Friday, 24 July 2015

So Fetch Friday: Departing The Departed

It's been a rough week, this time. Last week I had a class that really didn't go the way it was supposed to, though at present I'm not allowed to say anything more than that much as I'd like to tell you everything. There hasn't been a lot of movie-watching, and I've been struggling to find material to write about (the post I made earlier this week was something that had been in my draft folder for a while). Still, I have been able to watch a few things so I guess I can tell you about those.

I saw Kathryn Bigelow's The Weight of Water. It's one I would probably rank alongside Strange Days as a beautifully crafted piece that I'm not sure I fully understood. It started to make more sense near the end but a lot of it was still very strange and puzzling. I also saw Corner Gas: The Movie, which was pretty hilarious. It's not exactly the most diverse range of movie options, I know, but it's something. I had been wondering about doing Kathryn Bigelow's The Loveless for my Origin of an Auteur Blogathon, but I'll have to see if I can find it before I make a final decision.

I did make an attempt to watch the remake of John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 after I found it on Netflix, but that didn't go over very well. From the small portion I saw it had almost no resemblance to the Carpenter film, and in most respects it just was not a very well executed film at all. It's not one I would recommend and it's a waste of time. Just watch the original, it's much simpler and far more interesting in most respects. That version from the 1970's even included a strong black protagonist and a secretary who practically has to become a cop by the end.

I also made another attempt to watch The Departed, only to get anxious and turn it off about 18 minutes in. I'm still not sure I understand what it is everyone sees in that movie, since that experience did very little to help improve my opinion on it. If anything, it gave me one more thing to criticize: everyone's horrible Boston accents. None of them were particularly convincing and obviously fake. To be honest, the bad accents were also really irritating, which is probably a bad sign considering we were expected to follow these characters throughout the rest of the movie. Though that small segment made slightly more sense this time, I still stand by everything I've said about this movie before.

The strange thing is that since then I've felt this overwhelming hostility towards The Departed, and I keep feeling this drive to find other better cop movies. I've actually made a few lists already as a way of venting frustrations though I've made a point of not advertising them to avoid offending people who actually liked it. In case you're actually curious to see what I've come up with, here is the list I posted on letterbox but for extreme fans of The Departed it might not be easy to stomach. I even made a top ten list of films. If anyone is curious, here is what I came up with for the top ten cop films that are better than The Departed:

10. Hot Pursuit
9. The Gauntlet
8. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
7. Die Hard
6. The Heat
5. Hot Fuzz
4. S.W.A.T.
3. Fargo
2. Blue Steel
1. End of Watch

(you may now begin posting your angry rants in the comments)

This week's episode of Killjoys was certainly an interesting one. Our heroes encountered a derelict spaceship and attempted to salvage it. They boarded only to quickly realize something horrible has happened, something that became especially clear with all the bodies that were found and the one survivor that wasn't quite in his right mind. Turns out the ship was conducting medical research before it was destroyed by a solar flare that caused the computer to turn what would have been a great medicinal breakthrough into a torture weapon, forcing the crew into endless interrogations. The only thing that didn't seem to make much sense was when Dutch got abducted by the aforementioned survivor and locked in a torture chamber even though based on previous episodes she should have been able to easily overpower him. Still, she at least got herself out of that mess and ended up saving the day so I won't complain.

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Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Alienation of Female Sexuality

Female sexuality has always been a controversial topic to depict on film. Some feminists, such as Bonnie Sherr Klein and Catherine A. MacKinnon, have accused pornography of “objectifying” women, and argue that any form of sex depicted involving women is produced exclusively for a “male gaze”. Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin provides a strong rebuttal to this notion in an unusual way—offering an outsider’s perspective. By casting the sexually curious female as an alien from another planet—literally alienating both her and, by extension, the viewer—Glazer allows us to step out of our own social constraints and look at the picture as a whole.

Under the Skin centers around an extra-terrestrial played by Scarlett Johansson; unnamed in the film but given the name of Isserly in the original book. She arrives in Scotland, her true form concealed inside the body of an attractive young woman. Under the employment of a mysterious man on a motorcycle (played by Grand Prix champion Jeremy McWilliams), Isserly is tasked with seducing men who are then lured into an old house where they are drowned in a black fluid that breaks down their bodies. As Isserley spends time living among humans on Earth, she begins to question her own purpose and, growing comfortable in her new skin, tries to become human. However, despite her efforts, the film constantly reminds us that she is not of this world, and questions just what it means to be “human”.

Throughout the film, Isserley is constantly, and literally, alienated from the world around her. To the average viewer, Scarlett Johansson stands out as she is the only recognizable name to appear (though motorcycle enthusiasts may be more familiar with Jeremy McWilliams). The rest of the cast consists of a mix of unknown actors and random people on the street with whom she interacts in character, unaware that they are in a film or talking to a world-renowned actress. A recurring motif throughout the film is her walking against the crowd, always facing the opposite direction of the movie’s extras and thus displaying a lack of conformity, making her constantly stand out.

By both literally and figuratively alienating the central character, the film also alienates the viewer and places them in a position to experience an alien perspective on the world around her, and in particular the idea of sex. The protagonist experiments in various ways of seducing men, but does it less out of pleasure and more in a machine-like routine way. She lures men to their doom not because of any actively malicious intent, but simply because that is her job (presumably overseen by the motorcyclist).

The first time the heroine finds herself experiencing any real pleasure is when she encounters a deformed man suffering from Neurofibromatosis (Adam Pearson). Upon encountering this man, she finds herself drawn to him and, upon finding out that he has no friends, invites him to touch her body. During this scene, Isserley challenges the claims of MacKinnon and Klein that sex on film is purely intended for a male gaze by seducing a man with a visible deformity, an act which causes the audience feel uncomfortable, making it clear that this is not for anyone's exclusive pleasure.

The idea of pleasure in sex is something Isserley sees as completely alien and struggles to comprehend, as is notable when she finally experiences real sex after being taken in by a friendly young man. During this scene, the protagonist appears to act indifferent while her friend experiences pleasure, though she herself does appear to eventually start to feel something during their intimate moment. When the man removes Isserley’s pants, while she tries to help him, displaying a sense of confusion as though the entire process is new to her. The man then climbs on top of her, seemingly in control. Isserly’s expression seems to suggest that she is feeling something, but is unsure what. In another close-up on the man’s hand, he begins to remove more of her clothes.

As the two embrace, the protagonist's expression starts to suggest that she is experiencing pleasure, but finds herself confused. She pushes aside the man, moves toward the edge of the bed, and shines a lamp into her vagina, apparently checking to see if something has happened. The man stares at her in confusion and says “you don’t like it?” She simply throws aside the lamp, apparently having seen no change in her genitals. Both she and the man are confused about what has just happened. Isserly is confused about having found pleasure in sex, while the man is puzzled by her being unsure about liking it.

In her documentary film, Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography, director Bonnie Sherr Klein takes the stance that pornography in general is anti-feminist, allegedly because it “objectifies” women for a purely male gaze. Other feminists such as Gayle Rubin argue that the “anti-porn” movements are in fact detrimental to feminism. In reality, pornography is being used as a scapegoat for contemporary social problems, and the real solution is to provide better recognition for female sex workers and encourage more women in the porn industry to move behind the camera and produce films for female audiences.

Rubin's suggestion is not even considered in Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography, in which Klein only offers information that furthers her own argument. She cites one specific type of pornography, in which torture is staged, and uses it to argue that all pornographic films are therefore movies are equivalent to snuff films depicting actual abuse of women. No reference is made, for instance, to the work of Barbara Hammer, a lesbian filmmaker who produced pornographic films intended for lesbian audiences as early as 1973, or feminist porn stars like Annie Sprinkle. Though the arguments of both sides are aimed at pornography, their ideas extend beyond a single genre and are relevant to film in general.

