Thursday, June 30, 2016

But Who Isn't?

How vulnerable is same sex marriage? Not in terms of legality but in terms of how it weathers the strangeness and preoccupations of human behaviour. Lisa Cholodenko's 2010 film The Kids Are All Right subverts perceptions of novelty in same sex marriage, presenting a lesbian couple who have become boring, middle aged parents contrasted with, and threatened by, a virile and fun heterosexual man. Featuring very nice performances by Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo as well as entertaining dialogue, the film ultimately seems an essay on marriage in general and spousal instincts. I enjoyed the characters but found the film's ultimate argument somewhat disappointing and unimaginative.

The concept isn't all that different from Ang Lee's 1993 film The Wedding Banquet which also features a gay couple whose relationship is threatened when one has sex with someone of the opposite sex. If we look at the two films as yard sticks for how far perceptions of same sex relationships have progressed in the public consciousness in the seventeen year period separating them it's hard to see much difference. Though this might have more to do with Lee being an innovative filmmaker. In both films, children are an issue but as Annette Bening's character, Nic, throws at Jules (Moore) in an argument, Jules cheating with Paul (Mark Ruffalo) is particularly painful because Paul is the sperm donor for the children Nic and Jules have been raising for the past 18 years, Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson).

Yeah . . . they named him Laser. But okay, evidently he's All Right.

It's the kids who initially reach out to Paul at the beginning of the film. Paul turns out to be cool--he loves David Bowie, owns a restaurant, rides a motorcycle, and has fantastic sex with his beautiful girlfriend. Laid back and seeming to exude a kind of animalistic wisdom Joni in particular seems to respond to, he's clearly meant to be threateningly "natural" in contrast to Nic and Jules' stuffy old relationship.

Jules always reminds Nic how many glasses of wine Nic's had at parties prompting Nic to complain about her wife's compulsive micromanaging. Nic puts together a romantic evening with bath salts when she senses Jules' dissatisfaction only to be distracted by a work related phone call. It's not a remarkable relationship and the problems aren't remarkable. Which I suppose is kind of the point.

I've said it before, I really don't get why cheating is regarded as relatively normal. I don't understand why it's supposedly so hard to resist sleeping with someone when you have a spouse somewhere else who loves and trusts you. That being said, there's a whole pile of presumptions about marriage, sex, and cheating that the film doesn't seem to feel compelled to discuss while indulging in. Why is Paul deemed more responsible for the affair when Jules clearly instigated it and perpetuated it? Why is Paul's affection for Jules treated with disgust? If Nic were a man, the movie would look like an extremely conservative story about a wise patriarch who's responsible for shepherding his morally weak woman. I'm not sure the fact that Nic is a woman makes the concept better. It almost seems like Cholodenko wanted to present relationships as fundamentally comprised of a Nietzschean master and slave dichotomy. This may indeed be how many people really prefer to see marriage but it made the conclusion of the film, that affirms a very traditional dynamic, a bit sad to me.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Unstable Maps

Well, I said having been studying the English Civil Wars didn't seem terribly relevant to the Brexit, but then I read this article about the potential for London to leave the UK, from before the Brexit vote, which quotes a professor as saying, "If we vote to leave the EU it will be an event, in the scale of things, a bit like executing Charles I. It would be something so profound to the British understanding of themselves and their capacity to understand how they want to govern themselves." Now the idea of London leaving the UK is actually gaining steam.

It does seem strange that London, Scotland, and Northern Ireland should be held hostage by England. In more ways than one. Of course, many other parts of England voted to stay in the EU--like Liverpool, a place with a pretty famous history of immigration.

If someone floated the idea of London leaving England a hundred years ago, the idea would have been preposterous. People would ask, what would London do about food and manufactured goods? It goes to show how much these things have come to rely on imports. It looks like the UK imports a lot more than it exports, mainly from Germany, the US, and China. Without the rest of England, I doubt London would be exporting very much at all. Well, there's a whole mess of questions about what London would have a claim to outside the city limits.

But okay, how does this compare to the Civil Wars? London was solidly for Parliament, meaning the Roundheads, in the 1640s with the London militia providing the best soldiers before Cromwell formed the New Model Army. The country was roughly divided between north and west for the Royalists and the east for the Parliamentarians.

No real resemblance to the Brexit vote map. It seems things do change in 372 years.

It may be more interesting to think about how philosophically the factions match up. The Parliamentarians were more open to immigration so long as the immigrants weren't Catholic--Oliver Cromwell allowed Jews to return to England. Meanwhile, one of the main complaints against Charles I (and Charles II) was his spending tax money on foreign interests which were not favoured by the people of England. The Navigation Acts instituted in 1651, which sought to impose trade restrictions that favoured England, were reaffirmed by the Restoration government so this is a point where the Roundheads and the Cavaliers were more or less in agreement. Attempting to enforce such laws would seem ridiculous to-day.

