My article on Jim Jarmusch's LIMITS OF CONTROL and ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE is now available in the current issue of CounterPunch Magazine. Please subscribe and support No Hold Barred Journalism!!!
My article on Jim Jarmusch's LIMITS OF CONTROL and ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE is now available in the current issue of CounterPunch Magazine. Please subscribe and support No Hold Barred Journalism!!!
Luc Besson’s Lucy is a flashy and fun summer romp that will leave viewers dazzled by its hallucinatory spectacle, scratching their heads with its nonsensical pseudo-scientific premise, and perhaps a little confused about what in the hell happens to the title character played by Scarlett Johansson. The film opens with a super saturated sequence of Earth As It Once Was. It opens on a single isolated primitive human – Lucy, the first woman whose remains were discovered in 1974 and was estimated to have occupied the planet over 3 million years ago. Trying to put a simple plot to this film would be somewhat an exercise in futility. Part of the movie’s point is that people are so under-evolved that the only way they can measure value in their lives is to set-up meaningless systems and obstacles to weigh themselves against, for example movie plots. But at a bare bones level, Lucy is the story of a dumb blonde who evolves into a super hero and then pure intelligence as a result a shitload of blue crystal brain empowering drugs.
Lucy is kidnapped by a group of Taiwanese Drug Thugs in Taipei who are using her as a drug mule to deliver the drug CPH4 to various international cities (Rome, Berlin and Paris) to sell to the kids who are going to love the shit. The gang literally inserts the bag of drugs into Lucy’s abdomen. When one of the thugs attempts to rape Lucy and she fights off his advances, he kicks her in the stomach, rupturing the bag of drugs which seep into Lucy’s body and rapidly increase her brain power. The movie is based on the false premise that humans only use 10% of their brain and speculates what will happen if someone uses 100% of their brain. But this isn’t just any person, it is a woman and that is central to the film. This is a genre mash-up where a white Amerian woman is placed in the middle of a male-dominated Chinese action movie fashioned after the super-stylized films of John Woo. It is also a super hero tale, a rape-revenge narrative (the drugs inserted in her body are like a kind of rape), and a science fiction of the present story.
When Lucy’s brain’s functional capacity starts growing from 10% towards 100%, a lot of cool and weird shit happens. Everything looks, feels and sounds different. She can feel her bones, her brain, her heart. She can change matter, infiltrate electronics (phones, TVs, computers), and make people do things they don’t want to do. The benevolent Morgan Freeman plays an old tiresome brain scientist who gives us very dry explanations of what is happening to Lucy. (She’s becoming a dolphin!) But Freeman is just a filter. He attempts to provide logic in a world which, if you go by his theories and Lucy’s actions, ultimately defies logic or is logic so pure that it is illogical.
As Lucy’s brain expands its power, the Taiwanese gang is on her ass trying to get their bag of blue drugs, but she is out to discover the truth and to pass on the information she is learning the benevolent Morgan Freeman. We don’t know why, but we have to guess that maybe Lucy wants to make the world a better place . . . . as if. Along the way we go through a hallucinatory and action packed cinematic ride. There are trippy sequences of animals hunting and fucking. Lots of FX depicting the interior of the human mind and body as well as the world at its origins (the Big Bang). There are eye popping car chases, slick night shots of Taipei and other urban cities, a hell of a lot of blood, insanely chaotic shootouts, and a relatively high body count.
In the middle of it all, Lucy’s body moves forward as she reads the data of the world and sees the very energy that makes the world pulse. She sees the veins of trees as they absorb oxygen in a myriad of color, the electronic grid of communications which she can spread with her fingers to read data and locate people. She can read the inside of people’s brains!
Major critics accuse this film of two faults – 1) being unbelievable; 2) being racist because Lucy only kills Asians. First of all, the movie is a MOVIE. Movies require suspension of disbelief. They are not meant to be real or believable. Criticizing the movies because “Windows 8 won’t really do that” (to quote one reviewer) is ludicrous. The entire premise of this film is unbelievable, and sometimes we go to the movies to watch the unbelievable because the believable is either too boring or too horrific.
Regarding the racist accusations, I have not read one review that mentions that Lucy places a white American female in the middle of a traditional Asian action movie (following John Woo’s model) which are male-centered critiques of patriarchal systems. Women are window dressing in traditional Chinese action movies, so putting Lucy in the middle of this narrative ruptures the genre on many levels. For the record, Lucy does not kill that many people but rather stops them from killing her by disarming them. She kills one guy who is going to die anyway, and she kills the men who brutalize her and attempt to rape her (a rape-revenge sequence in a genre mash-up film). For the most part, she shoots men in the legs to stop them in their tracks, or she uses her super powers to take their guns and dump their bullets. The shootout scenes occur between men in suits and cinematographically mirror the same action sequences we see in Woo's films. To quote Drew Hunt in the Chicago Reader:
Woo's films are characterized by bullets flying in slow motion, kinetically charged fight scenes, and blatant displays of masculinity. Ultimately, however, these elements prove to be stylistic surface pleasures that sensationalize Woo's primary concerns: the moral and social complexities of patriarchal gangster milieus. His films, entertaining as all hell, get to the root causes of violence even as they revel in the garish pleasures of violence in movies.
There are plenty of slow motion bullets in Lucy, and Lucy has plenty of spicy-handed moments that pay tribute to John Woo; however, it is the men who are doing the killing. In their tidy black suits and their arsenal of automatic weapons, they shoot at each other and aim their guns at Lucy who sends the men floating to the ceiling or unloading their bullets in a metaphoric act of castration. This is about a woman in a man’s world, and it uses the Hong Kong action genre to exploit its themes in unusual ways that break the Hollywood mold. And it is fun.
The movie is all about breaking molds. Sure, Lucy’s brain progresses in a linear trajectory from 10% to 100%, but the experience of this progression is largely a nonsensical hallucination. Part of the point of the film is that people are more comfortable when they put everything in boxes even though they ultimately are uncomfortable with the female “box” –the maternal, the vagina, the woman (a.k.a. Lucy). Lucy is a "box" (a female), but she also opens Pandora's box as her brain expands. Ultimately she undoes not only her own body (becoming pure intelligence), but she also dismantles the concept of the one human measure that is a constant – time. She fucks everything up, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Those men shouldn’t have been fucking with CPH4 in the first place if they didn’t want to unleash all the Girl Brain Power on the world!
As Lucy becomes more evolved, she understands that emotions are measured against other humans, and she fears she is losing her emotional capacity, so she calls her mom to impart her feelings and tell her mom she loves her. During the call, Lucy says she remembers everything from the cat she had when she was one year old to the taste of her mother’s milk in her mouth. This scene is important because 1) it is a rare moment of pure human emotion that ruptures the frenetic hallucinatory violent trip that Lucy is on, and 2) it is a return to the maternal. When I saw the film, the audience literally gasped in disgust at the mention of the taste of mother’s milk. Certainly, Besson was intentionally provoking this response. It is no coincidence that Lucy is named after the “first woman” and that the Smart Drug that is so highly desired and creates such phenomenal brain evolution comes from pregnant women. People desire what they fear, and according to Pop Feminism, there is nothing men fear more than women and “the mother”. At the core of this movie, Besson is playing with feminist film traditions and is on Lucy’s side. He is offering his own critique of patriarchy using the tools that John Woo gave him but then inserting a female character and a lot of hallucinatory sci-fi FX into the mix.
I always like to quote Sheila Ballantyne’s Norma Jean the Termite Queen in relation to films or books that depict women as both something to awe and something to fear. In Valentine’s book, an early caveman describes his fear of women as: “They bleed all the time and never die.” Certainly this is the case for Lucy. She spends a lot of time bleeding and never dies. She has a bag of drugs shoved in her abdomen and then pulled out without anesthesia. She is impervious to bullets and rips them right out of her body with her own bare hands. She deflects armies of men and the guns they aim at her. She moves through the film in a state of ever-increasing hyper-intelligence playing men like pieces on a chessboard, and, yes, she never dies. Instead, she becomes everything and everywhere. She loses her body (therefore shedding her blood), and becomes both the origin and the end of things, simultaneously collapsing and exploding that constant human measure – time. Certainly this sounds pretentious and preposterous, but because Lucy is an action movie. It is still fun even if it is ludicrously absurd.
Still, while the movie is fun on the outside, on the inside it is bleak and depressing. Basically it says that the limits of the human brain have caused us to set up stupid systems of measures and obstacles to quantify our existence. According to Dr. God Morgan Freeman, these systems basically pit human against human as a measure of value. This is why humans are constantly battling each other in futile attempts to measure their value through power and acquisition. If we are not battling each other in war, we are battling each other for money. In fact, according to the doctrine of this film, we are a species that “cares more about things than feelings.”
Interestingly, however, the more evolved Lucy becomes, the more her feelings take a backseat to pure intelligence and the more she doesn’t need things or obstacles of measure. As I mentioned, the drug CPH4 is derived from maternal chemistry. The chemical is produced in very limited doses in mothers. So perhaps this film is saying that when Maternal Chemistry runs amok, you end up with a highly intellectually evolved species, so evolved, in fact, that you no longer need a body. Or in metaphoric terms, the female body no longer becomes necessary. This can be read as both revolutionary and reactionary. Getting rid of the female body can be a good or bad thing. This concept reflects Johannson’s two previous films Her and Under The Skin where she is a woman who ends up without a body and exists as a form of ephemeral pure intelligence. That’s all fine when she returns to a super advanced primordial yet evolved state, but the men with the guns are still down here on planet earth creating war and havoc.
There is a lot of pop psychology and theory crammed into this movie, from Existentialism to Marxism to feminism and a shitload of brain theories. But Besson is French, and the French like to ponder the meaningful meaninglessness of existence. This film does that while also delivering a lot of high-power FX, automatic weapons, animals humping, hallucinatory visuals, and one hot unstoppable superhero babe who bleeds all the time and never dies.
Last night I watched The Purge Anarchy. It was a whole love of fun. The theater was packed full of people who apparently enjoy an annual cinematic bloodbath. This film is like the flip side of the first Purge which was set in the insulated rich suburbs full of sterile McMansions and lots of hideous white people who were either hiding from or participating in the annual Purge. In case you don’t know, The Purge was established by the New Founding Fathers of American (a.k.a. a bunch of rich white racist motherfuckers) as a holiday during which for a 12 hour period once a year anyone can commit any crime they want, including murder, and get away with it.
