Fully Sick, Dude

Readers may find parts of this article distressing.

 

I walked out of The Hateful Eight.

Hateful-Eight-Poster-2016-1Women are punched in the face; the “n–” word is thrown about like it’s going out of fashion (hint: it has); and there’s a graphic rape / murder scene.  Death, death, death…  Lots more death, a bit of pain, some mayhem, slaughter, and havoc, served with a garnish of carnage.

Are we having fun yet?

And it’s not alone.  Judge Dredd, Sin City, Hansel and Gretel, Fury, Machete…  All present an unremittingly bleak world, full of violence and cruelty.

Seen Snowpiercer?  People are axed, shot, stabbed, impaled…  Early on, a character’s arm is frozen and smashed with a hammer.  There’s a slow motion massacre halfway through the film.  All of humanity except an Asian woman and a black boy die by the end – and, it’s implied, they’re about to become a snack for a polar bear.

And the cinema audience finds this hilarious.

They howl with as much glee at the bloody spectacle as their ancestors did at Tyburn or Newgate or the Colosseum.

I came out of The Hateful Eight wanting a bath, a brain bleach, and an ounce of civet to sweeten my imagination.

The highbrow arts are no better. Regietheater productions of opera bear no resemblance to the original work; characters in trench coats wander around a lunatic asylum, choruses of giant rats wave placards and banners with political slogans or squirt syringes of blood all over the stage, Don Giovanni dies of a drug overdose, nuns are raped, the heads of Buddha and Muhammad are thrown onto the stage, and the thing ends with a 5 minute film of a decomposing rabbit being eaten by maggots.

Directors see classical theatre as a vehicle for political propaganda. Katie Mitchell’s Oresteia (London, 1999) and Iphigenia at Aulis (London, 2004) comment on the Balkans and the Iraq war; Annie Castledine’s Trojan Women (London, 1995) and Peter Sellars’s Persians (Salzburg, 1993) offer nothing more uplifting than the idea that war is bad and America evil. What this has to do with Aeschylus or Euripides is unclear.

Then there’s poor old Medea! Not only has she been abandoned by her husband, she now appears in avowedly anti-male productions such as Tony Harrison’s Medea: SexWar (London 1991) or Brendan Kennelly’s misandric translation (Dublin, 1998).

Charles Mee’s productions of Greek tragedy rejoice in the violence they claim to criticise, and “offer entertainment comparable to the killings enacted to amuse the populace in Rome”.

THE NEXT 2 PARAGRAPHS MAY DISTRESS SOME READERS

His Hippolytus (New York, 2001) contains “a meditation on a father molesting his daughter, an electric masturbation with car cables, and a lemon pie ground by an actor into an audience member’s crotch”. Robert Woodruff’s Orestes (1992) features “an anal violation of Pylades by Electra wearing a dildo”.

(See Simon Goldhill, How to Read Greek Tragedy Today, University of Chicago Press, 2007; and Marianne McDonald, The Living Art of Greek Tragedy, Indiana University Press, 2003.)

Performance artists are even worse. Karen Finley covers herself in chocolate and stuffs yams into her bodily orifices to show the degradation of women. Oleg Kulik stuck his head in a cow’s vagina in an attempt to be born anew; unsurprisingly, he wasn’t. “Inside the cow I realised that there is no reality, and that means that reality is still to be discovered.” Miss Crash sticks needles through herself and hangs herself from the roof by hooks in her knees. Killian Skarr makes torture devices and uses them on naked women.

SAFE TO READ NOW!

These artists claim that the world is a horrible place, and patrons must suffer and recognise their guilt. “Generating shock remains the duty of anyone who aims to reflect the world back at itself”; they have to “rape the audience into independence”. “We are only reflecting the brutality of the world,” curator Peter Eeley says, “and your complicity in it”.

Okay. Deep breath.

Let’s assume for a second that this is a realistic reflection of life, and that the world is as nasty a place as these artists claim.

