Friday, August 26, 2016

Locke & Key

I'm very lucky: I work at a bookstore and sometimes receive free stuff. Most of the freebies come in the form of advanced reading copies (eg. I received Alan Moore's Jerusalem and have barely made a dent) but sometimes the receiving department provides free damaged copies of booksbooks too bent or folded to sell, but too costly to return to the publisher. Recently, I was fortunate enough to get my hands on the slipcase box set of Locke and Key; it had been seemingly crushed from the top during transit or packing at the warehouse. The box broke slightly and the tops of each individual collection (six volumes) have been irrevocably bent. However, it's still readable and the receiving people were kind enough to give me the entire set. This was providential timing as I had been toying with purchasing the three hardcovers that collected the entire series. I read the comic on my laptop—in one long sitting—and it has stuck with me enough that I wouldn't mind owning the physical versions.

Locke and Key seems like it was designed with me in mind: a single artist in an unbroken run (I lose patience quickly when the artist changes during a run), a limited run (I can't handle ongoing titles), horror (obvs), and seemingly coherent in the whole. Luckily, Hill and Rodriguez pulled off a major feat with this title.

Reading it a second time made more obvious the tight construction of the entire narrative. The creators clearly imagined the story in its totality before constructing the narrative, or perhaps more helpfully, they had the entire fabula in mind before constructing the syuzhet. The fabula is very influenced by how Stephen King structures his stories. An overarching obsession in King's fiction could be articulated as "we may be through with the past, but the past is never through with us." Although, honestly, I could say the same mantra about any work of mainstream horror; after all, what is a ghost but a manifestation of the past? However, King's specific story constructions include the slow unveiling of past events as they impinge on the narrative's present. Say, for example, the history of the town of Derry in King's magnum opus It.

Similarly, in Locke and Key, Hill and Rodriguez control the flow of information about the past. The protagonists' father and friends acted in ways that reverberates into the present, as if they put the pieces in place for the present narrative to pick up. The fabula consists of the first generation moving the keys across the board followed by the second generation picking those keys up. The syuzhet has the creators teasingly trickle out information as it pertains to the relevant present day narrative. 

Over at Electric Literature, Jeff VanderMeer writes about knowing how and when to start and stop a narrative. He writes:
Once you get to the point where you have a sense of your story elements — the general situations, the impetus or driving force — you still have some decisions to make. You have the shape of your story — in this case, depicted as a lizard — but you still have decisions as to where you’re going to begin and where you’re going to end, not just the story but also your individual scenes. Where you end or begin your scenes is not only a question of pacing. It’s also a question of what’s right for the story you’re telling, for the kinds of characters that you’re using, and in the context of their unique characteristics.
His whole lecture is worth a read, even if it you might recoil at prescriptive writing lessons like I do. VanderMeer is articulating something that Hill and Rodriguez have clearly took to heart: knowing where and when to start the story and knowing when to deploy the oft-misused flashback. 

One of my favourite moments in Locke and Key comes around the beginning of the second act: Kinsey Locke, the middle child of the Locke family, finds herself and her friends in the Drowning Cave, a series of caves once used as a military installation. They are looking for some graffiti possibly made by her father when he was a teen. After a narrow escape from drowning, they leave the caves, only for the narrative to reveal that at the bottom of the caves, deep underwater and buried by tons of rocks, there lies the decaying corpse of a woman. It's not until 16 issues later that the creators reveal how that corpse got there and who it was. A reader knowing the full history of the story, the full fabula, will have picked up that the creators hint at this corpse's identity many issues earlier, even earlier than when Kinsey descends into the caves.

Mostly, the showing of the corpse works as foreshadowing, urging the reader onwards. The reader wonders at the identity of the cadaver and hopes that the narrative will show its hand. Additionally, the dead person works to heighten suspense, that the games with keys are anything but play and that whatever secrets the past holds, it includes death. In addition to this, the corpse hints at the level of craft involved with the construction of the syuzhet: it becomes apparent through the masterful control of exposition that the creators did not simply deposit a dead person into the narrative without already knowing how and why it got there. 

Locke and Key works for me in the same way that Alan Moore's narratives work for me: they are tight closed loops. Everything that is introduced at the beginning pays off by the end and the end validates and intensifies the work done by the beginning. What better example of the tightness of Moore's writing than pointing to the first meeting of the Crimebusters in Watchmen?

This scene is, without a doubt, the most important moment in the comic. Everything that happens in the syuzhet derives its impetus from this meeting. The characters assemble for the first time, Adrian gets the idea for the masterplan, Rorschach realizes the inefficacy of organized crime fighting, Dan begins to see Rorschach as insane (though the unhinged vigilante is vindicated in many ways), Jon notices Laurie, Laurie notices Jon (the beginning of their love is what convinces Jon to return to Earth after giving Laurie a chance to convince him), and most of these realizations come from their interactions with the key character and primum movens of the syuzhet, the Comedian. 

Moore and Gibbons revisit the scene two or three times, only though in single panels, to convey the importance of this sequence. It's not until the end of the series that the reader realizes how pivotal this moment is for the entire cast. 

Locke and Key features many moments of this type of construction: where and when keys are placed, lines of dialogue echo across the gulf of years, images reverberate, shiver and vibrate with meaning only after the fact. Tyler Locke, sitting around with Sam Lesser, asks Sam to kill his dad in a brief unthinking joke. This moment is revisited multiple times in multiple ways to underscore the theme of guilt (Tyler and his father Rendell suffer from their guilt, whether misplaced or true) and to underscore the theme of manipulation (Lesser has been convinced by the ghost of Dodge to do this, though Tyler thinks it was he that planted the idea in Lesser's head). Hill and Rodriguez bring up this moment maybe three or four times, each iteration working towards the complex tapestry of thematics that made Locke and Key the strong work it is.

