Ten Years Ago: The Brothers Grimm

28 Aug grimm1

Long-time reader and first-time contributor Sadie Rose revisits Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm, hoping to find a moral, any kind of moral, and how the film may comment upon America’s political struggles.

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The Brothers Grimm

Dir. Terry Gilliam

Heath Ledger is dead! UHG. I hate that.

As none of you may know, I love Heath Ledger. I mean really, truly, this is tangible, love him. My love for him started about halfway through 10 Things I Hate About You, not only because of his charming smile but because I knew he was the real deal. A real craftsman of character. I told everyone how he was going to be the next big thing. How he was going to win an Oscar someday. How he was the Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, or Al Pacino of our time. I was relentless.

The year was 1999. And I was so adamant about my love for this actor that my email address was HeathsFutureWife@hotmail.com (100% true story! You can ask anyone who had to send me an email between 1999-2005). And you may be saying “Whoa, Sadie, TMI. That email is embarrassing.” But I have no shame about it because I was on the RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY. (Well mostly, he was on track to be the next brilliant creator of characters before he died. Uhg. I hate that.)

Summary thus far: Heath Ledger is amazing and I love him.

So although I know I saw The Brothers Grimm in the theater in 2005, I don’t remember where or with whom I saw it. I may have gone by myself. After all, most of the people in my life didn’t get how awesome Heath was. It was dark times (did anyone watch AND stay awake through Four Feathers? I mean I did, but it was for love, not pleasure). Nevertheless, Lords of Dogtown had been released two months before and Brokeback Mountain was about to be released in December and all the people who shamed me were gonna eat crow.

But, okay, enough with the Heath Ledger stuff!

On to The Brothers Grimm.

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The movie opens with the obligatory “Once upon a time…” and we meet a young Grimm family in 1796. The father is absent, the mother is caring for a dying daughter and the oldest brother, Will (who will grow into Matt Damon) is reassuring everyone that Jake (who will grow into Heath Ledger) will return from selling the cow, to get the money, to pay the doctor, to save the sister. (Anyone else try to sing that, or was it just me?) However Jake returns with magic beans instead. Will instantly begins to beat on him for being so gullible and killing their sister.

15 years later, we find the Brothers riding into Karlstadt. They consult with the town’s people about a witch who is haunting the old mill. 100 years ago (it’s always 100 years ago), the Miller’s wife was a witch and burned for it, but she has returned and is terrorizing the current Miller. It will be expensive and dangerous, but the Brothers can exorcise the spirit of the witch.

Then we have the action of the exorcism. This scene sets the pace and tone for the whole movie, which is so fast that at times it becomes jumbled. Nevertheless, it’s also funny. When the action is complete and the Miller runs out of the mill with the remains of the witch and a real fear for the mystical, we as an audience discover it’s all been a hoax. The Brothers are not saviors or heroes but con artists. Creating monsters, hauntings, and other mythical evils in order to charge a vanquishing fee.

I don’t think this reveal worked 10 years ago because all the advertising told you The Brothers Grimm is an action-comedy about con-artists. However, I think it is still a well-crafted scene. As a skeptical audience who doesn’t believe in witches or ghosts, the sell that “this is for real!” is very effective and we get to see why the victims are so taken in by the Brothers’ cons.

My favorite scene is the very next one, the Little Red Riding Hood scene. Her red cape against the dark tangled surreal forest is stunning and director Terry Gilliam’s use of camera movement to tell the story of the chase is dazzling. Through very little dialogue and a whole lot of action, we discover there is something taking little girls in the forest of Marbaden.

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The movie moves on and we get to see the character development of the two brothers. 10 years ago, I remember being put off by Heath’s appearance, the glasses, facial hair, and scarf were just weird, but now he looks like the original hipster and I give kudos to a costume team that was before their time. Heath’s Jake is physically bumbling, awkward, and boyish, which is a brilliant way to communicate to the audience that he is also a gullible, reckless romantic and the opposite of his older bullshit artist of a brother, Will. I recall 10 years ago finally being impressed with Matt Damon. It’s not that he is terrific in this, but I felt I was seeing a different side. There is no denying his talent, especially then, but I never got the dreamy heartthrob thing for him. However his Will is a very charismatic snake charmer. He is composed and always selling his listener something they don’t need. Matt Damon’s English accent (although uneven) adds likeability to his cad of a character and his comedic timing as the duos straight man is remarkable. He is outlandish at all the right moments.

The Brothers are captured by the French (oh yeah, this is all taking place in Germany during Napoleon’s First French Empire) and given the choice to die for their thieving lying criminal ways or go discover what is going on in the forest of Marbaden. Not really a choice.

The Brothers come to Marbaden and begin to investigate the 10 missing girls. The brother’s assume they are up against a person like them, not trolls or enchantments like the village people believe. They meet brunet, slightly less bitter, Cersei Lannister Angelika (Lena Heady), a female trapper who knows the forest and reluctantly helps the brothers.

We hear of the legend of the area through a flashback. Angelika’s huntsman father is telling Young Angelika the story that happened, you guessed it, 100 years ago. The rumor is a vain queen who loves her reflection/mirror marries her King the same day as the arrival of the plague. The King dies and she locks herself in a tower (resembling Rapunzel’s) to escape the plague, but much like the crows we see throughout the movie, the plague rides the wind to her. She dies and rots away, alone, in the tower, that still stands. (Did you follow that? Because it is actually not that important.) Jake is eating up the fable while Will is trying to figure out logically what is really going on.

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What is really going on is that the Mirror Queen never left her tower and is in possession of a whole lot of magic. Real unexplainable magic. She has been waiting her time until just the right blood moon, when she will need to drink the blood of 12 young girls (who are sleeping in crypts and dressed in gold rings and glass slippers) and live forever with her beauty and mirror and tower. The plot is a struggle train as the kids today say. Which is probably why I couldn’t really remember it 10 years later.

While the tension between the brothers is interesting it feels I’m being beaten with it. I get it. Jake wants to believe in magic and love and Will wants to believe in nothing, yet wants people to believe his cons. Contradictions are interesting. Yet in the end Will, the most selfish character who once ran to save himself and leave his brother, now sacrifices himself for his brother in order to break the very real magic.

Of course the good deed is repaid, the good live, the bad die, and everyone lives happily ever after.

The whole story is an inventive hodgepodge of fairytales with a happy ending but no obvious moral, which on both viewings (10 years ago and last week) I felt I was missing. Terry Gilliam really examines and questions what we see and what we believe and how that is different than what is true. This is most clearly stated in a small scene with the non-magical antagonist, the French Gerneral Delatombe (hello High Sparrow, Jonathan Price). As the General welcomes the Emperor’s advisers and speaks to them of deceit and ignorance, you see the guests at a table surrounded by gilded mirrors and you can see that the table extends for-almost-ever. As Cavaldi (Peter Stormare) interrupts the General, the illusion is broken and we are shown the mirrors are in a dark unadorned room surrounding a table that only sits six. It’s a nice moment. It drives home what Terry Gilliam is trying to examine about perception, self-deceit, and truth. Yet still while examining these ideas, the plot seems to say very little of substance about them.

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Conversely, the original Grimm stories are tales meant to tell children how messed up the world really is. The original Brothers Grimm stories were so brutal that many didn’t think they were suitable for their intended audience, children. Considering this film was written (bySkeleton Key’s Ehren Kruger) and rewritten (by Terry Gilliam and Tony Grisoni) during 2003, I’d like to believe that Gilliam was examining how disastrous our fear of the world is vs how our world really is. How at the time, American’s blind belief in their government was possible because we were being sold modern fairytales by a con-man (or con-military-industrial-driven-government). We were not examining the reality, which may or may not have been much much scarier. Let’s just say it, there were no weapons of mass destruction hiding under anyone’s bed. That was a fable.

There is also a small moment near the end of the movie that I found to be a funny and poignantly pathetic dig towards George W. Bush’s Mission Accomplished speech. You remember the one, where he declared the end of boots on the ground in Iraq. The same Iraq we had troops actively in until 8 1/2 years later. While the Right thought he was poised and as Lisa Schifferen wrote in the Wall Street Journal “really hot. Also, presidential, of course. Not to mention credible as a commander-in-chief. But mostly ‘hot’ as in virile, sexy and powerful.” Most of us on the Left (and in other countries) thought it was foolish and ignorant to declare victory on a war that hadn’t even really started. Well, in The Brothers Grimm we have General Delatombe, the bastion of ignorance, set fire to the Brothers and the forest they claim is enchanted. The General watches at a dinner table as the fire begins to burn and states “This is the life, eh, Cavaldi? To be victorious in the field, with one’s troops around you, enjoying a simple meal, a soldier’s meal… by firelight. Romantic, eh?” Perception, kids. What some find romantic others find unreasonably ignorant.

I would suspect that Cavaldi, the Italian torturer working for the French, was a comment on Abu Ghraib (the prison is Iraq where human rights were seriously violated with torture). Cavaldi always follows orders but he is mischievously and gleefully slow when following the order to stop. And when he resigns because he doesn’t want to kill someone, he is rewarded with a shot to the chest. Cavaldi could also have been Terry Gilliam’s excuse to hack up a kitten with a torture devise. (That happens and Terry Gilliam loves machines and cat abuse.)

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I enjoyed the movie a second time around, more than the first.

The Brothers Grimm is stimulatingly dressed and shot. The acting and character development is worth a viewing if you’re into that stuff. The plot is magical but not “magical,” if you catch my drift. The special effects are really enjoyable.

Terry Gilliam is an original member of Monty Python (despite being a bloody American. After this film was made he renounced his American citizenship, supposedly for tax reasons). His movies always have moments stolen out of the old-school British humor manual. The Brothers Grimm strives to fill two hours with Pythonesque loose one-liners, wild pacing, and stream-of-consciousness ideas. If you enter this movie with that in mind, I believe it is a much better film. Even the jumbled ridiculousness of the fairytales suddenly becomes humorously absurd. Although since you have to enter the movie thinking of anything, that means it fails in what it is trying to achieve on its own.

If I had the chance to theorize wildly and, well, I guess I do, I’d guess that Ehren Kruger’s script was trying to reach summer moviegoers with an entertaining action-comedy. Then Terry Gilliam folded in challenging questions, ones that all high art and great movies have. The two become muddled and you walk away feeling both kinda entertained and kinda wondering whether the message was missed or just missing. Which is a shame, because they are great questions that American audiences need then and now.

Extra Tidbits

– There is a moment in the beginning, after the hoax is revealed when one of their helpers, Hidlick (Mackenzie Crook) complains as he takes off his witch costume, “Why must I always play the girl?” Will, in full salesman mode, replies earnestly “Because you have talent and range.” I had a good laugh at this because Terry Gilliam always played the girls in the Monty Python skits and movies.

– This was Tery Gilliam’s first film since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998).

– Ehren Kruger wrote the spec script and Terry Gilliam and Tony Grisoni rewrote it. The Writers Guild of America refused to let them bill themselves as the writers, probably because, come on, it was Ehren Kruger’s story with different words. Terry Gilliam credited himself and Tony Grisoni as “The Dress Makers.”

– The Weinstein brothers produced this film and Terry Gilliam hated working with them. He has said, in a great interview on Sense of Cinema, “They created a situation at the beginning of the film that was very unpleasant. And so I started working in not the happiest of moods. And they were still determined to control me. And when they didn’t allow me to cast who I wanted [Robin Williams], I was getting more and more upset. I don’t like this. And by the time Matt’s nose came up, that was it: I just didn’t want to make the movie. I went to work on the first day of shooting and I just wanted to go home.” The Weinsteins wanted to give Matt Damon a prosthetic nose, they wouldn’t let Terry cast how he wanted (he wanted Johnny Depp as Will, Samantha Morton as Angelika, and Robin Williams as Calviar—Robin would have been hilarious) and they fired Terry Gilliam’s preferred cinematographer, Nicola Percorini, four weeks into production. Thankfully, Terry won out on the nose.

– While fighting about final cut of the film with the Weinsteins, Terry Gilliam walked away and filmed Tideland (2005) with Jeff Bridges, then came back and finished editing The Brothers Grimm.

– Wikipedia claims that originally Heath was cast as Will and Matt as Jake. They both petitioned to switch. However the link to the cite/site is broken so it could just be a rumor.

– Miramax is asking Ehren Kruger to develop a TV show based on the movie. This was announced in March 2015.

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Ten Years Ago: The Skeleton Key

15 Aug

Jake Farley unlocks The Skeleton Key’s lazy filmmaking and thoughtless cultural appropriation.

skeleton1Let’s get one thing out of the way right off—this movie is kinda racist. Now, I’m not saying it’s Birth of a Nation or anything, but it does a remarkably thorough job of sidelining any and all black actors or characters while expressly drawing on traditionally black traditions and experiences for the sake of a, frankly, fairly crummy haunted house flick.

Allow me to explain. The Skeleton Key tells the story of Caroline (Kate Hudson), a bland young woman whose occupation is reading Treasure Island at dying old men. As our tale begins, she reads to one dying old man too many (this movie is actually kind of bleak, but not in a particularly suspenseful sort of way) and decides to quit her job at a hospice in the middle of New Orleans. She answers an ad to go out to an old swamp plantation house and take care of a man who just had a stroke named Ben (John Hurt, who I feel must have had a pretty easy paycheck with this gig—sit, stare, occasionally gape open-mouthed and look pained. At one point he does a pretty credible re-creation of his famous chest-burster scene from Alien). His cranky-ass old wife Violet (Gena Rowlands) chain-smokes clove cigarettes and frets about whether or not Caroline has tattoos.

Violet gives Caroline a skeleton key, since she’s going to be a live-in hospice caretaker for Ben. The key, in addition to providing the film with a title, opens every door in this giant 30+ room mansion…except for one, if you can believe it! Yes, in the attic lies a secret room, supposedly locked forever. Eventually Caroline breaks in, because of course she does, and it turns out it’s full of magical hoodoo stuff; jars full of cloudy liquid, dozens of mirrors and candles, weird writing, so on and so forth. Caroline asks about the fact that there’s a weird hoodoo room in the attic, and Violet provides Caroline with a long, gruesome flashback to 90 years ago, when a guy who was basically Jay Gatsby owned the swamp mansion. He had two “servants” named Papa Justify (Ronald McCall) and Mama Cecile (Jeryl Prescott), who were both “conjure men” (you know, hoodoo practitioners and such), and also they act as this ridiculous rich banking Southern stereotype guy’s babysitters. He has two little kids, a boy and a girl. One night there’s a big-ass shindig at the swamp mansion and everyone there discovers the kids involved in some kind of crazy magic ritual in the attic with the servants. The drunk socialites take it upon themselves to lynch and burn Justify and Cecile while the kids look on. It’s horrible. Ever since then, the two kids grew up in the house, until the ’60s, when they sold it to Violet and John Hurt, who’ve lived there ever since. Out of respect, they leave the freaky hoodoo room alone.