The first film shows us what rich people do during The Puge. They have the money and resources to either 1) buy high tech barricades to protect themselves from the Purgers; or 2) Have the money and resources to buy high tech weaponry to participate in the Purge or buy people to kill.
The first film looks and feels sterile – Stepford Purge. This new installment takes us to the streets of Los Angeles where the Real Purge Shit is going down. There are black people, brown people, poor people! The movie is gritty and horrific. Scary guys in scary masks hunt people who don’t have protection. White supremacists ride through tunnels torching the homeless. A fat white insane Christian woman hollers through a bullhorn while gunning people with an automatic rifle from a rooftop. A terrifying white man equipped with an army of assassins and some massive warfare artillery cruises the streets in a semi-truck hunting the poor. He is the scariest of all with his slaughter apron and his baseball cap emblazoned with an American flag.
Of course, it turns out there is a network of trucks connected to the government, and that the annual Purge is a way of maintaining power for the rich by killing off the poor. (Reminiscent of Snowpiercer – message wise.)
This movie also has a REVOLUTIONARY. Modeled after the Black Panthers, Michael K. Williams Carmelo (love him!) hacks National Networks and uses the internet to deliver the message that the Purge is all about OPPRESSION OF THE POOR and maintaining POWER FOR THE RICH. When he busts in on a group of Rich White Asswipes who have been bidding on poor people to hunt for sport, he shouts: "FUCK THE FOUNDING FATHERS! FUCK MONEY! AND FUCK THE PURGE!" This is a call to arms, and the audience answers with enthusiasm. This is when you can’t help but want to join the audience and scream FUCK YEAH KILL ALL THOSE RICH WHITE MOTHERFUCKERS! (Which I did.)( I don’t think any of the 1% were in the theater when I was watching.)
Yes, this scene and others in the film are a call for Class Warfare and very overtly show a culture that cannibalizes the poor for the entertainment, power and self-righteousness of the rich. On the other hand, the movie kind of inspires the audience to want to kill everything and anyone who has done us wrong. On a very base level, the film incites the primal human tendency for vengeance. I can’t say that I didn’t hop on the band wagon. I had my own Personal Hit List going. And for the record, there are plenty of black and brown guys in this movie too. So it’s not so strictly black and white. Yes, class warfare exists. Yes, rich white people are monsters. But yes, people are and can be violent when incited to violence. Hence, the mushy pathetic whining white girl picks up an automatic rifle and blows the fuck out of aforementioned White Supremacist when push comes to shove.
In any case, it was a fun Friday night movie. The night shots of LA are great. Cinematically – even with all the bloodshed and people being torched – the movie is really good looking. I think that’s one of the interesting things about it. It is both more seductive and more gritty than the first. It seduces, horrifies and provokes the audience all at once. Watching it in an "open carry state" was a little weird. Before the end credits (which were great looking and which most didn't stay for!) started rolling, the majority of the audience got out of their seats and were yelling, “Let's go purge!" That is the problem with these kinds of movies. On the one hand they attempt to offer a subversive political critique. On the other, the popcorn crunching audience sees it as incentive to pick up arms, hit the streets, and purge their primal thirst for violence . . . forgetting that this is a MOVIE. As a movie, however, it was a lot of fun.
Bean finally finished this fantastic, amazing and brilliant original art which is a tribute to her favorite band on the planet -- The Beatles. We spent the night last night converting this and kiddo's text into a Zine called "There are songs that I remember . . . " for her last assignment at the Summer Institute of Writing at the university.
My daughter blows my mind. She is such a talented artist, writer and musician. CLICK HERE and check out the larger version to see if you can find all the clues to Beatles lyrics. Bean designed and drew this entirely on her own --- the concept, the images, the colors, all of it. She ROCKS.
I'm sharing this because my daughter is a miracle. I have been knocked flat by the job loss situation, so I am holding onto every miraculous bit of my kiddo to know that I have to KEEP GOING, but these past few days when I wasn't doing what I absolutely had to do (work, helping kiddo with zine) or playing guitar or making Pen Noise, I have been lying around in a state of stress-induced catatonic exhaustion. However, tonight I feel some remnants of my personality returning.
Speaking of The Beatles, we saw HARD DAY'S NIGHT twice at The Loft when they were screening the new digital restoration. It is SUCH A FUN MOVIE. The first day we saw it was on my birthday, and I won the new Criterion edition in the raffle. Yay.
Here is my favorite number from HARD DAY'S NIGHT:
But I love the whole movie and will never get tired of watching it. Great film making. Great music. And those Beatles are so darn cute and fun!
Speaking of movies, I think I'll get up early tomorrow and catch up on some movie "short takes" to try to get my wheels running again. I have literally been a vegetable for days.
In the meanwhile, PLEASE check out the Bean Zine below the cut. I used my Fast and Hard Collage Technique to get this thing done in under two hours last night, using Bean's text, color Xerox of her artwork, and metallic and origami paper. We finished it by midnight and weren't up til dawn. I can wield a motherfuckin' glue stick.
(This review also published in Weekend Edition of CounterPunch as Engines of Destruction.)
Snowpiercer is Korean Director Bong Joon-ho’s latest entry into absurd, hallucinatory, and politically polluted dystopian filmmaking. Loosely based on a graphic novel of the same title, the film is about a train that houses the last human survivors in a world in which all life has been frozen to extinction in an attempt to stop global warming. It is like a Noah’s Ark narrative for an apocalyptic future, except this movie is not about religion or God. It is about the perpetual motion of a global economic system that controls the world, fosters class stratification and will be the engine behind its own destruction. Joon-ho admits that while the film is based on the graphic novel, the only part of the novel he used was the image of the train. The rest of the film is a creation of Joon-Ho’s vividly apocalyptic imagination.
The entire movie takes place within the train and operates like an extended metaphor for class stratification and apocalyptic revolution. As the train – created and governed by dictator entrepreneur Wilford (Ed Harris) – circles the frozen globe in a perpetual circle, the film moves from car to car as if from stanza to stanza in a poem about class, the end of the world, and a vividly violent portrayal of the human race self-serving survivalists. Dark, absurd, deadly serious and darkly comical, the film is visually stunning as well as a fun though violently apocalyptic ride.
Many critics have referred to Snowpiercer as the most political and revolutionary movie of the year, but if you really look at its parts – from the beginning to the end – you will find that revolution is a much more complex concept than a change of order. In fact, in this film, it would seem that true revolution will not bring on a change of regime but rather the apocalypse.
The movie starts in the tail of the train where the lowest classes are crammed in filth and feed off protein bars made of ground insects. Wilford’s minion Mason (an outlandish, unrecognizable and devilishly evil Tilda Swinton) serves as his Prime Minister and Minister of Propaganda. She spews a stream of phrases such as: “The engine is eternal” and “Be a shoe” as she head counts passengers to maintain perfect balance. She garners passengers from the impoverished rear of the train – children and violinists – to feed the needs and desires of the wealthy up front. When one man throws a shoe at a bureaucrat who takes a woman’s child, Mason has his arm locked outside in the freezing cold, turned to ice, and then shattered off his body with a giant sledge hammer while the impoverished watch this lesson in the consequences of civil disobedience. Mason holds up this shoe and announces: “This is not a shoe. This is Size 10 chaos.” She then orders the population to, “Be a shoe!” This scene is comically horrific in typical Bong Joon-ho style where he mixes the absurd with the deadly serious.
When a band from the tail section lead by revolutionary Curtis (Chris Evans who also played Captain America and points to some of the ironies and tensions that underscore the film) plan to storm the train and take control of the engine, they don’t say “Take the engine and save the world.” They say, “Take the engine and CONTROL THE WORLD.” This is important to note. As the train moves in a circle, its front always returns to the rear and the rear returns to the front. History and a long tradition of dystopian fiction (the most recent being The Hunger Games trilogy) has taught us that revolution usually ends with a new form of dictatorship and that human nature in general is inclined to self-interest and preservation over the well-being of the group. This is made clear in many scenes in the film. The band of passengers who lead the revolution never state that they want to save the world. Edgar (Jamie Bell) wants to taste steak. Tanya (Octavia Spencer) wants to save her son Tim. Curtis wants to save his own tortured conscience and most likely just wants power and control. When push comes to shove and Mason realizes that her life will be sacrificed for revenge and the goals of the revolution, she just wants to save her own ass. She begs the revolutionaries to spare her life and kill Wilford instead. She turns coat in a heartbeat when her own life is at stake.
When the revolutionaries break into the prison section of the train, they have one motivation. They want to free Namgoong Minsoo (veteran Korean actor Kang-ho Song) who designed all the security doors on the train. He is the one who can open the doors that will eventually lead to the “eternal engine”. They wake him from an imprisoned state of limbo, and Minsoo then has his own agenda – to save his daughter Yono, maintain and get high on a steady supply of Kronole (an addictive drug and waste explosive byproducts), and get off the train.
In this movie, the train both circles the world and is the world. Earth, as we see it from the windows, is a sumptuously apocalyptic vision of ice and decay. Frozen buildings stand like skeletons of what once was perceived as the order of things. Now the order is contained by containment itself – a series of connected cars that circle the earth over and over, year after year. The year is 2031, and the train has been circling the globe for 17 years, since 2014. In other words, the train has been going since NOW, and maybe we are already on the “eternal train” of global capitalism that is taking us for a ride. The film does point to humanity’s complacent acceptance of a destructive system and a futility of going against the system. People go along for the ride until they have been pushed too far and try to take over the train. But when they finally get to the front of the train, they discover really they have just returned to the tail.
Revolutionaries are revealed to be self-serving cannibals who are enticed to become dictators. They do succeed in blowing up the system, and in a fantastic End-of-World sequence, a giant avalanche brings the train down. But what falls first? The tail. As tons of ice destroy the train, the cars that house the poorest people are the first to go. The train isn’t just a circle, but its serpent like shape echoes the Ouroboros (an ancient image of eternal return, but also an image of End Times as seen in Abel Ferrera’s apocalyptic vision 4:44 Last Day on Earth). Indeed Snowpiercer is not just a train but a snake that eats its own tail. While the movie does overtly use the image of the train to address class stratification and the division between the Haves and Have Nots, Snowpiercer is ultimately a movie of revolutionary apocalypse.