Though, the series isn't perfect. There are multiple instances of well-meaning liberal ignorance, a trait Hill came by honestly from his famous father. There's the key that switches the race of the holder, from white to black and vice versa. It's used in only one issue but the creators stumble badly, making blunt, didactic gestures towards the complex subject of race, an almost irreducible part of American life. There's also the gender key, which is really only used for the syuzhet to obfuscate Dodge's true identity (his actual, in-story motive for using it is fairly empty and unthinking). Unfortunately, in a similar well-meaning but boneheaded move, the creators use the gender bending key to a) stress the binary of gender and b) imply that sexual orientation is tied to gender expression. As a young child, Duncan, Rendell Locke's younger brother, is dismissed a few times by other characters as the kid who likes to become a girl. Of course, the character who likes playing as a girl is the only gay member of the family. Ugh. Again, it's the best intentions of the creators to be progressive and liberal, but it has all the nuance and complexity of a brick falling on the reader's head. Moreover, it's simply wrongheaded.

Still, I love Locke and Key and consider it one of the best comic book series of the 21st century. Even with its faults and its wonky characterization (Tyler Locke never really emerges as anything but a blank slate, a boring white dude with nothing particularly interesting about him; the Spider Jerusalem analogue is irritating and tryhard), I think the series is beautifully constructed and endlessly recompensing. Few narratives reward a second reading; Locke and Key does so admirably.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Film Diary

Carrie (2013)

August 22, 2016

Part of my project to watch 52 films directed by women in a year, I chose the remake of Carrie thinking that it wouldn't be good but at least entertaining. Kimberly Peirce, director of Boys Don't Cry (which I've never seen), had the "audacity" to craft a remake of the "classic" De Palma version and critics took the film to task for not doing anything new or for existing in the first place. I admit my expectations were low, but I was really surprised by Peirce's Carrie and how much I liked it.

While it doesn't do anything particularly new, other than updating the circumstances to the modern day (cellphone videos etc), Carrie feels like a course correction, away from the more problematic exploitative elements of the De Palma version. The famous opening is replicated: Carrie has her first period in the shower and the girls throw tampons at her. Unlike the De Palma version, the camera never really leers at any of the girls nor is there any nudity. Instead, Peirce eliminates any sexual element entirely, leaving the scene uncomfortably disturbing: Carrie is covered by a bloody towel, reaching out with bloodied hands (perhaps the most heavy period ever), on the floor, sobbing with panic and pain.

Similarly, the famous moment during the prom, when Carrie finally unleashes her power, is not played for catharsis but rather disturbs the viewer. At first, it's satisfying for Carrie to reveal herself, for Carrie to proudly come out, if you will, as powerful, but this turns around quite quickly as the deaths of her classmates aren't really gratifying—mostly it's unnerving, as death should be. There is a pair of twins, held down on the floor by Carrie's power, who are crushed by the heels of panicked fleeing teens. Rather than suggesting their fate, Peirce keeps cutting back to their crushed bodies.

The overall feeling from Peirce's direction and the performances is not of exploitative horror but tragedy—hence my suggestion that this version of Carrie is more of a course correction than a remake. Carrie's life is full of pain and misery; it shouldn't be a celebration of her destructive potential. Her mother's death is one she regrets, even if her mother was the source of all her pain. It's a complex relationship that's perhaps too complex for the strict rigours of a horror film, a flaw of Carrie that I can admit to. However, I'm not certain I can agree with the abysmal scores and ratings this film has received. I was never bored—ever—and Peirce's command of visual grammar is top notch. I thought the performances mostly excellent, but this should be no surprise with the force of the two leads. I was very pleased with Carrie but I can appreciate the complaints.

The Muppets (2011)

August 23, 2016

This film is so damn charming. Everything about it is charming, from its dad-joke vaudeville stuff to the unabashed sentimentality of it all. I remember crying so hard when the Muppets themselves, on the show, acknowledged the death of Jim Henson. They're never afraid to own their emotions, to accept how they're feeling about something. However, I did not care for the direction, especially the framing. Conversations are only ever over the shoulder shot-reverse-shot, but when there are singles, the giant head of the actor looms in the frame, like some Tom Hooper garbage. It's suffocating; let the frame breath a little, dammit.

The Invitation (2015)

August 23, 2016

One of the rare slow burn horror films where the slow burn works in its favour. This is a film that isn't eager to reveal too much and it suffers when revelations are at hand. Until the late fifth act (using a Shakespearean structure), the film unfolds with startling efficiency and competency. Some criticisms of the film have focused on the quality of acting, but I wasn't terribly bothered by it. More often, I was engrossed in the careful turning of the screws, not so much in narrative tension, but in violations of the social contracts. For example, the host of the party, the antagonist, if there can be said to be one, keeps returning to "the invitation," the quasi-religious movement, despite the obvious discomfort of his guests. People are made visibly embarrassed by this topic, by John Carroll Lynch's character, but the host trundles on. Similarly, the protagonist finally loses his patience and has a confrontation, but the camera and editing keep lingering on the uneasy countenances of the other guests. The Invitation is more intrigued by the social lubrication and unspoken agreements on how to behave in public. Which doesn't quite mesh with the film's final ambitions, though it strains mightily to connect the dots.

The fifth act is where the film goes off the rails, unfortunately. Rarely is there a horror film where I wasn't into the violence and gore, but The Invitation managed to bore me with its climactic show-stopper. Part of the problem is that the brutality isn't brutal enough. One hopes that the film would go the route of Green Room and make things more felt, more visceral, more impactful. Instead, moments of violence seem perfunctory, far too quick. The camera seems almost shy when it comes to blood, preferring to look away or obfuscate with shadows or dim lighting. Characters are dispatched with little fanfare. While I appreciate the brevity of the violence is meant to be shocking, it feels rote, as if the film isn't even interested in going through with its own logic of escalation.

