Monday, July 18, 2016

Ghostbusters (2016)


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Sunday, June 12, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Monday, May 16, 2016

A check-up, a physical, a state of the union

Nobody reads this blog. I write this blog for myself and have always done so for myself. I started blogging because I enjoyed reading other people's blogs and thought I could have fun. I'm a relatively solitary person (reading, watching, consuming) so the azygous nature of my reader, interchangeable with whoever has stumbled across this wasteland of awkward phrasing and intellectual posturing, bothers me not even slightly. Sometimes I ask my partner to read my posts because it's something I feel they might find interesting or applicable to their cultural consumption patterns or their philosophical pursuits; regrettably, my partner is a busy person and my musings into the deep dark, in terms of content comparable with the abyss that I look into, go unread. Oh well.

I find myself reading more of my earlier posts, either with my usual constant cringe as I encounter sentences with the fluidity and wit of a styrofoam cup or discovering a phrase or moment that I find half way intelligent. I keep the blog's archives as a way to keep track of the changes in my mercurial interests and my general intellectual development. What fascinated me then perhaps does not pique me now. Concurrently, the ideological maxims I subscribe to have developed or have been overturned through education and self-reflection. Over the past year, I've written mostly negative reviews of movies and books (I haven't thought about comics in a critical fashion in a long time) and I'm not sure if I want to continue doing so.

I'm writing these musings, these unfocused ramblings, as a way of assembling my ambiguous feelings about this blog. Frankly, I'm shouting into the vacuum of space, and nobody is around to hear it. Even the shape of the Internet has vastly changed since I stumbled across the notion of blogging as a pastime. No longer do RSS feeds or blogrolls occupy reading space; magazine style blogs such as Medium.com or The Atlantic or Gawker have triumphed over the blog. Even the model of blogging has shifted from brief thoughts, a log, into long carefully constructed essays (such as the ones I've been doing more and more). Two of my biggest more recent pieces haven't even been published on my blog (I opted for Medium.com because I'm in love with the design, UI, and UX). Blogging is a different world than when I started and my feelings about the blog are completely different.

I no longer consider the blog a viable mode of communication. An example, then: I used to upload my school essays onto the blog, but I found the traffic for these posts to be abnormally high. Since I was writing about books conventionally utilized in post-secondary classes, I deduced that lazier students were Googling the text, stumbling across my blog, and ripping ideas from me. A lot of those posts have been reverted to "draft" status so that they are no longer public (though, an Internet savvy person could probably find an archived version somewhere). All this to say that I think the blog has always been shouting into the void, but the void has increased in size immeasurably. My voice, already pitched at a whisper, has become subvocal. The blog has become entirely for me. Consider that my "Reads" every month simply catalogue the books and my impressions, without really diving into them. I use the blog as an alternative to Goodreads (which I've gone on record excoriating).

What then is the use of the blog and why do I persist in continuing? Why even write this post? I'll answer the latter and then move on the former. This post is my state of the union, if you will, an announcement of my strategy for the continued utility of the blog. Imagine this post to be an academic paper that begins with theoretical throat-clearing, clarifying the methodology and pointing out inspirations and precedents. Thus, for my purposes, this post aggregates some methodological and philosophical ideas that have been rattling about in my head.

Firstly, I continue the blog because I need to write. I read other people's prose or thinking and I feel a holistic sense of impairment, as if I could never reach the same heights. So, stubbornly, I keep writing, in the hopes that I'll improve. I'm not one for discipline; I've given up on almost every hobby I've ever had. The only practice that I have ever kept is the act of writing. I wrote fiction for years before realizing that I'm never going to be the storyteller I hope to be, and thus, I turned to nonfiction. I write essays, I write blurbs, I write reviews. Not everything I write embarrasses me, which I suppose is a victory in of itself.

I started thinking about this piece a few months ago when I stumbled across an academic's personal blog, in which he railed at "futurists" for distracting a downtrodden populace with the false promise of a technological utopia that will never come about. I found his prose stunning in its obscurity and abstruseness. Of course, his PhD supervisor was Judith Butler, another academic well known for her impenetrable prose. Reading Carrico's blog made me feel, at first, inadequate and completely disposable. Yet, the more I read of his rantings (while beautifully argued), the more I realized that he and I were incompatible in terms of prose. His blog reads almost a parody of postmodern bloviating with its esoteric jargon and purposefully labyrinthine sentences. It's obscurantism at its finest.

Rosi Braidotti, in one of her books (The Posthuman, I believe) argues that clarity is actually a tool exercised by those in power to keep people in their intellectual class. If ideas are clear and easily apprehended, then there is little impetus in striving for better, she argues. In this case, Carrico and Braidotti and Butler's prose are ideological tools, aiming for an epistemological unshackling of minds. Which, by all means, is a valuable and important project. There is a certain jouissance in finally apprehending some complex idea shrouded in even more complex prose. I distinctly remember connecting the breadcrumbs laid by a professor on the subject of Ulysses' Scylla and Charybdis section (ghosts and fathers and writing). However, this is not my style. I tend towards sentences that aren't particularly long and my language isn't entirely obfuscating, though I confess to enjoying the odd abstruse word.

Methodologically speaking, I'm having a deep crisis currently. In January, I read Linda Nagata's The Bohr Maker and I started assembling some material to write something scholarly and critical. I began with surveying all that has already been written on in academic journals and anthologies. I found, unfortunately, only two essays: one, in a peer-reviewed journal; the other, a chapter in an anthology. Both were not particularly impressive either in terms of prose or in critical perceptiveness. Each author followed the same blueprint for academic analysis that has been paradigmatic for decades.

