Brainy: My Newfound Obsession with Artificial Intelligence

A few years ago, I made the startling observation that I am a “hard sci-fi” film buff. Whenever I refer to myself in this way, I always raise eyebrows. What exactly is “hard sci-fi”? I’d taken for granted the meaning of this niche term for any fiction based on actual science and technology. It is why I hated Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012). And as much as I still can’t whole-heartedly embrace Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014), I find it endlessly fascinating. The science and the implications of its use in manipulating the natural world is one of the reasons why I love Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) so much.

I’m not exactly sure what led me to seek out these thought-provoking narratives about life, history, and time. In short, the nature of existence. Is it because my father, a numbers and all-around science geek, would routinely tell us children that he believes in aliens and a multiverse? “Remember, in a parallel universe, you’re my mother, and I’m your son. In another, you are green, and in another blue. Anything and everything is possible.” In much the same way that people find comfort in believing in god, I find the notion of life on other planets, in other universes, so impossible to ignore or rule out that it is almost certainly true. For me, anyway. In any case, perhaps having this open mind and this desire to gaze up at the stars, to imagine different lives and circumstances, all but ensured my eventual identification with hard sci-fi. I may not understand everything, but my determination to make sense of these narratives defines my relationship to the genre. Hell, you could say that my lifelong obsession with cinema influenced this deep-seated belief that anything and everything is possible. For what is cinema if not the exploration of alternate realities defined by space and time? Cinema is still so young, and we’ve only scraped the surface of what is possible.

Icarus Mission psychologist Searle looks out at the nearby sun, contemplating his existence. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Icarus Mission psychologist Searle looks out at the nearby sun, contemplating his existence in Sunshine. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

My hard sci-fi epiphany may have occurred when, in April 2007, I was one of only a handful of people taking in an afternoon showing of Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007) in Lancaster, England. Sitting in the darkened theater, thousands upon thousands of miles from home, and submitting to a film narrative that runs counter to our current fears about global warming, I had a visceral reaction to everything I watched on the big screen. I’d often thought about the time when the sun will die, over a billion years from now, and how its gaseous explosion will likely swallow up Earth. It was quite another thing to be confronted by a crew of astronauts charting a course to blow up the sun, to bring it back to life so that it may end the terrible Ice Age enveloping all of Earth. The physicist hero Capa can only successfully fulfill his mission by delivering himself with the payload, in the end reviving the sun in death. It seems perfectly logical to me that the film’s screenwriter, Alex Garland, would then go on to make one of the best hard sci-fi films about artificial intelligence. I fell hard for his directorial debut Ex Machina, which came out in April of 2015, and it cemented my new obsession with all things artificial intelligence.

Ava contemplates the nature of her existence in Ex Machina. Image courtesy of A24.
Ava contemplates the nature of her existence in Ex Machina. Image courtesy of A24.

Like Garland (and Stanley Kubrick before him), I believe that the next step in human evolution is the moment when we reach singularity, opening the door to a world where the reasoning of man-made machines supplants that of humankind. In Ex Machina, you root for the android Ava to escape her laboratory/modern home. She is a gothic heroine held captive by her megalomaniacal creator Nathan, and even though she cleverly manipulates and outwits her sympathetic suitor Caleb, leaving him to die on the compound after killing Nathan—even though she is a computer—you relate and identify with her plight. Ava is the future, and her discovery of the outside world suggests that our future, when it is run by machines, will not be without wonderment. It may be a scary thought that our computers will be in control one day, but we’re already headed in that direction (after all, who checks her phone for messages whenever it dings, like Pavlov’s dog?), and by the time scientists reach singularity, I will be long gone. That future doesn’t frighten me one byte bit.

On a high from Ex Machina, I devoured other cultural products about artificial intelligence last year. Chief among them were the novel Speak by Louisa Hall and The Brain with David Eagleman, a six-part documentary series that only touched on A.I. in its last hour. In the former, Hall weaves a compelling intertwining narrative around five different people from disparate times and places, people directly or indirectly involved in the science of artificial intelligence. She presents one of them, Alan Turing, the inventor of the modern computer, through letters he writes to the mother of his childhood friend Christopher, whom he loved all of his short, tragic life. The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 2014) touches on some of Hall’s themes, and I inevitably pictured Cumberbund while reading Turing’s sections of the book, but that prestige picture paled in comparison to Hall’s thought-provoking and evocative language. Here is one of my favorite lines by Hall, writing as Turing, who’s reflecting on the theoretical experiments he was never able to perform with Christopher (because he died while they were still boys at school):

… I can only imagine that our brains must grow in similar patterns: one step backwards, added to the present term, resulting in a subsequent term that combines both. Past and present, contained in the future (191)

I thought of Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), too, when reading the book. Another official voice in Speak belongs to an inventor of lifelike companion dolls for children that, upon extensive exposure, inadvertently and progressively transform the children into lifeless robots. Interspersed are the memoirs that the dolls’ creator, Chinn, writes from prison as well as chat transcripts entered as proof that his programming did (or did not) intentionally harm children. Framing each section of the book is a first-person account from one of his dolls, on its way to die in the desert. The bleakness of its fate, its battery dying, its struggle to hold onto language, for that is what it thinks makes it humanlike, reminded me of David, the robot boy in A.I. When I grieve for a fictional humanoid robot—whether on screen or on the page—I must be subconsciously grieving my own mortality.

Kim Suozzi with her cat Mikey. Image courtesy of The New York Times.
Kim Suozzi with her cat Mikey. Image courtesy of The New York Times.

That is why I found the story of budding neuroscientist Kim Suozzi so fascinating (not to mention, we share an almost uncanny resemblance). Recognizing the impossibility of beating cancer (she was twenty-three when she died in 2013), Kim spent the remaining months of her life raising the funds to, essentially, donate her brain to the science of cryonics. She fought alongside her boyfriend to preserve her brain in extremely cold temperatures so that in the future, when the science has finally been developed, her consciousness can be plugged into a computer. In other words, she would reach a singularity that Johnny Depp does in Transcendence (Wally Pfister, 2014)—only without the ability to take over the highly connected digitized world. The New York Times profile of Kim by Amy Harmon is heartbreaking, but it asks a lot of questions—the right questions. When she died, Kim knew that she was making a gamble. We still don’t know if we will ever be able to simulate our connectomes, or the connections in the brain that give us our own unique consciousness. But isn’t it beautiful to dream of that possibility? I don’t see Kim’s wish as selfish (as in, why does she get to cheat death and become immortal through reviving her brain?). I think it’s inspiring that a young woman would devote her life—however short—to science, to figuring out the mystery of whether or not we can bring a person back to life.

In The Brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman happens to visit the facility where Kim Suozzi’s brain is being preserved in order to highlight the controversial science guiding organizations like Alcor Life Extension Foundation. Ted Williams is also uniquely interred there. More so than his comments on artificial intelligence, I savored Eagleman’s distillation of complex concepts, such as identity and reality, and how these socially constructed notions first and foremost exist within the brain. They can get distorted there, too. The Brain also made an alternate reality for me all too real: what might have I become had I continued studying linguistics in college? (I checked out when phonology got too challenging.) Back in the day, I’d imagined being a sociolinguist—I still act like one, to an extent—but with my new fascination with the brain, I know for sure that I would have liked to have been a neuroscientist who studies language, memory, and the brain.

In other words, The Brain confirmed what I already believe about life. We are who we are because of what we have in our brains and because of how our brains interact with each other, transcending time and space. That doesn’t mean our brains always work properly, or in the ways that we want them to. Memory is reliably unreliable. Words escape us from time to time. These are but two reasons why I attempt to document my every waking hour, why I write down what I have seen, why I used to write about everything I have seen. I know I cannot store all of that information in my brain. But my brain allows me to create the systems I use to remember, including a coded language. It doesn’t matter; these records will always be incomplete. There are some things I forget to write down, some things I don’t want to commit to paper for fear that another’s eyes may read my words and know my secrets. I may be knowable through what I think, say, and write, but I will never be known. This is the beauty and cruelty of our human consciousness. We’ll never be able to see the world exactly as someone else does. But of all of the art forms, cinema comes the closest to achieving empathy.

Read the Montage Series, 2015: A Year in Reflection, from the beginning.

