film

the future of film

People now agree, with the success of Avatar and Toy Story 3, that 3D movies are here to stay. But the truth is that humanity is hungry for novelty, and that once home 3D televisions become commonplace, we will look for greater entertainment value from our theatres. I predict that within 10 years we will start watching four-dimensional and perhaps even five-dimensional films.

But what will a 4D film look like? Actually, the film won't look very different, but you will experience the film across time, so that you will have already watched the first half of the film by the time you sit down in the theatre. This has the great advantage of allowing you to leave halfway through and still have seen the whole film, which is great for avoiding the post-movie bar rush.

Unfortunately, if the film is total crap, then you'll be aware of how terrible it is before you even get in the car to drive to the theatre (not to mention the difficulties involved in driving and watching a film at the same time). Nor is it possible to change your mind at that point and stay home; if you're seeing the film prior to screening time, logic dictates that you will arrive at the 4D cineplex, buy your ticket and make your way into the theatre, even though you've spent the last hour miserably aware that you're about to waste your money on some tasteless piece of schlock. Good luck trying to buy a ticket and get a refund at the same time. I predict great increases in surliness and angry tweets in our entertainment future.

Not only will you be watching the movie about an hour before it begins, the temporal extension effect of 4D film means that you will continue to watch it even after the film is over. This sounds like an unbelievable annoyance, but it's actually the handiest feature of the new technology. 4D technology enhances post-movie discussion and argument because the details of the film remain fresh in your memory. It's more fun to debate the ending of Mulholland Drive when you're still watching it at the bar with your friends.

It's important to distinguish between movies that are filmed in 4D and those that are converted to 4D in post-production. Often a post-conversion simply means that the temporal editors tranpose three copies of the film with different start times. The result, as you can imagine, is an incomprehensible mess.

There is also the matter of the special 4D helmets that permit the viewer to enjoy the film without glimpsing the 'void between' and going hopelessly insane.

When 5D eventually comes out it will blow 4D out of the water. 5D movies not only extend into the past and the future, but forwards and backwards as well. The movie screen will become a reference point for a spatial and temporal hypercube field.


A schematic for the multiplex of the future

Some cinemas may have to reconfigure the placement of screens, since a screen placed near the back wall will result in a movie easily viewed by teenagers congregating behind the theatre in bootleg 5D movie viewing envirosuits, smoking futuristic cigarettes and drinking futuristic wine coolers.

How Would You Solve A Problem Like Maria if Maria Were a Gigantic Blue Cat-Person? and other thoughts about Avatar

I watched Avatar on Saturday afternoon, and I can confirm that it suffers from all the weaknesses that its detractors point to. The plot is a crude rendition of Dances With Wolves made by a guy who clearly spent his teenage years getting high and listening to Yes. The characters are paper-thin, the dialogue is not awe-inspiring, and the whole amounts to a half-baked fantasy stemming from white guilt.

If any of those criticisms were relevant, I would agree that Avatar, for all its technological accomplishment, is a lousy film. But the plot is just a rough bridge laid down for the world of Pandora to cross from Cameron's imagination to the screen. Once the bridge has been crossed, how cares how sturdy it is? No one's using it again.

The plot of Avatar is nearly as old as dirt – or more precisely, it's as old the first time one tribe decided to take another tribe's dirt. Paraplegic ex-Marine Jake Sully ships off to Pandora, a far-off moon where a well-financed corporation (Weyland-Yutani, maybe?) is attempting to negotiate with a group of indigenous aliens (the Na'vi) to gain access to a whopping deposit of precious minerals. Jake arrives at the point when years of diplomacy and cross-cultural relations are breaking down, and the use of force is rapidly becoming the preferred option.

Although Jake is a grunt, a piece of happenstance selects him for the Avatar program, in which he gets to occupy the body of a vat-grown alien and interact with the locals in a form that they will accept (a 10 foot tall Thundercat, apparently). Once in the avatar body, Jake gets into trouble and is saved by the daughter of the local clan leaders. Jake is tentatively accepted into the tribe, falls in love, and turns against the invaders. Even better, he gets to lead the Na'vi in battle and send the chastened humans back home.

So much for plot. Avatar finds James Cameron exploring the same obsessions as always: entombment, displacement and the search for home. In Avatar the hero is entombed and displaced into another body. In the Terminator films, the heroes are sent backwards in time. In Aliens, the heroine emerges from sleep to find that nearly sixty years has passed. In all cases, the characters are outcast and lost, and their story is a quest for home. Cameron appears to be showing us Dances With Wolves, but underneath all that fancy dressing, he's offering us another version of The Odyssey. Once looked in that light, the movie turns on its axis and offers up something wholly different and a great deal more satisfying, in part because Cameron's homes are never where you expect them to be.

But why call the movie Avatar? It seems like a pretty flabby title. In the context of the film, an avatar is a substitute body, and that doesn't seem like a promising name for a blockbuster. The film is full of substitutions and prosthetics - the Space Marines walk around in gigantic mech suits, descendents of the loader exoskeletons from Aliens; Jake gets around on a wheelchair; and every interaction with the environment of Pandora must be done behind a mask or a wall, since the environment is toxic.

The ultimate prosthesis in the film is the big blue avatar (I'm glad they didn't call the film Prosthesis) that Jake uses. The Na'vi find the avatars repulsive, calling them 'false bodies'. But how can a body be false? What they mean is that the body does not properly belong to the mind that occasionally inhabits it. When not filled up by the consciousness of the human, the body is limp and unresponsive, utterly comatose, a corpse that will not die. Like vampires and zombies, the avatar exists in an unresolved state, and the story of the movie is about the resolution of the avatar. Will Jake keep his body, move exclusively to the new one, or continue to live in both bodies at once, never truly sleeping or waking?

The problem with inhabiting the avatar, as Jake begins to realize, is that you begin to relinquish your claim on your original body (In a nice twist, Jake himself is a substitute for his dead twin brother, so he is already a kind of avatar). He confesses at one point, his hair unwashed and his stubble verging on beardhood, that he longer knows who he is.

What he means, entirely aside from the ideological and cultural divide that he constantly crosses, is that he has begun to understand his own body as an avatar as well. Once he begins to occupy two bodies, one a gift of biology and the other of technology, then the real story becomes clear: how will he resolve his divided self? How will he behead the zombie or stake the vampire? How do you solve a problem like Jake Sully?

The great battle at the end of the film, in which alien-Jake leads the Na'vi clans into battle against a well-armed military (themselves in mecha suits that are a type of avatar), is a version of Odysseus killing Penelope's suitors. In this case, Pandora is the bride, and the humanity his rival. The twist that makes Avatar enjoyable is that Sully arrives on Pandora as a suitor, unaware that he is really the long-lost husband. Watching him reclaim something that was not his in the first place is the movie's chief pleasure. That and watching people get hit with five-foot long arrows.

#18 Bad Idea: Buy Death Race on DVD or Blu-Ray Today

What? Why? Seriously. Of all the bad ideas I've offered for consumption so far, this one is the deadliest in that it contains a dose of possibility. You can get up from your chair right now and go pick up a copy of Death Race at your local HMV or Virgin Megastore, even in these recession-hounded times. But why would you?

Death Race is not a bad movie, and therein lies its problem – because it is not a good movie either. It's not bad enough to qualify as much of a guilty pleasure. It's not even bad enough to be bad. But it's not good enough to be good. Watching Death Race is like sitting at the edge of a campfire's radius of warmth in early Spring. The flames are pretty and your nose is pleasantly warmed, but an abominable cold bites at the back of your neck and slowly freezes the flesh of your back.

Why don't you move in a little closer to the fire? Because you'll get a faceful of smoke and sparks, that's why. What are you doing there? Why aren't you doing something you enjoy? And that's what Death Race is: the sick fire of fifty million dollars going up in smoke. In the end, all it does is burn a ninety-minute hole in your life.

#16 Bad Idea: Tippi In Plastic

Via Boing Boing, I'm not sure that this is a bad idea from my point of view. But someone at Mattel must have been chewing jimson weed when they decided to participate in celebrating the 45th anniversary of Hitchcock's The Birds with this:

It is almost certainly what you only hope to dare it is: Barbie as Tippi Hedren getting attacked by the winged avatars of Alfred Hitchcock's twisted libido. And it's on sale for forty bucks. You don't get the fence posts or the California church in the background (ever notice how Hitchcock's buildings always seem to lurk?), but you can take home Barbie as she is meant to be: frantic but frozen, captured at the apex of the fearful moment, an infinitely prolonged episode of torture for her sexuality. And who better to perform this transposition than Tippi Hedren, who was punished for her frigidity by being frozen out of the movie industry? There's a bad idea in here that keeps tunneling backwards as I try to catch it.

