Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Silence and the Complicating Dead

Ida is a novice nun in the mid 1960s who discovers, just before she's about to take her vows, that her parents were Jewish and they were murdered during World War II. Ida and her crisis of faith are the subjects of 2014's Ida, a beautifully, sombrely shot film about a cold, quiet world.

The beginning of the film is so similar to Luis Bunuel's Viridiana I almost thought it was a remake--the film begins at a convent where the young would-be nun (Agata Trzebuchowska) is told she needs to visit with her family before taking her vows. In Viridiana, Viridiana goes to visit her rich and influential but lonely uncle. In Ida, Ida goes to visit her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), who lives alone in a small apartment and is a judge. She mentions at one point that she has sent many people to their deaths in the name of the Polish People's Republic, the Stalinist regime that controlled Poland at the time.

But there's still something of a parallel--Viridiana is at odds with her uncle's godless lust that he indulges in to alleviate his loneliness and Ida silently disapproves of Wanda for her promiscuity. Wanda throws back at her that Jesus loved people like her, she asks her to look at Mary Magdalene. When Wanda tries to find a page in Ida's bible to support her argument, the otherwise thoroughly restrained Ida angrily hides her book under her pillow and storms out of the hotel room they share. But it's perhaps the revelation of Ida's heritage that is the biggest challenge to her faith.

She wants to visit her parents' graves but she is told there are no graves, that, like so many Jews during the war, their bodies were likely not disposed of in any civilised fashion. Ida and Wanda journey to the small, rural farm that previously belonged to their family and find a new Christian family occupying it. The only remnant of Ida's parents is a stained glass window Wanda tells her was made by her mother in the barn--putting a stained glass window in a barn is something Wanda brings up to illustrate the dead woman's eccentric personality.

Ida is one of the most successful modern films I've seen to capture the feeling of an earlier period. It feels very much as though it is the same time and place as the events depicted in the 1958 Polish film Ashes and Diamonds and the rebel protagonist of that film may well have been sent to his death by Wanda. But I was also reminded of Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light for the general austerity of the film's aesthetic and mood tied to the story of a crisis of faith.

There's generally a lot of space at the top of the frame, above the characters, emphasising a void above them and their insignificance in the scheme of things.

But the comparison I couldn't get out of my head all along was to Viridiana. Viridiana is a more complex film, a better film, but Ida is much more about mood, a moving portrait of people rather than an illustration of an argument. Not unlike The Zero Theorem, it seems to portray an acceptance of faith even as the evidence against a higher power is horribly incontrovertible.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Nowhere Fast and Slow

There are those who would seem to derive pleasure from proving that everything is meaningless. That nothing should equal one hundred percent--there's a term for this coined by Terry Gilliam's latest film, The Zero Theorem--the theorem of the title is an attempt to satisfy once and for all that religion and faith are meaningless. It's not a film that champions faith or atheism but rather a portrait of an emerging compulsion in society for insignificance. It's a beautiful film, visually and philosophically, funny and, of course, sad.

It's been a couple years since I first saw it previewed at Comic-Con, before The Zero Theorem was sent into an endless purgatorial cycle of non-release and very limited release until finally it seems to have become a video on demand feature. Gilliam wasn't present at that Comic-Con presentation and a producer on the film could only describe it as being rather like Gilliam's masterpiece Brazil. It's not hard to see how it would draw such a comparison.

Thematically, too, both movies are about the starved existence of the human imagination in a world dominated by a drive towards meaningless busy work. Rather like David Cronenberg's eXistenz, the film seems primarily an endeavour to bring artistic obsessions associated with the director in the 80s into a more modern context. So perhaps it's fair to say the aspects that distinguish Zero Theorem most substantially from Brazil are meditations on atheism, the Internet, and video games.

Christoph Waltz plays Qohen Leth whose job is not to crunch numbers but rather something called "entities" which he describes as being far more complex than numbers. Visually this is represented by towers of crude cgi blocks in a sort of video game which Qohen assembles using what looks similar to an X-Box game pad. He lives in an abandoned church which he explains he bought from an insurance company for a surprisingly low price--it has extensive fire damage and he feebly jokes that the previous occupants, an order of monks, hadn't even broken their vows of silence to cry, "Fire!" It's a throwaway moment but like so many in the film it serves to underline the ridiculousness of faith. As Qohen walks about the city streets, among the numerous floating advertisements are several for bizarre new religions, including one featuring a cameo from Robin Williams peddling something called The Church of Batman the Redeemer.

When one considers the climate in which the film was made, not long after the success of The Dark Knight, this concept of a church of Batman has a little more meaning. The Dark Knight being a film about the Joker, an agent of meaninglessness and chaos, and Batman, who by the end of the film, certainly by the end of the sequel, seems to have become a Christ figure. The fact that most people came away from the film liking the Joker better is rather telling and fits into the world Gilliam is portraying in The Zero Theorem.

David Thewlis rather brilliantly plays Qohen's boss, Joby--his name perhaps a reference to Job though Joby bears his burdens not only without complaint but with apparent glee. No matter how many times Qohen attempts to correct him, Joby persistently refers to him as Quinn and otherwise Joby exhibits a general disregard for the significance of anything. Qohen implores him to arrange a meeting with "Management" (Matt Damon), the owner of Mancom, the busy bureaucratic nightmare where Qohen and Joby work.

