Friday, November 27, 2015

"These aren't the droids you're looking for": 8 questions about Star Wars

We've been watching Star Wars otherwise known as Episode IV--A New Hope (1977) in its unrevised version in my science fiction class. Here are some questions that come to mind:

1) What exactly happens to the Stormtroopers or the Rebel Alliance fighters when they get hit by a laser from a laser gun? What does violence mean in the Star Wars universe?

2) When we see Anna Kendrick and others vanish from their clothes as Obi-Wan Kenobi does when hit by Darth Vader's light saber, are we supposed to think that the Star Wars Battlefront video game being advertised is part of some rapture-deranged cult? Is a basic part of the appeal of the Star Wars franchise that we can escape the burden of the flesh after we perish? Or are we just subconsciously happy to see that someone as classy as Alec Guinness escapes from the movie?

3) Why is there a room-sized trash compactor in the Death Star?

4) Why are there so many men in their 40s who view the whole Star Wars phenomenon with such childlike religious fervor? I have seen grown men in their thirties bizarrely "fighting" with their light saber iPhone apps. What was the exact sweet spot age--10? 8?--to have first seen Star Wars in the theaters and then worship Han Solo from thereon?

5) Why haven't the three deplorable Star Wars prequels (Revenge of the Sith, etc.) done anything to dampen public enthusiasm for Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Has the failure of those movies somehow enhanced the franchise through some sort of media herd hypnosis reverse psychology?

6) Is Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) likable because she's peevish and idealistic?

7) When Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia find themselves trapped on the edge of an abyss and fired upon by Stormtroopers, why does Luke happen to have a Batman utility belt around his waist complete with a rope and a grappling hook? Did he need this stuff back on the farm on Tatooine? Was this detail prepared for in some way?

8) Is the Force, as loosely practiced by Luke, a reference to the Zen practice of eliminating the self to attain fluid motion?  Is Obi-Wan's advice to Luke to do away with his conscious mind when seeking the Force a practical suggestion for the consumer of the ever-expanding Star Wars universe? Does the non-thought of the Force help explain the extraordinary fervor of question 4? When Obi-Wan uses the Force to hypnotize the Stormtroopers to let him and the droids go by ("These aren't the droids you're looking for,") is this yet another example of the submissive behavior that the consumer unconsciously emulates? Did George Lucas intentionally include cult-like practices of mind control in the franchise?

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Noir Forebears of Jessica Jones

However innovative Jessica Jones may be as an edgy new Marvel series, an examination of the consequences of trauma, and a study of New York City, I also liked its embrace of the noir genre. Here's a list of some of Jessica Jones' antecedents:

1) In the opening scene of the first episode, one of Jones' clients becomes upset with the photographs that she has taken to prove his infidelity. When he turns violent, she throws him through the window of her office door, scattering incriminating photos across him in the process. In this visual sequence the show evokes the opening shot of Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974), when photos depict a couple in a similar lewd, spied-upon position with a husband angry at the detective Jake Gitte's snooping. Thus, Jessica gets immediately associated with gumshoe Jake from the outset.

2) By throwing her client through the window that carries the name of her detective agency, Alias Investigations, Jessica also alludes to the beginning of John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941), when detective Sam Spade almost immediately needs to have his office door window changed because his partner Archer has been shot and killed in one of the movie's early scenes. Therefore, Jessica Jones refers to two of the premier founding noir detectives in the first few seconds of the show.

3) More obviously, Jones resembles Lisbeth Salander of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, especially when she wears a hoodie several episodes into the show. When she sits and contemplates what to do on her desk, she reminds us that Salander was also good at solving crimes, only with more of a hacker bent and a punk outlook. As battle-hardened as Krysten Ritter appears, her ski-lift nose and dark green eyes evoke a bruised Anne Hathaway.

4) Jessica Jone's citified contemptuous attitude also resembles Linda Fiorentino's heartless Bridget Gregory in John Dahl's underrated neo-noir The Last Seduction (1994).

5) Jessica Jones' love of whiskey and her day-drinking are reminiscent of Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy, respectively) and their glorious post-prohibition tippling in The Thin Man (1934). When he isn't completely soused, Charles actually does some detective work.

