Friday, December 18, 2009


James Cameron is back for the first time, more or less, since 1997's Titanic. Among other things, Avatar is his way of trying to reclaim the art of movie-making for the movie theater. He spent his hiatus pondering the idea of audiences watching movies on cell phones, and he didn't like the implications. With Avatar, he proposes to raise 3-D film-making to a new level and bring something altogether different to the theater setting. I'm definitely in the Cameron fan club, so I had little doubt that he could accomplish this if anyone could. The results are mixed, in my opinion, but worth seeing. thoughts.

The writing is the first thing about this movie that demands your attention, and not in a good way. Be warned, this isn't just the usual snarking that people always feel obligated to do with science fiction movies. It really is bad. This is especially surprising from Cameron, who normally stands head and shoulders above other genre writers. The dialogue in the early part of the film is so blatantly expositional that you wonder why the characters don't just drop all pretenses and talk straight to the camera. "This is the video log...we want to get in the habit of documenting, blah, blah, blah." The familiar Cameron characters are here--spunky female pilot, slimy corporate suit, belligerent jarhead--but the roles don't have much life in them. And for all the film's length, it seems too rushed to develop a detailed, lived-in world like the ones in Aliens and The Abyss. Overall, it doesn't play like a Cameron film.

As for the political overtones and supposed anti-Americanism, they don't require much comment. America is the bad guy here, which has proven quite a shock to the legions of sci-fi fans who either didn't see the Star Wars movies or somehow didn't notice what they were about. Apparently there are more of them out there than you would think. Cameron doesn't spend much time belaboring the point, but instead draws things in very simple strokes. The military basically works for the corporations, everyone's out for the resources, and we'll kill anyone who gets in our way. In other words, it's the same as real life, but because the action takes place so far from Earth it's all carried on straightforwardly and without any mumbo-jumbo about spreading democracy. Nothing here that should be controversial unless you've been living under a rock for the last 60 years or so.

Aside from the writing and directing, the other potential disappointment with Avatar is the 3-D. This will depend on what you expect going into it. My guess was that Cameron would create a much smoother, more integrated 3-D world and one that you could really get lost in without thinking of it as an "effect." This isn't really what Avatar does, though. The environments have the familiar pop-up book quality, meaning they look like multiple layers of flat elements rather than a real three-dimensional world. They're often rich and beautiful, and just as often busy and distracting.

What is groundbreaking about Avatar is not the 3-D but the expressive computer-generated characters. It has aptly been described as "breaking the CG barrier" because, like The Abyss and Terminator 2, it's a film that will change the way CG is used. An actor will be able to play any sort of character in CG form, including human characters of any age or description, and fit seamlessly into a realistic setting. The non-humanoid creatures are a step up, too, moving in a wild, energetic way that's terrifying at times.

Of course, no discussion would be complete without some mention of the battle sequences. They're good, and at times they almost seem about to be magnificent, especially in the aerial battle near the end. But after nearly two hours of lazy narrative and self-indulgent "aww...pretty!" shots of assorted flora and fauna, there's surprisingly little payoff in this department. It doesn't help that the grand finale is a ridiculous hand-to-hand brawl on the forest floor. Then again, it is interesting that Cameron revisits the alien vs. loader theme with the alien as the good guy this time.

Avatar is a breakthrough of sorts, though maybe not the one Cameron hoped for. As of now, we still haven't seen anything in 3-D that isn't essentially a gimmick film with some flashy effects to make up for its shortcomings. Except Coraline, but that doesn't entirely count. Maybe Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland will buck the trend. Meanwhile, Avatar is at least worth seeing, both for its own merits and as a preview of what special effects are about to be.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


I dreamed of a girl

With red hair and red earrings

"In your dreams," she said

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Balloon Boy: A Defense

It seems obligatory to open any essay on Falcon Heene with a few paragraphs about how tedious and irrelevant the whole thing was. Instead, I’m just going to be honest—I was fascinated by it. It’s one of four times I can remember watching TV recently, the other events being the Iraq invasion, Hurricane Katrina, and Michael Jackson’s death. Why was I fascinated? Because there was a home made balloon flying thousands of feet in the air with a kid supposedly aboard, and we didn’t know what was going to happen or had happened. That’s it. That’s why.

I know what you’re going to say…children die every day. Shouldn’t we be paying more attention to all the children dying in Iraq/Afghanistan/Africa/wherever instead of paying attention to Balloon Boy? I partly agree. I absolutely think we should be paying more attention to the people who die every day in tragic ways, and to the reasons why they die. It’s the “instead of” part that I want to quibble with. In other words, is Balloon Boy really the problem with the American media?