I can't help observe that the production of literary analysis in academia has been marred by the same stagnant miasma that grips the production of culture: we, as a society, really struggle to imagine alternative and novel approaches. In other words, the semantic fields that pervade literary theory (eg. structuralism, New Historicism) are all old hat at this point. Any new critical apparatus is merely an adjunct of a previously established field. Concomitantly, the academic endeavour of peer-reviewed scholarship is functionally stagnant; the writer introduces their specific semantic field (eg. Marxism), describes the relevant specifics, introduces their specific text (eg. Jonathan Franzen's Purity), and then mechanically demonstrates with citations where the text espouses or reflects the semantic field. It's all very boring at this point. We need either a new semantic field, one not dependent on the long chain of history, or a new methodology.

In 2015, I wrote an essay on Jeanne Dielman and Deleuze, starting with some methodological throat-clearing citing David Bordwell and Seymour Chatman. Bordwell complains often about the hegemony of interpretative schools, explanatory frameworks that purport to be definitive explications of the nature of reality itself, using cultural objects as their "evidence." I disagreed with Bordwell's sentiments as I've found these semantic fields to be useful in articulating politics, social relations, or aesthetics. However, I wrote that essay in November, and here I am, in March (as of writing this sentence; I've been writing this piece for months), mostly agreeing with Bordwell—not his bitterness regarding evidentiary processes, but his exhaustion with the dominant mode of academic investigatory discourse. 

My irritation is legion in its sources. Firstly, the ivory tower of academia is often myopic and isolated from the on-the-streets labour and activism, despite having many professors with feet in different zones of thought. More personally, my frustration with these semantic fields comes not only from their ubiquity, but from my constant awareness that I am not perceptive or intelligent enough to design my own. I am not Barthes; I am not Jameson; I am not Butler; and I never will be any of these thinkers. I merely scuttle and scurry in their shadow. 

I'm begging the question of why bother continuing writing, of course, but I search within (an ongoing process) but I divine no answer yet. Am I doomed to a life of intellectual mediocrity, a life of above-average, but certainly nothing remarkable or revelatory? A more cynical thinker, probably a Baby Boomer, would cackle with glee, believing my crises vis-a-vis my intelligence to be the logical endpoint of a pedagogical system that promises every child is special, a classic case of an entitled Millennial getting their comeuppance for their hubris. Instead, I hope to see my struggle with my intelligence as a sign my ongoing process of maturity and the slow accumulation of wisdom. Perhaps my self-reflection processes are a sign of a different intelligence that I'm quietly cultivating, one more emotionally healthy than philosophically imaginative. 

After all, criticism, I believe, is about excavating the secret weapon smuggled by all art: empathy. Criticism has a multitude of functions/effects. Firstly, working out on paper (or blog) how I feel about a work of art helps me understand the work of art. Working out why I felt a certain way teaches me more about myself, allows self-reflection and thus praxis. Thirdly, reading criticism aids in understanding how others felt about a work of art, potentially putting that cultural object into a new light. And of course, finally and most importantly, attempting to understand why other thinkers had their specific affective reactions cultivates empathy. This blog then has become an organic machine with the purpose of understanding, empathizing. I consume cultural objects; I cogitate on them; I read other people's thoughts; I endeavour to unpack my own feelings about an object. Sometimes this means taking up a critical lens, a semantic field, and other times, I reflect and contextualize my own experience with regards to the cultural object. Despite my frustration with the rigid paradigm of academia, I can't completely disregard the usefulness of these explanatory frameworks. 

So thus, my state of the union: I will labour at my prose, at my thinking, at praxis. I will labour at cultural objects because they give me pleasure, because thinking and writing give me pleasure. It seems a funny thing to write almost 2,000 words that amount to "I like watching movies," but I thought it necessary to clear my throat and remind myself why I continue bleating on about art. It's probably fallacious to conclude that art without an audience isn't art or a dialogue with only one interlocutor is not dialogue. Instead, it's the realm of the mind, labouring diligently. At least, that's what I'm going for. I can't say without a doubt the critic's voice that I hope to one day possess. My strategies will take me where they will, or perhaps, the reverse in that where I go might dictate the necessary strategies. I at least now I will keep plugging away. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Blood Rage


[Part of my series of Letterboxd reviews that's edited and expanded. The original review is here.]

Ostensibly a horror film about a slasher, Blood Rage (AKA Slasher AKA Nightmare at Shadow Woods) is actually a draining and horrifying film about crippling depression and motherhood.

Maddy, mother of twins, could be called overbearing. She dotes on Terry, the twin not institutionalized for murder, while she still finds time to visit Todd, her prodigal son. When a psychiatrist finally gets through Todd's catatonia, the suspicion is raised that Terry did the killing those ten years ago, not Todd. When faced with this damning information, Maddy finds herself in a spiral of guilt, shame, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Instead of coping with this newly exhumed trauma, instead of seeking solace in psychotherapy, counselling, or even medication, Maddy seeks help from the bottle, from obsessive eating, from obsessive cleaning.

Blood Rage depicts a world frighteningly close to ours in the sense that this cinematic world stigmatizes mental health problems to an absurd degree. Whereas Todd (the accused but innocent) might be considered mentally incompetent and traumatized to the point of agoraphobia, the film's cast labels him as (and I quote) a "lunatic," a "wacko," the "crazy brother," and "insane." He's called crazy probably a dozen times by at least six characters. When faced with his twin's beautiful and bold girlfriend, he stumbles his words and confesses that he has never kissed a girl. What tone the film is going for in this scene is a mystery, as it's clearly heartbreaking. The reaction Todd is rewarded with for this honesty? She runs, she tells her friends about his social ineptitude, she mocks him. 

