockwell of a family and school life, he has clandestine visits with Bruno, an older fuck buddy in Paris.

Vincent’s closet starts to constrain him when, one day at school, he spies Benjamin (Jérémie Elkaïm), a swarthy young (dare I say exotic) guy, checking him out. A true marker of adolescent irrationality, Vincent finds Benjamin attractive despite Benjamin’s decidedly stalker/rapist behavior, and they have a few bizarre, lightly flirtatious interactions until one day, Benjamin turns up—in extreme stalker fashion—in the doorway of Vincent’s apartment building. Some idle neighbors spot Benjamin and Vincent standing extremely close to each other and draw an immediate conclusion.

Vincent arrives at school the next day to find a bit of graffiti painted on the wall: Molina est un PD il suce D! – “Molina’s a fag; he sucks cock!” (the subtitles carefully omit that last bit). The initials “PD” actually refer to the slang term pédé, a truncation of pédéraste. Nevermind the wild inaccuracy of the term as applied to gay individuals; if slang made sense all the time it would hardly find such widespread use. Vincent’s teammates, despite lacking any sort of evidence whatsoever, immediately reject him. Once accused, convicted. This speaks to a broader problem with societal perceptions of male sexuality: simplistic, no flexibility whatsoever, with perceived homosexuality as acceptable proof of actual homosexuality. When Benjamin and Vincent actually do kiss, there’s no-one around to witness it.

At dinner the next day, Régis outs Vincent to his parents. While siblings don’t typically do it, “outing” does happen, and many people don’t realize how much it can harm the person outed. Vincent’s life—from his teenaged perspective—goes into a tailspin, and it takes encouragement from Stéphane, his coach, and finally his literature teacher to get Vincent to see a way forward. He breaks it off with his fuck buddy Bruno when Bruno suggests a night out in the Marais, historically the Jewish district of Paris but apparently of late an epicenter for Paris gay life. Upon arriving at the gay bar where he meets Bruno, Vincent immediately finds himself ogled by overly aggressive (or just plain drunk) guys, gets overwhelmed, and leaves. And though they start off with the usual ignorances (“it’s just a bit of adolescent fun; it’s just a phase, he’ll grow out of it”), and despite Vincent’s fear of their rejection, Vincent’s parents eventually do come around, in particular his father, and Vincent regains enough self-confidence to win the regional swimming competition and reclaim the respect of his teammates.

Scenes of swimming competitions more or less bookend the movie, as if to illustrate that coming out doesn’t change your personality, interests, or skills; if you’ve spent long hours training in the pool, or practicing the violin, you won’t become any less a good swimmer or violinist by coming out. Yet something more complex lurks beneath the warm-‘n’-fuzzy feels. A subtle, subliminal message emanates from Vincent’s situation: it does indeed get better, provided you’re young, fit, physically attractive, and have mainstream interests. I wish the movie had not glossed over this nuance; in fact, it very quietly reinforces this idea when we observe Vincent’s literature teacher being asked by the school administrators to talk to Vincent, and then later when he does end up talking to Vincent. His visible discomfort in both scenes seems to say that, as the presumably quiet, bookish type of average physical attractiveness, it didn’t get much better.

Several things bother me about this movie, not the least of which concerns one of Vincent’s very first lines, as the three friends discuss how life changes after high school: “Moi, je dis, le vrai difficulté, c’est d’être soi-même, ici et maintenant”—the real challenge is to be oneself, here and now. In retrospect, the hypocrisy of this statement becomes painfully obvious, and I resent Vincent just a little bit for it. (They then recite lines from one of my favorite French poems, Le Pont Mirabeau, which in my opinion only becomes meaningful with the acquisition of life experience, but that’s for another re-view.)

I also find myself bothered by the behavior of Vincent’s best friend. Stéphane alternates between acts of admirable friendship and deplorable douchebaggery. Drunk with Vincent and Noémie, his attraction to Noémie bubbles to the surface and he makes a physical advance on her, the kind of drunk, frat boy behavior that easily degrades into rape. Vincent and Noémie shrug it off as they have a laugh over Stéphane’s passed-out form lying on the floor, after which they proceed to have sex on his parents’ bed. After Vincent finds himself outed, Stéphane unequivocally supports him, first with reassurances of friendship and later standing up to their swimming teammates. But Stéphane also physically and verbally bullies Benjamin, leaving us to wonder if he’s actually learned anything from Vincent’s situation. Noémie doesn’t come across as particularly sympathetic herself, either. Perhaps true to high school (or at least the high school drama genre), Stéphane ends up having sex with Noémie. When Noémie decides at the end of the movie to spend her summer in America babysitting a friend’s kids, Stéphane can only manage to say to her that it’s a pity she didn’t love him. Smells like future frat brother to me.

The scene in the school principal’s office with the literature teacher also grates on my nerves. Though Garçon dates from Jacques Chirac’s tenure as President, France—along with other EU members—has tacked rightward for some time, which bolstered first Nicolas Sarkozy and lately has tolerated advances by the reactionary, right-wing Front National party. When the French Parliament debated marriage equality legislation in 2013, the opposition got just about as ugly as you’d expect. Sensitive treatment of LGBT individuals there lags behind the English-speaking world, as does civic support of their needs, so when the principal and the counselor ask the teacher to speak to Vincent so that he doesn’t fall behind, it comes off as contrived. In America, even now, most high school administrations wouldn’t have lifted a finger to help that kid.

And finally, the two “it gets better” speeches that Vincent receives don’t quite succeed at sending the positive message the scriptwriters intended. Garçon tries to refute the stereotype that gay men can’t compete in the world of sports; by extension, this refutes the broader stereotype that all gay men are alike—some like fashion, yes, but some also like sports. A positive message indeed. Yet Vincent’s coach tells him that he has to show the others that “even though you’re gay, you’re not about to abandon swimming and open up a flower shop.” Whoops. Let’s try that again. Towards the end of the movie, Vincent’s teacher finally decides to say a few words to Vincent, some of the only words in the movie that speak to life after coming out. Observe, however, the way in which this meeting happens: the teacher waiting covertly in his car to catch Vincent on his way, speaking hurriedly, under his breath, casting fearful glances around to make sure nobody can see him talking to Vincent, and, most significantly, never directly acknowledging his own homosexuality. His affect completely contradicts the message he tries to impart to Vincent; he tells Vincent to grow thicker skin, to ignore the stares of others, all while trying to avoid being spotted himself. It’s a behavior redolent of adolescence, and in some ways it’s apropos given the adolescent quality of Garçon as a representative example of the adolescent state of gay-themed cinema.

I’d like to take this opportunity to explore why so many gay-themed films—the vast majority, in fact—suck, and to express my frustration at the fact that so many gay-themed films, well, suck. Actually, I don’t mean to generalize to quite that degree. Firstly, I do not speak for more recent specimens, such as The Normal Heart and Bridegroom (neither of which I have seen), nor do I extend this generalization to films featuring lesbian relationships, such asThe Kids Are Alright. Nor do I refer to films featuring homoeroticism, in which category Y Tu Mamá También stands out in particular, as in such films homoeroticism often manifests itself as a facet detail floating atop a typically deeper narrative. Gay-themed films about coming out, as well as those about finding romance, tend to go wide of the mark. Too many gay-themed films fail to provide a positive narrative; they dwell on stories about gay crushes on straight guys (which usually lead to some kind of heartbreak or falling-out), injustice and persecution, AIDS, and other negative experiences.

Most coming-out stories face the same basic problem in their adaptation for the screen: coming out often happens relatively early in life, particularly during the teenage years, and in order to approach this depiction on film, such movies generally require a young, and therefore relatively inexperienced, actor to fill the role of the closeted-then-liberated character. Examples abound of movies that, to varying degrees, just plain suck: Get Real(coming out while British), Edge of Seventeen (coming out while growing up in the ‘80s),Latter Days (coming out while Mormon), Shelter (coming out while being a California surfer dude), and Juste Une Question d’Amour (coming out while living in small-town France), among others. Some are more terrible than others.

