A Failed Attempt at Dr. No

I don’t like Bond films. I lasted a few minutes into Dr. No as part of an honest attempt to see where the appeal lays with this character and his endless shagging adventures. The latest Netflixpocalypse was on the horizon and I wanted to give the film a fair chance. But yet again, as has happened often before, I got bored and lost interest. I don’t quite recall what was happening when I gave up on the film. That was a major part of the reason that I gave up.

Now, I really don’t like negative articles. I mean, writing negatively can be fun if you have a bit of joy in it. Mocking the Twilight films is, for example, an almost victimless crime: Twilight fans will refuse to countenance my opinions (or acknowledge that I am joking in a mostly constructive manner) while I sincerely doubt anyone thinking of watching an entry in the series will be put off by an adult male blogger detailing the psycho-surreal nature of his enjoyment of the films in opposition to their intended message or aesthetic. No, I think I’m on fairly safe ground making fun of Twilight films, as if you like the films that much you really shouldn’t be offended because in essence your first reaction is correct: I don’t know what I’m talking about. At least not in any manner that would fit your definition of literacy in Twilight fiction.

That’s not meant as a cop out, it’s meant as explanation. I don’t get it. So, when I state that I don’t get it, it means that I well and truly do not understand the appeal. I’m not making judgements on individuals that do enjoy it or do get it. Thus I come back around (finally) to Bond.

I just don’t get Bond. Maybe it’s his arch-Britishness. I’m not sure. There’s something about the Bond films that just seems so homely and lacking in the glamour they supposedly have. Tacky, really. I’m no snob when it comes to older films, and I am very aware that fashion has changed throughout the decades. I don’t dislike Bond because I think it’s cheap. I dislike Bond because I think that it feels cheap.

For example, take the assassination that opens Dr. No: it’s fantastic, really. The marvelous opening credit sequence gives way to the three blind men pottering around Kingston, Jamaica. Their assault on the British secret agent is really rather wonderful; I’d be surprised to see a character removed in that manner today, with his final act on screen something so banal as reaching for something in his car with the camera looking on from inside the car. The three actors playing the assassins pop into view like something out of a cartoon. It’s fantastic. It’s cool. I’m beginning to believe, as Morpheus would say, his temples throbbing.

But then something happened. I had never realized that Bond’s habit of supplying his surname before his Christian name was initially a response to an alluring female opponent in a game of Blackjack. Still cool. Still interested. Then Bond visits M, flirting with Ms. Moneypenny on the way in and I’m reminded…

I’m reminded that I really don’t like this character at all. I just can’t get on board with it. I know it was a different era and I know that Bond has moved on as a character since then but I can’t shake how uncomfortable the whole setup makes me feel. There’s just something so backwards and boring about his manliness. The action always feels subpar, the sexual innuendo more frustrating that fun, and not because I’m sexually frustrated but because it all seems so pointless and needlessly patronising. I know a large part of Bond’s appeal is that he is an embodiment of the “tall, dark and handsome” archetype but I can’t help but think of him as a bit of a pratt. Leaving the pistol he’s been ordered to use in place of his beloved Beretta with Moneypenny was quite cool, but it was too late. I’d had quite enough of watching men with upper crust accents discuss strategy before heading out to pinch a few bums. I’m done.

Now, again, let me stress: I’m not trying to be a negative jerk about this. Bond just doesn’t do it for me. He may well do it for you. Lord knows the series has millions of fans. I don’t write in my blog to rant at the world. To be perfectly honest, I’m rather disappointed: I had assumed that watching some of the classics would finally turn me on to what I’d been missing. I couldn’t even get half an hour into what I understand to be one of the true classics. How on earth would I manage to get through some of the more mixed efforts? Then again, perhaps I’d like them. It’s entirely possible I imagine that I will one day sit down to write a “Dalton the best Bond” article. Then again maybe not.

So why write about it at all, then? Well, I’m fascinated by the disconnect. I mean, I understand why I don’t like Taylor Swift’s music: it’s not intended to perform the function that I ascribe to music. Taylor Swift fans participate in an entire culture, that of being a Taylor Swift fan. The music is secondary, if that. No, the Bond films are more confusing because they are more difficult to dismiss. Many people like them, and for different reasons, with differing levels of acceptance of the films’ various flaws. Some insist there are none, some find the flaws to be part of the overall positive experience.

And I’m missing out. I just don’t get Bond, and frankly I wish I did. It’s just too old, too sexist, too boring, too oddly comfortable with glorifying the British elite. It’s just not my thing. 

The Man in the High Castle and Alternate History

I recently decided to catch up with Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle series, based on the (excellent) Philip K. Dick book of the same name. Please beware: this post includes spoilers for the first two episodes and, to a certain extent (though not in any way I think would truly spoil it), the novel.

I’m really not sure what to make of The Man in the High Castle. It is, on the one hand, a skillful adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel for television, or at least the television format; I’ll leave you to sort the streaming model into your own personal categories of “television” and “something else.” On the other hand, it is a television show in 2015 about an America occupied by a victorious Third Reich on its eastern seaboard and by the Empire of Japan to the west. It navigates a tough line from the beginning, between direct engagement with the horrors of World War II and how they would play out in a conquered post-war America and seven decades of cultural production that has engaged with the Nazis since D-Day. We have, as a result, a broad and asymmetrical popular corpus of material on the Nazis and on Hitler himself, the personification of the movement. The Nazis present themselves in our fiction as the vile enemies of only a few years before that need little further explanation or evidence of calumny (Where Eagles Dare, novel and film in 1968); vestigial agents of an evil that refuses to be conquered and that denies itself the anonymity of refuge, that denies absolution not because of guilt borne from sin but convictman in the high castleion borne from defeat (The Boys from Brazil, novel in 1976, film in 1978; Marathon Man, novel in 1974, film in 1976); and more recently as comic book enemies, the hubristic and unassuming Adolf Hitler taking the document he seeks from out of Indiana Jones’ hands, signing it and handing it back in Steven Spielberg’s loving simulacrum of the pulpy heroes of his youth (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989) and Hugo Weaving’s portrayal of the Red Skull, a bonafide comic book nasty, nemesis of the same Captain America famous for landing a solid right hook on Hitler’s jaw.

This last example gets into potentially sticky territory in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, where the Red Skull’s Hydra organization reveals itself as the true evil within and behind the machinations of Nazi Germany. The idea, clearly, was to imbue this fake organization with the widely accepted face of human evil writ large in the twentieth century while allowing writers to branch off into other territory. There is though a rather significant risk of leeching some of that evil out of our interpretations of the Third Reich itself. The Red Skull trades in the currency provided by the Nazis as “bad guys.” Instant bad guys, free of all moral or ethical doubt. Trading in that currency opens the door, if only by just a sliver, to a popular memory of the Nazis as a Bogyman with one foot in the terrors and shame of human history and the other in public memory shifting as that figure lifts one leg to plant both feet on the side of human imagination, leaving the cold realities of Nazi crimes behind.