Meanwhile, Maddy pours herself a giant glass of wine, sits on the floor and eats out of the fridge. She pushes the vacuum around the house, the ultimate modern motherhood manifestation of Sisyphus.

Maddy is obviously concerned that her damaged son has escaped from the hospital, but this does not deter Maddy's boyfriend, Brad, from pressuring her into making out, into sex. Despite being clearly not into it, she is told to relax. Here is a motif of the film and of Maddy's life: men pressuring her into sex. Her first husband tried to get her to get busy in the opening scene in the drive-in theatre and this is echoed when Brad seems annoyingly relaxed about a missing son.

She can't talk about the murder. When the hospital calls and informs her of her missing son, she begs Terry not to tell people. She explains that it's to keep up a happy pretense, but as the film goes on, we realize it's because Maddy refuses to face that she has invested in the "wrong" son. She is in denial.

While some slashers opt for a fun gory ending, sometimes with a twist, Blood Rage goes for straight up fucking nihilism. This is easily the most depressing misanthropic ending I've seen in a slasher. When Maddy seems poised to accept that one of her sons is actually a monster, she shoots him a bunch of times. In a cathartic moment, she grabs her surviving son and hugs him tightly. They sob together as she consoles him, letting him know that he is her entire life. Here, then, we have a woman that has subsumed her whole identity into the role of mother. She tells Todd that Todd is gone and that they can be together, mother and son. Todd jerks back. "I'm Todd," he says, and Maddy realizes her error. She has killed the "wrong" sonagain. Her crime is repeated upon herself again, she believes. Todd, catastrophically hurt by this mistake, wails in pain and continually chants that he is in fact Todd; Maddy picks up the mantra, repeating that she is also Todd. She means that she is the wrong son, too. She picks up the mantra and picks up the gun, shooting herself in the head. Todd looks away from the wall where he had buried his head and the film ends on his horrified face in freezeframe, the true cost of these mental illnesses to never be reckoned.

Blood Rage is not a fun slasher in any regard. It is instead a harrowing journey into the common Western incapability of talking about mental illness, talking about post-partum depression, and talking about the heavy burden that society has placed upon women, to be mothers, to be women, to be sexual, to be chaste. Blood Rage is positively dripping with lecherous predators, both actual killers and those who would pressure people into sex. Even though Karen is clearly Terry's girlfriend and her own person, Gregg tries to console her by making out with her when she's scared. He feels completely entitled to touch and kiss this person without permission.

Women are often given short shrift in slasher films and this one is no exception. However, no other slasher I can think of from this era has ever depicted the sheer stigmatization of mental illness in such harrowing ways. One can only imagine how these characters could have healed (or at least tried to) if the apparatuses of mental health had been stronger or if access to these apparatuses hadn't been taboo.

Let's remind ourselves that one major thing that neoliberalism did was to push countless people struggling with debilitating mental illness out of the care of institutions and into the streets, increasing homelessness and stigmatizing access to care. The privatization of mental health clinics have stratified the access to these selfsame apparatuses; only the rich can afford private health care.

From the article "Beyond Prisons, Mental Health Clinics: When Austerity Closes Cages, Where Do the Services Go?" (here)
deinstitutionalization in mental health was in full swing by the 1970s, when Reagan became the Governor of California and decided to close down all the state hospitals. Hardly a champion of the oppressed, Reagan referred to institutions housing people with mental disabilities in California as “the biggest hotel chain in the state.”
Deinstitutionalization and neoliberalism's focus on the individual go hand-in-hand. The individual is asked by the State to take care of themselves, that they alone are responsible for their own health, including their own mental health.

Neoliberalism, as an ideology, rather than as economic policy, pushes focus away from the State and onto the individual. Personal accountability is stressed above all things. No longer will institutions protect us; we can only be individuals. We need to work on ourselves because nobody else will. We must strive for perfection, this ideology demands of us. Those that cannot attain perfection are left to their own devices.

A comorbid factor in the rise of neoliberalism, along with deinstitutionalization, is the rise of pharmaceutical therapy. Again, we see the economic as the primum movens of social change. While pharmacology takes big strides in the field of medicine, the pharmaceutical industry, already a behemoth, finds deregulation working in its favour, opting for increased lobbying and thus increased political capital. This pressure shifts society's focus from the (individualistic) 1970s mega-trend of psychotherapy onto more assembly-line style therapeutic actions. Medication is easier to dispense than paying for extended stays in hospitals or long periods of therapy with licensed practitioners. One pill cures all was the promise offered by neoliberalism. Gone was the for "the greatest benefit to mankind" model of mental health, replaced by the for-profit model.

Thus it should be no surprise, then, that Blood Rage depicts this dystopia in the making with endless prejudice against the mentally ill, the pathologizing of neurologically atypical such as poor Todd. Though the film casts a favourable light on the possibilities of therapy, showing the audience a psychologist with altruistic and ethical behaviour, Blood Rage still struggles to find light in the oppressive darkness that is mental illness.

While Todd suffers greatly, it is no doubt Maddy that suffers the most in this harrowing depiction of mental illness. Again, the pressures placed upon women in Western society outweigh by a firm degree those placed upon the opposite sex. Motherhood itself is politically fraught, with actual lives hanging in the balance in the fight for bodily autonomy. A cursory glance at any "mommy blog" or forum will reveal a ruthless battle. Consider the conflict over breastfeeding, again, an arena of intense signification and fever pitch fighting. A recent book, Lactivism, charts the skirmish on the frontlines. Breastfeeding takes on significance right up to the point of implosion, as it becomes a sigil for motherhood itself.