If some new version of the UK were created by an alliance between London, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, first of all it would certainly be an enormous difference from how countries were normally formed. I guess London as a foreign state in the middle of England would be a little like Rome used to be in the middle of Italy until 1870 when Italy finally took it. It's hard to imagine England being able to organise and capture London.

Twitter Sonnet #886

Inside the nodding noodle sculpture cheese
Awaits in dairy dalliance for mouths
To taste of torpid pineless cones appeased
By blue and red and scores of Brandon Rouths.
In stacks of cut in-seams the minds repay
The thoughts abashed on Earths remade for steel
Or alloyed teeth in copper clasped array,
Or zipper called in denim lands appeal.
Aquatic chamomile secreted west
A wren indignant now that supper quells
Rebellion yanked in time for discount Crest
And pastes for tusks too big for decent swells.
Kaleidoscope inspection sifts through minds
Invested long in tips for rubber binds.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

A Throat Too Far from the Foot

I did it, I finished watching 1995's Cutthroat Island. It wasn't easy. This is in spite of lovely costumes and ships and some genuinely impressive stuntwork. This legendary bomb, which sunk Carolco pictures and Geena Davis' career as an A-lister, suffers from its intensely bland protagonists. Some stars need to be told they're not right for some roles but unfortunately for Geena Davis, her husband, Cutthroat Island director Renny Harlin, was not that kind of friend to her.

Many blame the chemistry between Davis and Matthew Modine for the film's failure to connect. And indeed, they do have terrible chemistry, both speaking with flat American accents, not helped by dialogue that sounds like it was translated by Google from another language. "I must visit that shop again when I have more time!" says Morgan (Davis) as she and William (Modine) ride away on a coach from an action scene where several buildings explode for no apparent reason.

But the bad chemistry and dialogue wouldn't have been total dealbreakers if Davis were the action star she apparently had designs on being. It turns out the oddly polite bank robber that emerged from the meek housewife she was perfect for in Thelma and Louise didn't make her appropriate as a ruthless, lifelong adventurer at sea.

A good action star, like any other star, is capable of exuding a certain kind of personality. It's not just being coordinated--and it is impressive Davis apparently did several of her own stunts, including rolling onto the moving coach from a window above. A good action star is like a coiled spring, you can sense that they're always at some level ready to do violence, like Toshiro Mifune's scary reflexes or Bruce Willis' perpetual irritability. It's a shame because Davis probably was, or maybe is, used as fodder for arguments that women can't be action stars. But one need look only to Aliens or Terminator 2 or, I'd argue, Anne of the Indies to know this isn't so. Geena Davis doesn't work as an action star any more than would Hugh Grant or Bokuzen Hidari.

The movie boldly sets itself in a specific year, 1668. I've been researching the period so let's see if I can spot any subtle anachronisms.

Ah. Well. There's that.

This big budget production apparently went wildly out of control. I liked Harlin's low budget film Devil's Pass from a couple years ago, maybe he just wasn't meant for productions this size.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Children's Hours

Well, it's time to pack up the dragons and box up the White Walkers for another year. But don't worry, kids, your old pal Game of Thrones will be rumblin' into town 'bout this time again next year. So let's talk about that finale and I'll start with my favourite part:

Spoilers after the sexy screenshot.

Daario who? I'm only half joking--I kind of have to struggle to remember how Daenerys met him and why he's important. I think we're meant to consider how heartless Daenerys is becoming from the fact that she doesn't care about cutting him loose but could it simply be he's very dull? Her breaking up with him and not feeling much about it doesn't seem cold or harsh, it just seems reasonable. It seemed pretty clear all along he was a boy toy with no potential for more. It doesn't help that he was played by two different actors who bore little resemblance to each other and it didn't seem like a big deal. Could you say that about any other character on Game of Thrones? Certainly not Tyrion.

Tyrion hasn't had a whole lot to do this season but Peter Dinklage gets every thing he can out of every line and then some. I doubt I was alone in wanting Tyrion and Daenerys to start making out in this scene. Not just cuddling and kissing, but clothes tearing and slobber.

That being said, I still prefer Cersei over Daenerys.

It's nice for women to get to be Henry IV but it's great for a woman to get to be Richard III. Of course, feminism won't truly be able to proclaim final victory until a woman gets to be Falstaff but I think we're still about a decade away from that.

So the internet rumours that spread like, well, wild fire that Cersei would use Wildfire to blow up a building with her enemies inside turned out to be right on the money. Poor Margaery was magically able to guess Cersei and Tommen's absence meant everyone was going to die but it was only to give Natalie Dormer a grace note because she died anyway. The whole thing was kind of marred for me, though, by a really big disappointment.

I was wrong about the surprise Dorne attack but I don't really care. What I do care about is I was wrong about a prediction I made a very long time ago that you probably don't remember, that Grand Maester Pycelle was going to end up playing a really significant role in the end of the series. I thought, why else give him a secret life where he's not as decrepit as he acts and why else cast Julian Glover? With that set-up, I figured, just killing him off at random would be really disappointing.