Still, there is little to no argument against the fact that Hitler’s Nazis were, indeed, evil. Their evil transcended, and continues to transcend, the natural impulse of academics and reasonable observers to weigh the historical context of various participants in conflicts against the moral certainty of the victors. The Allied Nations were on the right side of history in World War II, a seductive narrative that provides the clothing we seek to wear in all our conflicts since; Western society has split over Vietnam and Iraq but no one in their right mind (or, more appropriately a firm grasp of historical events) would counter the position that the US and its allies fought on the forces of good seventy years ago. Even taking aside the Holocaust, that horrific sin that exposed humanity to the potential of matching its cruelty fully to the advances of modern society in technology and human organization, the Nazis were a bad bunch. To put it mildly. The Man in the High Castle thus truly does have its nemesis pre-packaged, with a deep cultural understanding of that antagonist’s inhumanity. The catch is how you navigate that.

man in the high castleThe British have traditionally chosen to navigate this by making fun of the Nazis, or perhaps to be more (or less) specific, the Germans. Basil Fawlty’s concussion-driven insults to his German guests in Fawlty Towers begat one of the most famous scenes in British television comedy (“We did not start it! / Yes you did, you invaded Poland!”) but also played into the broader theme of that show. Fawlty Towers presented us with a thoroughly unlikeable character at its centre to mock the specific picture of Englishness that character celebrated and held dear. John Cleese’s genius (accompanied by his then-wife and co-writer, Connie Booth) was in the delivery of such satire in plain sight. The Corkonian comic Niall Tobin once insisted that satire and parody could be differentiated by whether or not the subject knew he was being mocked or understood fully how deep that mockery went; Cleese and Booth mocked the “little Englander” identity openly and sold it to many on the basis that the British have a dry and self-deprecating sense of humour. So it was with World War II; only Basil Fawlty could goosestep through the foyer of his hotel and have us laugh as if we are all in on the same joke. It remains a high point in British engagement with the animosity born of two world wars against their near-neighbours, a step beyond Mitchell and Webb’s entertaining explorations of the absurdity of being a Nazi in the first place (“Do you think we’re the baddies?”) and light years ahead of the gruesome ‘Allo ‘Allo’s tabloid parodies dressed up as bawdy humour.

A more recent comparison lies in MachineGames’ Wolfenstein: The New Order (2014), wherein the player-character begins the story confronted with the deep evil of Nazi predilections for genocide and human experimentation. Wolfenstein clearly owes a shared debt to Philip K. Dick’s novel, but skews off in a direction more inspired by a mixture of steampunk and mecha science fiction. As in the novel, the Nazis have reached the moon and boast an intimidating technological advantage over all other would-be global powers. The game chooses to raise and address questions of morality through representations of violence, including moments that the player-character can quite pointedly not interrupt. In the world of video games, where player control is, in theory, paramount within the experience it was a notable choice. The game also presents violence in terms of the violence that actually happened in the 1930s and 1940s, referencing ovens and the use of lethal gas but choosing to supplement the innate horror of historical reality with the figurative horrors of genre storytelling. All of this raises the issue of how writers should approach and engage with the morality of the Nazis in historical experience. I’m not sure how I feel about MachineGames’ decision to take the historical realities and perceived player/audience awareness of those realities as a foundation for escalating the absurdity of the alternate reality they created. It fits a clear leap into genre territory but one can be concerned at how far the game takes us from the real terrors on which it is based.man in the high castle

Amazon’s show takes a different tack: no giant mechanized troops here. Setting the show in 1962, in addition to emphasizing a solid nod to the novel and obviating the awkwardness of portraying a Nazi America in 2015 (how could it have lasted so long? what would it look like? would everybody walk around with swastika-emblazoned iPads?), triggers the relatively recently discovered deep seated love among American television watchers for period pieces. The British have been on this for years, as have the Chinese, though they tend to reflect on their own imperial eras, very different times but still temporal sites of success. Americans are apparently enticed by the 1960s, and not just the protest-filled years at the end of the decade. That’s been an easy sell in film for quite a while, but the more recent success on the “small screen” (and screens smaller still) most typically embodied by AMC’s Mad Men continues to tap into a distinctly American hunger to both revel in the glory of the decades immediately following World War II while nodding our heads, sagely and in the collective, of the seemingly unlimited examples of behaviours and social attitudes considered regressive today.

The Man in the High Castle, thrillingly, is apparently not shying away from the flirting of exploration within the metaphysical that presents itself within the novel. I am genuinely excited to follow the show and watch how it approaches that particular aspect of the show, with its use of a forbidden film reel feeling thematically appropriate and a nice parallel to the novel’s use of a banned book. The show also partakes in some nifty creative license that shapes its main characters after characters in the book with enough there to cause fans of the book to smile a little bit but not enough ancillary information to render them inscrutable to the uninitiated. I’m not sure, you know, if we have become less grumpy as a society and less enamoured with harping at storytelling’s deviation from the original tale as it crosses mediums or if we’ve just chosen to trade in the pleasure of indignant accuracy for the sweet, smarmy warmth of being in on the joke.

Either way, two episodes in and the show is good, for the most part a nice balance between good storytelling and appreciably nerdy alternative history. It’s that level of fidelity (or, perhaps, faux-fidelity) that raises interesting questions. Dick’s novel made interesting distinctions between the Japanese and German occupiers, framing a general distaste among the Japanese for the Third Reich’s anti-semitism in an uneven power relationship whereby Tokyo effectively relied on the good humour of Berlin and the somewhat improbable possibility that the Nazi thirsty for conquest would be mostly slaked by the occupation of most of the United States and a (mostly implied, in the novel) genocidal trench through the continent of Africa. Dick’s execution of this dynamic was adroit, with leadership of both sides ambiguous enough not to simply whitewash the Empire of Japan’s war crimes but clear enough to amplify the horrors of Nazi Germany. In the novel, the Nuremburg Laws have been extended to the United States but pass mostly unenforced by the Japanese, the Final Solution so complete in its putridness so as to elicit disdain even from allies and fellow war criminals.

The show’s second episode touches on this dynamic, again with a willingness to tinker; I personally found it less effective. A member of the Japanese secret police, clearly presented to viewers as a chief antagonist, places family members (an adult and two children) of one of the main characters in a room with Zyklon B gas gently streaming in. It is new and improved, our Asiatic villain purrs, with no way for the victims to know they are being poisoned. Nevertheless, the adult of the three clearly figures out what we have been told. The last shot we see is of the children asleep on their mother’s chest, the implications clear but not confirmed until the end of the episode. “I am not a monster” the antagonist cooly states, his defence that the bereaved had simply failed to become an informer in time: an important complication of his character that nonetheless feels rote in a way that many other aspects of the show do not.

Perhaps I am being unfair, and I should stress here that I fully support the idea of creative control and am happy to hand the telling of the story over to the storyteller until all is concluded, but the notion the clash the show attempts to present in the mind of the bereaved character between his dignity and the lives of his loved ones seems unbalanced to me. What human being, at least a fictional one with whom we are expected to sympathize, would realistically risk allowing children to die, particularly members of his own family? In this moment, the subtle ambiguity of the Japanese position vis a vis that of the Germans is lost; I worry further that we will have all the evil of the Japanese poured into our evil antagonist, allowing other Japanese characters to elevate themselves beyond such acts. It seems that in this instance the intriguing balance the show strikes between exploration of Dick’s original work and twenty-first century standards in storytelling tips over towards the latter.

We will have to see. I am confident that the good will outweigh the bad going forward considering the fantastic ratio in that regard so far. I haven’t even mentioned the wonderful Rufus Sewell taking a role that could either be one of the best parts of the show or a catastrophically poor decision and driving it firmly in the right direction. Overall, the show benefits from extraordinarily rich historical context buttressed by decades of popular interpretations of these events but with plenty of room to explore: the Nazis were evil, yes, but the Japanese occupation of the western seaboard inverts the internment of those of Japanese descent by the United States government during the war. There’s a lot to play with here, thematically, and the show seems to understand that making the most of that opportunity will require judicious balancing of evoking some of the darkest moments in human experience and just having fun. A jarring contrast; perhaps the occasional bum note, at least for this viewer, is inevitable. I’m an historian. I should know to take the long view.