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Search and Rescue: Or Why I’m Drawn to Films About Surviving Nature, Torture, and Mars

Here is a chronological list of the films I saw in 2015 about people surviving and/or being rescued from harsh physical environments and traumatizing psychological prisons

  • Wild (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2014)
  • Black Sea  (Kevin Macdonald, 2014)
  • Unbroken (Angelina Jolie, 2014)
  • Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
  • Everest (Baltasar Kormákur, 2015)
  • The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)
  • Z for Zachariah (Craig Zobel, 2015)
  • Room (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015)
  • The 33 (Patricia Riggen, 2015)
  • No Escape (John Erick Dowdle, 2015)
  • In the Heart of the Sea (Ron Howard, 2015)

And in 2016:

  • The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015)

It’s overwhelmingly apparent that I prefer film stories about people fighting to survive in forbidding natural or socially constructed environments that continuously pound them into submission. Beginning with Black Sea, Kevin Macdonald’s underrated and claustrophobic thriller about a misfit crew of Nazi-treasure hunters aboard a submarine, and continuing straight through to In the Heart of the Sea, director Ron Howard’s ill-fated attempt to bring Melville’s Moby Dick origin story to life, I found myself time and again drawn to films about Nature’s punishing power over all of us and how, in the most extreme of cases, the human spirit and body are put to the ultimate test. Two docudramas came and went this fall, but I couldn’t escape them: Everest, about a deadly tourist expedition to summit the tallest peak in 1996 (you know, the one that writer Jon Krakauer participated in), and The 33, which related the events leading up to the miraculous rescue of the titular Chilean coal-miners trapped inside their workplace for over two months in 2010. As a food film scholar, I was greatly intrigued by a middle sequence in the film, in which the protagonists imagine that their wives, girlfriends, and other loved ones have prepared them a gorgeous feast of home-cooked meals when in reality the miners sit down to tuck in their last heavily rationed “meal” of canned tuna and cookies.

The titular coal-miners sit down for what they believe is their last meal. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
The titular coal-miners sit down for what they believe is their last meal. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

This extreme survival-centered category of film story also indexes other 2015 releases, including post-apocalyptic pictures like George Miller’s instant cult classic actioner Mad Max: Fury Road and the under-seen chamber piece Z for Zachariah. Along with its extreme setting, amidst a community subjugated under one water- and food-controlling dynasty, Fury Road blends in that other narrative thread I love to watch: the rescue film. While the titular character does whatever he can to survive in the desert—even if it means taking the passenger seat and assisting true hero Imperator Furiosa on her quest to save young women from lives spent as sex slaves under her family patriarch—the whole world rallies behind the astronaut Mark Watney, long presumed dead but in actual fact still chugging along as the first pioneer on the Red Planet in Ridley Scott’s crowd-pleasing sci-fi epic The Martian. I wanted to like this film more than I did. Where many saw a hilarious comedy with a captivating lead performance by Matt Damon, I saw a dreadfully unfunny and charmless one-man show starring one of the most overrated actors working today. It didn’t matter, though. I had to see it, as a “hard sci-fi” film fan (more on that in part two) who has dreamed more than once of what life is like elsewhere in the universe.

Of course, I never could have made this observation about my moviegoing preferences and habits if these films hadn’t all appeared at once. What happened this past year (or in the years prior, while these films were in development) that so many films about survival and rescue were released? Are they a response to an underlying fear that this country is turning to shit again, what with the United States entering its fourteenth year of the longest war it has ever waged, the rampant political discord in Congress, the emergence and threat of the Islamic State, and so on? Like the disaster movies of the 1970s, which were so prevalent as to form the genre’s so-called “golden age” as they addressed the anxieties of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and overall distrust of political authority and therefore its inability to keep Americans safe, do the films of 2015 also point to something that is taking place on the national or world stage?

Lone Martian Mark Watney sits on a rock, contemplating his existence. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
Lone Martian Mark Watney sits on a rock, contemplating his existence. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

Dystopias like those depicted in Fury Road and even the effective B-movie thriller No Escape, which is set in an unnamed Southeast Asian country and charts one American family’s fight for survival during a violent coup d’etat, have seemingly always been in fashion. However, this cannot explain 2015’s collective fascination with stories of survival and rescue. Most of the films are not dystopian sci-fi pictures. At this time, I cannot offer any full-fledged theory that may explain this phenomenon, only speculation. Aside from their sometimes flashy special effects, these films represented a more conservative style of film storytelling, harkening back to a bygone age of cinema. Beginning with Angelina Jolie’s bloated endurance test Unbroken (released at the end of 2014), which was probably meant to resemble a John Ford, Frank Capra, or William Wyler WWII war movie but actually recalled a Clint Eastwood picture about the triumph of the (American) spirit in the face of (excessive) adversity, this film story trend is meant to induce spiritual and emotional uplift in audiences. Just look at the raging success of The Martian. At times lauded and scrutinized for its diverse cast and for presenting that up-and-coming economic and political threat, China, as a congenial U.S. collaborator, everyone practically guaranteed that filmgoers would leave the theater feeling warm and fuzzy, a little light on their feet. This is a utopian vision of the future of film storytelling, and it is in stark contrast to the cynicism of The Hunger Games and Divergent film franchises and any Avengers or X-Men movie currently showing on a screen near you.

Read the Montage Series, 2015: A Year in Reflection, from the beginning.

Long Take: Jurassic World Devours Itself–And Virtually Everything Else

Viewed June 12, 2015

This is a Special Report from the desk of a Jurassic Park superfan.

Jurassic_World_posterJurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, 2015) is a product of its time. And by that, I mean our time. The age of bloated superhero epics that tell the same origin stories over and over—even when they’re all gathered together to “save” the world again. Because what could be better than having one superhero in a movie? Six of them, that’s what. It’s also the age of flying cars in straightforward action pics, not science fiction fantasies set in the near-to-distant future. Because how could a stunt involving cars rushing through a tower be more awesome? If it blasts through two towers!

If audiences were clamoring for bigger, meaner dinosaurs to rampage through the park, ripping people to shreds or eating them whole, then Jurassic World doesn’t disappoint. (And apparently this is exactly what the spectators wished for; Jurassic World has raked in over $524.4 million worldwide during its opening weekend alone, becoming the largest opening weekend ever.) It is big, loud, and out of control. It is Jurassic Park on steroids, and I can’t imagine that anyone is comparing the reboot of the franchise favorably to Steven Spielberg’s 1993 classic. Jurassic World, unlike its predecessor, is deeply mired in cynicism and devoid of any sense of wonder. It is horrifically violent but not at all scary. Jurassic Park is a cautionary tale about what you should not wish for. Jurassic World is a war movie. This essay is littered with spoilers, so keep out if you want to stay safe!

The most interesting aspect of Jurassic World is its cynical commentary on today’s movies. But first, some back story: the protagonist, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), is the top executive of the Central American theme park situated on Isla Nublar (the same island off the coast of Costa Rica that once housed John Hammond’s Jurassic Park), and she spends much of her day trying to woo corporate sponsorships for new park attractions. When we first meet her, she is on her way to securing an endorsement from Verizon Wireless. But what is it for? In order to attract more new and repeat visitors, Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong, the only actor returning from any of the original three films) and his team of InGen lab scientists have engineered a brand-new dinosaur, Indominus rex, whose full genetic makeup is classified information.

When the beast inevitably escapes its containment barrack by tricking the computer-controlled thermal sensors and guardsmen into believing that the dinosaur has clawed its way out, it is a good thing that raptor whisperer trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) is on hand to help Claire contain the escalating situation. A former Navy man, it is unclear how Owen has wound up on the island, and he is incredulous as to why simply having living, breathing dinosaurs on display isn’t enough for Jurassic World’s owner, the oil and telecommunications tycoon Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan). Why would he condone creating an animal no one knows or understands, Owen wonders. Claire tells Owen that people—nay, focus groups—have expressed renewed interest in the park if Jurassic World can produce a bigger, meaner dinosaur, something they haven’t seen before, thereby echoing the movie studios’ persistence to churn out mind-numbing entertainments with high but unremarked upon body counts and copious stunts and explosions.