What, then, is the point of these works? The world is full of hatred and brutality. Basic human values — love, kindness, compassion, courage, honesty and empathy — are absent.   Why would anyone care about such a horrible place, let alone have the courage to make it better?

Instead of criticizing violence, as they claim, they contribute to it. The issues that they claim to be angry about are only an excuse to wallow in violence – certainly in the case of Tarantino, whose films use historical atrocities – the Holocaust, the slave societies of the American South – to justify carnage and wholesale massacre, show different races as enemies, and revel in the “n” word. Their only answer to a problem is violence. Watching people die is fun, and killing someone is acceptable. Is it any wonder that gun violence has increased?

But, of course, this reflection of life is not a true one. Life is not a vale of tears and suffering, from which death (preferably by hacksaw, with maximum splatter) is a merciful release. True, the world does have problems: climate change, militarism, religious fanaticism, the divide between the developed and developing worlds, oppressive regimes, threats to the environment and to other species, inequality, bigotry and homophobia. But we are aware of these problems, and are working on solving them.   The future could be better than we think. The vast majority of people are not sociopaths but well intentioned and fundamentally decent. Life isn’t always sunshine and music and wonderful roses, but they exist.

Such works are destructive. While they claim to represent reality, they distort it. They show life as much uglier and harsher than it is, while taking away our hope to do anything other than inflict pain and kill.

Well, you know

We all want to change the world

But when you talk about destruction

Don’t you know that you can count me out!

But if you want money for people with minds that hate

All I can tell you is brother you have to wait.

Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right?

Boldly Going?

star-trek-into-darkness-poster“High octane!”—Thelma Adams (US Weekly). “Exhilarating!”—Peter Travers (Rolling Stone). “Spectacular action!”—Roy Bennett (Hollywood Reporter).

We’re talking about Star Trek here, folks. Or, to be precise, J.J. Abrams’s version of it.

Those who remember the various TV series but haven’t seen Star Trek (2009) or Into Darkness (2013) may scratch their heads in puzzlement. “High-octane” doesn’t exactly describe the voyages of pseudo-military diplomats and scientists / United Nations peacekeeping taskforce around the galaxy. “Spectacular action” isn’t the word for people sitting around a table discussing the ethical consequences of an act.

Whereas “action” for Abrams means exactly that. As writer and director, Abrams is an action moviemaker. His directorial debut was Mission Impossible III. Armageddon and Cloverfield are disaster movies, in which The World As We Know It ™ is threatened by a rogue asteroid and a huge and hungry monster.

He brings this approach to Star Trek. Planets get blown up. Spaceships get blown up. People get blown up. Nobody has any time for discussion; they’re too busy punching each other in the face.

But is this actually Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek?

The problem is that Abrams wants to make Star Wars. He’s open about preferring the action driven Star Wars, and not liking Trek until he was assigned to direct the movie. In an interview with the Daily Show, he said that he didn’t like Trek because “it always felt too philosophical”.

The two are very different beasts. Sure, they both have Star in the title, and they’re both set in space. And there the similarities pretty much end. Star Trek is philosophical science fiction, combined with the theatrical tradition of early television.[1] The action often comes down to two or three actors standing in a set – a dialogue-driven ,theatrical tradition that lets the audience engage with ideas.

[1] The series’ leads — William Shatner, Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks and Kate Mulgrew — all have a strong theatrical background. Shakespeare and theatre have been central to the series, starting with the Hamlet-in-space “The Conscience of the King” in the very first season. Many of the more interesting episodes use avant garde theatre techniques, notably the excellent Brechtian “Frame of Mind”, itself about the production of a play and the blurring between reality and illusion, or the two-handers in Deep Space Nine and Voyager, starting with “Armageddon Game”.

The TV series embodied Enlightenment liberal humanism: a belief that humanity would learn and grow, and that knowledge would make the world a better place.

