Nostalgia for a past that never existed

AD/BC: A Rock Opera by Matt Berry and Richard Ayoade

Despite our Ballardian present, the High-Rise film adaptation is a nostalgia piece

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  1. Our present is utterly Ballardian.
  2. Our present is so utterly Ballardian that our present is actually our (unevenly distributed) future.
  3. Like, what is the 2016 U.S. presidential election but a short story Ballard might have written in 1983 (and hopefully thrown in the trash)?
  4. Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise is particularly concerned with this present-future condition: the phrase to come (as in a future to come) repeats throughout the novel, a key dissonant note.
  5. Near the end of the novel, Ballard’s free indirect style drifts into the mind of protagonist Robert Laing:

    ...he found it difficult not to believe that they were living in a future that had already taken place, and was now exhausted.

  6. A version of this line shows up in the first minutes of director Ben Wheatley’s 2015 film adaptation of High-Rise.
  7. While Ballard’s satire evokes the post-future’s psychological (ir)reality, Wheatley’s film adaptation feels like a nostalgic period piece for a future that came and skedaddled. Perhaps he (and his fellow filmmakers—screenwriter Amy Jump, the editor, the set designers and costumers, etc.) found it impossible to do more than stylistically recapitulate the Modernist contours that Ballard transcended.
  8. Critic Tasha Robinson lays it out neatly in her proper review at The Verge:

    The retro cars, suits, and architecture all put High-Rise more in a quaint, remote past than a dystopian future. They also add to the sense of otherworldliness that hangs over the film.

    And so does the sense that High-Rise is driven more by Wheatley’s poster-ready striking images —€” a suicide falling from a high balcony in ultra slow motion, Laing expressionless and spattered with paint — than by any sort of human drives.

  9. (I modify “review” in the above with “proper” because Robinson wrote a real review; I’m not doing that here. I think her take on the film is far more detailed and broad than what I’m doing here, and certainly attends more to the, like, plot of the film—even as she acknowledges that the plot basically gets put on the back-burner for long stretches).
  10. So probably my biggest quibble with the High-Rise film adaptation is its nostalgia, its obsession with midcentury modernism and Brutalism and style—by which I mean the idea of style—over, like, ideas. 
  11. Those ideas: Ballard’s central critiques of capitalism, consumerism, and class do come through in the film, but Wheatley and his team resist giving them any air to breathe, let alone room to stretch their legs. (My god. Forgive me these metaphors, this terrible personification).
  12. There are very, very few scenes in the film where people exchange ideas.
  13. Instead, ideas are wedged in, often in snippets lifted directly from the book, crammed quickly into a frame that will surely veer back into the film’s main technique: Montage!
  14. The first chapter of Ballard’s novel is titled “Critical Mass.” As I pointed out in my review of the novel, “Ballard dispenses with any simmering in his tale of depraved debauchery,” and gets his pot boiling in a hurry.
  15. In contrast, Wheatley’s film gets a slower—but strong—start. (The first 50 or so minutes are actually pretty great).
  16. At its midway point though, the High-Rise film tries to pick up the pace—dramatically. The solution is montage after montage.
  17. Indeed, the final hour of the film slips into a state of near-constant montage. The big set piece scenes (y’know—dance parties and food riots and orgies and the like) dissolve into the film’s frenetic technique. It often feels as if Wheatley is more interested in making a bunch of cool music videos than a film. While this jumpy method might have been the filmmakers’ intention—y’know, to evoke paranoia, anxiety, exhaustion, claustrophobia, etc.—the result, at least for me, was a kind of paradoxical lethargy, a creeping dullness.
  18. Key moments, like the first encounter between Wilder and Royal for example, fly by in rushed blips. It’s as if Wheatley was afraid that if he let two people talk on-screen for more than 30 seconds the viewers would not, y’know, pick up on the fact that we are witnessing the thin veneer of society crack open revealing an abject tumult of sex and violence underneath.
  19. (Wilder—the Id man! Royal the Superego. So much of Ballard’s psychological stuff gets lost in the film, which foregrounds class hierarchy instead of synthesizing the two. But that’s a separate quibble).
  20. What were likely great performances (and much potential for humor) get lost in all the short cuts and montage.
  21. Still:  Sienna Miller is great as Charlotte Melville, and Tom Hiddleston is charming enough.
  22. But best in the film—at least for me—is Elizabeth Moss as Wilder’s pregnant wife Helen.
  23. Still, the filmmakers insist on mining her pregnancy for cheap nostalgic jokes—she’s always smoking, always finishing a drink or pouring a new one.
  24. Which brings me back to: Why a period piece? Why not update High-Rise—or, even better take it outside of time completely?
  25. (It will be interesting to look at the film in twenty years: Oh! These were the aesthetic obsessions of the 2010’s, these were the nostalgic totems of that silly decade).
  26. (And while I’m wedging points in parenthetically in a rush: The ending. I read the novel’s conclusion ironically—the high-rise is a phallic failure, and as its patriarchy devolves into chaos and death, a matriarchy arises (or maybe coalesces is the verb I want). But the film concludes more ambiguously—sure, it points to the idea of a matriarchy (or harem)—but it leaves Laing in the kind of alpha male position that the novel had sought to ironize).
  27. And, to return to point 24: Did the filmmakers underestimate the currency of Ballard’s satire? We live in an era of radical wealth inequality, where the richest in our society are rapidly establishing their own private greenzones away from the plebeians. High-Rise is more timely now than ever.
  28. (A short list of (non-)adaptations of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise: Pete Travis’s Dredd (2012), Matteo Garrone’s Gomorra (2008), and George Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005)).
  29. (And re: point 27 w/r/t adaptations—in a sense, Ballard adapted/revised the novel himself in his 2003 novel Millennium People).
  30. Reading back over this riff, briefly, I see that there’s so much I left out—on stuff the filmmakers left out (why change the key plot point of Laing’s sister?)—on stuff I should’ve praised more (great soundtrack; good cinematography)—but most of all, what doesn’t come through is my admiration that the filmmakers tried. And they tried hard, successfully evoking a Ballardian style. But while the High-Rise adaptation delivers Ballardian style, that Ballardian style only points at itself, and not at our Ballardian present, our Ballardian future.