The mysterious protagonist of Under the Skin has a child-like attitude toward sex and finds herself curious about it, which draws some parallels to the similar character of Lena (Lena Nyman) in Vilgot Sjöman’s 1967 art film I Am Curious (Yellow). Similar to the tragic heroine of Under the Skin, Lena is a young woman curious about and trying to understand sex. She experiments with it through her encounters with various men, and in many of them she is the one responsible for initiating the experience. Lena is a sexually active young woman who challenges the ideas of MacKinnon and Klein by engaging in what they might consider “pornography” and displaying pride in doing so. Under the Skin uses a different approach, by treating sex as something literally alien. By making the protagonist herself an alien struggling to understand it, Jonathan Glazer is able to criticize common attitudes about how sex is often depicted.

I Am Curious (Yellow) provides an early example of a film challenging the ideas of anti-porn activists by presenting a sexually active female lead who “experiments”, fully embracing her sexual encounters and displaying pleasure within them. What distinguishes Under the Skin from I Am Curious (Yellow) is in how it challenges the ideas of Klein and MacKinnon. Instead of simply presenting an attractive woman gaining pleasure from sex, it uses the alien approach to criticize the lack of understanding towards female sexuality.

Unlike Lena, who is precisely the opposite of MacKinnon or Klein’s views on female sexuality, the protagonist of Under the Skin is at first an embodiment of their ideas. She interacts exclusively with men and, at least at first, it is only the men who experience true pleasure during her encounters. Her emotions seem almost forced. When she smiles there is a sense that she is only doing it because she understands she is supposed to, a feeling which constantly reminds the viewer they are not seeing her real face. Every time Isserly lures a man into her house, she puts herself on display for his pleasure, carefully stripping her clothes in a machine-like way. This is precisely in line with how MacKinnon and Klein have interpreted pornography. It starts off resembling the anti-porn claims regarding sex, but gradually shifts to be more in line with opinions expressed by Gayle Rubin.

By having the protagonist represent the ideas of pornography as “objectifying” women for the pleasure of men, Jonathan Glazer is able to demonstrate how confusing this same notion is when she finds herself experiencing sexual pleasure. However, these ideas emerge in a distorted and twisted form, with the female in control and using it to manipulate men. As her quest to become human progresses, she begins to question who she really is—and by extension whether she is capable of enjoying sex. This leads to something of a “sexual awakening” that forces her to question what she sees as “normal”, or—more accurately—MacKinnon and Klein’s distorted ideas of sex in contrast to the reality proposed by Gayle Rubin.

MacKinnon and Klein are convinced that any depiction of sex on film is detrimental to feminism, and that filmmakers are incapable of anything more than displaying women’s bodies for the pleasures of men. Rubin has argued precisely the opposite, suggesting that while there are cases of women being abused in the porn industry, the correct solution to the problem is to promote better treatment of women and produce pornographic films for female audiences, which has happened with filmmakers like Barbara Hammer. By showing both sides through the eyes of an alien, Jonathan Glazer is able to examine their respective views and criticize them through a new perspective.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Rookie Blue

It should come as no surprise that I'm a fan of Kathryn Bigelow, and I'm always interested in seeing her films when I get a chance. Ever since I first saw The Hurt Locker I have tried to collect her movies. When I heard about her film Blue Steel through my action cinema class I quickly became interested in it. One of my favorite female directors made a movie about a tough female cop? How could I resist? Before long, interest turned into a desire to see this film, and desire became an obsession. Next thing I knew I had to find this movie. I combed every potential channel I could find. I checked countless video stores (some more than once) as well as Netflix and HBO on Demand to know avail. It seemed like this film was impossible to find.

Over the last few months my desire grew increasingly to the point where it was starting to drive me insane. Every time I wandered into a video store all I could think about was finding a copy of Blue Steel. I was not even sure if it was going to be worth it but something kept compelling me to search for this particular film no matter how futile it proved. Then finally this morning I had a new idea; check out the media commons library on campus (which happens to have a huge selection of films). Turns out they did in fact have it all this time (on both DVD and video cassette) and I was able to check it out. Of course I'll have to return it, but I finally managed to fulfill my desire to see this early film from the director of The Hurt Locker. So after spending half a year relentlessly combing every shelf of any store that had DVDs for this one film that seemed impossible, was it worth it? Oh yes, it was.

Megan Turner (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a tough woman who has just graduated to becoming a recognized officer of the New York Police Department. She is a woman who has proven that she can hold her own in a male-dominated profession (this being a major theme throughout). Unfortunately, things are cut short on her first night as a cop when she finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time: witnessing a convenience store robbery in progress. Naturally she tries to interfere and has to shoot the perpetrator. However, one of the hostages, a strange fellow by the name of Eugene Hunt (Ron Silver) steels the perpetrator's gun and escapes the crime scene, leaving Turner to be accused of police brutality and suspended.

Hunt turns out to be a deranged lunatic who also becomes obsessed with Turner, going as far as to carve her name into bullets and fire on random pedestrians using the gun from the crime scene. Turner then finds herself in a brief romantic relationship with Hunt, only to end up in a violent cat and mouse chase as he attempts to manipulate her, framing her as a Dirty Harry-esque rogue cop who doesn't play by the rules. Now it is up to Turner to figure out how to expose Hunt for the monster he is and bring an end to his reign of terror.

I should probably point out that Blue Steel isn't exactly a typical action movie, though it certainly draws inspiration from some. There is definitely some inspiration from Dirty Harry (especially evident in the relationship between Turner and Hunt) and Blade Runner (mainly in terms of atmosphere), but in many ways this is more of an art film. While the story itself is not too hard to follow the movie as a whole is very subjective, at times even surreal, and one that tries to make the viewer think about and question what they are seeing.

This approach allows it to be a very psychologically-driven experience rather than something driven by a simple adrenaline rush (I suspect this is probably the reason why many consider it one of Bigelow's weaker films; a lot of them probably went in expecting a more straight forward action thriller). As a result, the film is more slow-paced than one would normally expect. It takes its time to allow the viewer access to the minds of its two central characters and to explore how both are simultaneously brought together and pulled apart over the course of the film.

The theme of challenging established gender conventions is a prominent one throughout, most notably in Megan's characterization. This is even reflected in her wardrobe, which constantly places her in attire more often seen on men, most notably the full blue police uniform (complete with peaked cap) and the presence of shoulder holsters. She is also a very strong character, with attention constantly being paid to her tough attitude and her wit (especially towards the end of the film, when she is locked in a metaphorical Chess game with Eugene).

Hunt also works as a disturbing antagonist. His weird deranged nature serves as an early precursor to the "adrenaline junkie danger seekers" that would become common in many of Bigelow's later films (Bodhi in Point Break and Sgt. First Class William James in The Hurt Locker arguably being the two best-known examples). However, unlike those later figures or Dirty Harry's Scorpio (from whom he obviously draws inspiration) Hunt is actually able to pass for an ordinary man. This adds a few extra layers of unease on the few occasions when he refrains from showing his true colours, since he is very clever in setting up Turner in such ways so that most of the other officers don't believe her.