#5 Bad Idea: Quantum of Nonsense

This afternoon I watched Quantum of Solace, and it's a disturbing experience to spend 100 minutes with an iconic pop culture experience and realize that, out of all the twenty-plus Bond films of varying quality over the last few decades, not one has ever reached so far and grasped so little as this one. What does it mean to feel that the most supremely escapist movie franchise on Earth has produced an installment that feels not just haphazard, slack, campy or stupid, but downright irrelevant?

Could it be that there was no artificially intelligent formalwear?

There's no shortage of films involving magic outfits that transform their wearers into enhanced or superpowered version of themselves, but the Bond films, with their rotating cast of actors and manic insistence on style, elevate the fitted tuxedo and the Windsor knot to a kind of personhood all on its own. So why not launch a Bond franchise with the titular spy wearing a wisecracking, sarcastic tux? Kitt-like and dry, Bond's tux could always be relied on for just the right witty rejoinder. Sample phrases include "Whoah, down boy!" "Would it kill you to put on some deodorant now and then?" and "Take me Cary Grant's drycleaner, stat!"

Ah man. Laughs a-fucking-plenty. It couldn't be any worse than a movie full of Daniel Craig refusing to smile.

not wanted

Nobody seems willing to admit that the movie Wanted is a complete piece of shit, a stupid, headache-inducing, senseless piece of shit. For two seconds of Angelina Jolie's lithe back and backside, it is not worth sitting through the other 88 minutes of adolescent male entitlement wankfest.

Before I saw the movie, I read the Mark Millar comic on which the film is really, really loosely based. The comic is fantastic. Its premise? That we live in a degraded world run by a cabal of supervillains who have literally reshaped the universe to make sure that we all lead pathetic pointless lives. The main character is plucked out of cubicle hell to take his place in the ranks of the entitled and amoral. Millar shows that comics aren't about goodness and nobility; those are veneers designed to make the fantasies of license and power acceptable.

The movie version promptly misunderstands the entire point of the original by taking the premise and overlaying it with a veneer of acceptability. The villains are instead a group of noble assassins who take their marching orders from a loom. That's right, a loom. This is some weak soup that the filmmakers are sipping on. Anyway, because there's a loom that tells people what to do, it's okay to kill random folks. I won't give away any twists, which include corruption and the usual Oedipal folderol about father-and-son relationships, without which no Hollywood movie could possibly get made. And there are moments of humour that produce a chuckle or two.

But all of these criticisms pale next to the fact that Angelina Jolie has gone on a backpacking trip into the uncanny valley. Through whatever combination of exercise, surgery and aging, she no longer looks quite human. At first I assumed that she was cultivating a sphinxlike immobility for the movie, but after a while it just started to creep me out. I get the feeling that Brad Pitt has to put her carefully in a carrying case every night.

I should have shaken the dust from my feet at the theatre door, but when I walked out of Wanted, I didn't dislike the film so much as feel a numbed apathy – I thought, “It was what it was”. The next night I had a nightmare, a death-driven adventure in a lawless wasteland. I woke up sweating, nauseated, as if I'd suffered a heart attack in my sleep. I realized that Wanted had soaked into my dreams, and I woke, knowing it for what it was (see opening paragraph).

The Palinode is the Dork Knight

Back in 1989, the Year of Radical Innocence, the Berlin Wall crumbled, tank tires in Tianamen Square got sticky with student blood, and my family moved halfway across the continent from Nova Scotia to Saskatchewan. Coincidence? Yes. Anyway, after having three summer days to orient myself in a hot flat prairie city with no visible hills or culture, my parents took us to see Tim Burton's Batman. As the first movie I ever saw after my move, the Batman movie franchise always holds a kind of significance for me (the second movie I saw was Weird Al Yankovik's UHF. I always expect a life-changing event to attend a Batman film, and if I recall correctly, something interesting happened to me around the opening of Batman Begins, but I can't remember what that was now. Maybe I realized that I was lactose intolerant?

What struck me at the time was the film's cheerful willingness to abandon all pretense of being a live-action movie and jump into a Tim Burton landscape of perpetual night and fog and pinstripes and gothic architecture. It was a significant leap forward into the now-routine realm of films in which the style is not just the main attraction but the rationale for the work's existence. No one remembers the film for much else - how many people rave about Michael Keaton's performance? - and even Nicholson's Joker seems a little embarrassing in retrospect.* But the original Batman movie set out the basic psychological template for nearly every superhero comic-book adaptation that followed, Donner's Superman notwithstanding. The origin of the hero and villain had to be explained, because even in the amped-up world of Gotham, where corruption is so rampant that it seeps into the air like sewer vapours, there needs to be some explanation for a guy running around in a bat suit. 2005's Batman Begins makes this premise explicit in the very title.

The Dark Knight is supposed to be a sequel to Batman Begins, but I've never seen a sequel rely less on its predecessor. None of the issues or conflicts from the first film make themselves felt in any meaningful way – a masked villain who nearly destroyed the city in Begins is no more than a small-time criminal with a bag on his head in Knight, and the romantic conflict, which is really the pull that Bruce Wayne feels between being 'The Batman' (it's always The Batman in the film) and being Bruce Wayne, doesn't need the first film to set it up. The Gotham of Begins is almost all slum and shantytown; it has the feel of an elaborate set, whereas the Gotham of The Dark Knight is actually a tidy Chicago. They even throw in a detour to a real city (Hong Kong) to anchor the action in a recognizable world.

The Dark Knight's disdain for Begins makes it pretty clear that the Nolan brothers (director Christopher, writer Jonathan) regard origin stories as a load of balls. Example: Heath Ledger's Joker. He has no beginning, no backstory, no prior relationship to any of the characters or to Gotham itself. As far as the mob, the police and Batman are concerned, he is a "two-bit wackjob" who likes to paint his face and pull off the occasional heist. In Burton's movie, the Joker is Jack Napier, a psychotic thug with a dandyish streak high up in the ranks of organized crime. He becomes The Joker after a bath in toxic chemicals destroys his face and his sanity. He is also, of course, the man who killed Bruce Wayne's parents and provided the impetus for the child's transformation into a weirdo in a bat costume. It's a neat little trick: the Joker fathers Batman by murdering his parents, and Batman fathers The Joker by pushing him into the chemical vat.

Never mind the origins, say Bros. Nolan - archetypes are where the real money's at. Ledger's Joker has no alter or former ego. His clothes have no labels, his fingerprints match nothing, and his pockets contain nothing but "lint and knives" (and a potato peeler, which suggests to me that he runs one of those fry trucks you see down at the beach). Best of all, he loves to offer multiple and contradictory stories about the source of his scars, overlapping so many layers of pure bull that you wouldn't know the truth if and when he chose to deliver it. He is the boy who cries wolf while pointing at a sheep, then a stone, then himself. You would dismiss him, but there's a look in his eyes like he might go out and bring the wolf into the fold himself. Or maybe he'll just stab you, or blow up your house.

By the way, if you keep reading this paragraph, you'll notice that I completely contradict a point I made only a few paragraphs ago. Why don't I just edit the earlier paragraph? Partly because I'm lazy, and also because I believe firmly in the possibilities of doublethink. Anyway. The Joker is a further development of the notion of superheroic character introduced in Batman Begins - that is, that superheroes exist more properly and effectively as ideas than individuals. That's what Liam Neeson says, and if movies have taught me anything, it's that Liam Neeson's lines always come with a last-act payoff. For that reason, and some other non-interesting ones, Bruce Wayne adopts the supposedly archetypal persona of the Bat. He also has a phobia about bats, and this is all part of embracing his darkness in the reinvention of his identity as a disassociated weirdo whose only superpower is being rich enough to afford a titanium-armoured bat costume. The notion of fractured identity is a Nolan favourite, showing up in Memento as a man who constantly has to construct his personality anew every few minutes, and in The Prestige as part a plot that's too torturous to explain here.

The Joker, who is barely more than idea - when he is accused of a crime, he mockingly replies "Me?", the implication being that there is no "me" to address or accuse - forces Batman to reconsider his relationship with the city that he swore to protect. He starts assassinating politicians and judges in order to provoke Batman into revealing his alter ego. The gambit has the opposite effect, which is clearly the Joker's intention; it forces Batman deeper into the labyrinth of his self. It's the Joker's everyday jacket: to force everyone and everything into crisis, to test identity at its melting point.