The Coen Brothers’ film Hail, Caesar! adds up to less than the sum of its parts

 

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Hail, Caesar! film poster by Chuck Sperry
In her cameo in the Coen brothers’ newest film, Hail, Caesar!,  Frances McDormand gets her scarf stuck in her editing machine. It nearly chokes her (or, I should write, her character, film editor C.C. Calhoun) before Josh Brolin’s studio head/fixer Eddie Mannix hits “Reverse,” saving her life.

Like so many of the scenes in Hail, Caesar!, the editing scene is funny, well-acted, impeccably filmed, and ultimately superfluous. It’s a throwaway, a wonderful scrap, one of many scraps that the Coens seem to toss to their audience, goading, Hey, you put all of this together.

The McDormand scene is ultimately just another way for the Coens to highlight the artificiality of their medium. Hail, Caesar! is of course a film about film, a film that aims to satirize how the metaphorical sausage is made. As such, Hail, Caesar! is self-satirizing, meta-metaphorical. It’s the Coens pointing out the flawed seams or imperfect varnish before the product is even finished. McDormand’s editor getting caught in the machine is some kind of clumsy synecdoche then.

These metatextual gestures only helped to heighten my own awareness of Hail, Caesar’s! flawed seams. This is a film brimming with wonderful, energetic set pieces—synchronized swimming with Scarlett Johannsson! — Channing Tatum tap-dancing on a bar! — Alden Ehrenreich (not so famous, yet) stunting on horses!—that add up to almost nothing. The end result would almost be fascinating were it not so dull.

Alden Ehrenreich’s singing cowboy Hobie Doyle is not dull, and every time he’s on the screen Hail, Caesarthreatens to become interesting. “Called up” to be in more, eh, prestigious fare than the cowboy pictures he’s been doing so well in, young Hobie’s plot has the slightest (just the slightest) tinge of Mulholland Drive — “This is the girl.” (Or, eh, “This is the boy. The cowboy”).

Hail, Caesar! can’t commit fully to Hobie for its hero, alas. Instead the film, after an initial bout of goodwill-building (including an especially funny early scene in which religious leaders are invited to critique Hail, Caesar!, the film-within-a-film here)—instead the film (the Coens’ Hail, Casear!, that is) plods along a few not-quite-intersecting tracks, introducing the occasional grotesque for a cameo that serves no real plot point.

Look, I get it. Having a character’s fate expositioned away via clumsy dialogue at the end of the film is like, meta, right? It’s the Coens way of grinning at the corny clumsy past of their chosen medium, hey? It’s like, purposefully, self-reflexively bad, a piss-take on an audience’s willed suspension of disbelief, hm?