The Strain and audience expectations

This post contains spoilers from the first twelve episodes of The Strain. If you haven’t seen the show but would like to, come back later!

I’ve been watching The Strain over the last few days, an FX series based on a series of novels written by Chuck Logan and Guillermo del Toro. It’s a fun show in many ways, and how could it not be? Like so many others, I’m a sucker for a vampire apocalypse. More cynical minds might be put off by the melding of two such successful recent mainstays across cable television and other media, but not I. I fear not such things. Give me vampires, damn it. I can handle it.

I can handle rich, creamy genre, you know. I’m all about it. I used to watch films with my dad on laserdisc and our criteria was simple: have fun, avoid romance, and stick to the fundamentals: action with a bit of humour and at least one solid performance from an actor behaving as if this whole production exists for him or her to, if you’ll excuse me, vamp all over the set in full embrace of the fact this is just a movie. Typically, this actor plays the role of a particularly delicious villain, but not always: I refer the reader to Treat Williams in Deep Rising and flashes of Brendan Fraser during that post-modern 1930s-style leading man thing he tried his hand at before it all went off the rails into something less interesting. The Strain has three of these: David Bradley, as the Holocaust-surviving, silver sword-toting octogenarian vampire hunter Abraham Setrakian, Richard Sammel as a Nazi-cum-vampire Eichorst and Kevin Durand as Vasily Fet, the imposing warrior from city pest control. I have high hopes too for Stephen McHattie, who to date has only appeared a handful of times (I have yet to watch the finale of the first season) as some kind of good guy vampire with a posh accent. It’s all great fun; Setrakian’s holocaust origins are shamelessly pulpy but work, as does Eichorst’s embodiment of the ultimate evil, a Nazi that was so on board with the end of the world he ended up switching teams to play for someone that could bring it about more literally. Durand’s character is cheesy, but the performance wins us over. For Fet, and the characters that work well, the whole thing is silly, really, because life in general is silly and unfair. The fact that it has become even less fair in the preceding two weeks hasn’t changed the terms of the game very much.

This works beautifully for a bit of genre fun, because when sitting down to watch something like this you bring your own set of expectations. This isn’t about leaving your brain at home; that odious phrase completely fails to capture the reality of lining up specific expectations to particular kinds of entertainment. No, this is about creating something specific for a specific type of fun. The show is about a vampire apocalypse, so the fact I’m watching means I’ve bought into certain things. A lot of your work is done. You don’t need, for example, to have characters agonize over whether to kill their friend once the friend has been infected. I know the rules of the game at this point. We all do. Of course, it’s a fine line to cross and at some point you lose all dramatic impact at all, but I find myself increasingly wanting to yell at the screen. Stop being skeptical about vampires, it’s the eighth episode!

The problem, really, lies in execution. The idea that you were betrayed by a close friend, that you were beginning to make amends and that you thought things had gotten better only to see him taken away by a cruel infection… that’s all a good idea! It works very well on paper. The fact that you would resent the member of the group that you had met an hour earlier for taking him out also makes sense. It makes sense on paper. It doesn’t work on the show. Unfortunately, the stakes are quite high these days and the ubiquity of the zombie genre in particular has made it so that the audience has seen this scene many, many times before. So, you either do an incredibly good job, or you do something else. The Walking Dead, for all its many flaws and its uneven quality over the years, tends to do this reasonably well, although it could just be that everyone is so upset all the time that we don’t notice them being upset over the most recent person in the group dying in tragic and unforeseen circumstances.

As unforeseen as such circumstance can be, I guess, when one lives in a world full of zombies. I like The Strain quite a bit, considerably more than I expected, but in patches. There isn’t a single episode I could say I like all the way through and similarly I’m not sure there’s an episode I would consider unsalvageable. When the show succeeds, it does so through a keen awareness that this should be fun. It fails when it relies on the execution of effective pathos and drama. This is one of those shows that has no internal logic; things happen because the writers want them to happen, because conflict is the essence of drama. The meaning is sapped away, unfortunately, when the setups are so frustratingly artificial. The Strain only works, really, if you imagine that the show is set in an alternative universe exactly the same as our own except that every single human being is a complete idiot. Characters practically never do something that would actually make sense. Corey Stoll, an actor I quite like watching, is left with all kinds of problems. Twelve episodes in I have figured out that he is supposed to be a terrible father and husband trying to be a better man, but nothing Stoll was given to do helped me get in that direction. It came through inference and the experience of watching shows and films that are a lot like this for a couple of decades.

It’s difficult, of course. How do you account for audience expertise? Thanks to the rise of science fiction and dystopian storylines in television in particular over the last decade, people sitting down to write this stuff have to take into account the fact that a vocabulary has developed. If you go too far and embrace an arch, or even camp, approach you are in danger of being reviled or ignored. The Strain, it seems, wanders into camp by accident now and again. I actually don’t want the show to be any sillier than it has been but I’ve been struck at how enjoyable its silliness has been. I could do with it being silly a bit more often.

The second season premiered last night and I’m hopeful it will usher in some solid changes now that our characters have cried over losing loved ones and argued about whether or not this is all really happening. We’ll see what happens. I’m fine with the show feeling comfortably familiar, I just don’t want it to feel like something I’ve seen before, and done better. It’s easier said than done, and I for one am hoping they pull it off. I like the idea. Just, you know… could you get the main characters to stop wandering around in a heavily populated city full of vampires at night for no decent reason? It would be a solid start.

The Portland Timbers

My favourite soccer podcast, The Anfield Wrap, likes to open the show with reader questions that may or may not have something to with the sport. Last weekend’s show opened with a pretty cool question: “If you were not a Liverpool fan and had to pick to be a local fan of a team (anywhere in the world) which team would you pick?”

The answers were solid. West Bromwich Albion earned a vote, apparently thanks to the high quality of the food they sell at the ground; Palmeiras, at least partly on the strength of the city; the Los Angeles Galaxy, so you could continue to watch Steven Gerrard play football, and assumedly rip the American league to shreds.

What a great question. I thought about it myself and ended up picking an American team as well, because… well, because I like it in America. I’m married to an American too. Yes, yes, this is a completely hypothetical situation but one must have limits. If we cave to complete fantasy then I’d want to buy a team and install myself as captain on the field in a Heaven Can Wait situation. Alternatively, I could buy Manchester United and run them into the ground on purpose in an inverted Heaven Can Wait situation. Warren Beatty comedies don’t usually feature so heavily in my reasoning but it seemed apposite.

I pick the Portland Timbers. First, you get to live in Portland, which despite the hipster culture we fled in Austin and so wonderfully skewered in Portlandia, would be a pretty cool place to live. Secondly, you get to be a Portland Timber fan.

If you’ve never seen the “Timbers Army” in action, well… here’s a video clip of the Timbers Army in action.