It helps that the protagonist, Logan Marshall-Green, is exceedingly pretty. I was under the spell of his beard and long hair right from the beginning. He's not an actor with tons of range (his moments of anger are laughable), but his mix of Paul Rudd (yum) and Tom Hardy (yum) was enough to force my eyes to stay on his face.

I also wish that the film hadn't revealed its hand so much with regards to the wine—the subject of few of the poster designs. The camera makes too much of the wine, lingering on it, putting it in close-ups. The result is that the audience knows to expect some poisoning; when it comes, the shock is deflating, perfunctory. Oh well.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Film Diary

Touchez pas au grisbi (1954)

August 20, 2016

Jean Gabin's Max bumps into a woman from behind while manoeuvring the back hallway of a nightclub, busy with dancers changing costumes. The woman is facing away from Max, but she turns her head towards him. He grips her breasts with both hands and asks, "Do you need a hand carrying these?" After a beat or two, when I was shocked at this film's casual sexism, the film reveals these two know each other and have a sexual relationship. Obviously this does not obviate the sexism of the act, nor does it mediate any of the rest of the film's sexism, such as a woman getting slapped in the face for snorting some cocaine (or snuff, I'm not sure). Or later, when Max confronts the girlfriend of his partner-in-crime, he ruthlessly slaps her and her friend to extract information from them. Admittedly, Touchez pas au grisbi is a film noir and thus fairly misanthropic—but the casual violence seems specifically against women. Yes, people get gunned down, but none of the men seem to suffer the slaps of Max as women do (though I should admit an effeminate bellhop gets slapped a couple times; his crypto-queerness signals that his victimhood still fits in the logic of relaxed violence against people who aren't manly men).

Touchez pas au grisbi (don't touch the loot) has all the coolness and spontaneous charm of the best film noir: the dialogue is highly quotable, the camerawork is athletic and fun, and the overall structure of feeling is of bleakness. Though unsubtle in its thematic unfolding, the film even manages to do some interesting work in terms of ageism: Max berates Riton, his business partner and longtime friend (possibly even companion, if we wanted to do a first year student's queer reading) for running around with younger women and having jowls. Crime is a younger man's game, the protagonist suggests, though ultimately, Max survives over the younger men that seek to ruin him. And survives is the apt word, as the loot he's not to touch ends up slipping from his grasp, meaning he does not thrive or flourish. As with most of the great film noir, the ending packs the most amount of nihilism: Riton is dead, the loot is gone, and Max has nothing, only his public persona, to keep him company through his old age.

To the film's credit, though bothered by the relaxed misogyny, I was always invested in Max's journey, both the emotional one and the literal one. This is mostly due to Jean Gabin's exquisite layered performance: his wrinkled forehead, his tailored suits, his gruff voice and sparkling eyes. There should be no shock that this was the film that provided his career with a second wind; it's a fantastic performance. I've not seen other films with Gabin, but I'm certainly going to try now.

Leave Her To Heaven (1945)

August 21, 2016
Blu-ray (projected)

I couldn't get a handle on Leave Her To Heaven until the halfway point. I was expecting a traditional film noir, with elements of crime and perhaps even detection, but the film stymied my expectations. Closer to the halfway point, I couldn't help but wonder where the narrative was going; everything seemed so listless and unmotivated. However, the tumblers all clicked into place during Ellen and Dick's honeymoon at a secluded cabin. Dick's brother Danny and the house handyman have gone to town for supplies, leaving the two newlyweds alone for the first time. Though, Dick was too busy working on his novel to inform Ellen of their solitude. She expresses frustration that the novel has taken up so much of his attention, along with the other people. At this point I realized that Ellen wasn't a traditional femme fatale, the kind looking for wealth or thrills, but a woman struggling to express her sexual desires.

It's fairly old hat to read psycho-sexual subtexts into film noir, but I couldn't stop myself from seeing Ellen as just a woman being denied a fuck from her husband. One of feminism's many projects is to destigmatize female sexual desire and expression; women are sexual creatures too, full of wants and needs, but society has criminalized and stigmatized this aspect of female experience. Ellen is a person unable to express her own desires for sex (a separate thing from love, I might add) because of the classic patriarchal demonizing of female sexuality. She touches her husband, a loving gesture, and then a sound interrupts them before they can bang. She looks through binoculars at a surprise that Dick has set up: her sister and mother are visiting. Obviously, this couldn't be more of a boner killer, and she comes close to losing her temper. The rest of the film has Ellen slowly manipulate or murder people in order to get what she wants: sex without love. Of course this is all subtext, but it's not very subtle.

I didn't love the film but I did like it. Gene Tierney's fiery performance as Ellen struck me as more of a Katherine Hepburn impression than a fully formed character, but I still found her struggles to get fucked to be sympathetic. The film very carefully straddles a line of sympathy and vilification of her, perhaps its strongest suit. Dick seems a fairly inert and boring husband, which strikes me as a purposeful choice on the film's part. The audience is meant to waver in their sympathies for the characters. Depicting Dick as bland and without passion helps the audience vacillate. Similarly, casting Vincent Price as the other suitor was a masterful move, as his drab effeminate attorney character, one of Price's excellent modes of performance, contrasts eventually with his other mode: bombastic full bodied acting. Hilariously, the case that the prosecution mounts might be the absolute worst case I've ever seen depicted on the screen: not only did Price's character not recuse himself from the trial, but he badgers the witnesses with hostile questions about love, all without a single objection from the defence. Though, Price's boom and fury was mesmerizing and made the final twenty minutes simply fly by. Perhaps not the best film noir or melodrama I've seen from this era but still very enjoyable.

I noted that I saw this projected. My friend set up a projector in his house and had me and another friend over for our "cinema club." It was my pick and I had heard great things about this film. Watching this projected in high definition was a fantastic experience: the colours were vibrant, the image was crisp, and the screen was large enough that I could discern details I would have missed at home on the TV setup we have right now. It was a treat and I look forward to seeing more this way.