And it was. Well, at least he spent some time with a particularly beautiful prostitute in this episode.

I know what you'd say--this is Game of Thrones. People die without warning, cruelly snatched away by this unforgiving harsh world. Well, not really, particularly not this season which has been all about wish fulfilment. The fact is, I was just the only one who actually cared about Pycelle. While everyone can rest snug in their beds, secure in the knowledge that Daenerys will never get the ax because the creators like her as much as we do, those of us who like unpopular characters drew the short straw.

But what about the Starks, you say? I say; admit it. You don't like the Starks. I was happy to see Arya get to be Titus Andronicus in last night's episode but I think if everyone were more honest with themselves they'd see that the Red Wedding was much, much more satisfying than last night's episode. It made more sense, for one thing--just what the hell is going on with Arya now? Did she flunk the assassin school or didn't she? Did the guy want her to fail, was failing actually succeeding? Is she even Arya or someone else wearing her face, as internet rumours suggest? Honestly, any explanation would be as good as another at this point. And sure, the creators can say it'll all make sense eventually in the future but Arya was more fun when she was a point of view character. When we don't what's going on with her we're outside her point of view.

I'll miss Walder Frey. I loved David Bradley's facial expressions.

Jon Snow continues to prove Ygritte right regarding how much he knows (nothing) and yet continues to be incredibly lucky. Sansa says she should have told him about Littlefinger and the Eyrie but doesn't explain why she didn't. Jon infers it's because she didn't trust him and explains to her now it's very important they trust each other because they're up against deadly foes. So Jon's takeaway from Sansa's warning him not to underestimate Ramsay and then nearly getting killed because he underestimated Ramsay is that Sansa underestimates their enemies. Gods, what a twit.

Earlier, Davos brings his miraculous insight about Melisandre to Jon in the form of a burned toy stag. Luckily for Davos, Melisandre spares him having to supply his complete lack of evidence and freely admits she participated in the sacrifice of a little girl to her god in the hopes of winning against Ramsay. She explains she's ready to die any time but reminds Jon she could be very useful against the White Walkers. So Jon, ignoring the fact that he himself and his resurrection are tangible evidence of the Lord of Light's power and thus a sacrifice in a completely hopeless situation isn't exactly a cut and dried murder, decides Melisandre probably deserves to die but since she's useful to him he lets her live . . . in exile. Where she presumably won't be useful to him. He basically went out of his way to thwart himself.

That's okay, because a little girl convinces everyone in the north to rally to Jon. But Pycelle had to die because this is harsh reality.

Finally, Littlefinger apparently lays all his cards on the table for Sansa, claiming his goal is to sit on the Iron Throne. I would have thought Littlefinger was the last person in the world who wanted to sit on the Iron Throne. As William S. Burroughs said about being president, "Who in his right mind would want a job like that?" Has sitting on the Iron Throne worked out for anyone? I think we can say Robert Baratheon was the lucky one because he was gored.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Moon is an Eye and Will See Only Beauty

There is a paradox in beauty in that it attracts the eye, it dominates attention for being nothing but itself but because of the attention it draws, the time and energy it demands, we want it to mean more, to be more satisfying. For some, this means rejecting sustenance in order to make beauty sustenance, through force of will make it into food, sex, and love. Nicolas Winding Refn's 2016 film The Neon Demon is, as many critics have said, another tale of shallow Hollywood but, while it quite consciously draws from influences, to dismiss it for covering well trodden ground is a mistake. This film is one of the most beautiful movies of the decade and for me that's all it needed to be. It could've been a series of meaningless images. But it tells a story far subtler than people give it credit for.

I wasn't deterred from seeing the film by its 48% on Rotten Tomatoes, partly because I've enjoyed Winding Refn's other films regardless of their reviews. I thought if people didn't like the film, that was fair, maybe it's not to their taste. But after seeing it, I actually read some of the reviews and I was surprised by how exceptionally brainless they are. This review by Amy Nicholson is a good example. She criticises the dialogue and wonders "if writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) has ever met a real girl." Considering the screenplay was written by Mary Laws and Polly Stenham along with Winding Refn I would suppose that, yes, he has met at least two women. But okay, women are capable of writing women badly, too. So what is this dialogue Nicholson's complaining about?

They bond, or attempt to, by droning, “I hear your parents are dead. That must be really hard for you.”

Nicholson completely misses the subtext of the comment which wasn't about bonding but about trying to wound the main character, Jesse (Elle Fanning).

You could say Jesse is like Betty in Mulholland Drive or Agatha in Maps to the Stars, the innocent kid coming from out of town who's out of her depth among the sharks of Hollywood. But innocent is a bit of a lazy term; what exactly does it mean? Nicholson said she laughed when Jessie said, "I'm not as helpless as I look," as though Nicholson expects any sixteen year old girl to credibly assess her own level of helplessness. Jesse is in over heard, she has the "deer in the head-lights" look Ruby (Jena Malone) says the industry's looking for. But that's not what sets Jesse apart from all the other clueless, beautiful girls coming to LA.