If you prefer your fan culture infused with a rigorous sense of nationalism, then watch THIS video:

It’s crazy. Timbers fans act as if they’re at a real football match. Major League Soccer games aren’t usually like that. The best MLS stadium I’ve visited so far is Toyota Park, home to the Chicago Fire. I’m not sure anyone would hold it up as the best example of fan culture in US soccer, but it’s certainly not the worst. Let’s take it as our midrange. The atmosphere at a Fire game is profoundly weird, at least for a European visiting. I’ve seen the same pattern at other soccer matches in the US, across varying professional and amateur levels. You have one group occupying a chunk of the ground behind one of the goals that screams and shouts and generally makes itself conspicuous in the manner of a toddler desperately trying to impress his older brother. Everyone else mostly just… hangs out.

Of course, you can go to matches all over the world where one group is very loud and everyone else gets into it at certain points of the match. It’s often very different in the US, though. The self-appointed “ultra” style groups, in addition to banging drums and generally making noise, tend to try and get in the faces of opposing players in a way I wouldn’t consider particularly dignified. It’s also a rather obvious thing when people are making noise for the sake of making noise. The whole thing feels like an imitation of culture rather than any kind of incubator or accelerant of culture, as I believe these groups see themselves. It’s all a bit depressing.

Enter the Timber Army with their scarves and their yelling and their waiting lists for season tickets. They’re outliers in American sport, never mind American soccer. Of all the American sports, I like College Football the most. It’s the sport where Americans let their hair down and admit they care without taking the extra four or five steps into acting like childish idiots. As with so many things in America, the line between genuine practice and emulation of the Hollywood ideal is a thin one that nobody seems to have any clue how to navigate. Painted faces have given way to elaborate costumes. If you’re a dedicated Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan, what exactly is showing up to the NFL Draft dressed like a post-apocalyptic pirate marauder doing for your team? How is it expressing your fandom in any way that sitting there, tightly clenching the insides of your fist and hoping the team picks the right quarterback (they didn’t, incidentally), does not? Much like Tim Tebow’s loud and repetitive declarations of commitment to his religion, it’s all for show, much more to do with onlooking cameras than any kind of deep rooted commitment to an abstract concept.

That’s fine, I suppose. It’s always been hard for me though, coming from a completely different culture. Where I come from, sport isn’t entertainment. It’s not really meant to be so. Sure, you spend money on it and you spend your free time on it and, yes, you walk around as an adult sometimes wearing a replica jersey. Okay, okay: the whole enterprise is inherently silly. Within that silliness however, there is something vital and something important. When I watch Liverpool play football, I rarely enjoy it in any meaningful sense of that word. I endure it. I enjoy the aftermath, or I pretend the sport doesn’t exist for a week or two. Either way.

I see those emotions in college football fans, and I see them in the Portland Timbers fans. Of course, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. I used to hold baseball in utter disdain for the manner in which people interacted with the game in person, but now I see that comparing attendance at a baseball game and attendance at a soccer match is like putting a centerfielder in at right back and expecting him to do a job for you. Baseball is cerebral, it’s laid back, it’s something you can take your children to in the full knowledge you wont’ stay for the whole game. They’ll see the field, hear the crack of the bat, maybe get a hot dog or something else you probably shouldn’t let them eat too much.

Maybe when my son is older I’ll introduce him to both sports simultaneously. We’ll go to see baseball teams and laugh, relax and generally bond. The next morning we’ll get up early to watch Liverpool and sit there in tense silence. Even better, I can assume my right as a dad and pontificate about the team being a disaster while my son admonishes me for not being optimistic enough. I look forward to that.

I wonder, though, if I’ll want him to watch soccer at all. I can make my comments about Toyota Park all I like but the truth is that stadiums in England are going down the same road. For the Americans, it’s exactly the kind of awkward path they excel in following, a journey involving a million tiny humiliations that would capsize a typical European (or at least an Irish person or Briton) going completely unnoticed. At least, in the American case, they are actively trying to create a sporting culture from scratch. The English are losing theirs in a miasma of high ticket prices, shameless and reckless globalization from the billionaires controlling the game, a pusillanimous administration helpless in the face of brazen cheating by cosseted millionaire players, and half and half scarves. My father has often lamented that the game is done; unfortunately, it may turn out that in this particular generation the doomsayer father was correct.

So the Portland Timbers, for me. I suppose it would be easier if I actually lived in Portland. I could have my cake and eat it, too. All the while draped in the authenticity of loyalty, turning my nose up at the monstrous uncouthness of the capitalist beast, pontificating day by day as he slowly makes his way across the sea.

Man and Machine

I was recently on a long flight and watched Transcendence and the recent remake of Robocop, and felt moved to write on both at once.

I often wonder what’s going on with Cillian Murphy’s career, in large part because I admire his work, but also because it can be such an odd career sometimes. Somewhere in Los Angeles at any given moment, directors are hanging out at a party agreeing that Cillian Murphy’s talents are best used in the depiction of Special Agent Bland American, that staple of middling sci-fi. Transcendence unfortunately defines middling, but whereas Murphy’s character in In Time was a frustrating limitation on the Irishman’s talent, he seems to have been ahead of the curve here; he knows full well the film is all at sea. He plays his character as best he can but fully aware that in the final edit he will be a passenger with little in the way of any true usefulness to the plot. There are no wide-eyed moments here, none of the blue-eyed intensity at which Murphy really is quite adept, a skill that benefits from but is not provided by the colour of his eyes.

It’s a pity, but Murphy being lost somewhere amid the background set hanging out with Cole Hauser (Cole Hauser!!!) is only one of the many minor tragedies in Transcendence. Johnny Depp continues to work at pushing the boundaries of utilizing his star status to provide the least amount of effort he can get away with; he is surely only two or three productions away from having the script placed inside a prop below eye level during the shoot. Rebecca Hall does a fine job with what she’s given, which amounts to tearful powerlessness. Morgan Freeman seems to have realized the jig was up early on and settled into kind uncle mode. Kate Mara does a passable impression of Kate Mara, and I’m beginning to suspect Paul Bettany isn’t the talent I once assumed him to be. When his performance is the same whether he’s playing a vampire murdering priest in the post-apocalypse or an embattled scientist watching as the world falls apart, one starts to wonder. In Transcendence, he’s not helped by the script. Midway through the film his character chTranscendenceooses to join the ranks of the terrorists that murdered his friend and kidnapped him. This isn’t a film where you’re left to conclude a key moment must have occurred off-screen. There was no key moment; the character reached the page in the script that indicated he should do something else.

The idea isn’t bad and some of the goofiest aspects of the film, particularly as the script stretches uncertainly towards some kind of nanobot-riddled Gaia, are almost fun. This film could have been fun. Though, really, it is perhaps indicative of the film’s weaknesses that its greatest promise comes amid severe misery. Depp’s character, charismatic man with glasses, has been shot with a bullet laced with radioactive material. It comes across as rather vindictive. We can assume the terrorists’ plan was to grievously injure him but not kill him immediately. In any event, Depp is left to wallow in the inevitability of death. He sits around slowly coming to terms with his fate as his partner fails to bring herself to do the same. She simply cannot accept that he is leaving her, that he is leaving them. I want the first twenty minutes of the film to be its own piece. The cancerous savagery of Depp’s otherwise hysterically silly injury is quite upsetting, as is Hall’s depiction of death by proxy. The slow and unrelenting final steps of death are terrifying for the person slipping away and the people closest to them. Transcendence comes almost painfully close to capturing this, if only for a brief moment, but it seems accidental. The film is intent on making a statement about the role of technology in the formation of society, an aim it declares repeatedly but never executes in any meaningful way.

