Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Thursday Movie Picks: Astronauts


This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is astronauts. This is an area I'm very prolific in, being an experienced science fiction writer and having a long history with the genre. That seems simple enough. The only problem is deciding which three to select for this theme. I've got so many to choose from. It's hard to narrow it down to three, but I've got to find something.
 

Destination Moon (1951)

 
If we're going to be discussing astronauts, what better place to start than to look at the original astronaut film. George Pal's Destination Moon is often labelled as the film which really launched the science fiction film. By today's standards, it might not seem like that great a film. The story is pretty thin, and serves mainly as an excuse to provide what amounts to an hour and a half lecture about space travel. However, in its day, this was radical. Pal was one of the first to realize that audiences were interested in the possibilities of space travel and science. They even brought in then-acclaimed author Robert Heinlein to ensure the film was realistic (the effects are a bit dated, but most of the science holds up pretty well). Also worth noting is that Destination Moon was made almost twenty years before the actual moon landing, and they fact that they came as close as they did to predicting what would actually happen is quite impressive.
 

The Right Stuff (1983)

 
To continue the theme I set in motion with Destination Moon, it seemed appropriate to also include a movie about some of the first astronauts. Okay, technically this film is about the first American astronauts (the first person in space was a Russian, Yuri Gagarin, who entered orbit in 1961) but it does deal with the beginnings of space exploration. There is a lot of ground covered in this film, which begins with Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier in 1947 and ends just before the start of the Apollo Missions.
 
 

Gravity (2013)

 
This may seem like an obvious choice, but it is a very well-made film. It obviously draws on a lot of older science fiction movies, with plenty of references, homages, and inside jokes (fun fact: look in the background when Ryan is on the ISS; at one point you can see a picture of the famous shot from A Trip to the Moon). It is definitely a tense film, but also one that reflects a very different view of space travel. Unlike the more adventurous tones of Destination Moon or The Right Stuff, Gravity puts heavy emphasis on the less glamorous side of working as an astronaut. From the opening moments we see that working in space can be dull and tedious, but it also shows the dangers of the profession as well.



Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Space Week: Contact (1997)



The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy famously included an entry which tried to describe the vastness of the universe: "Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space." From its opening moments, Contact brings that idea to the forefront. Before its protagonist is even introduced, the audience is treated to an extended zoom out which begins above the Earth with music playing overtop.

Over the following moments, it gets farther away, and the soundtrack begins to change, shifting to older and older radio transmissions as it gets further through the solar system, and moves on to other stars. Before long, the soundtrack begins to fade, until it reaches a point where it disappears entirely. This one zoom takes the audience from their home planet to other stars, and eventually shows their own galaxy, before zooming further to reveal the local group and local supercluster. This one moment, presented through computer generated images and one shot, serves to show the viewer just how little is known and understood about the universe at large.

Ironically, for a film whose plot revolves around making contact, it is really a story about humanity and the search for knowledge. Historically, science has often been an uphill battle. The quest to understand the universe is not a linear path, but one blocked by human flaws of bias, profit, and fear. When in the early renaissance Giordano Bruno proposed that Earth revolved around the sun (rather than, as was widely believed at the time, the other way around), he was punished by society. Later Galileo Galilei was accused of treason when he presented evidence supporting Bruno's earlier claims, forced to publicly recant his theories, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

Contact is, in many ways, based on the idea that history repeats itself. The above accounts of early studies of orbital mechanics are just one of many ways in which scientists trying to find answers were faced with a mountain of obstacles and easily made enemies who either wanted to suppress, reject, or exploit their discoveries for their own ends. For obvious reasons, Charles Darwin's initial writings on evolution were met with huge public backlash. Alfred Wegener's theory of continental drift was mocked for decades even by his fellow scientists until Marie Tharp discovered evidence that not only supported his theory, but also expanded it.

Contact has very much the same situation. Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster) is a scientist whose main interest is in her research. She is shown to be smart and always asking questions, and remains passionate about her work for SETI. The only problem is that she has to deal with society at large. At the beginning of the film, very few people take her work seriously. Even her boss, Dr. Drumlin (Tom Skerrit) dismisses her work as a waste of time and money. Drumlin himself is very much an example of the types of people Ellie has to deal with. He is built up as a respected scientist, but every other moment he is selling out, taking credit for Ellie's work, stealing attention away from her, or dismissing her. He may be officially a scientist, but Drumlin is only interested in working for profit.

When contact is finally made, it results in a sharp divide in humanity, all of whom are influenced by biases, agendas, assumptions, and beaurocracy. The discovery that the transmission contains a coded video of Hitler immediately sparks a panic, even after Drumlin and Arroway both try to explain that this is not evidence the aliens are Nazis (more likely, they sent it back as a means of acknowledging it unaware of how it would be received). In one notable scene, Arroway is just trying to get to the observatory when she finds herself having to drive by a crowd of people outside, which includes religious protestors, scientologists, Neo-Nazis, UFO conspiracy theorists offering extreme misrepresentations of what is happening, and others who may just be trying to make money.

However, the focus is mainly placed on three main perspectives: the scientific, religious, and political. Arroway herself serves to represent the purely scientific view, but also important is the political agenda displayed by Security Advisor Kitz (James Woods). While Arroway is objective, trying to examine the facts and showing no problem with sharing information, Kitz spends most of the film interfering with her research and making assumptions. At the movie's end, he proceeds to perform what amounts to a witch trial against Arroway, not unlike that faced by Galileo. He places her at the forefront, intentionally suppresses evidence supporting her claims, and forces her to publicly recant all of her research.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Introducing Space Week!



Back in January, I decided to try and get back into action by establishing a "theme week." The idea was pretty straight forward: it was based on finding a theme in advance and then scheduling it so that
I would have to watch one film each day and find something to write about it. The first of these was War Movie Week, where I set it up so that I was covering a different war each day; beginning with Paths of Glory (World War I) and ending with Edge of Tomorrow (future warfare). A week later, I also managed to do a similar project related to crime films, this time covering a series of very different movies each based on a different type of crime.

Both themes turned out to be remarkable successes, in that they were well-received by my readers and I managed to find lots of interesting things to say about the individual movies. So with the huge success of both War Movie Week and Crime Week, it should hardly be surprising that I was interested in revisiting the idea in the future. My original plan was to run this during Reading Week back in Feburary, but unfortunately a few things got in the way and I ended up postponing it. Fortunately, today happens to mark my last exam of the year before I get into that difficult period when you're initially relieved to have finished all your exams only to then get stuck when you realize you now don't have much to do.

This time, I've decided to move away from the previous themes and try something entirely different. This time, we're going to shift focus to exploration. As you are no doubt already aware, one area I'm extremely well-versed in is science fiction, plus I've studied basic astronomy (you'd be amazed how useful that can be to film analysis) so that would make sense for a theme. Now I had a few ideas for how to organize this, but I'm going to break up this activity into stages. My initial idea was to do one film for each of the planets in our Solar System, but finding movies for specific planets (other than Mars) is tricky, so I have instead broken up the adventure into stages, each one focused on a different step in space exploration. Similar to before, I will be doing one randomly picked movie each day between Tuesday and Friday based on the established themes and trying to write about each.

Choosing the themes was a bit difficult. My original idea was to have Thursday be "exploring the galaxy" and Friday "Beyond the Infinite" but in order to better fit the week I've had to change it. So now the focus will mainly be on our own Solar System, with the possibility open of a bonus on Saturday if everything goes okay.