The train spans the globe and therefore represents the globe. The “eternal engine” is also the engine that runs the world – capitalism. Bong Joon-ho says in an interview with i09 that capitalism is the world’s biggest enemy and the biggest threat to nature. On some level, because the train is a closed system yet circles the entire globe and the occupants of the train are of all ethnicities, the train is representative of the engine of global capitalism – the goods of which are largely moved by container trains. These may be the last survivors of humanity on a vehicle being perpetually propelled through an apocalyptic landscape, but this is not the Ark we see in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah where all the occupants and survivors are white. The eternal engine is a melting pot of the rich and the poor, the black, yellow, white and everything in between. The fact that the lone survivors are not white, but rather a Korean girl and a black boy, provide a nice antidote to Noah in which the survivors are Noah’s own white children who he encourages to multiply and prosper. No inbred white survivor’s in Bong Joon-ho’s film.
The train represents a singular body comprised of segmented cars which provide the perfect “vehicle” to depict class stratification. Bong Joon-ho depicts this stratification beautifully. He shows economic disparity between classes by moving through the cars of the train. With each new car that the revolutionaries breach, Joon-ho changes the entire aesthetic of the film. Throughout the film, the thrum of the train’s engine is eerily omnipresent, but each car provides different colors, music, and visual aesthetics. As the movie moves its characters and the audience through the film car-by-car, the film’s construction and aesthetics propel us forward through the film and ultimately backward to the beginning as it moves from chaos and bloodshed in the rear sections to ludicrously hallucinatory luxury in the mid and front sections and finally returning to chaos and bloodshed at the helm. The film is a train and we go along for the ride by moving through the cars as if through chapters in a book.
The ride through the cars takes us on an amazing hallucinatory blood-drenched journey. It moves through horrific battles between revolutionaries and security guards. Armies of men in black ski masks slice open a large fish in a surreal image of slaughter. They then battle the revolutionaries with axes. Blood splatters windows, walls and faces. In another car, Mason equips yet another army of security with infrared lenses and orders them to kill off exactly 74% of the population to maintain perfect balance. Children from the tail section storm the car with flames. There is more bloodshed, and the body count escalates. Though this is the future, these scenes depict primal violence of flesh on flesh, bone on bone, axes and torches. There are no high-tech pyrotechnics, just good old fashioned slaughter because in a way this is a timeless tale of the End of Times. As revolutionaries and train police lie dead in heaps, we realize they are all pawns to and casualties of the System (the “eternal engine”).
We then move through the food supply room where a giant vat of insects is ground into protein bars. We breach the water supply that runs the engine. Crossing into the water supply provides a huge shift in aesthetics. We wander through a greenhouse with blooming fruit trees. Blinding light from the frozen exterior landscape seeps from windows, and we capture the first sunlight after traversing cars of darkness. Quiet classical music plays in the background as a woman absurdly knits. Absurdity is everywhere in these scenes because the System itself is absurd.
The revolutionaries move through an indoor aquarium, a scene of surreal beauty following in the trail of extreme brutality. They sit and eat sushi as they watch the frozen world go by. Bong Joon-ho is notorious for ludicrous food scenes. Food is the basic need for survival, and in this film it is controlled by the privileged for their own luxury and greed.
The revolutionaries enter cars that look like something from Kubrick’s The Shining with creepy rich people hovering like ghosts, dining and drinking in a hallucinatory nightmare of furs and evening gowns. They move through a car that serves as a meat locker. Giant slabs of beef and rows of chickens hang from hooks, representing the excessive disparity between classes both literally and metaphorically. Beauty parlors house fat rich women under large hair dryers while a sulfur yellow saturated sauna car becomes the site of yet another massacre. Then towards the front of the train, we enter a school room where the children of privilege are being indoctrinated in the eternal power of Wilford. The System is a mish-mash of theocracy, capitalism and despotism as fed to these children and portrayed in the film. Religion, power, money – they are all part of the same eternal engine.
It is in the school room where things really explode. Up to this point, all the violence has been brutally physical. In a celebration of the New Year (another circle around the globe), a man wheels in a cart full of boiled eggs. Much is made of extinction in the film. Cigarettes are extinct. Animals are extinct. Chickens are extinct. And bullets are extinct. But it turns out that extinction is just another myth used to control the lower classes, as automatic weapons are pulled out of the cart of eggs and used to violently gun down the majority of surviving revolutionaries to stem off the revolt and maintain perfect population balance. The sound of gunfire is ear piercing as the image of eggs and guns show that neither chickens or bullets are extinct but just hoarded and controlled by those in power.
The core of the revolutionaries survives and work their way through a disco car throbbing with techno music as the opiated rich lie around high on Kronole. Minsoo and his daughter Yona scoop up piles of the drug while Curtis makes it to the engine. In the end it is Minsoo, Yona and Curtis against the world or at least against Wilford. Curtis has a showdown with Wilford for control of the train while Minsoo and Yona attempt to get off the train altogether.
By this time nearly everyone has died. Wilford points to the masses of survivors bludgeoning each other in chaos. He says this is the world, and if we believe the vision of this film, he might not be that wrong. Wilford explains that this is why we need the “engine” and eternal order. But that’s just bullshit. Disillusionment unfolds as Wilford explains that the revolutionaries’ Number One Guy and Martyr Gilliam (John Hurt) was actually working with Wilford to orchestrate revolutions as a means of population control and propaganda. Curtis reveals that he is no revolutionary at all, but actually just another self-serving preservationist in a corrupt Darwinian system. He murdered a mother to eat her baby. He describes the early days in the tail of the train as a gruesome scene of desperate cannibalism in which he was more interested in his own needs and desires than those of the group. He spared his own arm while he ate the arms of others, including Gilliam, who sacrificed body parts to save babies. Curtis says, “You know what I hate about myself? That I know what people taste like. That I know that babies taste best.” He may hate himself, but it didn’t stop him from saving his own ass and arm. That’s why he is the only one to make it to the front of the train, and that is also why has to go.
In the beginning of the film, we are told that “the engine lasts forever,” but the message of the film is that it only lasts forever until you blow it up. The film ends not with successful revolution, but with apocalyptic annihilation. The entire train is destroyed, when Yona blows her way out into the great expanse of snow. She and her father noticed signs of snow melting. They learned from a past failed revolutionary who was Inuit that they could survive the cold. So they blow a hole through the train which causes the avalanche that brings the whole Eternal System – the train – down. But by bringing the whole system down, they bring down everything and everyone. Train cars crash as all the survivors plummet to their death.
In the end, only two children survive – Yona and Tim. They step outside and glance in wonder at a snowy embankment where polar bear looks down at them, and the film ends. We are left with no answers. Is the polar bear a sign of hope or just another predator in a system where the fittest survive if they are allowed an opportunity? Are the children hope or are they just food, a hearty meal for the polar bear who was nearly brought to extinction by global warming in the first place? Yes, we have come full circle, except that this time the engine lies dead in the snow, and the sushi bar, luxury nightclub, greenhouse and cattle cars full of poor people are buried in mangled pieces of a broken train. There is no answer. There is only the end at the beginning.
Citizen Koch is a mess of a documentary that isn’t really quite sure what it is doing other than delivering a message that we already know: Big business owns government both on the national and state level. The movie is named after the Koch brothers who own Koch Industries. From that valuable source Wikipedia here is some info on Koch Industries:
Koch Industries, Inc. is an American multinational corporation based in Wichita, Kansas, United States, with subsidiaries involved in manufacturing, trading and investments. Koch also owns Invista, Georgia-Pacific, Flint Hills Resources, Koch Pipeline, Koch Fertilizer, Koch Minerals and Matador Cattle Company. Koch companies are involved in core industries such as the manufacturing, refining and distribution of petroleum, chemicals, energy, fiber, intermediates and polymers, minerals, fertilizers, pulp and paper, chemical technology equipment, ranching, finance, commodities trading, as well as other ventures and investments. The firm employs 50,000 people in the United States and another 20,000 in 59 other countries. In 2013, Forbes called it the second largest privately held company in the United States (after Cargill), with an annual revenue of $115 billion, down from the largest in 2006. Koch Industries were a public company in 2013, it would have ranked 17 in the Fortune 500.
That’s interesting stuff. I bet a lot of you didn’t even know how much economic power the Koch brothers have. I also bet you didn’t know that they are the primary economic foundation of the Tea Party channeling millions and millions of dollars into self-created non-profit organizations such as Americans for Prosperity whose sole purpose is to decentralize government, bust unions, and brainwash citizens into believing that what is in the best economic interest of big industry is also in the best interest of the working class. Wrong. I bet you also didn’t know that Koch ancestors founded the John Birch Society – a radical right racist organization that says it wants to decentralize government when really it wants to own it. It would also like to kill off blacks, Jews, and gays while they’re at it.
Unfortunately, even though the documentary is titled Citizen Koch, in its frenetic and badly edited pace, it just glances over the specifics Koch Brothers’ financial interests. Everything is thrown in too quickly to digest the factual data. In a case like this, I would have liked to see some graphics illustrating the economic hold that Koch Industries has in the United States in general and in the two states that the movie addresses – Wisconsin and a brief mention of Michigan – in particular.
The film is primarily set in Wisconsin. It opens with Sarah Palin ranting and spewing at an Anti-Obama rally. It then rapidly moves through the corrupt election of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, whose election was bought by the Koch brothers and their billionaire partners in political crime for the sole purpose of busting labor unions in Wisconsin. Advocacy groups unveiled the economic corruption, and citizens came together to gather signatures to recall Walker because he was elected illegally. (Sound familiar?) But we all know that Big Money wins over Little People, so even though Walker should have been recalled, I guess I don’t have to tell you the outcome. The Kochs and their 1% buddies made sure that there was enough money to keep Walker in his seat and dismantle labor unions of all variety.
The film primarily uses a teacher, a VA nurse, and a correctional officer at a State prison as the voice of the people. We see them battling political corruption as they felt they were duped by Walker’s campaign. These honest working class people are all lifetime Republicans who feel betrayed by their party because of the Tea Party agenda which is a big lie created by big industry to convince people that they count when really the party’s agenda is to ensure that little people don’t count. In the end, we learn that one teacher’s belief in the Right To Life outweighs her belief in her own self-interest. She votes for Walker who then dismantles 50% of labor unions in Wisconsin, including her own. The VA nurse on the other hand votes against Walker and also convinces her husband – a longtime biker and lifetime non-voter – to cast the first vote in his life. These people are interesting for sure, but they are also tragic. They believe in a system that cheats them at every turn, and in the end their votes don’t count for shit. What counts is the size of the checks backing a politician’s campaign.