The movie, by the way, makes a pointed but somewhat uninformative distinction between Voodoo and hoodoo. That emphatic but vague description is provided by Caroline’s best friend Jill (Joy Bryant), who is apparently the only person in the entire world that Caroline knows now that her dad is dead. Oh yes, I forgot to mention Caroline’s dad (not Kurt Russell, thank god) is dead. This is her main motivation—she wasn’t around when her dad died and now she reads Treasure Island to other dying old men. Fair enough. Anyway, there’s also a hunky lawyer named Luke (Peter Sarsgaard). He hangs around and kind of leers a lot and berates Caroline but they have a little bit of chemistry going on, especially since he’s the only other character in the movie.

skeleton2Ok, here’s the thing—this movie has a twist. It’s your classic, Sixth Sense-style twist, and it’s, honestly, pretty well done. If you want to watch this ten-year-old movie unspoiled, stop right here. We’ll proceed.

So Caroline gets freaked out by all the weird hoodoo stuff and tries to steal stroked-out old John Hurt away from swamp mansion (to put him in a better movie, one hopes). They fail and Caroline is so freaked out that she stumbles into the attic and accidentally allows her body to be taken over by the body-stealing consciousness of Mama Cecile herself. It turns out that Violet and Peter the Hunky Lawyer were actually Papa Justify and Mama Cecile all along. Way back in the day, they used hoodoo to switch bodies with the rich old plantation owner’s kids just before they were dragged away by the mob, and now they are body-snatching wizards who live in the swamp and Caroline just straight up falls into their net. You see, they faked the whole hoodoo haunted house thing just to freak out Caroline so that she’ll believe hoodoo is real and once she does, they can use hoodoo to steal her body, which they couldn’t do if she didn’t think hoodoo was real (yes, it’s a little confusing). They stay immortal via body-snatching, you see, and, like the hermit crab, they’re looking for a fresh new shell for Cecile. They get one. No happy ending, Caroline just is trundled away into the body of cranky-ass wife, aka Violet aka Mama Cecile, while Papa Justify and Mama Cecile laugh about it. The end. It’s an hour-and-a-half Twilight Zone episode, basically.

To be fair, the twist actually holds up really well on a second viewing. All the interactions between Peter the Hunky Lawyer and Violet the cranky-ass old wife make sense both before and after the twist. Good work, Ehren Kruger! Ehren, I should point out, wrote this film, along with three Transformers movies, Scream 3, and Reindeer Games. So, y’know.

[Editor’s Note: Also Arlington Road, which is better acted than it has any right to be.]

The problem, though, is this—the movie draws all its atmosphere and inspiration from traditionally black cultures in New Orleans, but entirely in the service of a story about a white girl, with no meaningful input from actual representatives of that culture. All the black characters in the film act as signposts and information dumps for Caroline rather than actual characters, most particularly the hoodoo supply store to which her friend Jill takes her. It’s run by an unnamed woman who gives Caroline a pillowcase full of stuff with which to cure John Hurt’s stroke. That’s it. She just forks over some wax candles, bottled water, dried thyme and general local flavor and ambiance. End of input. Likewise Caroline’s friend Jill exists largely to establish Caroline’s “normal” life prior to the start of the movie, and to expose her to the basics of the body-snatching underworld of New Orleans swamp wizards.

Meanwhile, the two most supposedly prominent black characters, Papa Justify and Mama Cecile, are mainly played by white people. During the flashbacks, when they’re in their original bodies, they don’t even get a spoken line of dialogue. It reminds me of is Disney’s Princess and the Frog, where they featured their first black “Disney princess”…who then spends most of the movie as a frog.

skeleton5Honestly, I’m giving this movie too much thought. I know that. You know that. It’s just a mediocre, bloodless, thoughtlessly written, mid-2000s PG-13 horror flick with a decent story twist. Still. The positioning and minimizing of black characters and actors is what I found myself noticing most this second time through the movie. It’s too boring to do anything other than try and distract yourself by thinking about anything else, since all the jump scares are so telegraphed they may as well have been scored by Samuel Morse. When it’s not ploddingly attempting to startle you, it actively bores you with a dull lead character who accomplishes absolutely nothing except getting evicted from her own skull. Indeed, Caroline never actually even twigs to what’s going on. By the end of the film, she thinks Hunky Lawyer is a wizard’s apprentice or something, and gets completely gaslit and body-snatched before ever really learning the truth. Not exactly Marion Ravenwood. But still. It’s a shame that Violet couldn’t have been played by CCH Pounder, or Hunky Lawyer by Taye Diggs. At least then there would have been a visibly black character onscreen who wasn’t there just to further Caroline’s story. Might have been nice.

There’s not a whole lot left to say, I suppose. There are a few nicely spooky things in the movie. Papa Justify had a series of magic spells recorded onto old vinyl records, which becomes a plot point, and the scratchy sound of the hoodoo spell coming out of the record player is pretty effective. But then, any old scratchy record is kind of spooky, so that’s a bit of a mulligan for the movie.

I feel like I’ve been pretty harsh on this movie, but I should make clear—its worst crimes are laziness and thoughtlessness. It asks so little of you and provides equally little in return. It would be a good movie to flip back to on TV whenever Chopped is at commercial, but that’s about the strongest recommendation it deserves.

MISCELLANEOUS THOUGHTS

– The swamp mansion house used in the movie was also used in 12 Years a Slave, and was once an authentic sugar plantation. This is in no way a “fun” fact.

– The cinematographer, Dan Mindel, is also DP for the new Star Wars movie. That’s a much more fun fact.

– If this movie was a beverage, it would be room-temperature Diet Coke.

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Ten Years Ago: The Aristocrats

9 Aug

Maccewill Yip breaks down the nature of taboo and one of the classic jokes of comedy with The Aristocrats.

aristocrats1Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, motherfucker, cocksucker and tits. These were the words George Carlin listed back in 1972 as words that could not be said on broadcast television and radio. Which is some of the many reasons why this film was never submitted to the Motion Picture Association of America, which would probably saddle the film with a NC-17 based on the language alone. But for the subject matter of this movie, there’s no way around it.

I’m trying to remember when I first heard about the movie. It could be when I was looking through some random movie news. It could be it popped up when I was checking out projects Penn and Teller were doing, guys that I’ve been interested in back in the days when I was deeply into magic. Whatever it was, what I do remember is reviews talking about a joke that cannot be mentioned in the review itself, partly because of spoilers, but mainly because of the content of the joke. That was what really intrigued me, so I went to the closest theater that was playing it to see the film.

Since the movie took a little time to build up to the joke, I was anticipating how great this joke might be…until they finally told the joke. When it was first delivered in the film, I was doubly disappointed, because (A) I realized that I’ve encountered this joke before back when I was a kid looking up dirty jokes on the internet, and (B) admitting to myself that back then, I did not get the joke. However, as the movie showed different comedians telling the joke in innumerable variations, I realized why I didn’t get it initially. I first encountered this joke reading it online, but just reading it doesn’t really do the joke justice. It must be performed, especially with the punchline in the end. As the joke repeated itself, it developed something that I call the rake effect. A convention I had named after a scene from The Simpsonsinvolving Sideshow Bob and rakes, basically it’s having a joke repeat itself and one of two thing happens: either it was never funny, but becomes funny after repetition; or it is at first funny, stops being funny, then becomes funny again due to the absurdity of it being done over and over again.

Not only did I enjoy the joke more with each new telling, but I also admired how the filmmakers were able to create a whole movie breaking down this one joke.

So what is the joke? It usually starts with “A man walks into a talent agent’s office.” The man will try to sell the agent on an idea of a family act. When the agent inquires about the act, the man will go into details that includes whatever depraved acts the teller of the joke can come up with: scat, incest, bestiality, murder, necrophilia, and whatever other taboo subject the teller can conjure. Stunned, the agent asked what the man calls the act, and the man declares, “The Aristocrats!” Get it? Yes? No? Again, it works best when seen performed. That, and if you’re not offended by vulgar jokes.

What makes this joke so interesting to so many comedians? Of course, there’s the vulgarity of it itself that can build and build. Paul Krassner likens it to a jazz set with a bunch of improvisation. If you can sustain it, you can make it last as long as you want. Some have even made a game of it, including rumors that Chevy Chase had parties and gatherings for such a purpose. Jackie Martling says you get to be a comic for the comics. Paul Reiser felt that it was a “front-loaded joke,” where the punchline is intentionally weaker since the journey to it was more important. However, some feel that the body of the joke is so ridiculous and over-the-top that “the Aristocrats” is the only line that can carry it to the end, although there were some that have tried to make other suggestions, such as the Sophisticates or the Debonairs. Drew Carey even used a little hand flourish to add to the punchline and it was eventually used by others throughout the film. Some comedians add their own signature to the joke, such as Steven Wright keeping it somewhat deadpan, or Eric Mead using it to narrate a card trick.

Rewatching the movie now, it’s still shocking to hear some of the renditions of the joke, especially through some people I grew up watching as a kid. I remembered Bob Saget’s version because it is just so vulgar that I now link him to this film, and so he wasn’t as surprising as my first viewing. However, Howie Mandel was someone I remembered from watching Bobby’s World as a kid, so it is still surprising to see him in this. Whoopi Goldberg’s take on the joke broke me up laughing, especially when she does a bit about foreskins. Another one that I had almost forgotten about was Princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher. Being the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, she added a little, shall we say, Hollywood prestige to her version of the joke. In fact, these last two examples showed one thing in this film we don’t get to see too often in the media: female comedians. Besides Goldberg and Fisher, we also have Sarah Silverman, Susie Essman, Judy Gold, Lisa Lampanelli, Phyllis Diller, and several more. Some of them never told the joke to play up the role of being prim and ladylike, others tell the joke demurely with a subversive twist, while others just went for it and was just as wonderfully filthy as some of the boys.

However, my favorite version of the joke, both in my first viewing and my re-watch now, is the one done by Billy the Mime. I always appreciate artists who are able to create and convey a lot of story and themes out of simplicity or with self-imposed limitation. That is why I loved Billy the Mime’s take, who was able to present and act out the joke without saying a single word. Another element that made his version enjoyable was, since he decided to perform it outdoors in public, seeing the reactions of people walking by as he is pretending to hump unseen family members and an invisible dog. Also, I find it hilarious to see that, for some unknown reason, the filmmakers had a mime wear a mic pack.

The version that gets the most focus, however, is Gilbert Gottfried’s rendition at the roast of Hugh Hefner. Many people that night were not on the top of their game because it was not too long after 9/11. Gottfried himself started roughly with flight jokes that were heckled at as being too soon. Seeing as he is limited to what he could say in context of the show, he decided to take a dive and went straight into a telling of the Aristocrats. Other comedians that night who recognized the joke soon felt a kind of unity and catharsis as this inside joke is being shared within the community. It was incredible, and some watching this film thought that this documentary was made because of that performance; but apparently Gottfried did a segment of the film before the roast, leaving others to believe it was this film was an inspiration for him to perform the joke at the event.

While it was fun watching this documentary again, there were some moments I had felt a little twinge of sadness, seeing that some of the comedians featured have passed away, including one not too long ago. There’s the trailblazer, George Carlin. As with his predecessor, Lenny Bruce, Carlin helped open the floodgates of language in comedy, especially with the aforementioned seven words listed in the beginning of this article, as well as analyzing the nature of why they are considered bad. There is Phyllis Diller, one of the first female stand-up comedian that paved the way for others to come, whose personality matches her larger-than life voice and laugh. Finally, there’s Robin Williams, whose manic spirit couldn’t hide the incredible range of acting that humanized him and made us continue to miss him even a year after his passing.
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It’s no surprise that Penn Jillette would get involved in this film. He is a successful comic magician in Las Vegas, where he had chances to hang out and observe all the great comedians coming in to perform at the strip. Also, he is no stranger to controversial topics, which is obvious when watching his Showtime documentary series, Bullshit, where he and his partner Teller examine controversial topics, from alien abductions and animal rights to vaccination and the war on porn. In fact, I found that a good companion piece to The Aristocrats is an episode they did on the topic of profanity, which focuses on its impact on culture and politics, especially in regards to censorship.

I myself have always been interested in the nature of the taboo and the banning of it. It kind of started when I was a small kid in elementary school and saw the word “fuck” scratched into the school play structure. I did not know what it was, so I pronounced it. Well, a kid who apparently did know the word narced on me and I got in trouble for it. From then, it always intrigued me what is censored or not, how that changes and evolve, and how people work around it. Some filmmakers were able to use the limitations to their advantage, most notably screenwriter/director Billy Wilder. Since there are certain topics, especially sex, that he can’t write frankly about at the period, Wilder’s dialogue, especially in Double Indemnity, was crackling with creative double entendre that were allowed to be passed by the censors and the Hayes Code. For those who don’t know, the Hayes Code was a self-imposed regulation in the film industry that lasted from the mid-thirties to the mid-fifties. Although there were some people, like Wilder, who were able to play the system and subvert the Hayes Code, there were many who couldn’t make it work, sometimes to their detriment. One example is the 1958 version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Although it is one of my favorite films, because of the moral attitude at that time, it failed to address the homosexual themes that was in the original Tennessee Williams play.