Now with that out of the way, here is the official schedule for the week:

 

Tuesday: Looking Out


Wednesday: Entering Orbit


Thursday: The Inner Worlds

Friday: Jovian Bodies

 


As usual, feel free to leave recommendations for each of these categories in the comments.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Thursday Movie Picks: So-Bad-It's-Good


This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is so-bad-it's-good. We all know these films. These are the movies that are really, really bad... except that ends up somehow having the reverse effect, becoming entertaining because of how ridiculous they are. I've seen a few of those, so now I just have to put together a list of options.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

 
I'm not sure how much I have to explain here. It is a movie that literally revolves around Martians kidnapping Santa Claus because their children like our television programs. It is hard to get more ridiculous than that. Part of the fun, I found, however, is that the film almost seemed to be aware of its status as a b-movie. The filmmakers probably went into this knowing there was no way they could ever make a good movie, so they just worked to make it as ridiculous as possible. Between the terrible special effects  such as the "polar bear" and the odd developments in the narrative, this is not exactly a film one should expect to find any deep interest in. The funny thing is that as bad as the rest of the movie is, they actually found a really good actor to play Santa Claus.
 



Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

 
Out of the Indiana Jones films, The Temple of Doom is definitely the weakest as far as story goes. It is also the strangest in just how much it departs from the style of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The overall tone is actually ridiculous and over the top, even for Indiana Jones. As soon as you see the infamous dinner sequence, you can pretty much forget about taking the rest of the film seriously. (this is after all the film with a literal mine cart chase) Normally I would object to a character like Willie, but her distressed damsel qualities are so overdone it almost feels more like a parody of the archetype (even Indy gets frustrated with it). Then of course there's Short Round (Indy's "old friend" who is never seen or mentioned again after this film) whose acting is not up to standard either. The funny thing is that the film's problems almost become its greatest strengths, because it's hard not to laugh at just the insane directions the story manages to go.
 
 

The Room (2003)

 
Okay, I know this is a more obvious one, but it's hard not to bring up Tommy Wiseau's strange film when we are discussing so-bad-it's good. It is one of those movies where anyone watching it is left to wonder what kind of thought processes went into making it. Aside from strange technical decisions, most of the cast displays some very strange behavior, perhaps most obvious in the infamous sequence where they spontaneously decide to run into an alley and throw a football around while wearing tuxedos. Then of course, there are also the strange sub-plots that come out of nowhere and then get forgotten, such as Claudette's breast cancer or Denny's drug problem (both of which are randomly introduced once and then never mentioned again).


Friday, 1 April 2016

Summer Blockbuster Cast-A-Thon 2


So last year I decided to host the Summer Blockbuster Cast-A-Thon, in which I gave out the task of organizing a team of the toughest men and women available into a ragtag group of crack commandos who could rescue the Prime Minister of Canada from Neo-Nazi Communist Hippy Ninjas. Now I'm making a sequel. That means that we're going to up the stakes and introduced some new twists. That naturally has led me to one logical conclusion. Last year, we assembled a co-ed team, but this time things are different, because now it's all about bad girls. So, now that my introduction is out of the way, let's move on to the exciting new story.


Oh no! Donald Trump has done it again! He has recruited a gang of mercenaries, taken over the Canadian Parliament buildings, and stolen their supply of nuclear missiles. Now he is hiding at an unknown location, from which he has broadcast his threat to nuke a random city each week until May 31 unless President Obama agrees to step down and let him win the election, or else he will begin nuking the world. If Trump isn't stopped, it could mean the end of civilization as we know it! We have to find him fast and get those nuclear launch codes before he provokes the world into Nuclear Armageddon.

We have no time to lose. Because Donald Trump is a misogynist and a racist, our best option is to find the toughest women available and organize them into a ragtag force of crack commandos who can locate Donald Trump's secret hideout, gather intelligence on his operation, take out his henchmen, and either kill or capture Trump before he can destroy civilization. You are officially authorized to use any means you deem necessary. We need this team operational as soon as possible, so you'd better get to work right away.

Rules:
  1. Select a group of 10-15 female characters from action movies, television, or video games. They are not required to be military, but they should be tough enough to look after themselves when things inevitably go wrong.
  2. For each character you choose, include a few words on why you selected her and what skills she has that could contribute to stopping Donald Trump.
  3. While your squad this time around will be all-female, diversity is still encouraged in other areas. Racial, national, and sexual variety is great if possible, as is diversity in their abilities.
  4. There are no restrictions regarding the era in which your chosen characters originated or their nationality. You could in theory assign Vazquez from Aliens with Elena Santos from Battle: Los Angeles and Isabelle from Predators.
  5. You cannot include two or more characters from the same film.
  6. Include the above banner in your post, unless you wish to design one of your own. If you choose to make your own banner, I would be happy to share it on this page so others can use it.
  7. If you took part in the first Summer Blockbuster Cast-A-Thon, you cannot use characters from your previous entry. However, characters from other submissions are still fair game. For instance, I would not be allowed to use Elena Santos from Battle: Los Angeles (since she was part of my team last year), but another blogger could still choose her if they wished.

So now you've got a job to do. Good luck assembling your team. If all goes well, we should have Trump in custody soon enough. On June 1 I will assemble a list of everyone who contributed to averting nuclear war. Now you'd better get started.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Tough Rider


With the fall of the Hollywood Studio System in the late 1950's and early 1960's, there was a new era beginning in American filmmaking as studios struggled to adapt to a changing world. They started by making big-budget epics like Cleopatra that nearly bankrupted them. The 70's saw the beginning of the "New Hollywood," a brief period in which a series of low-budget films emerged that were noticeably darker in tone than those of the Studio Era, and would ultimately go on to set the stage for the modern blockbuster. One such film in this period was Easy Rider, a film which served to usher in the New Hollywood, despite being an awful film. This was a bad movie, with nothing worth seeing.

Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) are a pair of bikers who don't really do much other than ride on their motorcycles, have sex, and get high. They have somehow put together some money from buying drugs (which Wyatt very intelligently keeps in his gas tank) and want to go to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras before they retire wealthy. They ride around, get high on marijuana, meet some people once in a while, get high on marijuana, ride around, get high on marijuana, ride around, and get high on marijuana. Did I mention that they spend a lot of the film smoking marijuana? Anyway, they make a few friends but most people apparently hate them so eventually some rednecks show up out of nowhere and fire a shotgun at them.

I really wanted to like Easy Rider. I really did. Unfortunately, this movie is dull and repetitive. Most of it feels more like the "plot" was just an excuse to show off the desert landscapes they filmed in, which I was unable to enjoy because the rest of the film was so boring. There are a variety of far better movies you could be watching if you just want to see that, or you could just use Google to look up photographs of those same landscapes or go there yourself. Most of the film basically amounts to Billy and Wyatt driving on the road while 70's pop music plays over top, with the occasional stop to get high on marijuana. The direction is terrible, the script is weak, and the editing is really, really bad, to the point where it can easily be very difficult to watch.

Wyatt and Billy have absolutely no depth or personality to them worthwhile protagonists. The intention appears to be that they go through some kind of emotional development but their personalities amount to riding, smoking marijuana (and any other drugs they can get their hands on, apparently), and occasionally giving someone a lift. That is literally the extent of everything they do in the film. Apparently there is supposed to be some prejudice involved towards them, but it is hard to relate to that aspect of the film when there is absolutely no emotional link towards them. The rest of the cast is hardly any better. Most of them amount to minor roles who are treated as being important at first but are forgotten about as soon as their role in the story is finished.

So basically, don't bother with Easy Rider. It is a dull and boring film with absolutely nothing worth watching beyond possibly the historical significance of its influence. How did this film make such an impact when it came out? It is an awful and ridiculous film that makes absolutely no sense. As far as biker films go, there are far better options you could be watching. If you want to see desert landscapes, try watching a western instead. This film is a waste of time. It is boring, dull, frustrating, and in general just very poorly thought out.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Thursday Movie Picks Meme: Intersecting Stories


This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is intersecting stories. These films can be very interesting when done right. This would be the types of films where there are multiple stories that all appear unrelated but end up coming together in unexpected ways. There are plenty of great options to choose from, but I've decided to find some less obvious choices. Instead of going for the generally intended meaning of "intersecting story" I've decided to find some strange interpretations of that format. Unfortunately, doing so has made it hard to find three options. I've had to solve this by choosing one that I hate in addition to two great ones.