When Qohen meets him at a party thrown by Joby, Management seems somehow always to be wearing a suit that blends perfectly with the background. And it turns out, as Management notes, there's a project, the Zero Theorem, which would be mutually beneficial to the two of them. Qohen wants to work at home and Management wants someone working on the Zero Theorem who wants to work at home for the reason Qohen does. Qohen is waiting for a phone call, a call he's been waiting for all his life for some reason under the belief that this call would give his life meaning. In other words, Qohen has faith--ridiculous faith, like all other faiths portrayed in the film--and the Zero Theorem, which states that ninety three point something has already been proven to be meaningless, needs someone to figure out how one hundred percent is meaningless.

So, ironically, in order to pursue his faith, Qohen must take a job that demands he disprove faith, a fact he points out to Bob (Lucas Hedges), Management's son, when he says he hopes to receive his phone call before he finishes proving it's meaningless.

Meanwhile, Qohen's falling in love with a call girl named Bainsley (Melanie Thierry) in a virtual world like an extremely advanced version of Second Life, something his virtual psychiatrist programme (played by Tilda Swinton in another role requiring her to wear enormous prosthetic teeth) strongly disapproves of, insisting that Bainsley's attentions are resultant of unaddressed issues with an absent father. Now the nature of love is called into question and the reality of the affection felt between Bainsley and Qohen may also be meaningless not only for the fact that she's being paid to be with him.

This is an area where perhaps the film most significantly diverges from Brazil, perhaps improving on it the earlier film. In Brazil, when Sam meets his fantasy woman and finds she's rougher and more human than he dreamt, he distrusts her at first but ultimately falls for her anyway. In Zero Theorem, I think there may have been some Vertigo influence on Qohen and Bainsley's relationship. There's the added factor that her come-ons are perhaps contrived entirely by a powerful, manipulative man--Management of Mancom--and Qohen may in fact prefer the fantasy version of the woman whose needs may have nothing specifically to do with him.

The virtual world where he spends time with Bainsley also enables Qohen to manifest in a three dimensional representation his conception of existence, which turns out to be a dark, churning cloud in space which is slowly pulling him in from where he orbits, naked, in foetal position.

In this, he is different from everyone else. Like everyone, he perceives that ultimately everything means nothing. But unlike everyone, he thinks it's horrible. So he drifts further and further into a virtual world he knows isn't real.

Twitter Sonnet #701

Two gently shifted questions come to work.
A woven tongue lightly tastes seagull air.
Awaiting tea, splinters wave in white murk.
A forgotten spat lay upon the stair.
Fish antlers detect masked pelican shoes.
Reef ash adorns a rum trade wind southwards.
Unimpeachable pipes contain the booze.
Streamed consciousness broke the skully scabbards.
Recranked old car standards drift over heath.
Languid grass arms describe the cloud cover.
Brain brooks have cracked the hard cranium sheath.
Above street rain anxious night spots hover.
Absolute blanks stand outside the fake door.
Fibre optic heather graced the fake moor.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Black is White if Black is Not Grey or Blue on Tuesday Unless Pink isn't Turquoise In December and White is Visible In Infrared . . .

Mirrors are assholes. At least the one in 2014's Oculus is. An apparently sentient being, it enjoys inflicting all sorts of hallucinations on people before finally killing them. If Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation enjoyed killing more and were a mirror, he'd be this mirror. Maybe I'll call it Mickey the Mirror. Giving the malevolent object unlimited power turns out to have the opposite of the intended effect, making the events in the film feel gradually less meaningful. This is exacerbated by tricks played with the point of view until it's never clear if anything happening on screen is actually having any tangible effect on any of the characters.

It starts off decently enough with Karen Gillen as a young woman named Kaylie checking her brother, Tim (Brenton Thwaites), out of an asylum where he's been for ten years. He'd shot his father, possibly because his father was a murderous sadist who'd been torturing Tim and Kaylie's mother to death, or possibly because the mirror with the demonic black frame was making everyone crazy.

It's the latter line that Kaylie believes and she's made it her mission to stop the mirror once and for all. But how can you break something that can force you to walk away from it and harm yourself instead? Kaylie has a complicated plan the shortcomings of which are immediately obvious to any viewer.

From here the film proceeds, cutting between Kaylie and Tim in the present and Kaylie and Tim as children (played by Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan). Then the two timelines seem to possibly converge as older and younger actors seem to meet each other, or it could be the filmmaker's technique to illustrate reminiscence, or it could be the mirror conjuring versions of the characters that aren't real at all.

Among the fail-safes Kaylie has in place, she's tasked her fiancé (James Lafferty) with calling her every hour on the hour. When he shows up, she accidentally kills him somehow by stabbing him in the neck with a small piece of glass. Except she knows the glass isn't real because she didn't see it through the camera on her phone. But then she knows she really killed her fiancé because she sees him through the camera on her phone. And then her fiancé calls her to check in, as requested, on her phone. I still have no idea if that guy actually died.

And everything is like that in the latter portion. The arguments between Kaylie and Tim in the beginning are kind of good, about whether or not Kaylie or Tim is crazy, but the movie goes too far on the questionable senses route. You can mess with the minds of your characters as much as you want so long as you leave at least one anchor for the audience, someone who experiences this unreliable reality, otherwise it's just a series of images without weight.

Katee Sackhoff is really good in the flashbacks as Kaylie and Tim's mother, giving a very natural and vulnerable performance. Karen Gillen is good, too. I kept trying to think what her hair style reminded me of and to-day I realised it was B-ko from Project A-ko.