6) In Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious (1946), Ingrid Bergman's Alicia Huberman tends to drink too much even as Devlin (Cary Grant) calls her "hard-boiled."

7) I also couldn't help being thinking of Calvin's version of the detective gumshoe, Tracer Bullet, with every night-lit office interior of Jessica's scummy apartment.

8) Amongst the heroine television detectives who know how to fight, let's not forget the unflappable Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) of The Avengers.

9) Given that we see talk show personality Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) from a sign on a bus, one can assume that we were meant to associate her loosely with Carrie Bradshaw of Sex in the City?

10) Kilgrave's (David Tennant's) ability to control people with his mind evokes the fears of mesmerists in the 19th century who were accused of manipulating people (usually women) for their own nefarious purposes.

11) Most of all, I liked Jessica Jones for the way the show eschews CGI, flying, and costumes for a complex portrayal of a flawed feminist woman. As Jessica Jones' showrunner Melissa Rosenberg pointed out:

"for audiences — not studios, but audiences — to allow for a woman to be morally ambiguous and at times ugly as a person in the same way that Tony Soprano and Walter White were, it wasn't acceptable. So that's one of the things that I wanted to do with a female superhero, I wanted to create one who was flawed like Iron Man. I wanted to make a female superhero who was like Tony Soprano."

Jessica Jones works best when it ignores Marvel's superhero conventions altogether.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

medianature links

---The Future in Film

---Grimes' "Flesh Without Blood / Life as a Vivid Dream"

---How Facebook Steals Millions of Views

---Missy Eliot's "WTF (Where They From)"

---"Movies like Star Trek Into Darkness and Spectre represent a strange and troubling confluence of incompatible pop cultural trends: Fandom’s increasing obsession with anticipating blockbusters with years of hype and theorizing, and Hollywood’s continuing obsession with endlessly remaking the same handful of stories over and over again. Each new tentpole release is met with thousands of words of conjecture and hundreds of screengrabs and GIFs; literally every single poster and publicity still and teaser and television ad and piece of ancillary merchandise is subjected to a level of scrutiny that would awe Talmudic scholars. We’ve arguably reached a point in film culture where movie marketing is more carefully analyzed than the movies themselves.

That could be because the movies themselves are so brazenly recycled from existing works, that they don’t actually demand much consideration. Spectre makes no secret of the source material it’s mining, and yet it persists for almost two hours in attempting to turn the organization’s leader into this grand enigma. The only person satisfied by this sort of unveiling is a fan who’s spent the last three years studying each Spectre trailer and plot synopsis, and correctly intuited that Waltz was playing Blofeld.

 For the rest of us, the whole enterprise is at cross-purposes. Why make a mystery out of something obvious?" --Matt Singer

---"Edward Snowden explains how to reclaim your privacy"

---trailers for A Very Murray Christmas, Life, The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun, Sunset Song, and Chi-Raq

---"the book offers a number of useful concepts. The first is a notion of 'medianatures,' which draws from Donna Haraway’s concept of 'naturecultures.' Here, Parikka intends to maintain Haraway’s commitment to nonbinary thinking and to working with entanglement, but he also wants to move us toward a theory of media that can account for nonhuman actors—chemicals, minerals, and micro-organisms. The notion of a medianature is meant to encourage us to not only think in terms of entanglement of the human and nonhuman, but to become very specific about what materials have been assembled and why." --Karen Gregory

---"The Doomsday Invention" by Raffi Khatchadourian

---David Bordwell considers women crime writers

---"These new movies won’t just be sequels. That’s not the way the transnational entertainment business works anymore. Forget finite sequences; now it’s about infinite series." --Adam Rogers

---Michael Haneke storyboards Code Unknown

---"The thing that has changed profoundly over the last 15 years, and I haven’t seen much writing about this, is that the experience of going to dailies has almost completely disappeared, because of shooting with video tape and now shooting digital. The impression is that… You’ve seen it! [Laughs] There are 20 plasma screens around the set as the scene is being shot. Every department has its own screen, so as the material gets shot, there is a direct feed from the camera to all of these screens. Everyone’s tired at the end of the day, everyone works very long hours, so why do they have to go and see it all again? From a practical point of view, that’s absolutely true, but in the days when we had to look at dailies, there was what I’ll call a religious component to this: you assembled at lunch on the following day, or the evening of the following day, and as tired as you were, all the heads of department came together. The only agenda was to look at what was shot the day before and to pick up the mood of the director — in the same way that the director wants to pick up the mood of everyone else. So there’s a kind of cross-fertilization that happens on overt and many times covert levels that I think accelerated a certain kind of creativity that is under threat now." --Walter Murch