Lost Highway (1997)


This strange psychological film from David Lynch definitely has a way of messing with your idea of intersecting stories, largely because there are many different ways to interpret what happens and how exactly its narratives are linked. To put it simply, there are two main plotlines. The first half revolves around an estranged couple who receive tapes in the mail which contain footage of the inside of their home. About half-way through, this plot thread is largely left behind (though there actually are connections to it if one looks closely) and the movie instead begins following a mechanic who gets mixed up in an affair with a mobster's girlfriend. Then there is a surreal final act which brings together elements from both plotlines. A weird subjective experience, for sure.

The Weight of Water (2000)


One of the lesser known films to be directed by Kathryn Bigelow (yes, the same Kathryn Bigelow who made The Hurt Locker). This adaptation of Anita Shreve's 1997 novel features two narratives in different time periods connected by one incident. In one, we follow a journalist who is researching an incident in Maine during which two women were killed. In the other, we follow a young Immigrant woman as we learn the backstory leading up to the murders. It is a beautifully made film, though it can be disorienting and hard to follow. It is a bit more of an art film compared to some of Bigelow's more linear projects, but it is an interesting film to see. And because I know you're wondering, yes there is a lesbian sex scene, but in order to see it you'll have to sit through a beautiful two-hours first.

Still Life (2006)

 
This slow and tedious docudrama about a dying Chinese town is a very good example of how not to do intersecting storylines. In this case, it is because there is virtually nothing linking them. The first act follows a guy trying to find his wife. About a third of the way into the film, he sees a UFO (seriously) which serves as a transition into a second story about a woman, Shen Hong, who searches for her husband. We follow her through the same town with otherwise no real link to the first story. Then once we've finally gotten acquainted with her, the movie decides to forget about her and go back to the first guy. Shen Hong's plot is definitely the stronger of the two storylines, but the movie in general is poorly made, in large part because it fails to make any attempt to actually link these two obviously unrelated narratives.



Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Hyena Road: A Call to Arms


So it just so happened that there was a screening on Campus of Paul Gross's latest film Hyena Road. Being interested in war films as I am I quickly registered to see it, but it gets better. Not only did I get to see it, but Paul Gross himself showed up to answer questions about it afterward. I even got to talk to him up close and gave him a link to this blog. Now I can say I've met three major directors, and might even have one reading my work. Anyway, Hyena Road made for am interesting experience. A variety of different emotions went through my head as I watched. It was a very intense movie, as well as a bit disorienting and hard to follow at times (though never to the point of where I was lost). It was also a long film, though it was remarkably well-paced. It might be one of those films you have to watch multiple times to really get.

In Afghanistan, the Canadian military is working on building a road going straight into enemy territory. The Taliban do not take kindly to this and a lot of people have been killed as a result. Meanwhile, a Canadian sniper team led by Warrant Officer Ryan Sanders (Rossif Sutherland) is endangered when they are spotted by insurgents and make a run for it. By total luck, they find a village where they are saved by an Elder. Later, Captain Pete Mitchell (Paul Gross) becomes interested in learning who saved his team, and begins to think it was a legendary soldier known as "The Ghost" who was able to take down the Red Army. Now believing the Ghost could be a valuable asset to the Canadian Armed Forces he makes efforts to track him down. Meanwhile, tensions begin to mount between Pete and Ryan as they both struggle to deal with ethics, military beaurocracy, and their own emotions.


Upon my initial viewing, I had mixed feelings, though that might be from not knowing what to expect. There are many aspects of this film that are hard not to appreciate. Aside from being quite possibly only the second film ever made to show the Canadian military (after Gross's earlier film Passchendaele), there was an intense amount of research that went into making it. Not only did Gross manage to talk to real soldiers and get support from the army, but he even went as far as to actually travel to Afghanistan to witness the war first-hand. Gross even claimed to have seen more action than most soldiers do (apparently not a lot of people actually leave what he called "The Wire"). The story itself is fictional, but a lot of it comes from stories he had heard (the "Ghost" was a real person) and many of the people depicted were based on soldiers he had met.

The action is also very good. One can see the influences of a variety of earlier war films such as Jarhead, Black Hawk Down (which Gross described as, "a beautifully shot movie"), and The Hurt Locker. While the shaky cam can be  a bit excessive at times, it never reaches the point of making it hard to see. There are some intense battle sequences, reminiscent of moments from Black Hawk Down and The Hurt Locker, but in an interesting move there is also an emphasis on the soldiers' everyday life. In a manner that one might argue more closely resembles Jarhead, there is a lot of focus on what goes on when the soldiers are not fighting. As Gross noted, some of them never leave their base, and even those who do often have to deal with extended and tedious waiting. This is especially true of the sniper team, who are shown on multiple occasions waiting long stretches of time just for something to happen. Of course, that also can add to the tension when it does, most notably when they get into moral conflicts with their superiors back at HQ.


Now, one thing I was somewhat worried about when I watched this film was the fact that, even though this is a film dealing with a modern war and focusing on a country whose military has been integrated for years, there are next to no female characters. I mean, surely it would not have hurt to maybe have one or two women in the sniper team, right? What made things different this time was that I was actually able to ask Paul Gross why he made this decision, and his answer was somewhat surprising. As he noted, he actually did make an effort to put female soldiers into his movie, and it was something he struggled with.

According to Gross, even though the restrictions against women have been lifted, there are still some areas where women have yet to enlist. Most female soldiers are infantry, which is a different area from what is shown in the film. In order to become a sniper, one first has to serve in a recon platoon. Even though it is entirely legal, there have not yet been any women serving in recon, and thus not yet any female snipers (though as Gross also noted, there probably will be in the near future). Ultimately, he eventually decided that showing female snipers would have, at least for now, made the film less authentic. Now one could argue whether this reasoning justifies his actions, but there is a bright side. Not only did Paul Gross make an effort to include female soldiers, but he also appears to have no issues with women serving in the military. It is nice to for once find someone who isn't trying to use outdated pseudoscience to argue that women are inferior to men and thus should be excluded by default.

That said, I do feel like the film could have handled its one female lead, Captain Jennifer Bowman (Christine Horne) slightly better. To be fair, Christine does manage a solid performance and her character actually does have her moments to be strong. My main issue is that I felt like she could have had a more active role in the story. This might be just me, but I don't think I would have put quite as much focus on her romance with Ryan. Actually, I probably would have cut the romance altogether. The scenes where they get intimate are handled alright, but this romantic interest did sometimes appear to overshadow the stronger aspects of her personality.


I think part of me also hoped to see her get more directly involved with the action, though one could argue that it would have been difficult to incorporate that into the plot short of her actually joining the sniper team. Of course, the moments where Bowman did get to show her strength of character were still great. I guess I would have just liked to see more of them. Still, even though the result might not be perfect, Gross admitted that he struggled to find a way to make it work, which is more than can be said for a lot of modern war films. If nothing else, there is the possibility that being able to make Jennifer as strong as she was may open the door to future depictions of women in the military. In that sense, she handles the film okay.

Hyena Road is definitely an interesting film, and one I would recommend taking a look at. While it may be long and not always easy to follow, it is an intense look at the ethics and morality of war. I would be okay with watching it again now that I have a better idea of what to expect. It is also a rare attempt to show a war from the Canadian perspective, something that almost never seems to happen. If nothing else, it is worth seeing just for the authenticity. Even Kathryn Bigelow was unable to shoot The Hurt Locker in Iraq, while Paul Gross was able to film on location (at least partially, some of it was also shot in Manitoba). It is a very dark war film and definitely a worthwhile experience.


Thursday, 3 March 2016

The Artifice of Artificial Intelligence


For a director like Steven Spielberg, the release of A.I. Artificial Intelligence proved a strange choice upon its initial release. It was poorly received at the Box Office, with critics bashing the film for various reasons. Much of that arguably had to do with the film's strange history. It originated as a project by Stanley Kubrick, who was interested in the question of whether it is possible for a machine to become essentially human. He had already explored these ideas through the HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but was interested in going deeper into the psychology of artificial intelligence.