“Star Trek speaks to some basic human needs: that there is a tomorrow—it’s not all going to be over with a big flash and a bomb; that the human race is improving; that we have things to be proud of as humans. No, ancient astronauts did not build the pyramids—human beings built them, because they’re clever and they work hard. And Star Trek is about those things.” (Roddenberry)

This, the show suggests, is our future: a society in which people of different races, sexes and species work together as equals, free from disease, want or superstition, and in which their basic needs are met by technology. This fundamentally optimistic vision is the product of the 1960s, a time of burgeoning racial and sexual equality and when Neil Armstrong took “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”.

Star Wars is high fantasy in space, complete with orphan farmboys who are really the Chosen One, black-vizarded sorcerers, mystic prophecies, and a simplistic view of good versus evil. It’s also the ancestor of today’s SFX-driven blockbusters, in which spectacle drives the narrative.

trek poster 2The Abrams movies are firmly in the blockbuster tradition. Look at the size of Nero’s ship! Look at Vulcan explode! Look at the Enterprise nearly smash into a planet while a volcano erupts!

This is what blockbusters do: amaze the audience with images. They are, in Umberto Eco’s sense, pornographic. “[Their] true and sole aim is to stimulate the spectator’s desire, from beginning to end, and in such a way that, while the desire is stimulated by scenes of various and varied copulations, the rest of the story counts for less than nothing.” For ‘copulations’, read explosions, people brawling in scenes of unbridled sadomasochistic homoeroticism (or homoerotic sadomasochism, depending on your tastes), people being slammed into buildings, buildings being demolished – and lots of explosions.

Retooling Star Trek as a special effects extravaganza is at odds with the original’s philosophical approach.

Captain Kirk is now an action hero. Sure, William Shatner got into fisticuffs on a regular basis. (Which, for some strange reason, ended with his shirt being torn open.) But he was also an explorer, a man of intellect and passion as well as action. He had the wisdom to mediate between the competing claims of pure logic (Spock) and emotion (McCoy), and take effective action. In the movie, Christopher Pine’s Kirk is an immature braggart, and not the sort of person who should command a spaceship. Zachary Quinto’s Spock is rulebound, unlike the TV series character, whose principles were reason and curiosity, and who ignored regulations when they clashed with logic. And McCoy is sidelined.

The television series has very few external, universe-shattering threats.[2] Instead, the recurring menace is to the individual’s sense of self, their intellectual autonomy or their ability to distinguish reality from illusion.[3] Blockbuster movies have to have extravagant plots to accommodate the special effects sequences. Everything has to be BIG![4] Attempts to destroy the Federation and alien invasions.

[2] The Next Generation has “The Best of Both Worlds” (a two parter split across seasons) and the final episode “All Good Things…” These become more common in Deep Space Nine and Voyager.

 

[3] For instance, “Dagger of the Mind”, “The Enemy Within” and “The Naked Time”.

[4] Something similar happened to Doctor Who. The post-2005 series blows up the universe every year and drags Earth across time and space.

Humanity is largely missing from the Abrams movies. Both movies end with the famous ‘Space, the final frontier’ speech, but it’s lip service; curiosity and open-mindedness are not an ethical framework for the movies. The urge ‘to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before’, and the belief in ‘Infinite diversity in infinite combinations’ — the sense of a vast universe full of wonderful things — is absent. The universe Abrams depicts is not an attractive one. Vulcan and Romulus get blown up; Kirk is marooned on an arctic waste, and nearly crashes the Enterprise on a jungle world. The Federation itself is corrupt, threatened by terrorists without and xenophobes within.

This is the post 9/11 world. The lesson of 9/11 is fear. Fear of the unknown; fear of other people; fear of ourselves. Consider the future shown in today’s entertainment. The future is almost invariably presented as dystopian, a wasteland in which the human race has either been wiped out, lives in ghettoes, conquered by aliens or evil computers, or turned into flesh-eating zombies. Space is a hostile environment, in which people are devoured by alien monstrosities or reduced to cosmic insignificance. Space is not somewhere we want to be. Why would you want to find out about such a world? Better to stay at home where it’s safe.