I don’t mean to beat up on gay-themed films. No-one challenges Brokeback Mountain’s emotional punch, and I think it entirely fair to say that we view it differently in the wake of Heath Ledger’s death. Another good title, the quirky but charming 2008 musical Were the World Mine, re-imagines A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the framing device for a tale of social change. Though not without its problems, it has something of a Twilight Zonecreativity, and its foundation upon Shakespeare’s play gives it more solid story than most gay-themed films. But not every film has Ang Lee to direct it, or the weird but cool art and music direction of Were the World MineWilde and Maurice both offer glimpses of homosexuality in nineteenth-century  Britain and have strong backgrounds in literary history, which to my mind makes them stronger gay-themed films than most of the titles on offer. Still, the genre as a whole undeniably suffers from a lack of quality material, experienced actors, and dedicated directors, and I wonder—like I do about comprehensive equality for non-heterosexual citizens—when this will change.


Free-Floating Thoughts

For once, I have no idea what the fuck is going on with the music in this movie.

Jérémie Elkaïm gave a much better performance, for my money, in the somewhat darker, more complex 2000 film Presque Rien, which tells the story of his teenage character’s summer romance with the equally-cute Stéphane Rideau. And if you thought Americans squeamish about sex in film, Presque Rien features explicit male masturbation within the first ten minutes.

Are sports homoerotic by nature? Sometimes I feel as if a large chunk of the culture that surrounds organized sports developed specifically to deal with a surfeit of homoeroticism. The fact that some of the (extremely hot) soccer players now contesting the World Cup have been known to do some extremely homoerotic things on the field may or may not have influenced my thinking.

Ten Years Ago: The Chronicles of Riddick

13 Jun

For our second re-view of the day, please welcome park ranger Rachel Shields, who takes another gander at the moral complications, black eyeliner, and “faceships” of The Chronicles of Riddick.

The Chronicles of Riddick, unrated director’s cut

I don’t remember the first time I watched The Chronicles of Riddick very clearly, just flashes of biceps and reflective night-vision eyes.  I had recently broken up with an evangelical Christian whose conflicted and inconsistent approach to sex had started to make me embarrassed and confused about myself—and a little pent-up.  I probably related to the female member of the mercenary team who rubs up against Vin Diesel (handcuffed to the interior of the space ship) while she thinks he’s asleep.  Now, watching ten years later, I thought about things like the morality of terrorism, our cultural inheritance from Classical mythology, and technical errors related to crevasses.  I’m not entirely convinced that this is a sign of personal progress.

After I put the unrated director’s cut of The Chronicles of Riddick into the DVD player, I started to get worried as I skipped through the previews, which are usually so helpful in letting you know whether or not you should be watching the movie that comes after. Drunken Jackasses:  The Quest (I hope no one in Mexico ever watches this film) was followed by Bourne-something-something (the one with the car chase I saw them filming in New York and mistook for a blocks-long car accident), Earthsea (LeGuin seems to translate badly to CGI), Adam Sandler films (all of the fluffiest ones), and The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay video game (in which Vin Diesel seems to have lost a perilous amount of weight from his waist).  I have never played the video game, but seeing the preview at the beginning allowed me read much of the film as a template for it.  For example, the character “types” (like the night-vision creatures who look like they’re wearing glowing diving masks) and the harsh environments that rarely seem justified by the story made much more sense as preparation for a game.  Seeing the ad taught me to watch the film.

The menu of the director’s cut is very stressful to navigate.  To get past the first screen, you have to pick “Convert” or “Fight.” Not remembering the film very well, I was still pretty sure I was being guided to choose “Fight.”  I felt weirdly instructed.  “Fight” was the right choice—at least, it led to a play button. The film continually reinforces overly simplified options, choices that seem unnecessarily narrow even within the world of the film.  I wouldn’t care—except this film also appears to have aspirations of moral complexity.

The film begins with a brief introduction by director David Twohy, in a beige jockey-like jacket that did not help me take him seriously.  This introduction has the sole purpose of explaining shoddiness of editing in the newly added scenes.  Basically, he explains, there will be skips and jumps where we added stuff.  But, he says, don’t worry, it’s a good thing because then you can tell where we added stuff.  It’s like an intentional marker.  Except we only did it because we couldn’t afford to do something better.

The actual film begins with a close-up shot of a big metal thing that turns out to be a phallic tower with three Egyptian-looking face attached to the top.  It shoots blue fire (sperm?) into outer space.  Just in case we did not pick up on the sense of menace, Judi Dench informs us in a voiceover that “There were times where evil would be fought by good, but in times like these, evil must be fought by another kind of evil.”  Here begins the aspect of this film that most confuses now that I am no longer distracted by biceps:  I have never fully understood the premise that Riddick is evil.  He seems to be primarily motivated by the desire to save children from violence—am I to supposed to understand that this is the mark of moral depravity?  I may think so privately, but I’m pretty sure that this is not a possible interpretation within the film.  Riddick is unmotivated to save an entire planet from destruction (“Not my fight,” he says) until his friend dials up the guilt by mentioning Jack, the child (from the previous film) who Riddick “abandoned” with a loving family.  The friend says, “so you will leave us to our fate, just like you did her” and suddenly Riddick is all for planet-saving.  The friend’s kid lays it on even thicker:  “Riddick, are you going to stop the new monsters now?”  If you want Riddick to help you, just find a kid and wave it around in front of his face.  This exchange leads him to search for the child he abandoned on a sun-melted prison planet, where he discovers that “Jack” has renamed herself “Kyra,” a clear sign of emotional distress.  Shame on you, Riddick.

Kyra also subscribes to the we-are-evil theory.  When she and Riddick run into some necromongers (the invaders in the earlier scene), she says, “Shit, I hate not being the bad guys.”

To make things more complicated, Judi Dench’s character, who appears to be “good,” is an “Elemental” who is obsessed with “balance.”  I think the implication of this is that the world needs equal parts good and evil, but Dench’s morality is as difficult to pin down as her character—who flits around the set like a ghost in a sparkly dress.

Is Riddick evil because of his methods?  Is he Machiavellian in his desire to save children?  To be fair, he does kill someone with a metal teacup.  And, when he gets his own blue fire and blasts everyone around him, its tough not to think of a suicide bombing (or an invincibility code in a video game), but he doesn’t make the choice to use the weapon himself (it’s implanted in him by the ghostly memory of his dead planet).  He also seems to take insults badly.  After he’s killed a couple of members of a mercenary team and incapacitated most of the rest, he tells the captain, “You made three mistakes.”  Two of which directly relate to underestimating Riddick.  He seems to be happy to kill them (or abandon them on ice planet) partly because they didn’t fully respect that he is a badass.  None of these moments make Riddick any more morally ambiguous than characters marked as heroes or essentially “good” in other films.

That leaves that fact that Riddick dislikes light, which might be why he’s evil.  When he is forced to return to civilization, he says, “So now it’s back to all the brightness, everything I hate.”  There is a practical reason for this, however, which is that he has to wear sunglasses all of the time because of his eyes.  I hate sunglasses myself, so I don’t really blame him for preferring the dark.

Perhaps it is easier to discuss what the film marks as worse evil than Riddick.  Just in case you weren’t sure about “Convert” being the right choice, the bad bad guys are models of machine-like conformity (like in practically every other science fiction film).  When they attack New Mecca (which is basically Dubai), they land one of their faceships and foot soldiers come out of the bottom like the Trojan horse if the Trojan horse had not been disguised as a gift.  They fight in rows, which shows how evil they must be.  As we’ve learned from Star Wars and films about the American Revolution, the bad guys fight in rows, even when it means more casualties for themselves.  When the fighting is over, the soldiers, the weapons of mass destruction, the faceships, etc. are all in rows as well.  Throughout this film, the menace of conformity is more important artistically than the reality of combat.