Watching it today is especially horrifying since there are actually films still being made in which this kind of character would be the hero. He did display a vibe reminiscent of so-called love stories such as The Age of Adaline and Fifty Shades of Gray. His deterioration of character is also conveyed visually through a combination of body language, atmosphere, and costuming (he goes from wearing a fancy business suit to looking like a homeless man). By emphasizing these aspects of his character right from the beginning, instead of leaving it as a twist for the end, we are able to get into the twisted mind of a psychopath, an interesting if unsettling experience. At the same time, however, there is also an enigmatic quality to the whole thing, as the film never spells anything out but leaves the viewer to imagine what kind of thought process go through his head.

I don't know why this film is so hard to find, but it shouldn't be. I don't care if it's Criterion, Kino, Alliance, Mongrel, or some obscure indie distribution firm nobody has heard of. Somebody please get this film released on DVD again! It is a brilliant piece of work from Kathryn Bigelow and one I find myself tempted to rank as being among her best (right up there with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty). Blue Steel is arguably one of her most interesting projects, with its strange and subjective approach to what in the hands of any other director might have been a conventional action thriller. If you are a fan of her work, or even if you are just looking for some unusual police films, this is a must-see.

Friday, 10 July 2015

So Fetch Friday: Bell of Arabia

So there hasn't been much happening just at the moment, at least not a  whole lot movie-wise worth covering. I got a recommendation to watch True Detective but that show really didn't work out for me. I could see some Twin Peaks influence but ultimately this one was just boring. I couldn't even get through the first episode. There was absolutely nothing about it that made me invested in anyone or anything that was happening. That, and it also failed to meet my quota for strong female characters. There were like two women in the show, one of whom was the wife of one of the main characters who only appeared in one scene and the other was a murder victim. There were a lot of cops in this show so would it really have killed the writers to have even one female officer?

I started watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine and it has proven to be hilarious. There's lots of craziness and various police characters. I love how Santiago and Diaz are the ultimate logical extremes of "good cop, bad cop." It's also a great example of a show that's working with diversity, considering it not only has two strong female characters plus a mixed-race cast but it also has a strong black gay man as the chief inspector. It's like a more modern version of Barney Miller if that show had female cops in its central cast.

So far Killjoys seems to be getting a little better, though I'm still not sure I totally understand how the world of the show is supposed to work. This time they went for a Depression-era vibe with our heroes travelling to what could basically be described as a futuristic version of the farm from Of Mice and Men. This place was brutal; they even put exploding chips in the employees' ears to keep them from leaving before their contract is finished (the only people who manage to escape are the ones who have the nerve to cut off their own ear). Apparently, they don't have unions in the future. That's a bit of an odd development.

David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia has often been hailed as a masterpiece by many critics, myself included. It is also a film that is very famous for its lack of female characters. Surprisingly while I have certainly not failed to notice it that never bothered me too much. After all, there were probably some very good reasons why a female character could not be included in that movie. For one thing, the historical events depicted would have happened in a patriarchal society and no women were known to be involved with them. If no women were involved in the real historical events, it would make sense that a filmmaker wanting to stay true to the spirit of what happened would refrain from trying to force a female lead into the script.

Well, it turns out he lied! There was in fact a place in Lawrence of Arabia for a strong female lead. Meet Gertrude Bell, an early 20th century explorer and archaeologist who also was almost, if not in fact as important as or even more important than T.E. Lawrence himself in those same events. You might not have heard of this woman, and that's because in Lawrence of Arabia she isn't so much as offhandedly mentioned. David Lean actually covered up the role of a historical woman, and gave credit for all her accomplishments to men. Suddenly a Best Picture-winning film widely considered one of the greatest ever made seems a little bit sexist, doesn't it?

Fortunately, it seems that Werner Herzog finally decided to do something about this because now, 53 years after the release of Lawrence of Arabia we are finally going to see Gertrude Bell's contributions on film. So far the trailer is looking alright. When Robert Pattinson said he wanted to get as far away from Twilight  as possible he wasn't kidding. Of course, now he's got to live up to the legacy of Peter O'Toole as T.E. Lawrence. It's an ambitious project but I think it's got some potential.

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Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Thursday Movie Picks Meme: Road trip Movies

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is Road Trip Movies. The criteria for those kinds of films should be pretty self-explanatory. As the title implies the subject is films that center around a road trip, commonly known simply as "road movies". It is a pretty simple structure: you have a character or group of characters who start at Point A, then something happens that requires them to get to Point B. The plot is centered around the journey between Point A and Point B, and everything that happens along the way. Plenty of films follow this basic formula. In fact stretching the definition enough one could argue that The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit could both be considered road movies.

Of course, the category here was not "road movies" but "road trip movies", which means that in this case there should be an actual road trip of some form. Generally most people think of a "road trip" as getting in some kind of vehicle (usually a car, though any vehicle or a combination of different vehicles could be used) and driving on the road to a pre-determined destination. Strong Bad once said that every good road trip needs a good inside joke, that only people who went on the road trip will get. You'll also need keys and a functioning car. Oh, and if you end up passing by a diner called "beneath the passenger seat" it's probably best that you don't stop there. Just remember to stay jumbo/large.

Now my job is to find three unusual choices for Road Trip films (that hopefully nobody else has thought of) and put them together in a list for you to see:

John Carpenter's Starman (1984)

Did you ever feel like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial really was not that great a movie? Well, then this is the movie for you, Starman being a more adult version of the same idea. This is also an unusual film to see from a man like John Carpenter (yes, the same guy who made Dark Star and The Thing) in just how uplifting and optimistic it is. In fact some accounts even claim that Carpenter made it as an apology for the then-critically panned The Thing, but it is still a surprisingly emotional film (Jeff "The Dude" Bridges even received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the Starman). It has the right balance of different emotions: there is some great fish-out of water comedy on the part of the Starman but at the same time it is not afraid to get serious when it has to. It is movies like this that show how Carpenter is much more than the so-called "Master of Horror" and he has a much greater range of talents.

The Straight Story (1999)

A lot of people remember David Lynch as the guy who makes all the really weird mind-boggling movies. While he has produced his share of such films, it is easy to forget about that he actually does have a few that are not so surreal and subjective. One of the best examples would be his 1999 adventure The Straight Story. Even the title demonstrates how unusual this is for Lynch ("straight" being both in reference to the name of the protagonist and the fact that Lynch is making a film that actually makes sense for once). Okay, the concept of an old man riding a lawnmower between states is a bit unusual, but really it is a simple story about an old man trying to make amends with his estranged brother. It was also the final acting role of Richard Farnsworth, who proved to be a perfect fit for the role as he had a lot of the same health problems as the man he was playing.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

It's a bit funny that for a franchise that is centered entirely around people fighting for control of the road and killing each other for fuel, it took four films before George Miller thought to make one about a road trip. This is also one intense road trip; in fact the entire narrative is basically a feature-length car chase with a few breaks. There is action, chaos, and tension, but at the same time there is bonding among the various characters and a strong emphasis on overthrowing patriarchal society. It is a very exciting movie and of course there is a road trip of sorts.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Gender Inequality and Law Enforcement

As I have discussed before on multiple occasions, there are currently a large number of issues regarding how women are represented in certain professions in contemporary media. One of the worst examples of this is the absurd inability of films and television to recognize the accomplishments (or in many cases, even the existence) of female firefighters. At most, female firefighters are rarely anything more than extras, if even that. Through all my extensive research on the subject I have found that at best, female firefighters are poorly written (L.A. Firefighters, Chicago Fire) or partial examples (i.e. Leah in Flashpoint, a competent female firefighter, but one who has retired and switched to being a cop by the time she appears on the show). The only definitive example I have of a positive role model for female firefighters is Fireman Sam, a kids show from Wales and even that wasn't entirely perfect (Penny wasn't introduced until Season 2). That is not even getting into the idiots who actually use extreme generalizations (the "upper body strength" argument being a favorite) to claim that women are weaker than men and should not even be allowed to apply to join the fire service.