Scorch Trials (2015)

August 22, 2016

I wish I had seen this film when I was 15: I would have loved it. I'm such a fan of many of the tropes and visuals in the film: the urban space turned desert, with the hulking husks of building looming over the deserted streets; the dank dark cavern covered in the tentacles of branches; the cool blue of laboratories that hint at abominations and crimes against science. On top of these images that I would have devoured at a tender age, the director, Wes Ball, has an incredible talent for action choreography and editing. His command of visual grammar is impeccable in its efficiency and competency. Any setpiece in the film was guaranteed to be wonderfully coherent and exhilarating.

Alas, I found the narrative painfully boring and a hodgepodge of YA clichés such as the adult authority figure intoning that he knows best for the young goodlooking protagonist or the pleasingly ethnic diversity of the cast, though with white people as the romantic leads. There's oblique or vague foreshadowing references to the lead's father, as what is boy's YA literature but wrestling with the spectre of adulthood as manifested by the Father? I'm reminded of one of Adam Roberts' stellar blog posts on the preponderance of neo-Victorianism in YA literature. He writes:
the real focus of all these YA fantasies is the absence of, or failings of, the parents. Books either, like Percy Jackson, style themselves as explicitly about the absent but divine parent figure; or, like Potter, they dramatize the peril in which the children find themselves (and from which they must extricate themselves) as the consequences of what their parents’ generation were unable to finish
His argument is that magic in neo-Victorianist YA is a way of negotiating the complex conflicts inherent in the semantic space of maturity. In The Scorch Trials, magic is replaced by the dogmatism of scientism, that ruthless ideology that rationality and the scientific methods are the only legitimate ways of apprehending the laws of the universe. The film posits a post-apocalyptic North America in which a disease known as The Flare (groan; I loathe the jargon of YA) that cannot be defeated through traditional medicine—the affliction can only be forestalled by injections but never beaten. In other words, it's magic ("Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"). Roberts continues:
This business, the appalling strangeness and glory of coming into individuality that we call ‘growing up’, is tangled up with the origin-points of that individuality—parents as people, and parental culture as authority and ‘the past’—in fantastically powerful and dialectical ways. These ways cannot be well captured by ‘mimesis’, I think; and because the psychological forces at work as so immanently forceful ‘magic’ is the symbolism that most writers have lighted upon, to articulate it
Magic then is the force which the protagonists use to grapple with their impending entry into adulthood. The psychic pain of growing up is so powerful that realism cannot do it justice; rather, the protagonists must navigate a horribly distorted mirror of reality and they must navigate it violently and spectacularly. The film is a breathless series of chases, with most of the dialogue consisting of constant urgings to "come on! run! hurry! go!" as if the narrative itself is exhorting the characters to move past pubescence into maturity. The Scorch Trials, though visually impressive, never really rises above the classic young adult themes that pervade so much of the field: fathers, unrequited love, calls to and refusals of adventure, etc. I'm excited enough by Wes Ball's direction that I look forward to his work outside of the strict confines of YA literature.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Jason Bourne

In a comment, a fellow Letterboxd user, Basil Dababneh, described the work of Michael Mann as “a mix of formal sophistication and ideological crudity,” and this phrase unlocked for me my issues with a different film, Jason Bourne. The film, while superficially entertaining, struggled to reach the highs of the previous Greengrass entries in the series. I consider both Supremacy and Ultimatum to be as close to perfect action films go: raw, visceral, exciting, formally compelling. Jason Bourne was to be a return to form, a reunion between the character that made Matt Damon a superstar and the director that helped him get there. Unfortunately, the film is an underwhelming, but still interesting mess. The major issue is the screenplay, which displays its "ideological crudity" brazenly.

Like the other two Greengrass Bournes, the film is a melange of handheld camerawork, characters walking with purpose, characters staring at computer screens, and frantically edited action sequences. As others have pointed out, the screenplay is a "greatest hits" package of all the elements that made Supremacy and Ultimatum so exciting. Likewise, the plot mobilizes some of the pet themes laboured over by the best two entries: surveillance, security, the liquidity of international borders, the limits of intelligence. Jason Bourne, though, wants to announce its themes more overtly, as if the two previous entries were too subtle (they weren't, but they were Benning-esque in comparison to this).

Many Hollywood blockbusters generate productive discourse thanks to insightful political analysis from critics and theorists. The traditional methodology is a hermeneutics of suspicion: the text withholds its ideological biases only for the perceptive critic to tease it out, revealing the sinister sociological/political/fiduciary implications. Films such as Jason Bourne ask for this critical strategy by gesturing towards real, actual geopolitical events and depicting the diegetic world with the trappings of realism (Bourne, while hypercompetent, doesn't simply fly or shoot laser beams from his eyes). Thus, the purpose of a textual analysis of the Bourne films is to persuade the reader that cultural objects, no matter how escapist, still have the traces of the ideological structures that inform and shape everyday life.

In other words, a critical reading of Jason Bourne using this rhetorical strategy would have me point to the film's interest in the antinomies of security and freedom, surveillance and privacy to demonstrate the film's healthy skepticism about the US government's powers. The film's heavyhanded didacticism should direct the reader to the same ostensibly liberal position that the government, while nominally working for the people's best interests, sometimes overreaches, but there still exists patriots (Bourne) who we can trust. Jason Bourne would like to position itself as "sousveillance" but I caution anybody who would be so generous in their reading.