Consider that we’ve been killing people in Afghanistan for eight years now. The Balloon Boy incident lasted one day. What were we thinking about the rest of the time? And yes, it’s true that children die every day, but the possibility of someone dying isn’t what made this a story. Rather, it was the possibility of someone not dying. Specifically, of someone in imminent danger being rescued by the concerted efforts of a “community.” Someone who could have died but didn’t…or maybe someone who might have been rescued and wasn’t, depending out how it turned out.

All of which probably happens every day, too. Then again, you could say that about almost anything. Political corruption? Every day. Police brutality? Every day before breakfast. Sexual abuse? Every day and twice on Sundays. But it’s still a story and always should be. We’re in trouble when it isn’t. Consider what you’d do if Balloon Boy were a “real person,” perhaps someone adrift over your own neighborhood. Would you yawn and stretch, close the blinds, and go back to pondering the death toll in Darfur without even one little peek overhead? Unlikely.

But isn’t this pretty much how we’re being told we must respond if we want to be sophisticated consumers of information? The greatest crime seems to be in displaying that hint of credulity that marks a consumer as a novice. We’re told it’s obvious that the media should be less gullible. That they should do more “fact-checking” before trying to pawn off these second-rate melodramas. That they should evaluate these stories more critically.

Well, let’s evaluate the criticism for a moment. The first thing that’s obvious about the Balloon Boy meta-commentary is that its practitioners have no idea how news reporting is supposed to work. We didn’t expect the police to sit passively and wait for facts to accumulate before they took any action. We expected them to go get the facts as quickly as possible. The media’s job is very much the same. “Fact-checking” was exactly what we witnessed during the Balloon Boy incident, and it was messy. That’s how it looks when you see it in real time, and that’s how it works with a breaking story. Remember the point where the TV networks reported, “We now have confirmation that Falcon was in the balloon and that he has fallen to his death?” No, because they never reported that. They reported what they knew—that certain people had said or seen certain things—and checked their facts before reporting anything more. If the audience inferred anything more, it was because of their own lack of sophistication.

Which brings me at last to my point. I don’t think people are pissed off because of the way the media reported the story. I think they’re pissed off because the story made them feel credulous. And, going a bit further, I think they’re pissed off because it was bad entertainment. They may not know what reporting is supposed to be, but if you read their complaints in the same way you’d read, for example, a critique of some TV drama show, they make a lot more sense. After all, the whole narrative set up some very obvious expectations, either that the boy would die gruesomely or that he’d be rescued dramatically, and so forth, and the expectations pretty clearly failed to pay off. Who’s to blame if not the TV People? They’re the ones who create this stuff.

And to go further still, Balloon Boy is a scapegoat. It’s perfectly natural and healthy to be interested in a story like this. Was it healthy to be interested in the Heenes and all their oddities when they were the subject of Wife Swap? Is it healthy to be interested in season after season of daytime gossip and prime time hack work? Is it healthy to watch several hours of TV advertisements a day? Or even to believe that TV news would be informative if not for stunts like Balloon Boy?

Probably not, but I don’t see the same outcry about all of that other stuff. I wonder why?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

When I hear people say, “I don’t know whether it’s a masterpiece or a mess,” I usually think, “That’s because you’re an idiot.” I know it’s mean. That’s why I just think it instead of saying it…so, give me some credit. But this time, I have to admit I don’t know whether it’s a masterpiece or a mess.

I like Quentin Tarantino a lot, even though I don’t think he’s in the same league at all with some of the filmmakers he imitates. This comes down to the fact that Tarantino, unlike Martin Scorsese or David Lynch, usually has nothing to say. However, his movies are more fun than just about anything else you can see in a theater these days. What he does, he does superbly. A new Tarantino film is a big event if only for that reason.

So, what to make of Inglourious Basterds? Is it just supposed to be fun, or is it a more ambitious kind of Tarantino film? How does it succeed or fail at whatever it is that it’s trying to do?

On the level of pure fun, I’m in the camp that calls IB a smashing success. Don’t listen to anyone who says Brad Pitt is out of his depth in this role. He gives his character, Lt. Aldo Raine, a single-minded quality that’s both laughable and strangely lovable. When he tells a German officer that he’s in the “killin’ Nazi bidness,” he’s treating us to his own version of light-hearted understatement. Killing Nazis is much more than a business with him, and more than a passion…it’s closer to a religion.