A typical view of Indominus rex, right into its jaws. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
A typical view of Indominus rex, right into its mouth. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

The problem is that Indominus rex (whose ridiculous name, Claire insists, is supposed to be easy for people to pronounce) is too familiar to be genuinely awe-inspiring. Director Steven Spielberg and his team waited more than at least thirty minutes to show the Tyrannosaurus rex in Jurassic Park, figuring its appearance was all the more shocking because, like his Jaws (1975) before it, the weight and menace of the so-called “King of All Dinosaurs” had been sensed and all but completely understood by characters and film viewers alike until that crucial set-piece. Indominus rex appears much earlier in the new film, and to give credit where credit is due, it is so big that it hardly fits in most frames. Part T. rex, part tree frog, and part Velociraptor among other unnamed species, Indominus rex mostly resembles the “tyrant lizard” with the shape of its head and its short arms (although it does not always move upright through space). The creature’s long, bumpy back recalls that of Godzilla, and its pinkish gray flesh reminded me of The Blob (Chuck Russell, 1988), only less like Pepto-Bismol. When he sees Indominus rex for the first time, Masrani is stunned at what he calls its “white” skin. Claire senses his disapproval, but he insists that he loves it. Unfortunately, the designer dino isn’t easy to spot amongst all of the green vegetation in the park and eventually rips the under-the-skin homing device out of its flesh.

Alpha and Beta raptors Owen and Blue. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Alpha and Beta raptors Owen and Blue. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Although there is a lot of Jurassic Park in the DNA of Jurassic World, the new film proves that the original never could be made today just as it was over twenty years ago, thereby making Jurassic Park even more special. For starters, in 1993 it was more than acceptable for the action-adventure picture’s heroic star to be a middle-aged scientist, because his understanding of dinosaur anatomy and behavior prepared him to outsmart the prehistoric predators. In today’s movie, we need a muscle bound hunk with Magnum and Blue Steel looks to protect people—and by extension, the audience—from the fierce predators. Owen’s expertise as a man of action, a raptor wrangler, seemingly far outstrips Dr. Alan Grant’s (Sam Neill) paleontology background, even though we (and presumably Owen himself) don’t understand to what end he is training those raptors. In fact, Jurassic World disengages with science almost completely, relegating paleontology as a thing of the past when Claire says to prospective sponsors that the park’s scientists have learned more from advances in genetics in the last twenty years than they have ever learned from hundreds of years of “digging.”

Jurassic Park's skeletal recreation welcomed visitors to explore the past; Jurassic World patrons can glimpse the future. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Jurassic Park’s skeletal recreation welcomed visitors to explore the past; Jurassic World patrons can glimpse the future. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Establishing shots of Jurassic World’s attractions demonstrate how marginalized paleontology, scientific inquiry, and even history have become. Inside the Visitors Center, a hologram of dinosaurs takes center stage, replacing the full skeletal reconstruction of the T. rex from Jurassic Park. Off to the side, children play in what is effectively a sandbox, pretending to unearth dinosaur bones. Even the crackpot science of the 1993 film is only referenced in an updated interactive computer screen showcasing Mr. DNA (the cartoon narrator of the behind-the-scenes lab tour in Jurassic Park) or in the massive amber-laden design of the shops at the park’s entrance. Just as he feared, Dr. Grant and his kind have been forced into extinction.

Those are some oversized raptors, for sure. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Those are some oversized raptors, for sure. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

For fans of the original based on Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel of the same name, it is easy to recognize that the raptors still sound the same (like geese) in Jurassic World, that they’re still featherless and too big according to the fossil record. The distinctive font for the movie and park logo (what is it called anyway, “Jurassic Park?”) is the same, only it is now Terminator steel in color, highlighting its militaristic narrative that I will come to later. In keeping with early twenty-first century trends to be more environmentally conscious and sustainable, it’s comforting to know that the gates to Jurassic World contain repurposed wood from those of Jurassic Park. Upon entering the control room for the first time, Claire chastises computer security expert Lowery (Jake Johnson, the only source of comedy in the whole picture) to clean up his workstation littered with small dino figurines in much the same way that John Hammond (Sir Richard Attenborough) called out Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) for his slovenliness in Jurassic Park. The narrative conduit through which Jurassic World raises the emotional stakes also concerns the top executive’s relatives. While their parents hash out the details of their divorce, brothers Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins) travel to the tropical paradise to be reunited with their aunt, Claire, after seven years or so apart. She is too successful and busy to show them around personally, and so Claire assigns her assistant Zara (Katie McGrath) to look after the boys—before they ditch her in a crowd and subsequently go off-road in the park, to their peril.

Unlike Tim (Joseph Mazello) and Lex (Ariana Richards), John Hammond’s grandchildren who survived a vicious T. rex attack, electrocution by high voltage cables, and a group of raptors’ stealthy predation in Jurassic Park, the moody teenager Zach and his dorky dino-loving younger brother Gray are passive, ill-developed characters. In this day and age, it seems both outdated and highly implausible that parents would even attempt to keep their divorce secret from their teen and pre-teen children. Keeping the boys’ parents off the island until the whole family finally reunites after the big, bad dinosaur has been vanquished oversimplifies the narrative and likely keeps production costs low, as if that is a real concern (the producers of Jurassic World undoubtedly followed Hammond’s maxim to spare no expense). To add insult to injury, the script’s old-fashioned sexist gender politics actually calls for the boys’ mother Karen (Judy Greer, wasted), when accused of sounding like her mother, to point out to her sister Claire that she’ll understand how right their mother was when Claire has her own children. Claire corrects her with, “If I have children.” Karen settles their dispute with, “When.” During this exchange, I leaned over to whisper to my sister that the four screenwriters can’t write dialogue between two women, let alone sisters. Why is Karen/the filmmakers so intent on defining Claire in terms of her willingness and ability to mother children?

Watch where you step, Claire! You might break a heel. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Watch where you step, Claire! You might break a heel. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

In fact, much has been made of Jurassic World’s representation of women, much of it centered on Claire’s outrageous superhuman ability to outrun dinosaurs in high heels. In her New York Times review, film critic Manohla Dargis laments that Claire “mostly just schemes and screams, before Owen melts her like an ice cube on a hot griddle.” More like a Megan Fox character in any of the Transformers movies, with her permanent sheen of attractive sweat, Claire is a far cry from the intelligent, heroic paleo-botanist Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern). Those are some tough shoes to fill: Ellie wasn’t afraid to stick her hands into mounds of dino dung or call out Hammond’s sexism in Jurassic Park. More troublesome than Claire and Owen’s romantic subplot, which Joss Whedon deemed “70’s era sexist” once a clip from the film was released online over two months ago, is how Jurassic World tortures another female character. Sure, Zara may not be that interested in keeping an eye on Claire’s nephews—she’s too attached to her phone and likely believes babysitting is beneath her (is she wrong?)—but does she deserve to die such a violent and traumatic death? About midway through the film, amateur helicopter pilot Masrani fatally crashes into the aviary, thereby inadvertently releasing swarms of Pteranodon and Dimorphodon into the park and allowing them attack visitors. Two or more play a game, passing Zara back and forth before one drops her in the pool of the gigantic Mosasaurus. This act seals her fate to wind up as an even smaller bite-size snack than the shark from Jaws, a feeding demonstration that memorably plays out like a Shamu show at Sea World in the Jurassic World trailer.

The Mosasaurus eats Jaws; it's never safe to go in that water. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
The Mosasaurus eats Jaws; it’s never safe to go in that water. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

But Jaws isn’t the only piece of film history gobbled up in Jurassic World. As part and parcel of the film’s commentary on the outlandish and out-sized spectacle of today’s movie entertainments, Jurassic World also deconstructs its studio’s theme park attractions. Literally. Jimmy Fallon, the star of NBC’s The Tonight Show, makes a cameo appearance as the host of the Gyrosphere off-road experience, thereby reprising his role as the video guide of Universal Studios Hollywood’s Studio Tour. His comic hijinks shot in a studio laboratory and broadcast on the re-envisioned tram’s video screen turn glitchy once Indominus rex attacks Zach and Gray in their Gyrosphere vehicle. Contrary to Fallon’s claims, indestructible this technology is not. This is also how the only truly awe-inspiring sequence in the entire film concludes, with a callback to the T. rex’s attack on Tim and Lex’s electric-powered Jeep. Zach and Gray’s safari adventure, rolling around with stampedes of Apatosaurus, Parasaurolophus, Stegosaurus, Triceratops, and others, recalls the moment in Jurassic Park where Drs. Alan Grant, Ellie Sattler, and Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) see the Brachiosaurus for the first time. But the Jurassic World sequence is heavily edited and too closely framed. The sense of wonder so prevalent in Jurassic Park (look! living, breathing dinosaurs!) is completely absent in Jurassic World, and composer Michael Giacchino’s reworking of John Williams’s iconic score even fails to move. It just doesn’t feel earned.