Of course, firefighting isn't the only profession in which female participants have been misrepresented. To an extent the same could be said for a lot of male-dominated professions. For instance it is still hard to find positive role models for women in the military even in films dealing with modern warfare where would make sense to show them. Representation of female astronauts is getting better but even then films like Moon manage to avoid depicting them altogether. One of the more interesting and complicated areas is the issue of female representation in law enforcement, more specifically the issue of how female cops are treated.

Historically, police films and shows have often been very male-dominated and there is a reason for this. It is because prior to the 1970's there were virtually no female cops, if any at all. Naturally, any film from before that era (or any contemporary period piece that focuses on the police) never showed any female cops, but even by the 70's women in law enforcement would have been rare at best. For this reason the closest John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct could get to having a strong female police officer was to allow a secretary to take part in the main action, but even with the integration of the police force many films still failed to get the memo, hence masculine action films like Die Hard in 1988.

The only major director at the time who seemed to notice was James Cameron, as is evidenced by the presence of at least one female cop being present The Terminator (though she is little more than an unnamed extra during the T-800's rampage through the police station, while the two officers actually given focus are both men). This is why it took three films before the Dirty Harry series finally introduced a female police officer. The Enforcer tried to create a positive role model but failed miserably (though actress Tyne Daly would later go on to star in Cagney and Lacey, a television series centered around the relationship between two female cops). While this film was a disaster, it could be argued that the character of Kate Moore could have helped to set in motion.

Today, some progress has been made. It is becoming more common to see films and shows make a more concerted effort to diversify depictions of law enforcement. It is also becoming more common on a variety of television programs. Even shows like Elementary, in which the two regular cops are both men, they have had female officers make an appearance (as well as a female consultant in Joan Watson). End of Watch also made a point of showing capable female police officers even if the central focus was still on two male protagonists. Unfortunately, even if some things have changed compared to representations of women in other male-dominated professions there are still some problems to consider.

First, it is still common for movies and television shows to still depict all-male groups of cops regardless of whether it is necessary. One notable case of this being done on television is True Detective, but Martin Scorsese's The Departed is a perfect example. This was a movie that had a very large cast of characters. It has large variety of cops as well as several crooks, every single one of them had their own plotline... and the only woman they could fit in the movie was the love interest? She is not even directly involved in the narrative. The only major female character was a police psychologist but the focus is almost exclusively on her romantic entanglements with Billy.

There is not so much as a single female cop anywhere in the cast, not even as an extra. Yes, I know The Departed was a remake of the Hong Kong movie Internal Affairs and they did it too but I don't care. I find it hard to believe that there was not one character in the film who could have been written as or played by a woman without changing anything in the script beyond perhaps a few pronouns. Would it really have killed the filmmakers to even have one female cop or crook take part in the action? After all, it was dealing with a large cast of characters in the present day, so it is not like there are any social issues to consider that might excuse it (as would be the case for any police procedural set in say... the 1940's). This should be simple: just cast a woman in one of the five billion police roles even if it was originally meant to be a guy and only change the script as much as is absolutely necessary.

Second, it is worth noting that while it is becoming more common to depict female cops, they are shown more commonly in some areas than others. For instance, when the subject of police corruption comes up, it is extremely rare to see a female corrupt cop outside of a handful of exceptions such as Dredd and Sabotage. The most recognized exception to the rule is arguably Ramirez in The Dark Knight, except in that instance her corruption was not her own doing so much as it was careful psychological manipulation and pressure exerted on her by the film's (male) villains. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of films that deal with corrupt male cops.

Gender representation also seems to vary depending on which department the work in question is focusing on. It seems to be far more likely that one will see female homicide detectives, federal agents, or patrol officers than it is to see them taking part in a SWAT team. There are very few images of female SWAT officers. Very few movies (at least from what I have found) actually take the time to give SWAT teams any real focus, usually casting them as a background or minor supporting role. When this happens, it is almost always a team made exclusively of men (Speed provides a notable exception in one scene, though in that instance the female officer has no dialogue and is presumably killed when a bomb goes off in the villain's house).

Even films that do put focus on SWAT teams often go this route. The Korean film The Raid centers, as the title implies, on a SWAT team raiding an apartment building. Director Gareth Evans decided once again to depict an all-male team with virtually no female characters at all. One could try to justify this by arguing cultural differences, but I don't buy that especially considering China has actually employed all-female SWAT teams. Once again, would it really have killed Evans to have even one female officer in the cast? There is no reason why the team had to be all men.

There are exceptions to this rule, but they hard to find. The movie S.W.A.T. is one rare example of a film attempting to challenge this convention. The opening scene of the film depicts an all-male SWAT team responding to a bank robbery-gone wrong, but it also ends up being problematic due to the actions of Brian Gamble. This ends up leading to the dissolution of the original team, and forces Sgt. Hondo to assemble a new team. Once again, the first few are men. When we do meet the one female member of the team, her sex is the last thing that is revealed; she is given the gender-neutral name "Chris" and simply established to be very good at holding her own.

The movie then proceeds to emphasize that from the moment she first arrives for training she is an important member of the team, easily capable of pulling her own weight, and avoids having any romantic triangle. In fact, only two people ever voice disapproval of her presence in the SWAT team: her boss Captain Fuller and ex-SWAT officer Gamble, of whom one is eventually proven wrong and the other goes on to become one of the main antagonists. This is also interesting when one considers that there were no female team members in the original 1970's show that inspired the movie.

Flashpoint is also another good example of an exception to the rule. Though the characters refrain from using the term "SWAT" in favor of "SRU" (strategic response unit), they serve more or less the same function as the heavy-duty cops who are called in when things get two dangerous for regular patrol officers. The series always had at least one woman on the team, with at total of three serving at different periods of the show's run (though Jules was the only one to stay for the entire series; one was introduced as a temporary substitute while Amy Jo Johnson was on maternity leave and went on to become a recurring character afterwards, while the other was not introduced until season 2). All three of the women who served on the SRU were competent, strong characters and proved to be valuable members of the team.

Unfortunately, S.W.A.T. and Flashpoint are more the exceptions than the rules. Very few movies or shows follow the examples these works should be setting, even when the SWAT team is cast as anything more than a background role. The fact is that there are women taking part in all areas of police work, and if progress is to be made there needs to be more positive role models of them in every form possible, yet there seem to be double standards at play here. Casting a woman as a homicide detective or patrol officer is considered okay, but very few people seem to even consider the possibility depicting of female SWAT officers even though it is becoming increasingly common in real life. 

The fact is that while there has been a lot of progress since The Enforcer, there are still inequalities in how women are depicted in law enforcement. These issues need to be addressed and rectified as soon as possible. Some people have been known to criticize these types of posts, claiming that I'm trying to shove "political correctness" into everything. They say it like encouraging more films to diversify their casts is a bad thing, but if that's what it's going to take than I'm all for it. This process has proven to be insanely slow. People should know better by 2015 and yet little seems to have changed. Something needs to be done.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Genisys of the Terminators

This is one I've been preparing all week to see. I made a point of re-watching both The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day plus I started watching Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles to help get into the right mood. I probably would have even watched Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Terminator Salvation if I could. It seemed to make sense to compare it to the first two films at least. The big question is how well does it hold up, and the answer is actually not all that bad.

