Archives for category: movies

In recent news, employees at the Hachette publishing group staged a walkout over the publication of Woody Allen’s memoir Apropos of Nothing. Last year, Hachette imprint Little, Brown published Catch and Kill, a work by Allen’s son Ronan Farrow (by actress Mia Farrow, Allen’s partner for 12 years) about the Harvey Weinstein scandal and how powerful mean escape accountability. Farrow has also been public about his support for his sister Dylan who claims that Allen molested her when she was 7. The internal Allen/Farrow family dynamic doesn’t interest me so much as the fact that someone at Hachette felt that the house could sidestep that dynamic. They could take the kudos for publishing Farrow’s work and also have financial dealings with Allen without taking an internal or external PR hit.

Yesterday, Hachette decided to back out of the Allen contract and pulped all copies of his book, appeasing that opposition to Allen. Farrow himself was surprised at the Allen deal because no one at Hachette had informed him it was happening.

I wish I could be surprised that a large business would engage in this kind of having cake/eating it too activity. Was it really possible that no one in the organization spoke up to say, No, the Allen deal is lousy, that it just doesn’t look good, that we have to stand by a principle in this matter? No, the principle was still let’s make money on this as long as we can get away with it. After the walkout, one executive admitted to the conflict of interest and stated that the decision to cancel the Allen contract was difficult. It’s worth noting that according to Wikipedia the Hachette group is one of the Big Six publishing houses (along with Penguin Random House and HarperCollins) and publishes approximately 2000 titles per year.

Stephen King, an author who has had his own censorship issues, released a pair of tweets. The first said ‘If you think he’s a pedophile, don’t buy the book…Vote with your wallet…In America, that’s how we do it.’ He followed up by stating my point, ‘Let me add that it was fucking tone-deaf of Hachette to want to publish Woody Allen’s book after publishing Ronan Farrow’s.’

I’d say that Allen is free to get his book out there any way he can. He’s wealthy enough to publish the thing himself if he wants to. The fact that his name is toxic in entertainment circles is not the fault of Hachette (or of any of the other publishers who passed on Apropos of Nothing). The fact that nothing came of the investigations into the charges against Allen doesn’t mean he’s innocent, first of all. It also doesn’t mean he’s guilty. But at a certain point you can look at his public behavior (his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter which began when Previn was 19 and Allen 56, and while Allen was still in a relationship with Farrow) and his movies (Manhattan for a prime example) and not just be creeped out a little bit. It’s a separate matter that over and over again in his movies he shows what little use he has for middle-aged women. Since noticing it, this has always left a bad taste in my mouth.

Another thing to note about the Hachette Group is their Center Street imprint of conservative titles. Authors who have found a home on Center Street include Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump, Jr. Recent titles include Michael Savage’s Scorched Earth: Restoring The Country After Obama. It’s not a bastion of liberalism by any stretch, and if the issue was just about authors or subjects with marital issues, then the Center Street imprint would be dragged into the discussion too.

