Fan-Made: Case Studies Inside Film Cultures, from Tarantino to Point Break

Early on in my academic study of film history and theory, I realized that the best way to understand the impact that the Movies have on our lives, to investigate these “popular entertainments,” is to watch what is and once was popular. I’ve seen a great number of films that never interested me as a filmgoer (I’m looking at you, Spider-Man 3), but I feel a professional obligation to see them nevertheless. This doesn’t mean that I see everything. (Who has the time, anyway?) For instance, I draw the line at certain kinds of horror movies, like torture porn or possession flicks. Limits. We all have our limits.

But when I examine popular films (by which I mean unequivocal blockbusters or cult classics), whether I am a self-professed fan or not, I tap into another world. Or at least I try. I want to know all the angles: all the controversies, all the gripes, all the pleasures that audiences have and share with one another. I have to see what all the fuss is about.

There was a lot of fuss about the Movies in 2015. Even though comic book superhero movies, studio tentpoles based on YA literature, and reboots of long-dormant franchises still dominated the box office this year, as they almost always do, to paraphrase New York Times film critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, the major studios pulled off the unthinkable: they gave us stuff that we largely wanted and liked, and thank god their original flicks with mid-size budgets did well, too. Maybe this means that film isn’t dying.

Christian and Ana are no closer to a business accord than when they started. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Christian and Ana are no closer to a business accord than when they started in Fifty Shades of Grey. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

As I actively participated in the hullabaloo surrounding the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey (Sam Taylor-Johnson, 2015), Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, 2015), and even Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015), the whole world of fandom was thrown into sharp relief. “Fan-made,” which generally connotes those cultural products that are made by amateurs, created in the spirit of or in homage to well known works, suddenly landed on a much bigger stage, with more money attached, in 2015. Now, I’m not suggesting that J.J. Abrams isn’t a professional—even if I do think he’s famous for aping Spielberg and for re-imagining other creators’ properties. He tried his best with Star Trek; he improved upon George Lucas. I also do not mean to diminish Taylor-Johnson’s talents; she elevated her source material (the poorly imagined fan-fiction/erotica drivel written by E.L. James) by focusing on the ridiculousness of what ultimately amounted to no more than the protracted business negotiations of a sexual contract between a man and a woman. Unfortunately, Taylor-Johnson won’t be returning for the next installments, and Universal has allowed James, who objected to Taylor-Johnson’s choices, to pass her husband, Niall Leonard, control over the screenplay for Fifty Shades Darker (James Foley, 2017).

However, while we’re on the topic of credibility, it is worth mentioning again that Trevorrow only had a low-budget romantic comedy to his name (Safety Not Guaranteed, 2012) before Spielberg handed him the keys to the Jurassic Park franchise and World‘s estimated $150 million budget. He foundered a few times while promoting his monstrosity, unable to convince us that the relationship between onscreen leads Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard didn’t reek of sexism and that the reason women are not called upon to direct giant studio tentpoles is because they simply don’t want to. And to top it all off, Trevorrow delivered a cynical CGI-laden horror show, without any of the thrills, wonder, or charm of the 1993 original. Can you tell that I am a huge Jurassic Park fan?

Can you believe Claire and Owen end up together? Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Can you believe Claire and Owen end up together in Jurassic World? Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

It is well established that I am not a fan of Star Wars. But I knew that I was going to see the biggest film of the year in the theater. For a while, I just didn’t know when. Originally, I decided that I would wait a couple of weeks, allow the crowds to thin out. Then I decided that, in order to fully immerse myself in the fan culture, I had to see it opening weekend. I had my heart set on seeing filmgoers dressed as their favorite characters, maybe even turned away because they forgot to read the theater’s weapons policy and misguidedly brought that plastic lightsaber from home. I attended a sold-out show on the Sunday morning of its opening weekend. There were no Chewbaccas or Luke Skywalkers in the audience. Hell, we didn’t even have to stand in line before entering the auditorium. There were no hoots or hollers when the film franchise’s logo flashed across the screen. But I had tears in my eyes then, because I knew that I was sharing an experience with a larger, more enthusiastic community of film fans, even if they weren’t sitting in that darkened room with me. (They went at 8 pm Thursday night, right?) All in all, though, it was kind of like seeing any other movie.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is predicated on the idea that familiarity will sell. That is, it will fill nostalgic hearts and minds and also sell a shit ton of toys. I also understand that most diehard fans of the epic space fantasy series resent mastermind George Lucas’s three prequels, not only for introducing the abomination that is Jar Jar Binks but also for boring audiences to tears. (Full disclosure: I’ve never seen the last two prequels, inelegantly referred to as Episodes II and III.) So it seems only logical that a Star Wars superfan like J.J. Abrams would be able to bring back for his fellow fans what I imagine is the wonder and excitement of the early films. As I like to say, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the best movie in the franchise, but that isn’t saying much.” It is a loving pastiche of the original trilogy, only it is well made. Its racially and sexually diverse cast is new and more than welcome, especially since the unequivocal lead is a resourceful young woman named Rey, who, throughout her (mis)adventures with former Storm-Trooper Finn, father figure Han Solo, and furry sidekick Chewbacca, gradually learns the source of all her magical abilities. (It’s the Force, duh.) Star Wars: The Force Awakens may be the ultimate fan movie experience that everyone wanted this year or any year, for that matter (just look at how its box-office haul continues to grow and grow, beating all kinds of records), but it left me with nothing more than a newfound interest in why it is so important and life-defining to so many people.

OK, I didn't go Thursday night, but this is the kind of fan experience I would have liked to have had, even as a Star Wars anti-fan. Image courtesy of Orlando Business Journal.
OK, I didn’t go Thursday night, but this is the kind of fan experience I would have liked to have had, even as a Star Wars anti-fan. Image courtesy of Orlando Business Journal.

Instead, I received the superfan experience that I had hoped to witness at Star Wars while attending a special presentation of The Hateful Eight in 70mm. Though I initially balked at the price for a ticket to the film’s limited Roadshow Edition ($20!), I reasoned that the promise of receiving a souvenir program and watching the shadow and light show of actual celluloid—and of a rare, large format, no less—unspooling through a projector had enough value for me. Well, that, and because I wanted to see Quentin Tarantino’s latest. His cinema of indulgence, as I like to think of it, is an acquired taste, but I love how he wears his ecstatic cinephilia on his sleeve. In the case of what is billed as “the eighth film by Quentin Tarantino,” this indulgence extends to amplifying the moviegoing experience for spectators to a new extreme, even for him.

Previously, Tarantino and best friend Robert Rodriguez put on a Grindhouse program in 2007, double billing their unapologetically trashy B-movies Death Proof and Planet Terror, respectively. Just as with Grindhouse, the auteur and his co-conspirators (historically, the Weinstein brothers Bob and Harvey) have injected a film history lesson about bygone exhibition practices back into contemporary pop culture, reminding today’s audiences that going to the Movies used to be a special, spectacular event. The limited Roadshow Edition of The Hateful Eight, complete with an instrumental overture, twelve-minute intermission, a handful of minutes not included on the digital prints of the film, and, not to mention, an earlier release date, subverts current film presentation trends such as surcharging tickets for movies screened in 3D and IMAX formats. You could even make the argument that the real star of the picture was the tangible film itself. Theaters had to be retrofitted with the right technology to screen 70mm, and transporting the heavy reels of film also proved a herculean task (the film is three hours long, mind you). Just read Adam Witmer’s account of what it is like to run the unfamiliar platter system of the 70mm projector at movie theaters in Los Angeles, with Tarantino sitting in the audience, to boot. It is mighty thrilling stuff.

Two of The Hateful Eight, being... hateful. Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
Two of The Hateful Eight, being… hateful. Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

I enjoyed The Hateful Eight as a film story, right up until the end, anyway. But what I will most appreciate about it is the experience that I had going to the Movies on this occasion. Unlike at Star Wars, I had to wait in line to be let into the theater showing The Hateful Eight. Before the presentation began, I watched loving couples, movie nerd guys, and families with teenage or young adult children snap photos of themselves holding up the souvenir program. It was clear that I was a part of something big, something made for fans of Tarantino and for fans of cinema. I was glad that I had plunked down the $20 to attend a film event that hadn’t been replicated in fifty years. Would I do it again? Well, not every film gets or deserves this treatment, so that’s a moot point.

The plethora of reboots, remakes, and re-imaginings of popular films—or, in the case of The Hateful Eight, the reconstruction of 1950s and 60s film exhibition practices—not only allowed fan culture to come to the fore in 2015, it damn near took control of our moviegoing habits. They were everywhere, and more are even coming to the small screens. Netflix will drop all episodes of its original series Fuller House next month, and fans of the family sitcom have already proposed new (sinister) ways of looking at the story of DJ Tanner raising her own kids with the help of friends and family in San Francisco. Twin Peaks is not definitely returning, this time to the cable channel Showtime. These TV shows help prove that “fan-made” doesn’t just mean a low budget, quirky reinterpretation of known properties by pop culture consumers. It also means “for the fans.”

Returning to the realm of the Big Screen, I found myself going to movies this year that I never would have imagined wanting to see if not for the perception that they would be special opportunities for me to participate in fan culture. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was one of them, but so was Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). Now, maybe it was because I had begun to appreciate the action film in all of its tense glory through repeated and ecstatic viewings of Speed (Jan de Bont, 1994)—more on that in part four—that I had wanted to see what one of my favorite film critics, Bilge Ebiri, had dubbed “the Sistine Chapel of action filmmaking.”

If I had ever seen the three original films by George Miller—1979’s Mad Max, 1981’s Mad Max: The Road Warrior, and 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome—I didn’t remember them. They mostly resonated with me through their influence on my childhood favorites Tank Girl (Rachel Talalay, 1995) and Demolition Man (Marco Brambilla, 1993). In any case, I loved Fury Road. All at once, it was a recycling bin filled with iconography from every corner of cinema, refashioning elements of the modern vampire myth and Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) in the process, but it also felt so incredibly fresh. I had never seen a setting like that, simultaneously warm and inviting but also austere and unforgiving. Still, before its release, I never could have predicted that Fury Road, a frenetic road war movie with a preponderance of supposed practical effects and real stuntwork, would go on to top so many critics associations’ lists of the best films from 2015, including that of the National Board of Review. And a nomination for Best Picture? Who would have thunk it, indeed?