In her wide-ranging and endlessly compelling book, Pink Ribbons Inc, Samantha King argues persuasively that much of the attention paid to breast cancer, to the point of corporatization of charities, is due to the signification of breasts as signs of motherhood and femininity. Breast cancer garners more attention than other types of cancer, say ovarian, as breasts are visible (they are secondary sex characteristics, after all). There is little sign of motherhood more obvious than a mother breastfeeding her child. King wisely points to breast cancer's visibility as part of the apparatus of whiteness and cissexism. Heteronormativity must be preserved and to preserve it, we must preserve cis mothers with their obvious breasts. The sign is the arena of class struggle (Voloshinov), and here then, the fraught sign is motherhood.

There is more pressure put on Maddy to conform to neurotypical structures, heteronormative practices, rigid gender roles: her obsessive-compulsive behaviours manifest in stereotypically coded feminine pursuits such as vacuuming, cleaning, drinking wine, make-up, etc. Most importantly, her value in life appears to be her ability to procreate and then raise children. Her children's failure to be neurotypical reflects on her, society would have us believe. Her shame at "failing," her genetics' betrayal, demonstrates her to be a "poor mother," a terrible crime for any woman. The film doesn't punish her for this transgression. No, the film doesn't even need to punish her. She does it all on her own, internalizing the lessons wrought by patriarchy and neoliberalism. No other slasher I can think of has depicted women more sympathetically than Blood Rage. It's a heartbreaking depiction of the pressures hoisted upon mothers and their already strained mental health thanks to the rigours of patriarchal oppression.

Blood Rage has depicted this dystopian society while it was happening. Now we are living in the after-effects. What a prescient film.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Necroscope II: Wamphyri!


If the exclamation mark in the title didn't clue you on, the second Necroscope book doubles down on the comic book style pulp adventure by way of Lovecraft. My love for this book can be summed up with a scene near the end, when the little person villain (who's psychic) explains his evil plan to the sadistic KGB agent. They're in a castle in the mountains, where they've been electronically wiping the memories of a British Intelligence agent while telepaths jot down notes of what comes out of his brain. This is pure comic book pulp and it's terrific.

Necroscope II: Wamphyri! picks up plot strands left over from the first while retconning a bunch more. For those not familiar, retcon is a term from comic books in which a piece of new information is retroactively inserted into continuity. For example, Spider-Man learns that before her death, Gwen Stacy and Norman Osborn had a sexual relationship. This adds new wrinkles to already established stories. Lumley, in this second book, isn't shy about this. Despite killing off the major vampire in the first one, he writes that before his death, the vampire implanted a pregnant mother with some vampiric DNA (I guess) so when the baby was born, it would slowly turn into a vampire. So, there is another vampire menace to be defeated, but also the protagonist has the added problem of incorporeality. Harry's body was destroyed during the climax of the previous book, so now he must find a body or risk being obliterated by the growing strength of his unborn son, with whom he shares a body!

Writing this stuff out makes it seems more ludicrous than it's presented in the novel. Lumley's serious no-nonsense prose (which is hilariously terrible) pastes a patina of respectability over this, which works in a way, as this is classic pulp. Lumley finds the most ridiculous route, but drives as straight as possible. The narrator's voice tries to find a balance between a fairly wide-eyed one, one consistently reiterating the absolute impossibility of all of this and one that wants nothing of the sensationalism of the pulp era. The tension between the two poles does service the narrative, as much of the book is rooted in Cold War era espionage and historicist takes on vampire legends. A significant chunk of the narrative is an extended flashback in which the lead vampire of the previous book relates how he was turned into one at the hands of an even more powerful and terrifying vampire. Lumley situates this flashback in a deeply historical framework, almost to the point of citing his sources! He considers Vlad the Impaler, and then rejects him for a story closer to a historical truth (unhinged and bloodthirsty Crusaders that were eventually excommunicated) that eventually verges into folklore. Like all clever postmodern takes on folklore, Lumley finds realistic and plausible reasons for beliefs such as the vampire's distaste for running water. By putting these tropes of the vampires into more mundane circumstances, he manages to control and modulate the audience, lulling them until he can shock with some of lunacy he derives from the pulps.

Some might roll their eyes at yet another effort to situate vampires into the real world, such as explaining away their weakness to the sun as the genetic abnormality photophobia (which occurs naturally). There is a long history of this effort, some more successful than others. I remember being so angry reading Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian (a 2005 novel published in the wake of, and in the faux academic façade as The Da Vinci code) as it wasted countless pages on monks in Romania before dispatching the Count in the most anticlimactic fashion. Lumley's revisionist take manages to keep the historical interest without boring the audience thanks to a command of pacing (he always cuts away in a "meanwhile back at the ranch" style) and the batshit Lovecraft stuff that caps off the finale. Again, the novel succeeds thanks to the oscillation between narrator styles, the tension between the two, the narrator's seeming awareness that this shit is insane.

Like the first novel, this sequel treats its women poorly. Extremely poorly. The villain, Yulian, enthralls his nubile cousin, rapes her repeatedly, and keeps her in an almost drugged state with hypnosis. Yulian's mother is oppressed, literally, by a vampire son who hypnotizes her. I mean, really, the primum movens of the plot is rape by tentacle! And just like with the first novel, women are only described in two ways: fuckable or not. Zek, a female ESP agent for the USSR, is constantly described as beautiful, ravishing, fuckable. One of the villains trains his lecherous thoughts on her and we're treated to copious descriptions of what he'd do to her. Characters use the threat of sexual violence when intimidating any woman in the book. Harry's spouse Brenda is no longer fuckable because she's pregnant. While in the first book, Harry the sexgod (as all male protagonists of pulp are) fucks her silly all the time, in the second book, she loses all of her sexuality because a pregnant woman isn't sexy, I guess. At least the homophobia is toned down slightly.