Suspension of disbelief—faith. Does Hail, Caser! aim to take on faith? It certainly dabbles, exploring (“exploring” is not the right verb—but I already used “dabbles”) political faith, economic faith, religious faith. Faith in the aesthetic power of film, which again and again Hail, Caesar! attempts to embody via kinetic spectacle before puncturing said aesthetic transcendence with ironc winking (or technical failure).

The signal moment in the film’s ironic treatment of faith is delivered in its penultimate scene. George Clooney’s character Baird Whitlock’s character (a Roman soldier whose name I can’t recall, but, hey, note the layering, man) deilvers a monologue. The speech is meant to be this kinda sorta Road-to-Damascus epiphanic transcendence deaile, and the aesthetic power of Clooney’s Whitlock’s delivery is confirmed internally on set by the various film people  (grips and script folk, etc.) offering up admiring Brady nods—only Whitlock stumbles over the last word of the speech—which last word, of course, was faith.  Charlie Kaufman did the same thing much better in the funeral monologue near the end of his film Synecdoche, New York. In Hail, Caesar!, the moment feels like a glib trick played on the audience

It’s entirely likely that there’s a much finer design to Hail, Caesar! than I’ve credited the Coens here. Maybe on a second viewing, I won’t be bogged down so hard looking for a thread to follow. (Shagginess is hardly a sin though, yes Lebowski?). And I’ve failed to point out some of the fine performances here—Josh Brolin anchors the film admirably (although half the time he was on the screen, I kept hoping the film would turn into Inherent Vice). Hail, Caesar! has plenty of great moments, and those moments, like I said, might cohere into something sharper upon a second screening. But right now there’s nothing that compels me toward a second screening any time soon.

Does anything good happen in The Hateful Eight?

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I don’t like films where nothing good happens, my wife told me years ago. I can’t remember the film that occasioned this remark, and I don’t find myself beholden to her rubric, but I still find myself applying it to films now and then. Especially after watching Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.

Does anything good happen in The Hateful Eight?

(This is not the right question to ask about a film, but—).

This question isn’t the same as, say, Is any part of The Hateful Eight good?—because so many of the elements are good—excellent even—Ennio Morricone’s score, Robert Richardson’s cinematography, Yohei Taneda’s set design.

And the acting is great, or sorta great, or it’s hard to tell, maybe. Let’s say the performances are great. I mean, it’s Tarantino, so the acting is always at least one level removed from reality—even in Sam Jackson, the realest dude, the dude who carries the film as former Union officer, Major Marquis Warren. Sam Jackson is Tarantino’s main man, his star of hyperreality, and his performance is electric here.

But for hyperreality, it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh who stands out in The Hateful Eight. Her portrayal of prisoner Daisy Domergue is refined Looney Tunes slapstick. Cartoon soul. Watching Walton Goggins (vile racist ex-Confederate marauder Chris Mannix) or Kurt Russell (bounty hunter John Ruth)—both of whom get lots and lots of lines and screen time—one can’t help but realize one is seeing an actor acting—or, more Tarantinoesque—a character acting.

But Jennifer Jason Leigh, remanded to a punching bag for much of the film—or even stranger, a chained work-wife to Kurt Russell’s John Wayne parody (via Kurt Russell’s John Wayne parody as Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little Trouble)—JJL imbues her Daisy Domergue with a wily pathos that surpasses both the script she’s made to read and her Seussian name.

Not that JJL’s Daisy Domergue’s isn’t vile, nasty, deeply racist, and hateful…but her hatefulness points towards something, I dunno, complex. Real. True. (I should mention now Laura Bogart’s essay “Hipster Misogyny: The Betrayal of The Hateful Eight,” which I think offers an intriguing read on the film. Bogart seems to argue that JJL’s DD is not complex enough, or not given enough complexity, which, hey, okay, fair enough—but I think also that Bogart was disturbed by the film’s conclusion—which I was too, disturbed). 

But: Does anything good happen in The Hateful Eight?

What do I mean here by good? Should I just admit I don’t know “good,” but rather feel “good”? Okay. I don’t know good through definition, but rather by example. Fuzzy precis. Good: Perhaps a moment of redemption, but like, say, an earned one, a real one, one not forced through a Hollywood formula. Good might be kernel of hope—a real moment of hope, not just an up established for a foreshadowed down. Or maybe by good I just mean something aesthetically true.

Tarantino’s best films—the Kill Bill films, Pulp FictionJackie Brown, and Reservoir Dogs—point to something good in their conclusions—and by conclusions I mean both literal endings and thesis statements. I’m not sure if I find this same “goodness” evident in the conclusion of The Hateful Eight, or, if it is there, it’s awfully ambiguous.