For this movie, it is easy to see why this could be a problem. As mentioned earlier, it was not submitted to the Motion Picture Association of America, more widely known as the MPAA. If it did, it would have gotten an NC-17 rating. For those who have seen This Film is Not Yet Rated, another movie that didn’t get submitted to the MPAA, an NC-17 rating could be a death knell for a movie. One of the main reason is that it cannot be widely advertised like other films because children might accidentally see these ads. If a movie can’t advertise itself, then it won’t be successful in theaters unless it can somehow draw an audience through controversy. For The Aristocrats, the filmmakers were able to bring in some viewers through reviews that talked about how the subject matter is about an obscene joke that can’t be printed in mainstream media, creating a mystery around it for audience members to discover the joke.
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With the nature of the joke itself, you just can’t hold back, and that’s is what the documentary is partly about. As shocking as the joke is, we as a society have encountered other things that are similarly brash or even more vulgar, which can dampen the effect to some who hears the joke. It seems that for the joke to remain effective, you either have to perform it in an unexpected setting (such as when Billy the Mime did it in public or Gilbert Gottfried did it at Hugh Hefner’s roast), use topics and words that are still taboo (topics such as racism, words such as “cunt”), or try to get ahead of the curve by something going through the euphemism treadmill. Coined by cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker, euphemism treadmill is the process where a benign term, meant to replace more obscene words, is later adopted and elevated into a vulgar term itself. A perfect example is the term “mental retardation,” which used to be a medical term, has now evolved to be insults, like “mental” and “retard.” There were some artists and entertainers who had it censored, and some who had the words change, like the Black Eyed Peas changing their song title and lyrics from “Let’s Get Retarded” to “Let’s Get it Started.” So when is it too far? That is part of a debate bigger than this review, but it was recently addressed by Jerry Seinfeld about being politically correct in colleges. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/06/08/jerry-seinfeld-college-politically-correct-racism-sexism_n_7534978.html) However, I believe George Carlin addressed it perfectly in this documentary, saying:

“I’m a great believer in context. I say you can joke about anything…I do like finding out where the line is drawn, deliberately crossing it, bringing some of them with me across the line, and having them be happy that I did.”

Notes:

– The first two people who tell the joke are apropos: Jay Marshall, the first man to have published an early version of the joke; and George Carlin, one of the man who broke the barrier of comedy to allow profanity in.

– Chris Rock mentions that black comedians can use more vulgar material because they don’t expect to go into television.

– Kevin Pollak doing an impression of Christopher Walken performing the joke makes me want to see Walken himself tell the joke.

– There were some other jokes told, and the film had a great moment where it cuts back and forth between both Drew Carey and Robin Williams as they tell a same joke almost word for word.

– There is sooooo many comedians and so many viewpoints that I just feel guilty not being able to mention more of them in this review. I mean, look up the cast on IMDB, it’s insane!(http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0436078/fullcredits?ref_=tt_cl_sm#cast)

– To prepare myself for writing this, I decided to watch a couple of outside videos to help psych me up as well as looking into other possible ideas to add to the article. One was the aforementioned Bullshit episode on profanity. Another was this informative VSauce video on bad words:

– Jon Stewart with the ironic ending: “Yeah, I think it’s best if we don’t break it down. Would you agree with that?”

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Ten Years Ago: The Devil’s Rejects

29 Jul

Jake Farley comes to 10YA for the second time in as many months to discuss the queasy power and grim brutality of Rob Zombie’s second film, The Devil’s Rejects.

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When I was a kid at summer camp, there was a big farmhouse bordering one edge of the property. We were told that the family lived there was called the Campbells, and they were bad news. They were crazy, the counselors said, and they hated little kids. They’d fire shotguns from the porch at anyone they saw near their property; they’d once chased a counselor down a hillside, waving knives and shouting behind him. I never saw any evidence that all this was true, of course, but still I held my breath when I had occasion to be near the edge of that farm, either stumbling across it accidentally during a game, or taken there on an illicit nighttime hike orchestrated by one of the counselors who particularly enjoyed scaring campers. Even when I grew older and became a counselor myself, the stories about that farm were never decisively refuted. Don’t go out there—it won’t end well.

Of course, thinking about it as an adult, well, it’s hard to imagine that the YMCA would actually allow a camp to operate proximate to an active murder family’s compound. Still…I don’t know.

Rob Zombie’s second film, The Devil’s Rejects, is every story about that family, every half-remembered childhood fear and legend about the folks in the hills, cranked to eleven, soaked in gasoline and left to bake in the desert sun. It’s possibly the best movie I could never ever, in good conscience, recommend to anyone. It’s a horror movie only because it is horrific, not because it follows any traditional horror clichés or stereotypes. It is, rather, an ordeal.

One of the appeals of the horror genre, paradoxically, is how safe they are. Often, the message at the end of a scary movie is that everything will be “OK.” The monster is defeated (for now, at least), and our remaining heroes can take a well-deserved break. Left purposefully unmentioned is the lifetime of therapy and rehabilitation the surviving characters would inevitably need, but the characters aren’t really the point of a horror movie. The point is the rush of release and endorphins we get from “safe” fear. We, the audience, get all the charge and none of the actual danger. This is what distinguishes The Devil’s Rejects: There is absolutely no predictability. It isn’t telling a typical horror story (if anything, it has the plot of a road movie—a blood-drenched Easy Rider where every main character is that guy in the truck with the shotgun), and as a result, its commitment to grim brutality is completely disorienting.

The story is simple: In 1978, somewhere in the deserts of Texas, the zealous Sheriff John Quincy Wydell (William Forsythe) raids a remote farmhouse in what a voiceover paired with an intertitle informs us is a “search and destroy” mission. The dilapidated farm is occupied by the Firefly clan, a sadistic gang of loosely related serial murderers who, we’re told, are responsible for at least 75 murders within a hundred-mile radius, and that’s almost certainly a low estimate. After a firefight which leaves one member of the family dead and the matriarch (Leslie Easterbrook) in police custody, the two most dangerous members of the family escape out a secret tunnel. On the run, Otis (Bill Moseley) and Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) contact their “father,” a local small-time celebrity clown known as Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) and warn him that the police are on their trails. They lay low at a roadside motel, where Otis and Baby entertain themselves by torturing and murdering a touring country band called Banjo and Sullivan. Once Spaulding arrives, they flee to his half-brother Charlie Altamont’s (Ken Foree) desert brothel. Eventually they’re captured there by Sheriff Wydell and two bounty hunters (Danny Trejo and Diamond Dallas Page), who return them to the Firefly family house. Once there, Sheriff Wydell tortures the three before finally being killed himself by Tiny (Matthew McGrory), another Firefly clan member who had been hiding in the woods. Baby, Otis, and Spaulding, all horribly injured, drive off into the night. The next morning, they are killed in a shootout with a police blockade.

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That description is lacking in…certain details, shall we say. Virtually every single moment of this movie is drenched in brutality. It’s not fun, though it’s also not without a certain sense of humor. Take, for instance, the scene where Baby, Otis, and Spaulding bicker about whether or not to stop for an ice cream cone as they flee the scene of their latest killings—it’s breezy, funny, well-acted, and well-paced by Zombie. It contains what might be the funniest moment in the film, a punchline cut from Otis promising the two that there is absolutely no ice cream in their future to Spaulding and Baby happily chowing down on their cones. In this moment, the group actually seems like a real family. It’s an incredible relief to come to this scene after the harrowing Kahiki Palms Motel sequence, and a very smart choice on Zombie’s part.

There’s also the scene where Sheriff Wydell consults a local film critic regarding Marx Brothers films. (All the Firefly clan member’s names are taken from various Marx Brothers movies.) The critic is pompous, cartoonish, self-important, and has perhaps one of the most ridiculous mustaches ever committed to film. He’s come prepared with all sorts of factoids and stories about Groucho, but is tossed out on his ear when he has the temerity to complain that Elvis’s death overshadowed Groucho’s. The scene is funny and weird and seems quite out of place, but I think it’s a crucial moment in understanding Zombie’s purpose. Wydell brought the critic in because he hoped to glean some kind of insight into the behavior of the Firefly clan, but the secret in the dark heart of the movie is that there is no reason. There’s no motive for their crimes that can be understood, or broken down, or related to. They require no justification for their own behavior. They kill because they can, and that’s all. Regular people can’t really understand it. Wydell knowingly sacrifices his humanity to get revenge on the Firefly clan. (His brother was murdered by them, and he makes a point of telling them that it’s the reason he’s so bent on vengeance.) Even so, he can’t just do it so casually, the way they can. He rehearses the badass things he imagines himself saying to them in a mirror. He has to get very drunk during his torture of the captured family in order to stomach his own actions. He’s spurred to action after a guilt-laden dream about his brother. Wydell has reasons for behaving this way and thus, even as he pursues them and descends to their level, he can never truly understand how they do what they do or how they live with themselves.

This concept relates strongly to what, in my mind, gives The Devil’s Rejects its queasy power. In real life, when horrifying and tragic events occur, we get no real understanding of the why behind it. Oh, we can come up with particular triggers or patterns or justifications, but we’ve never gotten any closer to actually stopping spree killers or serial murders before they start or understanding them in any fundamentally useful manner. In this way, Zombie draws much more directly on real-life American horror stories in this film. While there are certainly nods to films like Bonnie and Clyde or Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, I was far more struck by imagery and sequences that resonated with real history. I can’t testify to how intentional all this was on Zombie’s part, but I believe he’s a smart guy, and everything I noticed took place during or prior to the 1978 setting of the story. Here is a list I kept as I watched of some of the overt visual and conceptual references to specifically American fears and stories Zombie drew from: Charles Manson and John Wayne Gacy (Otis and Spaulding’s visual appearances are the most explicit references in the film), the Vietnam War, the Zodiac Killer (indeed, one murder sequence early in the film could almost be mistaken for a scene from David Fincher’s Zodiac), Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, the murder of Kitty Genovese, the Black Dahlia, and the Kennedy assassination. There may well be more.

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The movie also deals in a somewhat unsettling (but much more offhanded) manner with the concept of religion: Otis claims to be the devil himself, and forces a character to futilely pray for salvation before mocking and murdering him. Ironically, Otis receives stigmatic wounds at the climax of the film, when Wydell nails Otis’s hands to a chair. Wydell also has several speeches in which he attempts to convince himself that he is acting as the righteous hand of God’s vengeance upon the Firefly clan, but his thirst for blood ultimately kills him just as surely as the Firefly’s lust for murder kills them.

The real engine of the movie’s terror, though, is the Kahiki Palms Motel. This sequence alone is so striking that the rest of the film deflates in its wake. The sheer level of unpredictable, grotesque torment that this group of entirely innocent individuals undergoes at the hands of Baby and Otis ratcheted my heart rate up for the entire rest of the movie. It’s so effective that, even though I’ve seen the movie several times, it still feels like a gut punch. I know my mom will read this (hi mom!), so I won’t go into too much detail, but nothing else ever tops it.

Really, Zombie’s triumph in this movie is his successful and absolute deromanticization of the concept of movie violence and movie horror. There’s no one to sympathize with, no heroes, no hope of salvation—there is only death, torment, and more death. There is explicit sexual violence, torture, sadism, body horror, murder of all stripes, kidnapping, and more. About the only grim touchstone Zombie avoids is cannibalism, and one gets the sense that it’s more out of a lack of time than anything else.

All that said, it sounds like a movie like this should be unwatchable, but it absolutely isn’t. Zombie paces it so well, throws in so many clever touches and moments, and gets such fantastic performances out of his actors that it compels even as it repulses. Zombie’s clear desire to actually entertain you, the discerning horror enthusiast, is what elevates the movie above the likes of A Serbian Film or Funny Games. That’s why I can’t, in good conscience, recommend this movie to anyone but the most hardened of horror fans, but for those who think they can take it, there’s nothing else quite like it. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Prod DB © Lions Gate Films / DR THE DEVIL'S REJECTS (THE DEVIL'S REJECTS) de Rob Zombie 2005 USA / ALL avec Sid Haig, Bill Moseley et Sheri Moon horreur, gore, otage, prisonniers, attaches, torture

Prod DB © Lions Gate Films / DR
THE DEVIL’S REJECTS (THE DEVIL’S REJECTS) de Rob Zombie 2005 USA / ALL
avec Sid Haig, Bill Moseley et Sheri Moon

MISCELLANEOUS THOUGHTS

– Banjo and Sullivan, the band murdered by Otis and Baby, actually have an album. It was produced by Zombie himself to add to the verisimilitude of the movie. It’s actually not bad, if you were interested. The second-to-last track is titled “Lord, Don’t Let Me Die in a Cheap Motel,” so that’s fun.

The Devil’s Rejects is technically a sequel to Zombie’s first film, House of 1000 Corpses, but it’s so stylistically distinct that it bears almost no relation to the first film. In fact, I didn’t even see House of 1000 Corpses until a few years after first seeing The Devil’s Rejects, and I feel no regret about that. House is much more beholden to the rhythms of music videos and lurid pulp horror, and often feels like a hodgepodge of the various Texas Chainsaw Massacremovies. It’s alright, but inessential.

– When the film first came out, there was some talk about how it was an allegory for the U.S. response to 9/11. I think that’s a valid enough interpretation of the film, but that arc (Wydell’s descent from righteous seeker of justice to gleefully blood-soaked murderer) is really nothing that Nietzsche didn’t already point out in his quote about looking into the abyss.

– I do wonder whether or not Wydell is partially inspired by Art Schley, the sheriff who captured Ed Gein. Schley was reportedly so disturbed by what he found in Gein’s house (I do not recommend Googling) that he beat him so badly in custody that Gein’s first confession was ruled inadmissible.

– I can’t overstate how terrifying yet charismatic Bill Moseley is as Otis. He actually reminded me a lot of a subsequent pop-culture psychopath: Trevor from Grand Theft Auto V. I kind of assume Dan Houser is a big fan of this movie.

– I suspect the year 1978 resonates very strongly with Zombie: it’s the year he turned eighteen, as well as the year that three of the most notorious serial killers in American history were captured—Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and David Berkowitz, each of whom gets an explicit nod in the film. It’s also the year the original Halloween was released, single-handedly kickstarting the slasher genre. Additionally, I Spit on Your Grave and Dawn of the Dead came out that year, as well as, perhaps most horrifically of all, Grease.

-Speaking of Halloween, it baffles me how Rob Zombie can so fundamentally misunderstand what makes that movie scary (that is, Michael Meyer’s blankness as a personality and his complete, unrelenting malevolence) when he so successfully employs similar psychological effect in this movie. Zombie’s Halloween remake is far too concerned with Michael as a “troubled child,” seeking to somehow explain what should be unexplainable.

– The soundtrack to this movie is really really good.

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Ten Years Ago: Hustle & Flow

29 Jul

Adding another contributor to the ranks of Ten Years Ago, please welcome Vanadium Silver, Man of Science by day and Man of Opinion by night, with a throwback to 2005’s Hustle & Flow.