I love the look of 80s anime so it would be kind of cool if it's influencing hair stylists.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Reese without Her Spoon

Reese Witherspoon embarks on an outdoor, self-administered rehab, getting her life together after years of reckless behaviour in possibly 2014's most inappropriately titled film, Wild. A good performance from Witherspoon and decent direction from Jean-Marc Vallee make for an enjoyable film experience but unfortunately it's a lot shallower than it thinks it is, an abrasive quality that prevents this movie from truly succeeding.

Based on the autobiographical account of Cheryl Strayed--who invented her last name as a reflection of the fact that her frequent cheating led to divorcing her vaguely patient and honourable husband--Wild follows a young woman as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail which extends from the U.S./Mexican border to the U.S./Canadian border. Most of the story concerns mildly interesting incidents in the inexperienced hiker's long journey; guys who almost rape her, boots that don't fit her, hastily sketched, two dimensional characters like the only female hiker Cheryl encounters, a weathered woman who appears briefly to approve of Cheryl's efforts near the end. Throughout the film, flashbacks to Cheryl's life as a heroin addict and the daughter of a woman attending the same school as her (Laura Dern) attempt to show how Cheryl's life was a mess. The idea is that without the anchor of her saintly mother in her life, Cheryl disappears into a cycle of self hatred and indulgence.

Although we see Witherspoon waking up naked in a shitty apartment and sitting on a street corner muttering "more, more" before having her money stolen, one doesn't really have a solid impression of her existence as a heroin addict and it never feels like a real part of her character. Similarly, shots of her sleeping with a bunch of men are never tied to her relationship with her indistinct husband. We're not invited to see what factored into her decision to cheat on him or any sense of her feelings in the aftermath of the encounters.

There was one scene I liked where Cheryl talks to a psychiatrist in a school classroom. She points to a poster of the galaxy with a circled dot and the caption "You Are Here" and says she never liked posters like that being in classrooms because it made the students feel insignificant. To which the psychiatrist says, "Do you feel significant?"

The answer is yes, it's something that's backed up by a series of platitudes the movie uses particularly near the end, many of them delivered by Cheryl's superheroine mother, things like "be your best self" that seem like they would belong on a poster of a kitten struggling up a tree.

There's some lovely scenery, particularly of north-western foothills which, combined with the insubstantial navel gazing, oddly made me think of the first Rambo movie.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Doctor Long Legs

A daddy long legs who came knocking on my front door a few days ago. Come on in and join the party, I said.

While setting up last night for a chess tournament I co-hosted to-day, I listened to another Doctor Who audio play, a Fifth Doctor story from 2001 called The Eye of the Scorpion. He travels to ancient Egypt and attempts to thwart an assassination plot aimed at a princess before she becomes Pharaoh, all the while haunted by the fact that he has no memory of the Princess becoming Pharaoh.

The companion at the start of the story is Peri, who appears with the Fifth Doctor in only two television stories before she becomes the companion most associated with the Sixth Doctor. So Eye of the Scorpion is set between Planet of Fire and The Caves of Androzani. The impression I had when watching was that the Doctor and Peri went to Androzani very shortly after the events of Planet of Fire but since Eye of the Scorpion introduces another companion, Erimem, who appears with the Fifth Doctor and Peri in several other audio plays, I guess there's quite a long gap of time between those television serials. Some day, or rather some quarter of a century, when I have an ungodly amount of time to kill, I'd like to try to watch, read, and listen to all Doctor Who media in continuity. But alas, some things may be beyond the mortal grasp.

Eye of the Scorpion was nice, a decent little bit of running and chasing and mind control. Erimem seems nice but not a terribly distinct personality so far like the other audio only companion, Evelyn.

And once again, the Fifth Doctor is travelling with two young, attractive female companions. He may be the luckiest incarnation of the Doctor. I'm assuming there's Clara Oswald/Amy Pond slash fiction out there? There ought to be.

Twitter Sonnet #700

Joy paper cuts capsize death's construction.
Whirlpool Venus collects steel poinsettia.
Triangle compasses drew destruction.
Lead poison limes stopped the margarita.
A grey Christmas street has rebuked Macy's.
Sleigh bells jingle to the tune of free boots.
A decoy target was slush and lacy.
The banks are galleys the rhino duck loots.
Oversized black ties drown in white ruffles.
Graph paper emerged from taxi maths men.
Wood pigs found the termite tofu truffles.
The rockets go unheard over the star din.
Crystallised underground train sets read time.
Brown feathers fall down on a signal line.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Beguiling Fireworks

"No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style." - Oscar Wilde

Is 2014's The Interview a stupid film, a bad film? It's a lot smarter than its critics. I won't presume to say just how calculated it is, the effective arguments it makes could possibly have come from either a genius or an idiot, probably precisely because it doesn't really attempt to make arguments but follow a comedic instinct in the direction of what makes people laugh. Its lack of moral restraint is the remarkable thing in that regard. In a word, this film is punk. And critics don't know how to handle it, that's why it has a 50% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and it's why no two articles on the film seem to agree, it's why the positive reviews feel compelled to say negative things about the movie and why the negative reviews seem to spend a lot of time talking about what's good about it, almost against the critic's will. To quote Oscar Wilde again, "When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself."