Donnie accepts that he's a Creed, but he resembles a Balboa. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Donnie accepts that he’s a Creed, but he resembles a Balboa. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

I’m not one for sports movies. I rented Southpaw (Antoine Fuqua, 2015) out of boredom and quickly lost interest. However, I rushed at the chance to see Creed (Ryan Coogler, 2015) in the theater, finding it my economic, political, and social obligation to support minority filmmakers. It didn’t matter that the only Rocky movie I had ever seen was the fourth installment in the franchise. On second thought, it probably helped that I had seen Drago bludgeon Apollo Creed to death in the ring in Rocky IV (Sylvester Stallone, 1985). For Creed is about a young black boxer’s coming to terms with his identity as the illegitimate son of the late world heavyweight champion. Aside from the stellar performances—especially by lead Michael B. Jordan—and an amazing single take that approximates what a real-life boxing match is like, I loved the call-backs to the original film, snippets that I recognized because I am a pop culture junkie and know Rocky iconography without ever having seen the movie. I loved the early scene where Adonis “Donnie” Johnson shadowboxes his father, taking Rocky’s place in one of their bouts, footage of which Donnie projects onto a wall, streaming the video from YouTube. Later, his running through the street while neighborhood kids on bikes roll alongside him reminded me of Rocky’s triumphal climb up the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. What an exhilarating cinematic moment; it may have been like what film audiences experienced in 1976. I don’t remember how enthusiastic the crowd was when I saw Creed, but I couldn’t stop grinning from how well co-writer/director Coogler had rebooted, remade, and re-imagined a cultural touchstone that had run out of gas in recent years, how he had made it relevant to today’s audiences. With every day bringing us news of another unarmed African American being gunned down by excessive police force, Creed is a celebration of a strong black body, a multifaceted character with a complex inner life. In other words, it is a reminder that Black Lives Matter and are full of underestimated and untapped potential. Shame the Academy couldn’t see it.

But not everything produced with a strong fanbase in mind succeeded financially or critically. No one really cared to see Terminator: Genysis (Alan Taylor, 2015), probably turned off by its confusing story. Is it a sequel, a prequel, or what? And the remake of Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 cult classic about a group of bank robbers who spend most days catching some waves off the Los Angeles coast, Point Break, crashed and burned. Like many people who grew up loving the campy original, I was at first hostile to the idea that Warner Bros. was going to distribute a remake of my beloved romance between Johnny Utah and Bodhi. But I learned that it is possible to appreciate both versions. In fact, it is possible to watch them both at the same time.

Those were some good times: the original Point Break. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
Those were some good times: the original Point Break. Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

Having seen the trailer a couple of times, I was intrigued by how the filmmakers (including director/cinematographer Ericson Core and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer) had made a case for a new Point Break in 2015. It’s a Point Break set within the world of extreme sports, a picture about the forces of nature and economic inequality. In this version, Johnny Utah is an FBI cadet who, based on his previous experience as a poly-athlete (I’d never heard that term before!) hypothesizes that a series of crimes performed through gravity-defying stunts on separate continents are all the work of the same daring team. They’re chasing what he calls the Osaki Eight, a series of physically demanding stunts that bring one closer to Nature. In other words, this legendary philosophy (the progenitor of it died while attempting his third challenge) is kind of like The Force: it is meant to do good. But the group, led by Bodhi (who else?), commits criminal acts in order to give back, including hijacking millions of dollars being transported by a plane. Releasing the bills miles high to the Mexican villagers below, they also accomplish their goal of strategically falling through the sky and opening their parachutes inside a cave, effectively going from above to below the earth’s surface in one fell swoop. This is not your childhood’s Point Break. In addition to highlighting what was wrong with the original (the surfer gang wasn’t a band of Robin Hoods), the film is a showcase for the striking photography of beautiful natural landscapes and the real stunts performed by professional athletes that are littered throughout.

C'mon, Bodhi, why don't you take off your shirt, too? You know you wanna... Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
C’mon, Bodhi, why don’t you take off your shirt, too? You know you wanna… Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

I watched the new Point Break with the original, so ingrained in my memory, playing at the same time in the back of my mind. I could giddily anticipate some gestures and exchanges, such as the moment when Utah fires his gun into the air in a blaze of bullets after just having it trained on Bodhi, thereby allowing his friend/object of desire to get away before the feds arrive. I was the only one in the theater who yelped when she saw James Le Gros cameo as an FBI director (Roach lives!). Despite these call-backs to the original, I can assure you that this Point Break is its own campy thing. It is less a remake and more a re-imagining. And I couldn’t help thinking that an early scene set in a dilapidated Parisian train station (if memory serves) is the closest either film comes to shooting a love scene between the men. Here, Bodhi and his gang hang out, fighting each other for no apparent reason. Although couched as a test of Utah’s character and mettle, the fisticuffs between he and Bodhi signal a love and brutalism that binds them together. I just hope that in twenty-four years, if they even wait that long to remake Point Break, Bodhi and Utah consummate this desire to turn the other into himself. To fuck, as it were.

Fargo Season Two
Minnesota state trooper Lou Solverson (center) confronts Gerhardt scion Dodd in Fargo. Image courtesy of FX Networks.

However, the most immersive and rewarding fan experience that I had in 2015—and which carried into 2016—didn’t even involve going to the movie theater. I became obsessed with the FX original series Fargo, created by Noah Hawley and inspired by the 1996 film of the same name written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. I initially eschewed the first season of the mock true crime anthology series because Billy Bob Thornton starred. I hold a grudge against the man for having won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay the year that John Hodge’s script for Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) was nominated in the same category. (More on that film in part four.) However, I had read that the show was amazing, and when I spotted the first season on DVD at my public library, I snatched up the opportunity to see what all the fuss was about Fargo.

Set in 2006, it follows Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman in a stunning debut), a sheriff’s deputy in a small Minnesota town who is the only one who can see what is really going on: perennial schlemiel Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman, putting on his best north Midwestern accent) is in cahoots with the mysterious assassin Lorne Malvo (a charismatic Thornton). Malvo’s not-quite-solicited murder of Lester’s high school bully sets off a dangerous and absurd chain of events, transforming Lester from a mild-mannered underachiever into a successful insurance salesman with a murderous streak. A suitcase buried in the snow even figures prominently in a second narrative thread concerning Malvo’s manipulation of a grocery store king (Oliver Platt) who hired him to find his blackmailer. That reminds me: I really ought to check out Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (David Zellner, 2014).

Anyway, I fell under Fargo’s spell immediately. I devoured episodes, reveling in the show’s intricate plotting, nuanced performances, and references not just to the Coens’ film but their whole cinematic universe. I finished in time to watch the second season as it aired, but I waited until my DVR had recorded all ten episodes before diving in. I wanted to go at my own (delayed but faster) pace.

For the second outing, Noah Hawley and his new writer’s room set the story in 1979, during the so-called Sioux Falls Massacre, which Molly’s retired sheriff of a father (Keith Carradine) referenced on a regular basis throughout season one. Going in, I already knew that at least two characters would survive: Molly, now played as a young girl by Raven Stewart, and her father Lou (played as a young state trooper by Patrick Wilson). All bets were off regarding everyone and everything else. The second season is more ambitious in style, story, and setting, incorporating a Midwestern turf war between a German-American crime family in Fargo, the Gerhardts, and a bigger, more streamlined operation in Kansas City that wishes to absorb the former’s drugs distribution business. Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst), a Minnesota beautician with a dream, accidentally runs over the youngest brother of the Gerhardt clan while he (Kieran Culkin, who knows a thing or two about family dynasties himself) tries to flee the scene of his triple homicide inside a remote diner. Peggy enlists the help of her dim-witted but well-meaning husband, the apprentice butcher Ed (Jesse Plemons), to get rid of Rye Gerhardt’s body. A call-back to the memorable woodchipper scene in the film Fargo ensues, as Ed disposes of Rye’s body the only way he knows how: with a meat grinder.

 

Fargo meat grinder
Ed prepares Rye Gerhardt for the woodchipper meat grinder in Fargo. Image courtesy of FX Networks.

Although the characters and storylines are different between the film and each season of the TV show, a cottage industry exists in which viewers spot references to the film in the new series. Originally, this activity maddened Adam Sternbergh, novelist and contributing editor of New York magazine, whose favorite film is Fargo. Writing for Vulture, he recounts the process of coming to terms with the TV show, whose announcement in 2014 made him feel “something between doubt and existential despair,” by being “able to let go and watch the show in the spirit in which it perhaps was always meant to be watched.” The widening of the show’s scope in season two to include references to the larger Coen “mythology” has influenced Sternbergh to see Fargo as “the ultimate tribute” to the filmmakers, continuing:

The show accepts as a given that the Coens haven’t just created a distinctive visual style, or a stable of recognizable character types, or a set of consistent thematic concerns: They’ve created all those things, with such richness and abundance that their films now qualify as a genre unto themselves. The Coens may have started out making noirs, or Westerns, or comedies, but now they indisputably make Coen Brothers films. Their work has become a stand-alone genre that exists to be referenced, caricatured, borrowed, even shamelessly strip-mined. And it’s rich enough to inspire not just a spinoff, but an expertly executed ongoing televisual homage.

My favorite reference in season two to the Coen Brothers’ filmography comes at the end of the seventh episode. With the eldest Gerhardt brother in his possession, Ed Blumquist phones low-level KC mob enforcer Mike Milligan (a transfixing Bokeem Woodbine) to make a deal: he’ll give him Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan) in exchange for help in getting the Gerhardts off his back. The song “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” made famous by the Dude’s dream sequence in The Big Lebowski (1998), plays out the scene before the end credits roll. But rather than lift Mickey Newbury’s original 1967 track from the film, Hawley and Co. do something extra geeky: they put on an anachronistic funky cover of the song by the pop-synth band White Denim. I’d never heard of this musical group before, but I can only imagine that they probably first heard the song as I did in 1998: while watching The Big Lebowski. In this way, Hawley and his collaborators have taken their Coen fandom to new intertextual heights. Like White Denim, Hawley and his colleagues have taken a text (almost) exclusively associated with the Coen Brothers film genre, to use Sternbergh’s taxonomy, and created something new. Placing the cover of the song inside the playful homage that is Fargo the TV series emphasizes the fan culture from which both the cover song and the TV program were born and which they continue to stimulate.

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

Advertisements

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.

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?