I’d heard of Performance from a couple of different angles. I knew Jagger’s Memo From Turner came out of this movie, and I knew a couple of samples nicked by Big Audio Dynamite for the song E=MC2, which is itself an odd musical tribute to Roeg’s work.
The film is both a continuation of the gangster dramas that had been coming out since the 30s and an influence on movies that came later including In Brugges and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.
The plot has a fairly straightlaced gangster, Chas, going to ground after he kills his boss’ new protégé without authorisation. There’s an interesting subtext going on that his boss and those higher up in the organisation are middle-aged queens while Chas is not only straightlaced, but decidedly straight. Through a turn of luck, Chas overhears of a room in Notting Hill Gate from a musician going on tour who has left his gear and some unpaid rent. Chas shows up at the address and pays off the debt in return for the room. Visiting Notting Hill in the late 60s is quite odd, because the lower-class neighbourhood of that era is full of million quid houses now. Those self same houses.
Mick Jagger plays the house’s owner, retired rock star Turner. In the course of Chas’ stay in the house with Turner and his two lovers, Pherber, played by Keith Richards’ girfriend at the time, Anita Pallenberg (RIP), and Lucy, he discovers a situation that is decidedly Bohemian and sexually open. In order to get into his head, Pherber and Turner dose Chas with mushrooms and from there the movie takes a distinctly psychedelic turn.
Another place I heard of this movie was in conversation with Coil’s Jhonn Balance. I was lucky enough to chat with him after Coil played in Prague in 2002. My friend Chris asked him what the source of the sample ‘We must go further back. Further back and faster’ was from. (The track Further Back and Faster is on the 1991 album Love’s Secret Domain.) Balance referenced this movie and talked about Roeg for a little bit before we moved on to talking about Derek Jarman movies. So this film has been at the back of my mind for over 15 years. Queerness and queer identity were very much at the heart of Coil’s musical identity and the queerness of those who have authority over Chas is not a lost plot point. Chas holds enough fascination for Turner that he feels the need to defend himself from what are fairly subliminal advances on Turner’s part.
performance-lobby-card The fascination for Balance in this movie possibly included what was essentially a music video inserted in the midst of Chas’s mushroom trip. When Jagger lip syncs Memo From Turner in the offices of the gangsters Chas reports to, it’s not clear who’s experiencing what, but it’s interesting that when the movie was made, the queerness of both the song and the action in this sequence is quite matter of fact. That Chas rejects unspoken advances, as well, is (I think) meant to be interpreted as a shortcoming on his part.
This was not without controversy at the time. The studio refused to release the movie for two years due to graphic sex and violence. My first thought on reading about that was that I’d love to know what the Memo from Warners actually pointed to as problematic. By more recent standards, a few killings and a little sex are considered PG-13 fare by the MPAA, but there are two graphic scenes of gangland violence that were probably more shocking then than they’d be considered now. And unfraught sexuality between two women was also quite shocking. Imagine my surprise to find the image accompanying this review. Initially it was either given the X rating or the studio simply assigned the film an X rating. (Note: All of the other MPAA ratings are trademarked. Only the X rating can be used without MPAA authorisation. I think the idea was that the MPAA didn’t actually want to assign ratings to porno. Porn studios could take the rating and the limited release associated with it. On the other hand, in the early days of the ratings system, movies like Midnight Cowboy and Bilitis which had non-pornographic inclinations could take the rating and the artistic freedom that came with it.)
Regular readers might take my opinion of Chas’ response to Turner’s interest as hypocritical. Didn’t I just recently write that the correct response to the possibility of homosexuality in an interaction should be ‘not a problem’? What’s the difference here? The storytellers of Ready Player One were positing that the homosexual angle was to be avoided where presented. In Performance, however, the storytellers suggest that Chas’ rejection of the possibility is part and parcel of Chas’ rejection of life as a whole.
The ending of the film confused me and the friends with whom I saw the movie. It wraps up rather quickly with the viewer being not quite sure who lives and who dies (despite the writers at Wikipedia seeming very certain of themselves). That said, the movie’s seedy opulence, spot on performances from all concerned, and excellent soundtrack earn this goody four stars.

Ready Player One seen last weekend in 3-D, but not IMAX is fine on a popcorn level, to be sure, and I walked out well entertained, but there was a lot wrong with it. The quest token format is tried and true, but (in the movie’s favour) it wasn’t too obvious. Given that the plot is about finding things in an immersive video game, the format might actually be essential. The setup, given in a voiceover from the protagonist, was such that the first ten minutes were obvious to anyone living in the time line in which the story is told. It all could have been handled within the action rather than as exposition. In 2047, this is what life is like – people live in hovels and spend most of their time in Oasis, a VR environment where everything is peachy. Sort of. My point is, if you live in the period of the story, you don’t need to hear the setup, and as we don’t live on that time line, the experienced storyteller should get us where we need to be without the it. This alone would have made the movie more satisfying.

Side note: I’ve not seen the miniseries version of The City and the City, but have just finished the novel. The writer uses a bunch of terms in unfamiliar ways in the first chapters – some of them aren’t clarified until well into the book, but author China Miéville trusts his readers to follow him and we trust the writer that eventually all will be clear. Spielberg has never trusted his audience this way, and doesn’t surprise us this time either.

The hero, who uses the handle Parzival in Oasis, and Art3mis, the one who becomes one of his partners/love interest, are both good-looking white people. There’s very much a manic pixie dream girl aspect to Art3mis that could have been played with. Instead, the movie plays out the trope in the same way it’s been played out several thousand times before. And while her self-perceived flaw, a large birthmark, is an issue to her, it could absolutely have been a non-issue. The storytellers could have taken the opportunity to work with a more serious character-building trait (not to play the issue down, but it seemed superficial to me).

Ready-Player-One-Fan-Art-03192015

Ready Player One fan art by Carlos Lerma

The next thing that got on my tits was another missed opportunity. When Aech, a friend Parzival has within Oasis but hasn’t met in the real world, tells Parzival not to trust anyone in Oasis to be anything like they are in real life, ‘She could be a 300-pound dude named Chuck living in his parents’ basement,’ our hero responds with something like ‘Trust me, she’s not.’ The correct answer is ‘Not a problem.’ The director and writers could trust that the generation born essentially now might leap that hurdle. Might. And can. A little support from blockbuster filmmakers goes a long way.

Also, can we trust the audience to get that Parzival is supposed to be a knight in shining armor without it being spelled out by the pixie dream girl in the moments after they meet? Truly, they could have just let the names be the names and let characterization do the rest of the work. That’s what it’s there for. There was so much promise just in the characters’ names and they just threw it away.