In between, we learn other interesting things like how the Koch brothers and other members of the Corporate 1% aided and abetted Clarence Thomas and basically own the United States Supreme Court. We learn that the only thing the Supreme Court protects are the financial interests of the corporations that run the government. This all comes to light when we learn that corporate interests (and those damn Kochs) bought the Supreme Court so that they would overturn proposed legislation to limit corporate donations to political campaigns.
One of the more fun parts of the film is that it follows former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer’s 2012 presidential campaign. Roemer did not give into corporate interests. He truly was for the people and by the people, yet he was shut out of every public Republican debate during the primaries. No one would give him primetime because he did not have corporate backing. So much for government for the people and by the people. It is government for billionaires and by billionaires.
In the end, Walker wins, unions are dismantles, Roemer never gets airplay, and the Koch Brothers keep going with business as usual which includes taking down unions in Michigan which is briefly mentioned at the end of the film.
There is certainly a lot of information in this movie, but there is actually TOO MUCH. It lacks focus. It’s only message in the end is a pretty depressing one. Our government will never be “our” government. It doesn’t matter who is president. The president is just a pawn, a player in the game which is controlled by corporate interests. It’s actually pretty depressing if you let it be. People are people and in multinational capitalism billions of dollars are bigger and more powerful than the voices of billions of people. Truth.
I was reminded, however, of a realization I had when George W. Bush was re-elected for his second term, and I knew that the economic crash was coming. I understand that big business would like to take over the lives of every single American if we let it. However, no matter how fucked up our government and the corporations that run it are, we cannot let them own us. We have to do everything we can to remember that our lives are our lives. It is important to embrace things that don’t come with a price tag: love, art, music, writing, human expression. We cannot let THEM steal our spirit, but instead need to grab every moment of life we can and live it to the fullest from our HEARTS not from our pocketbooks.
Still, none of that puts food on the table. It’s great to make art and music and love, but heartless corporate motherfuckers are stealing our jobs, breaking our economic backs, and putting our children’s futures at risk. The world sure would be a better place if we stopped bombing hospitals and schools in the Middle East and instead eliminated about 1% of the US population and distributed their resources equally for life, liberty and happiness for all.
Based on the Irvine Welsh novel, FILTH stars James McAvoy as Bruce Robertson – a Cop Gone Wrong. Thick with Scottish accents, humor, camp, violence, a lot of fucked up sexuality, and some genuine pathos, FILTH is both disturbing and hilarious, tragic and comic. At times it plays like a classic Shakespeare tragedy (with nods to Abel Ferrara's heroically tragic BAD LIEUTENANT). At others it plays like an MTV music video with women in red rubber fetish gear, bad disco music, and a lot of drugs and vomit.
Robertson spends a lot of time flipping the double bird
when really he's just double fucking himself
Stylized and gritty, FILTH leads us down a path where we want to both kick the fucked up Robertson in the teeth for betraying everyone he comes in contact with, and we want to hug him for being such an abominable mess. The film's flip-flop structure perfectly reflects Robertson' schizoid character which is indeed schizoid.
Photo Copy Penile Enlargement
Disappointing Office Fuck Scene
In his drugged and drunken delirium, Robertson crank calls his best friend's wife and seduces her into having phone sex, sees his own face as a pig (which he often is), uses and abuses everyone he knows including himself, and impotently wanks off endlessly (a literal symbol of self-abuse). Yet in the true form of the classic tragic hero, Robertson skirts with redemption even though his characters flaws are bigger than Scotland itself. At times, Robertson unveils a real human soul even if he is not what he appears to be and in fact never knows who he is. That is part of the allure, that Robertson is unfixable in every sense of the word.
Pissing Santas and Whorehouse Fetish Santas
Either way, Santa is bad business in Filth
Over and out.
What a treat! The Loft screened GOJIRA last week, and I finally got to see the original Godzilla on the big screen. Make no mistakes. Despite popular belief, the original Japanese Godzilla is not about cheese. It is one deadly serious movie, bordering on the avant-garde, which uses a monster created from nuclear energy to show the tragic aftermath of the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. It shows a country ripped to its very core by tragedy and the very real impending threat of a nuclear holocaust.
Before he directed a whole series of Godzilla and other monster movies which I grew up with and loved – including MOTHRA, the GARGANTUAS, and a whole league of giant monstrosities rising from the deep –, GOJIRA’S director Ishirô Honda was assistant director to legendary Akira Kurosawa on STRAY DOG (1949), and he continued to work with Kurosawa on such critically acclaimed films as RAN (1985). In fact, actor Fuyuki Murakami who plays Professor Watanabe in GOJIRA also was a Kurosawa veteran, and he makes a cameo as a Japanese immigration official in the newly released GODZILLA (2014). So Honda did not rise out of a vacuum but rather out of a need to put a face to the horror that blew a hole right through Japan. Honda made art out of monster movies which were much more than ambling guys in rubber suits. Rather they are monstrous meditations on a post nuclear toxic world, especially Japan.
In GOJIRA, the monster Godzilla is the monster of war, of American imperialism, and the power of mankind to create abominations of destruction. It includes some of the most beautifully apocalyptic B&W scenes ever filmed. The movie is something sublime to behold on the big screen with Japan on fire as Godzilla's footsteps reverberate with thunderous and ominous thuds that sound like bombs being dropped.
Beautifully apocalyptic images of destruction:
Creepy Motherfucker committing Kool-Aid Mass Murder for Christ
I watched Ti West's latest installment in his retro-horror genre THE SACRAMENT, following his first two films HOUSE OF THE DEVIL and INN KEEPERS. West likes to take us to haunted places and especially revisit history (which in his vision spans the mid 1970s to mid 80s). This time he created a faux documentary Blair Witch Style which supposedly catches the mass murder of a Christian cult on film. The film is based on Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre in Guyana, and it is sufficiently creepy without being overtly horrific. It’s another tale of a haunted place. We’ve seen haunted houses and hotels in earlier West films. This brings us to the remote site of a mass murder haunted by the horrors of religious fanaticism.
Gene Jones plays the cult leader simply known as "The Father," and he is believably creepy. His skin looks like it is hanging off his bones in sheets of rot. In fact, his entire presence embodies a kind of spiritual rot even while he is spouting Rapture. After being exposed to him and his sick exploitive religious cult (which rings very true to the original Peoples Temple), I had to rush home to take a long hot shower after and wash the creep off me. What a coincidence that the actor’s name so closely resembles Jim Jones -- the leader and founder of the Peoples Temple.
The film's construction as a "faux" realism document is both its biggest flaw and its most interesting attribute. It supposedly follows a group of young journalists who travel to the remote cult to rescue one of the journalist's estranged sister who has been sucked into The Father's religious cult. The journalists travel with a shitload of recording devices to shoot the event.
Though we are supposedly watching the film through the journalists’ cameras, there are enough cinematic discontinuity errors to cause the film to leak at the seams. Many lost, dropped, and unaccounted for cameras leave us wondering, “Who the fuck is filming this anyway since X is hogtied in the cult office, Y is running through the jungle, and Z is unaccounted for?”
Still the very device that is the film’s flaw (the supposed “real” capture of this cult and massacre on film) is also what makes the film most effective. Even though we know the film is staged, the fact that it is based on “real” events seduces us into this voyeuristic glimpse of something mind bogglingly horrible. It sucks us into the film just like The Father and Jones sucked people into their cults. When the movie ends, we can't help but think, "Wow! It's great they captured that on film!" Of course, what they captured is the massacre of a lot of innocent people, so this is a very effective manipulative maneuver making the audience complicit with exploitive media.
The fact that the film underplays the horror of the cult makes it even more subliminally effective. After all, cults are insidious in the way they poison people's minds (and eventually their bodies in this case); it is a slow quiet process of possession. THE SACRAMENT works in the same way. It is a quiet horror of corrupt power cased in Christianity. Its creepiness seeps in slowly like a quiet infectious disease. It’s no wonder the film left me feeling a little nauseous afterwards.
Creepy scene with The Father:
I am a little obsessed with the Jonestown Massacre anyway since I lived right up the street from the Peoples Temple when the massacre occurred in 1978. I walked by the San Francisco Peoples Temple daily, which was cordoned off with police barriers and covered with dead flowers, photos, letters, stuffed animals, etc. I was sixteen, so the image and what it stood for really stuck in my head. Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre are definitely iconic presences in my personal historical geography, so those images were reverberating somewhere inside me while The Father was calling the members of his parish to off themselves in the name of God.
As effective as the movie is, even with its flaws, these kinds of films always make me feel a bit uneasy since it is difficult to question whether they are unveiling the evil of religious fanaticism and cults or exploiting the tragic murder of the nearly thousand innocent and lost people who fell prey to Jim Jones and drank that infamous Kool-Aid.
Eternal Romantic with a capital R Love
Jim Jarmusch's ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE is yet another Jarmusch exercise in precise cinematic style and aesthetics. This time a lavishly Romantic with a capital R story of two exceptionally beautiful vampires -Adam and Eve (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton) – who are eternally bound through love and blood. The two live in a dystopian present though their love has spanned centuries. Who knows? Maybe they actually are ADAM AND EVE and little did we know that REAL humans evolved from vampires. As it is, the real humans in this film are referred to as zombies because they are the living dead who fucked up the planet and, most tragically, contaminated the blood supply. So Adam and Eve spend a lot of time trying to hunt down the real pure good “stuff” so they can get high and lie around in exquisite ecstasy.
Sublime Instrumental Fetishism.
That blood references heroin plays on the whole retro nostalgia “spin” of this film which opens with spinning eternal stars morphing into a 45 rpm spinning on a turntable. In LOVERS, Jarmusch once again exercises his fetishistic chops with oodles of layers of color, beautiful people, the textures of night and decay, vintage musical instruments, books, references to centuries old science and Romantic poetry (John Hurt as Christopher Marlowe as well as nods to Shelley and others), and finally the decaying Detroit and mysterious Tangiers as the ultimate geographic objects of fetishistic decay.
Exquisitely beautiful vampire lovers with a rare and wondrous instrument
lean against a deliciously gorgeous ancient wall in mysterious and alluring Tangiers.
The entire movie is shot at night which gives the film the opiated aura of a Romantic dream, decadence, and wandering spirits in this lost world. Colors bleed through the dark. Shapes vanish into shadows. In between we find a beautiful love story, a hell of a lot of good music (including a stunningly seductive performance by Yasmine Hardman), enough vintage musical gadgets and gizmos to qualify the film as Gear Porn, and stunningly beautiful and precise cinematography.