Zach and Gray, just a couple of kids. And some dinosaurs! Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Zach and Gray, just a couple of kids. And some dinosaurs! Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Universal puts more of its properties through the ringer, as well. Whereas the more natural landscape of Jurassic Park was sparsely populated with brutalist concrete buildings, Jurassic World strikingly resembles Universal City Walk by way of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Its Disneyland-like Main Street U.S.A. is lined with shops that anyone would recognize from a standard suburban American mall: Starbucks, Jamba Juice, Pandora, etc. Other than visiting to look at dinosaurs, there is nothing special about this place. The only mention of what I would consider an extraordinary experience on offer at “Downtown Jurassic World” is the quick advertisement on the loudspeaker for a Chilean sea bass dining experience, which references a lunchtime meal in Jurassic Park that no one actually partakes. They’re all too busy discussing whether or not Jurassic Park should exist. There is no such philosophical reflection in Jurassic World.

Main Street of Jurassic World under attack. Maybe opening a franchise of Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville restaurants on Isla Nublar wasn't such a good idea, after all. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Main Street of Jurassic World under attack. Maybe opening a franchise of Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville restaurants on Isla Nublar wasn’t such a good idea, after all. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Given what I’ve read about Michael Crichton’s literary oeuvre and his political ideology, I imagine that he would gleefully applaud the rampaging dinosaurs’ destruction of this tasteless, highly corporatized place. In its pursuit of dollars and sponsorships, the telecommunications conglomerate that owns Jurassic World (remember, Comcast owns Universal), brings about the end of civilization—the wild animals in the zoo, particularly the little-understood hybrid—fight back! (Control is an illusion, or so said Dr. Ellie Sattler.) The rampant commercialism and excessive consumption on display throughout Jurassic World gets it most exacting and seemingly innocuous indictment not in the very unsubtle product placements strewn throughout (featuring the likes of Mercedes, The IMAX Experience, and Samsung) but in various characters’ drinking soda from oversized Jurassic World paper cups. As such, those film spectators in the theater sipping Coke or shoveling popcorn into their mouths from Jurassic World tie-in merchandise containers are somewhat implicated in Jurassic World’s expensive socio-biological experiment in entertainment gone so horrible wrong. After all, the next best thing to actually being there is feeling immersed in the park’s material culture. The movie’s website outwardly projects a real-life presence for Jurassic World, giving weather forecasts and “real-time” approximations for various attractions’ wait times. Visitors can even refill their souvenir cups for only 99 cents at filling stations throughout the park. The spell is broken, however, once you click “Get Tickets” and you’re rerouted to a Fandango-like website listing movie times in your vicinity.

Contrary to what Claire believes, Lowery, a lifelong Jurassic Park supergeek, doesn't wear his t-shirt ironically. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Contrary to what Claire believes, Lowery, a lifelong Jurassic Park supergeek, doesn’t wear his t-shirt ironically. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

As a Jurassic Park superfan, I admit that I would love to own a t-shirt from the movie (and by that, I am referring to shirts that were featured in Jurassic Park and were subsequently available for purchase in the real world). Jurassic World blurs this line between diegetic and real-world marketing when Claire reprimands computer security expert Lowery for wearing an original Jurassic Park tee, labeling it in poor taste to promote a park where people lost their lives. She therefore negatively judges people’s continued morbid fascination with Jurassic Park. He beams that this collector’s item only set him back $150 on eBay, a steal when they usually go for $300. Of course, this line from Claire comes across as highly hypocritical: is she not profiting now from the disaster of Jurassic Park? As for Lowery, my sister doesn’t understand why a dino-loving guy who ironically wears a Jurassic Park tee would work there, either. My only guess is that he represents the Jurassic Park aficionado that so many of us are and that he wants to prevent a similar disaster from ever happening again. But too bad. He can’t.

Of course, what brings Jurassic World personnel to its knees is another inside job. Whereas computer programmer Dennis Nedry wreaked havoc in Jurassic Park when he shut down the power in order to get away with a canister of dinosaur DNA for personal profit, Dr. Henry Wu and a U.S. military contractor named Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) scheme behind Masrani and Claire’s backs to design Indominus rex with technological advancements that make it imperceptible by all known combat weapons currently used in the field, including thermal sensors and drone radars. In other words, disaster was bound to strike Jurassic World because Wu and Hoskins engineered it just so. As I stated before, when we meet Owen, alpha papa to a gaggle of raptors, it is unclear as to what he wants to achieve with the trained predators who were arguably the principal villains in Jurassic Park. As luck would have it, he fulfills some sort of destiny to rein them in in order to hunt down Indominus rex at Hoskins’s insistence. Besides, only Owen can do it well.

Hoskins is ready for his field test, Mr. Trevorrow. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Hoskins is ready for his field test, Mr. Trevorrow. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Once Indominus rex escapes its ill-suited cage, Jurassic World leadership does everything it can to track the dinosaur down, all while keeping its grave breach in security a secret from thousands of visitors. It is worth noting that most of the beast’s victims are people of color, beginning with a Hispanic park ranger and following through to an Asian-American special forces commander and members of his diverse team. In order to protect their expensive “asset,” leadership only allows the group of deadly operatives to pack tranquilizer guns. What’s worse is that they are barely mourned. In the control room, Claire, Owen, Masrani, Hoskins, and others watch each soldier’s computer-represented lifeline go limp, one at a time. This is in stark contrast to Claire’s tearful reaction to witnessing the death of an Apatosaurus, clawed down by the Indominus rex, while on her way with Owen to the northern section of the island to rescue her nephews. This moment obviously recalls the scene in Jurassic Park wherein Dr. Ellie Sattler investigates which plant likely ails the poisoned Triceratops. But again, it rings so false. Apatosaurus, I hardly knew ye!

The last third of the movie goes beyond the conventions of a traditional monster movie; it becomes a war picture. Despite Wu’s earlier pronouncement to Masrani, who wonders who signed off on Wu’s creation (it was you, Masrani, duh), that Jurassic World and presumably its 1993 antecedent were “never natural,” Hoskins insists that war is a part of nature, as if his field test is a natural progression of the wars in Afghanistan and against ISIS in Syria. In much the same way that a hungry shark interrupts Samuel L. Jackson’s rousing speech in Deep Blue Sea (Renny Harlin, 1999), a raptor charges at Hoskins, allowing Owen, Claire, and her nephews a way out. Eventually, Gray surmises that the surviving raptors simply don’t have enough teeth to take down Indominus rex, which lends Claire her one opportunity to enact a true, heroic gesture: she orders Lowery to open the T. rex’s compound, which, it must be said, resembles a soundstage on a studio backlot. Still in heels, Claire outruns the King of Dinosaurs on her way back to Owen and the boys. According to Manohla Dargis, “the heels are just silly and a distraction given that they’re nowhere near as insulting as the rest of her.” I’m not a Claire apologist (or, more accurately, a defender of the scriptwriters), but it is undeniable that Claire—and not Owen—bravely leads the T. rex to Indominus rex. The dino battle isn’t particularly noteworthy except for the nostalgia-tinged emotions it elicits in the film audience. Our one-time villain T. rex may die? Thankfully, the Mosasaurus emerges from the water, bites Indominus rex, and plunges the dino mutt into its tank. The last shot of the film features the T. rex roaring outside the control room, announcing its return to the top. There will likely be another sequel, because the park leadership still will not have learned its lesson. After all, Dr. Wu got away with the dino DNA.