The conclusion of The Hateful Eight is the not-exact opposite of the end of my favorite Tarantino conclusion, the end of Kill Bill 2:

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And The Hateful Eight’s conclusion is the not-exact opposite of the ending of Jackie Brown’s bittersweet take on redemption, loss, and escape—American lives that earn second acts.

And The Hateful Eight’s conclusion is the not-exact opposite of the ending Pulp Fiction, a film that resurrects Vincent Vega and sees Sam Jackson’s Jules Winnfield suspend wrathful violence and judgment on Tim Roth’s Ringo (or Pumpkin. Or whatever his name was).

And what about those films that didn’t make my silly little list of “Best Tarantino” — Inglorious Basterds (which is one of my faves, actually, just to watch for like, pure entertainment), Django Unchained, and Death Proof (which actually belongs on that best-of list, maybe, or at least the final sequence)? Shoshanna Dreyfus using film as weapon to end the Nazis? Django’s righteous rampage against slavery? Or the ecstatic violence of “the girls” destroying serial killer Stuntman Mike?

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What most of QT’s conclusions share in common is that they somehow mediate the relationship between revenge and justice, and do so in a way that’s aesthetically convincing. The Hateful Eight also seeks to be a film about the relationship between revenge and justice. Its final moments attempt to aesthetically recapitulate much of American history into a morbid sequence of violence.

[Fair warning: There’s a discussion of the conclusion of The Hateful Eight coming up, including what some folks might call spoilers].

Continue reading “Does anything good happen in The Hateful Eight?”

The obligatory 2015 year-end list

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Favorite Reading Experiences

I finally read Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow in full in 2015. Then I immediately read it again (which is sort of like really reading it), occasionally dipping into Steven Weisenburger’s A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion. Rewarding, hilarious, challenging, perplexing, Gravity’s Rainbow is too brilliant to look at directly, and is perhaps best approached slantwise, as one Ms. Dickinson of Amherst has advised.

On page 588 of Gravity’s Rainbow, the narrator (?!) suggests that we “Check out Ishmael Reed.” So I did. His novel Mumbo Jumbo is like nothing I’ve ever read before—the reviewer’s crutch “dazzling performance” comes to mind, because Mumbo Jumbo is a performance (jazz, bebop, soft shoe, vaudeville, a hoodoo magic show, an exorcism: performance art), and it does dazzle, overwhelm, energize, haunt, titillate, reverberate, howl…and there are pictures! Reed uses photos in a way that Sebald would a few decades later—documentary evidence of a sort. I don’t know. I just don’t know.

Like Reed’s novel, Anne Carson’s novel-poem-myth-book Autobiography of Red is impossible to categorize and extremely difficult to describe. I tried to write about it a few times on this site and failed, which is fine. What matters here is the reading experience: Carson’s book zapped me, gave me tingles, reminded me that what I want to think and feel when I read is, How is this possible? How is this allowed? (Another huge thank you to BLCKDGRD for sending me Autobiography of Red and its sorta-sequel Red Doc>).

Also: Nabokov’s Pale FireTwo Serious Ladies by Jane BowlesHomesick by Lucia Berlin and Evan Dara’s novel Fleewhich I loved reading with Biblioklept contributor Ryan Chang .

And finally, Ursula K. Le Guin, whose so-called Hainish Cycle I read most of this year. I still have to read The Telling, but great stuff, and a full write-up early in the new year.

Favorite Books I Read in 2015 That Were Actually Published in 2015

Signs Preceding the End of the World, Yuri Herrera

Cess, Gordon Lish

The Bus 2, Paul Kirchner

Mislaid, Nell Zink (although I liked The Wallcreeper better, but hey, it was published last year)

Favorite Indie Presses of 2015

You can’t beat Nobrow, Dorothy, OR, and/or And Other Stories.

Favorite Films I Saw in 2015 That Came Out in 2015

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I had a relatively contrarian opinion of Fury Road, but I enjoyed it overall, I suppose. The Force Awakens was a better spectacle for my money/nostalgia. Overall, 2015 was kind of a weak year for movies, filled with overrated indies, comic book schlock, and self-serious entertainments that Tried Too Hard. Hard to Be a God was the only thing that really zapped me, although a quick google shows that it was actually released in 2014.

You know, Inherent Vice was released in late 2014 too, but I saw it and loved it and obsessed over it in 2015…so, Inherent Vice, yeah…

I also liked that Scientology documentary, which was full-on Pynchon.