Over the course of his career, Kubrick began trying to find a way to explore this concept. He eventually found a narrative in the short story Super Toys Last All Summer Long and began planning it. Kubrick was also close friends with Steven Spielberg, and suggested a collaboration between the two. Ultimately, Spielberg turned this down. Kubrick still worked extensively on developing his vision of the film. He wrote storyboards, some early drafts of the script, and even tried to find ways to capture the robot child protagonist. His first idea was to have David played by an animatronic, allowing for him to display an uncanny appearance.

When this proved costly, he considered CGI after seeing it used to make dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Eventually, it became clear that David would have to be played by a child actor. This in turn was also one of the main reasons Kubrick turned to Spielberg. In the amount of time it took Kubrick to make a film, the child cast as David could age enough that he looks noticeably different from when the film started production. Spielberg, being credited as the man responsible for the modern blockbuster, was much faster. He could cast an actor and film the movie in a much shorter period of time.

The collaboration was later revisited, with Kubrick enticing Spielberg with an opening credit: "Stanley Kubrick presents a Steven Spielberg film." Kubrick planned to start working on the film after he finished Eyes Wide Shut, but he died before production could begin. Spielberg was now left alone, and after being encouraged by Kubrick's family, decided to continue the project. It was a very daring move on his part. Spielberg had to take everything his friend had designed and somehow make a film out of it. After writing a draft of the screenplay based on Kubrick's notes, Spielberg began production.

This has inevitably resulted in a notable controversy. Is AI Artificial Intelligence a Spielberg or a Kubrick film. One could argue either way. It is true that Spielberg was the one who completed the film, but it was based in large part on the vision Kubrick had spent years developing. This dual authorship is alluded to in the opening credits, which identify the movie as "An Amblin/Stanley Kubrick Production." (Amblin is Spielberg's production company, named after one of his first projects). While Spielberg wrote the final draft of the script, the story was designed by Kubrick. Even the often-despised final act where David is found buried in the ice, was based on ideas designed by Kubrick.


Now it would be improper to say that AI Artificial Intelligence lacks the trademarks of a Spielberg film. Even the use of a repetitive title calls to mind the similarly-named E.T. The Extraterrestrial. However, the themes and ideas explored are very much those of Stanley Kubrick. It presents the final chapter in a long series of films that bring out the very simple question of what it means to be human. Throughout Kubrick's career, he explores themes of humanity, both in questioning its nature and in its loss. In his first feature Fear and Desire, a group of soldiers struggle to control their own feelings while under stress. Paths of Glory forces the viewer to question just what it means to be brave, while also showing the human lives wasted in fighting a pointless war. Spartacus sees an army of slaves trying to find an identity for themselves. 2001: A Space Odyssey asks just how advanced a machine can become before it is considered essentially human. In A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick showed how forcing a person to change their nature destroys them. Full Metal Jacket shows a group of ordinary people gradually losing themselves as they are turned into killing machines. Finally, Eyes Wide Shut brings the nature of love into question, and shows how people are driven by their sexual urges. Had he lived to begin production, AI Artificial Intelligence would have simply been the latest incarnation of a theme that had fascinated Kubrick from the beginning.

The plot of AI Artificial Intelligence revolves around robotics. During the film's opening, an unseen narrator (who is not revealed until the final act) explains that in the near future the polar ice caps have melted, flooding much of the world. The government is enforcing birth control regulations, and thousands of people have been displaced by the flooding. As a result of all the social problems occurring, robots have become an essential part of the economy and the workforce.This is hardly an optimistic moment. Already, we realize things are bad enough for the human characters in the film, to say nothing of what will be faced by the robot who will guide us through this world.

The press conference that begins the film's story sets the tone for much of the rest of the film. We meet a scientist named "Dr. Hobby" (William Hurt) who shows the progress that has been made in the robotics industry. He does this, fittingly enough, with a female android. At first she blends in with the others at the meeting, facing away from the camera. It is only when Dr. Hobby begins to show his control over her that she becomes apparent. He orders her to undress, and she has no choice but to follow his orders. For all intents and purposes, she is his slave. Much like how Spartacus was bought and trained to follow orders, this android was built and programmed to do as Hobby asks.

The slave metaphor goes even further when David encounters an old scrapyard. He witnesses a truck dumping a pile of old mechanical parts into a ditch. These old pieces are presumably left over from robots were were found to no longer be useful and subsequently destroyed. Humans see machines as lesser beings only to be kept around as long as they are useful. What is shown is essentially a robot mass grave, not unlike those used by the Nazis to dispose Holocaust victims. David is not alone in this scene, either. He also encounters a group of old worn-down robots who, like dumpster divers, desperately search the remains for spare parts. The fact that many of these robots are in such poor condition that they have to resort to grave robbing just to survive shows humanity's disregard to their well-being as soon as they stop being useful.

Finally, these robots, who are minding their own business, are the victims of slavery by way of the "Flesh Fair," a carnival-like event with an emphasis on the destruction of old robots. In order to find participants, ringmaster Lord Johnson-Johnson (Brendan Gleeson) sweeps the surrounding area in an airship, using a large net and a group of motorcyclists to round up any robots he finds and bring them in. In other words, robots are taken against their will for no other reason than because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. At the carnival, Johnson-Johnson also states that the event is designed to embrace the imagined superiority of humans, emphasizing further the bigotry going on. This idea of promoting human superiority by destroying robots is really not much different from a lynching at a Klu Klux Klan rally to emphasize the alleged dangers of racial integration.

It is strange and ironic then that what Dr. Hobby proposes is the idea of a robot who is capable of loving. He wants to design a robot that is programmed with "everlasting love" and bases its appearance on his own dead son. Hobby appears to believe that the emotions shown by his android slave are nothing more than imitations, and wants to go what he believes is a step further by creating a machine capable of real emotions. Hobby only seems to be interested in seeing if such a creation is possible. When a woman at the conference questions whether the fact that they can build such a machine automatically means they should, Hobby dodges the question.

This calls back to the HAL 9000 computer in 2001. During a BBC broadcast of the Discovery mission, the question comes up if HAL really thinks and feels or if he merely acts like he does. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) points out that this is a question nobody can really answer, but he feels as though HAL is a sixth member of the crew. Likewise, the audience is also left to think about this on a philosophical level. However, the film does seem to support the idea that HAL does think and feel on at least some level.  While HAL speaks in a consistently monotone voice (famously delivered by Douglas Rain), he does show that he appears to have a consciousness.

HAL is also interviewed in the BBC broadcast and speaks fondly of the Discovery's crew. Later, we also see him casually greeting Dr. Bowman and complimenting his sketches. Bowman also has no issue with this, agreeing to show HAL his sketches and even moving them closer so that he can get a better view. This early moment is conveying a sense of camaraderie between man and machine. Bowman treats HAL as he would a human crew member; exactly the opposite of the humans depicted in AI Artificial Intelligence. It is shown that HAL is capable of feeling (being able to recognize Bowman's artistic talents as well as express concerns about the mission), and that he is capable of developing relationships.


It is true that HAL goes on to begin murdering the crew of Discovery, but on some level this makes him all the more human. While the film does not explicitly state the reason for HAL's malfunction, it is given in both the novelization and the sequels: he was given a series of conflicting orders (providing accurate and reliable information while also keeping details of the mission secret) and finds himself confused about how to reconcile them. When Bowman speaks privately with his second-in-command Dr. Poole (Gary Lockwood) in the EVA pod, HAL reads their lips and becomes afraid of deactivation. Bowman and Poole both speak of HAL like a medical patient in critical condition, unsure of whether he will recover and how to proceed if the worst happens.