At first, it looks like Terminator Genisys is going to go the route of the original The Terminator even going as far as to use some of the original footage from the beginning of that movie. In the future John Connor (Jason Clarke) has led the resistance fighters in order to win the war against the evil computer system known as Skynet (played by Matt Smith of Doctor Who fame). Said computer system resorts to drastic measures by sending the T-800 back in time to kill Sarah Connor and prevent her from giving birth to John thus erasing the human resistance fighters. Meanwhile, John takes control of the system and sends Kyle Reese back in time to stop the Terminator. However, before Kyle is sent John is attacked by a Terminator and the former begins experiencing memories of things that never happened to him.

Kyle arrives in Los Angeles in 1984 where he begins looking for Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), ready to protect her and teach her to defend herself. He is subsequently shocked when a T-1000 shows up and he is saved by Sarah herself. It turns out the timeline got a little wonky and now thanks to some confusing wibbly-wobbly timey wimey stuff Sarah has actually been preparing herself since an encounter with a Terminator at the age of nine, and now she has one who accompanies her under the nickname of "Pops" (played by an ageing Schwarzenegger). After easily destroying the T-800 and narrowly escaping the T-1000, this group of characters finds themselves travelling in the near future where they discover a computer system called Genisys that will become Skynet once it is operational. Now comes the mission to destroy Skynet before it is born, a task complicated by the reveal of a new, even more powerful terminator from an unexpected source who will stop at nothing to protect Genisys.

Basically, Alan Taylor is doing here with The Terminator franchise what J.J. Abrams did to Star Trek. Instead of directly picking up where the films left off, he is branching off into a separate timeline. By creating a whole alternate series of events he can have full creative freedom without being burdened by the troubles of sticking to what has already been established in canon. To be fair, this is probably the biggest issue with the film, as its timey-wimey paradoxes are not very well explained. For instance, they finally stop Skynet from existing, so how does "Pops" still exist?

One thing I can give credit for, however, is that Emilia Clarke is actually not all that bad as Sarah Connor. For one thing she definitely looks a lot more like her character than her Game of Thrones co-star Lena Headey (who previously played the same role in The Sarah Connor Chronicles). She is still a reasonably strong character who has to take part in most of the action. If anything, her relationship with Kyle Reese is basically a role reversal of how it played out in The Terminator. Instead it is Sarah who understands what is going on and has to protect Kyle while explaining everything to him. This certainly leads to some peculiar twists and turns, not all of them expected.

The visual effects are also amazing for the most part. Most of the designs of the terminators (at least of the T-800 and T-1000) are on par with what Cameron envisioned in his first two films. There is never any point at which the machines seem to appear fake. The attention to detail is quite impressive in the earlier scenes, though it is hard to tell where the scenes that were shot for this instalment end and the reused footage from The Terminator begins. Even Schwarzenegger does okay and it was an interesting choice to try and take advantage of the fact that he has aged a lot since 1984.

As for how Terminator Genisys compares to the Cameron films, there is not much point in doing so. The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day are still the best in the series. That said, Terminator Genisys is flawed but still an entertaining movie. There is plenty of great action and suspense plus a few shocking twists in the narrative to keep audiences on their toes. Admittedly, it is somewhat painful to see everything we had come to know and love about The Terminator wiped from existence (and extreme fans of the series might have trouble handling one particular reveal that changes everything that has been established about the future, those of you who have seen the film know what I'm talking about) but as a simple action film it serves its purposes and makes for an enjoyable experience.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Seeing Film in Three Dimensions

I remember when Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over was released, and trailers for it were everywhere. The funny thing is that most of the advertisements said little about the movie itself. There was some basic information about the plot: an evil video game developer had a super-exciting game that was designed to take over the minds of kids who played it, leading to the titular kids having to go undercover and play the game to stop him. However, most of the focus was on another aspect of the film, namely the "3-D" effects and the fact that the film came with "your own set of 3-D glasses." The ads loved to play this angle up, usually by showing Alexa PenaVega thrusting her mechanical-looking arm out of the screen towards a startled audience. At the time, this seemed like something amazing.

This is the extent of the film's amazing 3D.

Unfortunately, when I finally saw the film, it hardly lived up to the hype its advertising gave. The 3-dimensional effects made almost no difference from seeing it in two dimensions. The only thing the supposed 3-D entailed was that the film would occasionally try to scare the viewer by flinging objects at them, but it never created the illusion of coming out of the television like the ads claimed. Perhaps it was for the better; after all, Sylvester Stallone is a bad enough actor in two dimensions, nobody wants to experience him in three. Movies like Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over are perhaps the primary reason why the format of 3-D films has been so widely condemned.

Many critics dismiss 3-D as becoming nothing more than a simple marketing gimmick, and a failing one at that. To a degree they are right. Some movies like Dolphin Tale have been released in 3-D regardless of whether the story actually warrants such a format. There have also been efforts to re-release older movies in 3-D. In 2010, George Lucas began a project to re-release his entire Star Wars saga in 3-D, though he only managed to do this for The Phantom Menace. There was also an even more absurd period in which Disney began releasing two-dimensional animated films in 3-D. The point is, there was never a time when it was not a marketing gimmick, and it is only now that people are beginning to understand and find ways to use 3-D for something more.

The concept of 3-D films was actually born in the 1950's as a result of television coming into popularity. Because audiences were starting to spend more time at home instead of going to the theater, Hollywood studios believed that there was a threat to their business. One solution to the problem was simply to make deals with television networks to have their movies screened. However, at the same time there was also a perceived need to compete with television to make people more interested in going to the theater. This meant trying to find ways to give audiences in the theater an experience they could not have at home.

There were a variety of solutions proposed with varying degrees of success. More films were produced in colour with narratives that lent themselves to special effects. One of the first technical solutions was Cinerama, a widescreen method in which the film was simultaneously run on three different projectors and played on a curved screen. More embarrassing was the short-lived movement of "smell-o-vision" which as its name implied was based on the idea of trying to give the viewer a more authentic experience by simulating odors from within the movie. Among other ideas was the concept of 3-D, something television had no hope of competing with.

One of the earliest 3-dimensional films was a movie called The Charge at Feather River, a 1953 western that attempted to startle the audience with its 3-D effects. Those effects hold up poorly today, especially considering the film is better known as being responsible for popularizing a sound effect now known as the "Wilhelm Scream" (named after Wilhelm, the character who cries out when he takes an arrow to the knee). The story concerned a group of American cavalrymen trying to rescue some white women who were abducted by Native Americans, and the filmmakers tried to take full advantage of the 3-D effects. They literally threw everything they could at the viewer in an attempt to shock them, not a whole lot different from what the ads for Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over purported the film would do.

The truth is that this tactic has only ever been known to work once in the entire history of cinema, which suggests the true roots of 3-D filmmaking. Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery came out at a time when audiences had never seen anything like it. Contrary to popular belief, it was not the first film to tell a story (having been preceded by Porter's own Life of an American Fireman and the work of Méliès) but it was among the first to use editing to convey a narrative. One touch would become especially famous in later years: the final scene. In this final shot, a man stands facing the camera, he draws a gun, and fires. Audiences of the era were baffled, many of its first viewers genuinely believed they were about to be shot. In many ways, 3-D filmmaking has often served as an attempt to replicate the initial reactions to The Great Train Robbery for an audience more familiar with moving pictures.

Like many other things in the 1950's, 3-D didn't catch on for audiences. Trying to shock them by flinging arrows at the camera never had quite the same effect as that final moment from The Great Train Robbery. Over the following decade it would occasionally re-emerge in blockbuster films, Jaws 3-D being an infamous example, but ultimately it would not be recognized as a viable tactic until the 2000's. Movies like Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over began to popularize it once again, with the ads shamelessly claiming the film would shock audiences the same way The Great Train Robbery did in 1903.