Favorite Television Shows of 2015

I thought the second season of Fargo was near-perfect and found the tawdry spectacle of The Jinx thrilling, but there was no show I enjoyed watching and reading about more than the second season of True Detective

Favorite Albums of 2015

The albums I listened to the most this year were soundtracks that came out before 2015: Inherent Vice and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. But I did like a number of new albums this year, including Joanna Newsom’s Divers, Jim O’Rourke’s Simple Songs, and Destroyer’s Poison Season.

Favorite Books I Didn’t Finish in 2015

I’ve been crawling my way through a full read of Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel, but: No end in sight. I also read most of the essays in William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion (check out my interview with the editors). I also read a hefty chunk of the Ben Marcus-edited collection New American Stories. My favorite discursive reading though was dipping into William H. Gass’s nonfiction.

Favorite Rereads

…speaking of Gass—well, I read his essay “Even If, by All the Oxen in the World” in conjunction with a reread of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which turned out to be most rewarding—both the rereading and the reading-in-conjunction. Reading Infinite Jest for the first time since 2001 ended up being a deflating, even depressing experience, but I wouldn’t trade it. I also reread against the second reading of Gravity’s Rainbow. Other rereading highlights included Pynchon, Ursula K. Le Guin, High Rise by J.G. Ballard, and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (which I’ve reread every year since I first read it). But it was McCarthy’s Suttree that I got the most out of rereading this year.

2016

I’ll finish out Le Guin’s Hainish books with The Telling, and then probably crack into William H. Gass’s Eyes. In between I might read Marianne Fritz’s novel The Weight of Things. More Lucia Berlin for sure. Thomas Bernhard if it ever cools down again. (End of December 2015 and it feels like early summer here in Florida). I’d also love to take a shot at William T. Vollmann’s The Dying Grass, but who knows…there are always more pages than hours.

A Star Wars illustration by Moebius

(Via).

RIP Wes Craven

RIP Wes Craven, 1939-2015

Like a lot of people my age (I was born in 1979), I grew up alternately seeking out and then trying to look away from snippets of Wes Craven films—posters, previews, surreptitious late-night cable screenings—hell, even Mad Magazine parodies. Nightmare fuel, sometimes glimpsed through webbed fingers. Was it A Nightmare on Elm Street or Swamp Thing I saw first, at 9 or 10, probably on the USA network? I know I didn’t see his cult classics until later, until I was in college—The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. By then I’d seen the Nightmare on Elm Street films a few times in their raw VHS glory. My favorite is still Dream Warriors. And of course I saw Scream and its sequels in the theater—we loved it, thought it so clever, so meta! But my favorite Craven film by far is The People Under the Stairs, a 1991 dark fable that summarized Reagan’s eighties. Predatory capitalism as horror. Anyway, dude was a legend and his films will live on, both in and of themselves, but also as the generative material for films yet to come.

Film Footage of the First Bloomsday Celebration in 1954

Film footage of the first Bloomsday celebration (June 16, 1954)–a great find by Antoine Malette, who posted the video along with an account of the journey as told in Flann O’Brien: An Illustrated Biography. The film was shot by John Ryan, and shows an extremely inebriated Brian O’Nolan (aka Flann O’Brien) having to be helped around by pals Anthony Cronin and Patrick Kavanagh. We’re also treated to a scene of Kavanagh taking a piss with Joyce’s cousin Tom Joyce, a dentist who joined the merry band. (The scene will undoubtedly recall to you that marvelous moment in Ulysses when “first Stephen, then Bloom, in penumbra urinated“). The troupe didn’t quite finish their mission, getting sidetracked by booze and quarrels. Read the full account at Malette’s site.

Reviews and riffs of May 2015 (and an unrelated owl)

Reviews and riffs, May 2015

In which I read Playboy for the Pynchon article.

This is not a review of Lydia Davis’s Can’t and Won’t.

What the hell is Pynchon in Public Day?

A review of Jim O’Rourke’s new record Simple Songs.

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian reviewed.

A somewhat contrarian take on Mad Max: Fury Road.

Mad Men’s cynical finale.

Gravity’s Rainbow and Disney’s Fantasia.

Unrelated owl by Durer:

 

Mad Max: Fury Road Reviewed

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Fury Road film poster by John Aslarona
George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road performs exactly what its intended audience demands. Essentially a cartoonish two-hour car chase brimming with violent badassery, Fury Road precludes any real criticism. Poking at the weak dialogue, cardboard characterizations, and muddled motivations would miss the point. Fury Road looks amazing. It’s thrilling. It’s violent. It does what it was made to do. It’s a spectacular entertainment. (Spectacular in the Guy Debord sense).