Sousveillance contrasts with surveillance: in opposition to the "eye in the sky," the single sentry in the Panopticon, sousveillance is observation from below: the prisoners watching the guards. Sousveillance destabilizes the discursive control by watching by mirroring the act or reversing it. Practitioners of this strategy deploy small, wearable technology to remind those in power that watching, as a political act, works both ways, though this not be literal. Jason Bourne gestures towards sousveillance in multiple ways: the major opening setpiece occurs during a protest at the Greek parliament, with people watching from their homes, in the street, participating by recording. Later, users of a social media site concerned with privacy assault the CEO with cameraphones and flash photography, as his vested interest in their privacy makes him their hero. Even Bourne himself using tracking technology, GPS and cellphones, to manipulate the dramatic outcomes in his favour. In other words, Jason Bourne wants viewers to associate the film and its heroes with sousveillance as an act of necessary patriotism.

Yet, the aesthetics of the film do not match its thematic concerns. I can think of no other film series that fetishizes the act of looking at computer screens more than the Bourne films. This saga is positively obsessed with screens. The situation rooms in the CIA are teeming with screens of many sizes: small cellphones, medium computer screens, gigantic monitors lining the wall displaying endless noise of information and graphics. The buzzing of information crowds all the screens, crowds the room with literal noise as analysts and technicians read aloud pertinent information, all while the named characters frown at screens. Likewise, Bourne and his ally Nicky frown at screens gathering intelligence from the intelligence service. All the characters require screens for their drama to play out. Without screens, the cast would have no way of connecting with each other. Most characters in the film barely meet face to face. Instead, their interactions are through technology and screens: phones, looking at pictures of each other. Only until the character needs to be beaten up or killed do they meet face to face with either the antagonist or the protagonist. If characters rarely meet in person, much of the acting interaction is done with screens. As screens do not emote, the actors must perform affective labour for the audience. By positioning the screens as so endlessly important, the resultant sympathy is towards technology. With Bourne and Nicky in positions of oppressed (by the government), the audience should align themselves with the necessity of sousveillance. Yet, as aforementioned, the aesthetics do not entirely match this conclusion.

There's a single shot that sums up the ideological crudity of Jason Bourne: when cutting to an overhead location shot of Las Vegas, the film highlights the Trump Hotel and Casino by situating it in the middle of the composition. Other location establishing shots in the film have centered on narratively relevant buildings: the CIA's home base, the Lincoln Memorial, the office complex in London. Yet, the film chooses the Trump Hotel as its focal point to establish Las Vegas. The chase sequence through the Strip doesn't utilize the Trump Hotel at any point, making its central position in the shot more aesthetic than narrative. The garish opulence of the Trump Hotel, a sign of rapacious and ruthless capitalism if there ever was one, matches the loving glances taken by the camera's eye of screens and computers and technology. There's an classic Hollywood liberal distaste of excess, until that excess can be annexed for aesthetic pleasure: a giant gold building, a wall of glowing computer screens, a sleek Dodge Charger (which the film is at pains to specify for the audience), iPhone screens, silky icons and lines drawn across screens, a USB stick in the vague shape of a trumpet with "ENCRYPTION" splashed on its side.

No matter how pointed the film's thematic gestures towards a liberal suspicion of governance, the aestheticization of violence and film's love affair with technology upsets the ideological coherence. Thus, instead of a liberal Hollywood blockbuster, Jason Bourne ends up uncomfortably Republican in its insistence on patriotism, privacy, smaller government, and a free market. One of the major subplots of the film has the CIA Director meddling in the affairs of the aforementioned CEO. His company cannot grow freely and honestly as the Director keeps intervening, demanding access to data, etc. Though the film would love to be perceived as liberal in the healthy skepticism of governance, Jason Bourne ends up shrilly advocating for individual patriots who violently rebel against an unjust system. This is why I caution against reading sousveillance into the text. This is why I caution against the traditional method of unveiling the text's intended ideological textures. By presenting these antinomies of liberalism in such aestheticized ways, the film betrays its own ideological incoherence. It's a film that isn't secretly Republican or liberal; it's a film that doesn't know what it wants to say about anything though it wants to look cool.

My Depression

I wrote a short piece on Medium about depression. I would be grateful if you read it.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Ghostbusters (2016)

That there exists a new Ghostbusters film which stars four of my favourite comedy stars and is explicitly feminist is perhaps the best gift I could have received in this all-too disappointing year of 2016 (RIP Bowie and Prince). I haven't frequented the theatre this year as much as 2015, if only because the usual Hollywood dreck (that I can't get enough of) hasn't been as compelling. However, the promise of a feminist Ghostbusters is more than ample incentive to patronize my local cinema. I had eagerly gobbled up the details of production during the long road to its release and I had tumbled, almost against my will, into the vortex of misogynistic and/or irrational hatred of the film from Ghostbros. Helpless but to witness, I've tried to avoid engaging with the Ghostbros, as they've been relentless in their vitriol. This afternoon, Monday July 18th, 2016, Leslie Jones is being inundated with specific racial abuse on Twitter, which makes me want to cry as I can't imagine celebrating the successful release of my big screen début with gendered racism. Still, the film has had a decent opening, and the haters gon' hate regardless.

In an effort to evade confronting the contempt heaped upon the film from misguided Ghostbros, I'll stick to proselytizing for the franchise and remain focused on this reboot—which I saw twice this weekend. There was no chance that I was going to miss opening night of the reboot of the film I love more than any other film. My partner and I, though forced to attend a 3D showing, were there, excited and enthused (more so enthused for my excitement, from my partner's perspective). It's hard to detail exactly why the franchise has captured my passion so fully: it could be the mixture of supernatural spectacle and nerds not typically Hollywood; it could be the sarcastic and sardonic wit that permeates the film; it could be the classic outsider is vindicated narrative. The original film has an unholy mixture of virulently memetic attributes: the costumes, the song, the dialogue, the visuals. It's something only accident could produce, a happy accident of course. I've seen the film probably over 50 times, tying it with its sequel for the movie I've seen the most. I wore out the VHS my family owned. Like so many white dude nerds, Ghostbusters spoke our language, that intelligence, sarcasm, and belief in yourself would win out over the bullies (so confusingly depicted as the EPA). It's practically cliché for me to articulate my undying love for the original two films. Yet, I say so just to provide the necessary context, to suggest, even a minuscule of it, the amount of excitement I had in advance of the reboot.