The first Necroscope was published in 1986, set in 1977, while this second book was published in 1988, when glasnost and perestroika had come full swing. A newer, gentler USSR was born, despite the ticking clock counting down to 1991. Necroscope II reflects this newer USSR by (heretically) having more humanized Soviets... other than the cartoon villain that I mentioned at the beginning of the post. No, Necroscope II features British Intelligence agents and Soviets working together, collaborating to fight a greater evil. Lumley even manages to depict the USSR's bureaucracy and operations with a modicum of respect. As this series is so firmly rooted in the Cold War, it's worth tracking how the novels reveal the ideologies that underpin the conflict. What this says about the novels themselves is up for debate. Does the series help us understand the Cold War in a different light? Do the novels reflect an effort to recontextualize and rehabilitate the psychic trauma wrought by decades of paranoia by pushing the conflict into the realm of the physical and tangible? Do the novels forgive or legitimize the atrocities and errors committed by the various states by fantasizing an evil greater than the sum? Questions perhaps I'd be better equipped to answer once I've sunk further into Lumley's chaotic and violent world.

While perhaps not as fresh as the first novel, as Necroscope II replicates the structure of the first, I still quite liked it. I managed to zip through the novel at a good clip. Even if it feels ramshackle, as if Lumley wrote the whole thing in one night and never bothered to polish the prose, Necroscope II is a fun pulpy adventure.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Halloween II


I've been writing fairly extensively over at Letterboxd, but in conversation with a friend, the spectre of that site's disappearance reared its head. I thought perhaps I need to start editing and reposting the reviews that I'm interested in preserving for all time (it's less likely Google will disappear before Letterboxd). In this case, a stray thought I had about stealth video games and Michael Myers turned into a longish piece about morality and affect. In this newest permutation, I also consider the film's thematics of chaos and order.


I watched this film on the Scream Factory Blu-ray. The transfer looks good, maybe not great, but I was quite irritated that no subtitles were included. I watch everything with subtitles as I don't like to miss any dialogue. Also, maybe my hearing has gone.

Halloween II was released in 1981, but still seem to used the same Panavision cameras that the original used (these Panavision cameras and lenses were an industry standard for decades). I can't find the exact film stock for the original, but Halloween II was filmed with Eastman 100T 5247, which was widely used in the late 70s and early 80s (eg Blade Runner, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Shining). The combination of this particular film stock and the Panavision lenses seems to produce more frequent lens flares when the camera captures artificial light. Halloween II apes the original and really, Carpenter's stylistic tic of highlighting lens flares, possibly exaggerating them. A major difference between the first film and its sequel appear to be one of more grain: Halloween II is distinctly grainier, judging by this Blu-ray and the 35th Anniversary Digibook edition of Halloween. Not a criticism, simply an observation.

The stealth game is one of my favourite subgenres of video games. I do not have amazing reflexes but I do have lots of patience. Stealth games reward the players that are not impulsive, but methodical, the players that can observe the patterns and make their move with little room for error. Stealth games often task the player with entering a location undetected, avoiding guards, accomplishing whatever the mission asks, and then exiting without detection. If faced with the inevitability of violence, the game rewards those who can dispatch enemies without a sound, without a witness. Stealth games asks the player to become hyper-vigilant of their movement, their sound, their position relative to enemies' sight and hearing. Often, the player is rewarded for listening to the conversations between guards, between non-playable characters, as information overheard can often be useful. In most stealth games, the player is the hero (in all cases, the player is the protagonist), which does pose its own ethical quandaries (in video game criticism, this is called ludonarrative dissonance: when the player is asked to make his avatar behave differently than the narrative demands). The guards are part of the antagonist's party; the missions have the villains dispatched in often bloody and violent methods.

Michael Myers is perhaps the finest stealth game protagonist that has ever existed. His ability to move silently and without observation is unrivalled in horror filmdom, I believe. While Freddy Krueger demands an audience (so much so that his usurpation of the "screen" of a dream is his modus operandi), and while Jason is a force of nature, Michael stalks, observes, and plots. He sets traps; he uses tricks; he listens and changes tactics like the good strategist he is. Halloween II seems more interested in the Shape as a character than the first film, which features him only as a presence. I find it a terrific shame that Michael Myers hasn't made it into the 2010s with his dignity intact (cough Rob Zombie cough) as his story style lends itself to constant reimaginings. Michael Myers is beautifully simple as a narrative device: arrive, stalk, murder, get shot. He is not tied to a specific location such as Jason (camp) or Freddy (dreams). His zone of action is in the suburban sprawl. In fact, it is the cell-like nature of suburban homes that provides Myers with the opportunity to execute expertly his stealth skills.

What makes slasher films so interesting to me is the audience's tendency to root for the antagonist, to become invested in their journey, their murders, the skill with which they pull off these amazing feats of murder. Slashers are exquisite technologies of death and there is beauty in their terrorism. However, it's the moral dimension that intrigues me. Watching Halloween II for the first time (maybeI can't remember if I saw it the same weekend I watched the first film on VHS, but maybe I did), I was struck by the similarity in tactics used by Michael and those I use in my stealth video games, especially in this sequel. His silent creeping, his methodical patience, the nervy tactician all reminded me of myself. What sort of moral position does that put me in, I wonder.

Other critics of horror have written, quite intelligently, of the moral dissonance required to enjoy the violent (often sexualized) deaths of innocent people. I won't rehash their arguments here. Suffice it to say that horror films ask many emotions of the viewer, just as video games ask many emotions. Sometimes these emotions are contradictory. The pleasure and thrill of watching somebody dies butts up against the empathy and humanizing labour the screenplay asks of the audience. It's all rather uncanny.