And to what purpose?  A man with ribs on his head tries to tell the conquered that they should die and go to the “Underverse.”  Basically, they’re killing (or partially killing?) all the living people so that there will be more dead ones to populate the underworld.  It’s all put in terms of faith and accepting this conversion.  One man disagrees, so they take his soul out.  Taking your soul out also kills you, but not in the good way—you’re dead dead, not just line-obsessed foot solider dead.  The strangest part is that the necromongers are not just mindless zombies, even after the overlords stick spikes into the sides of their necks and distribute the black eyeliner.  Characters show signs of disobedience and an ability to overcome the converted state—which made me question the implied mind control.  In other words, the bad-bads seems to have moral decisions left open to them (though perhaps more of a struggle than before their conversion), which makes them not so much a different kind of evil than Riddick—possibly actually the same kind.

For a film that purports to complicate morality, its claims really aren’t very controversial—and when they are, the film always backs away from them.  Riddick isn’t a suicide bomber, he is merely unknowingly carrying the rage of his destroyed planet.  Riddick doesn’t really abandon a child, he leaves her behind to keep her safe.  Riddick only kills when attacked and is only brutal when all he has to fight with is a teacup.

Perhaps I’m not as nice as I was in 2004.  At the end of the film, as the necromongers kneel before him on the throne, Riddick says, “You keep what you kill.”  By the time the film ended, I wanted him to take over exactly where the evil overlords had left off, just for the sake of developing his characterization in a new direction.

Ten Years Ago: Napoleon Dynamite

13 Jun

On this very special Friday the 13th, 10YA is happy to introduce two new contributors to the project. Up first is Los Angeles-based comedy writer Brian Rubinow with a ten-years-later look at the flippin’ sweetness that is Napoleon Dynamite. You can find him at twitter.com/brubinow.

Ten Years Ago: Napoleon Dynamite

By Brian Rubinow

Napoleon Dynamite was 2004’s little indie movie that could. A plotless, no-budget oddball comedy from a first-time director about a lonely high school kid doesn’t exactly seem like a likely candidate to spark a bidding war between Fox and Warner Bros., but lo and behold the film’s titular character became just as ubiquitous—and his catchphrases just as tired and worn out—as the Borats and Austin Powerses of his time.

However, what separates Napoleon from his contemporaries is that there’s an actual character beneath the familiar catchphrases and silly costume. Watching Napoleon Dynamite as an adult, I was struck by how true to life its depiction of high school feels. Napoleon goes through all the usual trials and tribulations of those inescapably awkward four years: bullies, school dances, his first crush. It was like watching Welcome to the Dollhouse if Todd Solondz were on antidepressants.

Even for a comedy, Napoleon Dynamite is decidedly low-stakes. The film’s only source of tension, Pedro’s campaign for class president, is not even introduced until halfway through the film. Rather, we get a bunch of scenes that could almost stand on their own, removed from the film entirely. Like, do we really need a scene of Napoleon awkwardly performing a choreographed sign-language dance with the Happy Hands Club in front of his whole class?

Well, yes, quite frankly, because those small moments are kind of what the whole film is about. Sure, on its own it doesn’t add much, but combined with other “pointless” moments like Napoleon digging a tater tot out of his pocket in the middle of class or his ill-fated attempt at using a time machine bought from the Internet, you get a rich tapestry of what life is like in rural Idaho, at least through director Jared Hess’s cracked point-of-view. Like Richard Linklater’s Slacker, you just have to let the film happen, rather than question the purpose of any particular scene.

Absolutely everything about Napoleon Dynamite is under-played, set to a low heat that rarely rises above a simmer. In any other film, Napoleon getting ditched by his date to the dance would be a source of melodrama (probably accompanied by some gag about spiking the punch), but Napoleon just shrugs and asks Pedro and Deb if they’re having a killer time. “Yes,” Deb deadpans. Likewise, there’s a tangible nerds-vs-jocks dynamic that runs through much of the film, but it’s much more Freaks and Geeks than Revenge of the Nerds. The biggest revenge Napoleon takes on his jock overlords is to ask for one of Summer’s campaign buttons, only to heave it down the school hallway. Take that, jocks.

I was fresh out of high school when Napoleon Dynamite was released in theaters, so only now can I look back and appreciate just how terrible high school kids are at everyday social cues. Everyone, it seems, is only allowed to ask for a date to the dance indirectly, preferably via scribbled note delivered through a confidant. There were several times while watching where I wanted to scream, “Just go talk to her! Like a human being! What’s wrong with you?!” Even when Napoleon approaches Deb in the cafeteria, he opens with what feels like a come-on: “I see you’re drinking 1 percent. Is that ‘cause you think you’re fat? Because you’re not. You could be drinking whole if you wanted to.”

Of course, that’s just how high school kids are, at least when it comes to the opposite sex. Baking a cake for your crush is just as logical as shaving off all your hair when you feel too hot. Everyone knows that.

Any film as offbeat as this one that manages to achieve its level of mainstream success is bound to be divisive, and that’s perhaps what I remember most about it from the time it came out. Napoleon Dynamite viewers were neatly divided into two camps: those (like myself) who loved it, and those who just didn’t get it. “Nothing happens!” was the most common complaint. But you can’t really blame the film for creating false expectations. Napoleon lays out exactly what he’s going to do in the first lines of dialogue in the film: “Whatever I feel like I wanna do. Gosh!

The best thing I can say about Napoleon Dynamite is that it holds up perfectly, even these 10 years later. It doesn’t feel dated at all. Or, scratch that, I should say it still feels dated, because everything about the film is designed from the ground up to feel like a relic from the past. Napoleon’s thrift-store outfits predate Macklemore by about a decade, and Uncle Rico supposedly takes grooming tips from Dirk Diggler. Houses are decked out in that awful fake-looking wood paneling, and the TV in Napoleon’s living room looks so old, I’m surprised it’s in color. The only clue that the film takes place in modern times is the Jamiroquai song “Canned Heat” (released in 1999) that plays during Napoleon’s big dance sequence.

Of course, that dance sequence is the big climactic moment, the one scene that makes you stand up and cheer, and the one thing you’re probably going to remember about the film even if you hated it. It seemingly comes out of nowhere, but there are just enough clues planted through the scenes leading up to it (Napoleon telling Pedro that the most important thing for a president is to have “skills,” Napoleon buying D-Qwon’s Dance Grooves on VHS) that it feels justified. My favorite is LaFawnduh giving an audio cassette to Napoleon, telling him her cousin made it. At the time, I took this as a sly hint that her cousin was in Jamiroquai, though now I realize it probably just means her cousin made the mixtape. But this film is so unpredictable, I feel like either explanation is equally likely.

OK, confession time. I still listen to the Napoleon Dynamite soundtrack. I don’t think it’s left my MP3 player since the film came out, and it probably never will. John Swihart’s compositions sound like they were made on a cheap Casio keyboard, and they are perfect. At times they sound like a funky groove (“Suitwalk”), an R&B slow jam (“Kip Waits”), or some bizarre combination of Milt Buckner and Devo (“Bus Rider”). Seeing the film again was the first time in years that I heard these songs in their original context. It was like finally getting a translation of a foreign phrase you’ve heard a million times, or finding the missing corner of a treasure map. There’s this big “A-ha!” moment, paired with the feeling that everything just feels right.

The licensed songs fit the film perfectly as well. “Music for a Found Harmonium” is especially fitting, as the song crescendos over the film’s denouement. Its upbeat harmonium-driven melody deftly echoes the completion of the main characters’ emotional arcs, as Grandma reunites with her beloved llama, Pedro celebrates his successful campaign, and Napoleon finally finds someone to play tetherball with.