Robocop similarly strives towards making a specific statement about technology in society. The film is far less reflective than Transcendence and in some ways less ambitious, but ultimately more successful. Robocop says out loud something we all know to be true: technology facilitates the full expression of human cruelty as we scramble to avoid the truth. The titular policeman is a walking drone unleashed on the city of Detroit. Whereas in the original Peter Weller’s Murphy never had the chance to overcome his technological salvation to recover his old life as he wandered through an empty kitchen, the remake sees Murphy reunited with his family as soon as it suits his corporate masters only to take him away once more. Murphy makes a personal voyage through hell.

I mocked the early trailers of this film as it became apparent there would be awkward scenes of Robocop attempting to hug his non-robo wife and son, but it was a good decision. It fits the movie that Jose Padilha has made, and that’s important. Verhoeven’s Robocop was venal, trashy, cheap and inspired all at once; it was an imperfect classic that only improves with age as the rough edges fade from memory or become attributed to an acceptable attrition rate of dated obsolescence during repeat viewings. Verhoeven was biting in a way that Padilha is not here. Verhoeven laughed in the face of corporate masters taking our world away from us. Padilha mourns our refusal to fight against the obvious.

Of course, Robocop is more an action film than a tender reflection on the intense inhumanity of sending machines to end human life by remote control, though it is both. It’s also a little too often self-aware in a way it likely didn’t need to be. Michael Keaton’s corporate Doge orders that Robocop’s armour be changed to a sexier black in a move that makes perfect sense within the plot but I can’t help but wince a little. Thinking something looks cooler all in black just feels so nineties to me. The film occasionally quotes its ancestor when it really shouldn’t, though the ED-209 callback is rather nice.

Keaton, unsurprisingly, is magnificent. Mania has always been a central part of Keaton’s appeal, and his failure to contain it here while keeping up a thin pretense at the attempt is perfect for his ruthless CEO. Gary Oldman is a pleasure, doubly so when one considers how easily he could have left things in autopilot without doing too much harm. The mixture of his performance and the little bit of care in the script renders his scientist’s personal arc many times more convincing than Bettany’s sudden turn in Transcendence. Joel Kinnaman is a fine Murphy.

Ultimately however, the film tries to cram far too much in. Jackie Earle Haley does a great job with what he is given, but what he is given is completely superfluous, an odd budget R. Lee Ermey with antipathy towards the protagonist. Jay Baruchel must play the coke-addled corporate foot-soldier but he never had a chance, his character’s shine a mere mote in the face of Keaton’s sun. Michael K. Williams is never given a chance to show off what he can do, while Samuel Jackson is terrible, a Capital One spot in a sports coat. It’s just awful. He seems alone among the cast in assuming what I had before watching the film: that it would go straight to DVD.

I liked the film. Ultimately it tried to do too much, unfortunately. For much of the film Padilha strikes a nice balance of politics and action, daring to push his message a little closer to the forefront than the audience might expect. Unfortunately this is completely overcooked as the film goes on, and the script’s determination to spell things out to the point of audience abuse undermines the enterprise. Still, Robocop has heart and wants to make you think. It just makes the mistake of yelling at you when sitting down to chat would have done the job. Transcendence meanwhile merely yells at the audience incoherently and then tries for a happy ending. Both films look at the tragedy of men imprisoned inside machines. Transcendence, laudably, aims for ambiguity but falls short by some distance. Of the two films, Robocop is the film that asserts itself more clearly, that states the case that we are too quick to surrender our humanity to convenience. I’m still not sure if Transcendence wanted me to to think about the wonders of a post-industrial world or feel better using an iPhone.

 

A certain type of nineties guy

The 1990s spawned many clichés, but there’s a certain kind of nineties guy that resides deep within my heart despite the clear intent that he be seen by audiences as an irritating, if relatively harmless antagonist. The 1990s spawned a lot of different views of men: men in parachute pants, men that listened to (kind of) hard rock but had feelings, Ethan Hawke. Most of these clichés don’t interest me much. The one that does, though…

Blonde(ish). Physically fit but skinny, nowhere near the enraged buffness of 1980s Arnie and Sly. Resolutely new age but unflinchingly commercial, cornerstone of the market for energy drinks before Gatorade felt the confidence to discard all shame in advertising remarkably calorie-heavy drinks to people that don’t burn four thousand of the damn things before breakfast.[ref]This commercialism was not always out in the open; for this nineties guy, as with any clichés, you find crossovers, shades of grey. Still, although there were those that place their individually centred almost-Buddhist spiritualism to the fore, you had the sense the writers were egging you on: “come on, we know this guy gets a McMuffin every now and again.”[/ref] Sensitive to women and equally adored by them. A man’s man that rejected being a man’s man, thus being a new and superior iteration of the concept. When presented semi-seriously, as this nineties guy was during the actual 1990s and shortly after, it was the audience’s job to find him distasteful, and if at all possible to hate him. More recently we’ve been asked to have a bit of fun with it. I love to. I love the nineties guy, and two examples spring to mind.

The first one comes from 1996’s DAYLIGHT. Ah, DAYLIGHT. There’s a certain type of film that’s been pushed aside by massive robots and blockbusters written by accountants and statisticians. We often bemoan the ubiquity of the sequel in our film culture, but (understandably) we focus on all the interesting original films that fail to emerge on to our screens, particularly in the summer when the industry makes all its money, saving nuts for the long hard winter. What about the bad films? There was a time, a glorious time, when huge stars acted in terrible one-shot film that went nowhere and said nothing. It brought us classics like DAYLIGHT, where Sly Stallone plays the wonderfully named Kit Latura, looking to lead to safety a group of actors that inexplicably included Viggo Mortensen, Amy Brenneman and Dan Hedaya.[ref]Dan Hedaya! Sure, it’s not really all that surprising that Hedaya is in a rote mid-1990s action film in a supporting role, but I love Hedaya.[/ref] Nowadays we have to wait for Will Smith to decide enough time has passed that he can push his son on the English speaking public again to get an original film that completely misfires.[ref]The great thing of course, is that it’s likely to be science fiction. What a glorious age to be alive for those of us with certain nerdy proclivities.[/ref]

Mortensen plays the nineties guy, bewildered by the imposing inconvenience of a tunnel collapsing, simultaneously dashing in a way that only makes sense to people that were adolescents in the 1990s[ref]To be fair, the fact he’s played by Viggo Mortensen probably doesn’t hurt the “dashing” part[/ref] and strong in the belief that he, a man that just approved a Super Bowl commercial, cannot be contained. His character, thrillingly named Nord, takes off on an adventurous plan to save them all despite the sober advice of the world weary Stallone. He dies immediately. This is remarkably entertaining and, in addition to reassuring me subliminally that exercise is overrated and rock climbing is for communists, helps establish that our hero Sly is the man to sort things out. This was 1990s Sly, a man trying to fuse together the improbable potency of his franchise roles with individual pieces many years before he gave up and assumed the persona of a tattooed biker hanging out with Mickey Rourke. DAYLIGHT is rather interesting in that regard really. Was Nord’s swift fate a nuanced rebuttal of the machismo that made Stallone famous or a pointed statement that this machismo was strictly defined by and confined to a narrow range of ideals and characteristics? Well, it was clearly the latter. You can’t be a real man if you have nice hair. That’s what Nord was all about, or what he thought he was all about. A certain type of nineties guy was like that. It’s not enough for men to want to be you, women must want to be with you as well. It’s a tough balance, and nineties guys were trying too hard.