Those who would contend there’s more to Fury Road, that would protest I’m missing some depth here, might refer me to the film’s feminist motifs. Yes, this is a film that critiques and rebels against patriarchal authority (going so far as to spell out its message in big block letters even). Maybe there’s a Freudian or Lacanian analysis in there too: Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa (she’s the real star of the film—Tom Hardy’s Max is a bland substitute for old crazy eyes Mel), shorn of both hair and an arm (castration symbols, no?) driving an enormous phallus (one dangling a big testicle full of fuel, power, no less) across the desert wastes, plunging it violently ahead to save some concubines (their eminence derives from their non-mutant genes and marvelous cheekbones—like Zack Snyder’s 300, Fury Road always privileges ideal body types over aberrations).

Where was I? It doesn’t really matter.

Ah, yes: I claimed that the movie obviates criticism.

Fury Road is a product, a commodity that successfully camouflages its very commodification. It’s fan service for our post global id.

The film has been nearly universally praised, as a quick tour through the aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes shows. I’ll lazily pull from RT’s pull quotes lazily: “This movie will melt your face off,” promises Christy Lemire. (Uh, okay). For David Edelstein, seeing the film a second time “became about digging the spectacle – not to mention the hilarious sexual politics.” (Were they really “hilarious”?) “An A-plus B-movie that at times feels almost like a tone poem to early-’80s excess,” writes Christopher Orr, who may or may not know what a tone poem is. Mark Kermode, a crank whom I generally admire, calls it “an orgy of loud and louder, leaving us alternately exhilarated, exasperated and exhausted.”

I stuff these quips in  here to show how Fury Road precludes any real criticism. Like I said up front, it does what it intends to do, and what it intends to do is show us something wholly familiar in a way that makes us think that we are not seeing something wholly familiar. But for me, anyway, Fury Road does feel familiar, like any number of movies I’ve already seen. Maybe blame it on Miller’s earlier Mad Max films. Maybe they colonized our cultural imagination so much that any strangeness in Fury Road is difficult to glean, hence the filmmaker’s central trick: Speed the damn thing up. Less character development, less bothersome talking 

I cherry-tomato-picked the Kermode quote above, but his full review is more measured and insightful than that quote alone suggests. He ends with a warning: “…at two hours it’s more of a slog, battle-fatigue teetering on the edge of burn-out and even boredom.” Reader, I’ll admit to that boredom.

The first edges of that boredom actually creep in early, when we see how little is actually at stake in the film. Miller’s gambit is to keep Max constrained for the first quarter of the film—bound, chained, even muzzled. Tied to the prow of a rumbling car like some mythic figure, Max is relentlessly imperiled by spears and bullets and an apocalyptic sandstorm. But like some mythic figure, we know he’ll never die. Like the Roadrunner cartoons it so closely resembles, Fury Road imagines a slapstick world of zany cause-and-effect non-logic, producing kinetic anxieties in its audience that are ultimately relieved (over and over again) with a belief so strong that it cannot be suspended: Max will not die. Max can never die. There must be a sequel.

That promise of a sequel finds its affirmation in the film’s most clichéd final moments. (I’m going to discuss the end of the film now. Spoilers coming up—fair warning, eh?)

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Fury Road film poster by Salvador Anguiano
Continue reading “Mad Max: Fury Road Reviewed”

Watch a film about Thomas Pynchon, A Journey into the Mind of P

This 2002 documentary by Donatello Dubini and Fosco Dubini is kind of a mess, but it’s a fun mess. Interviews with old friends, like Jules Siegel, superfans and webdudes, and critics (George Plimpton shows up a few times), are interspliced with a lot of stock footage. The Residents’ fantastic pop appropriations from The Third Reich Rock n’ Roll help to stitch the movie together. The film occasionally indulges in a kind of obvious paranoid rambling, and the last section, detailing an attempt to photograph Thomas Pynchon (you remember that silly CNN report?) is not nearly as interesting as  Allen Rush or other Pynchonians riff. Sort of a for completists only deal.

Did Wes Anderson interview Robert Evans as a substitute host for Charlie Rose in 2002? You bet your ass he did.

 

Continue reading “Did Wes Anderson interview Robert Evans as a substitute host for Charlie Rose in 2002? You bet your ass he did.”