Several other 3-D films would attempt a similar practice over the course of the decade, until 2009 when James Cameron released Avatar, a film specifically designed to be seen in 3-D and in Imax theatres. What made Avatar stand out from movies like Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over and The Charge at Feather River was in the way it used the 3-D effects. Most attempts at 3-D tried to utilize the format by literally throwing anything they could at the viewer, regardless of whether it actually added anything to the film itself. Cameron decided to try something different, instead doing precisely the opposite.

Cameron's vision of Avatar was one in which the audience would experience the 3-D effects as though they were looking into a terrarium. This meant that rather than try to directly interact with the viewer the objective was instead to use the 3-D to add depth to the world created within the story. For the first time 3-D became recognized as something more than just a terrible marketing gimmick; it was actually something that when used right could enhance the filmgoing experience. Unfortunately, for many viewers this has one unpleasant side effect. After becoming the highest grossing film of all time and receiving massive critical praise in theatres, it started to gain a negative reputation upon its DVD release. People began hating the film, usually citing similarities to Pocahontas  or Dances With Wolves. The problem was simple, on a DVD release the film was stripped of the 3-D and Imax experience that Cameron had intended, leaving viewers with nothing more than the story that went with it.

Only four years later, director Alfonso Cuarón would do something similar with Gravity, this time learning from Cameron's mistakes. Cuarón made his film much simpler in tone. On its own, Gravity still works as a straight forward science fiction thriller with some incredible visual effects. When seen in theatres in 3-D, the format enhances the narrative by emphasizing the vastness of space and heightening the sense of desperation faced by Dr. Stone. In other words, unlike The Charge at Feather RiverSpy Kids 3-D: Game Over, or Avatar before it, Gravity was not specifically designed as a platform for 3-D. Instead, it was made as a film that could be experienced to great effect in 3-D but did not rely exclusively on that format as the primary draw for viewers.

Gravity's predecessors were often made more for the 3-D effects than for the films themselves. For the most part, the primary draw of films like The Charge at Feather River or Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over was the possible (but ultimately unfulfilled) experience of seeing objects come flying out of the screen. The same can also be said about the various attempts that have been made to re-release iconic films in 3-D, especially when this approach was taken with 2-D animated films. Gravity was a success because it did not rely entirely on the 3-D effects to impress viewers. It also displayed a simple but compelling story and brilliant special effects even when not seen in 3-D.

As is shown by films like Gravity, the idea of seeing films in three dimensions can be more than just a terrible marketing strategy. Many have criticized the practice, and in some cases not unjustly, but the ways in which this format has been abused does not make it any less valid. It can be used to amazing effect when done correctly and used to enhance the film itself rather than as a cheap way to shock viewers who will likely be indifferent at best. Many believe that 3-D will never catch on, that it is simply a passing fad, but it has been around since the 1950's and slowly improving. Many critics also said precisely the same thing about early sound films, and how many silent movies are still produced today?

Friday, 3 July 2015

So Fetch Friday: Terminating Stuff

An exciting bit of news today. My short film Dead Inside is making progress. Not only has it been shot, but it also has an official poster and trailer. It's not very often I get to comment on my own movies. So far it's looking pretty good. The guys I got to direct it are professionals and we got some quality actresses. No big names yet, but maybe soon.  I suppose to put it all into context I should offer some information about the film itself.

This is a strange film with quite a history to it. It all started when I was in college. I heard a few stories about hitchhiking ghosts and decided to try something out with it. The project quickly degenerated from a compelling psychological thriller into a coping mechanism for all the troubles I was facing at the time. The concept was that a college dropout is driving home when she encounters a mysterious woman simply known as the Passenger. The two would have engaged in a conversation about the girl's problems (which was basically just my way of writing the issues I actually had), ending with a car crash and the main character waking up in an ambulance and the reader being left to question the Passenger's identity.

Fast forward a few months later and I'm out of college, taking part in a screenwriting class and trying to develop an idea for a short film. I had been working with a few story ideas. After several failed attempts to develop a concept for a romance centered on two castaways who have to work together to survive despite a language barrier, I suddenly found myself interested in revisiting that older idea. This time I fleshed it out more, drawing on my experiences as well as one other curious addition. At the time I was busy collecting David Lynch films and I'd been watching a lot of them. Naturally I drew inspiration from those (particularly Lost Highway) to create a strange surrealist short. The result was an emotional ten-page surrealist film. Fast forward about two years later and I find out there's a filmmaking club at my new school. A week later I pitched it to a director and next thing I knew we were in pre-production.

Emily Thurston is a young woman who once thought she knew her passion only to end up dropping out of college when it proved disastrous. Now she makes a living as a waitress, a miserable life. That all changes when she encounters a mysterious customer who begins to put her on the right path. Through a series of strange dream-like experiences, Emily is now left to figure out where she really belongs. Will she figure out what she really wants to do with herself?

We don't have a precise release date for this movie yet. I have been told that there should be two more months of post-production before it is finished. In the meantime, here is the trailer:

This week, I got talked into seeing The Maze Runner, and I'm not sure it was that great a movie. The scenario didn't make a lot of sense, and one thing in particular stood out. There was never at any point in the film a single solitary explanation for why it was only boys who were put into the maze. I assumed there was a reason of some sort that would eventually become clear but there wasn't. You could literally re-write the entire film with a mixed-gender group of characters getting stuck in the maze and it would change nothing about the plot. There was supposed to be some significance in a girl finally being brought into the maze as well but not much of an explanation for the sudden change.

I've been re-watching the Terminator series in preparation for the new movie. I'm hoping to see it sometime tomorrow. So far I've seen The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day though I probably will not be able to watch Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines or Terminator Salvation, largely because they proved not to be as easily available as I anticipated. I did, however, manage to find The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and it's been an interesting experience watching that. So far I think I'm still trying to get used to the fact that absolutely none of the original actors were involved (at least not that I've seen).

This does make it seem a little jarring when a woman who doesn't look that much like Linda Hamilton keeps referencing the events of the films. This does have the effect of making the show feel a bit cheaper, but it's also possible that it will improve as the season progresses. On the bright side, there is the fun fact that Sarah Connor is now (at least as far as I'm aware) officially the first character to claim the honor of being played by two different Game of Thrones stars. In The Sarah Connor Chronicles she was played by Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister) and now in Terminator Genesys she is being played by Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen).

As for other shows, I've still been trying to find some things. Killjoys is looking okay so far. It seems to have a Firefly vibe but there is some good action and I can definitely give it credit for having a strong female lead. In fact really she seems to be the protagonist, the other two guys are more like sidekicks. First Mad Max: Fury Road and now this? Is having a strong female lead with a male sidekick starting to become a trend now? That's pretty good.

The Brink is also looking like a lot of fun. The first two episodes have been hilarious, even with Jack Black. It definitely seems to draw a lot from Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb as it has that same kind of feeling. So far we've had spiraling political tensions, two jet pilots getting high on morphine (one of them puking all over the cockpit), and Jack Black somehow getting confused for a CIA informant. It's proven to be a lot of fun.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Thursday Movie Picks: Adaptations of Classic Literature

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is adaptations of classic literature. I've got some experience in this area so this one should be pretty straight forward. I did use to read (abridged versions of) classic novels when I was younger, yet another way I wasn't like others in my class. I think there was even a period where I actually wanted to go into politics and outlaw any form of modern literature because I didn't like the fact that nobody else could see what I was seeing in these books. There is just one catch, which is that I can't do poems or plays. Fortunately, poetry is probably my weakest subject when it comes to literature, and the only classic playwright I really know all that well is Shakespeare, so this isn't all that much of a problem.