Cruising the dead streets of Detroit at night
in a vintage Jaguar and driving past the closed Packard plant
and the glowing gutted remains of the American automobile industry.
The film makes a great counterpoint to Jarmusch’s last film LIMITS OF CONTROL (2009) which is also an exercise in precise aesthetics, but clean, clear, crisp, shiny and modern versus the opiated layers of turntables and tube amps in LOVERS. Jarmusch films are like objects that he meticulously creates – constructions which are beautiful to behold, like hand blown glasses that are exquisitely crafted yet also somehow empty. But the emptiness draws us to the beauty of their surface. As always the soundtrack is amazing, because like Wim Wenders, music is as integral to the aesthetics as film itself.
Yasmine Hardman hypnotizes vampires and the movie audience with her mystical exotic dreamy sensual singing:
I will be doing my next CounterPunch magazine column on Jarmusch, perhaps just comparing LOVERS with LIMITS. I think that would make an interesting article.
My piece on American Hustle s now available to read in the On-Line edition La Furia Umana Issue 20. LFU publishes amazing collections of international writing on film. I am honored to be included in this international collaborative group of film writers.
Here is the link to my article: American Hustle: Con Artistry for a New Depression.
(Also published as Blow Jobs, Booze and Teen Angst in Anywhere, USA in the Weekend Edition of CounterPunch)
Apparently even if you are the granddaughter of Frances Ford Coppola, you still are able to understand what it’s like to be an aimless and alienated teenager as Gia Coppola’s directorial debut Palo Alto aptly demonstrates. Based on a collection of short stories by James Franco (who produced and co-stars in the film), Coppola's Palo Alto is one of the most tense movies ever made about being a teenager. It is like a pressure cooker wrapped in gauze. Beautifully filmed and fraught with the tensions of confused sexuality, adult predators, and an overwhelming sense of nowhereness, the film is beautiful yet emotionally draining. It is timeless yet of this time. It is dreamy yet so real it made me feel like throwing up after watching it.
The movie centers on three central characters -- April (Emma Roberts), Teddy (Jack Kilmer), and Fred (Nat Wolff). It also features sideline characters such as the class “slut” Emily (Zoe Levin), a predatory soccer coach (James Franco), and an array of disaffected parents (including a pot smoking and very fat Val Kilmer) who are like shadows of people who care. The movie meanders through a dreamlike cadence of teen alienation and emptiness. It moves from soccer fields to parking lots, from bedrooms to living rooms, from parties to skate parks, all resonating with that place fraught with the anxiety of being caught between childhood and the adult world. These are kids who meander without purpose or meaning. They are fleeting and without direction. They live only in the moment, whether they are giving a blow job, getting a blow job, gulping down Cheez Whiz, eating a sandwich, guzzling booze, or losing their virginity to a sleaze ball coach while wearing Thursday underpants on the wrong day of the week.
The fact that April always wears underpants with the wrong day of the week points to the general aimlessness of these teens. These are kids on the brink of nowhere. Days don’t matter. Weeks don’t matter. Life doesn’t matter. They aren’t children, yet they resist being adults. They are in limbo and occupy the hole that is the teen years of life. They try to fill that hole which comes with the loss of childhood and the bleak prospects of becoming an adult with anything they can – cigarettes, booze, drugs, sex, violence.
The movie opens with a dreamy close-up of April smoking a cigarette against a background of a chain link fence, a simple poetic metaphor for being locked inside herself and her life. She then jogs down a grassy slope at twilight and joins a sea of young teen girl legs on a soccer field, and image of tangled ambling sexuality. The girls’ legs are like flesh trees as the team coach Mr. B (Franco) choreographs the girls’ movements while lusting after them. The girls project their confused sexuality onto this male authority figure in a scene of awkward sexual coming of age and confusion. All of this is filmed as if we are in a dream.
The movie then cuts to a scene of an empty parking lot with one lone streetlamp making the vacuous space glow. Fred and Teddy sit in a car on the peripheral of the lot. The front of their car abuts a wall. They are also boxed in by the limitations of their lives and the boundary between being a kid and being an adult. In this scene and in a later scene, Fred asks Teddy what he would do if he lived in “olden times.” The truth of the matter is that they probably would do the same shit they are doing now. Nothing.
When James Dean burst onto the screen in 1955 and yelled at his parents with his infamous line “You’re tearing me apart,” Rebel Without a Cause was coined as the movie that put juvenile delinquency on the map. However, director Nicholas Ray stated that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet actually was the first story about juvenile delinquency. It must be noted, that Romeo and Juliet as well as the kids in Ray’s film and in Palo Alto aren’t just any juveniles. They are white children of privilege -- upper middle class and upper class kids who have the time and resources to luxuriate in nowhereness and their own sense of self-tragedy. Shakespeare set the stage, Ray put it to film, but there has also been a longstanding cinematic record of privileged white kids struggling with the nowhere place between childhood and adulthood. Both director Gregg Araki and the late writer John Hughes made an art of creating stories about aimless privileged teens with nowhere to go and nothing to do but get wasted and waste time. Even Gia Coppala’s aunt Sophia has an entry in this genre with her film The Virgin Suicides (1999) which was an inspiration for Palo Alto.
Still, labeling these kids as delinquents criminalizes something that by the cinematic and literary record seems to just be a universal truth: being a teenager and growing up sucks. It’s painful. Teens are confronted with the emptiness of the adult world, and they retaliate (rebel) against it in all kinds of confusing ways. In the opening scene of Palo Alto, shortly after Fred asks Teddy what he would do in “olden times,” Fred punches the accelerator and smashes his car into a cement wall. Teddy looks stunned, but he still vacantly smiles. Fred lets out whoops of exhilaration. This action is an exercise in futile nihilism and rebellion, a big fuck you to being a teen, to rules, and to the adult world. It is an attempt to bring life via flirting with death and avoid the increasingly deadening prospects of becoming an adult.
The film then meanders between these three characters (mirroring the trio of Jim, Plato and Judy in Ray’s Rebel) and the people who come in and out of their life. It moves from parties to school to houses where everything seems fraught with desire and meaninglessness. At one party Teddy gets so drunk he pukes and then has local slut Emily give him a blow job. Fred smashes bullets with a hammer, and April makes out with a random stranger. The film moves with a dreamy plotlessness that reflects the nihilism of being a teenager who rebel against plots.
These kids don’t want their lives plotted. When Coach B tries to help April with her homework, really he just wants to fuck her. The plot isn’t what it seems. Fred choreographs the gang rape of Emily only to disintegrate into a homosexual anxiety attack later in the film. In one scene, Teddy and Fred lean against the wall of a vacant liquor store smoking and doing the nothing they always do. Fred drops a pink milkshake on the parking lot asphalt. The Styrofoam cup is smashed, and the pink ooze splatters in a long still shot of pink on black. This milkshake is yet another poetic metaphor for these kids. The comfortable enclosure of their childhood has been cracked, and they are just a pink mess splattering through life getting high on anything they can, having careless sex, smashing cars into walls, driving into oncoming traffic, wrecklessly cutting down trees that are hundreds of years old, and carving names into park benches.
Yet as empty as they seem, there are glimmers of desire in these characters. They want something. They just don’t know what they want. Their desperate desire for connection often turns out awkward and ugly. Emily will give anyone a blow job for a sense of connection. April let’s her coach take her virginity. Fred’s dad makes predatory sexual passes at Teddy while they share a joint. The only thing that connects these teens with each other and the adults are cigarettes, booze, marijuana, random sex, and a few often unread text messages that float through the invisible electronic communication web and ground the film in the present. James Dean’s Jim wasn’t sending text messages to Natalie Wood’s Judy.
The confused sexuality in the film and the reference to Rebel Without A Cause become clear in a scene toward the end of the film when Fred suddenly appears wearing an awkwardly fitting red jacket, a symbolic nod to Dean’s infamous red jacket. It is no accident that Fred’s jacket appears after Emily smashes him in the head with a bottle, stands up for herself, and refuses to let Fred sexually use her. It becomes clear that Emily was just a mask that Fred wore to hide his own confused sexuality. He picks up the red jacket and puts it on. The jacket is awkward. It doesn’t fit right. It is too small. Fred tugs at it as he stumbles bleeding through the following scenes.
Fred may be referencing James Dean, but Fred is even more aimless than Dean’s Jim Stark. When Fred and Teddy stop to buy pot from a dealer, Fred has what I refer to as a “blowjob breakdown.” He basically confesses that he’d rather give boys blowjobs than fuck girls. In other words, Fred outs himself. Then he falls to the ground on his knees crying, clutching the red jacket around him. He doesn’t fit in James Dean’s coat. James Dean knew what he was. Fred doesn’t have a clue. Before his awkward confession, Fred berates gay guys for hanging out together, and Teddy says to him, “They’re just doing the same thing we’re doing.” Perhaps this is what really provokes Fred’s breakdown. Whether really gay or really straight, there is no “really” when being a teen. Everything is a confusing blur of nothingness.
The film skirts the edge of tragic violence, but the violence never pans out literally which is part of the reason the movie works so effectively. Violence, like the teens, remains in the margins. Fred is volatile. He carries a knife in his red jacket. He wields a chainsaw at a tree and at Teddy. He certainly could be straight out of Columbine. In the final scene with Fred, we are left with the image of him clutching the steering wheel dodging the lights of oncoming cars as he yells, “I’m not Bob!” This underscores his ultimate identity crisis, and is a phrase he learned in a hilarious scene with his art teacher. It also references yet another cinematic entry into the Upper Middle Class Teen Angst Genre – David Lynch’s Twin Peaks series and movie in which Bob is the alter ego of the adult predatory world.
This film may be another entry into a long list of films about teen angst, but the gorgeous cinematography and dreamy soundtrack scored by Blood Orange's Devonté Hynes set it apart from other films and ground it in the present while moving us into the universal. Many of the most beautiful shots are of peripheral details. Often shot at twilight, signifying the twilight of childhood, the fringe details deliver images of tender alienation. A row of Italian cypress trees poke at the twilight sky. Tree limbs stretch over the rooftops of upper class homes. Parking lots and playgrounds echo with silence. Doors open and close. Streetlamps and the gutted signed of evacuated stores buzz with emptiness. These images capture the state of limbo of these kids. They are beautiful and tender, yet melancholy and full of loss. They underscore the aimless angst of the films’ teen characters.