The one glaring flaw, if it must be mentioned, is the shake up in Napoleon and Deb’s friendship that comes after Rico gives Deb a flyer for “Bust Must+,” saying it’s from Napoleon. Deb calls Napoleon a shallow friend, and it’s not until the end of the film that they reconcile, after Deb gets a look at Napoleon’s sweet dance moves. It’s the one part of the film that feels false and tacked-on, probably because it’s also the sort of subplot that inevitably crops up in every high school movie ever made.

Ultimately, though, Napoleon Dynamite is an immensely satisfying film. Napoleon is like a latter-day Max Fischer or Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski—an aloof hero who doesn’t follow the rules (either because he doesn’t care, or is completely unaware of what they are) and enriches the lives of everyone around him. Every little detail feels like part of a much larger whole, or a window into an alternate universe where unicorn shirts never went out of style. Rewatching Napoleon Dynamite felt like checking in with an old friend, the sort of friend who hasn’t changed at all in the 10 years since you’ve seen him, but it wouldn’t feel right any other way.

Free-Floating Thoughts

-  Napoleon Dynamite is so full of hilarious, quotable moments that it’s impossible to pick a favorite one. Here now, for your nostalgic enjoyment, are my top 5:

  1. The Dynamites own a llama named Tina. Because of course they do. “Tina, you fat lard! Come get some ham!” Napoleon implores.
  2. “Do the chickens have large talons?”
  3. Napoleon, moments before turning on the time machine and getting shocked in the nuts: “Yeah, hold on. I forgot to put in the crystals.”
  4. Lyle the farmer shooting a cow in the face before a busload of horrified schoolchildren.
  5. Kip’s completely out-of-nowhere burn on Deb: “Your mom goes to college!”

- I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the opening credits sequence, with the cast and filmmakers’ names spelt out on different foods, most of which appear later in the film. Food plays such a major role, it’s hard to imagine the film starting any other way. Like the rest of Napoleon Dynamite, the sequence is full of small moments of brilliance that you only notice on a second or third viewing, like Jon Heder’s name being on a card for UFO abduction insurance (Don’t leave Earth without it!) or the ChapStick being uncapped instead of simply being lowered out of frame. Also, according to IMDb’s trivia page, some of this sequence had to be re-shot with professional hand models when Fox didn’t like the look of some of the actors placing food on camera. The more you know.

- Just in time for the tenth anniversary, the cast of Napoleon Dynamite reunited to unveil a statue of its titular character, and it’s way creepier than you could possibly imagine. Take a look: http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/flippin-weird-napoleon-dynamite-cast-unveils-creepy-bronze-statue-20140611

- Everyone who saw Napoleon Dynamite back in the day exited the theater spouting catchphrases to all their friends. That’s a given. But it wasn’t until I watched it again that I realized I still have a few mannerisms that come straight from this film. Like, I still punch my palm when it’s time to get something done, just like Rex does just before he beats the crap out of Uncle Rico for getting too close to Starla.

- My favorite gag: Suckered into Uncle Rico’s door-to-door Tupperware sales scheme, Kip runs over a bowl to show its durability. The bowl shatters, and without missing a beat, Kip lets out a “Dang it!” and immediately drives off.

- The post-credits scene of Kip and LaFawnduh’s wedding (added to the film after its distribution deal) is a nice coda, but it ultimately feels unnecessary. Still, Napoleon does look pretty flippin’ sweet riding that horse.

Ten Years Ago: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

5 Jun

Stevi Costa links Richard Linklater’s new film Boyhood to the ten-year anniversary of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, two narratives about time, in a new re-view of Cuaron’s foray into Rowling’s world.

Last Saturday, I saw Richard Linklater’s new film, the incredibly novel Boyhood, in which we watch a boy mature from age 6 to age 18 in just under three hours. Boyhood was filmed in just 39 days over 12 years, so we literally get to watch 6-year-old Eller Coltrane grow into thoughtful, sensitive 18-year-old Eller Coltrane. It’s a remarkable feat which moves seamlessly through the boy’s life, spending moments, both long and short, in each year. Rather than emphasizing the shift in time, Linklater allows it to flow over us, marking Coltrane’s character’s aging by a change in fashion and a skillful use of pop music as cultural currency. Certainly, it’s the novel conceit and utter magic of watching Eller Coltrane grow up on film that makes Boyhood’s very everyday slice-of-life narrative so compelling.

In some early scenes in the film, Coltrane’s Mason bonds with his mother (Patricia Arquette) while reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Years later, Mason dresses up as Harry Potter to go to the midnight book release party for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince with his siblings, who are also decked out in Hogwarts robes.  (His stepbrother makes an adorable Draco Malfoy.) Linklater spends a fair amount of time in these quick scenes delighting in Rowling’s language, and the physical weight of the enormous Half-Blood Princehardcopies in the child actors’ tiny hands.

I loved seeing Harry Potter appear in Linklater’s Boyhood because, like the pop music that marks the year, the use of Rowling’s novels and the rituals of bedtime reading and midnight release parties conveyed a specific sense of time. Like Mason, I too can mark my life byHarry Potter.

And so, just a few days after seeing Boyhood, I sat down to rewatch 2004’s cinematic installment in the Harry Potter series: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of AzkabanAzkaban is my favorite of the films because it is the most cinematic. Alfonso Cuaron understands magic, and magical realism, in ways that prior helmer Chris Columbus never could. Columbus’s movies are kiddie fare – sweet, but ultimately unsatisfying like so many treats from Honeyduke’s. Cuaron’s film is a great visual and narrative feast that understands the everyday magic of growing up.

Azkaban is a film about time, and what we can do with it; its limits and its possibilities. Cuaron makes this clear to us through the frequent ticking of gears in the Hogwart’s clocktower, the sands in the hourglass of Hermione’s time-turner, and the Whomping Willow’s vigorous shedding leaves, snowy shakeoffs, and sudden blossoming. A lot can happen in a year. Seasons change. Children grow.

As I was rewatching Azkaban, it occurred to me how perfect it is that Boyhood includesHarry Potter so explicitly in Mason’s childhood – and not just as a marker of how much time has passed between one scene and another. To read the Harry Potter series is to read about Harry growing up, and watching the films, then, very explicitly shows us how much the young actors playing our heroic trio (and all of their friends) also grow before our very eyes. Boyhood collapses the work of all eight Harry Potter films into one three-hour everyday epic. Over the course of the Harry Potter films, we see Daniel Radcliffe grow from an adorable mop-headed imp to a fine actor with a strong, square jaw. Rupert Grint transforms from scrawny redheaded weirdo to a brawny redheaded weirdo. And Emma Watson from a frizzy-haired precocious girl to a woman of poise and calculating intelligence. Prisoner of Azkabanis really the first film in the series that marks this shift for us, where suddenly the children we knew in Chamber of Secrets have become teenagers with teenage bodies, thoughts, and fears.

Cuaron’s Azkaban also takes the characters out of their school robes for the first time, which I like to think of as his way of creating magical realism within the Harry Potternarrative. In the previous films, students are always shown wearing their Hogwarts robes and uniforms on school grounds, as if to heighten the magical nature of the boarding school environment they inhabit and contrast Harry’s upbringing in the Muggle world, which is the only other time prior to Azkaban where we see wizard characters wearing regular clothes.Azkaban still features robes, of course, at official functions, such as the welcome feast in the Great Hall, and in classes, but nearly all other times, especially when characters are in their dormitories or are headed off campus to Hogsmeade Village, they’re in jeans and t-shirts and zip-up hoodies. Or, on one occasion, fancy winter wear, which is notable because I am fond of Malfoy’s fur hat and leather gloves embroidered with a shiny Slytherin crest. These wardrobe choices create a blend of what we know to be magical with what we know to be real, giving Rowling’s fantasy magic a more magical realist quality.

