Sunday, September 13, 2009

Stripmining reality as we amuse ourselves to death: 9 and Gamer

9 struck me as scarcely a movie at all, more a brief collection of scenes where sketched-in doll-characters with incongruous movie star voices endlessly fend off evil machines in a generic post-apocalyptic landscape. At first, I kept falling asleep, but then I roused myself enough to wonder what I was supposed to feel about all this. Was I supposed to care that the young heroic 9 cares enough to go save other characters while the slightly Asian-looking older curmudgeon 1 doesn't think he should? 7, I believe, wears a skull to show some chutzpah and she has the voice of Jennifer Connolly, so I liked her the best. But why on earth should I give a tinker's damn about a bunch of barely-differentiated dolls?

The film evokes Edward Scissorhands in the way the dolls' inventors die before their inventions kick into action, but at least Edward had Winona Ryder as a love interest and a cartoon suburbia to slice his way into. 9 has the odd effect of rendering the apocalypse moot. You see the occasional human corpse lying around, but what does humanity's fate matter if only miniature animated burlap bag lives are at stake? I found myself much more moved by the defunct Columbia SC mall full of dead stores where I saw the film than anything in 9's rusty metallic steampunk universe.

Among recent futuristic films, Gamer was much more thought-provoking. I liked Entertainment Weekly's dismissive summary put-down of the movie:

"In the fractious future, video games have `gone human,' with real live blood-sport warriors controlled by geeks with joysticks. The sickest of these games is Slayers, in which death-row inmates kill each other off in a noisy orgy of skip-stutter editing and dirty-ash-spattered explosions. It's The Dirty Dozen meets Tron, updated for the age of action incoherence. As the brutish Kable, Gerard Butler must find out who's pulling his strings, but it's the audience whose chain gets yanked by this head-ache inducing techno-violent mishmash. D" --Owen Glieberman

Well, yes, but . . . . in its jaded way, Gamer makes surprisingly cogent points about our sickly relationship to the media. As the film depicts grotesquely fat people in grey apartments living fantasy lives through their cartoonishly attractive avatars, I found myself brooding on how much of our identities get shaped by our identification with figures in video games, movies, etc. If one watches enough movies, then what happens to one's everyday identity? As people amuse themselves with their toys in air-conditioned comfort, doesn't the external world get increasingly stripmined in the process? As William Saleten points out in this 2006 Slate article,

"The hotter it gets, the more energy we burn. In 1981, only one in three American households with central air used it all summer long. By 1997, more than half did. Countries once cooled by outdoor air now cool themselves. In Britain, 75 percent of new cars have air conditioning. In Canada, energy consumption for residential cooling has doubled in 10 years, and half the homes now have central or window units. Kuujjuaq, an Eskimo village 1,000 miles north of Montreal, just bought 10 air conditioners. According to the mayor, it's been getting hot lately.

Instead of fixing the outdoors, we're trying to escape it. On every street in my neighborhood, people have torn down ordinary homes and put up giant air-conditioned boxes that extend as far as possible toward the property line. They've lost yards and windows, but that's the whole idea. Outdoor space is too hard to control, so we're replacing it with indoor space. From 1991 to 2005, the median lot size of single-family homes sold in the United States shrank by 9 percent, but the median indoor square footage increased by 18 percent. If you can't stand the heat, go hide in your kitchen."

Do people have genuine adventures anymore if they always live them through the media? And what does it mean if real live people become avatars? Haven't we just seen poor Kurt Cobain reduced to a Guitar Hero avatar?
Are real-life soldiers fighting in Afghanistan functioning as avatars for the increasingly older game-playing American public? Gamer shows how the artificially pleasure-filled fantasy world of the screen already dominates the polluted, paved-over, species-deprived, globally warming, and frankly less-fun world outside. In the words of Neil Postman, we are "amusing ourselves to death" with the druglike soma of entertainment, but Gamer goes further to suggest how media fantasies shape our reality in increasingly surreal ways.

As a side note, here's a great quote from Postman: "When we begin relying on the Internet for all of our news and information we will turn into a nation of zombies."

11 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

I'm pretty much with you on 9 Film Dr. I saw it this afternoon with my three boys, all of whom liked it as I expected, but it was all so incohesive. Some fine set pieces and interesting ideas, but both lost steam half-way through. Maybe 3 1/2 of 5, if I'm in a generous mood. Nothing to compare with DISTRICT 9, which for me is one of the best films of the year.

FilmDr said...

District 9 had a better, more original story, and I guess in the case of 9 the lack of an engaging narrative made all of the action set pieces too Disney-like and dull. I was reminded at times of The Rescuers Down Under, only with Terminator machine heavies. Have you seen Anthony Lane's positive review of District 9?

MovieMan0283 said...

I love how you took this movie - which I haven't seen - and diverted into a much more wide-ranging (if still succinct) essay. As far as sequestering ourselves in our air-conditioned bunkers, the poor economy helps in this regard. Example: in mid-August my landlord finally offered up an antique AC unit from the 70s. I was thrilled, put it my window and used it extensively for several days. Then I got my electricity bill, whose period ended mere days after the AC unit was installed; yet the cost was way up. I haven't used it much since!