Though the film is named after a town in Northern California, there is little evidence to ground it there. This could be Anywhere, USA. The ambiguity and minimalism of these images harkens to two gorgeously meditative and minimal films about teen angst directed by Gus Van Sant – Elephant (2003) and Paranoid Park (2007).
One of the things that makes Palo Alto so tense and effective is the evidence that on many levels these kids are still kids, yet the adults who are supposed to care for them also often act like lost kids. Emily’s pink bedroom is filled with stuffed animals and porcelain figures, even while she offers sex to any boy who wants it. Teddy spends time reading his favorite books from childhood at the children’s library and dreaming of being a boy bouncing in a bunny suit. When Teddy and Fred cut down the tree in the public park, it is upsetting not just because they are cutting down an old tree, but because it is also an image of them amputating their childhood.
The adults also don’t want to grow up. They pretend, but really they are just as lost as the kids. Franco’s Mr. B sexually preys on the girls on his soccer team because they are the only thing that is really “good” in his depressing adult world. April’s mother (played by Coppola’s real mother) pretends to care, but her words are empty. She is more interested in cultivating her tan and catching her yoga classes. April’s stepdad (an obese multi-chinned Val Kilmer) vacuously smiles out of a haze of pot smoke while he emptily utters words of love and support. Fred’s dad offers Teddy weed but then tries to seduce him. These adults are predatory and vacant, lost and without boundaries. In other words, they are not much different than the teen children for whom they are supposed to be responsible.
The movie is both beautiful and difficult. On the one hand, as a mother of a teen girl, I left the theater physically shaking and asking myself, “Are all teenager this fucked up and this hopeless?” On the other, I was relieved by the humorous edge to some scenes in the movie which mostly involved Val Kilmer and Cheez Whiz. The humorous hallucinatory edge evokes both Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993) and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2012). These films along with Palo Alto make us want to scream, laugh, and cry all at the same time. I guess that is what it feels like being a teenager. But Palo Alto also strikes a nerve for the parents of these teens. Because it specifically locates the film within the domestic spaces and the schools (places which are supposed to be “safe” but rarely are), it is a film that touches the adult parents of teens as much as teens themselves.
Palo Alto pays tribute to a whole line of movies about the Blank Generation, Generation X, and Teen Angst, but it is also very much its own contemporary film. It ends with the three main characters alone and separated from each other. April lies on her bed staring at her cell phone. Fred is on the freeway driving into oncoming traffic. Finally, Teddy walks alone through a misty dark night under the freeway overpass. These kids may be connected on some surface levels, but they are also completely alone. Ending the film with the silhouette of Teddy walking alone is a beautiful evocative image. It leaves us feeling like we have just experienced an elegy and a movie. In between the blow jobs and the booze, the molestations and breakdowns, really this is a film that shows how alone we really are not only when we are teens, but when we hit that wall of the adult world. Beautiful, tender, tragic, and real, Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto is a fine first entry into cinema.
Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier)
This gritty, bloody, absurd, tawdry, squirmy, trashy, art film gets its title from a beat-to-shit Blue Pontiac Bonneville that loner Dwight lives in. Dwight is all messed up. He’s living in a car with the best shredded steering wheel cover ever. He lives off trash, breaks into people’s houses to use their showers, and appears practically autistic as a result of his parents being murdered. When their murderer is released from prison, Dwight goes out for vengeance.
A hybrid of films – Southern Gothic meets Revenge Narrative meets Horror Story meets American Realism – Blue Ruin in a shambling beauty of a mess that features battles of white trash against white trash, the best crossbow in leg scene on film, and a fantastically ruined Pontiac which could represent a lot of things. The death of the middle class. The death of the family (a Bonneville is a family car). The death of the American economy. Or just the rusted, cracked, dirty, sloppy shambles of American history hobbling along with guns and blood and murder and vengeance. One of the most absurd yet beautiful films I’ve seen recently.
X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer)
Speaking of blue, that’s the color of Jennifer Lawrence who plays Raven in X-Men: Days of Future Past. To be honest, I don’t know a hell of a lot about the X-men other than the fact that Wolverine has Ginsu Knives inside his knuckles. This movie is set in a horribly miserable dystopia where all mutants (anyone who is not “normal”) are being exterminated by enormous immortal sentinels who arrive in flying coffins. The world is a dark mess of piles of dead bodies, a world where only the economically fittest survive (those who both fit the mold of the status quo and fit the needs of those with power). Anyone out of the norm (people who breathe fire, turn to ice, perform transfiguration or people who, say, are gay, artists, musicians, rebels) gets offed by the sentinels.
Easy solution, send Wolverine back in time to change history so the X-Men and their mutant comrades can survive, and the world won’t be all fucked up and diversity and tolerance will thrive! There is some nice mise-en-scene as the film shifts to 1973 with Tricky Dick in cohorts with evil corporate power monger Dr. Bolivar Trask (who himself is a dwarf so probably having some major insecurity issues) leads the helm of corruption and destruction to squash the not-normals. But thankfully X-men can time travel, go back in history, and make everything better. Frankly, I found this movie depressing. I mean, the world was all fucked up in 1973, and it’s even more fucked up now. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just send some superhero back in time to fix things? Not gonna happen.
Maleficent (Robert Stromberg)
Speaking of suspension of disbelief and fantastical characters, I had major reservations about seeing Disney’s Maleficent. Though the film looked sumptuously beautiful in the trailers, and Maleficent has always been my favorite Disney villain, the movie has one huge liability that steered me against it. Angelina Jolie. I have a pathological loathing for that woman, and I was furious that she DARED to play the role of my favorite black-horned villainess. However, I was surprised that the movie actually is pretty fun and an excellent mother daughter movie (I did bring Bean).
Following in the footsteps of Wicked, Maleficent tells the backstory of the dark fairy who wreaks havoc in Sleeping Beauty. It turns out that Maleficent was royally fucked over by royal men, and this tale is actually a feminist revisionist narrative. Not only does the despicable Stefan use every bit of his conniving power-grubbing power to manipulate the dark fairy and steal the throne to become king, but he also steals Maleficent’s wings while pretending that he loves her. Maleficent has been spurned and disillusioned, and her power has literally been severed from her body so that Stefan can rule the land and leave the strong woman weak. Fucker. It is no surprise that in this revisionist fairytale that the “true love’s kiss” necessary to revive Aurora from her eternal slumber doesn’t come from Prince Phillip, but rather from Maleficent. This could be read as a “queer” take, or it could be read as the reinstatement of the matriarchy, the kiss of the mother, that will bring harmony back to the land, at least until Prince Phillip fucks everything up.
Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof, Charlie Siskel)
This documentary attempts to unveil the mystery of photographer Vivian Maier. Vivian Maier produced vast quantities of amazing photographs with her shoot-from-the-hip Roloflex. These photos are precise, beautiful, impeccably composed sympathetic visions of humanity at its most vulnerable. However, none of her photos were seen in her lifetime.
John Maloof stumbled upon trunks and boxes of Maier’s negatives when he and his family were going to storage auctions (Storage Wars!), and he thought he found something worth keeping, so he began hunting for more of Maier’s negatives. I don’t remember the exact number of negatives and rolls of undeveloped film that Maloof ended up collecting, but it was in the tens of thousands. He then single-handedly set out to discover who Vivian Maier was and sell her work to museums and galleries. Vivian Maier is dead, but Maloof certainly has made a killing off what she left behind.
She has become coined the “nanny photographer” as she spent her life working as a nanny, dragging her wards to skid row and the stockyards to shoot photos of unsuspecting people. She was a bit of an obsessive spy with a great eye. Most of the story is told through Maloof and the surviving adults who were children that Maier cared for. Maier was an imposing figure. We learn that she was nearly seven feet tall or maybe six feet tall. She was an adventurous. She had a violent temper. She hoarded newspapers. She wore a camera around her neck 24/7. We get conflicting stories, but one thing remains the same. She stomped like a Nazi, and she was originally from France or at least her family was.
Her photographs are stunning. That is for sure. But these kinds of stories are always a bit unnerving. The woman died poor. The storage war guy will die rich off her work. Where is Vivian Maier really in all this? I can say that her photos are fantastic masterpieces, so Maloof did the world a favor by sharing them. But do you think Vivian wanted that? We’ll never know.
For No Good Reason (Charlie Paul)
For No Good Reason is a documentary about British cartoonist/artist Ralph Steadman. I really wanted to see this film because I love Steadman’s work. I love that he works in ink, and I wanted to learn more about the artist. Steadman became famous by hooking up with Hunter S. Thompson and illustrating the infamous Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. There is plenty of archival footage of Thompson and Steadman collaborating on such projects as the Kentucky Derby and a Mohammed Ali fight. But Steadman existed as an artist before and after Hunter S. Thompson, and he deserves to be seen in his own right as the artist he is.
As a young man, Steadman wanted to use art “to change the world.” He made powerful and harsh depictions of man’s inhumanity to man. In one segment of the film, he arrives in New York City in 1970 with a spy camera. The film shows montages of the photographs Steadman took on Skid Row and then translated into his unique art. Steadman produces art like a madman. The best parts of the film show him in the process of making art. He makes art because he has to, and he won’t stop until he dies. He also refuses to part with the originals. He would make art whether there was money involved or not.
I found myself smiling huge during most of the movie because I was so excited to see the work of this man who primarily does ink on paper. When I watched him at work, I could identify with that feeling. At first I was annoyed at the presence of Johnny Depp in the film which seems completely arbitrary. It turns out that they have been trying to make and distribute this film for 19 years. Depp is a huge fan of Steadman, so he donated his time to appear in the film so Sony would distribute it. So basically Depp is in the film to help Steadman. Otherwise I may never have had the opportunity to see this film.
I love the madness and passion in Steadman’s work. This comes across in the plethora of drawings that splatter the screen. One particularly interesting sequence involves Steadman talking about doing his book from the perspective of Leonardo Da Vinci. I’m going to have to look at that. It’s probably rare and hard to find. Another one of my favorite scenes involves Steadman drawing/painting his dog. Throughout the film, Steadman creates a large piece on paper, and we get to see the artist at work throughout the process, and it is very exciting to watch. Like we are peeking in on him while he is in his zone.