All of that said, the movie has some truly meritorious bits. The whole sequence lifted out of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was fantastically well done. (Amused to read that the sequence in question uses Blade Runner in the book, but because Blade Runner 2049 was being made at the same time, it was off limits.) Working the new characters into Kubrick’s original film, the touches that were changed (the photo on the wall with the game designer instead of Jack Torrance, for example), the name of the movie theater – all very nicely done. And the viewer could get these little Easter eggs or not, and it didn’t matter because the sequence was created in service to the story. (My darling dearest, like Aech, ‘doesn’t do scary movies,’ and found what was going on easy enough to follow.)

The concept of IOI loyalty cells, where Art3mis briefly finds herself, is very cool, from a storytelling perspective. The bad guys buy up the in-game debt of players and then consign them to play games shackled in isolation, VR helmets locked to their heads, and earn in-game money until they pay off the debt – which they are never able to do. While the concept wasn’t overdone story-wise, there was yet another missed opportunity. Art3mis’ real-world player is in real danger, and real trouble, and there was a chance for the film makers to elicit real pity and fear for the character. The setup was there. The fact that the character’s parents had died in those cells gave an opening for the audience to really feel for the character. Yes, there’s a Saturday matinée aspect to this movie which is absolutely appropriate for the genre. In the old serials, the audience knew too that the hero would save the girl. But in 90-plus years of action adventure entertainment, there’s got to be room to grow that aspect of the story. And Spielberg could have been the one to do it. He knows how this is supposed to work. Remember Marian in Raiders of the Lost Ark? She was able to show off what it was like to be in mortal danger. Spielberg let her act. Her character didn’t necessarily grow from when we meet her, and we don’t get that much background on her, but when she was in trouble, we felt for her being in trouble. This is what’s missing in Ready Player One.

In the eight-minute video Kaizo Trap (which I absolutely recommend), a young woman gives her boyfriend a video game console and he starts playing while she does other things. Some hours later she comes back to find him gone. The TV then sucks her in and she finds herself (after reading the phrase ‘No Signal’ from the other side of the screen) in a Mario Brothers sort of game. She has to master the game and with every death she suffers, she regenerates. Life after life, she gets further into the game and finally finds her boyfriend. Despite the length of the video, we somehow understand that this journey takes the character years as she has to master more and more to get to the end. (And for those who have seen Ready Player One, the goal in Kaizo Trap is to win, not just to play.)

The whole thing is very dark and has no dialogue (in that regard similar to the first 20 minutes of Pixar’s Up, another superior piece of storytelling). When they do get back to their apartment, it has fallen into total disrepair, reinforcing how long the game has taken. I bring this up to suggest that the video game genre of movie-making has large spaces for pathos and the kind of storytelling that elicits pity and fear in the audience and can provide a certain catharsis.

There should be a version of this world that Ernest Cline (the author of the novel on which the movie was based and co-writer of the screenplay) and Spielberg’s team created in which the audience is trusted a little more. When Stanley Kubrick was dying, he thought highly enough of Spielberg to hand him the keys to the movie A.I. Kubrick had wanted to tell that story for decades on film, but the effects technology was never up to the task. By the late 1990s, the technology was there, but the ever-meticulous Kubrick’s time had run out. When Spielberg made the movie, he took all the subtlety out of the story. The whole thing was very heavy-handed. The characters were cutouts and the effects (again!) overwhelmed the story.

Listen. I loved the movie, I felt for the characters, the action was first rate. All of the references I did get? Fantastic. All the ones I missed? Didn’t matter. As I say above, I was well entertained. But Spielberg had such rich source material and characters that could have been far more interesting and interestingly developed, and an not insubstantial 175 million-dollar budget, but he just missed the mark. Again.

(Note: I wrote this in 2001, within a few weeks of A.I.‘s original release. I’m posting it now to accompany a writeup of Spielberg’s latest, Ready Player One.)

I think I will be parsing out the Spielberg/Kubrick production A.I. for a long time. It is a beautiful fabulous disaster of a movie. Which might also describe this review. I don’t think I give anything away in this review, but if you are inclined to see it, do so and then read. Some of the scenes are expansive and worth seeing on a big screen. The music is ghastly. You won’t miss too much by seeing it in a theater without THX.

ai-hjo-jlDavid (a very capable Haley Joel Osment), our protagonist, is a robot boy programmed to love. His adoptive parents kick him out to fend for himself when the family’s “real” son recovers from a terminal illness. The two boys are not, um, compatible. David spends the rest of the movie in search of the Blue Fairy (of Pinocchio fame) who will make him a “real boy.”