Even his makeup is superfluous; underneath the mask are the scars, a permanent mask that has been inscribed on a once-recognizable face. Unlike the Batman, the Joker has no original identity to which he can return: he has cut it away in order to embrace his archetypal aspect. The Joker's physical presence is itself a mask for a bodiless force. As much as his presence radiates a kind of deranged menace, he is even more formidable as a voice than a face. The strange, giggly semi-shriek that Ledger affects is practically its own character, and quite often Nolan has him speaking off-camera for maximum effect. As he says in one moment, dropping his voice down to a rumbling register, "I'm a man of my word". It's a curious thing to say, since the Joker lies without compunction if it suits his ends. But while he may not be of his word, he is definitely a man of words. Where Batman is all physical strength, the Joker is verbal dexterity and misdirection, a voice that destabilizes and terrorizes** with its ghastly propositions. "You have nothing to frighten me with!" The Joker giggles as Batman repeatedly slams him into a wall to elicit some time-sensitive information (shades of 24). "Nothing to do with all your strength!" I'd like to see what Jack Bauer do with him.

Now I'm going to contradict myself once more, because there is an origin story in The Dark Knight. The movie describes the arc by which District Attorney Harvey Dent, Gotham's white knight, becomes the homicidal Two-Face, a mutilated villain who offers his victimsa 50-50 chance at life. Nonetheless, it doesn't feel like an origin tale, in the way that comic books and superhero traditionally present them. Why doesn't it feel that way? I don't know yet. Maybe I'll watch Batman Forever and compare. Hey look below, there's a paragraph of more persuasive prose that doesn't threaten to undo my argument! Hi-dee-ho.

The Joker's love of talk is probably the main strength and weakness of the film (the plot, which spins so frequently on chance, is the other weak point). Even though it's vastly entertaining to hear Heath Ledger whoop like a dog and drop his words out syllable by syllable, he kind of spoils the film by way of over-expositing, or monologuing, his way through the action. There's nothing lazier in a screenplay than having one character sit around and explain to the other characters who they are and what their purpose is. Those are notes, not lines. But in scene after scene, the Nolans root up the subtext and feed it to The Joker, who then regurgitates it for the everyone else to swallow. It would have been a pleasure to figure out the film for ourselves, but the filmmakers, who never met a grim reversal or clever twist they didn't adore, cannot refrain from spelling it out. Christopher Nolan clearly loves The Joker; I don't know what they're going to do without him.

UPDATE:
I just watched the opening ten minutes of Batman Forever. Wow, it sucks.

*After I wrote this line, I realized that I hadn't seen Batman in nineteen years, and in the interim my estimation of the film may have unjustifiably degraded. So I watched it again. The first thirty-eight minutes were wonderful. The film looks like a reinterpretation of German Expressionism, all crazy angles and underlit faces. Batman strikes silent, stiff and backlit poses, his cape spread out like a rejected alternative for Nosferatu. It was a brilliant way to lend the character an iconic power without drooping into camp. In those early scenes I would have been happy to watch Tim Burton make a silent film. As soon as Batman removes his mask and the Joker puts on his makeup, though, the movie settles in for something duller but entertaining. There's a love interest, some attempts at psychology, and plenty of Jack Nicholson hamming it up. Then the last act kicks in and it feels like Burton just gave up on making a coherent film. The setpiece at the top of the church tower reeks of having reached a compromise with someone possessing an inferior imagination (my money's on producer Jon Peters, who's responsible for the giant mechanical spider in Wild Wild West). Eventually nothing makes sense and you wish you'd stopped watching an hour ago.

**Some reviewers, like Dana Stevens in Slate, have claimed that The Joker is a definitive terrorist. I like Steven's criticism, but this is probably the least thought-out thing I've read in a long time. It relates to the notion that terrorism itself is an archetypal force whose physical embodiment is the terrorist, an entity intent on bringing fear and violence to a population. In the real world, that place which we all nominally inhabit, terrorists have clear motivations and objectives. That's why they so often have charters or manifestoes or manuals; it's what corporations would recognize as a 'vision statement'. For The Joker, terror is an end in itself, an explosive demonstration of the fragility of our moral and material certainties. That's movie terrorism, not real terrorism. If Nolan is trying to make a point about actual terrorism, then he's chosen an unfortunate vehicle for it.

It's Wall-E's world, we just live in it

Warning: Here bee Spoylers. Here also be Maundering most Endless. And thayr bee fearsome & stoopid Interpuncts.

Twice now I’ve laid down cash for Wall·E, that gorgeous, polysemous, problematic cartoon about an exemplary robot learning to love in an inter-apocalyptic future, and both times I’ve come away with an entirely different opinion of the film. I feel certain that I would form yet another opinion if I watched it a third time, which I probably will. And so on.

The response to Wall·E has been at least as interesting as the movie. I can’t remember the last time a wide-release, lots o’ budget film has generated so much opinion, swinging between hagiography and invective. Much of the vitriol has been leaking from the seams of right-wing critics, who perceive in the images of endless trash-filled landscapes and bloated, sybaritic humans an environmental message that automatically ranks the film as Al Gore-inspired propaganda. On the left, people have picked holes in its supposed environmentalism, pointing out the inherent contradiction involved in a film that will no doubt pump out metric tonnes of landfill in the form of toys, DVDs, memorabilia and so forth. Some find it misanthropic. Others claim that it lets humans off too easily. What is going on?

Much of the outcry stems from the fact this is a children’s cartoon, and although random violence and chaos is permissible in family entertainment, a lesson in the consequences of consumption clearly is not. Children’s minds today seem to work as a moral toilet bowl in which we may safely flush away our platitudes and go on with our excesses, and while the doctrine of limitless achievement gains points from all quarters, limits offend across the political spectrum.

In between the ultraviolet and infrared of political opinion, there are a host of other critics who have picked at the finer points of the story, mostly revolving around questions that cannot adequately be answered. In fact, much of makes Wall-E worth while are its many unanswerable questions. It’s the gaps in the storytelling that have provoked so much debate and opened it up to much larger questions, such as the proper relationship between humanity and nature, and the proper place of humans on Earth.

Eight hundred years in the future, the Earth is empty of life. Most everything is the same shade of brown, the result of particulate junk in the atmosphere and piles and piles of trash strewn across (one presumes) every last square inch of the planet’s landmass. A very brief and clever bit of exposition reveals that humans, unable to deal with the mountains of waste, have left the Earth to live in robot-attended luxury on gigantic spaceships (“Too much garbage in your face? There’s lots of space up in space!”). The task of cleaning up the garbage is left to robots called Waste Allocation Load Lifters – Earth Class, or Wall·Es. The cleanup task is expected to take five years.

Seven hundred years after the human exodus, Earth is still a dump. Life has failed to return, dust storms rage through the dead cities, and the solar-powered cleanup robots have all broken down, except for one. A single Wall·E is still going about his daily routine, compacting junk into cubes and piling them in configurations that resemble skyscrapers but dwarf the abandoned buildings. In a particularly morbid touch, he replenishes his worn-out parts by scavenging bits from the broken-down hulks of his brothers, which litter the landscape.

It is never explained why Wall·E has survived when so many of his counterparts have not, but it appears that he owes his long life to an inquisitive nature and a fascination with the objects around which he spends his days. In his bunker – the ultimate space-age bachelor pad – he stores a collection of beloved objects: lightbulbs, cutlery, Rubik’s Cubes, Zippo lighters, etcetera. He appears to love these objects not for what they can do, but for their sheer beauty. In one clever throw-away moment, he throws away an engagement ring in favour of its case, entranced by the movement of the hinge. It is clear that he only has the dimmest understanding of the purpose behind these objects, and in any event he does not care. He responds to their purposiveness, transmuting the abject into art, deriving his consciousness from the junk that humanity has left behind.

The most poignant parts of Wall·E’s consciousness come a different kind of trash. His prized possession is a VHS tape of the 1969 musical Hello Dolly, which he watches obsessively (on an iPod, no less). He plays the music on his own processor during the day (and hums it to himself, in a series of electronic bleeps and squawks) and watches the movie in the evening, dancing along to the peppy numbers and mooning over the schmaltzy parts. It is both cloying and heartbreaking when Wall-E watches human beings clasp hands and holds his own hands together in imitation. What saves it from complete sentimentality is the sense that he is trying to discover something in the repetition of the act, as if he is investigating his ability to experience certain emotions.

Wall·E is clearly a lonely robot, “but the waiting feel is fine,” as Bob Marley puts it. He is a romantic in all senses of the word; the musical has allowed him to formulate a narrative, and therefore a future, even if that future may be unattainable. From his beloved objects he has devised a narrative which has liberated him from the eternal unconscious present. That is what has given Wall·E his longevity: romance. And romance is all about the endless deferral of gratification.