A short riff on a favorite scene from Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood

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I absolutely loved Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, which is nominated for a few Oscars this year, including Best Picture. (Boyhood is too good to win best picture; I’m fine with that prize going to Iñárritu’s faux-art film Birdman). A rich and sentimental evocation of “reality,” Boyhood synthesizes the best elements of Linklater’s previous films, and like many of those films—Slacker, the Before trilogy, Waking LifeDazed and ConfusedBoyhood isn’t really about anything. Of course it’s also kinda sorta about everything: family, love, growth, education, life. Etc.

The central formal device of Boyhood—namely, that Linklater shot the film over twelve years using the same actors—has been remarked upon at great length by others, so I won’t touch on it, other than to say that I found watching Ellar Coltrane’s Mason grow up profoundly moving. The aesthetic experience of Boyhood is its greatest pleasure, much like its sister film The Tree of Life. And although Boyhood’s aesthetic power relies in large part on our witnessing its characters grow and age, its emotional tenor, its vibe, inheres from scene to scene.

Capture

There are many wonderful moments in the film, some more memorable than others, but a favorite of mine takes place at an overnight “camping trip” in a house that’s still under construction. Mason is maybe, what, thirteen here?—I’m not quite sure, but he tells his mother the truth about where he’s going, if not entirely the truth about what he’ll be doing there…which is, what? Not much really—the younger kids hang out with the older kids, drink a beer or two, lie about sex—stuff kids do. The scene captures the same not-quite-boring hangout vibe that permeates Dazed and Confused and Waking Life—a kind of familiar realness.

Linklater is a master at evoking a sense of place. And this place, this house—it’s simultaneously boring, calming, and horrifying. On one hand, we’ve been there before—the abandoned house, the empty parking lot, the little switch of trees that aren’t quite woods, not really—the free space where we can play at being adults. On the other hand, Boyhood has allowed us—or maybe I should not extend my pronoun to the plural? No?—Okay: Boyhood has allowed me, this viewer, a kind of paternalistic view of Mason (“my-son”) who is, after all, growing up before our very eyes (sorry for slipping back into the first-person plural there). And here Linklater has young Mason—whom we trust to do the right thing and all but still—here Linklater has staged Mason & co. in an abandoned house full of scrap wood and power tools and circular saw blades which the young men are of course throwing into the sheet rock with gleeful abandon.

I flinched as the blades flew forcefully past Mason and his friend; in any other film they would have to cut into flesh and bone, be tools for forces tragic or comic. Plot devices. But in Boyhood they are the toys of boys playing at growing up. Nothing happens. No grievous injury or terrible death—the sort of thing that usually licenses, I don’t know, the central character’s maturation. Not even a comic wound. Nothing. The blade-throwing is just normal bored stupid teenage amusement. It’s the sort of thing that Mason’s mom—and a paternalistic viewer like me—might find horrifying—You could get very badly hurt, Mason!—but he doesn’t. He’s fine. He’s alive.

For me, this particular scene—not the strongest or the strangest or the most memorable or moving—is nevertheless a key moment in Boyhood, not just because it disrupts audience expectations (the film is full of such gentle disruptions), but because it engenders and then discharges my own parental anxieties. That’s a form of catharsis, I guess, but not a catharsis of tragedy. It’s catharsis for reality.

J.G. Ballard’s “The Subliminal Man,” John Carpenter’s They Live, and Black Friday

Today is Black Friday in America. I don’t think it’s necessary to remark at length on the bizarre disjunction between this exercise in consumerism-as-culture and the intended spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday that precedes it. Indeed, I think that the cognitive dissonance that underwrites Black Friday—the compulsion to suffer (and cause suffering), both physically and mentally,  to “save” money on “consumer goods” (sorry for all the scare quotes, but these terms are euphemisms and must be placed under suspicion)—I think that this cognitive dissonance is nakedly apparent to all who choose to (or are forced to) actively engage in Black Friday. The name itself is dark, ominous, wonderfully satanic.

Rereading “The Subliminal Man,” I was struck by how presciently J.G. Ballard anticipated not only the contours of consumerist culture—urban sprawl, a debt-based economy, the mechanization of leisure, the illusion of freedom of choice—but also how closely he intuited the human, psychological responses to the consumerist society he saw on the horizon. Half a century after its publication, “The Subliminal Man” seems more relevant than ever.