Claire gets her one moment to shine. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Claire gets her one moment to shine. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Before Jurassic World began, I came to a strange but wonderful observation: unlike other franchise reboots of the year (Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars included), it’s highly probable that everyone in the packed theater—kids, teens, and adults—had seen the original blockbuster on which Jurassic World is based. The new feature may have expanded the universe of the earlier film, completely loping off its two sequels, but it didn’t use Jurassic Park’s intelligence, sense of humor, or incredible imagination. However, it’s still worth visiting in the same way that one should experience a Disney resort from time to time. What new monstrosity will they cook up next to make you long for the awesome theme park experience of your childhood?

Reading Role Models by My Role Model, John Waters

I’ve loved reading for as long as I can remember, and I have a huge personal library to prove it. However, the shelves are mostly filled with books I’ve yet to read, for the rate at which I purchase books far outpaces the speed at which I read them. To make matters—well, not worse but different—I’ve also gotten back into the habit of borrowing books from the library. Newly transplanted to Kansas City and without being able to run through the breadth and depth of my own book collection, I have used the splendid public library here to both acquaint me with my new city and to keep my reading eyes and imagination busy.

Role ModelsNow add my ears to the list, too. Recently, I listened to an audiobook for the first time. Ironically, it was a recording of a paperback that sits in my room back home: Role Models by cult filmmaker and artist John Waters. My siblings and I have been fans of the Baltimore-based director since we were kids, having grown up watching Hairspray (1988), Serial Mom (1994), and Pecker (1998) repeatedly. Although my extremely permissive parents probably would have had no problem with our watching his infamous classic Pink Flamingos (1972), I waited until I was ready, in college, to partake in the mondo-trashiness of Divine’s diegetic exploits to secure her place as the world’s “filthiest person alive.” Around the same time, about ten years ago, my sister and I were the first in line to attend a comedic performance by John Waters on campus. I can’t remember everything that he covered that night, but I do remember that that is how I learned of his interest in attending local court trials. And that he is not a fan of blossoms. I still like to quote him, mimicking his cadence and emphasizing the pauses and “S” sounds that he makes: “Limits. We all have our limits.” My beloved button pin, which cheekily states, “Reading is sexy,” inexplicably confounds a lot of people, but I paraphrase something that Waters said that night to explain what I mean by wearing it: “You should never go to bed with someone who doesn’t read.”

John Waters has been an idol of mine for decades now, and I am so glad that I listened to Role Models, his memoir about the multiple individuals, in and out of the spotlight (however big), who have inspired him. I’m certain that I would have heard his distinctive voice in my head while reading it myself, but there is nothing like listening to him actually tell these hilarious and often heart-warming stories about perversion and subversion. The experience, which I shared with my sister in the car, largely as we drove the three hours to Omaha and back, was the closest I will probably ever come to feeling as if John and I really are best friends.

Role Models is divided into ten chapters, each tackling a different subject or topic. He touches on everyone from Johnny Mathis and Little Richard to Leslie Van Houten and Tennessee Williams. In researching the book, he even met the first three aforementioned people, among others. The seventh chapter, “Little Richard, Happy at Last,” recounts John’s early fascination with the influential R&B singer and the disappointing experience he had while interviewing his idol for Playboy magazine in 1987. The “screaming, flamboyant black man” whose voice had so shocked John’s parents in 1957 when he stole, blasted, and danced along to Little Richard’s latest record in the living room unfortunately turned out to be a royal pain in the ass (183). Since Little Richard was the inspiration behind John’s signature pencil moustache, I was surprised that he waited to introduce this idol so late in the book. But his experience having a candid conversation with Little Richard, who wanted approval over whatever John was going to write about him, posed a hard lesson.

John wonders, “But are there some role models you should never meet?” (184). Expressing that sentiment, so early in a book called Role Models, would have been such a bummer in the first chapter—even if Little Richard was instrumental in helping John define his identity. As a child growing up, John had always wanted to be Little Richard, to “somehow climb into [his] body, hook up his heart and vocal cords to [John’s] own, and switch identities with him” (183-4). John’s cautionary tale is exactly why I don’t follow my favorite celebrities on Twitter or other social media networks. I would rather remain blissfully unaware of the stupid or offensive things that they tweet or post to Instagram. However—and this is what I love about John, he’s so forgiving of people’s faults—he still idolizes Little Richard, “the undisputed king in my book” (197).

John Waters, my hero.
John Waters, my hero.

Role Models is also about the fashion, art, books, and pornography that have inspired John and brought joy into his life. In my favorite chapter, “Outsider Porn,” John meets one of his favorite pornographers, a man who literally lives in a pigpen, with rats, dogs, and chickens, to boot. Bobby has fallen on hard times; after selling the rights to his videotapes a long time ago, he doesn’t know how his porn videos, featuring heterosexual Marines masturbating and/or receiving fellatio from Bobby himself, are distributed today. Listening to John describe his discomfort in Bobby’s indoor/outdoor house is a riot, but he is also sympathetic to Bobby’s plight, desiring to take him out to dinner to a nice restaurant. John says that Bobby “is a great artist but doesn’t know it,” and that his video work and hundreds of artfully composed Polaroids of his Marine conquests belong in contemporary art galleries (201). That’s probably the only way I would ever see them. “Outsider Porn” isn’t just hilarious and somewhat upsetting (I wish Bobby’s situation wasn’t so dire); it’s also pretty hot. Listening to John describe several characteristic scenes from Bobby’s porn, without being able to actually see it, certainly invites you to use your imagination in the most fantastic sense. It’s no different than reading really graphic erotic literature.

John Waters hasn’t made a movie in over ten years. Since writing and directing A Dirty Shame in 2004, he’s been busy with a number of other projects: touring with his one-man comedy show (which was later turned into a documentary, This Filthy World, in 2006); putting on a comprehensive multimedia art show (I caught Change of Life at the Orange County Museum of Art in December 2005); watching Hairspray, his most commercial film, transform into a Broadway musical and later a film starring John Travolta as Edna Turnblad; hosting a tongue-in-cheek legal drama ’Til Death Do Us Part on Court TV from 2006 to 2007; and writing two memoirs, 2010’s Role Models and last year’s Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America.

Given John’s background, it should come as no surprise that Role Models isn’t a conventional memoir. While he does mention some of his collaborators throughout (chiefly Divine and Pat Moran, his longtime casting director and associate producer), he holds off on telling any salacious stories about Johnny Depp, who starred in 1990’s Cry-Baby. Role Models isn’t so much about John’s working life—or his personal one, for that matter. Although you do learn that he has “roommates”: pieces of his extraordinary contemporary art collection that are strewn across his Baltimore home and his New York apartment. I don’t care that John didn’t elucidate his filmmaking practices. I would rather hear him recount a particularly perverted airline passenger’s horrifying antics on an international flight that John wasn’t aboard himself. Just to hear him say “turd” over and over is a dream.

Cinecurator Alexandra Frank as John Waters. Photo of Waters's mouth by Greg Gorman.
Cinecurator Alexandra Frank as John Waters. Photo of Waters’s mouth by Greg Gorman.

Opening the final chapter, “Cult Leader,” John laments, “I’m so tired of writing ‘Cult Filmmaker’ on my income tax forms. If only I could write ‘Cult Leader,’ I’d finally be happy” (273). It’s true: “cult filmmaker” isn’t enough to identify him, and this is what makes John so special to me. Unlike other auteurs like Quentin Tarantino or Steven Spielberg, John isn’t just known for his films. He expresses his personality and sensibility in other art forms, and as a diehard fan, Role Models delivers, because it perfectly encapsulates the Pope of Trash’s worldview. Also in “Cult Leader,” John preaches about “a filth movement for the next century,” imagining that readers can choose to join his crusade against those who decry bad taste as the end of civilization (274). What an empowering message, because, once you get past his faux-insistence that you change your name or go topless in public, all he is really saying is that you should let your freak flag fly. Don’t let anyone else define who you are or dictate what you can and cannot do. Growing up with a fixed diet of John Waters movies and still wanting nothing more than to be best friends with the man, I have really taken this advice to heart.