Humanity, by contrast, has survived by eschewing romance altogether in favour of gratifying all its immediate desires. The remnant of the human race is a spaceship full of infantilized obese people who spend their days on hoverchairs, chatting to people on screens projected in front of their faces and having every last need attended to by robots. In the womblike environment of the Axiom, people live in an eternal present, where time is arbitrary and nothing ever changes. There’s still written language, but its function is purely in the service of advertising and gently coercive messages (“Buy”. “Welcome”. “Try blue – it’s the new red!” “Enjoy lunch – in a cup!” and so forth). Nearly every element of human interaction, including physical contact, all sex and violence, has been obviated and forgotten. It is the reduction of reality to a graphical user interface.

In contrast to the crumbling, junky Earth, the Axiom is a closed system (kind of – there’s still plenty of trash, but it’s vented out into space) in which the gap between soulless human and anthropomorphic robot has nearly closed. We never see the living quarters of any of the people, and after a while it becomes doubtful that people have individual lives in any meaningful sense – they appear to spend all day on their hoverchairs, zipping around the corridors or taking the monorail from one point to another. They don’t seem to perform any labour or useful activity at all, instead spending their days at beauty salons or playing virtual golf. A few shots of a nursery, paired with a throwaway line noting that the population is “unchanged”, suggests that reproduction and population are homeostatic and maintained by the machines that govern every other aspect of their lives. It is a supremely rational world in which the gratification of desire is the constant, and all other parts of the equation are variables. To put it another way, leisure is axiomatic.

Into this tightly coupled system comes Wall·E, who has hitched a ride in search of his love interest EVE, a robot who has arrived on Earth to search for signs of sustainable life. EVE is everything that Wall·E could want in a love object. She is smooth, powerful, and graceful, a near-featureless oval like an egg designed jointly by Apple and Raytheon. When Wall·E shows her his latest find – a living plant that he has found, improbably, in a junked refrigerator – her programming takes over. She grabs the item and returns to the Axiom on a ship. Besotted Wall·E hitches a ride.**

Once aboard, he goes from sanitizer to contaminant. Even though the Axiom is lousy with robots, there are no other Wall·E’s aboard. There are Wall·As (Axiom class) in the bowels of the ship, but they are unseen and monstrous, and their only task is to dispose of garbage in an orderly fashion. Wall·E disrupts traffic and causes no small amount of chaos, but his real role is to confer consciousness on the people and robots with whom he interacts. By his presence he introduces a fissure in the closed loop of the system, and the gap widens until the entire system is forced into catastrophic change. He doesn’t break the intricate rules of the Axiom because he’s plucky, or rebellious, or in-your-face, or any of the things that cartoon heroes usually end up being, but because the rules are arbitrary – not ipso facto bad, but arbitrary. Wall·E’s rule, grounded in a naivete that verges on radical innocence, is essential.

The movie contains two main stories. One is a love story between robots. The other is the story of the reawakening or rebirth of humanity to its true role, as stewards of the earth. There’s never any question of leaving the planet the hell alone, since we made such a hash of things the first time; instead, the humans throw off their technological yoke and return to become farmers and colonizers. In a curious twist, the captain of the ship does not determine to return until he sees what an unbelievable shithole the Earth has become. He falls in love with an idealized Earth presented in the computer databanks (“Define … hoedown”) as an agrarian paradise, his inquiries prompted by a speck of dirt left on his palm from Wall-E’s handshake. When he sees real-time images brought back by EVE, he is initially crushed by the disparity between the golden fields of the past and the desert of the real. But the ugliness of the world produces a counterintuitive reaction: He discovers a desire to return home, to leave the unchanging paradise (“I can’t sit here and do nothing! It’s all I’ve ever done! It’s all any of us has ever done!”) and enter the stream of time. It is not reality to which he proposes return, but the substitution of reality with narrative.

The end credits make this clear. A series of tableaux recapitulates the evolution of Western art, from hieroglyphic-style paintings to video game pixilations. The human race is shown settling the Earth, tending the land, fishing, farming, and rebuilding, all with the help of their robot friends. The technology that had overtaken them has been repurposed to suit their needs. The images resituate the story from the far future into a mythical past; what we are witnessing is the generation of a cultural narrative.

And that’s where I stepped off the Wall·E bus. I belong to the camp that thinks Wall·E is far too kind to the gelatinous babies who turned the Earth into a toilet and then escaped to the comfort of a spa-turned-womb in the stars. Moreover, I found it difficult to buy the notion that people for whom bipedalism is a Nietzschean achievement could suddenly recolonize a barely sustainable planet. It strikes me as a fantasy. It sounds a bit strange to fault a kid’s cartoon as too fantastical, but up until that point I found the movie so satisfying that it seemed like an intrusion from a different, less complex film.

I think a clue lies in what is excluded from the end credits. The elision of certain strands of modernism – we get Seurat but not Picasso, van Gogh but not Pollock – suggests that Wall·E, for all its technological trappings, carries a pre-modernist vision. This is a difficult contradiction to be borne, especially in a movie that has gestated and rendered inside a bunch of giant computers. The imagery suggests that the filmmakers regard the twentieth century, with its monstrous wars and inconvenient art, as an unsuitable subject for the regeneration of a techno-agrarian utopia. And they're probably right; the twentieth century did immense damage in the pursuit of utopia. Best just to send the century away somewhere quiet. It can come back when it's the twenty-first, bearing microprocessors.

*By far the dullest and dumbest reaction I’ve encountered so far is indifference, which is usually voiced in words like “It’s just a cartoon and you’re reading too much into it”.

**I am not giving due credit here to the charm of the relationship that develops between these two, as they hesitantly exchange words – of which they have only five or six at most – and interact using little more than gesture and intonation. Their features are so iconic and demonstrative that their onscreen romance seems more convincing than most human beings.

How George Lucas left this Earth for another dimension, or outer space, or something

Spoilers, I guess.

[A giant room in the heart of the Skywalker Ranch. George Lucas is meeting with director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp.]

Spielberg: So let's review what we've got in this film so far. We've got a '50s Cold War setting...

Lucas: Hey, you know that warehouse of secrets from the end of the first film? Can we set a scene in this one?

Spielberg: Sure.

Lucas: And it'll be Area 51!

Spielberg: What?

Lucas: Yeah, it'll be Area 51 and there'll be an alien corpse that'll be magnetic and Indy will get captured by the Commies to find it and he will find it! He'll take bullets from the Commies and use the gunpowder in the bullets to locate the alien corpse that's magnetic--

Koepp: That's awesome! He gets all the bullets from the Commies so they can't fight back when he swings into action Indy mode! You are a legend, George!

Lucas: What? No, it's just some cool shit I thought up. It doesn't have anything to do with anything. Hey, who the fuck are you?

Koepp: I wrote the script. It's under your can of Fanta.

Lucas: Yeah? Hey thanks! My Fanta is sweating in this heat! So he finds the alien corpse and then he gets betrayed by Mac -

Koepp: Mac?

Lucas: Yeah, Mac is Indy's good buddy who turns out to be a Commie.

Koepp: I've never heard of this guy. There's no Mac in my script.

Lucas: He and Indy have been through tons of adventures. It's all in the Indy video games I've got in the hopper.

Koepp: Video games?

Lucas: Yeah. Do your research. Steven, can I eat this guy? George hungry now, Steven. Him hungry!

Spielberg: George, we need the screenwriter. I brought you a goat.

Lucas: Give goat George! Give goat!

Spielberg: Bring out the goat!

[A P.A. leads a goat into the room and flees. Almost too swift for the eye to follow, Lucas' flesh billows out from beneath his turtleneck and engulfs the animal, then drags it inexorably into his True Mouth. Koepp turns grey.]

Koepp: Ah Jesus...

Spielberg: Don't sweat it David. [to Lucas] So you were telling us about Mac?

Lucas: Yeah. Who? What?

Spielberg: He's Indy's best buddy.

Lucas: I think I'm going to put out a bunch of animated Indy & Mac specials. That'll show those fuckers. Coppola, DiPalma, fucking ... Bogdanavitch ... fuckin' ...

Spielberg: Sounds fantastic George! Fantastic!

Koepp: Oh God ... that noise ... the goat's still alive in there ...

Lucas: ... mmm. Arghhnnngghh. And then Indy gets away from the Commies and he ends up in one of those crazy fake towns where they do nuclear testing? And then they do nuclear testing on it? But Indy hides out in a lead-lined fridge and he gets blown right out of the blast radius.

Spielberg: I'm sure David can work that in.

Koepp: You ... you goat-eating mutant fucker.

Spielberg: David, shut up!