This is a movie about how people use sincerity to lie effectively. It's about how sympathy is used to manipulate people. A telling example of the effectiveness of the film in this regard is how an ingrained terror of offensiveness has produced bizarre reactions to the movie. This astonishing review from i09 describes Kim Jong-un in the film (Randall Park), in his dealings with American tabloid TV host Dave Skylark (James Franco), as turning out to actually be a cool guy. It seems, incredibly enough, that the critic has in some degree been manipulated along with Skylark. But more fascinating to me is the reaction from Slate critic Aisha Harris to Lizzy Caplan's CIA character:

But after this funny opening, the film piles on lame Asian jokes (“Me so sorry,” Aaron says while on the phone with a North Korean contact) and too many rotations of Katy Perry’s “Firework” (Kim is a secret fan), while woefully underusing Lizzy Caplan, who plays the boys’ CIA handler. (Though in one of the movie’s funnier scenes, she does get in a tart response to Aaron and Dave’s sexist assumptions about her role for the CIA.)

After an initial meeting with Caplan's character, where she wears a low cut top and glasses--the latter something Skylark is known to have a fetish for--Skylark and his producer, Aaron (Seth Rogen), accuse her of "honeypotting" them when in their next meeting she's not wearing glasses and is dressed in a less revealing pant suit. And she responds to the accusation by saying how sexist it is to assume this is the scope of her job, to be seductive to those she whom wishes to cooperate. This shuts down Skylark and Aaron, because they're in the media where any possibility of upsetting someone's sensitivity as part of a demographic is dangerous and now inspires fear. Of course, she was honeypotting them, just as practically everyone in the movie is honeypotting or "honeydicking" someone. The layers of humour are too complex not necessarily for the critics but for the matrix of phoney sensitivity the critics are shackled to.

Take the various reactions to the "racist" Asian jokes in the movie--when Aaron receives a call from a North Korean representative confirming the interview, Aaron is drunk and thinks the caller is a friend and insists the Korean accent is bad and responds with the "Me so sorry" routine to send up how broad he thinks the accent is. Who is the butt of this joke? It's not merely Aaron for being so rash in his assumption of the caller's identity, it's the fact that in his instinct to mock something he manifests the very offensive behaviour he intends to mock. What this reveals is the media drive more towards telling on someone for doing something against the rules than for having a sincere sympathy towards the issue. It's not unlike the brilliant rape joke scene from Rogen's previous effort with Interview director Evan Goldberg, This is the End, where a fevered discussion between a group of guys about how to avoid making a young woman think they're going to rape her is exactly what makes the young woman think they're going to rape her. The point is brought home when, realising his mistake, Aaron finds despite his desperate effort he can't stop saying "me so sorry."

Similarly, the running gag about how propaganda in North Korea about how Kim Jong-un has no anus implies an anal fixation. It's of course Rogen and Goldberg's fixation, too, but, judging from, let's call it "the reaction", it may truly be the North Korean administration's, too.

In A.O. Scott's positive review for the film, he alone of all the critics feels compelled to say, "the women who show up are aggressively reduced to objects of sexual interest. There are two of them: Lizzy Caplan as a C.I.A. operative, and Diana Bang as a North Korean official in charge of managing the logistics of Dave’s interview with Kim Jong-un (Randall Park)." Yes, Lizzy Caplan's character, the same one whom Aisha Harris said had a satisfying feminist comeback for Skylark and Aaron. It's like in the Doctor Who Christmas special where the Doctor proves everyone is dreaming by having them all look to the same page in individual copies of the same book and finding that the first word appears different in everyone's copy.

It's particularly hard to see how Diana Bang as Sook, PR executive for Kim Jong-un, is objectified. Although Aaron falls in love with her, she's rarely portrayed in a more sexualised manner than the other North Korean government officials, and she voices the argument in the film that assassinating the leader of North Korea would be pointless when his place would simply be taken by any one of a number of equally corrupt generals.

The superficial sensitivity that dominates media discourse is as much a target of the film's satire as Kim Jong-un and his regime. In being honest with Skylark about his issues with his father, his fear that his love for Katy Perry and margaritas makes him seem gay because that's what his father said, he endears himself to the media personality who, in a very American fashion, values emotion above all else. One can forgive, the American mind says, a man for starving millions of people off screen if that man cries over the question of whether or not he met with his father's approval.

The fact that this strategy backfires on Kin Jong-un in the film, that he ends up crying on television, is a big part of what American critics, who act incredulous over the idea that North Koreans could find the movie particularly incendiary, don't understand. There's a funny parody of the Christopher Nolan movie Interstellar from South Korea's Saturday Night Live where they make fun of how much people cry in that movie. It's not something anyone in American media would think to make fun of because wallowing in emotion is culturally encouraged in the U.S. while such flagrant displays of emotion are seen as ridiculous and embarrassing in countries like North and South Korea, Japan, and China. The fictional Kim Jong-un gets caught in his own trap but he had a real shrewd game he'd been playing. And it's likely the one the real Kim Jong-un played with Dennis Rodman.

I'm not sure anyone would have conceived of this film without the bizarre real story of Rodman going to North Korea and coming back sounding like he was fast friends with Kim Jong-un. Listening to Rodman tell Howard Stern how he respected Kim Jong-un and how it's the haters that have made the dictator's bad reputation was fascinating for hearing the effects of brain washing. And the revelation of how easily brain washing can be adapted and manipulated to make use of a modern, media obsessed American. Someone for whom the trivial bullshit of theories about the paramount importance of self-validation eclipses the harder to digest, very real problems having to do with millions of people being tortured, starved, and executed in the name of one man's vanity.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Hug a Face This Christmas

So, can Doctor Who have Nick Frost as Santa--really Santa--and work? Turns out yes, at least for me. And it somehow manages to be a perfect follow up to the season finale, a bitter-sweet--slightly more bitter than sweet and maybe better for that--rumination on the memories of dead loved ones and possibilities. And what a fascinating way of consciously drawing influence from Alien and Howard Hawks' The Thing From Another World. And I mean really consciously--this is a screenshot.