The German officer Col. Landa, played by Christoph Waltz, is far more well-rounded. He’s fluent in at least four languages and appreciates a fine pastry. At least, he appreciates it right up until he buries his cigarette in it--for all his sophistication, he sees French culture as a status symbol to be taken up, consumed, and discarded. He doesn’t see it as something to be lived in or informed with. This is in contrast to Shosanna/Emanuelle, for whom culture is everything. “I’m French…we respect directors,” she says to the German soldier Frederick Zoller, who is his own nation’s Audie Murphy. This holds true even though she hates Zoller and his army.

Brad Pitt’s Lt. Raine stands in contrast to both the German and French characters. For him, culture is neither sacred nor swanky. It’s something he’s just not aware of at all. His virtue as a practical American is to be concerned only with justice. This is what sets him apart him from the hauteur of the French and the vulgarity of the Germans. He’s the quintessential American, a man in the bidness of doing what’s right—nothing more, nothing less.

So far, so good. The film works well on the same level as those to which it pays homage, that is, as a rousing good vs. evil story. America represents integration and freedom from prejudice, as we see from the example of the Jewish/German/Austrian Basterds. We have the pure-hearted Joes rescuing the cheese-eating surrender monkeys from the Hun pigs…all of which comports well with our own American mythology. But Tarantino complicates matters even at this level. The Americans and British bungle the operation at every turn, and the French aren’t so hapless after all; it’s only because of Emmanuelle’s craftiness (and Landa’s selfishness) that the operation succeeds.

Not only is the effectiveness of the Americans a complicated question, but so is the nobility of their actions. This is the second level at which the film invites analysis. Starting with the first chapter (called “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France,” a reference to the director Sergio Leone of spaghetti Western fame), the story features an ongoing cowboys vs. Indians motif. The traditional American mythology is inverted here, with the cowboys (Nazis) as the bad guys and the Indians (Jews) as the good guys. In the first chapter, Col. Landa is framed in the French family’s doorway like John Wayne in a visual quotation from The Searchers. This is bold, to say the least…but it makes sense. John Wayne’s character in The Searchers is somewhat like Col. Landa. He would happily rid the world of Native Americans, just like Landa is trying to rid the world of Jews. And, in fact, Hitler studied the white settlers’ extermination of the natives, admired it, and based some of his own policies upon it.

The motif continues in the following chapters, with the Basterds resembling Indians in several ways. Aldo, their leader, is referred to as The Apache. Other team members have descriptive names with a Native American ring to them, such as “Bear Jew” and “Little Man.” And, of course, they ambush and scalp their Nazi enemies. By drawing this parallel between occupied France and the American Old West, Tarantino shows the struggle against fascism as part of a larger struggle against intolerance and oppression in general. And he suggests that the USA is on the wrong side of the struggle sometimes. The picture of the righteous American is therefore more ambiguous than it appears on the surface. On the first level, which is the straightforward narrative level, the film is a celebration of American heroism. On the second, intertextual level, it’s a critique of American racism. It should also be noted that the Basterds’ tactics are indeed inglorious. They gladly partake of the same cruelty and dishonor as their enemies.

This leads us to the film’s third level, the self-referential level, where IB refers not to other works in similar genres but rather to itself. The significant parallel here is between IB and Nation’s Pride, the German propaganda film whose premiere is the setting for the finale. The similarity between us and the Nazi audience is apparent—we’re cheering the deaths of Germans just as they’re cheering the deaths of Americans. What’s less obvious is the relationship between the two films and the two audiences’ reasons for applauding them. As we’ve seen, IB resembles the extremely sincere war movies we all grew up with. Pitt’s character embodies the simplistic mindset that lets us, as Americans, see ourselves as the heroes in every situation. At the same time, the character is also a parody and the film a critique. The most obvious inference is that “our” movies are propaganda, too, and that we shouldn’t be too quick to judge other cultures when they appear to have blind spots. A nice sentiment, true as far as it goes, and one that many Hollywood filmmakers would be satisfied with.

But Tarantino isn’t satisfied with it. Judgment does come at the end of Inglourious Basterds…and it comes with a vengeance. Emmanuelle literally sets fire to the fantasy world of the Nazis’ propaganda and exposes them to a reality that’s entirely different. In the end, IB doesn’t see all the myths as equivalent. It does believe in a reality that exists behind the myth, and it shows the truth to be more powerful than propaganda.