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In 2005, I was a junior in college, dreaming big about my future as the academic professor I would not end up being. It was the tail end of the Kazaa boom, the early stages iTunes, and the year Kanye West let us know how George W. Bush felt about black people.

That summer, Hustle & Flow arrived.

Hustle & Flow stars Terrence Howard (who was nominated for an Academy Award for this role), as DJay, a pimp living through a mid-life crisis in the poverty stricken sections of Memphis. The movie follows his life, rediscovery of himself, and the delusions that he creates.

DJay’s employees include Nola, admirably played by Taryn Manning well before she would grace our Netflix accounts as Pennsatucky; Shug, pregnant and optimistically played by Taraji P. Henson; and Lexus, the hothead, played by Paula Jai Parker. Initially we are introduced to the life that DJay and his workers have developed, one of drug deals, prostitution, and poverty. DJay, however, is not a stereotype of a pimp as normally depicted by Hollywood. It is clear that the chosen roles in this household were done out of necessity, not that of the thrill or flare.

The crux of the movie follows DJay’s hope to develop a career as a rapper, with the assistance of Key (Anthony Anderson) and Shelby (DJ Qualls, in a standard DJ Qualls role, that of Awkward, Pre-Cera and Eisenberg White Guy). The goal is to put out an album by July 4th so that DJay can hook up with his “old friend,” Skinny Black (played by, unfortunately, Ludacris). But because DJay has distorted his relationship with Black and deluded himself that it would be easy, his plan for fame falls apart.

My first query upon re-watching this movie was how well Howard’s acting would appear in lieu of where his career has gone (the Cuba Gooding, Jr. path). His performance, however, is as stand-out as I remember it. His DJay is not a complex person. He has simple goals but a deluded sense of how the music industry works. He is quick to anger, and makes decisions that he will not go back on.

What stood out to me this time more than anything was Howard’s accent. This may sound minor, but his accent is so key to his depiction of the pimp. It localizes the character and truly stands out next to the actors barely even trying to attempt one. (I’m looking at you Anderson, Qualls, and Ludacris.)

Howard’s role shows the potential that he really had at this point, the next big thing he could have been. 2005 was a giant year for him. He was in this as well as Crash and on his way to filming Iron Man, the movie that would signify the change in his career trajectory. Hopefully that path has begun to fix itself with the success of Empire, but I was transfixed upon him again as the movie rolled on.

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The first real conflict of the movie is when Lexus is removed from the house due to her disagreements with DJay. I hadn’t realized back then but it really surprised me that the movie seems to just forget about her. There is a brief glance of her at the end of the movie but that’s about it. Her last statement is really “Where will I go?” and we never truly get to figure out much of where.

This was surprising because the movie truly aims to put a spotlight on the humanity and lives of the other members of the home, Nola especially. Nola becomes the face of the sex worker, her journey and combative relationship with DJay highlight the struggle that poverty has placed them into.

My next revelation was how much the poverty stuck out to me more than it did 10 years ago. DJay and his family are an excellent depiction of the struggles of American poor. They fight and scrape for every dollar, and hang their dreams on a chance to get out. The only chance they really have is through DJay’s music.

And the music….still works. The rap is smooth, the beats are effective, and the lyrics still work. This movie hinges, more than anything, on the music being effective, and it still sparkles because of it. You will still smile at “Whoop That Trick” or cry as you see the realization of their team’s potential on “Hard Out Here For a Pimp.”

I generally dislike musicals and my rewatch made me realize that this movie expertly tricked me into watching one. I groaned at my realization and cursed about it to everyone in the room that would listen, which ended up just being my cat.

But DJay’s dreams of a music career and the way he pursues it puts this movie strictly into a time capsule. To this day, I still think he could have put his music over the net. Anderson and Qualls’ characters are not mired into the same situation as Howard’s, and 2005 was a peak of file sharing. DJay’s miracle throw to convince Ludacris to get him a deal seems stuck in the ’90s, not the new century. Beyond Ludacris, their plan is to get their song on the radio.

The radio?? Really?? Why? Put it out there and see what happens. Get on some podcasts, get it on the net get it out there. These questions bugged me all along. But does it ruin the experience? Absolutely not.

At its core, though, this is a movie about music and the dream out of poverty. Each character (minus Lexus) is fleshed out, with their own goals and need for their plan to succeed. They are each looking for a new beginning, a way out of their current lives, a way to move forward. The movie holds up well because it is taking a simple story with a simple goal and telling it well. Ten years later I can truly see that the conflict in the end is all the same one, the staleness of American life.

Most of all this is a movie that recognizes that cell phones actually exist! There’s a scene where a character is interrupted by a phone call. And in 2005 this was a hugely important revelation! Cell phones still didn’t exist in Hollywood as best as I can remember.

If you missed Hustle & Flow, spend the three bucks on Amazon and rent it. Just be careful humming “Whoop That Trick” in public.

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Ten Years Ago: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

18 Jul

Max DeCurtins considers the “authenticity” of adapting children’s books and ponders the labor value of the Oompa Loompas in his re-view of Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

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Tim Burton quite possibly may be every nerdy kid’s hero. He’s living proof that being quirky and different, while it may not win you many friends in high school, can in adulthood serve as the foundation for a wildly successful career with many devoted fans. His protagonists often count among their number the outcast, the downtrodden, the different. I’m certainly impressed by Burton, but I think certain of his movies stand a head taller than the rest. Some of Burton’s films feel contrived; others feel almost inexplicably inspired.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, though not without its weaknesses, falls squarely on the inspired side of things and counts, I believe, as one of Burton’s best creations. The whole film shimmers with imaginative imagery in the unmistakably bizarre aesthetic that I expect from Burton, which along with Danny Elfman’s score and Johnny Depp in a lead role attracts most viewers. Freddie Highmore gives a wonderfully delicate and honest performance as Charlie Bucket, and the supporting cast turns in what I would call a solid ensemble performance. If anything, Depp’s performance, like his roles in the later Pirates movies, seems the most uneven—at times spot-on and other times deeply forced. What’s clear in the book is that Willy Wonka as a person is deeply eccentric; where Burton differs from Dahl is in his characterization of Willy Wonka’s eccentricity. Dahl’s Wonka generally comes off as sweetly mischievous and a jokester, while Burton’s version of the character seriously makes us wonder if Wonka might secretly be a psychotic serial rapist-murderer of the type usually depicted gruesomely on tiresome shows like Criminal Minds, CSI, Law and Order and NCIS. (Note to the crime show people: How many ways can there be to murder a person? Y’all have twisted imaginations, and it’s time for something else on TV.)

With Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it genuinely feels as though Burton has hit on the essence of Roald Dahl’s dark humor. Dahl’s literature for children, as most of us know from reading his books as children ourselves, tends to portray worlds where the natural balance of things is “off”—where children may model virtue better than the adults, or where magical and wild things happen. Already known for adapting Dahl (producing 1996’s James and the Giant Peach), Burton chose to continue his well-known collaborations with Johnny Depp and Danny Elfman, and in this movie the team definitely delivers. Beyond existing solely as a “more authentic” film realization of Dahl’s book (a little more on this later in the re-view), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is as relevant in a time of mind-boggling inequality and conflicting social and technological priorities as any movie we’re likely to see. I don’t remember exactly how I first saw the movie but I do know that at the time I saw it, I subconsciously tallied all the ways in which it differed from the movie I had grown up watching, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, released in 1971. This is the movie most of us remember, so it deserves a few words.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory may bear only a casual relationship to Roald Dahl’s novel, but by my count nobody has won the Internet with memes of Johnny Depp from his turn as the canny candymaker. It has Gene Wilder and a few nice melodies, but that’s about it. Though his name still appears under the screenplay credit, Dahl renounced his prior approval of the movie due to the massive changes to the story made by the producer, David Wolper, and the screenwriter, David Seltzer. The book, as we all know, makes only a brief mention of fizzy lifting drinks (certainly no secretive swig by Charlie and Grandpa Joe), contains only a passing reference to Slugworth, and absolutely never depicts Willy Wonka dressing down Charlie. I long felt that this plot twist, which assumed that Charlie was a sinner just like everybody else—and had him tempted and redeemed—smacked just a little too much of Christian theology, which is possibly the biggest offense Willy Wonka could have committed against Dahl’s story.

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Roald Dahl’s strong turn away from religion followed personal hardships he suffered in war and personal losses he endured in his family; in other words, he lost his faith the hard way. Growing up between the World Wars, Dahl saw the definitive shift of the twentieth century away from the world his parents had known, and towards something unknown and likely quite scary. Despite his lack of religious identification, Dahl’s works still exude a strong moralistic tone. I thus read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a morality play for the twentieth century, window-dressed in a world of candy inspired, apparently, by Cadbury’s influence in Dahl’s grammar school days. While the story doesn’t employ the historical device of morality plays, that of personifying virtues as characters, it does map four out of the five children rather handily to particular Deadly Sins: Augustus Gloop (gluttony), Violet Beauregarde (pride), Veruca Salt (greed), and Mike Teavee (sloth). The fact that the children are enabled or even encouraged by their parents shows that Dahl’s real criticism is reserved for the adults; what parent wouldn’t criticize another for standing idly by while their children get themselves into trouble? For that is, of course, exactly what the bratty children’s parents do; they watch their children get sucked up the chocolate pipe, or get blown up into a blueberry, or thrown in the garbage chute, or zapped into insignificance like so much Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

The moral criticism leveled by Charlie seemed obvious to me ten years ago, but it seems even more so now. Why? Ten years ago, as incredible as it sounds, smartphones did not exist. Now, we live in a time when almost every human, adult and child alike, carries a ridiculously powerful computer—and witness the result. We’ve all seen it: the parents absorbed by their smartphones while their children carry on, either throwing a fit or just straining for attention and interaction. Indeed, op-ed writers now fret over the ubiquity of smartphones and what they do to our social fabric. (Holy shit, I just realized that we’re living “The Game” episode from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Like, not even sort of. Literally.) There hasn’t been, I think, a more relevant time for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

As I re-viewed Charlie, I found myself struck by how strongly (perhaps unconsciously) Burton’s reading is suffused throughout with whispers of the Rust Belt. Charlie takes place in a factory town: it might be Youngstown, Ohio; Pontiac, Michigan; Liverpool, England; Gary, Indiana. Brownstones abound along tidy and well-defined city blocks. Charlie’s father worked for a time at a toothpaste factory, and Grandpa Joe once worked for Willy Wonka himself. If we can infer from Grandpa Joe’s history, Willy Wonka presumably employed much of the local population in his factory; with the increasing theft of his intellectual property, a concern of which we are all aware nowadays, he fired all his workers and—what luck—just happened to come across a tribe of people called Oompa Loompas during his travels, who just happened to stand to benefit from leaving their native land and coming to work in Willy Wonka’s factory. Suggestions of slavery aside (the first American edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which I own, illustrates the Oompa Loompas as pygmy black people), the fact that Wonka’s closing of the factory probably plunged a lot of hardscrabble, blue-collar factory workers into unemployment and poverty—including Grandpa Joe—goes unmentioned. We get the sense that, whatever town this might be, it probably used to be more economically vibrant than it is now, and the factory is at least partially responsible.

The factory, in Burton’s imagination, is a cathedral: it stretches toward the sky in the manner of a grand Gothic structure, and Elfman’s score characterizes it with the sound of the organ. We frequently see the town from the vantage point of the top of the factory. The organ is not a friendly instrument; forbidding in physical stature and intimidating to play, in our cultural heritage it conjures thoughts of Dracula, scary cobweb-laced castles, and (in more unfortunate circles) the Phantom of the Opera. At the same time, the organ has a long history of glorious music inspiring awe and devotion. In a way, the factory represents a physical manifestation of the organ music that characterizes it; the smokestacks of the factory resemble the tall pipes of an organ. We frequently see the town from the perspective of high atop the factory, and it’s not hard to notice how small, lifeless, and insignificant the town seems by comparison. Burton and Elfman manage to elicit both aspects in their portrayal of Willy Wonka’s factory, a place that awes, commands dedication for its place in the town’s economic history, but also inspires fear.

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Both Willy Wonka and Charlie feature chocolate factories in their opening credits, but whileWilly Wonka shows us luscious, glimmering close-up footage of melted chocolate, Charlieshows us a wide-angle view of the manufacturing process: synchronized, faceless, unfriendly—accompanied as ever by Elfman’s slightly creepy, distorted mini-vocalizations. The closer we get to the shipping out of the packaged candy bars, the clearer it becomes that the synchronized retraction of the loading conveyors and the departure of the trucks represents the tireless and dehumanized process that keeps products flowing to the masses; the factory is not our friend. We also see perfectly-timed, robotic actions of a more human workforce—that of Mr. Salt’s nut factory—as they unwrap cases of Wonka bars in a high-volume, high-cost search for a Golden Ticket. When one of the women (and yes, they are all women) discovers the prize, a watchful Mr. Salt appears almost immediately to snatch the ticket from her grasp. The power of this scene lies not only in the pregnant visual of Mr. Salt snatching the Golden Ticket from the worker—a literal interpretation of wage theft from labor and the exploitative behavior of the 1%—but also in the irony that those sorts of factory jobs by and large don’t exist anymore, at least not in the United States. They exist, to some extent, in places like China, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, countries whose human rights records our government routinely assails. Women’s professional and economic power, represented by Rosie the Riveter, is well-known to have played a major role in American wartime and post-war productivity (Dahl, informed by his experiences in the RAF during the Second World War, would certainly have been aware of the similar phenomenon in Britain). So the scene of Mr. Salt’s female factory workers shelling away tempts us to recall a positive piece of our history. Our present culture invites us, however, to read this scene as deeply flawed: the women aren’t doing skilled jobs, jobs that will lead them to positions of management and C-suite power later in their careers. Dahl only describes Mr. Salt’s method of finding the Golden Ticket for Veruca, which might lead a lesser filmmaker to think “OK, I’ll show a bunch of people unwrapping candy bars, and that will be that,” but Burton manages to make this brief scene full of relevant discomfort.