---When Soldiers Come Home in the Movies

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Bond Again--A Pictorial Primer for Spectre

See James Bond. James jumps from building to building towards the beginning of his new film Spectre. James Bond looks good shooting people while wearing a perfectly styled suit. We have seen him before. He reminds me of Frank Zappa's "I'm the Slime": "[He's] been around for years but very little as changed."

Here's Sam Mendes. He directed Spectre and Skyfall (2012) and once, long ago, American Beauty (1999), which struck me as insufferably pretentious. Pretentious, pretentious, pretentious, so naturally the movie won Best Picture for the Oscars that year. Mendes is a very serious filmmaker, which makes him ideally suited (I guess) for directing Spectre.

Here's an example of American Beauty being pretentious. In this scene, a plastic bag floats around, and a character in the movie finds it beautiful. Pretty, pretty plastic bag, so much unexpected beauty in the world.

See the current Bond girl, Madeleine Swann, as played by Lea Seydoux, dressed in a beautiful evening gown. Seydoux is a fine French actress, and she makes Spectre more tolerable, a film that otherwise consists mostly of a series of homages to other, better, previous Bond films, such as From Russia with Love (1963), which has some similar train scenes. Homage, homage, homage. Spectre feels more like a museum than a movie.

Here is Bond and Madeleine Swan flirting on the train just before a bad man tries to kill them. See them flirt, flirt, flirt as Bond (Daniel Craig) wears an noirish white dinner jacket reminiscent of Casablanca (1942). We've seen this scene before in From Russia with Love and North by Northwest (1959), but who cares when there's so much serious movie star glamour intermixed with the homages?

Here s Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movies. He's Evil, Evil, Evil. He has a cat and a scar, and he wears a Nehru jacket. I don't know why I thought of him in relation to Spectre. Surely, he has nothing to do with anything.

Here's Blofield, another Bond villain, from You Only Live Twice (1967). Villainous, villainous, villainous. Evil, evil, evil. Surprisingly, one can find distinct echoes of the man in Spectre.

See the real villain of Spectre sit in the distance, poorly lit, surrounded by an evil committee, and framed by a big door. Poorly lit, poorly lit, poorly lit. We can tell that he's the villain and he must be very powerful because Sam Mendes makes him so hard to see for so long.

See what I mean? Very poorly lit. During this big meeting, a man kills another man with his bare hands by poking his eyes out, and nobody reacts. That's how you can tell it's a big evil meeting.

Here's Madeleine Snow again acting surly in a hotel room in Tangiers as Bond trains his gun on a mouse, threatening to kill it. "Who sent you?" he asks the mouse, one of the few more playful moments in this very serious movie.

See Ben Whishaw play Q, the gadget man and computer genius of the movie. I really enjoyed Whishaw's starring role as John Keats in Jane Campion's excellent Bright Star (2009). Too bad he just plays a winsome geek in the Bond series.

See Ed Snowden. Even though he lacks all of the guns, action scenes, and race cars of James Bond, his real-life drama as portrayed in Citizenfour (2014) struck me as more exciting than anything in Spectre. Sam Mendes admits that Spectre reflects our "post-Snowden" era that raises questions like "What does surveillance mean?" and "What do we have to do to maintain our security and privacy?" 

Meanwhile, Daniel Craig glowers in his tight suit just before he fist fights a bad guy in a helicopter over the crowded square in Mexico City. Glower, glower, glower. Fight, fight, fight. Craig reportedly worked out an insane amount to prepare for this role, and I sometimes wished that he would lighten up a bit. He's a dutiful, surly Bond. As Craig said, "I'd rather break this glass and slash my wrists," instead of appear in another Bond film. The further the Bond series goes on, the more serious and gloomy it gets, just like the later Harry Potter movies. Craig almost makes me miss the mellower air of Roger Moore.