Jesse explains to her first photographer and sort of boyfriend, Dean (Karl Glusman), how when she was a kid she imagined the moon was an eye, always looking down at her. Throughout the film, the moon takes on a divine quality and Jesse therefore seems like a priestess or chosen one. When Dean tells her he wants her to stop trying to be like the shallow crowd she's fallen in with, she tells him he doesn't understand: "I don't want to be them. They want to be me." The important distinction between Jesse and the others isn't that she's helpless and they're predators, it's that they're desperately pursuing an identity they don't have while Jesse already has it. Just because Jesse is helpless doesn't mean she isn't a predator.

That's another false dichotomy critics of the film seem to assume exists. Though maybe it's not surprising a Hollywood critic would assume that ruthlessness implies strength. The movie presents a very narrow world to reflect this dominant narrow philosophy of reflections. Jesse has a vision of triangles in darkness when she passes out at one point and then later sees these triangles at a fashion show.

These simple, harsh shapes. Throughout the movie, the only characters we meet who don't work in the fashion industry at some level are two hotel managers, one of whom is played by Keanu Reeves whose menace I found to be surprisingly effective. In all the parties and photo shoots depicted in the film, we never see more than five people in a room except one audition scene where a dozen or so models sit motionless in a sterile room.

It's like a desert island and the only thing left for people to eat is each other, a thematic subtext that becomes a bit more than that. Early on, Ruby remarks that a lipstick one of the models is applying is called "Red Rum", observing that all lipsticks colours are named after food and sex. Not one person in the room mentions The Shining and it's this very omission that makes it all the more striking. Ruby and the models are so tickled by the insight that lipstick is supposed to imply food and sex the fact that for most people Red Rum implies murder is like one of those fashionable unspokens everyone in the room knows but only acknowledges with the subtlest smirks.

Twitter Sonnet #885

Construed attacks atop o'smokey's cheese
Chagrined a challenged Charger joint encased
In balanced lamp post pand'ring gallop peas
Arranged in rows of greenless dry soup paste.
It's bold to chip the cucumber before
The vanguard kite can fall beneath the wind
That names the man from Bob or pinafore
Contained in rolling cloud, in airy bend.
Engaged by twirling rounds of taffy claws
Irradiated damage marks collect
Across the headboard post in lieu of saws
That cut in lines so like an architect.
The open tabs cannot obscure the stone
Enlarged by time forgot and lately grown.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Choose Your Doctors Wisely

Last night I dreamt I needed important surgery of some kind. It was urgent, it needed doing within the next couple days. "Weird Al" Yankovic went with me to the hospital and waited outside while I was in the operating room--he wasn't the surgeon. The surgeon was a very pale bald man with dark rimmed glasses who started casually telling me about how great white people are and then I remembered I'd googled him the night before and learned he was second in command of some kind of KKK compound a few miles north. I got up and left, saying I would look for another doctor.

Speaking of a better Doctor:

THE DOCTOR: You'd better not tell that to the Coalith, C'rizz, otherwise their delicately balanced science would crumble, leaving them all stranded in a void of implausibilities.

CHARLEY: You're talking nonsense again.

THE DOCTOR: Nonsense is to sense as shade is to light. It heightens effect.

This is from the Eighth Doctor audio play Absolution from 2007, written by Scott Alan Woodard. One of the cleverer audios, this features Paul McGann as the Doctor and is the final story for the companion C'rizz (Conrad Westmaas).

The Doctor and his other companion from this period, Charley (India Fisher), find themselves in what appears to be a manifestation of Heaven and Hell. While C'rizz finds himself in Hell being recruited as a soul snatching demon--with increasing willingness--the Doctor and Charley investigate the underpopulated Heaven. In one sense, it's pretty typical in being a supernatural concept slowly revealed to have technological explanations, but it's an entertaining meditation on subjective justice. It features one of the Doctor's subtlest dark moments at the end and a companion who very effectively calls him out on it.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Return of the White Bull

I don't feel qualified to weigh in on the "Brexit", the vote for the U.K. to leave the European Union. I have friends who feel very strongly on both sides of the issue, friends who actually live in the U.K. and Europe. I've heard arguments from both sides. A friend of mine in the Netherlands was telling me this morning why she feels her country ought to leave the E.U., talking about how countries like Greece and the Ukraine have become an economic burden. She was concerned about corrupt political systems in other countries syphoning funds people in the Netherlands have worked hard for. In trying to digest her feelings, I worded the impression I had as of an E.U. that was divided between people who appreciate the value of community and people who see life as about looking out for oneself and hoping everything will sort itself out. Which, after a moment, I realised would be exactly the sentiment of people arguing for staying in the E.U.