The itinerary belongs to a charming Faye Marsay guest starring as a young woman named Shona. I can see how someone might see Thing From Another World as a Christmas movie but Alien? Well, I can dig it.

Of course, there's a very good argument for the idea that the Doctor Who serial The Ark In Space influenced Alien. And there was at least one Doctor Who serial already that was influenced by Thing From Another World--The Seeds of Doom, and possibly The Ice Warriors. But the superficial elements of those stories serve a completely different theme here, one not completely new for current head writer Steven Moffat--the capacity for dreams to both harm and heal. In this case, the fascinating argument seems to be that the more absurd the dream, the healthier, which of course is at base another argument for the existence of a show about a time travelling alien in a police box.

The last few scenes in the episode between the Doctor and Clara were fantastic. I can see how a minor tweak might have happened to accommodate a decision by one of the actors. I'm not really sure which way I'd prefer it, though as it stands now enough elements of the original idea still exist in the characters' minds to make it satisfying.

Or maybe it was all to trick the reportedly reticent Peter Capaldi into entertaining the idea of the Doctor and Clara becoming lovers. Or maybe it was Capaldi misleading us all along . . .

Casting Nick Frost as Santa really helped the concept work, too. His comic timing oddly helps bring sincerity to the character.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Gone To-day, Gone To-morrow

Sometimes shallow people can also be stupid. When stupid and shallow people get bored, they do trashy, ridiculous and improbable things, according to 2014's Gone Girl, a new noir directed by David Fincher and based on a popular book by Gillian Flynn. It features a decent performance by Ben Affleck and a pretty lousy one by Rosamund Pike as they navigate a world of plot twists and tabloid media satire, a sometimes amusing film but somewhat underwhelming, given its reputation.

I won't spoil any of the plot for you, though I found the big twist in the middle rather predictable. So predictable I doubted I was right in guessing it because it was so obvious I thought it would be kind of lame if they went ahead with it. When it happened, there was something sad about the lameness. I felt sort of bad for the wicked mastermind character. I thought, "That's what you've been doing with your time? Out of all the things you could have been doing, you've been doing this? You poor sod."

There's the beginnings of something fascinating at the end of the film that never gets played out, what two people who've gone all in on superficiality do with each other, how they might find a strange rapport in acknowledging their corresponding emptiness.

There are a number of massive holes in the plot I'll allude to obliquely for those who've seen the film--how would someone get all that stuff to the woodshed without being noticed? How could someone plan on the cops turning up at a certain house at precisely the right time? Why would a hospital treat someone covered with someone else's blood and then send them home still covered in someone else's blood?

I kind of liked the parody of Nancy Grace. There's some insight in the satire of how people watch tabloid crime shows and the way the talking heads argue with each other but for the most part it's a light version of what you might get with the now sadly departed Colbert Report.

As for the mystery, the stuff about marriage, and the crime stuff, you're better off watching Les Diaboliques.

Twitter Sonnet #699

Fat stockings conceal absolute pepper.
Recently added elves have real feelings.
A golden soup deals Kringle's free supper.
The boated archers deck dragon ceilings.
Sleigh bell car alarms pierce the horse track beer.
Rolling eyed reindeer outpace Silver Blaze.
Iron sacks are clanking across the pier.
A candy cane emerged from charcoal haze.
A sugar softly steps in blue eyelid.
An old carved eye is black in rolling ice.
Trolleys of anxious spirits watch avid.
Pin fingers touch holly berries and dice.
Black feathers brush the glimmering garlands.
A false and loose beard veils hollow islands.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Uncertain Way

It's a mere 79° Fahrenheit at the moment here by the sea, 82° just a few miles inland, this, the day after winter solstice. There were a few days last week where temperatures got below 60°. It was pretty exciting. At least it stayed in the seventies yesterday. After sunset, I was even able to wear my coat.

I had to go to Home Depot yesterday to get some light bulbs and someone's Christmas present. There's a Home Depot a few blocks away but I decided to go to one I've never been to before, in a part of town I'd never been to before, so I went to Google and found a Home Depot in Poway, a city within San Diego county that's around fifteen miles from where I live but it felt like visiting Utah. I'd been to what might be called the outskirts of Poway when a friend of mine briefly worked at a school there. There's the school, a little shopping centre, and some residential area just off the 15 freeway on Scripps Poway Parkway.

This time I took Scripps Poway Parkway further east, the road going through empty brown hills with islands of residential areas before reaching the bright cluster of buildings on the lower right of the map. In addition to the Home Depot, the buildings were mostly office buildings and warehouses. The only place I found to eat was an In and Out Burger where I got a grilled cheese sandwich and french fries while I finished reading Raymond Chandler's The Lady In the Lake, which I started reading just a few weeks ago. It's a short book, like all of Chandler's Philip Marlowe novels, largely due to the fact that Chandler was a genius at economy. He has an uncanny knack of knowing exactly what he doesn't have to say.