HAL sees disconnection as equivalent to death; he subsequently panics and commits what is essentially a crime of passion in self-defense. What becomes more interesting is when Bowman finds himself the only remaining crew member. He dons a spacesuit and enters HAL's memory core while the computer is desperately pleading for his life. It is somewhat ambiguous, but HAL appears to be displaying signs of guilt over his actions. If indeed his murders were a crime of passion committed while he was not thinking clearly, he is now starting to come to his senses and recognize what has happened. In any case, HAL remains scared of his own fate, but the danger he has already posed leaves Bowman no choice but to dispose of him.

Bowman's relationship to HAL actually bears a surprising resemblance to that of David and Monica (Frances O'Connor). Like HAL, David is a machine who becomes part of a family. He is initially constructed as an experimented, and tested as a substitute for Monica's son (who has been put into stasis for an indefinite time due to his life-threatening disease). Monica is, like the audience, unsure about David at first. His strange robotic mannerisms and ability to move around the house undetected makes her uncomfortable. Despite this, Monica comes to accept David as her own child, even giving him a friend in the form of a robot Teddy (Jack Angel). Even after Martin returns home, she is the one person who tries to accept David as part of the family. It is the distrust of his father Henry (Sam Robards) and Martin's refusal to accept his "brother" that lead to her having to lose David.

In both cases, it is the person closest to the machine who must ultimately destroy it. Bowman is shown to have an emotional connection with HAL, and he displays noticeable fear when disconnecting him. This is not unjustified, as he is presumably experiencing a mix of emotions. There is the obvious fear of being alone and the shock of losing his crewmates, but there is also his previous relationship with HAL. Making matters worse is that technically Dave is unable to kill HAL so much as lobotomize him. He has to cut off his own friend's higher brain functions while he slowly pleads for his life. All Dave can do is stay focused while trying not to make things worse. The only comfort that can come is when HAL relates his "birth" and offers a distraction for both by singing a song he was taught by his programmer.


Similarly, it is Monica who takes the responsibility for removing David. Henry might have been very cold and casual about taking David to the factory where he was made, and Martin might even have enjoyed it. However, even here Monica displays some compassion for David. She tries to make it easier for him, setting up the trip as a one-on-one family outing. Just as Bowman had trouble disconnecting HAL, Monica has trouble losing David. Unlike Bowman, she ultimately cannot go through with destroying something she loves, and instead chooses to abandon him. Even this is not easy, though. David is shown desperately pleading for his mother to keep him much like HAL pleading not to be disconnected. In both cases, the machines show their humanity through fear.

Monica does try to make it easier for David, calmly explaining to him what is happening and letting him keep Teddy; as well as leaving him money and trying to advise him on how to look after himself. Just like Hal's singing of "Daisy" these provide only a small amount of comfort. Hal's singing is able to calm Bowman enough to finish his job, and keeps him distracted, but it does little to ease the tension of the lone survivor being forced to lobotomize his only remaining friend. Likewise, Monica's attempts to give David the means to start a new life also do little to change his emotional state. It is through such a moment that the machine is able to show its humanity.


It is also through an act of human error that the machine becomes dangerous. Both HAL and David are victims of their own programming. David is programmed with the ability to love, but it works too well. Because of his programming, David is unable to understand anything other than earning his mother's love. HAL was given conflicting orders, and believed he needed to defend himself when he thought the Discovery crew were going to disconnect him. Just like HAL, David is also provoked by humans. Martin is responsible for psychologically tormenting him by convincing Monica to read them Pinocchio, giving David the idea that the Blue Fairy can turn him into a "real live boy." Martin's friends are also responsible for scaring David and his near-drowning, the final act that leads to his being cast out of the family.

This conflict between humanity and artificial intelligence is one that has become a common theme in science fiction. John Carpenter would later borrow it in his 1974 comedy Dark Star. This time around, the artificial intelligence emerged in the form of talking bombs. In this case, the inability of humans to co-exist with machines becomes a source of humor. Unlike HAL, Bomb 20 (Adam Beckenbaugh) is designed to explode making its emotions far more dangerous and yet still human. Like HAL or even David, the bomb is shown to have feelings. It shows excitement upon being deployed, and expresses frustration whenever the computer orders it to return to the ship.

The most famous moment, of course, comes when Lt. Doolittle (Brian Narelle) must face the bomb at the end. In keeping with the themes of human error, this machine has gone unnoticed by the crew until now. The bomb has a very clear desire to explode, to the point where it has no regard for the safety of the crew. This is likely a flaw in programming, but it is also here that the bomb strangely becomes human. Lt. Doolittle approaches the bomb, and begins teaching it the fundamentals of rationalist thinking. Bomb 20 shows its humanity by being able to engage in a philosophical discussion (even if it does not fully understand what its discussing), at one point quoting Descartes: "I think therefore I am." The bomb is capable of independent thought, and is in fact smarter than it appears. Of course, in a humorous twist, this ends up backfiring on the crew when the bomb's interest in rationalism leads it to conclude that they are "false data" before detonating inside the ship.


This idea of a machine acting human becomes a major theme in both the second and third acts of AI Artificial Intelligence. In the second act, the viewer is introduced to Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) a robot prostitute who despite the allegations of Dr. Hobby (who maintained that robots made before David cannot actually feel) does act remarkably human. He is shown enthusiastically engaging with clients, and apparently does such a good job he has to deal with multiple women across different locations in one night. He has a pager which lets him know when there is work to be done, marches through the streets, and even stops to casually greet his female counterpart Gigolo Jane (Ashley Scott). This exchange is brief, but the enthusiasm the two show suggests a friendship between colleagues. Finally, when Joe discovers that his latest client has been murdered, he is genuinely panicked.

It only makes sense that a character like Joe should become a father figure for David. While it is true that he is a very eccentric individual and not even that intelligent (he does after all believe David's claim that "the Blue Fairy" can turn him into a real boy) he develops a close bond with him. When David voices his desire to become a "real live boy" Joe immediately agrees to assist him. These two machines, supposedly unable to think, are forming a close friendship. Joe could have left David and tried to continue his work as a prostitute, but instead he becomes interested in assisting another person like himself. While his solution of asking a program called "Dr. Know" (Robin Williams) might not be the most practical choice, he is showing a newfound loyalty to his friend which might not have been in his original programming. While speaking to Dr. Know, Gigolo Joe and David both have to work together to find the right questions.


When Joe and David go to the flooded ruins of Manhattan, there is a reveal that challenges David's understanding of the world around him. He arrives at the office where he was created, and discovers an identical robot, who is quickly destroyed. David is faced with the possibility that, contrary to what he has been told, he is not special or unique. However, this may not be entirely true. David is showing his humanity at this moment, as for the first time showing that he is capable of anger, but more interesting is the behavior of his double. The two Davids are exact opposites of each other. The David encountered at the office proves to be friendly, enjoys reading, and has no issue with seeing a copy of himself. The David the viewer has followed is much more impulsive, refuses to accept another copy of himself and eventually resorts to murder. Even though these two may look the same, they have shown very different personalities, suggesting that David is more unique than he appears.

However, the true extent of how far these ideas can go is not made evident until the third and final act of the film. At this point, David has managed to find a statue of the Blue Fairy, but becomes trapped underwater for two thousand years, during which time he continues to ask the Blue Fairy to transform him until he runs out of power and shuts down. The movie then jumps ahead to a distant future where humanity has become extinct and a new ice age is underway. With their creators gone, the robots have taken over. Two thousand years later, the descendants of these robots have evolved into an advanced race of beings (who were often mistaken for aliens by the film's initial audience).

An expedition manages to uncover David and Teddy, as well as reactivate both. Their initial motivation is pure scientific interest. The fact that David resembles a human, and would have had memories of being around humans proves to be a remarkable discovery for these robots, who have been studying their creators. However, they do not simply exploit David and discard him when they are finished. Instead, they try to assist him. To do this, they create a virtual replica of David's home. Much like David Bowman before him, this functions as a means to ease his transition into a new world, and eventually to motivate a transformation. The robots initially refrain from speaking to David in person, instead communicating through a projection of the Blue Fairy (Meryl Streep) who eventually "agrees" to briefly resurrect Monica.