Earlier in this re-view I promised a (short) discussion of the idea of “Authenticity,” scare quotes and capitalization both very much intentional. Allow me to explain why. The most obvious reason for Charlie to have been made is that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factoryis a relic of a time when much less respect was given to the source material. Wolper, Stuart, et al made a movie that reflected the ethos of its time, and in their zeal to make a movie that they thought would appeal to the widest possible audience, they altered and added material ad nauseam. “Based on the book by” is, as Sam Seaborn of The West Wing put it, “a loophole so big you could race the America’s Cup through it.” With the advent of movie franchises based on ridiculously popular book series—I’m looking at you, Harry Potter andTwilight—the meaning of this phrase has, I would argue, narrowed significantly. The financial and critical success of movies adapted from books now depends as never before on the directors, producers, and screenwriter(s) not taking too many “based on” liberties, for fear of an angry Internet of fans with real and immediate power to affect the performance of the movie at the box office and beyond. Surely aware of this, and above all mindful of Dahl’s disowning of Willy Wonka, Dahl’s estate exercised a significant degree of artistic control over the development of Charlie, and were apparently highly pleased by the choice of Burton to direct the film, and secondary sources seem to indicate that the Dahl estate expressed a great deal of confidence in Burton’s understanding of Dahl’s work.

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The irony in all this is of course that Tim Burton fabricated material as much as David Wolper ever did, producing a movie whose level of “Authenticity” relative to its predecessor is, at the very least, open to debate. The book does not contain any backstory on Willy Wonka; certainly it doesn’t mention a controlling, emotionally cold father—though admittedly the late Christopher Lee fits the role perfectly. Moreover, Burton uses this as the principal explanation of Wonka’s character and personality. The implication here is of course that the source material, Dahl’s book, is lacking; Willy Wonka, apparently, does not have sufficient personality to make him into a functional character onscreen, therefore, a backstory is needed. What this does is impose a modern prejudice on a context to which it doesn’t apply; in the study of Western art music, at least, we have spent a large chunk of the twentieth century trying to get out of the business of doing just that, of grappling with the willingness of performers and scholars to dismiss or alter the very stuff of which they claimed to be the vanguard. And yet we cannot slavishly attempt to remove ourselves from the picture. Richard Taruskin, writing in On Letting the Music Speak for Itself, argues that “Authenticity stems from conviction,” which is gained through the lenses of culture and interpretation. Certainly we can all agree that when directors direct a movie, actors act in it, and studios agree to finance the whole operation to the tune of a hundred million dollars or more, they are doing it with conviction. Can we really call Charlie any more “authentic” than Willy Wonka? Perhaps not, at least not in the absolutist sense, but we can marvel at just how well Burton exemplifies Taruskin’s exhortation to performers of all stripes: “Let us indeed try out everything we may learn about in every treatise, every archival document, every picture, every literary description, and the more adventurously the better. But let us not do it in a spirit of dutiful self-denial or with illusions that the more knowledge one garners, the fewer decisions one will have to make.”

Ten years after its release, Burton’s adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory seems as perceptive as ever. What I missed the first time around is that Burton finds a way to make the sickly humorous aspects of Dahl both subtle and topical. On the surface of things, it’s still a delightful movie, but I realize that the depth is there, too. I’m also less impressed this time by most of the Oompa Loompa musical numbers, but more impressed by the overall non-vocal score. Chief among the concerns for vocal music composition is that the text being sung should be clearly understandable to the listener. Unfortunately a few of the songs, particularly Violet’s song about chewing gum, fail on this and get muddled by the instrumental arrangement. That said, Danny Elfman continues to show his grit as someone who thoroughly knows the ins and outs of his business, as he navigates skillfully between Bollywood and Beatles styles of music. I find it fascinating that journalists who have written about Elfman so frequently use superlatives like “unforgettable” to refer to his scores; it’s hardly accurate (how many of his themes can you hum from memory?), and at the same time it conveniently ignores a general cultural unwillingness to compensate musicians respectably for the production and use of their music. Elfman’s score for Charlie has all the manic touches that make his musical style such a good fit for Burton’s darkly weird aesthetic, includingostinati consisting entirely of the words “Oompa Loompa.” Upon re-view, it’s Elfman’s main themes, not the Oompa Loompa musical numbers, that remind me of the work he did for The Nightmare Before Christmas, which has got to be one of the best musical scores I’ve ever heard in my life.

And not only is Charlie perceptive in its realization of Dahl’s book; it’s appropriate to the issues we currently face as a country that must decide what kind of country it would like to be, and what it would like its relationship with other countries to be like. Charlie invokes issues very much relevant to current discourse: socioeconomic inequality, intellectual property, technological disruption, and instant gratification and overindulgence. It doesn’t explore these issues per se, but I think that if you watch closely enough, you’ll begin to see these extra layers everywhere. Definitely re-view this one for yourselves; it’s delectable.

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Free-Floating Thoughts

THAT PUPPET SHOW. So. Amazing.

Who blasts through the roof of someone’s home in a glass elevator and then starts rummaging through that person’s cabinets? That’s some fucked up shit.

Star Trek has Trekkies. The Grateful Dead have Deadheads. And Danny Elfman has…Elfmaniacs. Apparently this is actually a thing.

I was disturbed to learn in the process of writing this re-view that Warner Brothers had considered everyone from Christopher Walken to Brad Pitt for the role of Willy Wonka. Brad Pitt…really, Warner Brothers? Really?

Are the Oompa Loompas unionized?

Gene Wilder’s entrance in Willy Wonka is some totally able-ist shit. Stevi Costa, amirite?

How is it even possible that no adults found any of the Golden Tickets? I realize we have to take it as an article of faith for the story that only children happened to find the Golden Tickets, but this is quite possibly the bit of disbelief that proves hardest to suspend. Seeing as I’m about to teach myself statistics in advance of a class on machine learning and data mining, I guess I’ll find out just how ridiculous this bit of the story really is.

Saying that Tim Burton uses his visuals to critique capitalism and conformism is a little like saying that Kim Jong-un is batshit crazy; it speaks for itself. Burton’s visual aesthetic rarely fails to please, and here it almost positively demands to be viewed on a drug trip. I mean, come on—an edible paradise of delights in a riot of highly saturated colors, with a chocolate river and waterfall, and a UFO-looking contraption that extends its alien proboscises downward to suck up the chocolate? There’s a substance other than sucrose at work there, my friends. The visual splendor is all the more astounding considering that Burton used relatively few CGI effects.

The Bucket family subsists on cabbage soup, but after watching this movie several times, I kind of want to make something with a lot of cabbage in it. Is that weird?

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Ten Years Ago: Memories of Murder

17 Jul

Betsy Cass takes her [at least] fifth viewing of Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder and sings its praises while putting it up against the critically acclaimed (but not Betsy-acclaimed) David Fincher film Zodiac.

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It’s impossible to talk about my relationship with Memories of Murder without talking about its American analogue, David Fincher’s Zodiac. Murder, which follows the investigation into South Korea’s first major serial murder case, was made in 2003, released in the U.S. in 2005 and unseen by me until 2008. I stumbled across it during a brutally hot summer in my non-air-conditioned Chicago apartment while on a long kick of modern Asian dramas. (It was directly preceded by Syndromes and a Century, which wrongly led me to liking Weerasethakul, but that’s another story). It was the antithesis of how I had encountered Zodiac. I had read Robert Graysmith’s book on the topic half a dozen times as a kid, was an avid fan of Fincher and (at the time) was fairly enamoured with the main cast. So when early whispers stated that Zodiac was some sort of procedural masterpiece, my anticipation grew out of control. To this day, the film is still widely seen as one of the high points of Fincher’s career and the procedural crime genre. You can probably guess where this is going. Not only was I disappointed in the film itself, but I was left absolutely baffled by the high praise. Had I watched the same film as everyone else? To me, it seemed an utter failure: stiff, needlessly showy, overly long, comically miscast, and disastrously paced. So I logically assumed it was my fault. I assumed no film could ever live up to the level of anticipation I’d had. I vowed to rewatch it several years down the line when I’d have a clearer head. Surely, then I’d see what everyone else saw in it.

As it turns out, I didn’t need to. Fifteen months later, I encountered Memories of Murder. I suppose it’s unfair to call it the film Fincher should have made for two reasons. First, clearly Fincher was aiming for a very different type of film. Second, I wouldn’t want to discount the individual vision of Bong Joon-ho by implying he is in any way indebted to Fincher. He is not. But here’s the thing: He was right and Fincher was wrong. About everything. Normally I’d say that there are a variety of different ways to tell a story. There is room for more than one vision. But just because there is more than one right way, does not mean there is no wrong way. In this particular instance, not only was Fincher wrong, but Bong was as right as anyone could ever be.

I’ve seen Memories of Murder several times since 2008. In a lot of ways, that has wiped from my memory what I got from the film the first time around. Instead, I remember the circumstances much more specifically. The total surprise. The sweltering heat. The fact that it served as a mirror to Fincher’s fiasco. And that I loved it. But I may have been hard pressed to tell you why I loved it. It was a very definitive and visceral reaction, but it’s taken me seven more years to be able to step away from that love and try to understand why Bong Joon-ho’s film had such a hold on me.

Trying to sum it up today, the best I can conjure is that it is a masterpiece of tone. It only takes moments for the film to establish its mood. And it’s probably not what anyone who sits down to watch it for the first time expects. It is sad and it is funny and it is terribly unselfconscious. Somehow these elements never seem in conflict with each other. The film can shift from one to the other within seconds, while never feeling unnatural or forced. Everything feels real. And I don’t mean real as in a plausible theatrical representation of things we can accept as being real. I mean real real. Like you’re spying on somebody real. The kind you don’t see on screen because it might be too painful or too boring or awkward. But Bong Joon-ho is able to play on this, to create real tension, real pain and uncertainty, as well as to mine unbelievable humor.

Each time I watch it, I forget how hysterically funny Memories of Murder is. The humour is discarded in its climactic final moments, scenes so iconic that they can easily dominate one’s memory of the film. But for practically two hours, it maintains a level of absurd hilarity so consistent that I found myself wondering if it had been a comedy all along and I’d been too blind to realize. Song Kang-ho, in a career-best performance from a career of great performances, anchors the film with his droll, stubborn detective, misguided but determined. He mines the role for every bit of awkward, uncomfortably comic nuance available to him. But the humour throughout is not levity inserted to lighten the mood. Nor is it a pointed attempt to show that the characters deal with their trauma through gallows humor. It’s never at the expense of the characters or the deeply serious story that is being told. It’s funny because life is funny and weird and embarrassing, even when it’s terrifying and unfulfilling. The humor also falls away at the right moments, expertly ceding to the gravity and bleakness of certain scenes. These moments become so rattling and indelible because of their utter lack of levity. Bong uses this shift to achieve gripping gravity with his finale.

So if organic humor and realism are the strengths of Memories of Murder, it’s easy to see what sets it apart from Zodiac. Humorless, wooden and glossy with tightly controlled performances and choreographed camera work, Fincher’s film becomes an exercise in detachment. Bong Joon-ho, by contrast, uses naturalistic lighting and a jagged handheld camera to reflect the loose acting and the raggedness of the investigation. The murder scenes are sad and pathetic, more like actual crime scenes photos than I’ve seen anywhere else on film. I still can’t quite believe the shot where dozens of tiny flies scatter from a victim’s lifeless face when a flashlight is shined onto it. In hindsight, it’s an obvious and honest detail, but I’ve never seen anything that comes close to it anywhere else. Add to all this expert pacing, which never wastes a moment but never feels rushed. Bong lets the story expand and contract naturally, until it is almost unbearably taut in its climax, then finally relaxes into an uneasy conclusion in its last moments. It’s an emotionally immersive experience, far removed from the alienation of Zodiac.

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It might be easy to say that Bong is just a filmmaker who prefers naturalism over slickness, emotion over control, but a look at the rest of his films proves that not to be the case. In the years following Memories of Murder, he’s chosen to tell stories that are hugely divergent. Despite that, he’s always been capable of altering his visual language to match, while still maintaining some semblance of personal style. His immediate follow-up, the high-gloss satire The Host, was a massive departure in scale and style, and he perfected his take on sleek, big(ger) budget action with last year’s Snowpiercer. His natural instincts seems to be for show, which makes it all the more affecting when he puts them aside to quietly serve the story. It’s something he managed to do again several years later in Mother, a film so greatly indebted to to Memories that it plays like more than a spiritual sequel.

While I’m a fan of all of Bong’s films, I can’t imagine he’ll ever be able to top his breakthrough work. One of the chief delights of the film, even after seeing it several times, is its continued unexpectedness. There are still moments, big and small, that catch me off guard. Somehow it remains surprising and spontaneous. I don’t know if that’s something I can say for the rest of his films upon repeat viewing. I certainly can’t say it for Zodiac. Everything in this film is so alive that it almost feels as though it could change as I’m watching it. But I really wouldn’t want it to. John Peel was known to have said about the song “Teenage Kicks” that there was nothing that could be added or subtracted to it that could have improved it. I suppose that’s the way I feel about Memories of Murder. I wouldn’t change a thing. Maybe because of that, it hasn’t transformed itself for me in a major way since the first time I saw it, yet with every subsequent viewing, it still feels as though there are boundless possibilities within it. It is the height of craft producing the height of good damn art.

Stray Notes:

— Whenever I describe the film to anyone, I refer to it as like an American police procedural plus kicking. I will never get tired of watching the detectives rough up suspects with their feet instead of their hands.

— While it’s obvious that the subtleties of subtitles have a huge impact on how you experience a film, I’ve never given much consistent thought to it until watching this movie. I have the British version, which means the words knickers, wank, and arse appear repeatedly. Aside from the delightful cultural mismatch, it makes me wonder what I’m gaining or losing in other subtitle translations.

— Never stop working together, Bong Joon-ho and Song Kang-ho. This is some Mifune/Kurosawa level collaboration.

— As someone who knows admittedly little about Korean culture, I’m still surprised to see such frank discussion of certain proclivities in this movie. I can’t tell if this is groundbreaking or completely normal.

— It would be too much to say that other films are ripping off Memories of Murder, but there have been a remarkable number of very similar works since it premiered, stretching from Zodiac all the way to this year’s Marshland. Of course, they all pale in comparison. Everyone can really stop trying. They’re never going to improve on this one.

— Speaking of Zodiac, I did end up rewatching it about a year ago. I still think it’s a piece of junk (well-made junk). What is Robert Downey, Jr. even doing in that movie? That said, the scene at Lake Berryessa is still one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen.

— This is going to sound like a slight, but I swear it’s not: I got sort of a Life on Mars vibe from this film the most recent time I watched it. This may just be a result of both featuring hilarious beatings of innocent suspects.