Koepp: Indiana Jones is a 65 year old archaeology prof, not a Jedi. Even if he could survive a one megaton nuclear blast at ground zero in a lead-lined fridge, which he couldn't, he'd be locked inside the fridge. He would suffocate. He would die, scratching for life, in the hot, reeking dark.

[A horrible frozen moment. Spielberg whips his eyes back and forth. Lucas' face has gone slack, his eyes glassy. A thread of spittle unspools from the corner of his mouth. The bell on the goat's collar tinkles from somewhere underneath his turtleneck.]

Lucas: Okay, so the refrigerator is thrown, I dunno, miles or something, and Indy tumbles out. And then he comes face-to-face with a funny little gopher!

Spielberg: Sorry, what?

Lucas: A gopher! I've got a whole unit working on making a CGI gopher. We based it on the code for rendering a Hutt. Just remove the tail and add some fur.

Spielberg: George, I've got to be honest with you, I don't see what a computerized gopher adds to the story.

Lucas: Steve, we have been friends for forty years and I love you like an Imzadi, but I will rip your stupid face off and grate it onto my Cobb salad. I fucking swear.

Spielberg: Okay. One gopher.

Lucas: And a huge army of giant ants that drag people down into their giant ant lair. They're not there for the 'story', Steven, they're there because it will freak people's shit out.

Koepp: That works for me.

Spielberg: Oh yeah. Yeah! I can see it.

Lucas: And to top it off, Indy and Marion and their kid Mutt and crazy Professor Oxley and Mac will find the ancient aliens, and then they will open up an interdimensional portal back to their home world, and then they take off in their spaceship -

Koepp: Wait a sec. Which is it?

Lucas: Which is what, talking meat?

Koepp: Talking meat?

Spielberg: I think what David means to ask is, if the aliens open up an interdimensional portal, then they wouldn't need a spaceship. And if they have a spaceship, then they wouldn't need to open up an interdimensional portal. You see where he's coming from on this, right?

Lucas: I'm going to make this really clear. First, they open up a portal. Then, they fly away in their spaceship.

Koepp: So they fly the spaceship into the portal?

Lucas: What? No, the spaceship is too big! It can't - Steven, where the fuck did you get this talking goat from?

Koepp: But I don't understand.

Lucas: ANGRY!

[Lucas starts shaking. The room begins to collapse around them. An interdimensional portal opens up above Lucas' head, drawing up all the furniture and memorabilia into its blazing maw. Spielberg and Koepp run from the flood waters, which pretty come out of nowhere. Then they find themselves at the bottom of a hole. A shaft of water shoots them out of the hole to safety on the side of a hill. From their position of safety they watch the Skywalker Ranch collapse into itself. From the wreckage a spaceship rises up and flies away.]

Koepp: That made so much sense.

absolute #1 worst line of The Happening, even allowing for the fact that some of the dialogue is spoken by children, which this line is not

[spoilers below]

"Whatever it is,* it's not happening** ninety miles from here".***

*It's plants. Plants, because they're not our friends, are emitting a neurotoxin that causes people to babble mindlessly, freeze, then commit mass suicide. The plant angle is obvious within the first thirty minutes, but the movie treats it like a tasty but fattening tub of ice cream, to be doled one stingy spoonful at a time, until your face is covered in Haagen Dasz and your stomach aches, and then you're supposed to go, "Hey! This is ice cream! Thanks for the sweet suspense, M. Night!"

Of course, it's not just enough to have people die. The victims have to off themselves in the most grotesque and cinematic style possible. Plants don't just want to stage our extinction. They have production values. Are plants auditioning for Hollywood? They can't do any worse at filmmaking than us humans.

On the other hand, this could be nature's revenge on us for flash mobs.

**For reasons that likely have to do with M. Night Shyamalan's attempt to inject meaning into a B-movie, the vaporously vague term "happening" is used again and again with all the intensity of a dripping tap: "What's happening?" "There appears to be an event happening" "Can this really be happening?" "The event must have stopped happening already". This pretty much kills whatever tension that Shyamalan is trying to generate with his comically stunned and inadequate characters. Imagine Titanic if people just stood around on deck and said "There appears to be a submersion taking place somewhere" or "By the time the submersion reaches this area, drowning will have occurred to persons who are us, or other persons currently occupying this area, either at present or in the near future".

The first 'happening' occurs in New York City, then in increasingly smaller centres around the Northeast United States. As the puny humans flee, they find that no place is safe. A group of stranded travelers crowd into a diner and watch a television reveal plot points the scope and range of the attacks with a helpful graphic. Someone says something like "We're right in the middle of it". Then, after a pregnant pause, an anonymous guy peels off the #1 absolute worst line of the whole movie.

***I'm not sure if that's the line verbatim. I found a copy of the script online and checked it out, but it was an early (and much, much better) draft, and the diner scene has changed. So I can't be certain that what I'm giving you here is completely accurate. But there is no fucking way I am sitting through that crippled zombie of a film again.

three trailers

Here's a bit of what I do when I'm not writing speeches for work or writing meandering stuff of my own. In a startling departure, I write for others! Here's soemthing I wrote for prairie dog magazine recently. The shtick? Review trailers for upcoming summer blockbusters.

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (TRAILER 1)

In a move sure to thrill no fans, the first 40 seconds of the two-minute online trailer for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull shows us old clips from the first three Jones movies. That’s one-third recycled content. By that measure my mattress is a superior product, if the 100% New Material tag is to be believed.

The shots from the first three films establish pedigree — there ain’t no franchise like a Lucas/Spielberg franchise, and we all know it. What boggles the mind is the transition shot from old and new: a billowing Stars and Stripes that signals the ascendance of Indiana Jones from handsome rogue into grizzled American warrior. This time around he's fighting the Soviets (as represented by a blue-eyed Cate Blanchett in sternest black pageboy) in a race to possess — well, you don’t find out from the trailer. But my money’s on some kind of crystal skull. Bonus insult to fans: the degradation of the Warehouse of Secrets in the first film, from a truly iconic moment into mere set piece for a whiz-bang action sequence.

SEX AND THE CITY

Carrie’s getting married! Charlotte’s pregnant! Miranda’s in crisis! Samantha’s doing something or other, and it’s probably sexy! These are the emotional arcs bursting like fireworks over the night sky of the new Sex And The City movie. Big things are happening to the sisterhood of Manolo Blahnik and when the film’s over, nothing, it is implied, will ever be the same. The opening moments even drop Mr. Big’s full name as a morsel to long-time fans.

Watching a trailer of a movie of a television series feels a bit like chewing on a bouillon cube. Or in this case, chugging back sugar syrup. The chief pleasure of Sex and The City — the thing that made it so innovative and entertaining — lay in the breezy, almost carefree attitude that Carrie and friends displayed as they strolled from relationship to relationship. They made the life of a single woman look fun. Now their fortunes are turning on the spit of middle age and the storylines are disappointingly, if inevitably, heavier. Once the series felt as light and enjoyable as a blueberry soda. But now, with menopausal certainty, the fun is over. Here’s hoping that the trailer is fibbing.

THE HAPPENING

The most disappointing parts of an M. Night Shyamalan movie come when something happens. Shyamalan doesn’t just excel at atmosphere and suspense; at their best, his films crawl towards a complete stillness and silence, as if he had mastered the art of stretching out a painting and somehow finding separate moments inside the image. This is what people mean when they say painterly.

So much for images. After Shyamalan’s run of increasingly silly films, it’s starting to look as if he's emptied his head of decent ideas. Does The Happening, a tale of plague, or maybe an attack, or maybe a festival of spontaneous and lethal performance art, reverse this trend? If this is a movie about Mark Wahlberg looking increasingly confused and scared, then it’s mission accomplished. As far as I can tell, there's something that’s causing people to look constipated and fall over, which makes Wahlberg’s face scrinch up a lot.

After I watched the trailer, I caved in to curiosity and went on the Internet to find out the big twist. Argh. Mark Wahlberg isn’t dead, but now I wish I was.

there will be math

So far I've seen Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood twice in theatres, and on both occasions I noticed a certain dissatisfaction in the audience. Since I enjoyed the movie so much, I'm not sure what those popcorn-chewing people had issue with. Could it be the unorthodox Jonny Greenwood score? No, that was liberating. How about Daniel Day-Lewis' outsized performance? I doubt it, because he inhabited the role so thoroughly that he gave us something entirely outside the current tradition of film acting, and our appreciation of performance has been enlarged because of it. What about those long stretches of methodical, dialogue-free action? Maybe, but those sections told us so much about a way of life that it felt like Anderson had unlocked some latent power in celluloid to convey information.