What I wanted, what I expected from the film, was the usual Paul Feig style antics, both heartfelt and witty, and the spectacle of a Hollywood blockbuster. I've been following Feig since Bridesmaids, and each of his films I've seen in the theatre. Melissa McCarthy, one of my favourite supporting actors from Gilmore Girls (SOOKIE ST JAMES FOREVER), has been a dependable and growing muse for Feig. Watching McCarthy grow as a performer and watching Feig grow as a director has been very fulfilling. While I thought The Heat was great, Feig stretched his formal skills with Spy. I didn't love Spy as a comedy, but his action direction had ameliorated in many ways. There's a knife fight in a kitchen in the film, and I would happily rate it as the best action scene of the year. Thus, I anticipated enjoying how Feig would present more CGI, spectacle-oriented action. Plus, add in the mix four of my favourite comedy actors: Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones have been stealing scenes on SNL for a couple years now, and putting them beside more professional comedians like McCarthy and Kristin Wiig could only be hilarious. 

Did the film meet my expectations, my wishes, my hopes? I'm pleased to report that after two viewings of the film, I love the movie. I'm not worried that with time, my estimation of the film will drastically decrease, though the flaws apparent in Ghostbusters might gnaw at me and prevent my full enjoyment during a third viewing, months down the road. The film isn't perfect, by any means, but I was pleased as punch. In fact, I can also report that during the more iconic bits (the opening, McKinnon's solo action showcase), I literally teared up. There's something to be said about the fact that this film stars four women, one of which is black, one of which is an open lesbian, two of which have non-typical body shapes for an expensive Hollywood blockbuster. As a cherry on top of that pleasant reality, Ghostbusters passes the Bechdel Test in multiple ways. This doesn't automatically make a good film, but it's certainly an excellent scaffold upon which to build a good film.

I loved the colours in the film. I knew from the trailer how colourful and dynamic the designs of the ghosts would be, but even outside of the action sequences, the film doesn't shy away from colour. The Chinese restaurant in which they make their headquarters is full of rich reds and browns, without ever tumbling over the line into the muddiness of a maroon or a "burnt umber" or a "redwood." I love the proton packs, the pulsating reds. I especially love the neon reds of the PKE Meter. Even the deep gorgeous greens of the apocalyptic finale provided me with aesthetic pleasure. In other words, this is a film that's lovely to look at.

I was initially disappointed by the climax of the film, as it felt perfunctory and routine, part of the paradigm of blockbusters, wherein the world itself must be at stake. But on a second viewing, the climax improved a lot for me as it was a bit tighter than I remembered. The narrative goes as follows: the Ghostbusters beat up some ghosts with teamwork; Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) gets an action scene to herself, the kind that will inspire countless women and girls to cosplay; they regroup, and fight the big bad, which takes up very little screen time, less than I recalled. The Holtzmann scene was enough for me to squeak in excitement.

Ghostbusters is meant to marry the action spectacle with comedy, so its reboot should potentially do the same. The action I felt was terrifically fun. There's a scene in which Kate McKinnon's character is defenestrated, leaving Leslie Jones to hold onto her hand while fighting a possessed Melissa McCarthy. Feig cuts around this masterfully, just as with the knife fight in the kitchen in Spy. The choreography of the fight, while not nearly as breathless as in a Hong Kong action film, unfolds like a mini-drama unto itself, with obstacles (McCarthy; McKinnon falling), triumphs (Jones has longer arms than McCarthy, and holds her at bay), and reversals (McCarthy demonstrates levitation). In terms of pure technical skill, it's the best action scene in the whole film. The Holtzmann sequence, though, by sheer exuberance and charm, succeeds as being the finest bit entirely.

In terms of comedy, I laughed more the first time around. Hollywood comedies have recently been stuck in a rut, thanks to Judd Apatow, Seth Rogan, and even Feig himself. The paradigm is improvised lines of ever-escalating absurdity instead of actual writing: a dadaist simile that deploys a pop culture reference. The recent "comedy" Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates is this paradigm at its nadir. Already, Hollywood comedy struggles with visual storytelling, so to export all comedic labour onto the shoulders of moderately talented absurdly attractive "comedians" does the film no favours. Luckily, many jokes in Ghostbusters hit the mark. Not all. I especially loved the queef joke, but then again, I find flatulence to be intrinsically funny. Some of the non sequiturs and dadaist improv bits (eg. a flying baby) had all the comedic thrust of a falling rock. Still, I laughed and chuckled at some stuff. The problem with dadaist improv stuff is that it mostly works in the shock. A repetition of the same joke won't have nearly the same effect. Additionally, the film isn't nearly as complicated in its structuring of jokes. Consider how infinitely watchable Hot Fuzz is; Ghostbusters doesn't really reward multiple watches in the same way. This will hinder my love of the film in the long run, but it's not enough to sink the entire thing.

Really, the major downside to the film is the abbreviated narrative. The women capture one ghost and then are immediately on their way to saving the world. An opportunity for a montage was missed, especially since the characters set up the potential for a montage! In one scene, Abby (McCarthy) lists for Erin (Wiig) the people that need the help of a team of Ghostbusters, ie a chance for a montage. This would have given the sequence of events some time to breathe, as it feels like the film's narrative occurs over a day or two.