“If man is to survive, he will have learned to take a delight in the essential differences between men and between cultures. He will learn that differences in ideas and attitudes are a delight, part of life’s exciting variety, not something to fear.”

 

SPECTRE at the Feast

Spectre poster

SPECTRE, the latest in the movie adventures of Ian Fleming’s spy with a licence to kill, is an improvement on its immediate predecessors – Quantum of Solace, which got lost somewhere in the Bolivian desert, and the gloomy Skyfall – but is very far from being premium Bond.

Despite the exciting opening bid of Casino Royale in 2006, which rebooted the franchise with Daniel Craig as a tougher, moodier 007 for the twenty-first century, the producers have failed to play a grand slam.

There are beautiful women, car chases, and globe-trotting. Bond travels from Italy to the Swiss Alps to a desert in Tunisia before returning to London for an explosive finish as he matches wits against his old adversary SPECTRE – the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion – last seen in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever. In its latest incarnation, it is presided over by Christoph Waltz’s Franz Oberhauser, a villain so in control he has no need to lift his voice.

The opening, set in Mexico City on the Day of the Dead, is as good anything in the series’ fifty year history; it moves from an extended tracking shot of which the Sokurov of Russian Ark would be proud, to a fight in a helicopter that effortlessly outdoes the similar scene in For Your Eyes Only.

And yet SPECTRE largely fails to entertain.

The tone is sombre, any sense of fun absent.

These are liabilities in a Bond film.

The pre-Craig movies were escapist romps that seldom took themselves seriously. 007 travelled the world with a Walther PPK under one arm and a blonde bombshell over the other, always ready to raise an eyebrow at whatever shenanigans the likes of Roald Dahl or George Macdonald Fraser could conjure up.

In between abseiling into volcanoes and fending off mute Korean strongmen with razor-tipped bowlers, Bond drank vodka martinis – shaken, of course, not stirred – at beachside bars in the Bahamas and bedded suspiciously named enemy agents.

This was a man, one felt, who enjoyed life.

One never gets this impression from Craig’s snarling, brooding Bond, a heavy in a tuxedo, who is serious to the point of dourness. While convincing as a killer, Craig lacks Sean Connery’s charisma or the sheer likeability of Roger Moore.

If, as rumour suggests, Craig has tired of the role, perhaps it’s time for another reboot, and for Bond to rediscover his licence – not merely to kill, but to thrill.

Reviewing (or Wrecking) Ball Rolling

Here endeth capsule reviews of movies seen in the last month.

Gremlins II (1990): I’ve seen this twice in the last month, and would easily place it in my top dozen movies. It’s gleeful, energetic, and hugely inventive, with a series of brilliant gags: ‘Fire, the untamed element…’; Leonard Maltin’s cameo; the rupturing of the fourth wall halfway through; the intellectual Gremlin (‘Now, was that civilized?’); and the musical number. Great soundtrack (which I’m currently using as my ringtone).
(The gags reel is worth watching for the monkey and the Gremlin.)

 

Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy (2003–2007): Why are these critically panned? Maltin and Kermode in the Guardian both loathe it. And yet they’re terrific films. The first one is definitely the weakest; the series hits its stride with the second two, which are exuberant and high-spirited, with some terrific set-pieces (the cannibals’ island, the fight on the wheel, Jack Sparrow in the Locker, the naval battle at the end), and a theme of adventure and freedom versus mercantile capitalism and bureaucracy. But then I thought that The Lone Ranger was the best film of 2013.

 

7 Years in Tibet (1997): A great adventure film, about an Austrian climber in Tibet, just before the Chinese occupation. What makes it stand out is the unusual setting and the superb cinematography. Reminded me in part of David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia), The Man Who Would Be King, and, of course, Tintin in Tibet.

 

The Last King of Scotland (2006): Gripping account of Idi Amin’s regime in Uganda. Two great performances: Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin, who is at once jovial, hearty, & larger than life, and bloody terrifying; and James McAvoy as a likeable young doctor who falls under Amin’s spell, becomes his physician, and belatedly becomes aware of the horrors of the regime. Remarkably tense second half, with a palpable atmosphere of danger; the escape from the airport is edge of the seat stuff.

