Thursday, July 31, 2008

DVD Miscellany

As mentioned in a previous post, I'm watching movies at home now. And I've watched a few of Netflix movies last week that I haven't yet written about, because I don't have much to say about them. So I'll collect them all together into one post.

The first movie I tried to watch was The Golden Compass (Weitz, 2007). Like the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and unlike most evangelical Christians, I appreciated the story's criticism of dogmatism. But I did find the critique coming dangerously close to being itself a kind of dogmatic secularism that worships the authority of "science" as much as it criticizes religions for adherence to authority. More importantly, I found the movie boring and confusing. Without having read the book, I found it difficult to follow all the plot that had been shoe-horned into two hours. I imagine this is what people who haven't read the Harry Potter books feel like when they watched the movies. My final verdict: I didn't end up finishing the movie.

I had much more fun with Scanners (Cronenberg, 1981). I'm a big fan of David Cronenberg's early sci-fi/horror movies, though I have enjoyed his more recent "mainstream" movies like A History of Violence less. (Actually my favorite Cronenberg movie -- Dead Ringers -- sort of bridges this gap between horror and drama.) But I don't have anything interesting to say about the movie. I simply liked it. It's just good (admitedly somewhat cheesy) fun.

Then, in preparation for Scott Derrickson's upcoming remake, I watched the original The Day the Earth Stood Still (Wise, 1951). Scott has taken some flak from internet geeks for remaking a classic. But let's face it, Day isn't Psycho. (Someday I'll write up my thoughts on Gus Van Sant's remake of the Hitchcock classic.) I enjoyed its retro special effects, but its social commentary seemed pretty heavy-handed. I didn't find more here than in a lesser episode of The Twilight Zone. Hopefully Scott can do something more with this premise.

Finally, after those three sci-fi films, I watched two religious documentaries: How to Cook Your Life (Dörrie, 2007) and Into Great Silence (Gröning, 2005). (Are you getting an idea of my cinematic taste yet?) The latter film was not nearly as interesting as I thought it would be. Into Great Silence follows the daily life of Carthusian monks who have taken a vow of silence. Watching the film was a nice meditative experience. I particularly loved the sound design. Since there is not talking, each scene involves some cool background sounds. At one point we even hear the snow falling! But I didn't really learn anything new from the film. Life in the monestary was pretty much just as I expected it to be.

How to Cook Your Life, on the other hand, was much better than I thought. The film is a portrait of Zen teacher Edward Epse Brown. When I saw the trailer for the movie, I thought Brown was annoying and not a very good Buddhist. He gets frustrated while cooking. How does that demonstrate non-attachment? But Brown actually ended up being pretty wise. As an amateur chef I appreciated the way he drew life lessons from the act of cooking. He perfectly captured the feeling of Zen bliss that I feel in the kitchen. I really enjoyed sitting at his feet for a couple of hours.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Maggie and Daddy

Yesterday I lamented that I can't get out to the movie theater with my newborn baby.

Here's why it's all worth it...

Monday, July 28, 2008

Thank God for DVD

So it looks like the first casualties of life-with-a-newborn are Wall-E and The Dark Knight. We were able to make it out to the theater a couple of times in the early weeks after Maggie was born, because she used to sleep all the way through them. But now she's awake a lot more and unable to make it through the whole movie.

It looks like we'll have to wait to see these two movies on DVD. I've heard a lot of great things about both of them, but I am especially sad about The Dark Knight since I wrote my first professional academic paper on the themes of fear and revenge in Batman Begins. I'm excited to see how director Christopher Nolan elaborates on these themes in the sequel. But it may be a few months before I find out.

For now there's Netflix.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

"What do we do with time?"

This week's Netflix: Youth Without Youth (Coppola, 2007).

Based on a novel by philosopher Mircea Eliade, this is the story of Dominic Matei, a 70 year old professor who, while hailed as a genius, has left his "life's work" unfinished. After being struck by lightning, Dominic is suddenly 40 years younger and has a second chance to complete his research.