The second example is much more recent and thus benefits both from a little bit of distance from the decade in question and assumptions among an audience old enough to laugh at the decade that defined them. COMMUNITY’s Vaughn mocks improbably sincere moral hubris more broadly, but he’s a wonderful distillation of this type of nineties guy. He’d pass for Nord’s son (or more likely Nord’s much younger brother) adrift in a society where his sincerity is repeatedly bounced back at him. It doesn’t help that his sincerity is under significant question, and for good reason. He takes Britta’s break-up with him rather badly and happily[ref]Sure, he’s upset that he’s been rejected, but this gives him further added depth, no?[/ref] humiliates her publicly. Vaughn is a character beautifully written to trigger a specific response in the audience. Eyes roll and groans are uttered. Yet he seems resolute in his love of Hackey Sack and his disdain for wearing t-shirts in sunlight. He is the nineties guy, and so we dislike him. COMMUNITY was far from perfect but Dan Harmon knew how to write for his generation.

Ah, the nineties guy. There are other nineties guys as well, of course. The sensitive type, for one. These tropes survive, though then again, it’s not like they were born of the 1990s alone. John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler was about the hazards of dating across social (and socio-economic) borders more than about the nice guy winning, but nice guys (self-appointed or otherwise) could certainly look to SAY ANYTHING for some inspiration. Girls seemed to like it. Then again, that film came out in 1989, the gateway drug to 1990s culture. Cusack later returned to (partly) pastiche his totemic boom box moment in 2000s HIGH FIDELITY. The sensitive guy developed into someone always locked into the “friend zone” and that has morphed into rather unpleasant entitlements among certain young men in regard to the women they find attractive. HIGH FIDELITY’s Rob Gordon drowned in the rejection of women that simply led their lives without him.[ref]This conflict is perhaps better fleshed out in the book, but the book of course lacks that special imagery of John Cusack standing in the rain crying helplessly, furious at a woman’s decision to move on. It’s a nice contrast with the SAY ANYTHING moment[/ref] More recently we have a subculture focused on Men’s Rights, but let’s not blame that on the 1990s. We can blame it on idiots.

The blonde(ish) fitness focused sensitive bro survives today. He jogs in the daytime with no shirt on and he sends women that haven’t dated one yet all weak at the knees. He singlehandedly ensures those same women will find Vaughn hilarious in a way I’ll never quite match. Perhaps he’s out there, too, stalking Stallone as the drugs Sly used to inject into his body don’t bring the aura of machismo he used to take for granted. He’s mortal, he’s getting old. Perhaps that’s why we have Rocky remakes and Rambo remakes and a series of films so focused on celebrating action film careers from the 1980s they don’t have room for plot; perhaps the nineties guy haunts him still.

The Last of Us and World War Z

Note: This was originally posted on the blog in November of 2013, but got lost in the shuffle with a transfer from one hosting service to another.

This past weekend I consumed two major pieces of popular culture: the video game The Last of Us and the film World War Z. A couple of days later, I’m still significantly affected by The Last of Us and am thinking (and re-thinking) key points in the narrative. I’m not sure how long I remembered much about World War Z after we left the cinema.

Now, this post isn’t setting out to argue for the triumph of video games over cinema. For one thing, that would be silly; for another, it would be yet another sign of video game fans’ obsession with the film industry when talking up their own chosen medium. I’m not convinced that comparing major video game releases and major film releases is necessarily all that helpful. We’re several years past a time when Halo and Grand Theft Auto grosses were compared to opening blockbuster cinema releases as some kind of sign of the medium “arriving.” In any case, comparing The Last of Us to World War Z would be tilting the scales a little bit too far in one direction, considering the triumph that is the PS3 release and the salvaged train wrack that is the Brad Pitt vehicle. The playing field is a tad uneven. But, these were the things I watched and played and better or for worse I ended up comparing the two in my own head and I decided to come along here and write about it for a bit.

First of all, and I’ll write more on this game over the next few days I suspect, The Last of Us is an undeniable triumph. I’m not sure I’ve ever played a video game with such a fantastic narrative that both expressed various complex themes and successfully included those themes in its gameplay. It’s magnificent. The voice acting is magnificent, the artwork is magnificent, the gameplay is magnificent. It is, simply, a great game. One of the most surprising aspects of the game is how much it does with so little. Yet again I found myself holding controlling a character living in an apocalyptic wasteland fighting off zombie(like) figures and of course the only thing worse than the monsters that hunt us: ourselves. The Last of Us was set up to be hackneyed from the start, and yet it never was. This was partly thanks to the game’s brutality. The violence with which you combat various antagonists is extreme. The positions in which the central characters are placed is extreme. The player is not given an easy way out. Far from it: the protagonist’s failings are placed before you and there is no option to ignore them. Sure, you can cheer on your character’s remarkable ability to mete out violence with a fist pump but if that’s what’s happening I can’t help but feel you’re missing the point. The Last of Us demands that you accept that in this universe Naughty Dog has created there truly are no individuals exempt from the compromised morality created and sustained by twenty years of living with human and subhuman brutality. Your character(s) are not exempt. When playing the game, you have to accept the price of completing the narrative. As the game goes on, the limitations of your ability to choose, so often a weakness in story-driven games, becomes an important part of the experience.

This holds true in the gameplay itself. The third person mixture of gunplay and melee combat is itself not revolutionary. However, he strength of the narrative continues into the combat. The use of pistols, axes, iron pipes, baseball bats with nails driven into them… the stomping on the head of one’s enemy to “finish them off”… it all becomes difficult to ignore. The more invested you become in the story the more difficult it becomes to simply detach oneself from the violence central to the gameplay. This unity of theme in the overarching narrative, both in cut scenes and in-game conversations, and in the gameplay itself is a wonderful achievement. The corruption of the young co-protagonist, in her language and her actions and her increasing proclivity to murder those in the way of the group’s advancement, is a theme in and of itself as well as a central component of the relationship between the two central protagonists. More than anything, The Last of Us demands that the player think and periods of gameplay that in many ways conform to basic concepts of fighting off waves of enemies in an enclosed space don’t allow the player a break. So here I am, a few days later still thinking over key points in the game. Conversations between characters. Decisions in which I had no input but responsibility for which I was attributed. The game intends to create complex reactions and it succeeds.

World War Z is another matter entirely. I should probably be clear that I don’t intend to set up shop and take shots at the film. It was a troubled production. The connection between the film and Max Brooks’ book is rather tenuous. The film ended up as little more than a vehicle for Brad Pitt. In that respect however, World War Z delivered. I was quite impressed by how successfully the film came together. Ultimately however, one of the prices paid for acquiring this basic competence in adverse circumstances was a lack of any real thematic impact. The film puts Pitt’s characters immediate family front and center as a rather craven attempt at emotional manipulation without ever really threatening to raise the stakes. The most memorable moment of the film outside of the action pieces is a remarkably accurate portrayal of the danger of guns in inexperienced hands early on, though it is used mostly to move the plot along in a specific direction. World War Z is full of nice little touches: small nods to the book for people that have actually read it, using bicycles to travel without antagonizing the zombies, David Morse.[ref]David Morse should be in everything. Fact.[/ref] When it all comes together, well… it’s an underwhelming zombie film with some interesting set pieces that rather oddly sets its third act in rural Wales. It was fine. It was an enjoyable film. It wasn’t great, but it was fine. It did nothing interesting from a narrative point of view.