 

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989): This is where I lose all intellectual credibility (bummer), but this is fun. Like the seemingly stupid but good natured and enthusiastic duo, it’s enormously likeable. Its heart is in the right place, and, although it may not seem like it, so is its brain: the time loop jokes are clever; the mall scene is funny (Genghis Khan in the sports shop); and it has Freud psychoanalysing a psychiatrist (‘Tell me about your mother’). What’s not to like?

 

Saving Private Ryan (1998): Unusually for a Steven Spielberg movie, this is almost completely uninvolving. Too long by at least an hour, it goes on and on and on. No suspense; no engaging characters (except, briefly, for the always likeable Matt Damon). In essence, it’s a silent movie, with a soundtrack of gunshots and explosions.

 

The Two Faces of January (2014): A thriller without much thrills. Atmosphere is sterile; and there are only three characters, all of whom are miserable. Cinematography lousy: digital camera, shallow depth of field, handheld. Score is wannabe Bernard Herrmann: lots of turbulent strings. Based on a Patricia Highsmith novel—who wrote the books that were adapted into Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley (both good movies); she also wrote a (pretty stupid) book about pets that killed their owners: savaged by gerbils.

 

Insomnia (2002): Doesn’t live up to its name; decidedly soporific. This is one of those dreary films in which the color is muted and the soundtrack is a couple of violin chords and a piano. Story unengaging, and lacking humor, warmth and really much reason for watching. Ah well, at least Inception and The Prestige are interesting.

Wes Anderson

The Grand Budapest Hotel— based on the works of Stefan Zweig, with whom I familiar as the librettist for Richard Strauss’s operas Die schweigsame Frau (based on Jonson’s Epicoene and Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, in which the heroine decidedly doesn’t schweigt) and Daphne (in which the soprano turns into a tree)—is the best film I have seen this year. It is funny and clever, nimbly dancing across genres, from crime story and caper to great escape (from prison), 007 (echoes of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) and romance; and it is visually rich: the Art Nouveau architecture of the hotel, the oak panelling of the schloss. Its air of Central European faded elegance and cosmopolitanism recalls Chesterton and the short stories of Agatha Christie (Mr. Quin and The Labours of Hercules).

 

So I thought I would watch some of Wes Anderson’s earlier movies. Rushmore (1998) reminded me of Donnie Darko (2001); it deals with themes of adolescent alienation and awkwardness (ugh), and is about an unprepossessing adolescent creep whose calf love nearly ruins his and several other people’s lives.

 

The Darjeeling Limited (2007) has a situation (three brothers on a train in India), but no story. At least it’s visually attractive: lots of bright colors (red, blue, yellow). Can be recommended to those who like films about ‘spiritual journeys’. For the rest of us, there’s Octopussy and the Temple of Doom.

All’s Well That Ends Welles

The Chimes at Midnight (1965): Terrific film, based on Shakespeare’s Second Tetralogy (Richard II, Henry IV 1 & 2, Henry V).* Welles is splendid as the loveable rogue Falstaff (c.f. H. Bloom passim), and Gielgud magnificent as Henry IV. (It’s a treat to see Gielgud ACT, before he became old; most of what I’ve seen him in has been from the ’70s / ’80s—when he was in his.) Has a ten minute battle scene, imaginatively lit sets, and the scene where Henry V (a hypocritical codfish if ever there was one) banishes Falstaff is extremely powerful.
*: The definitive version of the Second Tetralogy is from the BBC Shakespeare series, with Derek Jacobi as Richard II and Jon Finch as Henry IV.

 

The Lady from Shanghai (1947). Very interesting Orson Welles film noir. Not quite a success, but fascinating nevertheless. Atmosphere rich and strange; excellent characterisation of wealthy decadents. Great set-pieces: the aquarium scene; the courtroom (with the defence counsel cross-examining himself); the justly celebrated mirror scene. If only we could see the uncut hour!