Listening to Role Models, though, inspired me to reflect on other people whom I idolize. It’s been a long time since I was so obsessed with a celebrity that I purchased every magazine he or she appeared in. At ten, I was obsessed with the rock band Bush, and I recall lifting hundreds of issues of Tower Records’ free in-store magazine in order to mail copies to other fans dispersed around the world (this was before the Internet was readily available). I can still sing along to songs on Sixteen Stone, but I no longer think of Gavin Rossdale as my future husband. I was also a card-carrying member of the Christian Bale fan-club as a child, but now I waver in my enthusiasm for his acting. (I can’t wait to rent Exodus: Gods and Kings on DVD and laugh at it.) However, in almost twenty years, my passion for all things Trainspotting has never dissipated. Sure, I donated my copy of Ewan McGregor’s unauthorized biography a long time ago (it wasn’t well written), but I’m never getting rid of my rare Trainspotting movie poster, the one where Begbie has his hand in his pants. John would approve.

I’m not so sure that listening to audiobooks will ever replace my reading of tangible hard copies. I don’t spend much time commuting in the car or on the bus, where reading is nauseatingly impossible. My sister and I started listening to a piece of historical fiction, which spans thirteen compact discs and over sixteen hours of audio. It wouldn’t take me that long to read it, and my mind too easily wanders while listening to the actress read the story. But I know that listening to John Waters’s Carsick while on the road with my sister would be ideal.

Long Take: Hector and the Search for Happiness Finds Nothing to Be Happy About

Viewed March 5, 2015

Movie poster for Hector and the Search for HappinessHector and the Search for Happiness (2014) came and went late last summer in limited release, but I don’t recall it ever coming to a theater near me. Which is just as well, because it is horrible. Ostensibly a comedy, the biggest laugh that the film story elicits occurs when a French woman struggles to pronounce the word “happiness.” The titular character, though embodied by Simon Pegg (one of my favorites), and all those who surround him are so criminally underdeveloped that it is difficult to care much about anyone in the film except in a more theoretical way that the filmmakers don’t support. What’s worse, the representation of the bored British psychiatrist’s journey around the world to find out what makes people happy paints multiple far-flung cultures in broad, caricatured brushstrokes. There is virtually no cultural specificity in any of the places that he visits, and when director and co-writer Peter Chelsom and crew attempt to add critical dissections of serious impediments to people’s general health and well-being in these places, these issues are wiped under the rug, never to be disturbed again. In case you are new to Hector and the Search for Happiness, be warned that I am going to spoil it now. And while you’re at it, take a peek at the film’s trailer to see how much potential the filmmakers wasted.

I have not read the original source novel by French psychiatrist François Lelord, but apparently its raison d’être is to educate a general readership about the psychology of happiness and to offer tips on finding it in everyday life. This explains why, after almost every interaction with someone throughout his international adventure, Hector jots down in his journal maxims such as “Happiness is knowing you’re alive” and “Happiness is not always knowing the full story.” These words are scrawled across the screen in order to keep a running tally of all the lessons learned, as if the film is a PowerPoint lecture. Hector also fills the pages of his notebook, which sexy and domineering girlfriend Clara (Rosamund Pike) gifted him upon his departure, with cutesy doodles of what his childish imagination encounters abroad. The main lesson he must learn is that losing Clara, even though she smothers him with a routine (always the same breakfast; she clips his toenails and packs his bag), would make him really unhappy. That’s right: he goes on this purportedly life-changing adventure only to realize that he likes his life just as it is. Although the couple’s Skype conversations widen the chasm between them more and more throughout, as the film drags on, there is never any doubt as to the fate of their relationship.

And this is why Hector’s first stop in “China” is so perplexing. He never gives any reason as to why he starts there (and isn’t it the tiny kingdom of Bhutan that is regularly cited as the happiest place on earth?) or what he is going to do once he arrives. But Hector doesn’t need a plan when he has filthy rich businessman Stellan Skarsgård to act as his guide in an unnamed Shanghai. It truly boggles the mind as to why Skarsgård’s Edward, so annoyed by Hector on the plane ride over from London, would take the ridiculous man under his wing and show him a good time. For, unbeknownst to Hector, Edward has secured the services of a prostitute named Ying Li (Ming Zhao) to keep Hector company in the nightclub and beyond. Although Clara gave Hector permission to fool around while on his trip, he winds up falling asleep before Ying Li can even get into the bed. At lunch the next day, believing he’s falling in love, Hector discovers the truth when her pimp whisks her away. Hector tries to do the honorable thing and stand up to him, but, despite calling her john “nice,” Ying Li hits Hector on the head and rides away. She doesn’t want his help. So in one fell swoop, Hector goes from ruminating that perhaps happiness is being in love with two women at the same time to realizing that he’s happier not knowing Ying Li’s full story. I never expected the film to engage the topics of prostitution and sexual tourism in Shanghai, but since the filmmakers did, I find it morally reprehensible that Hector, a psychiatrist, would find it so easy to disengage. It’s not as if Ying Li was happy to see her pimp, to return to her life as a sexually exploited woman. She seemed confused as to how she felt about Hector, as if wondering whether or not he could provide an escape. I wouldn’t have wanted to see a film about a white male tourist “saving” a Chinese prostitute. Nevertheless, I didn’t like how the experience of falling for a woman, no matter her profession, had exactly no consequences on Hector’s outlook other than admitting he rather just be ignorant of the circumstances of her life.

Hector and Ying Li get up close and personal. Photo courtesy of Relativity Media.
Hector (Simon Pegg) and Ying Li (Ming Zhao) get up close and personal. Image courtesy of Relativity Media.

But it only gets worse. From Shanghai, Hector treks through the Himalayas to a remote Buddhist monastery. No one mentions the place by name, but it is easy to assume that he has entered Tibet, to seek the advice of Togo Igawa’s Old Monk (the filmmakers couldn’t even give him a name), who mainly just speaks in rhetorical loop-de-loops to help Hector arrive at the lesson that always avoiding things that make you unhappy is no surefire way to attain long-lasting happiness. He spends all of five minutes there, without ever contemplating how the Chinese government’s suppression of Tibetan statehood might affect the happiness of the people living and working there.

Then he moves on to “Africa.” I found this section the most offensive, beginning with the filmmakers’ failure to name a more specific region or country. Perhaps they left the place intentionally unidentified so as to not incur the wrath of people and governments of a particular place or area. But this lack of cultural specificity effectually purports that Hector’s “Africa” stands in for a whole continent, dominated by warlords foreign-born and native alike, backward villagers who travel with their chickens on prop planes, and “Western” organizations that provide humanitarian aid. In fact, Hector spends two weeks helping his medical school friend Michael (Barry Atsma) at the clinic he runs with his African boyfriend. Embarrassingly, it takes him a full two weeks to recognize that Michael and Marcel (Anthony Oseyemi) are romantically involved, coming to the delightful conclusion that “Happiness is when you are loved for who you are.” Unfortunately, just as Michael’s work is merely the conduit through which Hector can explore “Africa,” the former’s sexual relationship with Marcel exists purely as a way for Hector to learn this widely shared belief. Hector doesn’t seem to care about the challenges that the mixed-race, homosexual couple—his friends—must face in this setting. And nor do the filmmakers.

You wouldn't know it from this photo, but Michael, Hector, and Marcel are cruising in a war-torn
You wouldn’t know it from this photo, but Michael (Barry Atsma), Hector (Pegg), and Marcel (Anthony Oseyemi) are cruising in a war-torn “Africa.” Image courtesy of Relativity Media.

Hector continuously acts the fool, and he even comes to the aid of a local warlord named Diego Baresco (Jean Reno). Despite warnings from Michael and Marcel about warlords in the area, Hector proves his goodness to Baresco, who suspects him of working for an international peace-keeping outfit that swoops in only to leave before seeing their work through. Hector reviews the prescriptions that Baresco’s beloved wife takes and makes revisions to her regime, thereby instilling some peace of mind in Baresco. They get drunk together, and on his ride back to the clinic, Hector fails to recognize that his taxi cab has been hijacked by two armed rebels, because all black men look the same to him. He’s soon taken hostage, destined to rot in a cell with one rat as his friend. It’s unclear as to how long he is held captive, and of course we have no idea what the rebels seek to accomplish with their violent acts. We’re just supposed to accept this, because isn’t that what happens in Africa? According to this film, white European and American tourists go missing all the time and are swept into guerrilla warfare. Hector uses Baresco’s pen to negotiate his release, for his captors fear retribution from Hector’s powerful “friend.” They abandon Hector on a country road, and “Happiness is knowing you’re alive” is emblazoned on the screen. Yes, absolutely, but did we need such an extreme scenario to demonstrate this? Especially since nothing becomes of it? Hector doesn’t suffer any post-traumatic stress, and we never witness Michael’s or Marcel’s worry over Hector’s abduction. Before moving on to Los Angeles to meet his former med school flame Agnes (Toni Collette), Hector experiences the gloriousness of sweet potato stew, which a baby-swaddling woman on the prop plane promised to prepare for him once they landed safely in “Africa.” It’s supposed to be physically and emotionally fulfilling, but we viewers never see it. The filmmakers can’t even commit to showing us a traditional “African” dish.