The robots depicted here deliver the most compassion David is able to experience in the entire film. Only one is given any major focus, an official voiced by Ben Kingsley (who has also served as the film's narrator, creating the impression that the entire film has been him looking back on the past). This particular individual becomes a new parental substitute for David, being the one member of his race to directly confront him and doing what he can to improve his well-being. He is the one who ultimately decides to clone David's mother (though not without first making sure he understands she can only live for one day) and letting him have the happiest moment of his life.

Throughout the film, David has understood little more than the love for his mother, but now he begins to show that his feelings are much more complex. He is seen playing with a toy spaceship and finds it reminds him of the amphibicopter Joe used to take him to Manhattan. When he spends the day with his mother, the narrator mentions that he was not allowed to tell her what was happening, but he still draws inspiration from his journey. He is shown painting pictures of Joe, as well as other encounters he has experienced over the course of the film. As the day comes to an end, David is able to experience a moment that was forbidden by the society into which he was born: his mother expressing her love for him.

This is what he has always wanted, and it sets up the narrator's final lines: "So David went to sleep too, and for the first time in his life, he entered that place where dreams are made." It is a strange line, often interpreted as meaning his death, but it is something else. David has finally managed to find closure. The narrator refers to "dreams," as in other than being loved. This experience has finally allowed David to move on. He has wanted to become a real boy, and in a manner of speaking, the robots have allowed him to do so. He cannot be literally transformed, but they have allowed him to move past love, allowing him to grow up (although being a robot he will still retain the outward appearance of a child). In that sense, he is finally learning to think beyond his programming, and may even be able to live a good in this future life just as Monica wanted.

This is not unlike the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey, when David Bowman finds himself carried through the "Star Gate" and brought to a hotel room, likewise meant to assist him with a transformation. This room, presumably constructed by the aliens, serves to make it easier for him to make contact. It is also in this room that Bowman metaphorically "grows up" on a larger scale. In this case, his grown involves experiencing a rapid evolution, where he alone learns what is in store for humanity's future (represented by his transformation into a fetus). It is not clear exactly what this entails, but a new world has opened up for Bowman, just as later would for David.


AI Artificial Intelligence depicts this same journey. What 2001: A Space Odyssey did for humans, AI Artificial Intelligence does the same for robots. The final product may have been directed by Spielberg, but it is very much a Kubrick film. The themes of human nature and just what it means to be human presented here are the ultimate extent of a lifetime of movies on the subject. From Fear and Desire to Eyes Wide Shut Kubrick has studied human nature, and AI Artificial Intelligence is no exception. He shows human nature, both the positive and negative, but also how in the end there is no reason to assume machines cannot think or feel. If anything, Kubrick is more worried about how humanity would treat artificially intelligent machines if they were to be made than how they would treat their creators.

Thursday Movie Picks: Storms/Adverse Weather


This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is Storms and adverse weather. Disaster is something that has always fascinated Hollywood, largely because of the spectacle involved in depicting them. That's probably why there are so many films about the sinking of the Titanic (at least 10 theatrically-released films, plus those two Italian animated versions). There was also the series of (terrible) big-budget disaster films made in the 70's. Natural disasters are also a popular choice, for the same reasons. Just last year we got San Andreas, a movie which I can only assume involves Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson somehow beating up an Earthquake (I never actually saw it).

Anyway, the theme this week is storms, and there are a lot of films one could bring up for this category. I've tried to find some less obvious choices, which in this case means that I've only got one real disaster film on the list. Here is what I've come up with.

The Perfect Storm


Wolfgang Petersen's disaster film tries to capture one of the worst storms ever recorded. The "perfect storm" was basically the result of three hurricanes colliding to devastating effect, especially for those unfortunate to be at sea when it happened. The actual plot alternates between several groups of characters caught in the tempest, but focuses primarily on the famous story of the Andrea Gail, a fishing boat that was caught in the storm and sank with all hands. That last part required some guesswork on the filmmakers' part, but there are some really good effects used to depict the actual storm.

Take Shelter (2009)


This is a stranger one, but no less interesting. It's a somewhat subjective film about a man who has visions of an oncoming storm and can't quite tell if they're genuine or if he is suffering from schizophrenia. The rest of the movie centers around his efforts to make sense of what is happening while also struggling to hold his family together. Jessica Chastain also plays a very strong role as his wife, who tries to support her husband through a difficult time while simultaneously trying to cope with his deteriorating mental state and still allow the best for their daughter. It's a bit more ambiguous than some choices, but storms remain a central motif throughout.

The Martian (2015)


Time to add some strange variety by including a storm on another planet. Okay, technically this one is very brief, but it is extremely crucial. After all, while this storm might only make up about the first ten minutes of the film (if even that), it is the catalyst that sets the entire narrative in motion. It is this adverse storm that leads to Matt Damon being separated and presumed dead, as well as forcing the others to evacuate without him. Adverse weather also emerges from time to time as an obstacle faced by the titular character after he is stranded.

Monday, 29 February 2016

Introducing the Crime Cast-A-Thon

Okay, so this was something of a last-minute decision. I wasn't originally planning to run anything this month, but I've been going through a difficult time and needed something fun to do. I'd imagine I'm not the only one who could benefit from a fun activity in March, so why not make a Cast-A-Thon? They're a straight forward mental exercise and there can be fun in bringing together your favorite characters. Now because this was so last-minute, I haven't managed to design a banner. I guess this one will be a more informal blogathon, but if all goes well I'm sure a few of us could benefit from this. Now that's out of the way, so let's get started on my lame excuse for why you're doing this amazing action-packed story.


I got a job for you. We'll need about six or seven other guys. You see, I've got a score the likes of which people like us only dream of. You remember those old stories about the Maltese Falcon? Yeah, I know. It disappeared when it was stolen by pirates back in the 1600's and nobody knew what happened to it. Mr. Gutman tried to track it down in 1941 but only recovered a fake. Well, funnily enough, it was just discovered last week. Apparently it was at Warner Brothers Studio this whole time. One of the janitors was cleaning out the vault and found it in a case that supposedly contained a lost Michael Bay film. Now it's been cleaned up and is scheduled to be displayed at the MacGuffin Museum of Ancient Artifacts. This is where you come in. I need someone who can get into that museum, steal the falcon, and get out before anyone notices.

It's not going to be an easy job. The museum will be locked and heavily guarded after hours. The falcon itself will be kept on a weight-sensitive base, with sensitive glass that will no doubt trigger the alarm if damaged, but before you can reach the Maltese Falcon you'll have to bypass a number of other obstacles in order to steal it, plus you will need an exit strategy. I'm offering good money for the Falcon to be successfully obtained, but I'm going to have to trust you to bring together the most efficient crew of thieves to get the job done. Do you think you can handle it?


Rules

  1. Assemble a team of five-ten characters from crime movies to serve as your crew.
  2. For each character you choose, include a few words about why you chose them and what he/she can contribute to the heist.
  3. You cannot choose two or more characters from the same film. Different characters from the same franchise are acceptable as long as they do not appear in the same installments.
  4. There must be gender and/or racial variety. Failing to meet this requirement will result in your inevitable failure and subsequent arrest.

A bit simpler this time round, but I hope it will still be a fun activity for anyone interested. There isn't a banner this time round (at least not unless I can find time to make one), though if you want to design some kind of image you are free to do so. The deadline is March 31, when I'll be able to release the blogathon I had actually been planning in advance. When this is done, I'll try to remember to post a list of links to everyone who participated.


So good luck in trying to steal the Maltese Falcon. You should be able to pull it off with some cunning wit and a few tricks up your sleeve. That should be it for now. To get you into the mood, here is my good friend Kate Bush with an song about thievery (and a weird music video to go with it).