Man, “You Should Be Dancing”: Memorable “WTF” Movie Moments

There are shots and scenes in films that are designed to take your breath away. Sometimes it’s the gorgeous cinematography, dazzling special effects, or a character’s sweeping romantic gesture that does the trick. The filmmakers’ choices, when properly executed, generally advance the narrative and enhance the overall movie-going experience. Think: any scene from Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006), with Clint Mansell’s score pushing the spectator through the heavens, or the moment Drs. Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler first glimpse the Brachiosaurus on their way into Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993). These scenes are memorable because they are beautiful, intense, imaginative, and poignant.

But what about those scenes that, seemingly out of the blue, disrupt a film’s serious tone? Whether driven by camp, satire, or irony, these scenes are usually shocking and hilarious. I bet each of us has our own collection of these filmic moments. I know that my dad, for one, enjoys it whenever a character is surprisingly killed in the middle of a scene, such as when a shark jumps out of the water and eats Samuel L. Jackson after he gives a rousing, survivalist speech to the members of his team in Deep Blue Sea (Renny Harlin, 1999). However, my collection of favorite “what the fuck?” movie moments revolves around, well, men dancing.

Before I share with you my top five, I need to clarify the criteria by which these dances make the cut. None is from a musical (that’s why his dancing is so jarring for the viewer), but a song–sung live or reproduced through the character’s sound system or radio–does play a part in each case. In all but two instances, the actor spontaneously dances by himself, and his body–clothed or unclothed–is on display. What I like most about these moments is how they individually and collectively represent a direct address to the female gaze. Some are more sexualized than others, and still a few are downright horrific and disgusting. Since these dance scenes are generally the bright spots in a dark (or even frivolous) film, there is no Tobey Maguire strutting down the street in Spider-Man 3 (Sam Raimi, 2007). And as much as I enjoyed the whitewashing effect of the cast singing and dancing to the O’Jays at the end of The Voices (Marjane Satrapi, 2014), their “Sing A Happy Song” routine is actually too big a choreographed set-piece to make the moment seem spontaneous overall.

Without much further ado, I give you my five favorite scenes of men using the power of dance to lighten a deeply disturbing mood:

Number one, with a bullet, comes from Alex Garland’s much celebrated directorial debut Ex Machina (2015), which opened in wide release last Friday. This scene may receive pride of place on this list because of my crush on the actor Oscar Isaac, whose sinister artificial intelligence mastermind Nathan dances with a female android. However, the real reason it lands here is because Nathan turns something as joyful as disco-dancing into a physical threat directed at houseguest Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who disapproves of Nathan’s methods. Trust me, the commitment of the actors in this scene elevates it to high comedy, even when the scene is taken out of context from the whole picture.

Another classic. Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman, the Resident Doofus of Mergers & Acquisitions, takes rival Paul Allen (the beautiful Jared Leto) back to his place in Mary Harron’s brilliant 2000 adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel, American Psycho. Before chopping his colleague to pieces, Bateman waxes philosophical about the misunderstood meaning behind Huey Lewis and the News’s “Hip to be Square.” Apparently, it’s about the pleasures of conformity, something he knows a lot about. While Bateman doesn’t dance dance, per se, he does emphasize his point with a quick nerd-accented shake of the hips. You stop laughing as soon as he strikes an ax into Allen’s head.

This is not actually my choice! I couldn’t, for the life of me, find the clip from Charlie’s Angels (McG, 2000) wherein client-turned-villain Sam Rockwell dances to “Got to Give It Up” by Marvin Gaye. A relative unknown at this time, Rockwell burned his name into my memory with his sexy shimmying to the song, a way for him to announce to Drew Barrymore’s Dylan, whom he just bedded, that he is in fact the bad guy from whom she’s been assigned to protect him. Yep, long before “Blurred Lines,” the Marvin Gaye classic had been associated with shameful sexual acts.

But it turns out that Sam Rockwell is a regular old Christopher Walken: he dances every chance he gets. Among the video treasures that YouTube has of his moves, is the above scene from Charlie’s Angels. The film never truly adopts a serious tone, and Rockwell’s Eric Knox lampoons earlier James Bond-type villains. He has a secret, coastal hideaway, and technology that goes BOOM! “Revenge is fun,” he says, because he likes to dance it out. Shame the above clip doesn’t run long enough to include his doing the splits.

Reluctant but hungry vampire Louis (Brad Pitt) has just swept young Claudia (Kirsten Dunst) in his arms and fed on her blood. At this turning point in Interview with the Vampire (Neil Jordan, 1994), Louis is disgusted with himself, whereas Lestat (Tom Cruise, electrifying) is elated that his protege has finally taken the plunge. How does he celebrate what Louis would rather forget? Why, by dancing with the corpse of Claudia’s mother, of course! The jubilant dancing and operetta singing sharply contrasts with the dark, spartan interior of Claudia’s home. It’d been a while since there was much evidence of any life there. Which is why Lestat’s bemused exclamation, “There’s still life in the old lady yet!” is so hilarious. An immortal, death is a joke to him, and for once, he has made the audience laugh with him. But poor Louis and Claudia: forever doomed.

Finally, how about some levity? Love Actually (Richard Curtis, 2003) isn’t a serious movie, except for maybe some of its apologists. Hands down, the best scene from this syrupy concoction is when Prime Minister Hugh Grant dances around 10 Downing Street to the tune of “Jump (For My Love)” by the Pointer Sisters, celebrating a personal and professional victory. In Curtis’s rewrite of the concurrent War in Iraq, the PM refuses to toe the line set by the lecherous American President (Billy Bob Thornton, never better). All because the Prez hit on the Prime Minister’s assistant/crush (Martine McCutcheon). A moment the country world can be proud of: Hugh Grant shaking his hips.

That’s it. What are some of your most cherished “what the fuck?” moments? Sound it out in the comments section.

Rediscovering a Childhood Favorite Part II

As you might have read, this month I have been revisiting the original Star Wars trilogy. Now that I have seen Return of the Jedi (I simply refuse to call them by their retroactively prescribed names, such as Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi. Who needs all that?), I can confirm that my earlier suspicions were correct: the series is indeed “one drawn-out B-movie.” It’s a stupid, bloated, and poorly made cult film series. Am I right in assuming that Return of the Jedi is the Godfather Part III to the Star Wars pantheon of films? While not wholly unnecessary (we desperately needed to know that Luke wouldn’t follow in his father’s footsteps and convert to the Dark Side) like Francis Ford Coppola’s too-little-too-late second sequel, Return of the Jedi is easily the worst of the original bunch.

Let’s see. What happens? In an effort to rescue Han Solo, still frozen in carbonite, from the giant slug Jabba the Hutt (to whom Han had been in debt), Princess Leia and the bickering droids C-P30 and R2-D2 become Jabba’s prisoners. We’re treated to a song-and-dance routine by scared sycophants/prisoners which reminds us that we’ve most certainly entered the 1980s. A sex slave, Leia is forced to wear bronze lingerie. Now I understand how her Farrah Fawcett moment must have initially affected young boys in 1983 and in the years since. When Jabba rejects Luke’s holographic message pleading for his friends’ release, the self-proclaimed jedi knight has no choice but to come down in person. He makes threats (throughout the movie, too) that no one believes he can act upon, but he predictably gets the job done. Seriously, Jabba the Hutt was so nonthreatening a minor villain that we didn’t need a prolonged desert-set battle in which Luke and co. blew up his ship before the slug could feed a newly reawakened Han Solo and obnoxious Luke to the sarlacc. I have to admit that I didn’t remember the name of the giant, perfectly round mouth in the desert floor, whose sharp teeth don’t help cut down its digestion time of eternity. In the process of identifying the sarlacc, I discovered it has its own Wikipedia page. Don’t people have more important things to do with their time?

Ah, what else? Yoda dies. After saving his friends, Luke makes good on his promise and returns to Yoda’s isolated swamp planet Dagobah (which sounds too much like the yummy chocolate company Dagoba) in order to resume his jedi training. Yoda evaporates in the air (or was he just beamed up to the heavens?), but not before attesting to Darth Vader’s claim to Luke’s paternity at the end of The Empire Strikes Back and to telling the boy that he has a sibling. Lucky for Luke, Ben Kenobi appears to him on Dagobah and explains Luke’s twisted family history: Darth Vader hid Luke from the Emperor, and in turn, Ben hid Luke’s twin sister from Darth. Luke hilariously makes one guess as to who his sister must be. “Leia!” But of course, it had to be her since there are no other significant women in any of these movies, despite the fact that there seem to be no limits to this imaginary galaxy. See? The writing hasn’t improved upon the first two films.

I know that from the prequels, we learn who is Luke and Leia’s mother. (She’s Natalie Portman, of course.) But isn’t it disgusting that the writers thought it was a good idea to never to delve into this anywhere in Episodes IV through VI? Instead, it’s all about the jedi tricks and schemes to keep the twins hidden, separated, so that they can find each other seemingly by accident and intuition. Perhaps the ultimate victim in all of this is the dispossessed mother. She doesn’t even come up.

Just when I was beginning to despair that I would never see the Ewoks (for a moment, I had thought the desert people on Tatooine in Star Wars were them; my bad), I got to see the creatures in the over-long third act on Endor, which is where the crew has landed in order to take out the Emperor’s new Death Star. It’s not much worth going into, but the Ewoks take Han Solo and the droids prisoner. Their captors are equal parts creepy and cute. These forest people resemble not only Gizmo from Gremlins and a more neutral toned Care Bears line of stuffed animals, they also recall Snow White’s dwarf friends. There’s even a shot of them walking along a narrow bridge/pathway or thick tree branch that leads us straight into their compound, much like the one that the animated dwarfs sang along while marching on their way to work. Leia, separated from the group following a borrring chase with stormtroopers on hovering jet skis and taken to Ewok Central, reunites with her brother, Han Solo, R2-D2, and C-P30, whom the Ewoks believe is some sort of god. Soon, Luke surrenders to the imperial guards in an effort to confront Darth Vader (it’s part of his destiny, you see) while the rest set up a plan to blow up the Death Star. Again.