If these, then, are the flaws, let us return to the positives, the many riches to be found in the movie. It's not ideal that Leslie Jones's character isn't a scientist, at least for the political optics of the character's race. There are black women in the sciences (shocking, I know) so it's not out of the realm of possibility. In fact, the film might have missed a thematic opportunity: one of the overarching plotlines of the film details the soft sexism that women in STEM fields aren't taken seriously. Additionally, the sexism and soft racism faced by women of colour in STEM must be even more pronounced, especially if they speak in a pronounced AAVE accent. It would have benefited the film to have Jones's character be a scientist who isn't taken seriously by her peers due to her gender, her race, and her mannerisms. To have her expertise finally validated by the narrative would have been unspeakably inspiring, I'm sure.

That being said, I did love that Jones's character is competent and nerdy in her own way. The film has a deep affection for the enthusiasm of nerds, as Holtzmann, Yates, and Gilbert are all outsider nerds who love what they do. Their excitement is infectious. While Tolan's interests lay in the more material aspects of the world, she still gets multiple opportunities to demonstrate her competence and confidence. Never in the film are the quirks of the characters the butt of a malicious joke, and this is eminently true of Patty's fashion choices.

When one of the protagonists says to Patty, "you're a genius," and Patty replies, "I'm a Ghostbuster," I actually teared up. As a white cis male, I've always had representation. I can't imagine how fucking awesome it would be for a young black woman to see Patty Tolan, a 50 year old super tall black woman, in a blockbuster, announce that she is a part of one of the most famous teams in cinematic history.

Melissa McCarthy's ponytail and smile thrilled in a way that, I'm ashamed to admit, verged on erotic. While it was so stupendously refreshing that the leads were never subject to the territorializing male gaze, McCarthy's beautiful face, fantastic costuming, and performance provided me with the frisson of libidinal excitement. I mean, look at this picture and tell me she doesn't tickle your fancy:

The scene where Patty drives up in the hearse unfolds with a joke about a corpse. When Erin says, "Did you check for a corpse?" Abby giggles at the thought, and it feels so genuine, so charming, that if I wasn't already in love with McCarthy (again, SOOKIE ST. JAMES FOREVER), this would've done it.

I love that the characters, while not perfectly drawn, feel iconic to me already. I have no problems remembering all of their names: Erin Gilbert, Abby Yates, Lillian Holtzmann, Patty Tolan. They seem so real to me. Part of the appeal of this movie is for sure the allure of hanging out with the characters, especially as the film refuses to indulge in the same petty squabbles that plague other cinematic women: they don't compete among each other for a man, they aren't subject to the male gaze, they genuinely like each other. The affection they have for each other is infectious.

Ultimately, the film won't have the same longevity as the original. It's just not as well constructed. Perhaps the sequel will improve on this first reboot. Perhaps the cameos (which were fine, whatever) won't feel as forced. Perhaps the narrative will have time to breathe. But mostly, I hope the sequel retains the flavour of four badass competent smart women who are funny and fun to hang out with.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse

It's astonishing and frankly impressive that for 2 hours and 20 minutes, X-Men: Apocalypse frantically tries to convince the audience that something happened, but upon their reflection during the end credits, the conclusion that nothing actually happened is inescapable. The amount of narrative incidents in this film can be counted on one hand: the characters gather, they are separated, they reunite, the film ends. The stakes are paradoxical: shrill and hyperbolic while at the same time inert and devoid of any necessity.

Eh Sabah Nur wants to destroy the world because I guess nobody is worshipping him, so he enlists Magneto and some famous X-Men played by non-famous people to turn Cairo and Sydney and maybe New York into literal dust. The epic widescreen shots of the destruction, a seemingly mandatory inclusion in superhero cinema, are almost completely absent of people. The audience, already distanced from such vistas thanks to digital cinema, can't even apprehend a human dimension when none are depicted. In many ways, X-Men: Apocalypse is the superhero drama taken to its most absurd dimension: a by-the-numbers excoriation of the audience's desire to see mass chaos and energy beams and people in awkward flight.

Don't get me wrong, I quite liked this movie, but let's not pretend this isn't anything but one of the worst blockbusters in recent memory. As I pondered the film and its inept grasp at entertaining, I couldn't help but re-evaluate Batman v Superman: Dawn of Friendship. After seeing Civil War once, I was ready to raise my rating of BvS. After suffering through Civil War a second time, I was fully prepared to actually like Snyder's paean to gods and mortals. Certainly, after seeing X-Men: Apocalypse, Bryan Singer's fourth X-Men film, I'm ready to consider Batman v Superman: Dawn of Friendship the best superhero film of the year.

Firstly, at least Snyder understands visual storytelling. Consider the fetishistic but evocative prologue, when Bruce ascends to the skies on a spiral of flying bats. Compare this almost totemic imagery to the flatness and incoherence of Civil War dramatically inert prologue, with its hyperbolically muted colours and shaky cam. When these images are revisited in their respective films, at least BvS has the wherewithal to repeat with a difference. Civil War with its tone deaf attempts at topicality, makes space for fictional Africans over actual Africans, because it's easier to imagine Wakanda than it is to imagine Lagos beyond a zone of "Africa-ness." Even Tony Stark's motivations aren't fueled by the lived experiences of those he touches. Instead, he's spurned into action by the death of an American tourist in a fictional Eastern European country.

Likewise, X-Men: Apocalypse roots its destruction and misanthropy in some fictions: alternate histories, unreal digital metropolises, Vancouver forests masquerading as Poland, Montreal city blocks pretending to be Cairo(!). It's all so completely removed from any real moment that this film might perhaps be one of the best escapist works of art in recent history. This is a fantasy to be uttered in the same breath as Lord of the Rings or TRON.

The screenplay to BvS, unlike this film or Civil War impresses upon the viewer the vast gulf between the audience and the gods it depicts, but still depicts that gulf as existing. The other two films erase the difference, erase humanity from the equation as easily as CGI will destroy a city. BvS wants to keep reminding you that gods are fallible. X-Men: Apocalypse wants you to forget that humans even exist.