The premise of the tale is fairly straightforward and fits neatly with the schema of many other early Ballard stories: Franklin, an overworked doctor, is approached by Hathaway, a “crazy beatnik,” who refuses to take part in the non-stop consumerism of contemporary society. Hathaway can “see” the subliminal messages sent through advertising. He asks for Franklin’s help in stopping the spread of these messages. Hathaway reasons that the messages are intended to enforce consumerist society:

Ultimately we’ll all be working and spending twenty–four hours a day, seven days a week. No one will dare refuse. Think what a slump would mean – millions of lay–offs, people with time on their hands and nothing to spend it on. Real leisure, not just time spent buying things . . .

The fear of a slump. You know the new economic dogmas. Unless output rises by a steady inflationary five per cent the economy is stagnating. Ten years ago increased efficiency alone would raise output, but the advantages there are minimal now and only one thing is left. More work. Subliminal advertising will provide the spur.

Franklin is unconvinced, even though he is already working Saturdays and Sunday mornings to payoff TVs, radios, and other electronic goods that he and his wife replace every few months. Soon, however, he realizes that something is wrong:

He began his inventory after hearing the newscast, and discovered that in the previous fortnight he and Judith had traded in their Car (previous model 2 months old) 2 TV sets (4 months) Power mower (7 months) Electric cooker (5 months) Hair dryer (4 months) Refrigerator (3 months) 2 radios (7 months) Record player (5 months) Cocktail bar (8 months)

Franklin finally sees the truth, but only after Hathaway takes to blowing up signs’ switch boxes (the word “terrorism” is of course not used in the text, although it surely would be today):

Then the flicker of lights cleared and steadied, blazing out continuously, and together the crowd looked up at the decks of brilliant letters. The phrases, and every combination of them possible, were entirely familiar, and Franklin knew that he had been reading them for weeks as he passed up and down the expressway.

BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW

YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES

Like many Ballard stories, “The Subliminal Man” ends on a pessimistic note, with Franklin choosing to ignore his brief enlightenment and give in. Ballard drives his criticism home in the final image of the story, with Franklin and his wife heading out to shop:

They walked out into the trim drive, the shadows of the signs swinging across the quiet neighbourhood as the day progressed, sweeping over the heads of the people on their way to the supermarket like the blades of enormous scythes.

“The Subliminal Man” offers a critique of consumerism that John Carpenter would make with more humor, violence, and force in his 1988 film They Live. In Carpenter’s film, the hero John Nada (played by Roddy Piper) finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see through the ads, billboards, and other commercials he’s exposed. What’s underneath? Naked consumerism:

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The images here recall the opening lines of “The Subliminal Man”: ‘The signs, Doctor! Have you seen the signs?’ Like Ballard’s story, Carpenter’s film is about waking up, to seeing the controlling messages under the surface.

In his film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Žižek offers a compelling critique of just how painful it is to wake up to these messages:

 

It’s worth pointing out that Carpenter offers a far more optimistic vision than Ballard. Ballard’s hero gives in—goes back to sleep, shuts his eyes. Carpenter’s hero Nada resists the subliminal messages—he actually takes up arms against them. This active resistance is possible because Carpenter allows his narrative an existential escape hatch: In They Live, there are real, genuine bad guys, body-snatching ugly-assed aliens—others that have imposed consumerism on humanity to enslave them. That’s the big trick to They Live: It’s not us, it’s them.

Ballard understands that there is no them; indeed, even as the story skirts around the idea of a conspiracy to dupe consumers into cycles of nonstop buying, working, and disposing, it never pins that conspiracy on any individual or group. There’s no attack on corporations or government—there’s not even a nebulous “them” or “they” that appears to have controlling agency in “The Subliminal Man.” Rather, Ballard’s story posits ideology as the controlling force, with the only escape a kind of forced suicide.

I don’t think that those who engage in consumerism-as-sport, in shopping-as-a-feeling are as blind as Ballard or Carpenter represent. I think they are aware. Hell, they enjoy it. What I think Ballard and Carpenter (and others, of course) really point to is the deep dissatisfaction that many of us feel with this dominant mode of life. For Ballard, we have resistance in the form of the beatnik Hathaway, an artist, a creator, a person who can perceive what real leisure would mean. For Carpenter, Nada is the resister—an outsider, a loner, a weirdo too. It’s somehow far more satisfying to believe that those who engage in spectacle consumerism are brainwashed by aliens than it is to have to come to terms with the notion that these people are acting through their own agency, of their own will and volition. Happy shopping everyone!

Ed. note: Biblioklept published a version of this post last year. It is offered again now in the spirit of Thanksgiving leftovers.

Danse Macabre (Jean Renoir)

Cousins — Jim Jarmusch