Or does it? Because the interesting thing about Inglourious Basterds is this. The very moment when the Nazis’ fantasy world is annihilated by reality is the same moment when the film departs from reality altogether and enters a fantasy world of its own. When the theater explodes in flames, killing Hitler and his inner circle, all pretense of truth is abandoned. We’re in a world of pure vengeful catharsis now, a world grounded not in real history but in WWII-era comic books like Captain America…in other words, a world of propaganda. And there’s nothing in this finale that invites us to second-guess our emotions. IB embraces unreality at this point, in the name of fighting fascism, apparently without any qualms.

This is the tried and true philosophy of art as assault, which dates back to Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. There, the concept of a filmic attack on the audience is expressed with the image of a razor slicing through an eyeball. It’s the essential insight of Marxian critical theory since the Frankfurt School, which sees film as a means of direct revolutionary action. The Marxian project is to subvert film’s role as a transmitter of fascist (i.e., bourgeois/capitalist/patriarchal) ideology. It does this not by refuting the dominant ideology on its own terms; the Frankfurt School recognized that the masses were not directly susceptible to an anti-bourgeois agenda. Instead, it undermines the ideology by undermining the very idea of art as a medium of communication in the usual sense. In this view, film is not a means of communication, but rather a means of manipulation and control. It’s a form of propaganda.

The climax of IB thus moves beyond mere critique of American culture based on general moral principles and into subversion of culture itself based on specifically revolutionary principles. As such, it has much in common with the Nazis’ view of culture as something subordinate to political goals. In this view, it’s questionable whether the film’s portrayal of the Basterds’ atrocities is really a critique. The unironic good vs. evil story and the self-referential subversive agenda merge, frightfully, into the same thing. Instead of cheering the Americans because they’re Americans or because they represent “good” (how naive, that), a more sophisticated audience can cheer them because they represent an enlightened, anti-bourgeois agenda. But in the end, what we’re cheering is a raw assertion of power.

It’s anyone’s guess how aware Tarantino is of these overtones. I may be over-analyzing, but there’s no doubt that academic theorists will relish this aspect of the film. The disturbing thing, to me, is that Inglourious Basterds ultimately minimizes the struggle of real, bourgeois people under a fascist regime and turns it into the story of one power-based ideology competing against another. In a sense, that was what WWII was about—the struggle between communism and fascism. But in the real history of the world we live in, there are “glorious” ideals, one of which is the value of truth as opposed to propaganda. To some extent Americans have represented those ideals, however imperfectly. A film that criticizes our imperfections should always be welcome. A film that crosses the line from criticism to cultural pessimism in the Marxian fashion, perhaps less so.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Hurt Locker

I just saw the trailer for Katherine Bigelow’s new film, The Hurt Locker. I’d heard part of an interview with her and wanted to see it, but at the time it sounded like there wasn’t going to be a nationwide theatrical release…another one of those “wait for the DVD” movies. “Wait for the DVD” has a little bit different meaning when you live in a small town and like indie films, obviously.

The film is about Marines who do EOD work, that is, who dismantle roadside bombs. I knew a guy from my hometown who was killed doing EOD work in Iraq. The movie has gotten excellent reviews and is apparently both realistic and intense. It’s also had trouble getting distribution. I haven’t heard that it’s particularly critical of the war, but I suppose some criticism is implicit in the title--after all, it looks like they’re saying war can hurt. Anyway, the trailer was great, and what was even better was that it advertised a nationwide release on July 24. Since I finally have a break from school, I was excited.

So, I checked the local show times to find the following.

Aliens in the Attic

Funny People

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra


G-Force 3D (for extra emphasis, I guess)

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs

My Sister’s Keeper


Public Enemies

The Collector

The Hangover

The Proposal

The Ugly Truth (apparently not about war)

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

I like action, horror, and comedy just fine, and I know that small town theaters don’t really cater to people who are looking for stuff like The Hurt Locker. So, no…I’m not saying I was surprised. But I do think there’s an interesting disconnect here. Where I live, people accuse Hollywood and filmmakers of being out of touch with America and especially with the troops. Looking at the schedule at the Starplex, I wondered who was really out of touch. There’s scarcely a whiff of reality anywhere in this line-up.

Now, I know the answer to this. We don’t need movies like The Hurt Locker here because they don’t tell the truth. They only give you the elite’s “biased” perspective on the war. This is what you’ll hear from the people who buy tickets at the Starplex. These are the same people who are taking their kids to see G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, apparently without much concern for what truths are being imparted there. G.I. Joe is barely even telling the truth when it calls itself a movie. At best, it’s a feature length toy ad, which is what it was mainly designed to be.