— Of all the inappropriate humor in the film (worrying about a suspect’s blood getting on your boots, checking guys out at a sauna in an attempt to find a “hairless” suspect), one cop after another falling down a steep hill on the way to the first crime scene is my all-time favorite. Sets the tone of the film perfectly.

Sight & Sound, which has impeccable taste, named this one of the 30 best films of the last decade. Cahiers du Cinema, who I’ve never agreed with, chose Bong Joon-ho’s follow up,The Host, as their fourth best movie of the decade. While it’s a good film, I personally find it to be his career low.

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Ten Years Ago: Murderball

16 Jul

Stevi Costa digs into her dissertation topics with Murderball, finding that, in terms of representing disability, the film both reinforces and unravels the ideology of ability.

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I’ve spent the past two or three months doing nothing but reading and writing about disability theory for my dissertation, so I thought, sure, let’s re-view Murderball, the 2005 documentary about the U.S. Quad Rugby Team and their quest to win the gold at the 2004 Paralympic Games.

I’ve recently been writing a lot about representations of disability and grappling with how certain representations of disability reinforce the ideology of ability, while others seek to unravel it. Murderball, as a film, does a little of both.

It is most certainly made for a non-disabled audience. The opening shot of the film shows rugby player Mark Zupan disrobing. The camera lingers on Zupan pulling off his bed clothes to put on his workout gear, all while sitting in his chair. It focuses of Zupan taking off his pants to reveal his legs, which one might describe as atrophied as a result of his paralysis. There’s no sound playing over the scene. It seems distant and clinical. It is as though the audience is a doctor observing a patient, and it assumes that the relationship is one of an able-bodied observer studying a patient with a disability.

But this opening shot also establishes that this film won’t spend all of its time replicating this uncomfortably medical gaze when it holds focus on Zupan’s tattooed leg. One of his calves is nearly entirely covered in a black tribal design. We never get an answer in the film as to whether Zupan got this tattoo before or after his accident, but either way the tattoo reinforces his toughness, his masculinity. (Either he was badass enough before the accident to withstand the pain of a calf tattoo, or he has badass enough after the accident to spend four hours joking with a tattoo artist about whether or not he could feel anything happening at all.) The tattoo lets us wonder about Zupan. It seems unexpected on a disabled body and therefore allows an able-bodied audience to read Zupan as a person, rather than a patient or a case file.

Murderball spends most of its time treating the rugby players like athletes, which are the parts of the film I really like. I love watching the shots of the guys at practice, or in competition, and hearing them talk strategy about the game. The film’s primary narrative tracks the US team’s relationship with its former coach Joe, a former paralympian who defected to coach the Canadian national team after he was fired from Team USA in the late 1990s. I like knowing that the U.S. Quad Rugby Team won all 11 international wheelchair rugby competitions up to the time of filming. And I especially like knowing that the game of wheelchair rugby (or “murderball,” as it used to be called) is designed to account for individual experiences of disability. Because quadriplegics are classified differently depending on where the spine was broken (which determines mobility), quad rugby players are each assigned a point value based on their level of mobility. More mobile players have higher point values (Zupan is a 3-point player in the film), and less mobile players have lower point values. A team cannot put more than 8 points in play at any time so that each team has a balanced level of abilities on the court, and so that all players are guaranteed court time, regardless of their level of mobility. The game recognizes that experiences of disability are individual, and all of those experiences can make of a valuable athlete. I find the game of quad rugby itself, and the narrative about athletic competition, to be the parts of this film that work against the ideology of ability because it shows disabled people as capable, adaptive, and valuable human beings. (The U.S. Team takes the bronze at the 2004 Paralympics. Canada takes the silver, and New Zealand comes from behind to take the gold.)

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But there are other aspects of the film that don’t do much to counteract a preference for able-bodiedness. In order to satisfy the medically trained curiosity of an able-bodied audience, the filmmakers choose to interview each athlete to describe what I’ll call the “How I Got in This Chair Story.” The chair stories, on the one hand, show that disability is a fluid state that any person could arrive in at any time, which does some work to rethink what disability means, but they also draw on audience pathos in ways that are meant to make able-bodied viewers feel sorry for the quad rugby players, and then be inspired by them when we see them do athletic things. The chair stories make the bodies of the quads intelligible to the audience, reassuring able-bodied viewers that they’re fortunate to not be the guys in those chairs. During the telling of each chair story, the filmmakers show “before” photos of the men as children or teenagers, standing upright on two legs. These images are troubling because they reinforce the narrative of disability as decline.

Interestingly, the chair stories in Murderball also serve another function: they produce disabled masculinity, which really is the core of what the film expresses as a whole. Disabled masculinity is a hyperstylized performance that seems compensatory by design. I call these performances compensatory because the rugby players are shown throughout the film to be participating in masculine behavior: playing poker, drinking, talking about sex, playing sports, etc. But these men perform their masculinity in overt and exaggerated ways, which seems to frame the performance of their gender identity as compensating for their physical bodies. The chair stories aid in the development of this kind of masculinity. With the exception of Coach Joe and the team’s one quad amputee, all of the U.S. quad rugby players became disabled as the result of an accident associated with masculine behavior. While Joe and the amputee became wheelchair users due to childhood illnesses (polio and meningitis, respectively), every other member of Team USA became disabled after a fist fight or a car accident (usually after a night of drinking) or some other accident involving an extreme sport (i.e. motocross, motorcycle racing, etc). The craftsman who makes the customized chairs for the rugby court calls his creations “Mad Max Wheelchairs.” His alignment with the hypermasculine post-apocalyptic car-modding franchise is not an accident, as the cars in Mad Max are also external signifiers of masculine power. So, too, are the murderball chairs.

Further, the filmmakers devote an entire section of the film to how these men handle relationships with other people. The players comment about rejecting help when kind strangers offer it. I don’t deny that strangers offering to help persons with disabilities in public spaces is an ableist response, but it also bespeaks a desire for kindness and empathy that social justice models preach. The players’ rejection of this assistance is well within their rights, but they frame it as an affront to common sense and their own ability to complete tasks, as personal, rather than a cultural precedent. They actively provoke fights at bars, noticing how other men shy away from getting in fights with them. “What? You’re not gonna hit a kid in a chair?” one player relays, “Hit me. I’ll hit you back.” These incidents, coupled with the way the men describe their relationships with women, demonstrate that this particular group of disabled men seems to compensate for their disability by overperforming masculinity.

This tends to work out in their favor when it comes to sexual and romantic relationships. As one player observes, “Women are not threatened by the guy in the chair.” So girls will come up to them in bars and mercilessly flirt, driven by the curiosity of what it would be like to fuck a guy in a chair. All of the players note that all flirtatious interactions they have with women eventually arrive at the question of whether or not their dicks work. Mark Zupan’s girlfriend, Jess, relays that she thinks girls are attracted to quad guys because it allows them to fulfill their mothering instincts. While disabled/non-disabled relationships do certainly require caregiving (as do any romantic relationships, by the way), Jess’ framing of her relationship with Zupan as fulfilling a mothering instinct is problematic. Perhaps without meaning to, Jess is infantilizing her boyfriend, suggesting to the able-bodied viewer that he cannot function in a romantic relationship in the same way as an able-bodied adult man. Her framing, of course, stands at odds with Zupan’s own declaration of his sexual prowess. “People ask how we do it,” he says. “I’ll tell you this: guys in chairs usually love to eat pussy.”

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The film discusses each player learning to become sexually active again after their accidents, and I found this portion of the film to be really well handled. Rather than infantilizing these men or treating their sexuality as curiosity (which the players’ stories about girls in bars demonstrate), their honest and frank discussions of what it was like to masturbate for the first time with new hand mobility or the first time they had sex as a quad or what positions they prefer felt like the men were being fully humanized and understood as people, rather than medical subjects. Of course, these discussions of sex also reinforce their virility and masculinity, a la Zupan’s comment about eating pussy. I highly doubt there would be a similar discussion in a film about quad women, as women are expected to be passive sexual partners, not active ones. By talking about sex, the rugby players reclaim their status as active sexual partners in the eyes of able-bodied viewers, who read their disability as lack.

Murderball’s secondary narrative is the story of Keith, a new quadrupalegic, going through rehab, learning how his new body works, and discovering murderball. As Keith is introduced, his mother says of his motocross accident, “His whole life has been on wheels. Now one of Keith’s favorite things hurt him.” Keith’s mom apparently misses out on the fact that her son still gets to be on wheels—just different ones than before. The filmmakers certainly don’t miss out on the irony of this comment, though, showing a scene of Keith wheeling through the rehab center alongside images of his old motocross days. Keith’s story demonstrates that recovery and rehabilitation is a long process. Even though Keith has only been in the facility for four months before he is released, he talks about other patients post-spinal cord injury who have been there for months. The nurses, whom he likes to flirt with, give him a farewell card that he has difficulty opening. He refuses their help politely when they offer, and the camera lingers on the long process of Keith opening the envelope. On his return home, Keith speaks openly about how upset he is that he can’t use the space in the same was as he could when he wasn’t a wheelchair user. His mother tries to remind him that he’ll adjust, and Keith tells her that he knows he will, be he can still be mad about it. Keith meets Mark Zupan at the rehab center when Zupan comes to talk about the Paralympics. Watching Keith’s eyes light up when he learns about quad rugby is absolutely the best moment of this film.

For me, Keith’s story makes visible that rehab doesn’t magically happen overnight, and that adjusting from able-bodied life to disabled life is difficult because of how entrenched the ideology of ability is in our day to day lived experiences, from the construction of buildings to our social responses. And when Keith learns about murderball, he recognizes that there are things his new body can do that his old body couldn’t, and that’s a really cool moment to witness. Keith is also totally adorable when he asks to test out Zupan’s competition chair, and immediately wants to practice ramming into Zupan. The hospital staff tells him no because of liability, but Zupan lets him give his chair a “love tap” and Keith is hooked. The end titles tell us that Keith is saving up to purchase his first custom murderball chair. Even though Keith’s story is still laced with rhetorical tools that draw the sympathy of the able-bodied audience and reinforce the ideology of ability, I also find his narrative to be really honest and refreshing—perhaps because Keith doesn’t participate in the same compensatory disabled masculinity that the rest of the quad rugby players do. The film constructs him differently: as an individual, rather than a stereotype.

(L-r) TOM HARDY as Max Rockatansky and CHARLIZE THERON as Imperator Furiosa in Warner Bros. Pictures' and Village Roadshow Pictures' action adventure

(L-r) TOM HARDY as Max Rockatansky and CHARLIZE THERON as Imperator Furiosa in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ action adventure “MAD MAX: FURY ROAD,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. from Warner Bros. media site

Ten years ago, I likely watched Murderball more like the average able-bodied viewer. I would have found these dudes inspirational, or some iteration thereof. But now, as a disability scholar who is nonetheless able-bodied, I see the films representational contradictions more clearly. To compensate for how they are viewed as disabled, the players and the filmmakers are complicit in constructing these disabled athletes as hypermasculine. This compensatory masculinity is problematic because it makes these rugby players into paragons of what quad men ought to be or do, which undercuts the game’s own emphasis on individual disabled experience. It also, by extension, creates a representational problem for women with disabilities, who become more enfeebled by the invocation of hypermasculinity within disabled representation. The cultural caveat to this, however, is another character from the very franchise invoked in the description of the rugby chairs: Mad Max: Fury Road’s Furiosa.

Furiosa, in 2015, does what Murderball does not: creates a compelling portrait of an amputee without invoking the sensationalist rhetorics of pity/empathy, or using the medical gaze to make her body knowable. Furiosa has no “How I Lost My Arm” story. There are no shots that linger on Furiosa doing things to show that she can do them. She simply does them. She exists as a strong woman in a man’s world, and feels neither the need to act like the hypermasculine war boys (the critically disabled subjects who emerge from such poisonous ideology), nor like the patriarchy’s visions of femininity as depicted in the wives she’s working to free.

In 2015, I really want to see a film about disabled female athletes living their lives without dwelling on the narrative of how they became disabled. The only women in Murderball are Zupan’s girlfriend Jess and Keith’s mother . . . and the few female amputee soldiers at Walter Reed Medical Center in the final shot of the film where the U.S. Team introduces the game to newly disabled soldiers (whose femaleness is subsumed by their identity as soldiers).

And if I’m making a wishlist about how we ought to represent disability, I’d also like to see more representations of disabled people of color. Murderball has one shot of a black quad rugby player. He is presumably on the U.S. team, but we never see him play and the only thing we hear him talk about is his preferred sexual position. Murderball’s representation of disability is limited to hypermasculine, straight, white men, and, while that may also be true of the sport, as a documentary, it tends to support the ideology of ability just a bit more than it works to undo it.

P.S. This documentary is not well made in the aesthetic sense. It looks like a piece of shit. And I think its utter lack of concern for aesthetics aids in its hypermasculine ethos.

P.P.S. Regarding Zupan and his leg tattoo, shortly after Murderball came out, Zupan was a guest on L.A. Ink. He got his other leg tattooed and did, in fact, joke with the tattooist about not being able to feel anything during his session.

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Ten Years Ago: War of the Worlds

4 Jul

Erik Jaccard, one of 10YA’s A-listers, returns from a re-view hiatus (those dang dissertations!) with Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, addressing European colonialism, the theory of evolution, and the challenges of adapting H.G. Wells for modern times.

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War of the Worlds

Dir. Steven Spielberg

Before I’d even started this re-view I was already patting myself on the back. I’d decided that after my first rather scathing re-view of a poorly adapted H.G. Wells novel (see my March 2012 piece on Simon Wells’ The Time Machine), I was going to let my current offering—Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds—breathe more freely and be itself. And by that I meant mostly that I wasn’t going to hammer it for straying too far from its source material, which I’d been unable to do on the prior occasion. This time around, to my surprise, I found myself wishing the film had strayed from the original material, tied as I believe that material is to its original historical and intellectual contexts. So now I find myself with a hand frozen in mid-back pat because I’m not sure whether I accomplished what I set out to do. By the end of this re-view the answer will be clearer, but that hand will also be firmly back in my pocket.  