Having survived being held hostage by an indistinguishable
Having survived being held hostage by an indistinguishable “African” rebel group, Hector celebrates by cooking sweet potato stew with local women. Image courtesy of Relativity Media.

In Los Angeles, Hector takes part in Professor Coreman’s (Christopher Plummer) neuroscience study to map emotions such as happiness, sadness, and fear across different parts of the brain. After breaking up with Clara over the phone because his traveling to Los Angeles has finally signaled for the couple that Hector still longs for Agnes, Hector exhibits all three emotions in the scanner, lighting up Coreman’s screen with a rainbow of colors that the professor has assigned to each emotional state. Is this the payoff we’re supposed to receive from Hector and the Search for Happiness? What makes Hector special is his ability to feel happiness, sadness, and fear at the same time when recalling a wide range of events in his life? Having been rebuffed by Agnes, a happily married psychologist with a third child on the way, Hector determines that he must get back to London to be with Clara. As I said before, they live happily ever after. He’s more emotionally available and compassionate towards his patients, and Clara finally realizes that, yes, she wants to have a baby with Hector.

What and whom they always wanted. Clara (Rosamund Pike) and Hector finally tie the knot. Image courtesy of relativity Media.
What and whom they always wanted. Clara (Rosamund Pike) and Hector finally tie the knot. Image courtesy of Relativity Media and MovieStillsDB.com.

The one bright spot in this mess is the chemistry between Simon Pegg and Rosamund Pike. Although their relationship isn’t exactly desirable (she takes great pride in clipping his toe nails!), they have an appealing, silly rapport in scenes where they interact in person. In fact, most of their exchanges occur over video conferencing calls. Notably, Hector and the Search for Happiness may be implying that staying connected through this kind of technology is no substitute for human contact (when Hector tries to tell her that he’d been kidnapped, she fails to register the gravity of the situation). Even phone conversations do not go well between them. There is simply a lack of communication between the lovers, and isn’t that a definite sign of their incompatibility? Clara cannot make up her mind regarding Hector’s up and leaving her for an indeterminate period of time. Hector needs to leave the person he loves in order to realize that happiness lies in a life made with her. This is not an earth-shattering revelation, especially since we watch him come to this conclusion under the most ridiculous of circumstances. As I said before, I am a huge fan of Pegg’s, and it was disappointing to see him attached to such bone-headed and culturally insensitive material. I wonder what attracted him to it in the first place: Hector’s childhood love of The Adventures of Tin Tin, maybe? Then again, shooting a film about happiness around the world does sound really exciting. If only the film wasn’t so concerned with checking off the lessons in the original source novel and instead let the characters interact with each other in more plausible, organic ways.

Who is Laura Lamont?

Laura Lamont's Life in PicturesEmma Straub’s debut novel Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures charts the transformation of a rural Wisconsin girl, Elsa Emerson, into one of the starlets of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Using Jennifer Jones’s biography as a springboard, Straub writes of a woman who juggles multiple identities throughout her life: daughter, sister, wife, mother, and actress. In fact, the book is divided into twelve chapters whose titles encapsulate the roles she plays. Opening the novel in 1929, “Cherry,” at once suggesting the ripe potential of her later life’s work and the lost grandeur of Chekhov’s last play, details the special circumstances of her childhood spent behind the scenes and on the floorboards of her parents’ barn-house theater. Nine years pass between the suicide of Elsa’s older, beloved and beautiful sister Hildy and her escape from Door County with stranger-cum-costar-cum-husband Gordon Pitts. Within a few years after their arrival in Los Angeles, Gordon signs a contract to be a bit player at Gardner Brothers, and Elsa’s own acting ambitions take a backseat to her familial responsibilities. In the second chapter, “Laura Lamont,” studio executive (and Gordon’s boss) Irving Green flirts with Elsa at a wrap party and rechristens her “Laura Lamont,” telling her that, provided she loses thirty pounds once she gives birth to her (second) child, she is pretty enough to be a star. And so our heroine now sets her mind on becoming the star she always wanted to be.

Straub is a deft storyteller, and structuring her fictional biography according to the highlights of Laura Lamont’s life and career excises the fat of the more uneventful, prosaic moments of a character’s story. However, after reading all 304 pages of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, the titular protagonist still remains somewhat of a mystery. Perhaps this is intentional. We read as Elsa/Laura struggles to define herself, mainly as her new glamorous identity fails to wipe the slate clean. She can’t face up to her mother, who resents Elsa for leaving Door County, seemingly forgetting who she is. Laura is haunted by past traumas, such as her sister’s suicide, and, years after she has divorced Gordon and married the studio’s number two, Irving Green, her first husband becomes a drunkard, a drug addict, a costly thorn in her side. The role that she chooses to most define her is that of mother. More pages are devoted to Laura’s dedication to and admiration of her three children: Clara and Florence, from her first marriage, and Irving Jr. This isn’t objectionable, of course, but as a film scholar and historian, I was more interested in how Straub represented Hollywood of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.

Jennifer Jones (1919-2009), the real-life inspiration for Emma Straub's Laura Lamont.
Jennifer Jones (1919-2009), the real-life inspiration for Emma Straub’s Laura Lamont.

Just as it is unreasonable for a film critic to judge a motion picture against the film s/he would like to have seen, it is not fair of me to judge Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures as lacking an in-depth exposé of Hollywood goings-on from the perspective of one star—or cog in the machine. Besides, as Straub told Jacki Lyden in 2012 on NPR’s All Things Considered, “I made sure to stay away actually from Jennifer Jones’ biography ’cause I didn’t want it to be, you know, a thinly veiled version of her. I really wanted my Laura Lamont to stand on her own feet.” However, just as I really enjoyed Farran Smith Nehme’s engagement with the archival preservation of forgotten silent films in her recent novel Missing Reels, the characterizations of Hollywood and its myriad players in Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures really delighted me. For example, when Laura starts at Gardner Brothers, whose company name recalls that of the real-life Warner Bros. but whose physical location more accurately resembles that of Paramount, she begins cutting a rug in a string of comedies with her red-haired friend Ginger Hedges. Years later, after Ginger becomes a big star in comedy, rival studio Triumph Pictures poaches her, and she later goes on to head the studio while producing and starring on a successful television sitcom with her husband. It should come as no surprise that Lucille Ball inspired the character Ginger. Robert Walker, Jennifer Jones’s first husband, does not end up as ignobly as Gordon Pitts does. At least the real-life actor, who also died young, can claim an illustrious career with the likes of BataanStrangers on a Train, and My Son John in his filmography.