Trying to read about the issue is difficult because most articles are pretty vague about the consequences and seem to rely on hyperbole to push a message no-one seems to feel confident the opposition will appreciate in plain speaking terms. Donald Trump happens to be in Scotland and people are widely making fun of him for his Tweet showing he believed Scotland had also voted to leave the E.U. when in fact Scotland voted to stay in. Trump deserves ridicule for this and many reasons. The shooting of a Labour MP last week is a vivid reminder that such Nationalist ignorance isn't something to dismiss as ridiculous.

But the shooter was obviously an anomaly and the vast majority of people who supported the Brexit aren't murderers. Though it's interesting to note that the murder did not generate sympathy enough for Labour to affect the vote, or if it did, it means that support for the Brexit was even greater.

Again, I don't feel qualified to weigh in here way off in California, most of my impressions of the areas outside London come from reading and watching movies about the English Civil Wars and Charles Dickens' Hard Times. I think about the rural, working class characters in Ken Loach's Kes, a movie recommended to me by a professor from northern England, and I think about how they'd react to the concept of the Brexit. Given how the movie shows the state of education and the economic deterioration in the former industrial powerhouse areas of the country, it doesn't seem surprising that so many people outside London would now be against economic attachment to the rest of Europe. The Brexit may be the result of an increasingly stratified global class system divided between the highly educated rich and the neglected education of the poor former working class. Reading about the threat the Brexit poses to the flow of personnel, ideas, and funding in the sciences as well as the greater threat of destabilised economies is deeply worrying and saddening. But I don't find myself wanting to snark about the people responsible.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Live Piracy

A few hours ago, I paused the music I was listening to ("Beat Your Drum" by David Bowie) to focus on an article I was reading but I noticed I was still hearing music, "Lover Man" on saxophone, and I wondered if I had another copy of Winamp running with one of the versions of that song I have on my hard drive playing. But walking around my apartment I finally figured out it was an actual saxophone, not a recording, coming from outside. I briefly fantasised about a girl outside my apartment performing it for me or at least holding up a boombox with it playing. I guess the latter's more likely, I haven't heard of many women who play the saxophone. There's the woman who wrote the theme to Touch of Frost. And Lisa Simpson. I guess Lisa Simpson would be nearly thirty now. But it ended up being a guy who lives a couple doors down from me. He was pretty good. I actually went out planning to give a dollar or two if it was a busker on the corner but he was just practising in his apartment.

Who did I want it to be? Maybe Jean Peters. I was watching Cutthroat Island last night, a movie that's so much worse than I remembered. I got about halfway through and I realised I didn't want to go sleep with it being the last thing on my mind and I decided I'd rather be watching Anne of the Indies again, starring Jean Peters. So I did.

It's not a perfect film but at least it didn't make me feel oppressed under the massive weight of high budget mediocrity. Maybe I'll be able to finish Cutthroat Island to-night, I don't know. I wish there was a RiffTrax for it, I need something to help me get it down. Maybe I should try alcohol.

Twitter Sonnet #884

When trouble blocks the curtain's climb to feats,
Then theatre resumes the thwarted goals
In sights unseen by seemly calloused Geats
Who call the college cracked for sinking shoals.
Delayed for sauce too cold to grant the nood
Olfact'ry crashed across the beach in dreams
Infused with languor garnished gowns, a brood
Of lazy lounging sequins cut at seams.
A burning heart inside the cherry pill
Dispersed along the path 'twas picked from out
The normal cut of dirt we call to fill
The empty spots between the trees: a route.
A fossilised black tumble weed was ground
To make the counterfeit black coffee mound.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Pirate Spin

When you're the crew of a pirate ship, it's not so important that the Spanish Armada didn't actually conquer England when you can just pretend like it did. Hammer's 1964 The Devil-Ship Pirates has Christopher Lee as the captain of the pirates in a film that surpasses the other Hammer pirate film he starred in, The Pirates of Blood River, in just about every way.

Set in 1588, the film begins with the infamous attempt by Spain to invade England. The event became remembered in England as proof of God's preference for the Church of England over the Catholic Spaniards because the attack was foiled when bad weather destroyed a third of the Spanish ships. But The Devil-Ship Pirates doesn't mention this, concerned only with one of the engagements where England actually scored a Naval victory rather than letting the All Mighty do the work. Like many ships in the sea warfare of the sixteenth and seventh century, the one commanded by Robles (Lee) is a pirate ship most of the time and a privateer when it's convenient for one country or another, in this case Spain.

One fascinating thing about this film is how its deviations from history oddly reflect actual history. Robles has an entirely Spanish crew but everyone on the ship inexplicably speaks English with regional accents--Lee didn't even put on a Spanish accent the way he put on a French one for Blood River. Obviously Hammer didn't want a language barrier in its fantasy adventure but they could have much more believably gotten around the problem by making the crew composed of diverse nationalities instead of all Spaniards, which would have inevitably been the case even in a privateer serving a country in time of war. But this would have meant complicating things quite a bit when the typical narrative at the time demanded war was a case of one country against another.