I kind of wish I had a cool personal story to relate about the time I first saw War of the Worlds, but I don’t. When the film was released in the summer of 2005 I was living in Prague and I have a distinct memory of  the film’s poster plastered around the city’s many metro stations: Tom Cruise holding a terrified Dakota Fanning, both of whom are set against the an ominous scorched earth in the clasp of an insidious alien claw. In fact, more than anything I remember the Czech title for the film—Válka Svĕtů—because it produced, as all foreign posters for Hollywood films tend to do, a kind of uncanniness in my linguistic receptors. Here was an international symbol in Tom Cruise translated into the local vernacular, and the disjunction seemed amusing. Also, I recall noting the Czech phrase’s brevity: Czech doesn’t have articles, so everything is boiled down to two words: war and worlds. Anyway, I’m rambling to make up for the fact that I don’t really have anything to say. I didn’t see it then and only first watched on DVD later in the fall. As I recall, I was distinctly underwhelmed at first viewing, mostly because nearly everything about it seemed at best passable, aside from maybe the visual effects, which had clearly been one of the production’s biggest expenditures. [It was later nominated for all those sound and visual effects editing Academy Awards that no one really cares about and it lost all three to King Kong]. I was bored by the personal drama between the Cruise character and his children and, having seen the 1953 adaptation, I mostly waited for the part where the humans get melted by alien heat rays, as that’s the bit which had stuck with me as a kid. Aside from that, the entire affair was fairly forgettable and I honestly didn’t think much about it afterward.

I can see now that this was a little unfair of me. At that point in my life I’d decided that I didn’t appreciate Steven Spielberg’s consistent need to deflect darkness in the name of syrupy sentimentality and I think my reaction to War of the Worlds was immediately colored by an expectation that this film would also conform to that model. It did—it does—but it’s actually significantly darker than most Spielberg films not called Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan and it admits of little heroism and scant opportunities for resolution or redemption.  On one level at least, this adaptation then wants to move away from the stupidly enduring optimism of the alien invasion genre, which Wells essentially invented, and which would insist that humans always find a way to defeat their seemingly invincible attackers. War of the Worlds doesn’t really hold out hope that humans will save the day. Instead, the dominant emotional registers in which its larger drama operates are confusion, bewilderment, and numb trauma. No one knows what is going on and no one is going to fix anything. As is the case with most catastrophe narrative, all you can do is stay alive. If you maintain a sense of decency along the way, all the better (most don’t). I also remember thinking back then that I didn’t find the film’s visual effects impressive in comparison to the ongoing parade of summer blockbusters currently on offer. Watching it this time around I realized that this wasn’t so much the issue as that the best of the visual work is confined to the film’s first hour or so, after which the plot slows considerably to accommodate some of Wells’ original exposition and character development. While the fact that the second half of the film drags may have something to do with my perception that the whole hadn’t been much good, I’m quite certain that the finale did. I’m going to say more about it below and thus won’t get into it in too much detail here, but I’ll simply say that the deus ex machina invoked in order to bring War of the Worlds to a close beggars belief and seems far too much like contrived narrative closure intended to help us feel just a little bit better in a darkened world. I think I blamed Spielberg for this in 2005, not understanding that it was actually Wells who had conspired to bring down the aliens by such obvious means.

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Rather than continuing to grasp at reasons for my initial disdain, however, I’d like to think through my reaction to the film this time add a great deal more context and analysis that I probably wouldn’t or simply couldn’t have undertaken in 2005.  In doing so I feel like I have to start with that first re-view of The Time Machine, which I argued wastes a number of profitable opportunities to engage with the socio-political critique embedded in its source material, and thus to deliver on the narrative and critical possibilities of an adaptation to twenty-first century circumstances. This was particularly relevant given the film’s shift in location from England to the USA, where a surging gap in the distribution of wealth was beginning to create conditions similar in ways to those seen in late Victorian and Edwardian eras. As I said then, I wished that the film had been able to balance both the romantic and scientific elements that make up its generic coding and that it could then have done more with the critique implied by the ‘science’ part. In other words, I wanted less romantic schmaltz, less showy digital effects, and more contact with the book. With War of the Worlds, however, I had the opposite reaction: nearly everything about the film seems dated or dysfunctional to me now, and I think a large part of the problem is that it sticks too closely to the book. WhereasThe Time Machine supplies an elastic model for critiquing class relations which I thought could use updating, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds remains trapped in the specificity of its late nineteenth century intellectual and historical contexts of its source material.

Two of these—Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and the emergence of large-scale European colonialism—are especially important for understanding Wells’ War of the Worlds. It’s common knowledge that the theory of evolution revolutionized how Europeans perceived their role in the world. No longer could humans—and in a colonial context ‘humans’ means Europeans—assume that their place atop a global pecking order had occurred because they were special or favored by a higher power. Rather, evolution relativizes and subverts social hierarchy insofar as it links the entire species to a common point of origin, thereby making us different effects of the same initial cause. This has the power to undermine colonial power relations because it makes the domination of one group of humans by another a blatantly immoral exercise in arrogance. Yet, the theoretical flattening out of the human ‘races’ by virtue of a shared biological origin did not stop Europeans from attempting to dominate other human beings. Instead, it just provoked a major adjustment in ideology: because they were, by the nineteenth century, clearly more developed in material terms, Europeans came to think of themselves as the most highly evolved of the humans, a notion which then worked to justify the de facto enslavement of ‘inferior races.’ On the one hand, structuring the world as such meant that land could be expropriated, resources could be extracted, and free labor could be acquired; on the other, Europeans could tell themselves that they were doing this for the good of those inferior races. After all, being lowlier, so-called savage peoples required lifting up into the light of the civilized world and Europeans were the ones who, as they told it themselves, had been handed this heavy burden.

However, one of the most problematic things about the theory of evolution is that it creates a sliding scale along which species/peoples can rise or fall depending on their ability to adapt to changing circumstances. This implication provoked considerable anxiety among metropolitan Europeans in the Victorian era, accustomed as they were to thinking of history in terms of the eighteenth century’s notion of progressive enlightenment. Suddenly, the new scientific dispensation implied that being at the top of the pecking order didn’t mean you would stay there permanently. Evolution didn’t just mean ‘progress,’ as it could also signify digression, devolution, and especially degeneration, which was a particularly vexing concern in fin de séicle Britain. To the late Victorian world the very existence of ‘inferior’ indigenous peoples proved this troubling suggestion and opened up the possibility that those atop the current power structure (in this case, the British) could either fall back into an earlier state of savagery (the premise behind The Time Machine) or have their own position usurped by a more highly evolved species. Enter Wells’ Martians, who capitalize on the latter anxiety precisely by tipping the scales and ironically transforming the mighty British ‘race’ into a textbook colonial victim.

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The very idea of a Martian invasion of Earth purposefully inverts the scenario of the European colonial encounter, situating the Europeans as natives and the Martians as their technologically advanced natural superiors. Wells’ scenario makes this clear in nearly every way. The Martians have a more complex and developed intelligence precisely because they have been evolving for longer. His writer protagonist describes Martian anatomy in intimate detail, noting that their bodies have atrophied at the expense of their much larger brains (another trope repeated from The Time Machine). While this makes them vulnerable physically it makes them imposing technologically, and their prowess in this arena far outstrips that of their human counterparts. The Martian war-machines (the infamous ‘tripods’) tower over human armaments and reduce them to smithereens either by crushing them or blowing them to bits with a near-invincible heat ray. The desire of the lowly Europeans not to be extinguished is reduced to the image of a wooden spear bouncing meekly off the reinforced armor of a tank. In the novel Wells makes direct reference to this context when he draws the reader’s attention to the similarity between the brutal violence of the Martian colonial invasion and that of Britain’s extermination of indigenous Tasmanians earlier in the century:

And we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us. The intellectual side of man already admits that life is an incessant struggle for existence, and it would seem that this too is the belief of the minds upon Mars…And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

The critique of colonialism outlined here in the form of the Golden Rule—don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you—forms the backbone of Wells’ critique of the social and political status quo of late nineteenth century Britain. By inverting the relationship we are meant to imagine what it would be like on the receiving end the colonial brutality, a turn in perspective which would seemingly rebut facile ideological arguments for European domination and tacitly admit to the same conclusion reached by Joseph Conrad’s Marlow inHeart of Darkness: Under their darker skin and beyond their seemingly strange customs, the ‘savages’ are the same as us. Therefore, so the logic goes, in killing and exploiting them, we are essentially killing and exploiting ourselves.

The main point of this digression is to suggest that the entire story carries the weight of this contextual  baggage and, no matter what you do with the bare bones of the idea, the outline of the original context will always be there because it’s built into the narrative fabric: the seemingly unstoppable invasion of a technologically superior species; the symbolic transformation of the conquerors into the conquered; the breakdown of civilized order into barbaric chaos; the threatened degeneration or extinction of the human species. This narrative shape is tied to the historical context in which it emerged. The aliens invade as a giant land army because they are modeled after nineteenth century military models; they lust after our resources the way they do (nakedly, cruelly, and openly) because they are essentially the inverse representation of European greed in the nineteenth century; they come bearing superior technology because in 1900 it was thought that all you needed to ‘win’ a war was better soldiers and bigger guns. But while the story has stayed the same, the framework in which we receive it has evolved. Capitalism works differently now, as does colonialism and racism. Science is light years beyond where it was at the turn of the twentieth century. We haven’t moved beyond any of these things, of course, but they aren’t the same either. This means that any successful adaptation of the story made more than a hundred years later will need to provide new contexts in which to understand the form, new anxieties and fears which can drive motivations and lend a Martian invasion significance in the twenty-first century.

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My problem with Spielberg’s film is that because it lacks the guts and bravado to take on this challenge, the end result is uneven and oftentimes frustrating.  Rather than creating, or at least referencing, a new context in which an alien invasion might be made meaningful, it A) retains the shape of the story without fulling committing to a frame of reference such that it can only B) play up the sentimental family drama in the film’s foreground. For clarity, I’ll discuss these things in order.

First, the story. While scriptwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp change a little here and a little there, mostly in terms of updating the setting and background to the twenty-first century, they retain the majority of the earlier story’s basic plot. Like Wells’ novel, the story opens with a narrator (Morgan Freeman, in full God/Father Time mode) who offers a prologue to the attack: hundreds of thousands of miles away aliens have been patiently watching us and coveting our green and bountiful planet, waiting for the opportune moment to strike and take it for themselves (the notion that these aliens might be Martians is left out of the new account, probably because we now know that there isn’t much life on Mars). One ordinary day a series of freak lightning storms strike across the globe, acting as de facto electromagnetic pulses and shutting down terrestrial communication networks and all electric machinery. At first humans—and in this case, a working-class neighborhood in the greater NYC area—are nonplussed by the seeming regularity of the lightning: it strikes over and over in the same spot, spread over hundreds of different spots. Curiosity and awe soon turn to horror as the lightning strikes activate massive metallic fighting machines piloted by—we learn later—alien beings intent on either destroying or enslaving (though mostly destroying) all of humankind. Naturally, faced with the blunt terror of the alien attack, in which hundreds are vaporized by seemingly invincible alien heat-rays and highways, houses, and cars are destroyed as though they were toys—human societies descend into chaos. The military is called in and their attempts to repel the attack prove fruitless—the alien technology is far superior. Chased over hill and dale and slaughtered wherever they try to flee or hide, humans are reduced to cowering sub-creatures at the mercy of their new alien overlords. Finally, after days of slaughter, during which time humans also witness the aliens beginning to terraform the planet with human blood and tissue, the alien crafts mysteriously weaken and become strangely vulnerable. At this point the narrator concludes the tale with the underwhelming simple explanation that, while the invaders were prepared to handle us, they were not prepared for the earth’s myriad microorganisms, which make them sick, allowing us to shoot them with our previously useless rocket launchers and ultimately save the day. Humanity escapes to live another day, hopefully chastened and unwilling to return to their erstwhile state of complacency.

As I have explained above, this general outline makes a lot of sense when read in a specific context and it still resonates most vividly within a particular historical conjuncture. However, this does not mean it couldn’t work actively in others. The filmmakers have stated publically that part of their intention with the film was to express a certain sense of exhaustion and helplessness in the traumatized years following the attacks of September 11, 2001. I see this operating at a distance in the film’s script, which has Cruise’s son ask confusedly whether what’s happening is the fault of ‘the terrorists.’ The change of location to New York City also reinforces this potential resonance, as does, I suppose, a general sense of confusion in the wake of catastrophe. But these scattered indicators are really all we have to go on and I don’t think I’d be alone in suggesting that, if 9/11 is meant to be primary historical reference point, there is too little in the film to make this clear or purposeful as an interpretive tool. What we’re left with, then, is a whole lot of destruction and despair that doesn’t seem to be grounded in anything. The disaster thus becomes curiously empty and incomplete, an effect without an acknowledged source code to which we can trace its form, and in reference to which we might hear that form speak meaningfully. A lot of large-scale alien invasion narratives also suffer from this problem, but some of these tend to deflect the emptiness at the center of their premise by playing up both the adventurous and comical potential of their story.Independence Day, for example, features an invasion scenario that is generally the same as Wells’ but does so with the added bonus of enigmatic characters, splashy acts of unlikely heroism and intelligence, and silly but tension-draining one-liners. War of the Worlds does what many would consider the admirable thing by going out of its way to break the Independence Day mold; no major landmarks are destroyed, there is no comic relief or romantic sub-plot; it isn’t made immediately clear that the humans will likely triumph. However, while it evades these clichés, it doesn’t fully commit to the darkness either.

This has two noticeable effects as far as I could tell this time around. The first is that it puts far too much pressure on the foregrounded interpersonal dimension of the story, which follows a divorced, working-class man’s attempt to reconnect with his kids and develop into a responsible person and father. Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a longshoreman working on the docks in the greater New York City area. As we learn, he is somewhat estranged from his children, who live with their mother (Miranda ‘Don’t call me Eowyn’ Otto) and her new husband, some hedge fund manager who seems responsible and respectable and level-headed; in other words, all the things that Ray is supposedly not. We’re mostly left to fend for ourselves in determining why the kids are put off by him, though it’s implied that he’s selfish and irresponsible and therefore not a good father or husband.. He has clearly alienated his teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin), who gets to rehearse all of the ‘why weren’t you there?!?’ anger requisite for the jilted son role. His daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) is more forgiving but seems written mostly to be rescue bait, precocious child, or close-up shot fodder for moments when we’re all supposed to be really, really scared. The gravitas of this more private situation hinges on Ray’s ability to be there for, and ultimately connect with both in the face of tragedy. As Robby notices, Ray’s attitude for much of the story seems to be a mix between ‘Oh my god, I want to save myself but I have these kids to take care of!’ and ‘Oh my god, if I don’t get these kids back to their mom alive, she’s gonna kill me!’ And I suppose the point of this is for Ray to realize that he is connected to the kids in a fundamental way, that they aren’t just little weird objects who get dropped off with him every few weeks. His assumed complacency about them is then mirrored in the larger complacency of the society at large, which was too consumed with itself to notice disaster looming. Thus, the personal dimension actually becomes the missing grounding for the attack, which, severed from any other identifiable context, ends up as a metaphor for one character’s redemption. So, even though millions die and this massive military metaphor runs rampant across the world, Ray proves his worth to this kids and all is forgiven. As in so many of Spielberg’s films, something worthwhile prevails, but at the expense of turning the darkness into a means to an end.