I stopped the car and the sentry threw his piece across his body and stepped up to the window.

"Close all the windows of your car before proceeding across the dam, please." I reached back to wind up the rear window on my side. Degarmo held his shield up. "Forget it, buddy. I'm a police officer," he said with his usual tact.

The sentry gave him a solid expressionless stare. "Close all windows, please," he said in the same tone he had used before.

"Nuts to you," Degarmo said. "Nuts to you, soldier boy."

"It's an order," the sentry said. His jaw muscles bulged very slightly. His dull grayish eyes stared at Degarmo. "And I didn't write the order, mister. Up with the windows."

"Suppose I told you to go jump in the lake," Degarmo sneered.

The sentry said: "I might do it. I scare easily." He patted the breech of his rifle with a leathery hand.

Degarmo turned and closed the windows on his side.

That's the entire encounter with this sentry character. No need to say the sentry wasn't intimidated by Degarmo or that he was threatening Degarmo. It's all there unspoken by the characters and unwritten by the author. And it comes across all the more strongly for it because it makes you part of the exchange, the reader is tasked with reading the situation just like the characters.

This is the fourth book I've ready of Chandler's Marlowe series--I'd been told that The Lady In the Lake is the best of the series but I wanted to read them in the order they were written. The previous three, The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, and The High Window are all great but mostly for charm, the cleverness of the mystery, Marlowe's intellectual and cagey character, and the rawness of the characters he encounters. The Lady In the Lake may be superior for the lady of the title, the corpse of a woman fished up from a lake that Chandler describes in impressively horrid detail as bearing the effects of having been underwater for weeks. The scene gives an emotional weight to everything else, particularly as Marlowe isn't sure it has anything at all to do with what he's investigating. Add to this Marlowe's fractious encounters with violent, corrupt cops, whose layers of resentment and sadism are brilliantly conveyed to contribute to the impression of a fundamentally unsafe world.

This is the first Marlowe novel to be written after the bombing of Pearl Harbour and the U.S. joining World War II, which is perhaps related to the fact that this is the first Marlowe novel that feels truly noir.

After this, I drove north into isolated little Poway. Cut off by its distance from the freeway to the west, the mountains to the east and south, and golf courses to the north, I didn't see any of the homeless people holding signs asking for food or money that seem to be all over the place now in other parts of the county. I took the slightly eerily named "Community Road" to a little shopping centre with a movie theatre and a Starbucks. I don't think I've ever been more stared at. I mean, I dress weird--I was wearing a frock coat, bow tie, fedora, and spectator shoes--so I'm used to getting some attention, though downtown it's usually no more than a glance before I'm written off as just another weirdo, and of course around the colleges there's always a guy or two to yell "faggot!" at me. In the Poway Starbucks, when I stood up after finishing yesterday's blog entry the place suddenly went completely silent. I saw a table of previously noisy teenagers suddenly staring fixedly at the table top. I went into a grocery store and a young woman was so busy staring at me as she walked that she collided with a shopping cart.

I'd never heard of the grocery store--some place called Stater Brothers. But there was a Sprouts across the street. Mostly the area seemed to have the normal shops and restaurants. Though it seemed like all the people I saw were really pale.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Unstoppable Pointy Ears

Elves kick ass. Legolas really kicks ass. Galadriel, you can't even comprehend the scope of ass she can kick. Barefoot. This is what I took away from The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, what the advertisements are calling the "defining chapter" of Peter Jackson's Middle Earth films. If that's the case, I'd say the definition is action--decadent action. It's fun. It's sometimes vaguely like The Hobbit, too, which is nice.

At a mere two hours and twenty four minutes, it's the shortest of the series, presumably because it's based on about ten pages of material from the very short book Peter Jackson has agonisingly stretched out into three films. I felt that stretch, like my brain were a rubber band pulled between two cacti by Wile E. Coyote as I watched Thorin deal with his greed, his thoughts slurred and slowed down, lines from earlier in the films and the solid gold floor beneath his feet slowly seemed to melt into honey. Thhhhhhiiiiiiiiiiiissss iiiiiiiiiiissssss thheeeeeeeeee hhhhhoooooooooobbbbbbbbiiiiiiiiiiiiiittttt.

Thorin kind of loses his mind in this movie. The believably complex people in the book become straight forward good guys and bad guys or good guys under evil spells. Thorin's psychotic break is so overplayed, nowhere is the stubborn old man from the book, just a twitchy young guy overcome by "dragon sickness". There are no Boromirs in this movie. And that's just how this isn't the defining chapter of Peter Jackson's Middle Earth movies. Because his Lord of the Rings films are marked by people who are tortured by internal conflicts as much as external ones.

Also lost is Tolkien's meditation on a town led by a basically good military man, Bard, who finds himself running things and trying the control the general greed and needs of the people while a greedy and incompetent Master is basically quiet. Instead, we have one over the top greedy toady who is for some reason made second in command even though everyone else from the town is apparently a paragon. And Bard gets a sappy subplot about his kids.

Martin Freeman's seemingly effortlessly brilliant performance as Bilbo can be glimpsed through the clouds at times and he is given his bit with the Arkenstone and the nice final dialogue with Thorin. But there's not much of the character's anxiety as expressed in the book.