The answer lies in the title. For a movie that explicitly promises blood, there's not much of the stuff. We see blood only twice in the whole film - once in a sudden ruddy spray that may actually be crude oil, and later in a small puddle oozing across a polished wooden floor.

Nonetheless I think that viewers get more than enough blood from the film. Over the two hours and forty minutes running time, we see four adult males die. Since we witness those moments, and since the experience of watching movies is essentially voyeuristic, I think it's fair to say that we in the audience claim those deaths. The imaginary spoils of onscreen battles go to us, the victors, who have paid ten dollars to sit in the dark and watch a giant rectangle of light on a wall. The question is, exactly how much blood do we get?

The average amount of blood in an adult male body - say, weighing around 150-175 pounds - comes to roughly 5 litres, or 1.32 gallons (This is a conservative estimate; some sources claim up to 5.7 litres). Since this is imaginary blood, we don't need to divide it up between audience members. Therefore we can each claim to have paid ten dollars for twenty litres, or 5.2 gallons, of that old hemoglobin. If you go on cheap night, then you're walking away with gallons of imaginary blood for practically nothing.

If you think of it in terms of gasoline, that's probably enough to move even the most redonkulous gas-guzzling Hummer at least seventy-five miles. And if you're driving a Prius, well then, aren't you special.

Some Nice Film Chit-Chat To Pass The Time

Remember that post where I said I’d be creative? I’ll do that too, but what say we make fun of stupid movies as well? I mean, can’t we do both?

Lars and the Real Girl – To sum up: pudgy mustachioed loser, who appears to be a high-functioning autistic, orders a riotously expensive sex doll and pretends that she’s a real live human being. Everyone in small town plays along and gets drawn in to Lars’ bizarre psychodrama. It’s oh so cute. Then he starts fighting with her and it’s still meant to be cute. Hot damn is it ever not cute.

Wait – it’s supposed to be a psychological exploration of a damaged man and his outré strategy for avoiding life, love and all that good stuff. Hot damn is it ever also not that.

If LatRG took place in something resembling the real world, the movie would play out like this:

LARS: This is my girlfriend Bianca.

EVERYONE: She’s a creepy sex toy.

LARS: No she isn’t.

EVERYONE: (tackles Lars and sends him to a mental hospital, where he spends the rest of his days doing the Halidol shuffle up and down the halls.)

EVERYONE: (Burns sex doll as a witch.)

The other thing that would happen in the real world is that creepy folk like Lars would hole up with the sex doll in his garage and emerge once a fortnight for groceries and baby wipes. Not Lars, though; he claims that his toy is ‘religious’ and puts her up a room in his brother’s house. That’s how far you can take your commitment to the imaginary, I guess – sexual contact is the threshold for acceptability. As false as that felt, I had some pity for the filmmakers, who realized that viewers’ sympathy for Lars would evaporate quickly if we were forced to picture an overweight, greasy haired Ryan Gosling grappling with 150 pounds of articulated silicon.

10,000 B.C. – Twelve thousand years from now, humanity will return to the poisoned husk of planet Earth and start sifting through the remains. Maybe our descendants won’t even realize at first that they’re launching an archaeological expedition on their ancestral homeworld, but as they assemble the ancient artifacts, understanding will gradually dawn on them that this toxic ball of junk is the Terra of myth.

As they examine historical records, it will become clear that they have descended from a race of primitive and violent freaks who bore no more sense of their limits than a colony of e. coli in agar understands the boundaries of the Petri dish. They will shake their heads (metaphorically of course – future humans are consciousness-carrying electromagnetic waves latticing the universe) and reflect on their primitive origins.

Then, one of their remote robots will uncover a landfill composed of nothing but DVDs of 10,000 B.C. The humans will watch the movie, have a conference lasting several picoseconds, and extinguish themselves en masse in expiation for their sins.

for nerd eyes only

Back in 1977 my parents took me to The Cove Theatre on Halifax's seedy side of town to see Star Wars - or as I like to call it, In Space You Stand and Talk and Run and Shoot and BOOM and The End! In the days following the movie, my parents bought me the toys, the magazines, the trading cards and whatever passed for memorabilia in the late '70s. Some of the trading cards showed images that never appeared in the film - Luke wearing a daffy hat, Luke talking to his hotshot Academy friend Biggs - and if I recall correctly, the big comic and the novelisation also contained scenes with Luke whining to Biggs about his lousy life on the farm with the Sand People and the evaporators and his displeasure with a life of forced sodomy sand-based agriculture. Anyway, here's the scene. Note that the only closeup in the whole thing is on a droid's face.

YouTube - Star Wars Lost Intro

three watched things

Taking a leave from work has given me the opportunity to, as my father succinctly put it the other day, "write your novel, Aidan". True. It's also given me the opportunity to do something I'm even more talented at, which is watch a crapload of movies. Watching a movie at ten a.m. in your underwear is kind of like eating corn chips for breakfast - enjoyable, headache-inducing, with crumbs on your stomach for the cats to hunt down. On the plus side, I can always write about the movies I watched and make out like I'm expanding my critical faculties. Honing them to a sharp shining edge and using that edge to chop movies to squirming little bits.

The Darjeeling Limited. Three brothers travel across India by train, take lots of drugs, fight with each other, sleep with wicked hot ladies (okay, one brother sleeps with one wicked hot lady), settle their dysfunctional relationship and reach some measure of inner peace. Ninety minutes long, but it feels like three hours in the theatre. If you sped up all the slow-motion sequences set to Kinks tunes, the movie would probably only run seventy-five minutes and feel two and a half hours in length, which is about the length of your average Star Wars prequel. It is fair to say, then, that Wes Anderson should have directed The Phantom Menace. Picture Obi-wan (Owen Wilson) and Darth Vader (Gene Hackman) rocketing around the galaxy, taking space drugs and forming passionate liaisons with foreign space women, eventually hashing out their charmingly fraught relationship and coming to terms with their place in the galactic order. The sets would probably be crowded with 1970s Star Wars memorabilia. And scored by Mark Mothersbaugh. You know, this is starting to sound okay.

Children of Men. Last week marked the third time I watched Alfonso Cuaron's sunny vision of the end of the world, and I enjoy it more each time. Every viewing brings out more richness and detail, more moments where I scratch my head and wonder exactly how that shot was pulled off, and a greater sense of satisfaction to watch the cast and crew avoid endless pitfalls of laziness and always make thoughtful, difficult decisions.

A day or so later I was watching clips of Marx Brothers and Chaplin films, and it occurred to me that Children of Men, choked as it may be with a cloud of poisonous dread and tension, owes as much to farce as it does to drama or science fiction or action movies. Clive Owen plays a bumbling alcoholic who spends most of the movie trying to find a pair of proper shoes as he barely avoids being shot to pieces every few hours or so. Much of the action plays out like a comedy of mortal stakes, with farcical ducking and hiding, Chaplinesque tumbling, and everyone comically fixated on some private life-or-death task. Maybe this is Jacques Tati in reverse: instead of a M. Hulot quietly causing chaos wherever he goes, Owen's character is the only figure who isn't destroying everything in sight.

clive owen spills his drink

My gin latté!

m hulot

Alors, mon pied!

Repo Man. If, like me, your adolescence was thickened and stirred by hardcore punk music and ragged jeans, then you probably sat around at a friend's house with a roomful of people and watched this movie repeatedly. Repo Man is the story of Otto, a punk who ends up working at a repossession lot (The Helping Hands Acceptance Corporation) after being fired from his grocery story job and losing his girlfriend. And then there's a Chevy Malibu with dead aliens in the trunk, being driven around by a lobotomised scientist slowly succumbing to the effects of alien radiation. Yes, this film rocks. You're welcome.

The experience of revisiting a touchstone from a previous period in one's life can be difficult or even upsetting. I was aware that I might not find Repo Man funny or relevant anymore, that I might end up a bit sad and a bit embarrassed for my teenage self. I think that I appreciate the film more than I did now; for all its jarring cuts and unsophisticated performances, Repo Man has more to say to me now that it did in 1985.

The film takes place in some run-down area of Los Angeles that brings to mind Philip K. Dick's notion of kipple: the world as a slowly accreting junk heap, entropy in plain sight. The repo men are both janitors and human junk, flotsam caught up in a tide of cars and spare parts and microwave ovens. Junk transcendence permeates the film, with TV preachers and dead aliens standing in for spirituality. When I traveled through the US a couple of years back, I ended up going through red states and visiting third-tier cities: it was all Repo Man all the time.

bergman week #4: flight of the conchords

Hells yeah. My week of watching, watching, pondering, writing and watching more Bergman keeps on chugging. Stay tuned as I mentally oil up and wrestle with cinema's great dead genius. Yeah, you just stay tuned for that.