Being a fictional pirate has always been tricky. We have plenty of accounts of what pirates actually did and holding a whole village hostage was certainly in the repertoire. But even a film from to-day can't show the torture, rape, and murder that actually went on. And yet, the movie pirate is supposed to tap into some semblance of unrestrained brutal behaviour. The Devil-Ship Pirates has the pirates capture the town and "blockade the road", meaning stationing two pirates on the road with a log across it, this to prevent word getting into town that the Spanish haven't actually conquered England. Otherwise, the villagers are left at their liberty instead of the real life pirate tactic of barricading the men inside a house or two in increasingly horrid conditions while the women are distributed to the crew. In terms of holding a village, this obviously has the advantage of stopping villagers who might figure out you can walk around the "blockade".

Captain Robles decides to exert his authority through the local lord, Sir Basil (Ernest Clark), who must be one of the most unfortunately dressed gentlemen in history.

He looks like he raided a modern magic shop and a used furniture store.

Next to him is the village Parson (Peter Howell). His name is "Brown". That's right, he's Parson Brown. So if he asks "Are you married?" we'll say, "No, man. But you can do the job when you're in town." IMDB sensibly calls him "Vicar Brown" but the word "Parson" is actually used in the film.

He unquestionably councils capitulation to the Spaniards despite the fact that his black clothes and white collar seem to indicate he's a Puritan. But the differences in religion between the two nations are never brought up, probably because it was still too sensitive a subject in 1964. Though in the fact that church and aristocracy seem readier than anyone to side with Spain there's an odd parallel to actual suspicious about the secret Catholic sympathies of the ruling class later in the 17th century. In a way it's appropriate that the film, according to Wikipedia, reuses sets built for a film set in the 1640s.

Lee is very good as Robles, of course. Stand outs are a scene where he quietly threatens a small child and two sword fights. An entire ship was built for the film. While obviously relatively cheaply made, its basic structure is more accurate to 1588 than I might have expected. It even has a whipstaff instead of a wheel.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The People with No Place

One critic praised Ridley Scott for making a great American road film, 1991's Thelma & Louise, despite the fact that he's British. In addition to the implicit national or cultural pride, the statement is also stupid in that it ignores the history of the basic framework of what we call the "road movie" to-day which goes back at least as far as The Odyssey. The U.S. is a naturally excellent setting for such a picture with its wide open spaces and the preoccupation with individual freedom in the United States. Arguing that an Englishman can't tell a story of Americans is as silly as arguing a man can't make a great film about women, which Thelma & Louise also is. Unapologetically a fantasy film, it's part of a tradition of hero myths, beautifully shot with great performances by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis.

Hey, come on, there's nothing wrong with Geena Davis in this movie. So she's no Meryl Streep but I absolutely believe her conversion from oppressed and nervous housewife to liberated human being. I'm not sure why Davis has such a bad reputation. Sure, she's been in a lot of turkeys but not nearly as many as David Warner and I think he's generally considered a good actor.

Her character, Thelma, arguably undergoes a more profound change than Sarandon's Louise who seems to have been made hard and distrustful by a lifetime of experiences the younger Thelma has only just begun to encounter. Two thirds of the way through the film, Thelma starts talking about how alive she feels now that they've broken the constraints of a civilisation dominated by the unfair rules of men unable or unwilling to empathise with women. Louise looks at her smiling appreciatively but cautiously. Sarandon is, indeed, the better actress and can convey with just a few looks the impression of someone who wants to give in to what Thelma is feeling but who is too aware of life's penchant for treachery.

The two women are like the same woman on different points in her timeline--this is backed up visually by the fact that they both have red hair, both wear blue for almost the entire film (though most of the characters do), and there's a shot, reminiscent of Bergman's Persona, where Scott deliberately dissolves one woman's face into the other and back again. It's to show the passage of time as they drive day after day, night after night, taking turns at the wheel so their merging identities are also merged with the experience of the journey. Louise is also like the mind and Thelma is like the heart--Louise has the psychological defences and Thelma is the woman of action--she falls for Brad Pitt's homme fatale character and she discovers she has a knack for armed robbery. The pair's troubles start when another man attempts to rape Thelma and Louise takes control of the situation--Thelma is attacked for her body and the situation is resolved by Louise's psychology.

Thelma is deprived of control first by an abusive husband and then by men the two women meet on the road. Is this a film noir? It could be argued the movie is similar to the noir classic Detour, also a road movie, where the protagonist accidentally kills a man and then falls in with a femme fatale. But the film, with its probably unreliable narrator, has the guilt of actual wrongdoing in its protagonist and Thelma and Louise seem like they have nothing they ought to be ashamed of, something even the cop played by Harvey Keitel sees. The shooting of Harlan, the man who attempted to rape Thelma, is set up like it should be ethically ambiguous--the immediate danger had passed and the two woman could have walked away. And yet, in Harlan's inability to resist throwing a final insult at the women as they start to leave, there is unmistakably the manifestation of an entire system that's worked against these women all their lives, something that manifests again and again in the film, right to the end when the Feds have decided the best way to deal with these two is a whole team of men with automatic rifles and helicopters.