This change in wardrobe also lets us really see how much the actors have grown up in just a year. The t-shirts clearly show Radcliffe’s broader shoulders, Watson’s breasts, and Grint’s guns. Their faces have obviously matured, which we’d notice in or out of robes, but the use of everyday street clothes throughout the film amplifies this maturity by showing us the actor’s bodies. (As I write this, I now see the logic of my years spent in a Catholic school uniform. They tell you it’s to make everyone look the same so we’re not concentrating on being jealous of each other’s clothes/mocking those with less access to fancy stuff, but it’s really about obscuring the reality of our growing human bodies, and all that this entails with respect to sexuality and the explorations its very existence might invite.)

All Harry Potter properties are framed around the narrative timeline of the school year, so we are primed to accept a certain amount of time passing, from fall to spring, before everyone returns to their homes on the Hogwarts Express for the summer and spends three months pretending they’re not a wizard. Harry’s inability to do that when he blows up his aunt for insulting his late parents at the dinner table is where our narrative begins, and I found in this rewatch that this was a part of the film I was genuinely not interested in. I wanted to get into Hogwarts as quickly as possible and into the time frame of the school year, which is where plot happens. I was even a little bored with the train sequence until, of course, the Dementor makes its first appearance, alongside saintly Remus Lupin, one of my favorite of Hogwarts sundry Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers.

Lupin is the perfect addition to a narrative about time. As a werewolf, his existence is temporally conditioned. And as his lesson on defeating Boggarts demonstrates, the lunar calendar is something that one such as him should truly fear. The addition of Lupin to the narrative offers a counterpoint to the possibilities found in Hermione’s time-turner, which provides her with the ability to maximize her academic schedule by being in two places at once. Like every other kid who really likes school, I recall reading about the time-turner and immediately wishing I had one. Imagine all the stuff I could learn if I had more hours in the day! All the things I could do! By eradicating free time and optimizing her optimized time, Hermione is achieving so much more stuff than I am.

Both Lupin and the time-turner matter to the narrative of Azkaban. Lupin serves as a narrative foil for his friend, Sirius Black, the titular Prisoner of Azkaban, who was framed for ratting out Harry’s parents when, in fact, it was actually human rat Peter Pettigrew who turned his back on ol’ Moony, Padfoot, and Prongs and hitched his Wormtail to Voldemort’s wagon. As Lupin teaches Harry and the other students how to conquer their fears, the world of Hogwarts is simultaneously engulfed in fear and suspicion that Black may make his way to Hogwarts to kill Harry Potter. We’re trained throughout the film to be suspicious of dogs and wolves. Snape, in an attempt to out Lupin, delivers a lecture on werewolves. We are warned about The Grim, which happens to take the shape of a large black dog, by loopy Trelawney. The Fat Lady’s portrait is torn to shreds by something which has claws. Just as the Chosen One could either be Harry or Neville, this fearsome dog might be Sirius Black, or it might be Remus Lupin. Those of us who know even the tiniest bit of Latin can easily see that Rowling has set these men up to act as foils. Remus Lupin’s name invokes the man who might have founded Rome, if only his wolf-suckling brother Romulus hadn’t offed him first. Sirius Black is the dog star. Both could have frightened the Fat Lady, or been The Grim in Harry’s teacup. There’s little difference between Moony and Padfoot, and Rowling’s text pushes on this to heighten the atmosphere of suspicion. But they’re both good men, too. Lupin becomes a mentor for Harry, a connection to his father, and Sirius, ultimately, assumes his position as godfather and cares for Harry after he’s saved. But the narrative has to exploit the possible evils of these men further before it can resolve. In the confrontation that takes place in the Shrieking Shack, Black insists that he would never turn on his friends, only to have to do so in the following scene, in which Lupin is transformed by the full moon into the werewolf self he most fears. Black, in his animagus form as a large black dog, then fights his own friend in a CGI battle to protect him from himself, and to protect his godson, Harry, and friends.

After the fight, Harry and a badly wounded Sirius retreat to a lake, where they are terrifyingly attacked by Dementors. As their souls are being sucked from their bodies, Harry tries to remember the lesson Lupin imparted about casting the Patronus charm, a being of pure light culled from one’s happiest memories that can repeal the pit of soul-sucking darkness that is the Dementor. Just as he is running out of time, a miracle happens: the Patronus he couldn’t cast himself appears on the other side of the lake, glowing bright enough to expel the Dementors and save both himself and Sirius.

When Harry later awakens, he learns that Sirius has been captured and is to be sentenced to death via the Dementor’s Kiss. Here, the main plot about the titular Prisoner of Azkaban meets up with an earlier plot in the film involving another death sentence. Hagrid’s newest animal friend Buckbeak the Hippogriff  has also been sentenced to death for “attacking” Draco Malfoy (who mostly was just being a git and not respecting the rules of conduct Hagrid had asked him to follow). Buckbeak had been “offed” earlier in the film, but this is only implied, which is why, when Dumbledore suggests that Hermione and Harry use the time-turner to prevent Sirius from meeting the awful fate he’s sure to meet, that if they do it right, “more than one life will be spared tonight.” And so Hermione and Harry travel back three turns on the time-turner and find themselves lurking outside Hagrid’s cabin just moments before Buckbeak’s scheduled execution.

It’s notable that JK Rowling and Cuaron get time travel very right in this film, as many other more sci-fi endeavors do not. Hermione and Harry see themselves inside Hagrid’s cabin as executioner Filch approaches, and she notices the strange snail-like stones that she’d seen mysteriously break a pot in Hagrid’s cabin earlier in the film. Her present-self-in-the-past has already been accounted for: the stones were always already thrown to alert her past self of her future presence. Likewise, while past Harry & Friends are overlooking the “execution” scene, present-in-the-past Hermione and Harry have already freed the Hippogriff and the only thing Filch gets to sink his blade into is one of Hagrid’s giant pumpkins. Present-in-the-past Hermione and Harry save themselves from Lupin by imitating a werewolf’s cry to distract him, and then watch in horror as past Harry and Sirius almost die at the hands of the Dementors. Present-in-the-past Harry, who was so convinced that he’d survived the Dementor attack because his father somehow cast the stag Patronus on the other side of the lake from beyond the grave, realizes that it was his own Patronus, and that he had saved himself all along. The pair then fly Buckbeak back to the tower where Black is imprisoned, and set the two off into the night together just in the nick of time. This all works because the only thing that actually changes is the present. The past remains as it always was – it is simply not the reality of the past that either the characters or the audience had realized.

Azakaban is an impeccably tight film, and a tight narrative because it has to be. Time as a concept may be something that we’ve invented, but it does become very real and immutable when mapped on to the tangible qualities of life, death, and growing up as it is here inPrisoner of Azkaban and in Boyhood. 

Free-Floating Thoughts

- As the producer of a Harry Potter-themed burlesque show, I have a lot of strong feels about Harry Potter, and many of my rewatching/rereading experiences are irrevocably changed by the acts my friends and collaborators have made. For instance:

  1. I cannot look at Argus Filch without seeing Hattie HellKat, and when I see him in that executioner outfit, I am both repulsed by and attracted to the idea of her stripping out of it and covering herself in pumpkin seeds in a blind rage. (Her Filch act is about how much he wants to sleep with his cat, but I think executioner fetish Filch is the next step for the character.)
  2. The 2013 edition of Accio had a Dementor act followed by a Patronus act, and they both so effectively capture the emotional arc of the scene at the lake in Azkaban, as well as the visual style of the film. As the Dementor, Seraphina Fiero is a furious terror of strobe lights and industrial music. As the Patronus, Sara Dipity is nothing but pure, beautiful light and happiness. I am getting a little bit misty just thinking about the two of them, as I do when I watch the scene at the lake and hear Radcliffe finally find his voice and save himself because the two performers bleed so much into the narrative fabric of Azkaban for me.