Let's take stock of my Bergman week. On Monday I watched Persona, on Tuesday Smiles of a Summer Night, and on Thursday I baked braised sautéed enjoyed me some popcorn and went on a magical journey with Cries and Whispers. The verdict: so far I'm winning the pitched battle, the vicious contest that can have only one victor.

Tonight I thought I'd do something a little different and watch five episodes of Flight Of The Conchords. I wasn't sure if Ingmar Bergman had written the scripts or directed them or what, but I was pretty sure that I could look it up on the IMDB afterwards and find out the connection.

Right. I just finished going through the IMDB entry on the show, and to my great surprise, Flight is not an Ingmar Bergman screenplay directed by Liv Ullmann or Billie August. Colour me flabbergasted. All the elements are there: two New Zealand musicians trying to make in in New York City, lots of deadpan humour and understated scenes followed by pitch-perfect parodies of old music videos from the last twenty five years. It struck me, while I was watching the episode where Bret and Jermaine Jemaine adopt the rapper names Rhymenocerous and Hiphopotamus, that Flight was really the culmination of the ideas explored in The Seventh Seal.

Then it struck me that I was probably still drunk from the night before. A quick recollection of Bergman's work showed me that nothing could be farther from The Seventh Seal than an episode of Flight Of The Conchords. But if Bergman had helmed this quirky series, it would probably have been about two young Swedish women trying to make their way in a New York City (looking surprisingly like a deserted, rocky island in the North Atlantic).

Episode 1 - Ingrid and Elisabeth are riding a train. People get on and off. Some of the passengers are people from their past. Others are not quite human. The train never stops. There is no God.

Episode 2 - Apartment hunting! Ingrid and Elisabeth visit a series of cramped flats and eventually move in with a dying woman. They sit at her bedside and wait, all the while thinking back on their lives, trying to remember a time when they weren't gripped by anomie and a paralysis of the soul.

Episode 3 - Poverty. Ingrid and Elisabeth pool their money but still can't get in to see a movie. They merge into each other. A tarantula crawls across the screen. A nail is driven into a hand. Old people lie in hospital beds. Old filmstrips. Bergman filming the action. A boy. The end.

Understand, I kid because I love. Watch this next clip about robots.

bergman week #3: unending torment

All the kids are flocking to the portcullis of Palinode's Palace. They all wanna get in and read about the latest kooky-fresh Bergman film! Kanye West pretends his sales slump is the result of internet piracy, but he and everyone else knows that the kids have dumped hip-hop for Swedish despair. They wave their DVDs like they just don't care. And they don't: they're nihilists.

Tonight's film: Cries and Whispers (1972)

Anna and Agnes

At some point in the early '70s, after many successes and awards, Bergman must have decided that he hated his audience and wanted them to suffer. Incapable of making a bad film, he instead decided to make something that felt like you were being dragged across a sheet of barbed wire by your nostrils. He called that something Cries and Whispers, and after you've finished watching, you will never want to die - because it takes years, hurts like hell and keeps hurting even when you're a corpse.

Agnes

Cries and Whispers is the White Stripes of cinema: everything in it is either red or white, with only occasional side trips into black. Three sisters and a maid live in a blood-red mansion in 19th century Sweden. Agnes is dying. She's been dying for years, but now she really means it. Played by Harriet Andersson (the way nubile maid from 1955's Smiles of a Summer Night), Agnes looks as fragile as an eggshell but still somehow beautiful. Her sisters Karin (Ingrid Thule) and Maria (Bergman regular Liv Ullmann) are looking after her in her last days. Anna (Kari Sylwan) is Agnes' maid, confidante and something like her surrogate daughter, although I would say that she's Agnes' last link to human warmth and the almost redemptive pleasure of touch.

blood red and ivory white

One thing you know for sure: she's not going to get any genuine human warmth from her sisters. Both are solicitous and caring, but their personalities place strict limits on their capacity for love. Maria's vapid and flirtatious behaviour conceals a self-centred and cruel nature. In one scene, a lover positions her in front of a mirror and assesses her character by the tiny lines in her face. He describes all her flaws, but she revels in the finely detailed attention he pays to her face, knowing that his disgust is the weaker obverse of his desire for her.

Maria watches herself in the mirror

Karin, paired with a despicable and bloodless husband, carries around a lifetime's worth of hatred and disgust. Every movement of her body and twitch of her masklike face betrays the nausea she feels over her own existence. The signature scene that displays her character relies on an unexpected and liberating act of self-mutilation. If you watch it with your children, you'll have a lot of difficult explaining to do.

Karin uptight

Like many of Bergman's films, the emotional torment of the characters eventually warps the story until grotesque, magical shapes emerge. Cries and Whispers, with its two-tone pallet of blood red and ivory white, its melodramatic screams and its protracted scenes of suffering, already bends into expressionism, but its climactic moments seem to come straight out of a European folk tale.

Karin relaxes with some blood

The best reason to see Cries and Whispers, as with most Bergman films, is the caliber of the performances by the women. Bergman has such a tight grip over the material that it sometimes seems overly formal or schematic, but the actors close the emotional gap that he deliberately introduces with his careful structures and isolated, disjointed scenes. Maybe you don`t give a rat`s ass about the scene transitions or flashbacks, but you can`t forget Harriet Andersson`s death throes, or the way Ingrid Thule runs her tongue stiffly over her lips as she cuts herself with a piece of broken glass. And you certainly can`t forget Liv Ullmann`s ability to shift from kindness to immense cruelty without even changing expression.

In conclusion, Cries and Whispers wins my Least Resembling Anchorman Award.

bergman week #2: three smiles and we're out!


What's this? A second installment in a week of watching Bergman films and blogging about each one, just for the sheer entertainment value to readers who completely don't care about Bergman? Um, yes.

Today: Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

The first thing I noticed was that Bergman did not know the title of his own film, which he insists on calling ‘Sommarnattens leende’. This is not English. What’s more, the characters don’t speak English, which infuriated me. Their lines are displayed in English at the bottom of the screen; why didn’t they just look down and read their lines? Instead they speak in a series of syllables that hover on the edge of comprehensibility. I call shenanigans on Bergman and his attempt to inject some arty pretentiousness into a light comedy.

Also, these people live in a terrible place that has no colour, and their faces are entirely drained of colour, so they must be sick. In keeping with the charcoal landscape, their clothes and homes are shades of grey as well. Why are we watching sick people who can’t read English? Is Bergman making a social statement of some kind? Surely the turn-of-the-century bourgeoisie was a healthier and better educated class than he portrays here.

I’m not sure if the stature of the actors is related to their obvious illness – what’s going on there, the plague? – but I couldn’t help noticing that every actor was extremely small. By and large, not one of them measured greater than six inches. Sometimes their faces would swell grotesquely and grow so huge that I couldn’t even see their bodies, and then instantly they would assume their normal, if tiny, proportions. To make the situation even worse, sometimes they would try to perpetrate the illusion of walking closer to or farther from me by slowly expanding or shrinking. It was so obvious that these people lived solely on a two-dimensional surface (they’re also shockingly thin). Frankly, it was a bit embarrassing to watch them go to such lengths to convince me that they lived in a three-dimensional space.

And while we’re on the subject, I’ve had it with characters that walk to the left or right and then vanish off the side of the screen. Where do they go? They must have to crowd together terribly in that tiny offscreen space. I don’t care how skinny you are, it must be a terrible ordeal. Ever since I realized that I could never clean out all the little dead Marios that fell beneath the bottom edge of my TV screen, I’ve campaigned to television manufacturers for more offscreen space, but with the advent of flat-panel TVs, I fear the situation is not going to get better any time soon.

On to the story. Smiles Of A Summer Night is a shockingly indecent tale of moral turpitude and sexual perfidy disguised as comedy. What’s funny about sex, I ask you? Sex is for making babies. Making babies is funny to you, Bergman? Outside of an Anne Geddes photo, are babies themselves funny? No. But those Anne Geddes pictures – ha ha. Did you see the one where they’re all dressed up like flowers in a pumpkin patch? OMG funny. If she made a film there wouldn’t be all this naughtiness – just funny babies.

The movie starts with Frederik Egerman, who seems like a really decent guy. He’s a middle-aged man married to a teenage girl, which is really wholesome, and his son Henrik is entering the priesthood! I had a lot of respect for the Egerman family, until it turns out that the decent guy is actually pining after an actress named Desiree (!) Almfeldt. Then it turns out that Henrik is lusting after Petra the Maid, who exposes herself to a man of God! Um, hello. As for Anna – I can’t even talk about it. But it gets way worse.