When Thelma does take control, I worried she was going to murder the annoying truck driver who catcalls at them. But, no, the burden of wrongdoing remains in the culture--blowing up the guy's truck seems pretty insignificant next to the fact that they realise--we know quite rightly--they never could have gone to the police because Thelma would never have been believed.

The movie is compared to a lot of other road movies but to me it most resembles 1971's Vanishing Point. Coming at a time when the optimism of the hippies was being replaced by a sense of less concrete goal or purpose, Vanishing Point's Kowalski embarks on a cross country trip where he's chased by police. Like in Thelma & Louise, the police become a metaphor for an oppressive system--Kowalski even has a flashback of a rape he witnessed committed by a police officer. Kowalski also seems to embody that sense of being alive Thelma refers to and the movie ends almost exactly like Thelma & Louise. One difference between the two films is that as Kowalski travels across the U.S. he becomes a kind of folk hero where people all over the country begin to identify with his sudden break from society. This was also seen in the movie Convoy which is almost a remake of Vanishing Point. By 1991, there was less of this faith in a community of humanity in the country but there are still some echoes of it in Thelma & Louise--there's the waitress who tells the police that Harlan deserved to be shot and who defends the character of the two women. There's the black runner who stops to blow marijuana smoke through the air holes in the trunk where Thelma and Louise have left a cop. There's an implicit solidarity there and we can see that Thelma and Louise would probably be just as big folk heroes as--and in reality they're much better known than--Kowalski.

Monday, June 20, 2016

You Lucky Bastard

I'd need to see a lot more television before I could say it with real authority but I suspect last night's Game of Thrones had the best battle sequence in the history of television. Not for the first time, I find it more appropriate to look to film for proper comparisons. Director Miguel Sapochnik created some truly amazing moments.

Spoilers after the screenshot.

I think everyone recognises the two standout moments in the battle for Winterfell--the tracking shot of Jon Snow in the chaos of battle and Jon Snow getting buried in the pile of corpses. I don't think I've seen any battle sequence that has shown how accumulated corpses can actually alter the landscape of a battlefield, creating hills and walls that must be factored into manoeuvres.

Sapochnik sets up the experience with one of the piles brilliantly by having Jon, our point of view character, sight a target, that bearded guy in charge of Ramsay's allies, the Karstarks. Jon wants to have a satisfying, cathartic showdown with the man but first one soldier blunders in his way and then another and before we know it Jon is stuck and in a new, terrible situation.

The denied satisfaction with the Karstark helps us feel the helplessness and frustration and leads us into the feelings of suffocation as close-ups of Kit Harington's face in increasing darkness are cut with quick, confusing shots of silhouettes of running people and weapons. Really nicely done.

As for the other standout moment, we can see Fred Astaire's wisdom from over eighty years ago holds true to-day--it's better to show the dancer in as long a take as possible. Jean-Luc Godard refined the insight with his statement about how "every cut is a lie". Unlike Fred Astaire, though, this long battle take isn't about showing flawless physical ability, although to show this particular kind of chaos the choreography needs to be just about as perfect as one of Astaire's dance numbers.

A lot of people are comparing the sequence to one from the Daredevil television series but of course the first of these impressive, messy long take fights was the legendary hallway sequence from the original Oldboy. But this sequence in Game of Thrones shows that the protagonist survives due almost 90% to luck.

It reminds me of Rostov's first encounter with battle in War and Peace--in fact it's so credible that it made me notice conceits of the show I'd never thought I'd want to nitpick, like the fact that Jon's not wearing a helmet. Obviously having an actor's face unobstructed helps transmit their emotions to the audience but this battle sequence felt so credible that suddenly these little things stuck out.

But yes, amazing scene.

And the episode opened with Daenerys unleashing her dragons on the slave masters' fleet, which was a lot of fun. Someone really needs to make a saddle for Drogon Dragon.

And the episode had a fun scene where Daenerys meets with Yara. They both seem a little surprised themselves that women are all of a sudden taking over the world but, hey, sounds good. I predict next week we'll see a surprise attack on King's Landing by Dorne, too, if the fan theory that Cersei's going to burn down the city with the wildfire Tyrion mentions in "Battle of the Bastards" proves false. Or maybe both will happen.

So I enjoyed this episode, I'm happy to join with my friends who liked it and I just want to say that I recognise some faults I found in the episode are completely my opinion, which is totally subjective and I want to stress that I don't think people aren't smart for not hating the same things I do--in fact I envy you. I really don't want to hurt anyone's feelings but at the same time I'm saying this because . . . while I think "Battle of the Bastards" was one of the best directed episodes of the series I think was also one of the worst written. If you don't want to continue reading, I'll entirely understand.