The Song of BernadetteWhen the hardcover’s opening book-flap describes Irving Green as Laura’s “great love,” I recognized that the character must be a stand-in for David O. Selznick, Jennifer Jones’s second husband. Selznick produced such classics as King Kong, Gone With the Wind, Duel in the Sun, and The Portrait of Jennie, the last two of which starred his wife Jones (neé Phylis Lee Isley). Before striking out on his own, Selznick worked at MGM, Paramount, and RKO. While the novel does not present Irving as an independent producer like Selznick, it does show that his decision to put Laura in more serious roles, in romantic, historical epics, eventually nabs her an Academy Award for Best Actress. Jennifer Jones won her first and only Oscar right out of the gate, for her leading role in The Song of Bernadette. In crafting Laura Lamont’s backstory, Straub cleverly keeps the religious theme of Jones’s film when she writes that Laura won for her performance as a nun in Farewell, My Sister, a film whose script somewhat imitates her relationship with Hildy. Unfortunately, I found the description of Laura and Irving’s relationship lacking in intensity. Although married for years, before his untimely death from a prolonged heart-related illness, I never really understood the lovers’ mutual fascination. Irving is repeatedly described as short, slight, balding, and regrettably, Jewish, as if that is enough to characterize someone. Sure, power is an aphrodisiac, but outside of his unexamined devotion to Laura and her children, I fail to see how he is appealing. He isn’t given any thought-provoking dialogue or much to do at all, really. He mainly just sweeps her off her feet, seeing someone else in Elsa Emerson, a brunette rather than a blonde. Laura herself is a bit of a simpleton, especially when it comes to interacting with her growing children. And Laura’s relationship with her young black maid, Harriet, reads too much like one Joan Crawford or Vivien Leigh had with Butterfly McQueen or Hattie McDaniel on-screen. Since we glimpse Laura mostly in her private life, it is difficult for me to imagine the character as a glamorous starlet. She mainly just upholds the Grand Narrative of the Hollywood Dream Factory: she did as she was told, read her lines, and was happy if the bosses were happy.

Coming off the heels of her beloved father’s death, Irving’s death further pushes Laura into decline. Deep in debt, she abuses anti-anxiety medication, falls into an intractable despair, and eventually attempts suicide. She gradually makes a full recovery and adjusts to a new life out of the limelight. Chapter eleven, “The Shopgirl,” recalls silent film star Louise Brooks’s biography rather than Jennifer Jones’s: the former actress died in 1985, destitute and purportedly a salesgirl in a department store. Meanwhile, in 1975 and now a grandmother, Laura supports herself as a shop assistant for dressmaker-to-the-stars Edna (clearly inspired by famed Hollywood costume designer Edith Head, who was also the model for the scene-stealing Edna Mode in The Incredibles). The novel ends where it began: in the theater. In 1980, the newly rediscovered Laura Lamont makes her Broadway debut in The Royal Family, the same play that she performed with Gordon Pitts before they married and skedaddled to Los Angeles with dreams of stardom shining in their eyes. I can’t deny that the final scene is poignant. Her children reunite in New York to see Laura on opening night, but when I closed the book on her life, I couldn’t help thinking that I wanted more from it.

Missing Reels is a Thrilling Film Preservation Mystery

Last night, I finished reading Missing Reels, the debut novel of Farran Smith Nehme, who writes about herself in the third person over at her classic film blog Self-Styled Siren. Spoiler Rich [my former blog where this essay was first posted] may be devoted to dissecting film and TV shows, but considering that the story of Missing Reels concerns a young vintage clothing salesgirl in 1980s New York obsessed with classic films, I feel obligated to share some thoughts on the novel.

Missing Reels is 339 pages long and filled mostly with rat-a-tat dialogue, primarily between Mississippi-born protagonist Ceinwein (pronounced “KINE-wen,” apparently) and her snobby English mathematician boyfriend Matthew. He doesn’t share her love of old movies, but he does become an assistant to her film preservation detective work. Ceinwein is convinced that the old woman Miriam who lives in her building had to have been a Hollywood starlet once-upon-a-time, given Miriam’s snarky comments about Jean Harlow being a slut, bemusement at Ceinwen’s preference for vintage glamour, and living room-displayed headshot of a young woman with more than a passing resemblance to Miriam. It turns out that the headshot is actually a production still from the silent film The Mysteries of Udolpho (yes, Miriam’s name was momentarily flashed on a movie theater marquee, emphasis on “momentarily”), and the autographed inscription dedicated to “Emil” refers to none other than the fictitious film’s German expatriate director Emil Arnheim, with whom Miriam had a red-hot love affair during the film shoot in the late 1920s. The usually taciturn Miriam confesses to as much upon receipt of an unexpected Christmas gift from Ceinwen. Miriam’s gift to Ceinwen is a quest: unbeknownst to the curmudgeon-y lady, Ceinwen sets out to track down the long-lost film to reunite Miriam with her long-gone lover (he wrecked his car in a drunken stupor following the film’s poor test audience reception and the studio head’s butchering of Emil’s artfully composed edit). Ceinwein wants to assure Miriam that she was right: The Mysteries of Udolpho may have gone over most people’s heads at the time of its initial release, but it was in fact a bold and interesting work, just as the one-time actress’s memory has preserved it all these years.

Unfortunately, Ceinwen’s efforts to track down the lost film only pick up halfway through the novel. The first half establishes her relationship with Matthew, a postdoc at NYU, who is in a long-term, long-distance relationship with an arrogant Italian economist. Although he is honest upfront about his romantic entanglement, Ceinwen is jealous when he spends Christmas in Europe with Anna. Right off the bat, I felt annoyed by this situation. If she had a problem being with a guy who’s attached to someone else, why pursue him? Why let him pursue her? I know, I know, the heart doesn’t know what’s good for it. That would be one thing, but Matthew is downright mean. He patronizes her for never eating, somehow forgetting that her chain-smoking is an appetite suppressant and that she’s skint more often than not (and that she seems to prefer spending her income on vintage clothes and tickets to repertory movie theaters). Ceinwen’s inability to feed herself may be the manifestation of an underexplored eating disorder but it more likely signals her poverty. Matthew doesn’t take her seriously. Virtually everything he says puts her down; he clearly has a superiority complex, because she’s eight years his junior and didn’t finish college. Reading Missing Reels, I couldn’t help but imagine that Matthew would have found an instant rapport with Hugh Grant and his chums in Four Weddings and a Funeral: he’s pompous, snarky, and elitist, too.

The one truly good thing Matthew does (at least in terms of the narrative mise-en-scene) is introduce Ceinwen to a cadre of classic film enthusiasts–no, fanatics–from his department. The book lights up at the crazy professors’ introduction; like Ceinwen, I recognized who I wanted to be while making their acquaintance. Well, minus the condescension that Harry, Matthew’s mentor, points toward Ceinwen. I would never ask someone which they prefer, Love Affair or An Affair to Remember, and then judge them harshly if they didn’t choose the former. I’d probably chalk it up to the probability that he or she saw the Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr version first. (Shot almost twenty years apart by the same director, the films are practically identical, and watching them back-to-back can be a tedious experience.)

In any case, I loved Missing Reels‘ intelligent engagement with cinephilia and classic films, mixing in the likes of Make Way for Tomorrow, Angel Heart, and The Crowd. Nehme concocts a thrilling and plausible story about what it may be like to track down an orphan film. She manages to do the seemingly impossible: make film preservation sexy. There are vivid comic scenes, whether charming or awkward, in the respective living rooms of an eccentric film collector and a gossipy former assistant film director. The scenes at Ceinwen’s place of employment, Vintage Visions, never spark with as much creative energy; they mainly exist just to serve as stock portraits of Ceinwen’s over-the-top, intractable boss. I am not a Mack Sennett aficionado, but I would love to attend an event like what the Bangville Police Society puts on. I also wish there were more scenes in the lab at the uptown Brody Institute for Cinephilia and Film Preservation. In fact, I enjoyed the friendship Ceinwen struck up with the schlubby curator Fred far more than I enjoyed Ceinwen and Matthew’s whirlwind romance.

And why couldn’t she have ended up with Fred? They’re more compatible, with the same interest in watching and preserving films. I never for one second believed that he was secretly in love with his domineering boss, Isabel. That was just Ceinwen projecting, and even Matthew was jealous of the time she spent with Fred. Matthew’s dumping Ceinwen toward the end of the book and announcing his engagement to Anna threw me for a loop, too. But worse still, the closing scenes, in which they reunite after Anna throws a plate of food onto his chest, struck a farcical tone out of step with the rest of the novel. I’m glad that Ceinwen gets a job at NYU and therefore can take advantage of tuition remission benefits, but why did she have to fall for a jerk like Matthew?

I’m purposefully leaving out the good narrative bits concerning Miriam’s reaction to Ceinwen’s investigative career and whether or not she manages to find the titular reels. I hope that the book will inspire readers to explore older films and recognize that they are pieces of history we must preserve and interpret in order to come to a fuller understanding of the evolution of popular entertainments.