The tension between Thompson and Steadman is very interesting. Thompson a notorious addict and drunk, and Steadman actually drug-free. The documentary contains archival footage of the two of them arguing over what made Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas famous – Thompson’s writing or Steadman’s drawings? I think they are kind of like Siamese twins in that project. The chicken and egg are joined at the hip.
Thompson does come off as a sad power hungry drug fueled lunatic. But, what else are we going to expect?
They cut 15 hours of footage into 89 minutes. I would have liked the film to slow down a bit, so I would have more time to digest the art, but it is still exceptionally inspiring. Go Ralph Steadman. It’s nice that he gets this chance to shine on his own. He certainly deserves it.
Don’t let the big budget special effects and eye-popping 3D hoopla fool you, the new Godzilla (2014) is one serious movie packed into a load of fun. With fantastically rendered apocalyptic visual effects, mind boggling radiation-eating monsters from the deep, a giant lizard god, and a whole shitload of unnatural natural disasters, the movie seethes and explodes with catastrophes, monsters, humans scrambling like ants, and a big bad ass primordial lizard stomping through the chaos. The new film is not a remake of the original Japanese Gojira (1954); rather it is a sequel. The original film is an apocalyptic vision of Japan after the nuclear bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla is a product of radiation, the embodiment of the toxic post-nuclear landscape. The sound of his feet stomping are the sounds of bombs dropping. The new film brings Godzilla back to the world 60 years later, where the entire planet has become a toxic landscape polluted by the reckless plundering of humankind.
The movie begins with a scene at an open pit mine where a radiation eating MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) has been released when the mine digs deep into the Earth’s core looking for the highly profitable uranium, which is used to make atomic bombs (like the ones dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima). The mine represents the marriage between corporate and state interests, mining the Earth’s natural resources to be used for economic profit, military operations and human destruction. In other words, the mine bastardizes the order of things, and this causes a disruption in the ecosystem which releases the MUTO. The MUTO triggers an earthquake in Japan which causes a Nuclear Power Plant meltdown and looks strikingly familiar to the 2011 Japanese earthquake, tidal wave, and nuclear disaster.
Throughout the movie, disasters fill the screen. A tidal wave takes down Hawaii. A MUTO plunders its way through seas of people. Multitudes lie dead and injured on stretchers, like survivors of wars, bombings, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Skyscrapers tumble. Las Vegas is ripped to shreds. A faux Eiffel Tower is toppled like so much human rubbish while Casinos stand like crumbling skeletons with the strains of lounge music pumping through the wreckage. Trains are derailed. Planes and helicopters burst into flame. Sure, these are all visually sumptuous renditions of disasters, apocalyptic cinema at its best. But they could also be taken straight out of news headlines from the past few decades where unnatural natural disasters (hurricanes, earthquakes, global warming, war, and massacre) are everyday facts of life. Man fucks with Earth. Earth fights back. In this case, Earth is Godzilla. As Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) says, Godzilla resides “at the top of the primordial ecosystem.” He doesn’t show up to destroy but to “restore the natural order of Earth.”
The Earth we see in this movie could use some restoring. The MUTOs which Godzilla has come to destroy are the spawn of humankind’s toxicity. They were created by radiation and feed on radiation to survive. But they were not created by Earth’s natural radiation. Rather, they are products of the very bombings that are referenced in the original 1954 Japanese film. MUTOs are enormous towering loathsome creatures that were created by human poison to feed off human poison (nuclear waste and power of all variety). Who created these things? Man. So who is the real monster? Man. But man is nothing compared to the powers of nature. He is a fool to think he can pillage and control nature. The difference in scale between Godzilla and humans shows just how foolish mankind is to fuck with Mother Earth. Next to the feet of the God Lizard, humans are mere specks just like we are specks on the ecological calendar. Godzilla precedes people, and he will outlive all of us as we plunder the planet until we force the human race itself into extinction.
Not that we get to see the big guy right away. He doesn’t appear until nearly halfway through the movie, but that is why the film is so effective. This isn’t just a movie about Godzilla, but about why Godzilla shows up in the first place. Before we see the Lizard King, we witness many scenes of the waste man has made of the planet. The open pit mine is crawling with day laborers like some kind of Hieronymus Bosch painting. The communication room of the nuclear power plant and the interiors of military aircraft carriers show the apparatus of the State at work (and are true to the vision of the original film). All the monitors, instrumentation and control panels reflect man’s attempt to manipulate, control and destroy nature. People manically turn knobs, push buttons, and launch attacks, but their attempts are futile.
The nuclear plant meltdown is sublimely apocalyptic as it collapses to the ground. The camera roams through the gorgeously rendered landscape of Japan’s post-meltdown quarantine zone. Planets, vines, insects and dogs take over the abandoned town showing how nature takes over even after man has been wiped out. Resorts in Hawaii and Las Vegas (places which plowed the earth to create commercial sites for human recreation) are destroyed. A MUTO rises from a vast nuclear waste dump in Nevada, the place where the most toxic residue of mankind has coalesced. In all these scenes, we are given some of the best CGI-generated cinematic catastrophes ever rendered on film, yet the hazy blur of chaos, the running crowds, and the gloom of a world gone wrong maintain the feel and aesthetic of the original film. This is the same world; the catastrophes have just gotten more global.
In the middle of all this chaos, Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston plays the engineer Joe Brody. His rough-hewn serious face and deadpan delivery makes for the perfect 1950s paranoid scientist transposed into the 21st century. Joe inadvertently kills his wife during the initial nuclear meltdown, leaves his son motherless, and dedicates his life to finding the cause of the initial earthquake which he is convinced is some kind of conspiracy between the military and industry. Joe is deemed crazy by his colleagues and family. He insists there is something terribly wrong, yet no one believes him. He ends up being the paranoid who is the most sane of all. Monster movies have often been the visual manifestation of human paranoia turned into horrific creatures. “You’re hiding something!” Joe yells at the state apparatus right before the MUTO is unveiled. Of course the State is hiding something. We have a reason to be paranoid. They have captured the original MUTO and are holding it hostage in the revived and renovated nuclear power plant. Needless to say, man’s attempts to control this beast that is bigger than a thousand football stadiums are ludicrously futile.
When Godzilla does finally appear, witnessing this primordial lizard god is exhilarating. He is a radiation breathing accidental hero. As he swims through the ocean, he creates waves as tall as the fallen Eiffel Tower. His feet are wider than buildings when they touch ground. The swing of his magnificent tail brings down a MUTO in a single swipe. Let it be clear that as happy as we are to see this God Lizard arrive to save the day, he has no interest in mankind. He knocks over military ships like toys and lays waste to people and buildings when he hits shore. He wants to kick the MUTOs’ asses to save the planet that he occupies not to save humankind who have fucked up the Earth. After Godzilla takes down the MUTOs in San Francisco and rises from the ashes, giant TV screens in a football stadium converted to an evacuation center (reference to Hurricane Katrina) broadcast his image with scrolling words reading:
“King of Lizards. Savior of our city.” Sure, the audience champions this “savior,” but he is mission is to restore natural order, and miniscule humankind is not part of that order. Saving humankind was a random result. We just get lucky when Godzilla saves our asses while saving his own and the planet’s. Godzilla represents the ultimate power of the primordial ecosystem. He is a giant organic creature that precedes man arriving on this planet and will continue after man leaves the planet.
As a kid, I loved watching the Godzilla movies. I realize in retrospect that they were a way for me to deflect the sense of the toxic landscape I was living in onto the screen. 2014’s Godzilla reflects the toxic horrors of our present day world onto the screen, and we are reminded, like we are in so many traditional monster movies, that man is the real monster. The MUTOs are manifestations of man, created by nuclear refuse and man’s inorganic harnessing of the earth’s resources for power and profit. It is not Ford Brody (Joe’s surviving son) who the audience is rooting and cheering for in the end. It is Godzilla. Just like when the tidal wave hits Hawaii, we care more about the survival of a dog than the seething swarm of people, or in the site of a train crash a lone surviving wolf seems more miraculous than a soldier rising from the burnt wreckage. Somewhere in the depths of our inner primordial beings, we understand that Godzilla is better than we ever will be, and we want him to live more than we want to save the human race.
When Godzilla rises from the city and returns to the ocean, his body heaves like a giant mountain as if he is made of Earth itself. He is a reminder to all of us to stop fucking with the planet or we will go the way of the MUTOs – products of our own poison and doomed to obliteration.
Gold Diggers of 2013
If you doubt we are living during an economic depression, go to the movies and witness the evidence. I started compiling a list of my ten favorite movies from 2013 when I noticed many are stories of economic opportunism. The central characters claw their way to success, whether raking in cash or fighting for survival under oppressive economic regimes.
During times of economic despair, cinema rises to the occasion with stories of material excess, cut-throat competition, romantic heists, and heroes of the underclass. Movies don’t necessarily reflect the reality of the “now”, but provide an alternative reality. Scam artists are heroes; the rich get their comeuppance, and the disenfranchised attempt to carve their own destiny.
Enter the Gold Diggers of 2013 – to reference the iconic film series from the Great Depression. These movies aren’t necessarily the “best” films of the year, but they all focus on economic opportunism. These include: The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann); The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorcese); Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine); Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence); Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite); Passion (Brian de Palma); Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée); The Iceman (Ariel Vromen); Nebraska (Alexander Payne); and American Hustle (David O. Russell).
In these movies, money is central. It drives the plots whether set on Wall Street, the Great Plains, AIDS era 1980s, or the dystopian near future. People are consumed by it, devise elaborate schemes to fill their pockets with it, or fall victims to the powers that control it. Although stories that reflect the current state of global economic despair, these movies are mostly set “out of time” – based on actual historical events or providing visions of a not-too-distant future. It’s easier for audiences to accept their real economic despair if movies push the despair into the past or future.
There are three Gatsbys in this mix. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is the ultimate American climber whose voracious appetite for status and economic success inspires him to chase money and the acquisition of things (including people) as a gauge of his own viability. It drives him forward, and it brings him down. The 2013’s Gatsbys are icons of America’s Waste Culture, shallow materialists who exploit anything and anyone for their own economic gain. Luhrmann’s Gatsby is a wall of ice consumed by misguided desire. Korine’s Alien is a hoodlum drug dealer whose identity is constructed by guns, shoes and bongs. Scorcese’s Jordan Belfort is a Wall Street swindler and self-serving Robin Hood who steals from anyone to give to himself. It is surprising that we want these characters to succeed even if their success provokes a nausea-inducing repulsion. Maybe we understand how fragile their dream is. That their failure is imminent. For all their material wealth, they will end up with the same “nothing” everyone else does.