Just as I predicted, according to the laws of melodrama, no matter how improbable it was, Davos has found out that Melisandre was responsible for the death of Stannis' little girl. We only see him find the little stag he carved for the kid in "Battle of the Bastards" but we can see from the trailer for next week he figures it out. This isn't a case of putting two and two together to make four--this is putting 2x and y(x-z) together to make 4. The number of other explanations as to why that stag would be next to a pile of burnt wood are almost infinite. Let's say Ramsay didn't burn Stannis' camp, which would be one explanation. Maybe the kid died and Stannis threw the stag in the fire in a fit of grief. Maybe Stannis killed the kid instead of allowing her to die at the hands of his enemies. Davos inferring that Melisandre was somehow responsible is an enormous leap. Still, I could forgive it if something interesting comes out of it but given all that's going to be packed into next week's episode it's hard to imagine it'll be anything but a waste of time.

"Battle of the Bastards" picks up with a worse conceived moment, though, where Danaerys stops in the middle of her city being attacked to stare quietly and disapprovingly as Tyrion makes excuses for something that is really not his fault. Remember, when Tyrion arrived, it looked like the masters were just about ready to destroy the city and with Danaerys not being able to control her dragons--and anyway, the beasts not being exactly capable of the precision strikes necessary to rid the city of hidden assassins--the problems looked insurmountable. Tyrion's actions may have actually delayed the attack--realistically, anything more than that would be a miracle. I think--I mean, the effectiveness of the Sons of the Harpy seemed to fluctuate wildly with little explanation. In any case, Tyrion and Danaerys are having the wrong conversation at the very wrong time.

Imagine you're Danaerys, riding back home on Drogon Dragon and you see ships launching fire at the city. What is the first thing you do? Go to your office and have a quiet conversation? Or do what she ended up doing anyway and soundly defeating the invaders with fire? It is a lucky thing the dragons now appear to be completely under control.

Meanwhile, Ramsay shows Jon and Sansa the head of a wolf so they assume Ramsay's telling the truth when he says he's got Rickon and Rickon's still alive. Why would Jon and Sansa think that Rickon is still alive? As Sansa makes abundantly clear to Jon, there are a million reasons why Ramsay would kill Rickon "very soon"--yes. In fact, it's reasonable to assume that Rickon is dead already. There's no reason at all for anyone to think Rickon is still alive except for Ramsay's sadism which, as Sansa points out, Jon is unacquainted with. At the very least, someone ought to have brought up the possibility that Rickon was dead. But there's a very good reason why the writers had to sidestep this. Look at the distance between Jon and Ramsay's armies:

If you were in one army and looking at the other army, could you spot and recognise a brother you hadn't seen in years, who'd gone through puberty since you last saw him? Could you make out anyone's facial features? No. We could maybe expect Jon to infer that the tiny figure in the distance is his brother and not a decoy only if we believe the possibility that Rickon is dead has never crossed Jon's mind. So okay, all this shuffling of credibility is to set up for Jon doing something really stupid, something Sansa told him not to do--and, interestingly, the opposite of what the guy did at Riverrun. That guy new better than to accept the Tully's freedom. Somewhere, a distant voice says again, "You know nothing, Jon Snow."

Of course, the day is saved when Sansa shows up with the Knights of the Vale. We'd seen her writing to them an episode or two ago but we see that Sansa has decided not to inform Jon of this fact. Jon thinks they have to attack now because there's no hope of getting greater numbers. It might have been nice for him to know he could factor those knights into his battle plans. But Sansa can't tell him because of awkward emotions or something. I wonder if I should be happy the show's drive to show women taking over hasn't stopped them from writing Sansa as the complete nitwit she's always been. But I don't feel happy about--her not telling Jon about the Knights of the Vale didn't really seem stupid or smart. It just didn't make any sense.

On top of that, it doesn't make sense that Jon, in trying to amass forces and allies, never thought about the Vale at all, the place where I guess as far as he knows Catelyn's sister is still in charge.

I did enjoy Ramsay's death though it was more the satisfaction of knowing a character who I thought was consistently badly written will no longer be on the show than the satisfaction of knowing an asshole is finally getting his comeuppance. Though there was some of the latter--it is always nice to see an insufferably smug shit get knocked down. It just seems implausible that it's never happened before to this guy.

On a side note, it's interesting that for all the great special effects in this episode, the dog biting Ramsay's face still looked really fake. It guess it's a step up from the usual stuffed animal prop but graphically showing someone eaten by dogs or wolves seems still to elude television and film.

Twitter Sonnet #883

As nights extend to pass the trailer wheel
A dyed in feather dove expresses pear
Or other mild fruit apportioned peel
In shreds to steep the strainer tea more clear.
A purple palla painted treason's tongue
Translucent shades of indigo and blue,
Distinctions slight but all too dearly wrung
From bigger budget films more sand than true.
The old rectangle was the signal seen
At dusk when apple moons maintained their core
Beliefs in face of cheeseless stars who beam
Too long in dairy's milky tattooed door.
To walk among the managed steps of smooth
And shoeless feet the air can somehow move.