The uncanny, in the Freudian sense, is very cinematic right from the beginning. In his essay on the uncanny, Freud provides a very cinematic image with which to understand the concept:
I was sitting alone in my wagon-lit compartment when a more than usually violent jolt of the train swung back the door of the adjoining washing-cabinet, and an elderly gentleman in a dressing-gown and a travelling cap came in. I assumed that in leaving the washing-cabinet, which lay between the two compartments, he had taken the wrong direction and come into my compartment by mistake. Jumping up with the intention of putting him right, I at once realized to my dismay that the intruder was nothing but my own refection in the looking-glass on the open door.
Movement and the subject’s unfamiliarity with his own body sustain the uncomfortable and anxious feeling of the uncanny. It is his body that he sees and it is not his body that he sees. Cinema itself plays on the uncanny effect of seeing a two dimensional picture move as if a three dimensional event. This affect of the uncanny works in cinema through the audience’s doubt, their uncertainty at the real on the screen. Cinema challenges the strict division between the animate (the bodies of reality) with the inanimate (the bodies of the two dimensional). The inanimate yet still living body and the animate yet dead body present a crucial problem for the spectator. The latter, the moving dead body, fascinates and horrifies audiences still and always will. These are “narratives in which the dead return to the world of the living as a ghostly apparition: inorganic but animate” (Mulvey 38), sometimes literally, more often figuratively.

What is the story of Michael Myers but an animate inorganic killing machine? Constantly in Halloween II, Loomis keeps telling people he shot Michael 6 times. He keeps shooting the Shape but the Shape never stays down. He looks uncanny: he has a face which is not a face. He moves uncannily: he is slow, inexorable, he sits up effortlessly. He cannot be killed. He cannot be stopped. Even a gunshot to the face barely slows him down. He is also motivated by a return to the source. The uncanny is effective, Freud argues, because “for an emotional effect to have a relation to the unconscious mind, it must have undergone a process of repression from which it may return” (Mulvey 39). Myers is compelled to return to Haddonfield; he is the death drive incarnate.

As I mentioned earlier, Michael is the pre-eminent stealth protagonist in that he is ruthless and excessively skilled. In another instance of the uncanny, the audience is asked to identify with him, through his first person perspective (the camera is his eye in many instances) and through our investment in his campaign of death. If Michael is a technology of death in the Foucauldian sense, and cinema is a technology of death in the Freudian sense, what effect does that have on the viewer? What position are we asked to take? Are we to be like the stealth video game protagonist, exercising an illusory power, achieving the goals set out by programmers/directors? Or are we the product of these technologies enacting their power upon our bodies? Art, as I've said many times, is transformative, literally and figuratively. The transformation comes from the physiological changes wrought by shifting emotional states while figuratively, our brains are irrevocably changed by the new memories. The cultural object elicits an affective response; we are victims of a technology of emotion. Michael Myers elicits a complex emotion, exerts a force upon our bodies, both literally and figuratively. Though, in an odd way, his calmness and stealth-protagonist steeliness stands in opposition to the hysteria of Haddonfield.

The chaos of Halloween II strikes me as more thematically intriguing than the hunter-prey simplicity of the first film (though don't mistake me for not believing Halloween is a far superior object in totality). The narrative device of the town's violent reaction allows for a surface examination of the inextricable cyclical nature of retributive justice. It might be a stretch to claim that Halloween II offers a sympathetic portrayal of the failings of the mental health apparatuses of 1970s America, but perhaps it does timidly suggest that institutions really struggle with how to repair damage that's impossible to see. Michael's motivation is left aggressively opaque; Loomis offers the possibility that Michael is just pure evil, unrelenting, inexhaustible evil, and maybe in the cartoon world of slashers (a world of immortals and resurrections) this could suffice, but the first two films are grounded in a reality distant (but not too far) from the caricature Earth depicted in Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street films. Similarly, the town's reaction to Michael is an investment in retributive justice as rehabilitation appears out of the realm of possibility for Michael Myers. An illustrative scene has the town throwing bricks and other projectiles at the old Myers house, as if this act of mass revenge could exorcise themselves of Michael. Or perhaps, the citizens are struggling with guilt, knowing that locking Michael away, trying to erase him, trying to suppress him, was never going to work.

At the risk of verging into cliché, I could propose that Michael functions as Haddonfield's id, in the Freudian schema that includes the ego and the super-ego as the other two points of the subconscious triangle. The id is the unrestrained instincts, the primal urges that contain the drives. The super-ego could be the Law and other institutions, the hyper-rational utterances of authority, with the town's denizens acting as the mediator in the ego role.

But there is a chance that I've read this wrong. Perhaps Michael is not the id but the ego and he is mediating between the id, the denizens of this suburb, and the super-ego of the Law. Instead of allowing their id to run unchecked, Haddonfield elected Michael to make sure that sex and immortality and licentious behaviour would not go unpunished. Or, maybe, instead of being elected to this position, figures such as Michael are organically produced when the population of a group reaches a high enough number. Michael is a necessary byproduct of civilization. He is, again, the Foucauldian technology of death. He is the necropower.

It does make a bit of sense that during all this, Michael seems to be the only calm person in the whole film. Loomis seems positively detached, ranting and raving at anybody who will listen. Laurie is clearly suffering from some post-traumatic stress and can barely put a cogent thought together. The sheriff is incapacitated by grief. The nurses and EMTs are distracted by lust, by fear, by other primal urges. Nameless citizens gawk at the television, or they ignore the danger that the super-ego represents. They are driven by affect and affect only. Michael stands in opposition to this wild abandoned Bacchanalia of emotion; he is cold, calculating, but still with some of the passions of humanity, such as pain and anger. When hurt, he recoils. When angered, he reacts. He is a thinking machine, after all.