You are a braver man than me, FilmDr, continuing braving the underwhelming and forgettable dross of contemporary mainstream cinema. I'd given up years ago (I've seen about 2 or 3 new releases in theaters this year, including several documentaries, and excluding a weekend festival), but your disappointing sallies into the barren deserts of the multiplexes continually yield thought-provoking pieces, so more power to you.

Sam Juliano said...

Nice comment there Joel!

Film Dr., I haven't yet read Lane's review, but I'm thrilled to hear it!

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Movieman,

One could also say I turned a review of Gamer into an environmentalist diatribe, but I still think there's something disturbing about how much time people (including me) spend in front of screens, how the picture of Coraline's perpetually blogging parents is creepily accurate. It all leads to the complete immobility of Surrogates, so I look forward to that.

Hokahey said...

I enjoyed your thoughtful commentary on these two films. I saw the former, not the latter, which seemed like Death Race all over again. As for 9, I loved the art direction, especially the flashbacks to the human vs. war machine war that looked like some out of H.G. Wells. But it sure was short - and a hell of a lot of action for such a short length. I also liked the look of the burlap puppet things.

I was hoping this Sept. would have better offerings but it's turned into a B-movie limbo. Saw Whiteout with Kate Beckinsale that fails to use the awesome Antarctic conditions enough to transform this into anything more than a very ordinary murder investigation flick. It starts with Beckinsale's character returning to her rooms where, in a relatively lengthy tracking shot, she takes off her clothes, gets in the shower, and lingers in the steam - for no other purpose but to show her take off her clothes, get in the shower, and stand in the steam.

FilmDr said...

Very funny. It makes one wonder--is the steamy shower included in thematic opposition to all of the cold antarctic conditions? I just saw Beckinsale in the excellent Last Days of Disco, so it is irksome to see what kinds of roles she gets nowadays. She's in some awful-looking upcoming Robert De Niro flick entitled Everybody's Fine in which a widower (De Niro) heads out across the country to visit his family over the holidays to learn life's painful truths, etc. The trailer left me cringing in my seat. De Niro! Drew Barrymore! The schlock these people consent to star in gives me pain.

Hokahey said...

Was the steamy shower shown as a contrast to the cold Antarctic conditions? I think not. The focus was on Beckinsale's body - not on the heat of the water as providing relief for the cold.

De Niro shouldn't take silly roles like that! It would be nice if somebody could write him a great role before he's too old.

FilmDr said...

I was trying to crack a joke, Hokahey (but this comment format makes joking difficult). The shower scene in Whiteout reminds me of a moment in The Player when a film executive crassly declares a need for a sex scene in a prison movie because no one wants to just look at jail cells. I imagine that Warner Brothers studio insisted on the shower scene to try to make Whiteout saleable.

The Filmist said...

As far as Gamer goes, it’s better than Crank 2. That much is certain. But visually, it’s garishly bland – too much high contrast, everywhere. It looks like a bad TV commercial from the late nineties, most of the time. There’s a shot early on where Butler’s character is talking to John Leguizamo in the desert prison, and it almost looked like Leguizamo’s skin was about to start glowing. However, there are some genuinely nice shots, sprinkled here and there. They’ve learned to shoot a kind-of well done chase sequence that is – yes, I called it – hampered by the film’s glum color palette. And, the dance number may be the best scene in the film – although, it’s interrupted by something, I don’t know what it was. Just a weird series of flashy images with loud noises in the background for a second or two that are never mentioned again.

The first twenty minutes of the film are like that, however. A bunch of stuff is thrown at the screen, and the filmmakers seem to expect us to assemble it into a coherent whole. Luckily, it begins to make more sense as the film goes on, but not by much. Obviously, it’s ultra-conventional. Death Race in a videogame, and so on. Nothing much interesting is done with it – there’s an attempt at…some kind of social satire, but it’s both too fleeting and too easy. The directors take great joy in showing us close-ups of sweaty, naked fat people. I do not share their enthusiasm, and as it didn’t really come out to anything, I have resolved to track them down, punch them both in the face, and get my money back.

Michael C. Hall steals the film in the same way that Joan Allen stole Death Race, last year.

FilmDr said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Filmist.

Gamer mostly appealed to me in the way it posited a media-dominated future, so I found it thought-provoking. You notice that I never really discuss the pros and cons of its film technique. I liked the occasional image of the lecherous fat guy, because rarely do films mock the male audience that way. It kind of happens in Repulsion and The Blue Angel, but normally it doesn't. There's a sense that the unnamed creepy lives in a grey ghastly apartment and eats fattening food all day. He literally has no life outside of his avatar-fantasies on screen. One could say that the online game has destroyed every aspect of his real-life world, and that makes sense. Also, it is weird that the a handsome young teenage guy manipulates Kable--obviously, Neveldine and Taylor don't want to alienate their young targeted audience there. In a world that divides between the military and the erotic avatar, the military one seems have a lot more dignity (even though Kable is hyper-violent), while the erotic ones are little more than zombiefied prostitutes. It left me wondering how much gaming fantasies are already shaping real lives in odd ways. How much do people view the city as a Grand Theft Auto playland?