I can’t be sure of what exactly ensued. Big action set pieces or fight scenes bore me to tears, but in this case I was also feeling dizzy and queasy due to my chronic medical condition, which causes vertigo. But I do remember that, while in Darth Vader and the Emperor’s company, Luke successfully resists giving into his hatred for both–it has to be said, disfigured–men. Every time one of them taunts him to kill so that his conversion to the Dark Side may be complete, Luke fires back at his absentee father that he can feel his goodness, trying to coax the good out of him. To make a long story short, something happened that totally surprised me: Darth Vader, who for years I have thought was the supreme baddie in this franchise, redeems himself! After Luke chops off his hand (thereby returning the favor that his father had done him at the end of The Empire Strikes Back), Darth Vader kicks the Emperor down, and his mentor falls through space. I wasn’t expecting that! And I never understood how Luke, abandoned by his evil father, could forgive and love him. Especially once he took off his mask, an act that kills him.

But perhaps the worst part of Return of the Jedi–yes, even more painful to watch than the impromptu concert scene at Jabba the Hutt’s–is the montage of worlds celebrating the end of the Empire. When it finally settles on our ragtag team of heroes swaying their arms and hips with Ewoks on Endor, I was so embarrassed. And that’s a storyline that J.J. Abrams’s much anticipated and much scrutinized sequel will continue to embellish. How could anyone think that he won’t do justice to these films? It won’t be difficult to improve upon them.

Rediscovering a Childhood Favorite

For years, whenever someone mentioned Star Wars, I recited the following response: “I used to love the original trilogy as a kid. It was something that I shared with my younger brother and my mother. The three of us bought advance tickets to see The Phantom Menace in 1999, but by that time, I think I’d already forgotten the earlier trio of films.” As you can see, I deployed this not-exactly-called-for viewing history as a diversion. It’s not that I was embarrassed–well, on second thought, maybe it was: I had forgotten virtually everything about these massive films, and the only memory that lingered was the knowledge that I was a fan.

Obviously, I wasn’t a diehard fan. But they must have meant something to me if, sixteen years after Return of the Jedi, I insisted we buy advance tickets to the first prequel, which has since been reviled for, among many other things, introducing the jabbering CGI monstrosity Jar Jar Binks. I’ll leave it to those who live and die by The Force to complain about how Lucas ruined the original trilogy with the retroactive Episodes I through III. I can’t even tell you the other prequels’ names without pushing a few keystrokes over at IMDb.

Instead, I want to talk about my recent–and still ongoing–rediscovery of Episodes IV through VI. It had been nearly two decades since I’d seen them. I decided to rent them from my local public library because I was fed up with not understanding all of the allusions to the film series that regularly float around in pop culture. Whether it’s Jamiroquai singing for us to “Use the Force” or why Adam’s toy replica of the Millennium Falcon on the ABC sitcom The Goldbergs is the boy’s most prized possession, I’ve always wondered, “What makes Star Wars so great?”

Well, I’m afraid I cannot figure it out, because the most earth-shattering observation that I have made is that these films simply are not very good. While I could criticize the special visual effects, I understand that in their day they were ground-breaking. But I doubt they are the reason why millions of people worldwide worship these films.

I will attack the acting, though. It’s atrocious, and funnily enough, Mark Hamill isn’t the worst. His all-American, aw-shucks performance fits his character’s arc well: as Luke Skywalker, he goes from living on the desolate Tatooine planet, his uncle stifling him with mundane responsibilities, before he realizes his destiny is fated elsewhere. Namely, saving the galaxy from Darth Vader’s destructive vision. Princess Leia and Han Solo, two (im)probable lovers portrayed by Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford, respectively, have the worst exchanges that are meant to pass for sexual tension. The best part was when Leia called Han Solo a “nerf herder” in The Empire Strikes Back, thereby reigniting my memory of a power-pop band that my sister and I used to listen to in the 90s. I had no idea Nerf Herder went on to lend Buffy the Vampire Slayer its theme song. I am so not a geek.

Overall, Episodes IV and V (I have yet to watch The Return of the Jedi) appear to be one drawn-out B-movie. It’s not just the special effects and acting. It’s also the set and costume designs. When inflation is taken into account, I wonder what Star Wars‘s budget of $11 million would be today, because it looks cheap. The writing is bad, and the imperial generals and admirals have some of the worst line-delivery, which the out-of-sync (and THX-mastered) audio makes even more distracting. As for the costumes: does anyone really buy Chewbacca? It’s clearly a really tall man in an itchy diarrhea-brown yeti costume. Speaking of ensembles, in one scene, Princess Leia is dressed in an all-white ski suit, the next, a drapey, polyester nightie. Don’t tell me that George Lucas and his collaborators weren’t channeling Ed Wood and Roger Vadim when they created this mythology. And I swear that everyone pronounces Leia’s name as “Leah” in Star Wars and later as “Laya” in The Empire Strikes Back. A similar transformation occurs to Han Solo’s moniker; the long A in “Han” is further accentuated.

Some people say that Star Wars is a western set in space. On what evidence? Because the good guys wear white, the bad guys black? That’s not even true; the imperial stormtroopers almost look like carbon copies of Darth Vader, but they wear white plastic armor. It’s quite a stretch to say that the Rebel forces represent villagers or homesteaders, and Darth Vader the outlaw who comes to town to disrupt their peaceful way of life.

Star Wars is a lot of things, but it is not a western. It’s primarily a paternal melodrama, because the main conflict exists between Luke, the so-called “New Hope” of Episode IV’s subtitle, and the father whose identity had always been a mystery to him. And seriously, how could Darth Vader’s confession toward the end of The Empire Strikes Back have shocked audiences in 1980, even if they don’t know that “Vater” means “father” in German? Luke’s uncle and Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness, the only interesting actor in this whole enterprise) had dropped clues that Luke’s father joined the dark (aka darth?) side. The second installment sets up how the epic battle that we’re slowly building towards will be one over Luke’s soul. Good thing the Force is strong with him!

That brings me to my next point: Yoda. Yoda is a Jedi master who has trained Jedi knights for over 800 years. A lime green puppet voiced by Frank Oz, he might be the most offensive thing about Star Wars. Given the design of his countenance and his speech pattern (his grammar goes object-subject-verb), he is most obviously modeled on a stereotypical wise old Asian man and would later be reincarnated as Mr. Miyagi. Yoda presents the best personification of The Force, some pseudo-religion about how everything is connected and therefore anything can be moved.  This is where all of the references to “Jedi mind tricks” in Kevin Smith movies come from. And this is how Lucas and co. chose to distinguish their vision of the future in space from that which appeared on TV screens in Star Trek. I’d rather be beamed somewhere distant than have a muscle spasm in my shoulder trying to move a spaceship.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to watch Star Wars without thinking of everything that has come after it. You could say that I revisited these films because I wanted to see the parallels between the biggest movie of the year, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Star Wars. Although drawn from a lesser series of Marvel comic books than The Hulk or Iron Man were, Guardians has a lot in common with Star Wars. Peter Quill’s outlaw name, Star Lord, sounds like it was ripped from the earlier films’ iconography. Like Luke, he doesn’t know who his father is, but as we understand from the set-up for the shoo-in sequel, we’re going to find out how learning his father’s identity will have significant repercussions for the whole galaxy. Like Han Solo, Peter’s a loner, a rogue and a charmer. His beat-up, lived-in ship resembles the ramshackleness of the Millennium Falcon, and the mutual attraction between Peter and the green warrior princess Gamora is as sure a thing as Han Solo and Princess Leia finally giving in to their shared desires. The main villain of Guardians, Ronan, may be dispatched by the film’s end, but he’s kind of like Darth Vader: he defies the supreme ruler, Thanos, in an attempt to control the galaxy, destroying whole planets with the press of a button, much like Vader. But Guardians of the Galaxy, by no means my favorite film, is far more appealing, visually interesting, and more succinctly told. We don’t need a sequel or two or three, but we’ll get them anyway, because that’s Hollywood’s business model.

Speaking of superhero movies, isn’t that what Star Wars really is? For reasons that I have already described, Luke Skywalker is the quintessential superhero, for he has elements of Superman (daddy issues) and Spider-Man (his harnessing the Force is akin to Peter Parker’s web-slinging). You could even say his piloting proficiency mimics the technological prowess of Batman, whom some consider a superhero and others do not. I may one day be able to understand the appeal of these stories, but I will never be able to connect to them emotionally. They’re just fairytales for boys.

Long Take: The Hunger Games Panders to a Built-In Audience and Squanders Its Narrative Potential

Viewed September 21, 2012

For months leading up to its March 2012 release, The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012) was billed as the next franchise based on a series of young adult novels set to break box office records, and it delivered. I stayed clear of the theater when it came out because news reports on TV showed the books’ fans camping out days ahead of time, and I will do pretty much anything to avoid a crowd. When I finally learned the premise (children and teens from “districts” all over a future dystopian North American nation are ritually forced to fight each other to the death in an annual televised event), I quickly identified the parallels with the once-banned Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000). One Saturday, my dad came home from services at shul and related that his young rabbi used The Hunger Games and a crucial plot twist from the third act to make a point in his sermon (my dad told me what it was). The film effectively spoiled, I took my time seeking it out, which I only did because, as a film historian, I am interested in what people watch. Having now seen it, I can tell you that The Hunger Games was made with only its built-in audience of fanatical readers in mind: the teenagers and their parents as well as the child-free adults under 40 who never encountered a pop culture trend they didn’t like (see Fifty Shades of Grey for more proof). I can’t comment on Suzanne Collins’s trilogy, having never even read a single sentence from any of the novels, but isn’t it telling that as one of the screenwriters, the author allows co-writer-director Gary Ross to water down the disturbing conceit with a boring and self-conscious indictment of our popular culture that I’m not sure any of the rabid fans fully understands? As always, there be spoilers ahead.

Sometime in the distant future, an oppressive government in Panem institutes a sacrificial blood-letting of Olympic proportions: as penance for a past rebellion, one boy and one girl from each of the nation’s twelve districts is chosen from a lottery (called a “Reaping” and, per my dad, resembling the Nazis’ rounding up of European Jews) to train and compete in the eponymous competition. The film begins as the 74th Hunger Games get underway. Our heroine who’s handy with a bow and arrow, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), lives with her good-for-nothing mother (Paula Malcolmson) and darling younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields) in the impoverished District 12. A mining and milling community with sanitation systems straight from the 19th century and simple, drab clothing that contrasts sharply with the out-there fashions of other Panem citizens, District 12 brings abject Appalachia to mind (these scenes were shot in North Carolina). At the Reaping, Primrose’s name is called in what amounts to an interminable, super-serious scene that ends in Katniss becoming the first-ever voluntary participant. Like the actress’s character in Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010), for which Lawrence received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, Katniss is a teenage survivor who lives and is willing to die for her sister. Yes, of course, the scene is appropriately dour, but it tries too hard, what with the cartoonish appearance and overly enthusiastic pronouncements of emcee Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and the audience’s failure to applaud for the Capitol-produced introductory propaganda video or the selection of Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Katniss and Peeta are whisked away to the Capitol for the Games, and that’s ostensibly where the action begins, only it actually stalls.