Because it’s a Spielberg film, A.I. is far more heavy handed than it needs to be. The voiceover that sets up the last segment is truly unnecessary. Stanley Kubrick (who spent 15 years trying to make this film, while the effects he wanted were being developed) would have let the images, the dialogue, and the action speak for themselves.

Kubrick, however, is all over the movie. The sterility of the opening segment, the lack of opening credits, and the sequence in which David finds several dozen Davids in boxes ready for sale all embrace his style.

On the other hand, John Williams’ music was sappy, unoriginal, overused, distracting and manipulative. (So what else is new?) My bias is that I’m a big fan of letting scenes speak for themselves and raising the tension of a scene by working with the sounds inherent to it. Music, when it’s used to make the audience less comfortable, like the Ligeti pieces in Eyes Wide Shut, enhances a movie far more than Williams’ trite chord progressions. Willams’ score is filled with unmemorable bits that suggest music that may have evoked emotion in 19th Century melodramas. In A.I., this music is used to raise emotional responses that the text of the film can’t or won’t.

Several scenes are used to demonstrate David’s lack of place in his family and the supposed threat he is to it. The “natural” son convinces him to cut off a lock of mommy’s hair while she sleeps, so that she will love them more. The music that backs the moment he has open scissors over her restless sleeping body is that of cheap thrillers. The crescendo of the strings builds and stops short with the gasp of the mother waking with scissor points inches from her eyes. Indeed, my heart beat faster as I watched that scene, and I felt tricked and manipulated throughout.

Spielberg embellishes pieces of the story way too much. His overuse of Yeat’s poem, The Stolen Child, threatens to rob the poem of it’s contextual poignance in a manner not seen since Luhrman’s use of Elton John’s Your Song in Moulin Rouge. Okay, it’s not that bad, but it could have been more subtle. On the other hand, a key component of the movie is the framing of robot Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) for murder. Spielberg clarifies the situation in just a couple of minutes. Would that he had the faith in his audience to maintain that economy.

There’s another masterfully handled sequence on the balcony of a half-submerged Manhattan skyscraper. David walks into the offices of Professor Hobby (William Hurt) the man who created him and converses with another David robot. No longer is David unique. He tells Hobby, “I thought I was one of a kind,” to which Hobby replies with failed encouragement, “Well, you were first of a kind.” David’s grief expands as he wanders into the room filled with boxed Davids. Continuing to the balcony, the grief becomes palpable and does not feel manipulative or forced.

As humans, we feel existential dread at being metaphorical cogs in a mechanical world, abandoned by a creator whose “long withdrawing roar” (thank you, Matthew Arnold) merely haunts us. We feel no comfort in the belief that we are unique to our creator. David, having learned about himself, is un-comfort-able. The one connection he needs isn’t just momentarily out of reach, it evaporates before his eyes.

Another problem with Spielberg films in general, and this one in particular, is that everything is laid out sequentially. At no point to the characters know more than we do or we all that much more than the characters. As I noted earlier, the last segment could have done without the voiceover. The facts that David prays until his batteries give out and that 2000 years pass before he is brought back are unnecessarily spelled out by a kindly-sounding male narrator. Ridley Scott managed to recover Blade Runner from the crime of its studio-imposed voiceover. Spielberg put his in on purpose. Perhaps Spielberg figured he was doing us the same favor Kubrick did us in Barry Lyndon. The difference is that the explanations in Lyndon spoke back to the original novel and provided an ironic distance between the viewer and the movie. And Kubrick knew what he was doing.

The dialog or scenery could have explained the passing of time. The number of years is irrelevant as we already know David’s relationship to time from an earlier scene. At the very end, we already know David’s relationship to sleep and to iterate a feeling over it is also unnecessary. The pathos of the scene was sufficient and survived the voiceover, but barely.

At the end of Eyes Wide Shut, the audience stopped breathing for a moment as the movie sunk in and started to resolve itself. It seemed that the close of A.I. evoked little more than a collective shrug.


©2001 Silber Lining Productions

A few years ago I wrote a sort of pseudo-scholarly essay that attempted to tie together Blade Runner (in its many forms, save for the most recent sequel which was still in simpsons-naked-lunchproduction at the time and which I still haven’t seen), WS Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, and William Gibson’s Neuromancer with some extra outside references. A friend had recommended both the essay I reference in the second paragraph and Andre Breton’s Nadja. Those two, combined with a reread of both PK Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and the Gibson after many years away from them, gave me a bunch of ideas that took shape over a couple of months. After receiving a piece of fairly easy criticism from a trusted friend that I didn’t quite know what to do with, I let the thing sit on my hard drive for a while (the better part of three years). I’ve reread it, done a couple of minor edits, and added a conclusion. I welcome your thoughts.

Replicants, Replication, and the Cyborg Inside