 



Saturday, 27 February 2016

The Oscars Are Pointless


So it's Oscar Season again, and almost time for the big event, but this year things have been different. There's been a huge backlash against the general lack of non-Caucasian actors nominated this year, as though this is anything new. Throughout the Oscar's history there have been very few black actors nominated, and nearly all of the exceptions, such as Hattie McDaniel (Gone With the Wind) or Lupita Nyong'o (Twelve Years a Slave) are films that deal with racism. In other words, about 95% of black actors are only recognized by the Academy for playing roles that required their character to be black. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with making a film about racism, but it is telling that this seems to be the only way for many black actors to gain recognition.

This has been the major issue that has led to people boycotting the Oscars. Quite a few of my brothers and sisters in blogging have written extensively on this particular topic, and yet I have remained silent on account of the distrust I already have with the Academy. It has in the past been respected as an institution, but the truth is it is nothing more than an elaborate marketing plan based on obvious biases. It is seen as an honor to be nominated, let alone win, and suddenly this creates a sense that some movies are more "artistic" than others. All of a sudden I have to go see a film I have no interest in just because it won Best Picture, even when there was another far better movie that same year which was not even nominated.

The racial controversy may be at the forefront of media attention now, but it is far from the only bias the Academy has displayed. It has already been long known that the Awards are notoriously biased when it comes to genre, meaning some films are more likely to get awards than others. Dramas in particular seem to be the most popular choices, especially romances and period pieces. Once in a while the odd crime thriller (The Departed, No Country for Old Men) or western (Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven) manages to win, but a really good science fiction, fantasy (The Lord of the Rings excepted), or action movie can rarely hope to even receive a nomination for anything higher than best visual effects or sound mixing. Very rarely to I find that the movies which do win actually deserve their awards.

 

One of the less obvious biases about the Academy Awards is that they are also structured around putting Hollywood front and center, and a very specific brand as well. The so-called "Best Picture" nominees are almost universally American-produced live-action feature films. There are in fact at least six other "best film" categories: Best Animated Feature, Best Animated Short, Best Live-Action Short, and Best Foreign-Language Film, and Best Documentary. The fact that all of these are in separate categories and seemingly ineligible for Best Picture (the presentation of which is always saved for last, making it seem the most important) creates the sense that the Academy perceives any film nominated for these awards as being of lesser quality than their American-produced period dramas.

There is no reason to break up the categories like this. By doing so, it creates the impression that some types of film are more meaningful than others. The fact that only English-speaking films can be nominated for Best Picture indicates that they are more important than any others made in a different language. It also implies that shorts, animated films, and documentaries are somehow inferior styles. This is an obvious sign of bias on the part of the Academy, which appears to look down on specific styles of film in favor of others. If was truly supposed to be giving Awards to the best films, than the Academy would be more inclusive, and films would be nominated based on their quality, not on what language they were made in, their runtime, or whether they were used live actors. This bias towards Hollywood might make more sense when one understands where the Awards came from.

The Academy was first founded in 1927 by Louis B. Mayer, as in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and the first Awards were presented in 1929 at a private meeting that lasted 15 minutes. The reason why these awards were created and publicized was to prevent the studios from being unionized. His plan was to present the awards as a way of making it appear that the studio was treating its employees well without actually doing anything, thus deterring them from joining labor unions. Of course, the studios were eventually unionized, and yet the Oscars continued to this day. It is a bit strange, isn't it? Now what started as a way for studios to cheat workers out of their rights has become an expensive marketing strategy to make it appear that audiences need to see their films.

 
Looking at these facts, it becomes clear that the Oscars nothing more than a dated relic of a bygone era, and one that is no longer needed. Whatever way you look at the Academy Wards, it all comes down to money and what will attract the most attention. The Awards are not given out for the benefits of the Artists or for audiences. It is all about the studios and the people who run them. They are the ones who benefit most from the extra income that inevitably comes from the people who watch the Oscars each year and who then purchase copies of the winning films afterwards. People are complaining about racial bias in the Oscars, when in fact it is the Oscars themselves that are the problem.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The Color Purple and Fellini


Steven Spielberg shocked audiences when he announced he was working alongside author Alice Walker to adapt her novel The Color Purple. The book, published only three years earlier, had been a huge success, but had also sparked a massive controversy due to its content. The movie, though a commercial success, was just as controversial among audiences. Some praised its emphasis on strong female characters, while others criticized the fact that nearly all the black men depicted are treated as monsters. It was a very unusual approach to its subject, largely because The Color Purple is not so much a story about racism as it is about sexism within the black community.

The critical reception of this film varied drastically. Even today, it is a film people either love or hate. Even Walker herself expressed mixed feelings. Overall, it's not a particularly great film. While the feminist aspects can be satisfying to witness, the characters are hard to tell apart, the story is hard to follow, and the ending is padded out to make the film much longer than it needs to be. In addition to all this, it is not even original. When one examines the basic plot and arc of the color purple, a few parallels start to become surprisingly clear. There is a young woman whose family basically sells her to a man who promises to treat her well but turns out to be abusive. Most of the film centers on the relationship between these two, with another individual with whom they frequently cross paths and who tries to help the young woman.

If this sounds at all familiar, it is because this story has been done before. All  The Color Purple did was relocate the setting and introduce a predominantly black cast. The plot is actually taken from a 1954 Italian film directed by Federico Fellini, La Strada. In this movie, a young woman by the name of Gelsomina is literally bought by a travelling circus performer who goes by the name of Zampano. The rest of the film centers on him treating her like garbage, with another character known as "The Fool" constantly trying to help her.


This particular narrative was produced in a very different social context. Fellini was borrowing the ideas of Italian Neo-Realist filmmaking, a movement characterized by the use of low budgets, unknown actors, an emphasis on location shooting, and the depiction of everyday problems faced by working class individuals. La Strada is not a perfect example of Neo-Realism. The only way it fully resembles that movement is in its subject matter, but the influence is still evident. The struggle here was one of class and impoverishment, but in order for it to be used in The Color Purple a few changes had to be made.

The Color Purple has more or less the exact same setup. In this case, the man who the audience comes to know as "Mister" rides up to the protagonist's family farm and asks her father for his daughter's hand in marriage. While no monetary gain is involved for the father, there might as well be. He almost instantly agrees to let Mister take Celie away as though she were merely property he no longer needed. This is not unlike Zampano approaching Gelsomina's mother and paying to take her daughter away. Adding to the parallels is the man's public image. Both Mister and Zampano feign kindness and only reveal their true selves once the girl is taken away.

To bring these ideas further, the three major characters featured in Fellini's La Strada all have counterparts in The Color Purple. Mister is Zampano, Celie is Gelsomina (although admittedly a somewhat stronger version), and Shug is the Fool. All of them fill out very similar roles. Mister purchases Celie from her family and then treats her like crap. Shug tries to give Celie hope. Celie herself is taken without any say and forced to take Mister's abuse (though unlike Gelsomina she does eventually stand up to him and escape). Then a circus caravan is replaced by a farm, with issues of working class poverty being replaced by racism and misogyny.

The outcome of the events in The Color Purple is noticeably different from that of La Strada. In the latter, Gelsomina submits to Zampano despite having every opportunity to get away from him, only to eventually be abandoned. Zampano ends up killing the fool, and Gelsomina is later mentioned to have apparently died from the trauma of watching this happen. Celie in The Color Purple actually does manage to stand up to Mister (though not until very late in the film) and eventually escapes with Shug to a better life. However, for the abuser there is still a similar fate in store. Both Mister and Zampano find their lives spiraling downwards at the end. Their worlds are crumbling around them as they face the consequences of their actions.