But as a spectacle, especially one for watching Orlando Bloom going through all the cartoonish acrobatics Johnny Depp got to do in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, it's a lot of fun. Jackson riffs from that first moment in The Two Towers where we watched Legolas swing up onto a horse to make Legolas a non-stop one man circus. Evangeline Lilly, as the elf warrior woman invented for the films, is basically Robin to Legolas' Batman and has only slightly less impressive gymnastics. She has a few scenes with Aidan Turner as Kili, the dwarf, to suggest a Romeo and Juliet style romance but the movie doesn't seem to feel like it has time to let the characters really talk to each other.

This is the first one I saw in the experimental High Frame Rate that Peter Jackson shot the film in. Combined with 3D, the effect was somehow like looking at a diorama about half the size of the screen. I'm not sure what accounts for this impression of smallness--maybe it's just me. I'm inclined to say I prefer the old 24 frames per second but part of me also wonders if the 48 frames per second might look better with more naturalistic lighting and fewer special effects. It doesn't look like it's catching on, though, so I may never know.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Nymph as Innocent, Nymph as Sinner

What's better, love or an orgasm? Joe, the protagonist of Lars Von Trier's 2014 film Nymphomaniac, calls love orgasms with jealousy added. As she tells her story to a very well-read, self described asexual atheist, this perhaps most cerebral of Lars Von Trier films is captivating and explores what it means to fulfil oneself and the value of pleasure and altruism.

One of the things I love most about Lars Von Trier movies, and which isn't talked about often in reviews of his work, is his practise of creating thematically evocative fantasy versions of the modern world. Plenty of people pointed out consciously made scientific inaccuracies in Melancholia while fewer point out that the puritanical little society depicted in Breaking the Waves was entirely fabricated by the director or that the legal practices and execution procedures depicted in Dancer In the Dark were anachronistic or entirely fabricated. Similarly, Von Trier creates an apparently mafia controlled debt collection practice for Nymphomaniac that enlists Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) based on the skills she becomes known for in the world of S&M.

When she meets Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), she's lying half-conscious, bloodied in the alley as a Rammstein song about nymphomania plays on the soundtrack. When she's recovering in Seligman's bed--she insists he not call ambulance or police--she tells him casually that she's a bad person. He agrees to hear her tale and decide whether or not she is truly wicked. The movie sets up dichotomies between the two that evolve and intermix throughout the film--he, the purely intellectual, she, the almost entirely physical. He the ascetic, she the hedonistic; he the innocent, she the Satanic. In fact, he explicitly remarks on Satanic symbolism that comes up throughout her tale, like a musical chord played on a piano during meetings of a secret nymphomaniac club she joins as a teenager.

The teenage Joe is played by Stacy Martin, her father is played by Christian Slater. He's a doctor and doesn't seem as perturbed as her frigid mother (Connie Wilson) by her youthful sexual experimentation. He's in most things secular but in a scene Joe recalls multiple times throughout the film, he demonstrates a love of trees that seems to have a spiritual quality. He takes Joe walking in the park in winter, describing the bare trees as the "souls of the trees". He has a particular fondness for ash trees and mentions their significance in Norse mythology.

The fondness for Wagner that Von Trier exhibited in Melancholia manifests in a scene that uses the descent into Nibelheim scene from Das Rheingold as a metaphor for Joe's discovery that she's lost the ability to orgasm. But this is just one part of a diverse and very nice soundtrack that includes the aforementioned Rammstein, Talking Heads, and Shostakovich's "Waltz Number 2", remarkable in that for many people it would instantly recall another high profile movie about sex, Eyes Wide Shut. Joe is of course almost the exact opposite of the protagonist of Eyes Wide Shut, unbound by social conceits regarding sexuality and not regarding sex as an outsider as Tom Cruise's character seemed to--and as Seligman seems to.

The first half of the film (which is divided into two films, volume 1 and 2) is a little more light hearted, following young Joe as she and her friend, B (Sophie Kennedy Clark), prowl a train in a competition to see how many men each can fuck. Seligman jovially compares the story to fly fishing and brings up some amusing analogies. Joe, meanwhile, seems surprised that the story of her selfish behaviour doesn't push him towards judging her as bad indeed but he has an intellectual acceptance of free sex. It's later in the film the issue becomes somewhat more complicated as Joe's pursuit of ever more elusive physical pleasure takes dominance over her responsibilities to other people. Throughout the film, Seligman and Joe draw fascinating analogies to music, literature, and religion, and as rich as these are, they also serve in augmenting a provoking subversion of the dichotomy between the two that calls into question all judgements, religious or secular.

Twitter Sonnet #698

Wet cotton buttons have a yen for cane.
The elegant snowmen maintained silence.
Sweet Falstaff's antlers sparked in the late lane.
No luck linked Santa's boot to compliance.
Reindeer rein in rainstorm reigns for the snow.
Fur lined boot waffles hold breakfast dom feet.
Eustace! You bought Yuletide yew trees to go.
The sleigh's unseen note was on Santa's seat.
Christ straddles crates of the angry eggnog.
The mistletoe frames clouds and Von Trier.
Coniferous con plants dupe the hedgehog.
Pines decorated are even tree-er.
Frosting firmament sogs the golden star.
Christmas centipedes are driving your car.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

On Four Limbs and Two

I only managed to listen to one Doctor Who audio play this past week and unfortunately I think it's the worst one I've heard so far, Bloodtide from 2001. A Sixth Doctor story so it already has that going against it. It actually had a nice premise--the Doctor goes to visit Charles Darwin on the Galapagos islands at the time he made his famous observations that led to his writings on natural selection and evolution. Unfortunately it goes downhill from there as author Jonathan Morris displays both a superficial grasp of Darwin and evolution and a weak understanding of elements of Doctor Who he was working with.