Haddonfield doesn't know what to do with Michael other than to destroy him, obliterate him. All evidence of his existence must be eradicated: his body, his childhood home, the relationship between him and Laurie. That they share parents is a fact erased by the paternal hand of a collective that thinks it knows better than the super-ego. The chaos of Haddonfield stands in, then, for the unhinged reaction against this unthinking, uncaring horde. They must be punished. Thus, Michael is the avenging angel.

As for the film itself, I thought it was a smidge above satisfactory. The director has an eye for composition, but obviously not to the same degree as the great Carpenter. Rick Rosenthal tends to more medium shots, more typical framing than the "Vistavision" widescreen panoramas that Carpenter so carefully apes. Where the first Halloween is slow and dreamy, full of repetitions, the second is chaotic and haphazard, reflecting the town's reaction to the events of the first. The story lacks a clear protagonist, preferring to float around in search of one, but this didn't irritate me as it did others. I found the film's refusal to stick with a protagonist to work thematically, as Halloween II is preoccupied with a larger, messier canvas. I really enjoyed the new mask that Michael wears (despite taking place the same night) and I quite liked the hospital setting. I could have done with more Jamie Lee Curtis, but then again, every movie could do with more of her. She's such an irresistible force. On the whole, a movie I'd be glad to rewatch.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Captain America: Civil War


In retrospect, I might have been a bit too hard on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. This realization dawned (of justice) on me around the 1h45m mark of Civil War (hereafter CW sans italics) when the characters had yet another oh-so meaningful conversation regarding the inextricable tensions between liberty and security. The purity of BvS occurred to me, that film's insistence on mythology over real world political analogues struk me as more palatable, more tasteful than the "topical" attempts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. CW tries, with all the exertions of an old man attempting to depart from a comfy chair, to be thoughtful about the massive property destruction that's characteristic—and demanded—of these blockbusters. 

The most egregious of this film comes after the opening action sequence. A building on Lagos is destroyed, killing dozens, including some Wakandans, who are outraged (as is typical of Hollywood films, actual Africans, specifically Nigerians, are absent and denied any voice). The Avengers are called by the Secretary of Defence or State or whatever, it doesn't matter, and he shows them clips from previous Marvel films involving massive property destruction. After each clip, the camera cuts to the guilty face of an Avenger, who averts their eyes from the evidence of their complicity in the deaths of untold people. The mournful non-diegetic score wails, demanding pathos of the audience. 

This type of waffling strikes me as more offensive than the blatant disregard for humanity that BvS showed in spades. CW wants the characters to be held accountable for the CGI destruction that the audience paid for. There's something acutely irritating about all this. The audience pays their hard earned small amount of income to see good looking actors beat each other up with lots of collateral damage. That's literally the point of these films, especially this serial narrative that is working towards a galaxy-spanning conflict between actual gods. To have the film turn around and chastise the characters, and in turn, the audience for wanting to witness this, to participate in this, sticks in my craw a bit. The gleeful abandonment of care and attention paid by BvS (synecdoche: Wonder Woman's smile as she fights Doomsday) is perhaps a better thematic and tonal fit than the moralistic hand-wringing of CW.

The big showdown between superhero team versus superhero team reveals that this virtuous self-righteousness is all but a shell game, a masquerade to indulge in destruction. Captain America and Iron Man assemble their various teams and then completely destroy an airport to stop each other. The Vision uses his overpowered forehead beam to slice off the air traffic control tower, letting it tumble with countless 1s and 0s flying each and every way. Ant-Man becomes Giant-Man and rips the wing off an airplane to hit War Machine. Both the Winter Soldier and the Falcon destroy the terminal in their attempt to evade Spider-Man. And so on and so forth. Each of these beats in this action sequence evokes a "WOW" or a "COOL" from the audience... in opposition to the dour moralizing that we were asked to perform earlier in the film. CW, like BvS, wants to have its destruction and its innocence at the same time. Just like in BvS, there's an awkward insert shot of a character informing another that the battleground has been evacuated. And just like in BvS, the A plot hinges on the collateral damage suffered by the victims. 

Of course, CW is infinitely more entertaining than the smug mythologizing of BvS. The secret to the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not in their plotting or in their serial nature, but in their absolutely canny sense of casting. Every actor cast in these films seems born to have played the character, none as perfectly cast as Tom Holland as Peter Parker. His Peter appears in two scenes and Spidey appears only in one, but these three scenes are intensely brightened by his perfect characterization: his non-stop chatter, his quips, his dorky enthusiasm, his scientific acumen. The film completely captures what Peter Parker is: a huge geek trying to stand up for the "little guy" as he says. Unfortunately, the film doesn't have the space for Peter to have his crisis on conscience (that he always has) as he does in the comic version of Civil War. Nor does the film have the space to invest in any deeper characterization of any B or C level participant, including its primary villain. But, as always, the canny casting lets the film coast on the actors' bountiful charisma.

In a film of charming people, Daniel Brühl seems to stand out. His charm feels effortless and never cloying, never arrogant. I would kill for half the charm this guy has. In a masterful move, the Russo Brothers allow his Zemo two scenes with a German housekeeper in a hotel. Firstly, the genius of this inclusion comes in its setup-payoff structure: we see them interact once; the second time reverses it for a shock. Secondly, it provides the audience a glimpse into the humanity of Zemo. The housekeeper brings food and Brühl thanks her for this and spends an extra second remarking on how good it looks and smells. I was, of course, smitten with Brühl in this tiny moment, as we're supposed to be. Later in the film, Zemo calls the housekeeper to trick her into entering the room of her own accord to find the dead body (not sure what this accomplishes, but whatever). In this two second long interaction, we get the sense that Zemo doesn't want to hurt her, that she's an innocent, but it's a necessary evil. It's Brühl's performance that allows for this to work, certainly not the writing. 