It's hard not to superimpose this story onto director Francis Ford Coppola's own life. Coppola himself turns 7o next year. And he is himself clearly a cinematic genius. And I get the feeling that, like Dominic, Coppola's life's work is not finished. After making four masterpieces in the 1970s (the first two Godfather movies, The Conversation, and -- my favorite -- Apocalypse Now), Coppola drifted off into less interesting work before disappearing entirely. (I am actually a fan of The Godfather: Part III and Coppola's Dracula, but I wouldn't argue that they are in the same league as his earlier films.) Now, after a decade of silence, Coppola is back with the ambition of a young man. Perhaps he will at last get back to completing his life's work.

In the movie, Dominic describes his life's work as the search for "the origin of language and consciousness". For someone like Eliade, this is the search for the essence of what makes us human. In other words, Dominic is looking for the meaning of life. At first he seems to think it has something to do with knowledge -- religious, philosophical, or perhaps even scientific. Then he meets Veronica, a woman who appears to be the reincarnation of an ancient Indian mystic. Veronica goes into trances where she regressess further and further into the history of language, thus helping Dominic complete his research.

But Veronica may or may not also be the reincarnation of a lover from Dominic's youth. And as Dominic realizes that his obsession with completing his work is literally draining the youth from Veronica (while Dominic is not aging, Veronica begins to age very quickly), he leaves her, sacrificing his work in order to save the life of the woman he loves. Is it too simplistic to say that Dominic realizes that the meaning of life is found more in personal relationships than in scientific knowledge?

Hopefully Coppola doesn't learn this lesson. (Or maybe that's why he left filmmaking for 1o years to make wine.) This film is not yet a complete return to form for Coppola. It feels like a old fogey version of something like Donnie Darko or The Fountain. But it's neither as intellectually stimulating as the former nor as visually compelling as the latter. In short Youth Without Youth is more interesting than Coppola's 80s anf 90s work, but it has not returned Coppola to his 70s standard. I think he's still got some of his life's work to complete.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

"I have a PhD in horribleness."

Today is the last day you can watch Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (Whedon, 2008) for free. After today, you'll have to buy it on itunes for $3.99. But for a limited time you can stream it here.

Role-reversal is a common motif in Joss Whedon's work. For example, blond cheerleaders get terrorized by monsters in most horror movies, but Buffy Sommers is a superhero the monsters are afraid of in Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Here we get the tragic story of Dr. Horrible in which the evil genius is presented as the sympathetic underdog and his superhero nemesis Captain Hammer is a dim-witted yet pompous boor.

What is fascinating about the movie is Whedon's vision of evil. Dr. Horrible is a geek who talks a lot about undermining the "status quo" in which nice guys finish last. Here evil is seen as the use of violence to make the world into your own image of a better place. Notice that there are two ways this could go. If your image of a better place involves everyone bowing to your slightest wish, you could establish yourself as supreme dictator. This sort of egoistic evil is exemplified in the movie by Bad Horse, the head of The Evil League of Evil. But Dr. Horrible exemplifies a more paradoxical altrustic evil. He wants to take over the world, not so much for personal gain but to create justice. For example, at one point he complains that innocent children might get hurt. In short, Dr. Horrible is a vigilante -- like Batman and other characters usually considered heroes.

But it turns out that Captain Hammer is worse in a certain way. He's not even interested in making the world better. He is himself well off, and so he thinks the world is fine the way it is. He thus exemplifies what you might call egoistic good. The only truly good character -- the altruistic good character for those keeping up with my categories -- is Penny, the love interest. So we hate Captain Hammer and want Dr. Horrible to succeed in defeating him and to "get the girl". And we sympathize with the Doctor's aims while also regretting his methods. This is high tragedy -- note that Penny's true goodness is threatened by the battle between egoistic goodness and altruistic evil.

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog turns out to be complex and subtle stuff for a musical superhero spoof.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

"An invention with no philosophy behind it is a curse."

This week I finally saw the anime movie of Steamboy (Ôtomo, 2004). Philosophically, it isn't all that deep. (It seems to be recyling Ôtomo's same old Japanese nuclear bomb obsession exhibited more interestingly in 1988's Akira.) But what it does really well is style.