That’s a tad harsh. As I’ve intimated already, World War Z’s major success is that it’s watchable. That’s not intended as faint praise. This is a film that has gone through considerable problems during its production. In the end though, the film wasn’t particularly underwhelming, and certainly wasn’t overwhelming. I left the cinema more or less whelmed. That’s fine too. It just paled in comparison with my experience playing The Last of Us. It’s not a major turning point for video games. Not while Call of Duty games continue to exist. It was a nice point of comparison though. Are video games more suited to genre-based narratives? I don’t think so. But perhaps The Last of Us is tapping into something video games can do that film can’t. I’d love to see more video games pose that question.

Rumination on a film I haven’t seen yet: EDGE OF TOMORROW

Tom Cruise is a funny sort, an acquired taste that everyone seems to have whether they want to have it or not. Much as we all both loathe McDonalds’ food just as mysterious anonymous hordes consume it, so does Mr. Cruise remain a phenomenal draw, guaranteed money in an era when studios’ major creative decisions are typically fuelled by fear. That’s how we end up with TRANSFORMERS films: people (usually men) in suits are terrified they’ll lose their privileged position in a society (ours) that values all human worth in terms of the value/number of automobiles owned. Or possibly property owned. I can never remember. Isn’t it both? There’s a formula involved, I think. Don’t forget to carry the one. In any case, we’re left with movies dominated by explosions created on a Mac Pro by some people nobody intends to thank at the awards shows. Safe choices are the norm.[ref]Or are they? I suppose it’s bad form to directly contradict myself, but 2014 is throwing up some weird ones. A GODZILLA movie that keeps its powder dry for as long as possible, the second installment in a revived PLANET OF THE APES series that may well end up doing more for animal rights than a thousand paint-sodden fur coats and a Marvel film starring the schlubby guy from PARKS AND REC, a professional wrestler and a talking squirrel that looks like the most fun anybody on the planet Earth has had for ages. Still, don’t get too excited: the future has plenty of pirates in the Caribbean, transforming robots and wars amid the stars yet.[/ref]

Then there’s Tom. We all hate him right? Well, we can’t stand him at least. I have credibility in this area. I’m immune to a lot of his back catalogue. He’s completely overrated in RAINMAN (in his own way his performance is as over-done as Hoffman’s), TOP GUN was just silly (I’m European, and thus mostly immune to its stupidity) and various turns in MAGNOLIA, VANILLA SKY and A FEW GOOD MEN scream “I’m acting!” in a way that only certain Hollywood performances seem willing and interested in doing. I’ve always had problems with Cruise. Like many Hollywood stars his ego is sufficient to take over a film completely. He’s the white man trying to save Japanese ethics in THE LAST SAMURAI, he’s our only hope against Hitler in VALKYRIE. And my God, what’s with the running?

Of course, the ego brings all kinds of wonderful things with it. OBLIVION might have been terrible but we’re getting terribly, goofy sci-fi movies in the 2010s and that’s not all down to the rise of the comic book movie. Without Tom Cruise, that film doesn’t exist. Ditto EDGE OF TOMORROW, a film that features Tom Cruise in a mech suit. I would like to remind you that this is a man whose career is defined, or at least was defined, by his being skinny in the 1980s whilst wearing sunglasses. COLLATERAL is just flat out good, no matter what way you slice it. Sometimes, just sometimes, his mixture of confidence and genuine star power results in wonderful flukes like INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE. That film hasn’t aged well but Cruise’s performance has if anything improved over time, as if he somehow knew we’d all relax a little once the 1990s were over and Team Lestat was going to make Team Louis look as morose as he always (always! Insert Tom Cruise patented intense repetition here) knew they were.

So we’re back to the conundrum. If nobody will admit to enjoy eating at McDonalds here and there, who is going to all the Tom Cruise movies? All the couch jumping in the world can’t break us of our Tom Cruise habit, it seems. If that’s going to be the case I’m glad we’re getting films like EDGE OF TOMORROW, even if its creators/marketers/secret overlords overruled the infinitely more entertaining title ALL YOU NEED IS KILL. Sure, Tom Cruise will act in capital letters, but Emily Blunt will surely act a little more convincingly if only to pass the time, much as a busy cash register at the supermarket trumps empty aisles with three hours to go until clocking out. Meanwhile Tom will die a lot, I presume in between grins, but otherwise this is essentially a HALO movie.* It will at least be the movie my subconscious assumed OBLIVION might have been.[ref]There has been talk that EDGE OF TOMORROW is the first great video game film, but I find that hard to go along with. Yes, the main character respawns a lot and the action is extremely frenetic, but by that criteria video games have been influencing films for years now (usually negatively). Perhaps it’s my own personal bias, as I just don’t play those kinds of games much anymore. In fact, online shooters seem mostly inhabited by a different subset of fans. TITANFALL aspires to attract a fan base of people that own a five hundred dollar console and two games. KENTUCKY ROUTE ZERO aspires to attract people that want to play a clever and interesting game.[/ref]

I quite like the fact the marketing has left the aliens out of things so far, as I’m sure they’re terrible and boring. Part of the appeal of this film is Cruise’s continuing aggressive, defiant recognition of the fact that he’s terribly boring as an artist; this has never stopped him from being an effective movie star. He personifies the difference between acting in London (or parts of New York) and acting in Hollywood. Cruise is presence itself, a grinning sprinting presence that appears and sells things to the viewer. He sells the mech suit to people that would otherwise scoff at a mech suit so that I can enjoy my mech suit. For that at least I should be grateful. We all should be.

I’m still not sure what’s going on in EDGE OF TOMORROW, a special sensation in 2014. Emily Blunt does yoga, Tom Cruise dies a lot and people fall out of futuristic STARSHIP TROOPERS (novel, not the film) style personnel carriers. There are puddles. Emily Blunt is either a strong independent character or she shags Tom Cruise because he’s the hero and heroes use their penises with abandon. I know these things don’t need to be mutually exclusive but it often feels that way somehow. Blunt’s character is apparently the hero of this future society but Cruise is the hero for our audience: I guess this fictional universe has done a better job of undermining patriarchal norms than we have so far.  You could see it as an optimistic vision of the future perhaps, if not for the anonymous and boring alien invasion force.

Still, you know. Science fiction. It makes me happy. I wish this little run of sci-fi films was a little more like Chuck Heston’s famous run, but I’ll take it. It’s all about the mechs, you know. Mechanically assisted sprinting: we have reached full Cruise.

Peter Parker, Spiderman, and Cultural Anachronism

The trailer for The Amazing Spiderman 2 is out. I want to talk about this film, or about this little series, this sub-franchise, reboot franchise, whatever we’re calling it. I just need to take a moment and get the taste of the word “franchise” out of my mouth. Is anyone else horrified that we use that term so commonly now? It’s awful.

First of all, these comments are based on this trailer and the first film. The Amazing Spiderman 2 could be a fantastic film, and I hope that is, not least because it’s a huge endeavor involving the hard work of a large amount of people. To hope for such a project to fail is not just churlish but downright cruel. The exception is if McG is directing a film. If you’re working on a film, in any capacity, with that talentless shill at the helm you should really see the writing on the wall.

That’s out of the way. My comments are also based on my experience as a man in his early 30s that likes genre movies and who, as commented upon yet again on this week’s podcast, has vivid memories of just how bad Hollywood used to be at the whole superhero/fantasy thing. Live action He-Man, anyone? A lot has happened since then, to the point that 2013 produced a film about giant mechs being piloted by two people sharing a neural connection combating enormous Godzilla-style (yes I know they are called kaiju but please bear with me) monsters and the public went “yeah, that looks pretty good.” This was mostly because the film was actually good. Travel back in time to teenage me and try and convince him of this. It’s not happening. If you’re a fan of comic books or of superheroes or just of extravagant action sci-fi, this is it, this is our golden age. Our Golden Age, even. On the one hand, it could be argued that we should be grateful for what we have. I am. That doesn’t exclude films that are getting things wrong from criticism though.