All three films are orgiastic, hallucinatory dystopian visions – candy colored nightmares much like the world in Catching Fire. While Catching Fire could be read as science fiction, it is clearly a metaphor for the present. The divide between the Districts and the Capital mirror the divide between the Haves and the Have Nots, the government and the people who comply to its whims, and the impending menace of a totalitarian economy. Katniss Everdeen is a hero for today even if she is projected into tomorrow.
Hunger Games offers a lavish view of decadence tainted with soiled money and the rot of a bad trip. Children are thrown into an arena and fight to their death to entertain the rich and control the poor. The Capital is occupied by the wealthy who are both colorful and rotten like they are made of fruit that has been stuffing itself on its own riches. Katniss takes on the uncivilized System, but she is a reluctant revolutionary. She is out to save her herself and her family, not the world. The world is too damn big when your own life is at stake. Katniss is appealing because we understand that we can be Katniss too.
Not that we would want to be Katniss or the Orca Tilikum in the documentary Blackfish which reveals the horrific exploits of Sea World, an entertainment corporation that heartlessly captures Orcas and uses them as spectacle to entertain the masses. Sea World has no problem separating children from their mothers and plucking these magnificent creatures from their “homes” only to imprison them in undersized containers. Sea World is not far removed from the Arena in the Hunger Games. When the film’s tragic protagonist Tilikum kills his trainers, consider it revolt against a system in which monetary profit trumps moral decency. To quote the Hunger Games: "Remember who the enemy is."
There’s not a lot of moral decency in Brian De Palma’s Passion. A psycho-economic thriller where everything is synthetic, the film is set within the global economy where two female marketing executives (Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace) manipulate each other to fight for power. The movie is a tantalizing product that shows how the market has mutated female cosmology. These two women are like “Careers” from The Hunger Games, thrown into the “cut-throat” arena to fight each other to the death. It is a sickeningly pretty picture about a not pretty economic culture.
Dallas Buyers Club is based Ron Woodruff, a heterosexual homophobic Texan electrician and rodeo bull rider who contracted AIDS during one random sexual encounter. When Big Pharma and the government fail to come through for Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey), he exploits every economic opportunity at his disposal to save his own ass. When the FDA fucks him over, Woodruff becomes a drug smuggler and an entrepreneur out of necessity. Through his ventures, he extends his life and lines his pockets with cash. His business partner Rayon (Jared Leto) and sympathetic doctor Eve (Jennifer Garner) are Hollywood constructs to temper Woodruff’s self-serving opportunism and make the film more marketable. Like Katniss Everdeen, Woodruff is out to save himself.
Michael Shannon’s portrayal of real-life contract killer Richard Kuklinski in The Iceman shows schizophrenia in the American Dream. Family means everything to Kuklinski. He does anything he can to provide for his wife (Winona Ryder) and daughters, including committing murder for the Mob. This movie reveals the savagery and hypocrisy that underscores the American Dream – the tensions between pornography and family, piety and murder. Kuklinski and his wife practice willful ignorance to maintain the illusion of the Dream rather than succumbing to the reality of the Nightmare. As long as the carpets are clean, who cares how much blood is in the basement?
Nebraska illustrates how tenuous that Dream is. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) chases down the million dollars he believes he won when he receives an award letter in the mail. Woody holds onto that paper as if his life depends on it even though the letter is clearly a scam. He begins walking from Billings, Montana to Omaha, Nebraska to collect his prize. Woody’s son Grant (Will Forte) eventually drives Woody to Omaha. The father and son’s names combined make Grant Wood (the Midwest Depression Era painter of “American Gothic”). Woody’s friends and family descend on him like vultures when they get wind of the million bucks. Everyone wants a piece of the pie even though there is no pie to be had. When he realizes he can’t get the whole pie, Woody settles for a truck (an emblem of the dying working class). The nostalgic black and white cinematography combined with the Midwest landscape hearken back to the Dust Bowl, a time when voracious economic opportunism turned fertile farmland into an apocalyptic wasteland.
Set in 1978, David O. Russell’s American Hustle excavates America's Culture of Want and the layers of hustle that drive it. Featuring an amazing ensemble cast (Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Bradley Cooper) caught in a network of fraud, scams, love and desire, this film blurs the lines between law and crime, want and need, artifice and sincerity. Sydney (Adams) sums up the film when she tells Irving (Bale), "You are nothing to me until you are everything". We live in a culture of everything or nothing. We want it all because we are supposed to be able to have it all. But as Irving points out, we con ourselves every time we open our wallets and attempt to buy happiness.
Beneath the hustles and briefcases of cash being exchanged, O. Russell’s characters are humans who want something that can’t be bought with money – love. At its heart and below the heists, the movie hinges on classic cinematic sincerity, not unlike the Depression Era films of Howard Hawks and Ernst Lubitsch. An on-going trope is Rosalyn’s (Lawrence) fingernail polish which smells like flowers but also garbage. So many characters in the films of 2013 are like this nail polish. They are lavishly beautiful and tragically ugly; both driven and brought down by the American Hustle. O. Russell’s film, however, gives us hope in love even when can’t find our Golden Ticket.
Yes, I play my Strat in PJs.
Parenting a teenager is a lot like parenting a newborn and a toddler. I never get any sleep. I worry that my teen isn’t eating right. I worry about everything. Except parenting a teen girl comes with the added bonus of unpredictable emotional volcanoes. Really, there is a reason why I didn’t do much writing and art for the first five years of Bean’s childhood. Because when I wasn’t working, I was parenting. A thousand million percent. And when I was working, I was worrying about what I needed to be doing as a parent. Enter the Teen Years. Add the fact that my teen daughter lost two grandparents in seven months, and it ain’t easy.
But my kiddo is great. She literally rocks. I am enjoying every minute I can with her when we are on the upswing of the Rock and down in the Blues side of things. Like the other day, I came home from a brutal day of work. I was just wiped out. I was just going to go for a run and clear my head when Bean asked me to sit with her so she could show me funny Beatles photos and videos. I grabbed my electric guitar and sat with my kid, strumming chords on the guitar without it plugged into the amp. I made up little songs and laughed at ridiculous photos of John Lennon and George Harrison. We did this for about an hour. It made me SO HAPPY. I thanked my kiddo for making me happy.
Bean has also taken up the guitar. Her preferred hours of practice are 1-3 a.m. because she says it makes her feel “rebellious.” Thankfully she is playing the acoustic guitar. Also, I certainly prefer she rebel by playing guitar in the safety of her bedroom than other ways in which some teens her age choose to rebel. Part of this Guitar Rebellion is that Bean likes to wake me up at 2 a.m. for a private concert during which she demonstrates all she has learned. So I shuffle out of bed and listen to my girl play in the middle of the night because I have to gobble up every one of these opportunities I can get.
My guitar has been my saving grace these days. I spend 1-2 hours a day playing the thing. And I am seriously beginning to ROCK. I am starting to write songs, though nothing remotely ready for primetime. I went to my lesson yesterday, and my teacher couldn’t believe the progress I have made. My Stratocaster is my new therapist. The old model of therapy isn’t working for me. Fuck picking at scabs from the past. I’d rather pick guitar strings in the present. It’s doing me well.
My Bionic Guitar Playing Shoulder
I have been playing my guitar 1-2 hours a day. I play so hard that my arms, shoulders and fingers ache. My arms are SO SORE from playing guitar. I play so hard that I work up a sweat. I play so hard that I don't stop until I collapse. One thing I realized as I feel my right arm and shoulder ache with Post Jamming Bliss Pain is that if I had not had all that hardware put inside my shoulder in August 2013, I would not be able to play guitar. It is only because I have a Bionic Shoulder now that I can strum the guitar without my shoulder dislocating and my arm dangling from my half missing shoulder socket. So go Bionic Shoulder, especially since playing my guitar is getting me through a seriously hard time in my life right now. It is filling me with JOY. Bionic Joy!
Also speaking of guitar, I recently finally watched the new PBS documentary Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A Comin'. It is SO GREAT, the best Jimi Hendrix documentary I have seen, and I have watched a few. It shows how Jimi Hendrix truly revolutionized guitar and so many other things along the way. A black man fronting a white band in the mid 1960s? Unheard of! That man lived and breathed to play guitar. He is amazing, and this documentary delivers the goods. Interesting to think that he was playing before Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. People asked him why he didn’t participate in the protests when really what he was doing with his music was already an act of revolution. I will watch the film again and maybe write about it when I have time.
Best Jimi Documentary Ever
I also watched Jack White and Neil Young on the TeeVee the other night. They were demonstrating the vintage record booth from the 1940s that Jack White restored to make little 45 rpm recordings. Neil Young actually recorded a song in the booth. Apparently ANYONE can make a song in this booth, and I want to make one!
Third Man Record Booth:
Speaking of rock and music, I have a CounterPunch deadline for my column in the paper magazine. I’m doing it on the early Rock Docs of D.A. Pennebaker including Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop, and Ziggy Stardust. Now when I watch these films, not only am I watching for filmmaking technique but also for guitar technique.
Oh yeah, last Tuesday Night I saw the new Alice Cooper documentary Super Duper Alice Cooper at The Loft. It was a riot. A blast. It was all about how Alice Cooper became Alice Cooper. It wasn’t about politics or anything more than how a man became someone else through performance identity. The part about him developing a kind of schizophrenic identity and not being able to separate between who he really is and who Alice Cooper is interests me, especially since I have had that issue in differentiating between Kim Dot Dammit and myself. Where is the line drawn?
I am very far behind on writing, but eventually I will pull it back together, and speaking of split identities, Kim Dot Dammit with Dammit her way back into full throttle this time bearing a Fender Stratocaster as well. I played the hell out of that mean machine last night. I'm getting BETTER. Almost ready for primte time! Here is a funny photo of Punka going, “You’re playing guitar? I thought you were going to write a song about me! Where’s MY SONG?”
Here is the link to my much revised article on NYMPHOMANIAC VOL 1 in the weekend edition of CounterPunch. Of course, I could only write about parts of it, so did not include my obsessive Von Trier observations such as the parking scene which references MELANCHOLIA or the "you can just all him The Man" scene which references ANTICHRIST. The levels of references within Lars von Trier's films and other cultural sources are vast, an enormous puzzle full of hidden pictures and layers of meaning. Can't wait for Volume 2 which opens today.