Isn’t this all just a matter of taste? Small town audiences are patriotic, they work hard, and they want to escape and have a good time. If New Yorkers and Austinites want to be serious and dwell on doom and gloom, that’s their choice. We all have our choices…to each his own, right? I’m not so sure. Like it or not, movies are part of a larger discourse. They all say something. What you see, and what you don’t see, when you go to the theater affects the way you perceive the world outside the theater, too. Small town America is sending its children to kill and die in the war, so it’s fair to ask what we’re watching and what we’re thinking about when we watch.

Consider the writings of Mr. Michael Ledeen, a war advocate and Washington lobbyist who could fairly be called a member of the elite. Ledeen sees small town America as a necessary source of manpower for a noble war effort. He also considers us a population of rubes who may have to be lied to if our support is to be secured. We know (yes, know) that the Bush administration shared this view and that we were lied to in preparation for the war in Iraq. Whether one supports the war is irrelevant here; the issue is why most of us supported it. Here’s where the contents of the movie marquee become interesting.

Imagine, if you have to, a world where big city elites draw on the young population of small towns for cannon fodder. Where our kids leave home and travel to the most far-fetched places to witness horrible events and suffer horrible mutilations in service of a larger agenda. And imagine that we, as parents, siblings, or friends, choose to isolate ourselves from part of the dialogue about the larger issues and the events that go along with them. More than that, we get positively offended when a filmmaker offers insights that could make us think twice about our participation.

It seems to me that if the agenda is as noble as we’d like to believe, it’s also big enough to withstand a little bit of scrutiny. So, what exactly are we afraid of? What are we really protecting when we take our kids to see G.I Joe and shield them from the likes of The Hurt Locker? I know many families who wouldn’t see the latter film because the parents don’t want their kids exposed to violence and vulgarity in movies. But what’s wrong with seeing it in the movies before they sign up for it in real life? Does it hurt more if they have a chance to think about it first?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009



As if he were put together each day

from a box of pieces, carefully

stored in his locked room,

guarded at night by large,

black men with bulging shoulders

and dark, shiny glasses.

He appeared occasionally. His skin looked

unprepared for the sun, as if it had been chosen

without a thought of natural light.

In his bathroom mirror, when the large black men

finished brushing the powder onto the cheeks,

setting the wig straight above his forehead,

balancing the sunglasses gently

with thumb and finger on the vertical

bridge of his nose, his complexion

seemed more than perfect.

Marble, like a goddess of antiquity.

But which goddess? Not Aphrodite,

with her long red hair and woman’s

hips. Or Athena, with the iron warrior’s

eyes, or Diana…even she was too rough.

Too mannish, in a way. In the end,

it didn’t matter. One deity is always

as good as another, one name as sturdy

as another, to hang an image on.

As the ancient media scholars observed,

the marble is the message.


He appeared to us constantly, like a playful sprite

on heavy rotation in a child’s daydreams.

Like all the spirits, he was sexless.

But he played at sex, and sang at us,

and made us wonder where he came from

and what he wanted from us.

Pinnochio was on TV

with one hand on his crotch, dancing

like so: spin, kick, masturbate;

spin, kick, masturbate,

as if one of our toys had come to life

and started making lewd gestures at us.

We watched and wondered in our bedrooms

and in the record store at the mall as he spun

around the graveyard. Wooden limbs, straight

like a doll’s, but seemingly inflamed.


After the first few tunes, it was less about the music

and more about the reality. He was told that

he was Michelangelo and Peter Pan and Einstein rolled into one.

He transcended himself. This was his trap--

to be known for being known, loved for being loved.

Then it was about who, if anything, was behind the costume.

After the universe’s secrets are opened

come the sleepless nights. Even Einstein

has to figure out how to be Einstein.

After relativity, something has to be next.


All the pieces went back into the box.

It was solid gold, or it seemed to be,

in honor of his status, his rank.

Death almost seemed the logical extension

of his fashion sense. At last he was

preserved, ageless, untouchable.

His brother is due to speak.

He is famous, too, in his small way. He wears

a red rose in the lapel of his suit.

He sings what brothers always sing

on these occasions. His voice is

clearer, his pitch more perfect,

and we expect to love him more

because his grief is somehow more pure.

But it is not more pure. It is angry. He cries

for a few minutes over his brother’s veins,

angry that the undertaker’s job

was stolen, that they were drained too soon

and filled with poison. He is angry

that sleep took hold and left his brother

frozen. For a moment, the music is

the reality. There is no pantomime

of sex, or death, or any other ecstasy.

No reaching for childhood.