- Emma Thompson as Sibyl Trelawney is perfect and looks exactly like my college Russian professor.

- The relationship between Lupin and Harry is utterly lovely in this film. Lupin makes a great mentor/substitute father for Our Favorite Orphan especially because he knew James so well. Other than Dumbledore, Lupin really is the first teacher in the series that we see actually teach Harry something of value, not just about the subject matter in class, but about navigating an increasingly hostile world.

- Plus, can we talk about just how good David Thewlis is as Lupin? He has the right kind of poetic sensitivity for a character whose worst enemy is himself.

- The art direction of these films just gets better and better when they get out of the hands of Chris Columbus. My favorite addition in this film? The spine candles in Lupin’s classroom.

- One of the things I hate most about the Columbus films is how awful the CGI is. Cuaron’s film makes a vast improvement on this. The animals are a little touchy, but still really good for 2004. Buckbeak is an achievement. He looks a lot better than the werewolf and the black dog do, but those look less silly than the Whomping Willow. For the first time, the CGI actually looks really magical and, most importantly, still holds up ten years later. These canines are 100% better looking than all the werewolves in Twilight, that’s for sure. And the scene where Harry flies Buckbeak over the lake and the Hippogriff dips his talons in the water is breathtaking. But not as breathtaking, of course, as the Dementors, which look spectacular and are scary as hell. The Patronus charms and the Boggart sequence are great uses of the animation. All in all, this one’s a keeper as far as CGI is concerned.

- Oh, and, by the way, the Marauder’s Map is some of the coolest looking CGI work done in any one of these films. It actually feels like magic, and I love that the Marauder’s Map is the end-credits sequence. It’s perfect.

- Things I Own: A hand-painted Marauder’s Map corset. It’s also perfect.

- I really appreciate how much the HP series is about British history and culture filtered through this magical world. The Hogwarts chorus performing the Witches’ song fromMacbeth during the feast creates a neat intertextual connection between Shakespeare and JK Rowling as makers of British literary history. As an Americanist, it raises my hackles a little bit because I wonder then why American isn’t also magical and stuff like that. And then I remember what happens when Americans try to write boarding school magic fantasies like Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and I immediately take back that wish. YOU WITH THIS TIME, ANGLOPHILES!


Thanks to my friend Jessica Campbell for letting me take this entry into the Harry Potterseries. I just reread her lovely look back at Sorcerer’s Stone and her justified deconstruction of Chamber of Secrets. You should read them, too, because then you’ll just keep having Harry Potter feels. Always.

Ten Years Ago: The Day After Tomorrow

2 Jun

Erik Jaccard revisits Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow and explains not just why this climate change narrative validates neo-liberal selfhood, but why we like disaster porn so damn much.


The Day After Tomorrow (Dir. Roland Emmerich)

Let me get something out of the way: The Day After Tomorrow is a very, very bad film. It was bad in 2004 and it is bad now. I find little in the film to redeem it after all this time other than the fact that, as I explain below, the subject which drives it—global climate change—has only become more serious while out attitudes remain equally as cavalier. I say this knowing that I did, in certain ways, still enjoy it for all its terrible writing, acting, and, oh everything else in 2004. But for the reasons I enjoyed it—and the new reasons I feel bad about that earlier enjoyment—you’ll have to read on.

Taking on the Good Ol’ Boys

Parts of The Day After Tomorrow are extremely dated, if otherwise good for an occasional chuckle. Released at height of the 2004 presidential election campaign season, it clearly wants to take pot shots at the colossal arrogance and myopia of the cronyist Bush administration’s ongoing assault on environmentally-minded federal policy. Admittedly, there is much to applaud about this. Under Bush, the US took dramatic steps backward in the public recognition of human influence on the natural world, famously backing out of the 1995 Kyoto Accord, caving at the drop of a hat to the coal, oil, and gas industries, and disseminating a surprisingly hefty amount of disinformation about climate change. In addition, the administration was accused of, among other things, purposefully censoring scientific data demonstrating the accelerated pace of global warming trends, and of doctoring testimony in federal courts which would have led to more stringent regulations on vehicle emissions. The reason for most of this politically-motivated obstructionism was clear throughout—‘cost.’ As in, the ‘cost’ to business, jobs, profit, and even to the ‘American way of life,’ which we all know demands that we all drive forty miles to stuff our faces at Chili’s before heading to the mall to fill five plastic bags full of stuff we probably don’t need. Because growth. Because GDP. Because, as Huxley’s Great World Controller, Mustapha Mond, once said, “The machine turns, turns, and must keep on turning—forever. It is death if it stands still…Stability…The primal and the ultimate need. Stability. Hence all this.” As we all know, one of the most maddening things about Bush Administration political strategy was the tendency to entirely ignore things that fell outside its very limited perspective on what the world was and how it should be run (and who should run it). If it didn’t matter, it was almost as if it didn’t exist. And if one did have to address it, one could always resort to the standard Reaganomic playbook and repeat the tired old adages about cost.

‘Cost’ is, of course, the exact same reason offered by The Day After Tomorrow’s Dick Cheney look-a-like Vice President when he is pressed to ‘do something’ about climate change by Dennis Quaid’s dire-faced scientist (one wonders what could actually be done in an alternate universe where the global climate can shift dramatically in a week). I’d forgotten until this re-viewing how weird it was at first that the film’s central political figurehead was the American Vice President, and that the Big Kahuna Burger-in-chief himself spends most of the film looking confused, simpering to the Veep and a coterie of experts for advice. And then I was like, ‘oh yeah,’ Dick Cheney, Daddy Bush’s puppet master, and little George W, the frightened child. For better or worse, the film promotes a somewhat immature schadenfreude, clearly targeted at those of us who were around in 2004, bleeding blue with the embattled Dems and licking our wounds as the machine rolled over us and into foreign lands. For example, it’s no mistake that the President bravely (some might say stupidly) goes down with the Polar Express of Doom, leaving the savvy, arrogant Veep to tuck tail and flee to Mexico, where he is ultimately forced to admit the error of his moneygrubbing ways and issue a plea for amnesty to the inhabitants of the Global South, which he has heretofore treated with glowering disdain. Indeed, the film’s denouement manages to prepackage a perfect political outcome for Bush naysayers: the charismatic cowboy figurehead is dispatched, his ventriloquist is compelled to emerge from the shadows to receive his comeuppance, and best of all—WE WERE RIGHT, YOU SILLY FOOLS. Oh, the hubris.

I’d argue that in 2004 this gleeful burst of righteous triumphalism from the liberal left (righteous even in catastrophe) meant something different than it would today. Back then successes for the left, environmental or otherwise, often had to be projected into the realm of culture, where fantastic resolutions to current problems could be rehearsed as a kind of joyous wish-fulfillment, a last-gasp attempt to ratify the victorious gains of the past by once again reminding a world that seemed no longer to care of their value. I once read a very smart review of David O. Russell’s I ♥ Huckabees (also 2004—head back here in October for the re-view) which interpreted its central dilemma in the same terms, claiming that it dramatized the left as essentially having a conversation with itself, asking how relevant it still was in a world where the George W. Bushes of the world could act recklessly and with impunity. While you probably never thought there was much in common between Day After Tomorrow and Huckabees, it’s hard to deny that both films gravitate around a solipsistic liberal pole of well-intentioned world changers wondering why they no longer matter. Both films also essentially retreat from this dilemma into a fantasy space in which their most pressing problems can be displaced and reinterpreted as other, less immediate problems. For Huckabees the displacement is from politics to ontology, or, more accurately, from a disagreeable reality to a more enlightened existential perspective (It’s ok if the smarmy Target executive is going to pave over your favorite wetlands; just hit yourself in the face with a ball and experience pure consciousness!). In The Day After Tomorrow it’s from political praxis to disaster-as-politics (If you can’t do anything right now, just project your disappointment outward into the future, where nature will do your fighting for you. And anyone, there’s no reason to actually worry, as this is all bullshit science. Keep shopping!).