The film's plot doesn't quite make much sense. Something I knew used to bother Roger Ebert was when plots required characters to be dumb in order to function: somebody acting counter to their characterization to let some plot contrivance to happen. CW hinges almost entirely on this annoyance. There's nothing stopping Steve from explaining to Tony his suspicion regarding Zemo. But again, these films aren't about plotting but about casting and punches.

The film puts in so much work to set up Tony and Steve as equal opposites, ideologically speaking. The audience can't help but sympathize with Tony's guilt and shame regarding his complicity in deaths, but on the other hand, Steve's determination to stay free of political agendas is just as compelling. Yet, none of this matters because the logic of the plot vindicates Steve almost right away. At no point is Tony ever in a higher moral position because he is operating under the sway of a lie. It's a bit galling to have all these thematic pontificating that results in nothing perceptive or insightful by the end, as Steve was always in the right, even if he's being stubborn about Bucky anyway. 

There's only one scene of heteronormative desire in CW: Steve kisses Sharon Carter (the niece of his first love... weird). The rest of the film is dudes working out their dude problems with their bros. CW is perhaps the gayest Hollywood film since Carol: all sorts of physical interactions, grunts, stolen glances, seething inner turmoil as the characters resist their queer desires and subsume them under the aegis of "loyalty" and "brotherhood." It is not a novel observation to see a queer subtext in the drama of superheroes, but certainly CW strains plausibility that the filmmakers did not know they were making a gay love triangle. Sam Wilson memorably tells Steve that the same people who "shoot" at Steve end up "shooting" at him as well. Shooting their wad? Blowing their load? Peter Parker blasts a sticky white substance on Tony's hand—in Peter's bedroom—with the door closed. Tony literally rummages in Peter's closet. Black Panther rakes his claws against men, grunting and groaning the entire time. Paul Rudd's Ant-Man, when faced with the legendary Captain America, can't help but touch Chris Evans' muscles. 

This begs the question of what does this mean. What does a queer subtext teach us about these characters? In their important essay "What Does Queer Theory Teach Us about X?" Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner editorialize on the benefits of a rigorous discourse named "queer theory." At length, I'll quote an important section.
We can say that queer commentary has been animated by a sense of belonging to a discourse world that only partly exists yet. This work aspires to create publics, publics that can afford sex and intimacy in sustained, unchastening ways; publics that can comprehend their own differences of privilege and struggle; publics whose abstract spaces can also be lived in, remembered, hoped for. By publics we do not mean populations of self-identified queers. Nor is the name queer an umbrella for gays, lesbians, bi-sexuals, and the transgendered. Queer publics make available different understandings of membership at different times, and membership in them is more a matter of aspiration than it is the expression of an identity or a history. Through a wide range of mongrelized genres and media, queer commentary allows a lot of unpredictability in the culture it brings into being.
Apologizing for their very 90s usage of "transgendered," we can see that a queer reading of CW doesn't necessarily predict a queer film. Rather, a queer reading of CW opens up a public (Warner has written extensively on the concept of different publics) with increased political and social possibilities. The different publics that queer theory creates helps us best understand the benefits of a queer reading of CW. Which is to say that CW, a film hyperbolically concerned with belonging, membership, and the credentializing of juridical processes, lends itself to a discourse that's fundamentally about thinking critical about the politics of membership and the intersecting vectors of political influences, publics, and desires. They continue, writing that:
Much queer commentary has been on the political environments of sexuality; it sees intimate sex practices and affects as related not just to family, romance, or friendship, but also to the public world governing both policy and everyday life. While to many these spheres are separate, in queer thinking they are one subject. Queer commentary has tried to challenge some major conditions of privacy, so that shame and the closet would be understood no longer as isolation chambers but as the architecture of common culture, so that vernacular performances would no longer stammer with the ineloquence of tacit codes, barely self-acknowledged, and so that questions of propriety and explicitness would no longer be burdened by the invisible normativity of heterosexual culture.
CW imagines the collapse of spheres, as queer theory asks of commentators: the private spheres of Tony's money, his friendship with the Avengers, the geopolitical interference of the superhero team in non-sanctioned acts. The private sphere and the public sphere collapse into each other at the same time, an epistemological change in affect for the characters as their queer desires become the same as their ideological desires. The creation of publics that can address this collapse in a critical manner while still politically advancing their causes call for a cultural object with the subtextual obviousness of CW.

This is what makes the topical self-seriousness of the film so hard to swallow; the political aspect seems like a smokescreen, an excuse to engage in these romantic squabbles that have to "stammer with the ineloquence of tacit codes" instead of announcing their queer desires with the same pride as they wear their formfitting uniforms.

A queer reading of CW teaches us nothing new about superheroes, but it does create a public in which queer readings are legitimized by both: academic rigour and dissemination; and relevancy as the vectors of disposable pop culture objects and academic rigour meet. Queer readings show themselves amenable to the mass culture and the mass culture shows itself amenable to queer publics. In other words, a queer reading of CW advances the political position of queer folk by representation. The Marvel Cinematic Universe currently lacks any canonical queer character (in the comics, Loki is genderfluid and pansexual) but a reading of their homosocial spaces as an arena for clashing queer desires perhaps provides representation to the young queer fans desperate for heroes that resemble them.