While screening the movie on DVD, I wrote in my notes (in all caps, mind) that The Hunger Games is “indulgent”: “It takes its time [introducing characters and situations] because the filmmakers know their built-in audience has memorized everything in the book and wants to savor these characters and scenes” as much as possible. Hence Haymitch Abernathy’s (Woody Harrelson) languorous introduction as the teens’ reluctant mentor (he’s a cynical drunk who thinks neither one has got what it takes to survive and win). So much of the scene that revolves around Haymitch, on the high-speed train ride from District 12 to the Capitol, does just that: it revolves around and barely includes him. Katniss and Peeta scrutinize his character and debate whether or not they should trust his guidance, occasionally allowing a somewhat flamboyant Harrelson to participate. To me, this is storytelling as clumsy and lazy as Ross’s shooting Katniss’s earlier hunt for deer meat is cliched (with a rough, jump cut-laden, shaky documentary style). In other words, Ross proves he is not an inspired director of action (remember, he previously directed the wholesome and straight-forward Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, from 1998 and 2003 respectively).

Effie, Haymitch, and Katniss look as bored as I was while watching their movie. Not much happens in the first hour or so. Image courtesy of http://www.collider.com.

The indulgence in establishing Haymitch carries over to other characters, only their purposes remain enigmatic for the uninitiated. For example, who exactly is Effie Trinket and what does she do, other than wear grotesque 1940s-inspired skirt suits? Introduced as a villain at the Reaping, she appears to be part of District 12’s trusted team. But there is no explanation or demonstration as to why or how she can make this transition. Moreover, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) doesn’t have a clearly defined role, either. I assume that he’s merely a stylist, choosing for Katniss dresses that shoot fiery flames out of their skirts (so that she comes across as both dangerous and, well, hot). Apparently, Kravitz’s casting in this part angered many die-hard fans of the books, because he doesn’t physically conform to the Cinna of their imaginations. Meaning: they were disappointed that Cinna is played by a black man. Since Cinna is given so little to do, I don’t understand how anyone could get upset by that. If anything, the filmmakers should have cast someone who can act. Of course, one solution to this problem (that Cinna needn’t have even appeared in the film), however, is impossible: Cinna, in order to appease the fans, just has to be there.

Speaking of dresses that “light” up, let’s discuss the schizophrenic production and costume designs. As I previously mentioned, District 12 is so depressed as to be imprisoned in another century. When Effie, so far the only blatant anachronism in District 12, escorts Katniss and Peeta onto the bullet train, we ogle the 1930s interior design of the space, which coincidentally is one of the best sets. Side note: it is telling that they don’t fly to the Capitol, for the train is historically a potent symbol for modernity. Unsurprisingly, it literally transports them to another era. And what do we find at the Capitol upon arrival? As you peer through the poor visual effects, trying to make sense of the setting, you glimpse traces of Washington, DC (there’s a Mall with a reflecting pool) and vaguely neo-classical postmodern architecture. Honestly, it looks like a fascistic version of any and all representations of the mythic underwater civilization Atlantis (and maybe the Bahamian resort, too). The hordes of people gathered to watch live TV interviews are clearly dressed to go to a rave, decked out as they are with neon-colored clothes and hairstyles. There may have been glow sticks, I can’t be sure. One of the Games commentators/TV interviewers, Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), wears glittery suits and purple hair pulled up into a ponytail. Since everyone looks utterly ridiculous (and has an incredibly stupid name), it’s difficult to take the proceedings seriously, and the routinely oppressed’s struggle isn’t all that palpable. The filmmakers exaggerate both the built environment and the “bizarre” fashions of Panem’s citizens so as to link the inauthenticity of this world to our own celebrity-obsessed and reality TV-centric culture. From an intellectual standpoint, I get it. But as it is executed, it comes across as pained, heavy-handed, and too self-conscious. As if to say, Just look at how horrible these people are. You know, we’re not that much different… There’s nothing wrong with this message, but I’m afraid that because it is so over-the-top yet matter-of-fact, it produces a lot of noise and very little contemplation in the pandered-to viewer.

The Hunger Games being gladiatorial bloodsport, it makes sense that each district’s team rides in on the back of chariots here, in this fascistic square, their long procession resembling the parade of nations that is part of the Opening Ceremony at the Olympics. Image courtesy of http://www.mtv.com.

Despite the book being billed as a treatise on the horrific violence of war, which we send our innocent children to fight in the spirit of freedom (talk about a paradox), the film only spends the last hour or so of the 142-minute running time depicting the Games. (Collins is often reported as saying that the juxtaposition of TV channels showcasing young people alternately competing on a reality TV show or fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan inspired the story.) Instead, so much of it is devoted to the players’ Reaping, training, gaining of sponsorships (I still don’t understand how they work), and winning the audience’s favor. Again, Collins, Ross, and co. highlight how unreal (our) reality TV is through Haymitch’s packaging Katniss and Peeta as star-crossed lovers for the media, especially as we learn about it the same way that Katniss does: watching Peeta confess to Casear Flickerman that winning the Games would be a bittersweet victory. For surviving would mean that his crush would have to have died. For much of the film, they can barely tolerate each other. Katniss holds a grudge against Peeta because he once threw a loaf of bread into the mud as she sat starved nearby in the rain. He resents that she’s a more highly ranked player (scoring 11 out of ten points) and that everyone pays more attention to her. Despite their differences, they support each other during the Battle in the Woods, and in the end, they perform their roles as younger lovers for the pervasive cameras. It’s just, are they only keeping up appearances or do they fall for it, too? It’s an interesting idea, but the filmmakers expend no energy in developing it except in the second-to-last scene when they both enjoy a hero’s welcome (I’ll get to how that’s possible in a moment) and she finds her friend/boyfriend, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), out in the crowd. The expression on her face reads: “Oh shit, I forgot about him.” (And it’s easy to see why: this character consists of so little, he only watches the soap opera that is Katniss and Peeta’s romance unfold on TV and thus exists to make it harder for Katniss and Peeta to really become lovers.)

The movie’s PG-13 rating is really no indication that The Hunger Games tones down the violence implicit in its central conceit. Besides, similarly rated films with graphic displays of violence also get past the censors at the MPAA (language and sexuality are the real sticking points, and that’s a discussion for another time). I don’t seek out film reviews, but since his write-up was sent to my inbox as part of a daily roundup of entertainment news articles that I subscribe to, I read David Edelstein’s, originally published in New York. Horrified that the on-screen carnage of kids killing kids didn’t visibly “devastate” the hungry audience of which he was a part, Edelstein attacks director Gary Ross for framing the children’s inevitable deaths with “restraint” and “tastefulness” (as if that’s commendable!), which according to him, Ross has been praised for doing. I agree with Edelstein to an extent (the editing is fast and uncontemplative), but I still found the brutality of the participants profoundly unsettling: like, for instance, the way one girl shoots Katniss’s attacker in the back with a bow and arrow from far away, not out of solidarity but because killing him is merely a means to an end (killing Katniss).

More than this, The Hunger Games falls short of producing an effective commentary on war. The filmmakers fail to develop any of the Games participants other than Katniss and Peeta (with the lone exception of Rue, played by Amandla Stenberg, who comes to Katniss’s aid in the beginning before being snuffed out herself). And since we can’t even grieve for the fallen children-soldiers, you might ask, What is the point? Really, all we’re capable of, in Edelstein’s words, is this: “When a child dies, we breathe a sigh of relief that the good guys have one less adversary, but we rarely go, ‘Yes!‘” The greatest missed opportunity in this regard involves the character Cato (Alexander Ludwig), who scowls at everyone during training and basks in the glory he has inherited from previous champions who overwhelmingly hail from his District (1). Cato has been gearing up for the event seemingly all his life, and in the end, before he falls back onto the ground to be ravaged by demonic dog-like creatures, he hints to the spectator that he has a form of post-traumatic stress disorder as he indignantly whines, “Killing is all I know!” So just before he falls, we can reflect that he’s been robbed of a proper childhood and is subsequently doomed. The worst of it all is that this is the full extent of the filmmakers’ engagement with the subject of how being trained or programmed to kill has wrecked their psyches. Pitiful.

Katniss doesn’t bury Rue, her sister/daughter surrogate, but she gives her the only funeral any of the children can hope to receive. Image courtesy of http://www.mockingjay.net.

But of course they’re doomed. That’s the exact point of this exercise and the dramatic irony of the oft-spoken motto, “May the odds be ever in your favor.” Because beyond manipulating diegetic viewers’ emotions with stories about Katniss’s sacrificing herself to protect her sister or Peeta’s heretofore unconfessed love for Katniss, the producer of the Games, Seneca Crane (played by Wes Bentley), influences the actions of the participants as if he were a film director (he certainly carries himself like Michael Bay). When Katniss hides out in an unpopulated corner of the playing field, he burns it down so that she runs toward those who are out to get her. The dogs that eat up Cato spontaneously appear thanks to Seneca’s puppet-mastering; he wants to up the tension and kill off Katniss if he can. Most of all, he approves of an explicit rule-change after riots break out in the predominantly black District 2 following Rue’s (televised) death: two people can win the Games so long as they are on the same team. He later rescinds the offer once Katniss and Peeta are the only ones left standing. And here’s where my dad’s rabbi supposedly spoiled the plot: the so-called lovers vow to take their lives rather than follow the renewed rules of the old game. Fearing more reprisals, Seneca allows them to be dually victorious. The scenes which demonstrate how Man has overtaken Nature through computer programming and how Katniss and Peeta repeatedly challenge the rule of law at the Games are of a piece with the central message of The Hunger Games and probably constitute its finest expression: re-evaluate the truthfulness of “reality TV.”