Look, ma, it’s snowing!

Given the amount of attention devoted to global warming in the media, few would have known in 2004 that the central premise of The Day After Tomorrow, that the earth could be suddenly thrust into a new ice age, is not a new one in the history of either science or catastrophe narrative. For example, scientists have known for quite some time that natural variations in solar radiation have the power to shift terrestrial climate significantly, and these risks have often prompted them to warn of the potential for ‘little ice ages’ in our future. For us mere mortals, this is an easy enough possibility to bear because there’s little that could be done about it. It’s kind of like a meteor strike or that supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park suddenly erupting. Of course, it hasn’t stopped us from exploring the dramatic potential in natural catastrophe that has so captivated people in the modern West (for more on catastrophe narrative, see my June 2013 re-view of 28 Days Later. In fact, the first to explore the scenario was the English sf writer John Christopher, whose 1962 novel The World in Winter has the earth fall back into a new ice age because of abnormally low solar output. Maggie Gee’s 1998 novel The Ice People takes a different direction with the same premise, even going so far as to preface its main narrative with a collection of paranarrative excerpts from real paleoclimatalogical research, all of which points to the likelihood of a resurgent glacial period.

What bothered me about The Day After Tomorrow in 2004, and what still bothers me today, is the idea that the film exploits this technically possible outcome by shifting the conditions under which it occurs and then attributing them to human intervention. This has the effect of relativizing the seriousness of the latter issue while exploiting the shock-effect of the former. For those who have not seen it (or have not seen it for ten years), here’s a refresher on the ‘science’ of the film. As we all know by now, the excessive use of fossil fuels leads to an excess of heat-trapping greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, which then cause the global temperature to rise. As most credible scientists now agree, while such fluctuations occur naturally, humans have had a discernible effect on the rapidity with which this process is proceeding. Rising temperatures cause not only drastic shifts in global weather patterns (hot air makes the weather all crazy), but also the significant melting of ice at the poles. So far, we’ve mostly been rightfully concerned about rising sea levels and the effect they’ll have on low-lying population centers. So far, so good. In The Day After Tomorrow, however, all the fresh water melting at the poles tips the salinization balance of the earth’s oceans, causing the North Atlantic Current (closely attached to the Gulf Stream) to stop warming the northern hemisphere’s climate. While the most likely cause of a new ice age—solar output—is actually referenced (and dismissed) in the film, what actually happens is that the NAC comes to a halt in a matter of days and transforms the earth nearly overnight. As some scientists agree, the film’s depiction of this climate chaos is a decidedly mixed bag. On the one hand, it acknowledges the effects of human activity on global climate shifts—something of a pariah subject during the Bush years (see below). At the same time, it shifts the frame of reference (for dramatic effect) such that the very subject of human intervention becomes patently ridiculous, a fun simulated effect that need only trouble us for the duration of the film (because really, how could the earth’s climate change in a week?!?). In other words, the film exploits a premise that is deadly serious for the purpose of allowing moviegoers to watch half of the earth topple. In Emmerich’s 2012, this was, again, much easier to stomach, because really, what are you going to do about Mayan religion? (Whoops, guess we should have paid more attention to that priest!) The Day After Tomorrow, sadly, is about something we can change, and it turns that potential into a spectacular joke.    

The Dangers of Disaster Porn

‘Disaster Porn’ is a lexical hallmark of the new millennium, a phrase we were forced to invent to describe the seamless synergy in visual media between civilizational anxiety, first-world arrogance, the mass commodification of sexuality, and contemporary consumer society’s driving ethos of instant gratification. As far as I can tell, in its short history it has accumulated a few different meanings, depending on who you’re talking to. I want to deal with two here. First, Taryn O’Neill claims it was coined collectively, albeit interdependently, by a trio of Hollywood execs (Zach Stentz, Warren Ellis, and Damon Lindelof) in relation to the increasingly gruesome and technologically epic depictions of both natural and man-made catastrophes in film and television. At the same time, ‘disaster porn’ has also been used to describe the interplay between mass entertainment and real-world catastrophe, with the purpose of shining a light on how the 24-hour infocycles of contemporary mass media fuel the collective desire of so-called First World viewers for cataclysm and misery. ‘Desire’ is an important and often-neglected word here, as the reason we call this disaster porn is because the logic behind it mimics the logic inhering in the conventional relationship between a voyeur and the sexually stimulating images they consume for pleasure. To my mind, melding these two definitions allows us to question how the disasters we dream up and consume in our popular imagination are connected with the ones we watch play out on TV as ‘real’ news.

The Day After Tomorrow is like porn from the 1970s: it forces us to sit through a variety of ‘real’ cardboard storytelling while all we really want to do is see the next major disaster or epically surreal shot, whether that be a tornado taking out the Hollywood sign, a tidal wave rolling slowly into NYC. These aspects are the disaster film’s equivalent of the traditional porn ‘money shot.’ The product of increasingly fraught tension, they finish us off with a cathartic climax, after which we can only shudder at the ensuing carnage and recharge as we await the next build-up and finish (if it sounds like I’m viewing all this from a male perspective, I am, because porn is predominately created in relation to the male gaze and sexual climax and because, like most media, disaster porn mimics this relationship with its audience, no matter how many women are in it). So we wait. We wait through the insufferable father-son conflict between Dennis Quaid’s righteously vindicated paleoclimatologist, Jack, and his smarter-than-he’s-given-credit-for son, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. We wait through the dramatic tension of deciding whether to take Jack’s dire prognostications seriously and through the remorseful realization that he’s been right all along. We wait while the cast sleepwalks through its lines and while the film sleepwalks through its plot, all the while knowing that we’re each a furtive set of hungry eyes and ready hands in front of a yawning computer screen. And then we get our fix, settle down, and wait for more, growing entirely dependent on the promise of the next disaster (or fight scene or car chase or, or or…) to really blow our minds. Until one day we find ourselves sitting down to a disaster flick unconsciously waiting for the equivalent of what Matt Stone and Trey Parker once called the ‘DVDA’ (I’ll let you look that one up yourself), the most extreme thing we can think of without resorting to the instantaneous destruction of the entire planet. (Sorry Alderaan, but where’s the titillation in that?) And we watch and get off, safe in the knowledge that nothing is real, that we’re cozily nested in our couch or theater seat. Safe with a little innocent fun.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m just like you. I fucking love watching things get demolished in this way. I won’t pretend I’m not just as addicted. There’s a very visceral sublimity in the sight of New York inundated by a giant wave or downtown LA destroyed by massive tornados. It’s difficult not to watch something so immense and mysterious and terrible without feeling a certain rush of excitement and energy, a thrill all the more thrilling for the fact that the viewing experience remains safely insulated from any actual danger. We live humdrum lives. We work, we talk, we pack our lunches, we play with our kids and walk our dogs. Indeed, part of the rush supplied by disaster porn is in forgetting the safety of our structured, heavily administered lives. Just like traditional pornography, disaster porn is a fantasy that we use for our own ends, and that puts us to use in the generation of revenue. This is, of course, one of the reasons we keep making them and paying to see them. It’s why we rank disaster porn films in relation to one other, carefully evaluating which give us the biggest and most intense thrills and which fall short (visit any one of the myriad free porn sites available online and you’ll see that they also allow viewers to select a ‘score’ for individual videos and, of course, discuss why each video is worthy or unworthy of viewing). We also do this with roller coasters, rock climbing, and any other physical or mental activity meant to give us a taste of danger and make us feel ‘alive.’