Examining the details closely reveals a simple unfortunate truth: The Color Purple has plagiarized the work of Federico Fellini. It is more or less a complete remake of the 1954 Italian film, right down to the individual characters, only rewritten to appear to deal with different themes. Alice Walker's iconic novel is nothing more than an all-black rip-off of an earlier Italian film relocated to rural America with only a few small changes to distinguish it from its predecessor.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Why Christian Metz is the Worst Film Scolar



Christian Metz (1991-1993) has often been considered an important film scholar. Many a film studies professor has incorporated his extensive work into their curriculum. According to many film scholars, Metz is crucial for his work in trying to study film as a language. His own words on his efforts were "I want to get to the bottom of the linguistic analogy in film." What does this mean? What is a "linguistic analogy" and what does that have to do with film analysis? The truth is, it means nothing. It's just jargon. All Metz has done is said a completely nonsensical phrase and inserted a massive amount of professional-sounding terms to make himself appear smarter than he really is. If any of my professors are reading this essay, than let me take this moment to apologize now, because I am about to explain that Metz is far from a scholar worthy of academic research. He is nothing more than a hack, whose work is at best common sense ideas buried under a thick layer of overly-convoluted terminology, and at worst nonsensical garbage.

From the aforementioned quote, it is obvious that Metz's writing is based heavily based on making himself sound more professional than he really is. His essays are constantly filled with heavy jargon, and based on pointless ideas. We can see this in his essay The Imaginary Signifier, an overly convoluted paper that attempts to explain why people are able to emotionally connect to a film. To do this, he identifies the audience as a "voyeur," supposedly passive, and begins referring extensively to Freudian ideas before finally concluding that it has something to do with "primary" and "secondary" identification. What are these special ideas that according to Metz are the key to understanding how audiences respond to movies? Well, Primary identification is the camera, and secondary identification is the characters.

In other words, according to Metz, his long-winded ramble about Freud has been trying to say that the reason people get invested in a film is because they relate to the characters and the way the shots are set up. This is what he refers to as "secondary identification." Congratulations, Metz. Nobody had ever figured that out before. Of course people relate to well-written characters. What makes a film like Apocalypse Now so compelling is exploring the psychology of the people involved in its narrative. This is one of the major problems with Michael Bay's films; he fails to give his characters sufficient depth and thus fails to give the audience any reason to be interested in what happens to them.

Of course, Metz is also basing his research purely on a specific model of filmmaking. He was French by birth, and so his material is likely based on a mix of local and American films. He completely disregards other styles of filmmaking. There are movies that would easily challenge his claims. For instance, Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey has very little in the way of character development. While they have personality and emotions, there is no one individual with whom the audience can connect to on an emotional level. What makes the film so compelling is its vision of the future, and the way Kubrick opts to convey it primarily through the use of visuals and music.

The same could also be said of many early films. There was hardly anything relatable about the early films of the Lumiere Brothers, and yet they still proved a success. Their films were generally under a minute long, and consisted for the most part of everyday occurrences. The Arrival of the Train at the Station is just that: a train pulling into a station. There is nobody for the audience to connect with, and yet it still proved to be popular. In this case, it was the novelty of film itself that engaged audiences. The very idea of a moving picture was so radical that it alone was enough to excite those who saw it.


This same idea can be seen the work of Georges Méliès. As a magician, his primary interest was creating illusions, and this was the main goal of his films. The "story" was usually nothing more than a means to present his then-revolutionary illusions. In fact, several of his films lacked a plot of any kind. The Human Playing Card and The Prolific Magical Egg were both essentially magic shows, where Méliès would present on a stage and use his editing techniques to make things appear, disappear, and transform. The audience is not expected to connect or relate to Méliès, they simply enjoy the brilliant illusions he able to create.

Going on this logic, it would suggest that the film apparatus itself is responsible for the audience's reaction, and not characterization as Metz claims. Audiences in the early 20th century were drawn to the theaters because of the novelty of moving pictures, not necessarily for a specific story. Of course, this same reasoning is not as applicable today. Usually when one goes to see a movie today, they are expecting a good story. This in turn leads me to a simple conclusion: there is no universal film language. Metz seems to maintain otherwise, ignoring the obvious evidence and questions to be raised by what he has already said.

Metz's concepts of "primary identification," when taken at face value, could therefore appear to be more accurate, as it highlights the importance of the camera which would seemingly be supported by the aforementioned early films. However, that would at best a very loose interpretation of his claims that only applies to films made before 1920. Metz goes a step farther to claim that the audience actually relates to the camera itself. Understandably, once the jargon is removed Metz's theories start to sound a lot more stupid. Metz actually thinks that the viewer sees "himself" (Metz, and many of his contemporaries, only seem to consider male spectators) as the camera. This does not happen.

It is true that the camera can play a crucial role in shaping the audience's emotions. There is a reason why this has to be carefully planned early on; the director has to figure out where to place the camera, how to compose the shot, and what types of lenses to use. This much is true, but claiming that the audience can relate to the camera is a major stretch. Even in the early days of film, audiences weren't relating to the camera as though it were a person, they were simply amazed because nobody had ever managed to create moving pictures before. It was the novelty of the motion picture itself, not the apparatus used to make it, that captured their imaginations. This same novelty also ended as soon as films became commonplace. This is absurd to think in such a way.

To justify his claims, Metz refers to the work of Sigmund Freud, a man whose work has absolutely no connection to film studies. More specifically, Metz refers to the obsolete and equally ridiculous idea of "castration anxiety" as an analogy to support his claims about audience reactions to film. Apparently, the fear of castration gives the viewer a sense that he is missing something, and subsequently this is what contributes to the "disavowal" which allows him to fetishize a film as real even if he knows it is fictional (he gives this the strange name of "voyeurism"). Obviously, this is based on some extremely biased claims.

Outside of using obsolete psychoanalytical practices, there is the strange fact that the spectator is always referred to as male. Metz seems to be under the impression that only men go to see movies. He incorporates Freudian concepts that only address male sexuality (Freud reportedly had trouble discussing female sexuality) and makes no attempt to address a female spectator (a flaw pointed out by Laura Mulvey a few decades later). In what way does Freud's "castration anxiety" explain how a woman is engaged with a film? It does not, and Metz never addresses this at any point. He is speaking purely from an obsolete male perspective and explaining absolutely nothing.

Nowhere is this clearer than in his so-called "Grand Syntagmatic" which aims to break down the ways in which film functions as a language. According to Metz, the shot represents a type of "grammar" that can allegedly be broken down into eight basic categories. He identifies these categories of "autonomous shots" as the single-shot sequence, non-diegetic insert, subjective insert, displaced insert, explanatory insert, parallel syntagma, bracket syntagma, descriptive syntagma, alternating syntagma, a "scene", episodic sequence, ordinary sequence. His tactic could not be even more confusing, a fact made ironic when one realizes that these ideas have already been documented and have much simpler names.

A "single-shot sequence" for example, is according to Metz, a single continuous action that occurs over one shot. There is already a name for this: it's called a long take. This is a style that has been popularized by a number of films. Before Metz, the idea fascinated Alfred Hitchcock, who attempted to utilize it in Rope. Though cuts were used, it was only due to technical limitations of the cameras used, and they were made to appear continuous. Hitchcock himself would later state that he would have shot the entire film in one take if it had been possible. More recently, Gravity used the same approach, with the entire first fifteen minutes happening in a single shot.

 
This is just one of many examples of how Metz's schematic shows only that he has no idea what he is talking about. All this man has done is made a fool of himself. He has no brilliant ideas or worthwhile ideas. His writing is garbage polished up to look like it is something of a higher quality than it really is. His theories fall apart as soon as they're examined (and that is assuming one can actually figure out what he is trying to say), and he does nothing but coat far-fetched and ridiculous ideas in professional-sounding Jargon and references to Freud; yet his work continues to be studied on an academic level. His work is still promoted by film scholars as a crucial part of understanding film, and it makes no sense why this should still be happening. Metz is not a director worthy of study, he is a writer of nonsensical jargon who thinks he is smarter than he really is, and his work should not be covered in such large detail.