One of the greatest unresolved mysteries of the film is the prize that the winner(s) receive(s). Obviously, living to see another day is rewarding in and of itself, but what do they gain otherwise? Fame? Fortune? At the victory ceremony held at the Capitol, the president of the totalitarian regime, Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), crowns Katniss, thereby complementing the beauty pageant-like interviews she endured earlier in the picture before the Fight to the Death commenced. Paradoxically, when she returns to District 12 triumphant, she doesn’t reunite with Primrose. (Instead, we see her look out onto Gale, confused.) As a melodrama studies scholar, I couldn’t believe that the filmmakers failed to include such a scene. If we can’t see Primrose embrace her virtuous older sister and perennial protector, then what is the point of her sacrifice anyway? Everyone, including Primrose, knows what is at stake.

This brings me to my final point. Much has been made about Katniss Everdeen as a feminist icon. Writing of the novels, Lauren Osborn of the online zine Vagina claims that, “Katniss—as a fiercely independent, loyal, and capable young woman—stands as a symbol of feminism in modern literature.” I guess she would if your only point of comparison is Bella Swan from the Twilight YA series. In her examination of this year’s female film characters (women and girls alike), Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday praises The Hunger Games for being one of the satisfying “girl-powered fantasies” to come out recently (on the other hand, she’s disappointed that adult women are not represented as strong or compelling as their younger female counterparts). In my opinion, Katniss isn’t so much a feminist warrior as she is an amalgamation of different idealized femininities. She’s maternal, as she volunteers for the Games to spare her sister from a 100% certain death and mourns the younger Rue. (Later, Rue’s District 2 partner Thresh, played by Dayo Okeniyi, stops short of killing Katniss out of respect for her honoring Rue in death.) Despite her attitude toward the government and the Games, which she thinks makes her totally unlikable, Katniss wins over everyone because of her beauty. That flame-throwing dress works wonders. And if you think her skill with a bow and arrow makes her decidedly unfeminine, think again: she’s an archetypal Amazonian. Romance may not be a priority for Katniss, as Osborn argues, but she is nevertheless at the center of a love triangle, and neither suitor deserves her. Such is always the case.

I couldn’t find an adequate photo of Katniss in her flaming dress, so please pardon the text, though it does say it all, doesn’t it? Image courtesy of http://www.theapod.com.

I give the filmmakers credit for not belaboring how The Hunger Games continues into the sequel Catching Fire. (I swear, everyone is in a tizzy about who will direct it and who will play additional characters with unbelievably ridiculous names.) The scene of Katniss and Peeta’s heroes’ welcome is cut between Seneca’s forced suicide (punishment for having failed to keep the Games under control) and President Snow’s sorrowful glance down on the Capitol from a balcony on high. The film fades to black after he turns his back and steps into the building, subtly portending his downfall. I don’t know much about the other two novels, but I assume that Katniss will lead a revolution against Snow’s highly structured Reign of Terror. Perhaps future installments will be more action-packed and ultimately less boring. Perhaps there will be more to the characters’ social interactions besides a “will-they-or-won’t-they” storyline, preferably along the lines of race and class, which The Hunger Games sets up but barely engages. What I’m saying is, perhaps viewers who have not read the books will be given a reason to give a damn. But I’m not holding my breath.

Can Female Film Characters Rise to Their Potential?

For the past week or so, one image has stuck with me. It’s of a woman riding alone in a tiny space capsule, hurtling ever closer to the outer reaches of the earth’s orbit. It’s unclear where she’s going and what she will do there upon arrival. I imagine she has a purpose; I just don’t know what it is. No matter how many times she returns to me as a vision, during the day and at night, I can’t see what’s ahead of her or what she’s left behind. I want to know her story. I think it might be potentially interesting.

Despite being unable to develop the lone astronaut’s narrative, I can easily trace the different threads of information that likely led to her appearance in my mind’s eye. First and foremost, the first American woman in space, Dr. Sally Ride, died on July 23 at the age of 61, after quietly suffering from pancreatic cancer for more than a year. After her groundbreaking trips on the shuttle Challenger in 1983 and 1984 and their attendant media circuses, she lived out of the limelight, retiring from NASA in 1987 and then pouring all her energy into teaching and running the company she founded in 2001, Sally Ride Science. Ride’s high school classmate and sometime book collaborator Dr. Susan Okie recounts in The Washington Post her driven friend’s company mission to promote science and technology as “cool” for middle school students and their teachers, to inspire young girls especially to pursue careers in these fields. I don’t have a scientific or mathematical mind (I really wish I did!), but I so deeply respect Sally Ride and all of her accomplishments.

The pioneering American astronaut Sally Ride. Photo courtesy of NASA, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images. Accessed at The New York Times.

Then I read, before the August 1 premiere at Georgetown University, about a show titled History Matters/Back to the Future, Scenes by Historic Women Playwrights: Read by Luminaries of the Stage. I’m no authority on the theater, but I know enough to understand where the event’s organizers are coming from: there is an alarming disparity between the number of produced plays written by men and those by women. Washington Post reporter DeNeen L. Brown opens her account of the theatrical production, which coincides with the university’s Women and Theatre Program’s yearly conference, stating the cold, hard truth:

It is a peculiar distinction in the world of playwrights: Works written by men are often called plays. But works written by women are often categorized as “women’s plays.”

“There is a notion in the canon, when men write plays, they speak to the entire human condition, and plays written by women speak to women,” said actress Kathleen Chalfant, a 1993 Tony Award nominee for best actress in a play for her role in Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.

Even plays written by men that are “particularly masculine and talk about issues particular to men, are never called ‘men’s plays,’ ” she added.

Now, I don’t envision the lone astronaut’s narrative trajectory taking place on the stage (I don’t think in terms of the theater). But Brown’s and Chalfant’s observations made an impression on my psyche. Specifically, Chalfant’s choice of words really struck a chord with me, when she argues that there is a perception that plays written by men “speak to the entire human condition” whereas ones by and/or about women can only hope to speak to women, as if the woman’s experience is less than or at least incapable of elucidating the human experience for everyone. Certainly, this isn’t a new controversy or even one confined to the theater. There is a persistent gender bias across all art forms, manifest in libraries and bookstores, museums and galleries, and—most precious to me—cinemas. I think the image of the female space cruiser appeared to me unconsciously as a direct response to the bone-headed notion that women playwrights can’t, in Chalfant’s words, “speak to the entire human condition.” The drive to explore the worlds beyond our own and the desire to comprehend our purpose and beginnings are characteristically human. I know the lone astronaut’s journey of self-discovery is something of a hyperbole, but what if her story could capture for men and women alike a uniquely feminine take on the human experience?

Admittedly, I can’t wave any sci-fi geek flag, having never read Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, George Orwell, or even Ray Bradbury. (But tell me, does Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World grant me at least a few colors? ‘cuz I loved that as a teen.) I’ve only ever seen two episodes of Star Trek, and that number indexes all iterations of the series. I’ve never cracked open a comic book, let alone picked one up. However, I can and do appreciate smart, sophisticated, hard-core sci-fi movies, particularly the kinds that tackle what it means to be human. This is why I love Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) and will never tire of it. I also like Duncan Jones’s directorial debut Moon (2009), starring the criminally underrated Sam Rockwell as the lone astronaut on a three-year-mission stationed on the massive titular rock. While I don’t suspect the female space explorer of my imagination is ultimately on a quest to discover her true identity in the same way that Rockwell’s Sam Bell does (see, I’m trying not to spoiling anything!), I see her journey as equally alienating, mundane, but also extraordinary.

Most importantly, I envision her story as one that doesn’t hinge on her relationships with men or children. She isn’t escaping a tumultuous love affair, or searching for her true love on another planet, for that matter. She isn’t trying to put her life back together because she lost a child or because she can’t have one. Don’t get me wrong: she’s not without her problems, but her problems don’t define her. And I’ll be damned if I ever base her entire identity on whether or not she has a significant other and/or whether or not she is a mother. After all, wife and mother are historically the only culturally acceptable roles prescribed to women. And in the cyclical culture wars about women’s place in society, debates about the constitutionality of accessible birth control measures and the (im)possibility of a woman “having it all” (meaning: balancing a rewarding career with a family) abound today. Just look at the uproar new Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer caused when she announced that she plans to return to work soon after the birth of her first child. The first hot-button issue affects me directly, whereas the conversation about rich white women’s struggles to negotiate their seemingly opposed desires for a career and family addresses me in no way at all. I have no career to speak of and, as of right now, I would be happy never to have children.

——————————

The roles afforded women in movies are no better. We’ve heard this a million times before. Writing an op-ed piece for The Washington Post, Melissa Silverstein, the founder and editor of the Indiewire blog Women and Hollywood and the co-founder and artistic director of the woman-centric Athena Film Festival, argues that the upper echelons of the American film industrial complex, aka “Hollywood,” should be more accommodating to stories about women because they represent half the ticket-buying public in the U.S. (she cites data from the Motion Picture Association of America). Silverstein writes,

Imagine the successes if there were more female characters onscreen than the 33 percent that appeared in the 100 top-grossing films in 2011. And imagine if more than 11 percent of those movies had female protagonists.

I find it alarming that the films she uses as evidence that female-driven movies can be resounding box-office successes include Sex and the City (Michael Patrick King, 2008), Mamma Mia! (Phyllida Lloyd, 2008), and Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke, 2008) as well as its first sequel. Especially since this is coming a little more than two months after she published a short editorial about how purging “chick flicks” from our culture is absolutely necessary. I know, I know, she’s merely pointing out that there is a “hungry, underserved female audience” for movies about women, but all of these examples represent just what she wants to see banished:

You know the kind of movies I mean. They inevitably star Kate Hudson or Katherine Heigl. Most involve a wedding, a boyfriend or, usually, both. And they’re often just bad movies.

Arguing that even Oscar-winning films like Terms of Endearment (James L. Brooks, 1983) and Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991) are tainted with the label “chick flick,” Silverstein opines, “I want Hollywood to stop making these formulaic films and branding all movies starring women, good and bad, as chick flicks.” I definitely agree with this sentiment, and if we return to Silverstein’s first op-ed piece I mentioned, I also concur that having more women directing, producing, writing, photographing, and editing films would help alleviate the problem. Though, when you look at her three examples for women-focused blockbusters, Mamma Mia! and Twilight are both written and directed by women. Yikes.