Maybe you see the problem coming. The problem is that the thrills of disaster porn are all too readily merged, via the way we experience the ‘reality’ of world events through mass media, with real-life tragedy. Which is why the phrase bursts into existence nearly simultaneously as a response to increasingly violent films and as an analytical concept created to describe audience relationships to tragedies such as 9/11 (2001), the Southeast Asian Tsunami (2004), Hurricane Katrina (2005), and the Haitian Earthquake (2010). The rise of the 24-hour news cycle ensures us that we can watch an uninterrupted stream of carnage from the safety of our living room, equally as insulated from any troubling implications. Two of these massive cataclysms have already been dramatized in Hollywood Films (World Trade Center (2006), and The Impossible (2012)); the other two are likely too sensitive politically to touch yet. Even these two could likely only be made by transforming the carnage into a story about the tenacity of the human spirit. This spirit is real, valuable, and worth dramatizing even if only we have so many instances of human wickedness with which to oppose it. But it’s also a safety valve or red herring that allows us to get our fix without feeling too bad about the real subject at the bottom of the misery. This is why neither Katrina nor the Haitian disaster make for good disaster film material—they both uncomfortably remind us that the reason people suffered was not just because nature is wild and unpredictable—“red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson put it—but because some are structurally locked into social and political conditions in which they were (and are, every day) more likely to die. Dramatizing either of these events entails entering sobering territory that leaves would-be disaster film devotees, insulated behind their TV screens, too vulnerable to criticism and moral ambiguity.

You might be asking what this all has to do with The Day After Tomorrow? Clearly, it does not dramatize any real-world catastrophe, nor does it really attempt to lure us in to its entertaining scenario with anything but the flimsiest of scientific pretenses (see above). So why worry, right? Here’s the thing: disaster porn like The Day After Tomorrow (and it isdisaster porn, just as Roland Emmerich is a disaster pornographer) models and encourages our detachment from a world of real, dire, scary problems, just as hyper sexualized porn models our detachment from sexuality and intimacy. It rehearses an old and extremely problematic relationship between human beings and nature as a relationship between subjects and things (much like most porn). Just as it’s very difficult to see your partner clearly as a person if you mediate your sexual relationship with him/her through grotesquely exaggerated fantasies, so, too, is it extremely hard to maintain a healthy relationship with the world of which you are only a part if your relation to that world is mediated through violence and cathartic climaxes. Not only does this reduce nature to only one its functions (it also creates, you know), it also legitimizes the ongoing ‘taming’ of nature, by humans, for reasons that are all to do with creating and maintaining human power over things (again, like porn). And all this from a film that, by most respects, says and does all the right things when it comes to human influence on the natural world.

This is The Day After Tomorrow’s most enduring legacy ten years on from 2004, and it almost makes me mad to say that it’s equally as terrible now as it was then, but that it has also become a more important film because its subject matter is even more dire now than it was 10 years ago. As we all know, things have only gotten worse since 2004, and very little has gotten better. The glaciers are still melting, the ground is still being poisoned and destabilized, and what gains we make always seem like a speck on an otherwise festering sore. We’ve reached a point at which not doing anything will likely have serious, possibly catastrophic consequences. We need action, and what we have is dozens up dozens more disaster porn movies, films that increase, rather than mitigate, our passivity.

Free-Floating Thoughts

  • Man, Jack really wants to save those ice core samples. If it weren’t for Hollywood theatrics and the kind of athletic ability that occurs about as frequently as Halley’s Comet, he would not make that jump, samples in tow.
  • Speaking of impossible physical feats, in this alternate universe one can literally outrun the forces of nature while dragging an injured comrade. Clearly this is symbolic of Jake Gyllenhaal’s courage, fortitude, and colossal quad strength.
  • Ha! The President’s final address is being carried by the Weather Channel!?! Because all the other networks were somehow obliterated in the cataclysmic climate carnage. [Side Note: the Weather Channel’s US HQ is actually in Atlanta, so maybe there is some truth to this seeming absurdity]
  • For some reason I can’t comprehend, I love the actor Jay O. Sanders. He’s among my favorite ‘Middle Initial’ part-actors, right up there with Craig T. Nelson.
  • I’m also a fan of Dash Mihok. One day I want to meet his kids: Son, Colon and daughter, Hyphen.
  • Nature is very uneven, windy, unpredictable, yes? Most post-1800 Euro-American designs are not. Instead, they tend to be rational, orderly, you know, of the desire to tame nature’s unpredictable ways. So let’s talk about how a giant tanker gets from the Atlantic Ocean, via lower Manhattan, to just outside the New York Public Library, where it can be glimpsed in all its sublime glory by a bunch of tenacious survivors hiding out there. First, it would naturally enter the city through the inundated Battery District, full of who knows how much water. As the film makes it seem, enough so that a tanker with a significant amount of submerged displacement could eke its way through the city a few feet off street level. Then, it would proceed up Broadway before making a hard right onto Canal Street, where it would have to travel another eight blocks before taking an equally as hard left onto Bowery. Bowery offers a nice, wide pathway up until it hits a T junction at Union Square. I’m guessing the pilotless tanker (captained only by the whimsy of that unpredictable force we call nature!) would avoid the hard left onto W 14th St. and instead make the easy right onto Park Avenue, which would afford it another long, wide thoroughfare on which to drift until it reached the hard left onto W 40th St. Having made that perilous turn it would continue for another breezy two blocks before it arrived at its destination—the New York Public Library—at 455 5th Avenue, New York, NY 10018. Logic be dammed, there’s a tanker in the middle of downtown New York! CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?!?!
  • “Sam, just tell ‘er how you feel.” “Thanks, hunky prep school guy, but I’m Jake Gyllenhaal. I got this.”
  • There’s a scene with Ian Holm and his forsaken cadre of climatologists hunkered down in their Scottish research station where one, trying to help out, asks aloud whether the generator—about to run out of fuel—might run on the remaining contents of a bottle of 12 year-old Balvenie, a fairly well-known single malt Scotch Whisky. “Are you mad?,” Holm replies, “That’s a 12 year-old Scotch!” As though it were a Balvenie 25 year-old, cask-aged, cherry-hinted dram of ambrosia.
  • Sela Ward’s job in this movie is to make ‘mother hen’ face and ‘pained’ face. That’s it.
  • Jake Gyllenhaal, 22-23 years-old at the time of filming, looks about 22-23 years-old at the time of filming. But hey, he’s got a boyish face.  Beverly Hills 90210 casting strikes again!
  • Ok, I get that the only way to get wolves to act like the Raptors from Jurassic Park is to create them digitally. But these wolves are comically aggressive and angry from the very get go, chomping at the bit to get out of their cage as the chaos descends on NYC. The feeling I’m guessing we’re supposed to take away from the scene of their empty cage is about the same as the feeling we get in—you guessed it, Jurassic Park—when we find the raptors are on the loose. Except that these are wolves, not raptors. They’ve been in captivity for God knows how long and are probably accustomed to three squares a day and a zoologist named Burt attending to their every captive need. But no, what we’re meant to take away from the entire wolf-fiasco in this film is that wolves are naturally, genetically nasty, and a viable natural competitor to humans in this post-catastrophic ice world. As Alpha Wolf—I’m going to name him Vrog—might say: We’re coming to fuck you up, humans! Your infected wounds smell like victory! Owoooooooooooooo!
  • Oh, the surrealism of the Planet of the Apes/Statue of Liberty shot, but with snow!
  • Massive tornados disrupt potential nookie and flatten TV weathermen! By the way, if you’re trying to have sex, you die! The rules of horror film are always in play.
  • Street prognosticator/homeless guy with dog, telling it like it is because he lives on the outside of the garish consumption which fuels its vicious spiral of opulence and waste.  To my mind he’s playing a less funny version of Eddie Griffin’s character inArmageddon.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 43 other followers