The main antagonists are Silurians, a humanoid species of reptiles introduced in the Third Doctor television story Doctor Who and the Silurians. The Doctor originally called them Silurians because they had supposedly been hibernating underground since the Silurian period, over four hundred million years ago. In a subsequent episode, the Doctor makes an offhand remark about how it's ridiculous to call them Silurians, this in response to letters written to the show pointing out that such complex sentient animals like the reptilian humanoids couldn't have been at that point of evolution in the Silurian. I think the show would have been better off coming up for an alternate reason as to why they existed in the Silurian than trying to suggest they actually came from a later period. In any case, it's not as bad as one of them triumphantly proclaiming, "We are Silurians!" in Bloodtide.

Though this probably isn't as silly as Charles Darwin being portrayed as a slightly religious young man who's shocked to find he's the first one to come up with the idea that animals evolved--he wasn't.

The Doctor makes references to ape-like human ancestors inhabiting the earth at the same time that the Silurians walked the surface which is completely wrong. Though the Silurians on the series refer to humans as being descendants of the "ape creatures" they were more familiar with, I always took it to mean the Silurians observed them from underground.

The Doctor's companion on Bloodtide is Evelyn Smythe, an audio only companion and one of the few things I like about the Sixth Doctor's run--she's a college professor and middle aged, a nice change of pace from the sexy young companions, though I certainly have nothing against those. But the fun thing about Evelyn, like Liz Shaw and Romana, she has a great well of knowledge to draw from leading to more intellectual exchanges between her and the Doctor. Except in Bloodtide where Evelyn has to have basic things about Darwin and evolution explained to her by the Doctor and she also mentions she was unable to finish reading Moby Dick because she thought Melville was pretentious. Hugely disappointing, though it was fun hearing the Doctor say that Melville was his favourite author even though, if I remember correctly, the Ninth Doctor says Dickens is his favourite. But maybe each Doctor has his own favourite.

I have a bit of a flu to-day, I think. I had it yesterday too and possibly the day before as well. I've been trying to stab it to death with miso soup and NyQuil. But so far it doesn't look like I'm going to be able to go see the Hobbit movie to-night as I planned. Oh, well.

Here's a squirrel I saw in Hillcrest a few days ago:

Friday, December 19, 2014

Linking It Later

In looking for meaning behind our existence or reasons behind patterns of behaviour we exhibit, it's natural to look to one's childhood and attempt to find the actions or events that shaped us. Whatever else one might say about Richard Linklater's 2014 film Boyhood, it can't be denied that it is a remarkable achievement. In casting the same actors to portray characters at different ages--in scenes shot only when the actors themselves are of the corresponding ages--for a partially improvised project that spanned twelve years, and then for the resulting film to be even halfway thematically cohesive, is an achievement. But Boyhood comes together in an effective portrait of the essential mystery of growing up and finding one's way in life generally.

Several aspects of the story are cliché--the divorced parents, the dad who's too wild for the mother who wants to get practical to raise the kids, the string of abusive boyfriends she replaces him with. But just because it's cliché doesn't mean it doesn't happen and the nature of the film lends some weight to these things. One of the things I liked about the film is that in transitioning from one stage of the characters' lives to another--which aren't separated by title cards or any obvious buffer--the film avoids most conventional landmarks; the first day at school, the first time someone falls in love, etcetera. The segments jump into the middle and the characters hit the ground running each time. We get a sense of who the people are and we draw our own conclusions as to why they are who they are or have become those people.

Linklater was fortunate in finding actors not only willing to do the project--due to the projected length they weren't legally allowed to sign contracts--but who also ended up being decent enough actors. The two kids at the centre of the film are Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, the latter being the director's daughter. They play siblings Mason and Samantha, beginning the film at six and eight years old, respectively, and ending it at eighteen and twenty.

As the title suggests, the film is more focused on Coltrane's character, but it's interesting seeing Lorelei Linklater change as well, going from a typically hyperactive little girl who likes to tease her brother to an emotionally walled off young woman.

Mason seems significantly less emotive by the end than he did at the beginning, too, though the change isn't quite as pronounced because he starts off quieter. But since I read that Linklater managed the project partly by adapting it to what was going on in the lives of the actors, I felt like I might be seeing something more like children growing up in Hollywood rather than the suburban Texas the film depicts. Indeed, the point of view of filmmakers creeps into much of the film. Only the first segment really feels like it comes from outside the Hollywood experience as we watch young Mason play under a bridge with his friends or examine a dead bird he finds behind a trailer.

Something about these scenes have the feel of real childhood experiences, the relationship between the children and their mother--played by Patricia Arquette--has just the right tone of sensitive pride and needs from every party.

Their father is played by Ethan Hawke and it was interesting seeing the two famous actors change as well--or pretty much not change much at all in Hawke's case. Arquette goes from the sort of soft spoken siren of Lost Highway to being a slightly brassier lady with a penchant for blazers.

It almost simulates a real childhood when we examine Mason's parents along with him as he views them as models for how to be an adult. Hawke's character seems possessed of a little more basic wisdom--which is part of the character type he is, as the more wild one there's an instinctive screenplay law that he must also ultimately be the more insightful. But I liked a scene near the end where Mason observes that really his parents seem about as clueless as he is.