Now there might be some dispute over what precisely can be considered "classic". I've gotten into a few debates myself over whether Lovecraft counts as "classic literature" or not (for the record, he does), but when people think of classic literature, they often imagine authors such as Jane Austen or Leo Tolstoy. Not very many people would think of science fiction, but there are several classic authors who were known for their contributions to the genre. Since I imagine this will be the less obvious route, let's look at three adaptations of classic science fiction stories by one of its founding authors, Jules Verne.

A Trip to the Moon (1902)

How could we discuss adaptations of classic literature and omit one of the earliest examples? Georges Méliès famous A Trip to the Moon is actually a combination of two early science fiction novels: Verne's From Earth to the Moon and H.G. Wells' The First Men in the Moon. From Verne's novel it borrows the idea of travelling to the moon in a giant canon, while its vision of the Lunar surface (particularly the presence of "Selenites") more closely resembles Wells' vision. Méliès' film is often considered historically significant for several reasons, most notably for being one of the earliest known films to tell a story (even if the "story" is little more than an excuse to show off his then-revolutionary special effects) and one of the first science fiction movies. 

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

This 1954 adaptation of the Jules Verne classic is one I'd not only call one of Walt Disney's finest achievements, but in general one of my all-time favorite films. It is very unusual for Disney, being a family film at its core but also not being afraid to go into more adult territory when it needs to. Most Disney films have a clearly defined hero and villain, but here there is a greater moral ambiguity not normally seen in their work (the conflict occurs between four men, but all of them have understandable motives, goals, and feelings, so in a way they are all relatable if for different reasons). It also contains some incredible underwater cinematography, spectacular model work, and Kirk Douglas singing! What's not to love?

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

There have been a few attempts to adapt Jules Verne's famous novel about a scientific expedition to uncover the mysteries of the Earth's core, but this version was the first and it is definitely the best. Of course, that's not saying much considering that this is the only adaptation of the book that is actually a good movie in its own right (don't even get me started on that atrocious 3-D interpretation back in 2008, and as if that weren't bad enough the filmmakers had to go and make a sequel butchering another Verne classic, The Mysterious Island). Once again, James Mason returns to lead an expedition into the unknown with three companions (and a duck). There are some changes made, most notably the presence of a villain and an added female lead (though for once it actually works, probably because they actually gave her character depth and strength instead of just trying to force in a romance), but it is probably the closest anyone has ever come to capturing the essence of Verne's original vision.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Blindspot: Fight Club (1999)

I'd like to go on the record to say that I've never been the biggest fan of David Fincher. I'd seen two movies of his before this one and neither made a huge impact. I could never get into The Social Network the same way everyone else seemed to, and I felt lis ike Panic Room had a very good buildup that ended up leading to an underwhelming conclusion. Still, Fight Club was a movie I kept hearing about everywhere. Everyone seemed to be talking about Fight Club (even though both the first and second rule of Fight Club is that you're not supposed to talk about Fight Club).

Naturally, since it was also iconic enough to be easy to find it made a good candidate for my 2015 Blindspot list. This was a popular one, just about everybody who commented on my lists recommended that I see Fight Club, and out of the Fincher movies I've seen so far, this is probably the best. The surprising thing is that Fight Club proved to be absolutely nothing like I would have expected from its premise. I wasn't completely sure what to expect, but it proved to be a very strange and disorienting film that went in some odd directions.

An unnamed character played by Edward Norton is an everyday man who has a dull job in an office and is suffering from clinical depression and insomnia. When he tries to consult a doctor and claims to be "suffering" this character is told to visit a testicular cancer support group to see what pain really means. He does so and finds this to be an unexpectedly pleasant experience after making friends with a man named Robert "Bob" Paulsen (Meat Loaf). Suddenly he realizes that support groups are comforting to him and he begins sneaking into several other support groups. After a few weeks, he has become a regular participant in just about every type of support group except a support group for people who have addictions for sneaking into support groups. One day he encounters a strange mentally unstable woman named Marla Singer who also begins doing the same thing, coincidentally sneaking into every single one of the same support groups.

The part with the actual "Fight Club" begins when the main character encounters Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a projectionist and part-time waiter whose hobbies include urinating in people's food and splicing pornographic shots into family films (why the theater he works at hasn't already sacked him I don't know). When the protagonist's apartment mysteriously catches fire, he has no choice but to turn to Durden for a place to stay. The two of them then begin getting into regular fights outside a local bar which draws interest from other patrons. This leads to the idea of starting an underground "Fight Club" where men (women are excluded, presumably the result of a certain choice made by Marla) can beat the crap out of each other as a way of venting all their anger.

At first it proves effective and becomes extremely popular, but over time things spiral out of control as fight clubs begin emerging around America. Increasingly large numbers of men join in, and suddenly it begins to turn into something more closely resembling a terrorist organization. Combining that with an... unexpected twist about how these two men are connected, the protagonist quickly finds himself in over his head and needing to do something about it fast, but Fight Club always seems to be one step ahead.

Naturally, this is one violent movie (which is saying something considering Kill Bill and Gangs of New York were also on my list for this year). The fight scenes are extremely vivid and graphic and there are a lot of them (and that's just the fistfights, not even getting into the attempted castration or self-inflicted gunshot wounds). The film also demonstrates quite effectively just how much those fights must hurt. Curiously enough, for once I also found I was never totally bothered by the lack of women. I couldn't help noticing it and found it a curious choice but I presume it had something to do with Tyler's characterization. They also seemed to constantly draw attention to the men's backwards thinking. I also never could seem to decide if Helena Bonham Carter's role of Marla Singer was a strong female character or not. In any case, she was certainly still an interesting and eccentric figure.

The plot of the movie, on the other hand, is quite a disorienting one. I will definitely give credit that I did not see a lot of the twists coming, especially the big reveal about where Tyler comes from (which I will refrain from stating), but I'm still not sure I understood everything that went on here. It certainly got confusing on several occasions, since there was a lot of stuff going on and I will also confess that I had some trouble wrapping my mind around some of the twists. I'm not sure if that's good or bad, or if it just means this is the kind of movie one has to watch several times to fully understand. It's certainly got me thinking about it which is a good sign.

From what I've seen of David Fincher's work, Fight Club is probably one of his best if only on the grounds that as weird and disorienting as it is I could actually get into it unlike The Social Network or Panic Room. It is a curious and strange movie to be sure, one that I'm still not totally sure I understand but certainly a film that seems to be worth talking about. The first rule of fight club is that you're not supposed to talk about Fight Club, but for this movie that seems like a rule worth breaking.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

One Small Step For Man...

Prior to the 1950's, science fiction was a genre not widely recognized in film. In fact, it was almost non-existent as far as cinema was concerned. The genre now known as science fiction is usually believed to have originated in 19th century literature. Several authors from that period are credited with presenting early stories that are now considered science fiction. Some stories by Edgar Allen Poe have been cited as early examples of the genre. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein can also be considered an early science fiction story. However, the genre was first popularized by two major authors from the period: Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, though at the time it was known as "scientific romance" instead of science fiction.