I will say this: Silverstein sure does like to invoke Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011) and its approximately $170 million domestic overhaul. But she fails to draw attention to the fact that its star, Kristen Wiig, wrote the screenplay with her old friend from their days with the improv group The Groundlings, Annie Mumolo. You’ve read me attest to Bridesmaids‘s assets before, so I won’t indulge in too much praise here now. Suffice it to say that, despite a subplot involving Wiig’s romantic dalliances with two diametrically opposed males, the film is actually about female friendship, as Wiig the maid of honor and Maya Rudolph the bride must adjust their long-term intimacy in expectation of the latter’s nuptials. Moreover, I think remembering that Wiig, the darling of Saturday Night Live from 2005 to 2012 and the scene-stealer from the likes of Knocked Up (Judd Apatow, 2007) and Adventureland (Greg Mottola, 2009), co-wrote her own breakout role isn’t just necessary, it is also a starting point when examining the trend making the rounds this year in film and on television.

——————————

Of course, I’m talking about actresses making their debuts as produced screenwriters in order to address the dearth of quality film roles for women. Within the last two weeks alone, indie starlet Zoe Kazan has released Ruby Sparks (Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, 2012), her critical dissection of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype that men often write for their male protagonists, and just two days ago Rashida Jones went against type in Lee Toland Krieger’s Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012). A regular from my favorite TV comedy, Parks and Recreation (2009-present), Jones acknowledges in an interview with Melena Ryzik of The New York Times that she usually plays “the dependable, affable, loving, friend-wife-girlfriend,” and that as co-scribe with former boyfriend-turned-best-friend Will McCormack, she was finally able to star as “a character that’s maybe less than likable.”

French-American actress Julie Delpy’s fourth feature, the sequel to 2 Days in Paris (2007), hits theaters next Friday. 2 Days in New York (2012) may not be her first film as writer-director-star, but like Kazan and Jones, she aims to write a “real” woman, not a fantasy that men have of (French) women, she tells Karina Longworth of LA Weekly. In the new film, she co-stars with Chris Rock as a successful, artistic/intellectual couple forging a blended family, and the arrival of her father, sister, and former lover from France threatens to upturn what they’ve built, albeit comically so. Casting Chris Rock as her romantic lead may provide a pointed commentary on race in contemporary America, especially since neither Marion nor Mingus make a big deal of their interracial coupling (it’s presented matter-of-fact, according to Longworth), but you might even say that as much as the role is a welcome leap for Rock, it may also bring fans of his raunchy stand-up into the art-house.

Mingus and Marion in bed, trying to overcome the vagaries of adult life in 2 Days in New York. Image courtesy of http://www.girls-can-play.blogspot.com.

I wish to avoid analyzing a film I have yet to see (for the record, though, I really like 2 Days in Paris), and I want to acknowledge Delpy’s frustration with being categorized as a woman filmmaker: “By making it obvious that it’s rare, you also minimize my work.” In this way, she echoes Nora Ephron, who, of When Harry Met Sally… (Rob Reiner, 1989) and You’ve Got Mail (Ephron, 1998) fame, died June 26 of pneumonia at age 71 (she had suffered from acute myeloid leukemia). As recounted in Charles McGrath’s obituary in The New York Times, Ephron wrote in I Remember Nothing, one of her book of essays, that she won’t miss panels on Women in Film when she dies (sorry, Melissa Silverstein). Although Ephron’s films are dominated by female protagonists and might even have been branded “chick flicks,” her screenplay for When Harry Met Sally… is such a cultural touchstone that men and women often agree that the film is, in the words of Vulture’s editors, “arguably the greatest rom-com of all time.” In conversation with All Things Considered‘s Audie Cornish on NPR, Rashida Jones interpreted the interviewer’s observation that Celeste and Jesse Forever resembles Ephron’s beloved story about friends turning into lovers, although in reverse, as “the biggest compliment.” I haven’t seen Jones’s film yet, so I cannot weigh in on that score.

Upon their arrival in New York, Sally and Harry enjoy a bite at Katz’s—much to Sally’s memorable delight. Image courtesy of http://www.impassionedcinema.com.

But are these women of summer, written and actualized in each case by the same woman, really a step in the right direction? According to The Washington Post‘s chief film critic, Ann Hornaday, that answer is “no.” She recently published a critical inventory of the season’s female characters, girls and women alike. While she finds much to celebrate when it comes to young women defying stereotypical roles, she finds the women leave much to be desired. And I quote:

At the box office, the summer of 2012 may be about breaking records with movies about boys and their toys (“Hulk smash,” indeed). But culturally, the season’s been all about the girls. Beginning with Snow White and the Huntsman, continuing through Brave and with a dash of talk-worthy premium cable thrown in, girls seem to have taken over screens both large and small, their inner struggles magnified into mythic battles, their most mundane problems examined with probing, disarmingly frank intimacy.

Hornaday also reminds us that Tim Burton’s version of Alice in Wonderland (2010) and this spring’s mega-hit The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012) also feature strong-willed female teens who don’t need a Prince Charming to rescue them, as they fight epic duels on their respective quests to right evil social injustices. By comparison, the female leads of Ruby Sparks and Celeste and Jesse Forever, for example, are pathetic. In particular, Hornaday writes,

But as clever as Ruby Sparks is in puncturing the male wish-fulfillment fantasy of unconditional acceptance and worship, Kazan’s Ruby never gets to be her own fully realized character, instead playing a role similar to that of the Magical Negro, who exists chiefly in order to help the white male hero find transcendence, meaning and the happy ending that was somehow never in doubt.

As you might recall, I had similar misgivings about the conclusion of Ruby Sparks; it upholds the convention of other love stories featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls when the narcissistic novelist finally releases his titular creation from his magical spell and later goes on to meet the girl of his dreams who resembles his ideal far too much. When it comes to Celeste and Jesse Forever, Hornaday laments that Jones’s eponymous character, a

put-together and on-track young woman who, as she navigates a complicated relationship with the far less directed man in her life (played by Andy Samberg), is made to look either uptight, witchily judgmental or miserably alone — before she sees the light and realizes that she’s the problem, what with her intelligence and high expectations and all [emphasis in original].

Celeste and Jesse Forever: a couple tries to stay best friends through a painful divorce. Image courtesy of http://www.cnn.com.

Certainly, I cannot just take this one critic’s word as the gospel truth. I will see these movies, eventually, to make up my own mind, but I can understand what Hornaday is saying. After all, both Ruby and Celeste are characters defined by the relationships that they have with the men in their lives. Marion of 2 Days in New York, which Hornaday doesn’t discuss, also fits the bill, and she’s also a mom.

But there’s one last facet to this trend of actresses writing their own parts: overwhelmingly, their chosen genre is the romantic comedy, which is historically perceived as a woman’s form (even though, of course, it has more male writers than it does female ones). As if men don’t enjoy movies about the pursuit of love and that very special happy ending! (There are enough movies focalized through the heterosexual male point-of-view, such as Annie Hall [Woody Allen, 1977] and Knocked Up, which are both written by men, to warrant a future article about the so-called masculinization of the romantic comedy.) To cut a long story short, I would like to see more female filmmakers work in other idioms and elevate female film characters to be more than just the wife and mother, the Madonna or the Whore. How about a chilling thriller or detective story? or a smart and sophisticated actioner? I would love a provocative sci-fi movie, too. I know what you’re thinking, doesn’t Another Earth (Mike Cahill, 2011) qualify? Well, star Brit Marling may have co-written the script about the possibility of finding redemption as if in a parallel universe, but—spoiler alert!—her character winds up having a sexual affair with the man whose family she killed in the car accident, an irreparable act for which she seeks forgiveness as a means of escape. This plot point is hardly original, as it falls into that same class of tropes I can’t stand.

There is some hope, though, that more complex female characters will continue to spring up. I would venture that at the moment only Girls, the controversial HBO comedy-drama series created by its star Lena Dunham (who also writes and/or directs some episodes), presents a convincing and nuanced vision of (young) women’s relationships—to men, parents, work, culture, and friends. The program follows the runaway success of Dunham’s first full-length motion picture, Tiny Furniture (2010), which she also wrote, directed, and starred in; it’s an acerbic and poignant study of the post-college malaise and the attendant struggles to understand the world and be understood within it. Girls may ostensibly be an urban exploration of recent college grads’ experiences with love and sex, tracking their conflicting desires for independence and dependable partnership, but in actuality it is a brilliant love story about two best friends, Hannah (Dunham) and Marnie (Allison Williams), who live together and grow apart while trying to make it big in the city.

Hannah and Marnie are Girls and best friends who try hard not to let their dealings with men dictate who they are as individuals. Image courtesy of http://www.trippedmedia.com.

In the fall, Mindy Kaling, a staff writer, producer, and regular cast member of The Office (2005-present), will premiere her own show, entitled The Mindy Project (check out the trailer here). Yeah, I sincerely hope that as the program’s creator, producer, and writer, she changes the name before it first airs; as it stands, the title makes it sound like the comedy series, in which she plays a gynecologist, is a celebrity-hosted reality show or stand-up special. The trailer demonstrates that the self-professed lover of romantic comedies has deployed many generic conventions in creating this universe of characters and situations, including, but not limited to a drunken toast at an ex-boyfriend’s wedding, women’s anxiety over aging, and a female sidekick who tells her, “Your life is not a romantic comedy!” I know, I probably shouldn’t be looking forward to this, but I like Mindy Kaling, and I hope that her show—in the very least—offers an interesting critique of socially acceptable behavior for women. If not that, then maybe I’ll watch it just to dissect it.

——————————

Let’s return once more to the image I have of a woman astronaut gliding through space alone. I’m still nowhere closer to developing her back-story or devising her narrative purpose. Right now, she just represents the potential of female characters in fiction, but films in particular, who have interesting, fully realized inner lives that eschew all the narrative tropes that heretofore define women. She’s out there, doing it her own way, and if she comes back, maybe then I can make sense of her. Perhaps she will fulfill my fantasy and teach us something about what it means to be human—and not just a woman.

Long Take: John Carter, Stuck on Mars & in the Past

Viewed June 15 & 16, 2012

Unless you live on Jupiter, you already know that Walt Disney Studios’s $200+ million gamble on animator Andrew Stanton’s first live-action feature, John Carter (2012), proved disastrous. That’s putting it mildly. The filmmakers infamously bet that an aging “built-in” fan-base for author Edgar Rice Burroughs’s rollicking sci-fi adventures set on the Red Planet, having first been published approximately one hundred years ago, would flock to the theater, bring their children and in some cases their grandchildren, and opt for tickets to see the picture in 3D. Since Vulture’s Claude Brodesser-Akner has already done all the research and spoken to the right folks, I’m not going to recount how the studio’s marketing decisions “doomed” the film right out of the gate. John Carter may be destined to be remembered for costing studio chairman Rich Ross his job, but I like to think of it as an ultra-expensive exercise in needless film-making. In other words, Disney will probably think twice before handing its keys over, again, to a fanboy director who’s adapting an obscure source. Here’s another friendly warning: even if you have never seen the film, I am going to spoil it down below.