Desiree Almfeldt is an actress (or slut) who lives alone but has a child (because she is a slut). She even has a married lover (on account of her sluttiness). It’s pretty clear that she’s putting the moves on Frederik Egerman, even as she parades her manwhore around. Meanwhile, Mr. Manwhore has a young wife who’ll jump anyone if it suits her purposes. Dens of iniquity wouldn’t let these libertines through their fuzzy doors.

Then the movie takes a strange turn that I suspect is Satanic. Desiree’s mother invites everyone to her country estate and offers them a “magical wine” (coughSatansbloodcough) to release their inhibitions. And then all hell breaks loose in a long sleepless night that keeps everyone running around until dawn. At some point I stopped keeping track of all the ‘moist meetings’ going on in this film. Liberal critics like to say that the ending is ‘happy’.

Happy? Sure, if you think that having sex with people outside of wedlock is what makes you ‘happy’. Statistics show that at least 75% of the people in this film will eventually commit suicide from the stress of a godless lifestyle. This film is more scandalous than Notting Hill and Moonstruck put together.

bergman week

Hey Jackie Chan: fuck you. Chris Tucker? Brett Ratner? Eat my ass. It's Bergman week in Palinode's Palace. In the wake of Ingmar Bergman's death, I've gathered up a few of his films, and I'm going to watch one every evening and blog all over it.

Tonight's film: Persona(1966)

Who's the kid? What's he doing? No idea.

Ingmar Bergman was a man. A Swedish man. A man who died. But before he died, he made films. Dozens of films, about death, faith, doubt, redemption, salvation and sex. No one thought to stop him, and by the time they realized what was going on, no one could. His films marched out and invaded cinema, dug out a space in annexed territory and began to build strange rocky landscapes where tortured people wandered back and forth, fueling regret with bitterness, fear with doubt, acceptance with regret. Bergman's characters didn't all live in this place - Smiles of a Summer Night and Fanny & Alexander are downright charming - but for better or for worse, this is his most memorable landscape.

Even though most of Bergman's films have dropped from modern pop memory (remember The Magician? The Serpent's Egg? Me neither), Persona is probably the work that most people associate these days with the Bergman style: sparse, impenetrable, jarringly strange and preoccupied with themes of sin and character. This is a shame, not only because it does a disservice to Bergman's body of work, but it also misses much of the point of Persona, which is to keep you staring at the faces on the screen, even though there are only two characters, and one of them is mute. Film students who emulate Persona's style usually miss how entertaining the picture is.

Godard once said something to the effect that all you need for a film is a girl and a gun (the guy, presumably, being the audience, or the camera). Bergman knew that you didn't even need the gun. During a summer at a cottage in the country, a nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) tends to a famous stage actress named Elisabeth (Liv Ullmann), who has fallen mute in the middle of a performance, a condition which appears to be a conscious decision.

In the face of Elisabeth's silence, Alma begins to talk. And talk. And talk. Initially Alma seems flighty and unimaginative, but as the relationship between the two women grows more intimate, she begins to pare away her layers to reveal a person who is deeply confused and miserable about the irreparable disjunction between the whirlpool of her unconscious desires and the calm forward trajectory of her life.

God we're miserable. Wait, there's no God.

Elisabeth, by contrast, has no illusions about inhabiting an integrated self. She is a succession of masks, a person who multiplies herself by taking on roles. When, out of disgust at herself, she drops all her masks, she discovers that there is nothing underneath, no persona to assume, and so she remains mute. This strategy should make her weak and vulnerable - after all, she's been assigned a nurse - but instead it makes her monstrously strong. Her silence turns her face into a complete blank, able to reflect back whatever the viewer wants most to see.

What Alma most wants, unsurprisingly, is herself, a mirror image in whom she can safely confide her secrets. One night she gets drunk and tells Elisabeth, in blisteringly candid and erotic language, about a spontaneous orgy she experienced on a beach with a friend and two "terribly young" boys. The exact age of the boys is never specified, but it's clear that they're young enough to make the act scandalous and maybe even criminal. The episode is a source of deep shame for her but also the highlight of her erotic life.

The sexual episode and the subsequent abortion have clearly ruptured Alma's consciousness, and the wound has closed so unevenly that it constantly threatens to break open again and destroy her orderly life. There are two Almas to contend with: the one who looks forward to marrying her fiancé and having children, and the one that comes out from hiding to grab pleasure and leave the guilt to the other.

Rarely a good sign.

Eventually Alma discovers that Elisabeth has abused her trust, and the film literally breaks, the reel tearing and burning in the projector's light. Once the story has been respliced and rethreaded into coherence, the women's roles have shifted; Alma begins to treat Elisabeth cruelly, seeing coldness and indifference in her silence where once she saw compassion and sympathy. Both women are in need of healing, but it's clear that their psyches are falling apart. In a sequence that may be a dream or a complete abdication of realism in film, Alma begins to ventriloquize, speaking for Elizabeth. It's not clear who holds the power at this point: although Alma begins to whip Elisabeth with her deepest, most shameful secrets, it's quite possible that Elisabeth is using Alma as a proxy for her own desires. In any case the differences between them vanish. The two women merge in a shot that has to be one of the most nauseating and disturbing images ever committed to film.

Almalisabeth

Bergman's monster, the Almalisabeth.

And then it's morning, and they're leaving the cottage. So, what's happened? I think Bergman's answer would be: a film happened. Which would not be too fatuous or flip a response. Bergman spikes the film with strange images and sequences that clearly don't belong to the narrative. The opening shot is the ignition of the arc lamp, followed by film threading through the spool. He gives the game away entirely when, in the middle of a scene with Bibi Anderson, we suddenly see Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist at the camera, craning down for an inexplicable shot of Liv Ullman lying on her back and looking into the lens. Persona pushes our willingness to take narrative at face value, injecting fantasy into reality without the standard cues that allow audiences to sort out what they're watching. The best way to watch Persona is to throw out your notion of narrative, and instead let it burrow into your mind.

We're making a film over here.

Everything I Needed to Know About Matt Damon I Learned at the Movies

Last night I went to see the new Matt Damon biopic The Bourne Ultimatum, starring Matt Damon himself as the fresh-faced young assassin who outwitted the CIA, NSA, NKVD, and the Illuminati and some Hutterites to gain control over his destiny and become a big new Hollywood star. You don't see him going to Boston and writing the screenplay for Good Will Hunting with his Afflecky pal, but that's the part of the story that everyone already knows, right? The Bourne Ultimatum will tell you everything you never suspected about Matt Damon. To wit:

  1. Matt Damon has the blandly handsome features of an all-American college quarterback from the 1940s, which makes it all the more surprising when he punches you in the larynx and throws you over a bridge.

  2. Matt Damon is capable of hopping from country to country in seconds, but this is western Europe we're talking about, so it's not as amazing as it sounds. He may or may not have the power of teleportation.

  3. You will do exactly as Matt Damon says if you want to live.

  4. All doors on Earth unlock themselves for Matt Damon.

  5. If you are in a crowd standing next to Matt Damon, and it crosses your mind that you might like to lift his wallet or have sex with his nearest female relative, Matt Damon will break your arm in five places in the time it takes him to eat a french fry.

  6. Matt Damon can kill you while reading Harry Potter and not lose that childlike sense of wonder he experienced when he first discovered J.K. Rowling's magical world of enchantment.

  7. Matt Damon answers the door by leaping out the back window, jumping across rooftops, outfoxing Interpol for no particular reason and then calling you from your jacket pocket. And you weren't even wearing a jacket when you knocked on his door.

  8. Matt Damon's urine has the sweet scent and taste that signals the onset of Type II diabetes. He doesn't know yet.

  9. Matt Damon was personally bankrolling Trent Reznor's career. This is why so many people were trying to kill him.

  10. Always take the elevator. If you use the staircase you take the risk of running into Matt Damon, who will stab you in the kidneys as he passes by. It's not personal, it's a reflex.

  11. Matt Damon does not answer to Matthew. You can walk right up to him screaming 'Matthew!' but he'll just keep playing his Wii like you're not there.

  12. European subways are outfitted with security systems or turnstiles to prevent fare jumpers. They are all programmed to ignore Matt Damon. In fact, Matt Damon has a permit to run from one end the world to the other without stopping. He has a special permit from Neptune to breathe underwater.

  13. Matt Damon sprints 22 out of every 24 hours. In order to maintain this pace, he must eat twice his body weight every day. He lives next to an Olive Garden restaurant and really takes advantage of their bottomless soup offer.

  14. Matt Damon is invincible once he gets behind the wheel of a car, just like everybody else.