The film presented by the trailer is disappointing. Dane DeHaan is sporting a haircut that hints at Spiderman 3’s unfortunate attempts at characterization through sneering, wearing black and dancing. The film has three major enemies (this is by no means a guaranteed problem, but again, Spiderman 3). Andrew Garfield’s Parker is even more too cool for school than he was in the first film, which was already far too cool. I will not claim to be a particularly informed Spiderman fan but more informed fans than I will tell you: Parker is cool, but he’s not cool.

Then we have Peter Parker’s secret origin, which seems to exacerbate the issue, for me at least. The sense of wonder Parker experiences when first discovering his powers is a fairly major part of what makes the character, and something that Raimi’s first Spiderman film captured very well indeed. The term “everyman” is recklessly overused, but that is what Peter Parker is. Well, an every-teenager at least. Spiderman cracks wise, and he’s funny, largely because we know the guy under the mask and he’s a nice guy but not hugely impressive. He has an aggressive boss who doesn’t treat him very well and he has an unassuming private life. When Garfield’s Spiderman cracks wise (actually one of Garfield’s major strengths in the role) it comes off a little mean, because the guy under the mask is really deep and has feelings and charmed the pants off the prettiest girl in school. He’s still real though. Like really real. Like Maroon 5 real.

This current spate of Spiderman films seems to completely misunderstand how popular culture has evolved since the 1990s. Garfield’s Parker is, I imagine, intended to come across as someone that stumbles into a goofy persona worthy of affection. Instead he comes across as a cool guy trading in a fairly weak patina of self-deprecation, the ultimate poser making light of how he saves lives on a regular basis. A lot of people have (fairly) criticized this year’s Man of Steel for missing the point of Superman’s character somewhat, allowing him to become embroiled in personal contest while thousands died around him. At least he doesn’t hang out with Lois Lane afterwards and scoff at how embarrassed he is for being so fantastic. When Garfield’s Parker joshes with Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacey in this trailer about how fantastic he is, I feel like someone in props should have just handed him a Miller Lite mid-shot.

Garfield’s Parker is a poseur (see what I did there?) of the highest order, which is surprising given the actor’s talent and charisma. It becomes less surprising when taken in the context of the first Amazing Spiderman film and the trailer for this new one. This series is rocking it like it’s 1999. Which would be a good thing if they’d decided to hell with it and had Prince do the soundtrack and have Electro rock out in a different shade of purple. Well… a good thing in certain, specific ways. However, this film is offering audiences a retro experience when the current range of experiences on offer is vastly superior. Take what appears to be the central conceit of the new film: Peter Parker’s parents were brave geniuses taken out by an evil corporation that now keeps tabs on Parker himself. Parker isn’t just special because he’s handsome, good at skateboarding and saves innocent children from nine to five; he’s special because he’s… I don’t know, the inheritor of a special legacy of some kind of… I just don’t want to do it; I can’t finish this sentence because it’s bringing the 1990s back and I loved the 1990s but not all of it and before you know it we’ll have a Wolverine goes to Japan movie.

These films are giving us the ultimate villain of the 1990s: the handsome cool guy trying to make out that he has it hard. Everyone hates that guy! How could Peter Parker be that guy? How could the writers and producers of these films not understand we all hate that guy? I would argue that they live in some kind of isolated chamber where the last decade or so of popular culture hasn’t happened yet. It makes sense. The general audience has moved on from origin stories. In truth, we were ready for them to be done before the studios were finished making them. I went to the cinema a couple of weeks ago and watched a film about a Norse God battling Dark Elves that sought to invert the nature of existence and thus bring all human life to an end with references to another film that featured a mass alien invasion of New York. Characters walked around in full costume, swung magical weapons at their enemies and participated in a final set piece involving running around and creating vectors to transplant the enemies into alternate dimensions. It was a bit like that early-to-mid film set piece from Reign of Fire, except it was moderately interesting. Thor: The Dark World is a hit, critically and commercially.  The next Captain America film looks fantastic and it features more flying aircraft carriers and a masked dude in eyeliner with a bionic arm. We’re good to go. Disbelief has been suspended on a wide scale.

captain-america-winter-soldier-comic-con-poster

I find this new trailer frustrating for this very reason. Electro looks great, in my opinion, but his threatening call to Spiderman evokes not the Marvel-led triumphs of the early 2010s but the overly self-conscious stumbles of the 1990s. This trailer starts to feel a little camp to me. We’ll get back to camp, guys; we will. Don’t rush it. One more time, I don’t want to damn this film before I’ve seen it, because that’s a supremely uncool thing to do. I can comment on the trailer however, and although the trailer may not represent what this film will be like, it represents what Sony want us to think it will be like. Is this really what Sony wants? A film that feels like a quantum leap past Burton’s Batman films but seems overly self-important in comparison to The Avengers? Peter Parker is here to help a world that’s already obsessed with him and Sony are looking to wring every last drop from a profound misreading of their film’s main character just as Marvel are reaching for the stars and grabbing us to turn around and follow them.

A short post on the tyranny of the single author

I found about THE ROOM today and I’m not sure my life will ever be the same. Adam Rosen wrote a piece in The Atlantic yesterday discussing whether or not the film should be considered outsider art. Rosen makes some very interesting points about the nature of outsider art and its merits, but he has done me a great service; without Adam Rosen, I would never have seen the following youtube clip:

 

Mesmerizing, isn’t it? I’m not sure what’s more surprising about this little piece of cinematic history, the fact that the film cost six million dollars or the very fact of its existence at all. Close-ups of beards and oddly emasculated men with his tuxedo-wearing friends hovering around him, not to mention the dialogue and acting, would certainly inure someone to the idea of the film being more than it appears. I mean, look at this:

 

Surely they couldn’t have written that, acted it, shot it and edited it only for it to come across that way on purpose?

Right?

Of course when I say “they” I’m being inaccurate not only because it’s far too general and unspecific a term but also because this masterpiece belongs to one auteur: Tommy Wiseau. I know very little about Mr. Wiseau, but I wonder what his film says about the dangers of having no checks whatsoever on one’s creative impulse.

I don’t take criticism well. I never have. Nevertheless, it’s a vital part of the writing process, at least when one is moving towards publication. In the academy, double blind peer review is taken for granted. An article that hasn’t been subjected to review in this manner is essentially worthless. This approach is predicated on the need to maintain accuracy and the application of appropriate academic rigor. It’s main side effect, direct feedback, is actually more useful in the humanities. That is, unless you’re trying to write an article that claims Stalin was really a woman and you need to get it out there. Reviewers will look for appropriate methodology and use of sources of course, but they’ll also ask keen, insightful questions such as “what on earth are you trying to say here?” and offer important observations like “this is a great idea but in its current form it makes me want to find you and stab you in the eye.”

That’s how I read reviewer comments anyway. 

The point is, writing improves when somebody calls you out on what you’re doing. This makes terrible work slightly less terrible, acceptable work something approaching good, and good work very good. It’s just not typical for one person to control all aspects of the creative process and actually produce something decent.

 

Okay, THE ROOM is on its own level.