One thing I love is the design style called "retrofuturism" in which artists take images of what past generations thought the future would look like and combine them with contemporary technology. For example, I'm still bummed that we all missed our chance to wear 1950's sci-fi silver jumpsuits in the year 2000. Steamboy is an example of the subgenre of retrofuturism called "steampunk" which is based on the Victorian sci-fi vision of the future a la Jules Verne and H.G. Welles.

Here's a link to an article in Wired magazine about steampunk that includes some pictures of cool stuff, including this computer:It reminds me of a "podtrola" artwork I saw at the Azusa Pacific art gallery in which a student had added an ipod input to the front of an old Victrola.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

"Well, we gave it a good shot. Nobody can say we didn't."

While unpacking boxes, I came across a lost Netflix disc of The Mist (Darabont, 2007). I thought it was a relatively interesting exploration of the socially destructive power of fear. But the movie made at least one huge mistake: they gave the Mist a bullshit sci-fi explanation. I think it would have been better if they had left the source of the monsters unknown (as in Hitchock's The Birds). It's impossible to explain these things without sounding silly. Interdimensional rifts are no more plausible than the crazy fundamentalist character's explanation: "the wrath of God".

In fact, I thought it was interesting that we're never given any reason (other than the other characters' disdain) to discount the fundamentalist's theory. The movie (probably unintentionally) left it open that her explanation is correct. She herself is left unharmed by the Mist, and when another human kills her, that human is immediately killed by the Mist.

As far as I can see, the only reason not to accept the fundamentalist explanation is Albert Camus. The movie ends up being an argument for the necessity of hope in the face of fear. Notice how many characters commit suicide throughout the film. This reminds me of the opening line from Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus: "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide." Camus goes on to argue that any belief in a transcendent meaning of life (including religious philosophy's "leap of faith") constitutes what he calls "philosophical suicide". So, on this view, fundamentalism makes the same mistake that suicide makes: it gives in to the despair of thinking that this life is not worth living. The ending of The Mist is a cautionary tale against this same mistake.

While Stephen King's original 1985 novel ends with an affirmation of hope as the heroes set out into the unknown of the Mist to seek other survivors, the movie ends with a mass suicide just before the revelation that the heroes would have been saved if they had held out hope for five more minutes. Combined with the silly stuff about the military experiments into interdimensional portals, the message seems to be that even when our government seems intent on destroying civilization (such as the Cold War era nuclear weapons in King's 1985 or the creation of future terrorists through our meddling in the middle east in Darabont's 2007), we must not lose hope in the future of humanity.

As I read The Mist, the point is that we must not give in to the fear that leads us hate those different than us. There is no guarantee that we will be rescued in the end. In fact, surrounded by the mist of terrorism, it seems likely that we will not be rescued. But all we can do is "give it a good shot" and stay human while resisting despair.

Friday, July 11, 2008

From Los Angeles to Berkeley

I'm moving this weekend from a town named after a theological entity to a town named after a bishop. I hope to be back on the blog next week.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

So long and thanks for all the ducks.

Thanks to our friend Dan Schultz who brought over a great bottle of wine last night to celebrate our imminent move up north. Read about the 2002 Duckhorn Cabernet and be jealous. It's currently selling online for up to $100/bottle! Thanks Dan!

Monday, July 7, 2008

"I'm filled to the top with fear that it's all just a bunch of matter."

The most interesting person I've become aware of recently is Australian pop musician Sam Sparro. The DJs on KCRW have been playing his song "Black and Gold" a lot lately. I think it is a compliment to say that the first time I heard it, I thought it was a new Gnarls Barkley song. In other words, it's as good as the best pop music being recorded today. But then I started listening to the lyrics. And I was shocked to realize that it is about why life is meaningless if evolution is true.