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This leads to my second (and final) argument, which is that, because the film makes the metaphorical layer of the macro scale stuff (the invasion, etc) subsidiary to the character drama, it loses out on the ability to say something interesting about both. And this is where I come back around to the tone of my earlier re-view of The Time Machine. I don’t wish thatWar of the Worlds had been closer to the book necessarily, but I wish it had been closer to the world. The form of Wells’ story, which it consents to reproduce, has immense potential to comment on global concerns, which it can other ignore or engage. In 2005 the United States, where the producers choose to set the film, was in the second year of the War in Iraq and the fourth year of the ongoing ‘War on Terror.’ As much as ideologues and apologists would like us to believe that both of these conflicts are/were about defending or promoting democracy or freedom, it seems clear now that we’ve had a decade to think it over that what democracy and freedom mean in the context of a massive invasion and occupation is never cut and dried. The invasion and occupation of Iraq was, as many have noted, a land and wealth grab on a massive scale [though the land part was temporary]. While it didn’t follow the same route as nineteenth century colonialism, it produced some of the same effects: mass civilian deaths, the shifting of power from one group to another, the extraction of resources, and particularly the freeing up of capital. This latter effect is what freedom and democracy mean in the contemporary world; if individuals become free to open a business or worship as they please or decide between MacDonald’s and Burger King, this is a secondary effect of the fact that capital has been freed first. However, the freeing of capital tends to be a tremendously disruptive process, particularly for societies which see older, established cultural forms and traditions upended by the new movement of ideas and products and paradigms across formerly solid border. Predictably, many resist, and must then be forced to comply.

In her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, the journalist Naomi Klein argues that what happened in Iraq was the perfection of a model of social ‘shock therapy’ which had been deployed strategically in a variety of locations since at least the 1970s. The premise, borrowed from Cold War-era experiments in brainwashing and personality disintegration, was that shocking a population sufficiently can induce a kind of traumatized paralysis. While in such a state, people are liable to agree to or ignore a variety of things, not the least of which is the fact that the fundamental reality of their world is being changed under their feet. If some resist, and some always do, you brand them enemies, capture them, and shock them some more in the form of torture. By the time you’re done the world they see is the world you want them to see.

The fact that War of the Worlds consciously ignores the world which it otherwise accepts as a default reality only says to me that it was not willing to take a risk. It’s not as though Wells’ scenario wouldn’t work in this new context. The very fact that the filmmakers acknowledge that they’re dealing with catastrophe and trauma only makes it clearer to me that one could combine the colonial critique inherent in the original with a new colonial context by way or producing a filmic document that was at least more specific. If the film forces us to occupy another position—that of the object of mass violence—then it seems logical that we occupy something more direct and relevant to our experience than a faded historical analogy (Wells’ Tasmanians) or a complete abstraction. It’s very difficult for me to look at human beings in the film running away from violence in frightened chaos and see Wells’ exterminated Tasmanians. At best I get a muddied picture of ‘natives’ doing the same, probably culled from depictions I’ve seen in other films. However, somehow it’s much easier for me to put myself in the shoes of someone similar cowering in a Baghdad doorway while American fighter jets scream by overhead, dropping bombs in their wake. If the film is about shock and awe and terror, specifically the terror of being the lowly  hunted, it makes sense to me to give that shape some shade and outline, rather than reducing it a vague shadow because we simply don’t want to acknowledge that we’re the aliens and that we’re still invading, that we’ve always been invading. Ultimately, when the alien hand reaches out from its destroyed war machine at film’s end, grimacing and evil and monstrous, we’re supposed to catch a glimpse not of a real creature from another world, but rather of some form of ourselves, of the anxiety and irony of our existence. Spielberg’s film leaves that out, which perhaps produces a final irony: when we cheer the death of the alien and breathe a sigh of relief, we don’t even know that the alien is us.

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Ten Years Ago: Land of the Dead

26 Jun

Another new writer joins the 10YA stable. His name is Jake Farley. Let him tell you about zombies.

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There’s Something About Zombie – A Land of the Dead Retrospective

Nobody plans for Dracula attacks. There are no internet sites devoted to selling specially branded gear for battling off Creatures from the Black Lagoon. Silver bullets are not available in your local gun store. Zombies, though…that’s a different story. Why do they resonate so strongly with modern-day American culture, while the creatures of the past fade into obscurity? Universal’s stable of monsters, for instance, grew popular by preying on the fears of their times—Frankenstein’s monster spoke of the dangers of uninhibited scientific endeavor, and Dracula represented the waves of scary foreigners entering America every day (particularly scary Eastern European foreigners, like my own sweet grandmother; though she was not, as far as I know, a Dracula). That’s not all there was to these creatures and their popularity, of course, but identifying and preying upon one commonly held fear that resonates with a wide group of people is a good path to continued relevancy.

So where does that leave the zombie? The word “zombie” once referred only to a relatively obscure Haitian myth, of an undead or hypnotized person magically enslaved to the will of an evil sorcerer. What we think of today as a “zombie” was essentially invented whole cloth by George Romero for 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, though even that movie did not use the term “zombies” (instead referring to the undead as “ghouls”). Critics did, though, and by the time of the 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead, it was their official name.

It wasn’t until the early 2000s that “zombie” became a genre unto itself, and, in my completely uninformed opinion, I think there are a number of converging factors that caused their resurgence in popularity. Video games, for instance, are always on the lookout for an enemy that the player can kill without feeling too bad about the act of digital murder, and by then people were getting tired of World War II games and their Nazi punching bags. Zombies make an acceptable substitute. I also think zombies speak to the American’s sense of exceptionalism. We like to imagine ourselves the heroes, the iconoclasts, the ones who will make it in the end, and what better background to set ourselves up against than the hordes of the undead? Everyone else is an undead sucker, but not you—you’re a survivor.

There’s also more intimate fears mixed in with the zombie’s DNA—disease transmission, the inevitability of death, the fear of conformity and loss of identity all resonate strongly in our culture for various reasons. The zombie is a powerful metaphor, and nobody understands that better than George Romero, the man who invented them.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying I really like the movie Land of the Dead. When I first saw it in college, it was an exciting time—a new zombie movie from the man himself! I grew up on the latter films of the original trilogy, the grotesque practical effects of Tom Savini staining images on my young brain in the garish bright orange/red of their cheap fake blood.

After my first viewing of Land of the Dead, though, I remember being vaguely disappointed. It’s not a bad movie by any means, but there was just something about it that I couldn’t put my finger on at the time. Having seen it a few times in the years since, I’ve warmed up to it greatly, and viewing it again earlier this week, I finally realized what put me off about it originally. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up.

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For those who haven’t seen it, Land of the Dead takes place largely in the fenced-off ruins of Pittsburgh. It’s unclear how long after the undead rose that the film takes place, though a rough guess of 25 years or so can be inferred through some bits of dialogue. The unzombified masses eke out a meager existence in the ruins of the city, while the wealthy elite (the 1%, if you will) live in a luxurious tower called Fiddler’s Green, with all the amenities one could hope for in the apocalypse; running water, electricity, alcohol, nice turtleneck/blazer combos, etc. The entire deal is overseen by a gentleman named Paul Kaufman (delightfully underplayed by Dennis Hopper), who endeavors mostly to keep himself rich above all else.

He accomplishes this by sending out roving teams of scavengers equipped with a purpose-built anti-zombie war rig (with apologies to Furiosa) called “Dead Reckoning.” It was designed and built by that guy from The Mentalist (Simon Baker), and crewed by himself and various other roughnecks, but the standout character here is an amoral “cleaner” for Kaufman named “Cholo,” played by the always-fantastic John Leguizamo. Cholo’s dream is to buy his way into Fiddler’s Green, but when he’s rebuffed by his boss for being the kind of unbelievable boor who would pour champagne into a whisky tumbler rather than a flute (a nice little bit of silent business between Leguizamo and Hopper in this scene), Cholo decides to steal Dead Reckoning and use its missile banks to hold the city hostage. It’s a very well-equipped anti-zombie tank. The guy from The Mentalist is then tasked with returning the vehicle before Cholo has the chance to kill all the rich people with it, because that would of course be a tragedy. The guy from The Mentalist has other plans, though- he plans to steal Dead Reckoning for himself and, like all pasty white Americans when the chips are down, use it to flee to Canada. Things go from bad to worse and we proceed until everyone in Pittsburgh has been eaten by zombies.

The guy from The Mentalist and his buddies are only half the story, though. The other group of main characters is a pack of zombies led by a former gas station attendant named “Big Daddy” (or at least, that’s the name stitched onto his coveralls). Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) appears to be smarter than your average zombie. He is not fascinated by the fireworks the living deploy to distract the zombies during scavenging missions, and he appears to be able to communicate on a rudimentary level with other undead. What’s more, they seem willing to listen.

This is actually a continuation of a story thread from Romero’s previous zombie film, Day of the Dead. In that movie, scientists have captured a zombie they name “Bud” and perform cruel experiments on it. What they don’t expect to discover, however, is that Bud is capable of learning. In the climax of the film when all hell, as it is wont to do, breaks loose, Bud obtains and successfully operates a pistol and appears to hold personal grudges against specific characters.

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What we come to discover through the course of that film and, particularly, through the course of Land of the Dead, is that the zombies are also capable of anguish, of rage, of sadness, and of friendship. Big Daddy is visibly enraged at the sight of zombies strung up for use as target practice by the living. He is also a tool user, learning the rudiments of operating a firearm quickly and on his own, and instructing other zombies in the use of their own found objects. He’s also a capable strategist, realizing that the rivers surrounding Pittsburgh, which supposedly keep the populace safe from the undead hordes, are in fact not much of a barrier at all to beings that cannot drown.

What Romero gives us is a strange empathy for these creatures. They’re monsters, yes, and they’ll kill and eat us, yes, but they are also beings in their own right. They are not the simple mindless monsters we assumed them to be. Much as we might wish it were so, our enemies are rarely that simple. It’s a powerful choice that robs the zombie of much of what makes them scary, but gives back to them a measure of humanity and dignity that, perhaps, even they had thought lost forever.

I suppose that brings us back around to what I found dissatisfying about my original watch ofLand of the Dead back in 2005. Seeing it again this week, I realized I was expecting a horror movie, but this is not a horror movie. At best, it’s an action film with some incredible gore and some thoughts about society. It’s explicitly about class warfare (at one point after being bitten, Cholo is offered the classic mercy bullet to the head before he turns; he turns it down, grinning wryly and remarking that he’s “always wanted to see how the other half lived”), and firmly sides with the poor and the put-upon in society. When the zombies finally level Pittsburgh, it’s difficult not to feel some sympathy given the way we’ve seen them treated by the city dwellers throughout the movie—they’re used as props in photo booths, they’re used for target practice, they’re used for bear baiting games in sleazy bars, the list goes on. It’s hard to escape the sensation that a lot of these people kind of had it coming.

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But, crucially, there’s very little tension. It’s not difficult to guess who is going to live and die by the end of the film, and the action isn’t presented as frightening at any point. By the time the film takes place, everyone left alive is a hardened survivor. Zombies don’t scare them anymore, so they stop scaring the audience. What’s left is an entertaining action flick that condemns the excesses people allow themselves at the expense of others, and warns that exploitation is simply a credit card whose payments will come due, one way or the other. It’s also a strangely reassuring movie—being a zombie isn’t so bad, it argues. At least you’ll be among friends.

By the end of the film, when our heroes have utterly failed to save Pittsburgh and Big Daddy’s zombie hordes have fed well, the two groups catch sight of one another. Rather than immediately eating and/or opening fire, they eye each other from a distance. In that moment, they seem to understand something of one another—their senses of camaraderie, perhaps, or maybe just their mutual weariness. They know that to clash now would just result in more death for both sides. After a long moment, the zombies turn and go one way, the living turn and go the other. If nothing else, they’ve learned that much.

MISCELLANEOUS THOUGHTS

– There are some truly, fantastically disgusting gore effects in this movie. Standouts include an arm being ripped in half lengthwise, a zombie pulling a guy’s whole head and spine out like he just won Mortal Kombat, and a zombie pushing his entire forearm down some poor bastard’s throat and pulling out handfuls of viscera.

– Dennis Hopper and John Leguizamo really steal this movie. They’re a lot of fun to watch. Cholo is clearly kind of meant to be a bad guy, but it’s really hard to dislike someone with John Leguizamo’s huge charisma. He turns what could have been a pretty unappealing character into a zombie apocalypse Han Solo.

– The original title of the film was Dead Reckoning. They changed it to Land of the Dead both for branding purposes and because Dead Reckoning is a terrible name for a movie.

– The guy from The Mentalist as the main character is kind of a total nothing. He’s blandly good-looking and generic enough that it’s difficult to envision him building an awesome zombie-fighting tank, but we’re told he did and he’s the main character, so we’ll just have to get used to him, dammit.

– There are a lot of characters I didn’t get around to mentioning. Asia Argento is probably the most significant—she plays a stereotypically sexy tough fishnet-wearing punk who teams up with our heroes for no better reason than it was looking a little sausage-festy in here without her. For the most part, none of the characters are nearly as interesting as the plot itself.

– Pedro Arce as the giant Samoan enforcer named “Pilsbury” is another standout, actually. He takes what could have been a nothing role and imbues it with a lot of humor and character.

– Legendary gore FX artist Tom Savini has a cameo in the film, actually. He reprises his role from the original Dawn of the Dead as the now-zombified leader of the biker gang that raided the mall in that movie. For that matter, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright (then of Shaun of the Dead fame) cameo as the photobooth zombies.

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