Based on the initial novel in the series, A Princess of Mars, the heavily CGI’d spectacle chronicles the Martian adventures of John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a Confederate cavalryman-turned-aspiring treasure hunter. Through a chance encounter with a “thern,” he comes into the possession of a medallion that accidentally transports him to Mars, which the natives refer to as “Barsoom.” He’s arrived at the worst possible time (or is it the best?) because the warrior class of Barsoomians from Zodanga (headed by Dominic West as Sab Than) mean to rage war against all others on the planet, especially the peaceful science-enthused city of Helium. It’s obvious that the disaffected Civil War veteran has embarked on a journey that will make it impossible for him to stay neutral. In the end, he manages to unite the Helium kingdom with the green, giant, and clan-like Tharks (who had initially imprisoned him) against Sab Than. Oh, and he marries the Helium princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), too.

Co-writer/director Andrew Stanton mentions on the behind-the-scenes documentary included on the DVD that the hardest part about adapting the story was condensing into a two-hour-long film a narrative that had previously unspoiled over the course of several novels. This is a fundamental mistake, because the greatest challenge is presenting John Carter of Mars, as it was initially known, as fresh, original. That same documentary captures the observations of writers, scientists, and other filmmakers, as they talk about how Burroughs’s novels are foundational texts within the sci-fi fantasy genre, having influenced the likes of Ray Bradbury, Carl Sagan, and perhaps most noticeably George Lucas. I am no Star Wars fan (I was as a kid), and I have never read a Superman comic or seen any of the property’s cinematic iterations, but I have consumed enough popular American culture to know that John Carter the film is wholly unoriginal. It has really shitty visual effects, too.

From the outset, it hit me that John Carter is a blend of multiple genres, the sci-fi fantasy and the western being the most prominent. Aside from the scrummages across the desert-like surface of Barsoom, John also faces dust-ups with Apaches and the Union Army before his defection to the fourth planet from the sun; the latter had unsuccessfully attempted to enlist him, given his excellent skills as a cavalryman. There is also a fair amount of romance, what with his partnership with the runaway Dejah Thoris, a sword-wielding scientist. It was most striking to see the costumes of the Red People of Barsoom (those of Zodanga and Helium alike), because the actors look as if they just walked off a sword-and-sandal picture, or in the very least Starz’s Spartacus sex and death series. Finally, John Carter morphs into a war movie for the last act, when John convinces the Tharks to join him on his counterattack mission to Helium, which is about to be invaded Trojan-style. What’s worse is that John gives a rousing speech to potential Thark recruits covered in blue goo, the innards of a beast he had just slaughtered, thereby intentionally resembling Mel Gibson’s anachronistic William Wallace from Braveheart (Gibson, 1995). Talk about a beast that just won’t die.

Despite these stylistic references, John Carter definitely reminded me more of other recent live-action Disney adventure movies, such as the National Treasure films (Jon Turteltaub, 2004 & 2007), The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Turteltaub again, 2010), and especially the box-office dud Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (Mike Newell, 2010). Like National Treasure and its more ridiculous sequel, there is a treasure-hunting element to John Carter, which is framed by a subplot involving John’s nephew, conveniently named Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara), reading about his uncle’s secret Barsoomian adventures in his diary. Compared to Prince of Persia, John Carter also emphasizes fate/destiny in the story and is set in a similar landscape. It’s another planet, sure, but there’s a lot of sand.

More compelling, however, is the observation that the film is another example of contemporary pop culture’s fascination with romanticizing the Confederacy, which isn’t just a dangerous practice but possibly also a morally reprehensible one. In this way, John Carter joins the ranks of the runaway successes True Blood (2008-present) on HBO, the History Channel’s Hatfields & McCoys (Kevin Reynolds, 2012), AMC’s Hell on Wheels (2012-present), and even Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain (2003) Oscar bait, among others. Maybe I am being too hard on these products since the Civil War ended 147 years ago, but anything that sugar-coats this horrific period of American history, especially when it comes to slavery, necessitates a wider perspective. In John Carter, we get the sense that he is a reluctant war hero, a rebel within an organized rebellion, who stands for nothing but having the freedom to do whatever he wants. That just happens to be gold-digging, of the literal kind. The Union Army, while doubtless infallible, is presented as a band of coercers and torturers (they killed his wife and daughter during the war). In this sense, his rugged individualism is portrayed as expressions of political revolution, grief, and capitalism, thereby romanticizing his character as fundamentally American. Even in this day and age, I recognize no part of myself in John Carter.

Like Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012), John Carter leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to story, and there are many plot holes, such as how the earthling can breathe on the planet. Another element that is never explained is John’s ability to bound along the surface of Barsoom, eventually scaling impossibly tall heights, from the ground to floating warships and back again. This skill, if you will, though it is more an innate ability, certainly saves his life a number of times and ultimately empowers him to save all of Barsoom. It is what convinces the Thark chief Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe) to spare his life, even after having taken him prisoner. But on a more basic level, it’s clear that this “gift” likens him to Superman, and therefore in 2012, his prowess seems unimaginative to the common spectator.

How is it that there are two kinds of Martians Barsoomians, the human-like personages from Zodanga and Helium as well as the fifteen-foot-tall Tharks, who each sport four arms (and are thus computer-generated)? How did these different beings evolve? Although the Tharks more closely resemble the American Indians of the southwest, given the foreign language they speak, identification with living off the land, domestication of horse-like creatures, and complex cosmology, those from Zodanga and Helium are called “the red people.” It is a descriptive term, since their skin is incredibly tan and covered in tribal tattoos scribbled in red paint. In this way, the filmmakers have divorced the derogatory connotation from the history books on relations between colonists and Native Americans, which is disrespectful in its revisionism. I can’t recall whether or not Tharks ever have epithets wielded at them.

Burroughs probably wrote the story so that the peoples of Helium and Zodanga anatomically resemble humans on Earth, but I couldn’t help thinking how different watching the film would be if John had fallen in love with a princess of a demonstratively different race. In this post-Avatar age, it is easier than it has ever been for audiences to accept a romance between an earthling and a more exotic-looking being. Then again, my more progressive ideas on love and relationships are too out-there. After all, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) chooses to inhabit his avatar forever so that he may live as a Na’vi and continue to romance Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri in Avatar (James Cameron, 2009), thereby adopting the host culture completely.

Returning to mapping the major plot holes of John Carter, it is important to point out how the mystical energy source that Matai Shang (Mark Strong) bestows upon Sab Than presents its own set of unanswered questions. As a thern, or an angel-like being in the service of the Goddess Issus, Matai Shang ensures that everything in space and time goes according to plan. He’s a lot like John Slattery or Anthony Mackie in The Adjustment Bureau (George Nolfi, 2011), only he is one bad dude. I wonder, then, is Matai Shang’s gift to Sab Than all part of Issus’s plan for Barsoom? If that is the case, then that makes the Goddess malevolent, especially toward the devout Tharks.

It’s also worth mentioning that Dejah Thoris, the princess from Helium, was on the verge of presenting to the science academy a device she had developed that created a synthetic form of the same energy source Sab Than abuses. (The filmmakers give the energy source a name, but I don’t remember it, and it’s not in my notes.) Her father, Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds), reluctantly arranges the marriage between Dejah and Sab Than in order to protect his kingdom. Dejah secretly runs away, looking for help, and happens upon John when he is in mid-air. Dejah reveals herself to be not just beautiful, smart, and disobedient; she is also skilled in the art of battle, kind of like Princess Leia. Sound familiar?

Anyway, part of Dejah’s narrative arc involves an existential crisis. As a scientist, she is skeptical of Issus’s existence, but when she accompanies John into a temple that harnesses the mystical energy source located on a sacred a river (a setting that recalls ancient Egyptian mythology as well as ancient Anatolian geography), she recognizes Issus exists. She also acknowledges that therns, of which she originally thought John was one, are real and use Issus’s power. Unfortunately, like Dr. Elizabeth Shaw’s in Prometheus, Dejah’s crisis of faith isn’t resolved; while she no longer denies Issus’s existence or writes off Tharks’ religious beliefs as legend, she does not convert. But this may be the case because she mostly throws her weight behind John, the embodiment of free will, who trumps the fate or destiny that Matai Shang seeks to carry out. This begs another question: is Issus, then, a benevolent goddess after all, if she foresaw that John would be the key to foiling Matai Shang’s destructive plot?

John Carter is overlong and rather boring. Despite its fantastical and mysterious aspects, it has no sense of levity and is completely humorless. As I previously mentioned, the expensive special effects are the opposite of spectacular, blending poorly with the live-action elements. The wooden acting from leads Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins only exacerbates this problem.

By way of conclusion, I’d like to discuss two more issues: the floating cities and the banths. In a nutshell, they represent what’s alternately intriguing and irrelevant about Burroughs’s vision today. First, John Carter’s opening looked promising, introducing the notion of floating cities on Mars so as to portray the planet’s cultures as diametrically opposed to those on Earth. Owing to my older sister’s professional interest in the history of the built environment, I am something of an amateur enthusiast when it comes to the design of cities. Unfortunately, the filmmakers don’t explore the implications of a floating city, particularly in terms of identity, industry, and war. I haven’t seen any of the Star Wars films in well over a decade, but I believe the metaphor that a spaceship is representative of a whole society is embedded in the story of the dueling Death Star and the Millennium Falcon.

Second, sometimes the banths, which are giant creatures that resemble the abominable snowman from Monsters, Inc. (Peter Docter, 2001) with a very bad case of the rabies, are unimaginatively called “white apes.” When you finally see an example, you understand that not only is everyone from Tars Tarkas to Dejah Thoris dead wrong when they call John a “white ape” (for they can’t possibly know that humans are descended from apes), you also realize that Burroughs, in his finite creativity, couldn’t come up with a better linguistic alternative, relying too heavily on what we know from the human, earthbound experience of the animal kingdom. Taken together, the floating cities and the banths demonstrate the limits of John Carter as a film, unable to recognize the opportunity to say something interesting about what it means to be human.