Here are the lyrics:

If the fish swam out of the ocean
and grew legs and they started walking
and the apes climbed down from the trees
and grew tall and they started talking

and the stars fell out of the sky
and my tears rolled into the ocean
now i'm looking for a reason why
you even set my world into motion

'cause if you're not really here
then the stars don't even matter
now i'm filled to the top with fear
that it's all just a bunch of matter
'cause if you're not really here
then i don't want to be either
i wanna be next to you
black and gold
black and gold
black and gold

i looked up into the night sky
and see a thousand eyes staring back
and all around these golden beacons
i see nothing but black

i feel a way of something beyond them
i don't see what i can feel
if vision is the only validation
then most of my life isn't real

'cause if you're not really here
then the stars don't even matter
now i'm filled to the top with fear
that it's all just a bunch of matter
'cause if you're not really here
then i don't want to be either
i wanna be next to you
black and gold
black and gold
black and gold

It's pretty clear that the "you" in this song is God. (Though the line "i wanna be next to you" doesn't quite make sense. Maybe be means "close to you".) It's a song about trying to find meaning in an unbelievably large cosmos of "black and gold" stars. It's an existential dread that recalls Pascal's Pensées: "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me."

The philosophical claim here is that if there is no God, then life is meaningless. That's a questionable claim, but it's not crazy -- a philosopher as great as Nietzsche would agree. But Sparro's argument is based on the assumptions that (1) a world that evolved is necessarily meaningless, and (2) evolution is necessarily incompatible with the existence of God. These claims are kinda crazy. I can see no reason to accept either claim. And the second claim is positively dangerous: pitting God against science is a dangerous game that has only hurt both sides of the debate.

But things got even more interesting when I saw the video for the song. I was assuming Sam Sparro was some sort of fundamentalist Christian. (And I wanted to see what the video's director would do with the odd line about being "next to you.) But, boy, was I surprised.

You can check out the video here.

This ain't no ordinary fundamentalist -- he has the mannerisms of a (so called) "flaming homosexual"! A quick Google search confirmed that Sparro is indeed an openly gay Christian: he discusses his orientations (both sexual and theological) in this interview. It turns out that he was raised a fundamentalist -- according to his Wikipedia page, as a child Sparro appeared as an actor on the James Dobson produced Adventures in Odyssey program -- but that he developed a more conflicted relationship with organized religion after realizing he was gay. (My favorite quote: "I was always kind of a non-denominational Christian. What do you call it when people clap their hands and say, 'Yeah'? I was a Gloria Gaynor Christian.")

How many gay fundamentalist pop stars do you know? And how many of those have written catchy pop songs about existential angst? Sam Sparro is one of a kind.

Friday, July 4, 2008

"Let's go home Debbie."

For the Fourth of July, here are my reflections on one of the great cinematic investigations into the nature of America: The Searchers (Ford, 1956)

At the beginning of the film, John Wayne's character Ethan returns home from a mysterious absence. It is never fully revealed where he has been or what he has done, but it is clear that his travels have made him ill-suited to a peaceful life on the homestead. He is an adventurer at heart, with the possibility of violent action just beneath the surface. So when his brother's wife (with whom Ethan is clearly in love) is murdered in an Indian raid and her daughter is kidnapped, Ethan goes in search of his neice and revenge.

But as the movie progresses it becomes more and more clear that Ethan is not trying to rescue his neice Debbie -- he is trying to kill her. He knows that she will have been raised as an Indian and later given as a wife to one of the Indians. And Ethans's racist hatred of Indians will not allow them to have her. He would rather she be dead. And yet when Ethan finally finds Debbie at the end, despite the fact that his worst fears have been realized and she has indeed been married to an Indian, he does not kill her. In a surprise move, he lovingly sweeps her into his arms just as he did when she was a child.

So why doesn't Ethan kill Debbie? Well, like so much else in this film, this point is left unexplained. But there are clues. Note that just before finding Debbie, Ethan has scalped his nemesis, the Indian chief named Scar. The film has set up numerous parallels between Ethan and Scar, culminating in Ethan's enacting the "barbaric" Indian ritual of scalping his foe. Why would he do this? On one reading it is because Ethan has recognized that Scar is indeed a mirror image of himself. They are both violent men driven by revenge and hatred of the Other.

Likewise, the movie wants us to see that we, too, are just like that. This is true not only because we, as a willing audience, have desired revenge against Scar (and enjoyed watching Cowboys kill Indians) but also because we need the violence of people like Ethan to sustain the kind of civilization we enjoy in America. (This theme is explored further in Ford and Wayne’s movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.) Finally, note here how the film's closing shot mirrors the theater itself, placing the audience in the position of being in the house Ethan cannot enter. Thus the film suggests that, while we may need images of heroes like Ethan, we likewise need them to remain in the movie theater and not enter our community.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

"Some labels are best left in the closet."