Because of this erasure, X-Men: Apocalypse struggles to maintain any dramatic stakes. It also doesn't help that the screenplay recapitulates the same conflict introduced (and resolved) in the previous film. Magneto and Raven each grapple with their moral decisions, but every time, they eventually make the right call. The first 40 minutes of X-Men: Apocalypse has to carefully put them back in the same position as the beginning of X-Men: Days of Future Past to relive the same moral dilemma. It's exhausting and completely deflating for the moral stakes that X-Men: Apocalypse is striving for.

The moral position of Apocalypse is fucking dubious at best. Perhaps the most painful sequence for the audience to sit through features Auschwitz, a locale that Singer has returned to more than once. Eh Sabah Nur teleports Erik to the deathcamp, the site of his parents' deaths and the emergence of his mutant ability, and amplifies Erik's powers. He asks the Master of Magnetism to dig deep, find the pain, and then destroy the camp entirely. Magneto, in what was presumably intended to be an act of catharsis by the filmmakers, turns Auschwitz into "particles" (the classic cliché of early 2000s CGI). He screams. It's a liberatory moment. But we can't forget the context of this supposedly cathartic moment: Eh Sabah Nur is trying to convince Magneto that genocide is a good thing, by taking him to a famous site of genocide. The utter deafness of tone here was galling enough that I guffawed in the theatre. One could argue, I suppose, that Erik is meant to be positioned in this odd gray moral zone, where we're meant to cheer for him but also remember his complicity in terrorism.

The film's moral dubiousness isn't helped at all by the climax, in which Erik turns Cairo (actually, Montreal and/or a soundstage) and some other famous cities into particles, destroying billions of dollars worth of property, killing untold thousands, injuring tenfold more, and once he's convinced that Eh Sabah Nur is actually a bad dude, stops. The epilogue of the film has Charles and Erik smiling at each other, as if Erik hadn't just murdered thousands of people. In a film full of glorious missteps, this perhaps might be the most subtle. The X-Men prequel series has been about the complex relationship between Charles and Erik, their bond, their friendship, but at what point is Charles complicit in Erik's crimes? At the end of the epilogue, Erik walks out of the X-Mansion as if nothing happened, as if his actions weren't so morally reprehensible that he has become the monster that he despises, ie Eh Sabah Nur himself.

The titular villain is barely a presence at all, despite having many digitally modulated lines to sound threatening. His whispers, amplified and pitch-shifted, just exacerbate the audience's suspicion that all he needs is a hug, or a Mom named Martha. Never before have I seen a blockbuster of such stakes predicated on a dude's fragile ego.

Similarly, has there been a recent blockbuster with more male tears? I think not. Xavier and Erik are crying constantly in this movie, almost confirming the easy queer reading that they're fighting against their mutual desire. In their final scene together, James MacAvoy's eyes are so wet, you'd think he was about to burst into wailing sobs of anguish over losing (yet again) his possible lover and best friend. Bryan Singer is not the type of director that inadvertently misses on the possible queerness of a scene, so I can only assume that the unspoken romance between the two is intended as text.

Even though I probably hated the plot more than anything, Singer's motifs and skills still come to the forefront. He has such a knack for parallax movement in a frame (I spoke at length, with screenshots, about this here) and while he doesn't do as much in this film as in the previous film, there's still moments where his visual eye shines.

As with Days of Future Past, the highlight of the film is the Quicksilver sequence. However, its impact is blunted slightly by its repetition. We expected it, Singer delivered, it's all very by the book. Its familiarity breeds apathy, unfortunately, despite showing off some of Singer's more dazzling visual skills. Luckily, Singer invests in Quicksilver's character, an attempt to develop what was previously simple comedic relief. Using the natural charisma of the actor, Quicksilver struggles with his desire for a father (AREN'T THEY ALL IN THESE FILMS) and his sense of duty. It's not entirely successful, acting almost as synecdoche for the rest of the film's effectiveness. While I was entertained by his character arc, it slips from my memories like the tide through my fingers. The particulars go, but I'll recall the spectacle.

Similarly, the spectacle of Psylocke's costume will stay with me. Elizabeth Braddock has a long history in Marvel Comics, almost none of which is very progressive or interesting. Most of it is her victimization at the hands of classic X-Men villains, big in stature and confused in motive. In the comics, bear with me for a second, she is a white woman with purple hair, the sister of Brian Braddock, Captain Britain, and she has psychic powers, but nothing noteworthy. In the late 80s or early 90s, her body is swapped with an Asian ninja assassin who wears practically no clothes. X-Men: Apocalypse keeps the race of this second Psylocke with the multiracial Olivia Munn but makes the costume even less practical ie they had a boob window:

Yikes. It doesn't help that Munn seems completely unaware that she is in a movie at all. She doesn't appear to notice that she's acting in a film, opting instead to pose as if she is the subject of a still photography shoot. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; in fact, in a film filled with melodramatic acting, her lack of physical and acting presence probably leaves her the second least tainted by association with the film (with Fassbender obviously being the least; he seems physically unable to give a bad performance). Like a lot in this movie, her character doesn't really work, but I found it watchable nonetheless.

None of the characters really work as there is still motivating them beyond "world destruction." As the film frantically tries to convince you that much has happened, you realize that the characters bounce from location to location without much connective incident. It's almost as if this was a series of setpieces concocted with a screenplay written after the fact. This gives the characters little propulsion. Not much makes them move from point A to point B beyond the omnipresent "and then" that plagues most of these comic book movies. Despite decades of lore and some decent writing, these screenwriters struggle to hone the motivations of the characters, opting instead for (again, dubious) moral imperatives of protecting the innocent. Yet, even with this simplicity, I find myself drawn to Singer's X-Men movies, even when, like this one, more doesn't work than does.

It's an entertaining piece of shit, that's for sure. I will definitely rewatch this day-glo nightmare more than once.