This week my wife dragged me to see Sex and the City (King, 2008). I don't have much to say about the movie itself. But I do want to comment on a recurring criticism of the movie. Many reviews complained that it is "too long". But the movie is only 148 minutes. That's just under 2 1/2 hours. Titanic was 3 1/4 hours! In fact, according to my calculations, the average length of the top 25 grossing American movies of all time is 142 minutes -- only six minutes shorter than Sex and the City.

So when people complain about the movie being long, I think they mean it feels long. As Einstein taught us, time is relative. The average length of the top 25 grossing Bollywood movies is 164 minutes long (2 hours and 44 minutes). Clearly there is a cultural difference here. But I don't think it has anything to do with Indian vs. American attention spans. I think it has to do with our expectations of narrative structure.

When I saw Sex and the City, I actually thought the movie wasn't quite long enough. As a viewer of the TV series, I thought poor Charlotte's storyline about getting pregnant didn't get full screen time the way the other three women's storylines did. Charlotte had some great scenes in Carrie's storyline about marrying Big. But on TV, there would have been more truly Charlotte-centric scenes. At 2 1/2 hours the movie is only the length of 5 episodes of the TV show. That's not a long movie, it's a short TV season. In short, I'm arguing that the movie felt long to people because its narrative was structured like a multi-episode arc of a TV series rather than a typical Hollywood movie.

In film school Hollywood screenwriters are taught to build their scripts around a three-act structure (a device which I believe was developed by Syd Field in the 1970s, though some people mistakenly try to trace it to Aristotle's Poetics.). Sometimes (for example in the work of screenwriting teacher Chrisopher Vogler) this three-act structure is combined with features of Joseph Cambell's structuralist-inspired theory of mythology. Here I am suggesting (pace Cambell) that the problem with any of these theories is that they are culturally relative. But because Hollywood has structred movie narratives this way for so long, mainstream audiences have come to expect these structural rhythms. Movies that violate this pattern -- such as Bollywood movies, art movies, and Sex and the City -- feel too long, too slow, or otherwise wrong to audiences used to Hollywood three-act structure.

I think that's why Bollywood movies feel so long to me. I was actually surprised when I added it up and found that the average length is less than three hours. My standard comment to the uninitiated is that most Bollywood movies are, like, four hours long. But thinking in terms of a three-act structure helps me see why I thought this. What I was feeling was that Indian movies are twice as long as American movies when in fact they are less than one and a half times as long. This is because many Bollywood movies are structured around two sub-stories. There is a beginning, middle, and end -- and then another beginning, middle, and end. For example the film may start with be a romance story that culminates in a wedding halfway through the film. But whereas a Hollywood movie would stop here, Bollywod filmmakers start up a new plot. Maybe there is a baby born, or the hero's father dies, or the heroine's brother strikes up a new romance with the hero's sister. In short, it feels to American audiences that the film has been attached to its sequel.

So what's the lesson of all this? I suppose a Hollywood studio executive could draw the conclusion that movies ought never deviate from the standard structure or audiences won't understand it. I would rather draw the conclusion that it is possible to learn alternative structures. I encourage my screenwriter friends to experiment with teaching us new ways of storytelling -- as I believe most young filmmakers are already doing. Finally, I would like to conclude that, because TV is structured around episodes, its structure is more flexible. You can have a one episode story-arc, or a three episode arc, or a one season arc, or an arc that lasts the entire series. The best shows have all these layers of narrative going on at the same time. Thus TV is amenable to a wider variety of story structures, TV is often a better medium for narrative than film is.

In conclusion: Movies are about spectacle, but if you want to tell a story, then use television. Of course, TV still has some growing to do as an artform. But with the history of TV during the last two decades -- from Seinfeld (1989-98) and Twin Peaks (1990-1) to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and The West Wing (1999-2006) on to cable shows like Six Feet Under (2001-2005) and Weeds (2005-2008) just to name a few of my own favorites -- we are well on our way to a truly golden age of TV.