Of these two, Wells is noteworthy for pioneering many popular ideas of modern science fiction. While the idea of time travel was nothing new when he was writing, his novel aptly titled The Time Machine was one of, if not the first, to explore this theme with a scientific explanation (a machine that grants access to the fourth dimension). Wells was also working at a time when "invasion literature" proved popular with readers, and presented his own twist on the idea by making the invaders aliens from another planet. The result was The War of the Worlds, a story in which a race of Martians (another classic cliche of later science fiction stories) attempt to conquer the Earth. Over the following two centuries, this one novel would be adapted into four different movies, a video game, a rock opera, and a radio drama; but it also became the key inspiration for a classic sub-genre of science fiction: the alien invasion, an idea which would be explored across millions of films, television shows, video games, and books. 

By the early 20th century, science fiction had made a name for itself in literature, though it was largely confined to pulp magazines. Authors like Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, H.P. Lovecraft, John W. Campbell Jr., and others began publishing their stories in these magazines. On film, however, it was a very different story. One of the earliest science fiction films was Georges Méliès 1902 film A Trip to the Moon, inspired by Wells' story The First Men in the Moon and Verne's From Earth to the Moon. The story was extremely simple: a group of astronomers get together and decide they will get into a giant bullet that they can use to launch themselves to the moon. They land on the moon (crashing into its eye in the process), have a few strange encounters, and then go home. Méliès had little concern for scientific accuracy, and instead the "plot" was more a tool to create then-revolutionary special effects.

A Trip to the Moon, however, remained an exception to the rule. Many of  Méliès' other films were more fantasy than science fiction. During the silent era, outside of a few rare exceptions such as Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Woman in the Moon, there was next to nothing. Science fiction was barely recognized as a genre. James Whale's adaptation of Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein could both be seen as science fiction today, but at the time they were branded as horror. It was not until the early 1950's that any real change began to occur. This started with a man named George Pal, a producer interested in making films about actual science. 1951 saw the release of a blockbuster titled Destination Moon which marked the beginning of science fiction as a film genre. 

There were a few reasons why it was only now that science fiction was starting to become recognized as a genre. Perhaps the most prominent reason was the role of television, then a new invention that was seen as a threat to cinemas. The rationale was simple, creating more films in colour and with high-budget special effects to create a greater spectacle was meant to attract more audiences (similar reasoning was involved for the later cycle of big-budget disaster films in the 1970's and 1980's). Part of it was also that the space program was in its beginning, and there was an interest in the idea of visiting other worlds. Both America and Russia were already beginning experiments in rocketry (the Soviet Union would send Sputnik, the first manmade object into orbit in 1957), which fueled interest in stories of rocket-based exploration. There was also simple Cold War paranoia (which fed into the first major cycle of alien invasion films, beginning with 1951's The Thing From Another World).

Pal was one of the first to believe that a film based around science would be exciting for the American public, and to an extent he was right. Destination Moon not only kickstarted the popularity of science fiction as a film genre (Pal himself would go on to produce three more science fiction films during the decade, and direct an adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine in 1960), but also sparked a wave of imitators (Rocketship X-M being the most infamous). Unlike many of those imitators, Destination Moon is what would now be considered hard science fiction, which is basically the polar opposite of space opera (something at the time popular through low-budget serials). Hard science fiction involves detailed research and a concerted effort to incorporate actual scientific facts as much as possible. It was the first movie to really make such a concerted effort. 

The plot is quite simple. Much like Verne's From Earth to the Moon before it, the story was an attempt to realistically envision what a moon landing could look like. Like A Trip to the Moon, The "story" serves as little more than an excuse for the spectacle, but there is also another purpose. Instead of simply showing off various special effects, Destination Moon attempts to educate the viewer on how space travel might one day work based on the information that would have been available in 1951. The film is not even subtle about this. The character of Joe Sweeney (Dick Wesson) serves as an obvious audience surrogate, asking questions the viewer might have and mainly providing an in-universe justification for the other characters to explain how everything works.

By modern standards, this is hardly perfect. The whole film is basically a roundabout lecture about how space travel could be accomplished, but for the time it was radical. To some extent, some of the era's attitudes toward science fiction still show (particularly the cast of unknown actors in place of stars), but it proved one thing: science can be exciting. In that sense, Destination Moon would go on to help pave the way for other, perhaps more sophisticated and better quality hard science fiction films. Pal himself would attempt a spiritual sequel of sorts with Conquest of Space (which attempted to do something similar only now with a mission to Mars), but it also would lay the groundwork for later efforts at hard science fiction. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey may have paved the way for the likes of Contact, Europa Report, and Interstellar; but it was Destination Moon that helped set the stage for 2001 to take form.

Destination Moon came out  1951, almost twenty years before the actual first moon landing would happen. As a result, there are some inaccuracies of note, particularly in the type of rocket that is used. The four central characters travel to the moon in a single-stage reusable rocket. While the technical principles behind it still make sense in theory this is far from what was actually used to land on the moon. Unlike a lot of 50's science fiction stories, the rockets that were used for the moon landing were multi-stage (curiously, this is the one detail about travelling to the moon correctly predicted by Rocketship X-M). 

The difference between a single-stage rocket and a multi-stage rocket is simple enough. Single-stage rockets were for a long time the subject purely of early science fiction stories (though more recently there have been attempts to design single-stage rockets). These types of rockets are designed to be able to go up but also to go down safely in one piece, meaning that they can be used again provided the fuel is available. Multi-stage rockets, like the Saturn V used by the Apollo astronauts, are designed in separate pieces with the intent of specific parts being used for different stages of the mission. Usually when a component of the rocket has served its function it is discarded. In addition, it is worth noting that the film depicts a single voyage to the moon, while in reality it took 11 missions before a man could actually be put on the moon.

Module separation on Apollo 6

The way in which the moon itself is depicted is also jarring when seen today. The lunar surface is envisioned as a cracked environment covered in jagged mountains. Once again, this was due to observational limitations of the era, as no pictures had yet been taken of the moon's actual surface. In reality, it is precisely the opposite of what is depicted in the film. There are no jagged mountains, only smooth rolling hills and craters (2001 would still depict the jagged mountains, but otherwise offer something closer to the reality). 

Curiously, though, it did manage to predict on some level what would actually happen. The all-male crew is perhaps the most obvious parallel (even with a greater number of female astronauts, we still have yet to put a woman on the moon today). The number of astronauts involved in the expedition is also close to history. Destination Moon depicts four men performing the first moon landing, while the actual Apollo missions only required crews of three. The film also alludes to the landing sparking massive media attention around the world, also true to reality. Also, upon landing on the moon, two of the men proceed to step outside and speak to the media about what they have done for humanity, not a whole lot different from when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to set foot on the moon.

The idea of the moon landing being the product of American corporations coming together instead of a military campaign also proved to be half-right. Early space experiments were conducted by the military, specifically the army and the air force. The trouble was that both sides were wasting time, money, and resources building rockets and competing against each other. Neither side wanted to share and it proved problematic for the government. 

Eventually, it was decided that neither the army nor the air force would be permitted to continue building rockets, and instead a civilian organization was assembled to conduct research into the possibility of space exploration. This decision would result in the beginning of NASA, which still operates today. Destination Moon's ideas of a group of civilians coming together to plan a voyage into space in anticipation of being asked to do so by the government serves as an uncanny foreshadowing of the government-funded civilian organization that would be formed a decade later.

Also true to reality is the reasoning behind the men feeling such an urgent need to conduct this expedition. Throughout the first half-hour of Destination Moon, the characters speak of a military incentive for going to the moon. The opening scene depicts the failed launch of a rocket that according to the characters would have been a triumph of humanity, and there is immediately discussion of sabotage. Later on, General Thayer (Tom Powers) is asked if intelligence has investigated the issue, to which he simply replies with "they know." When the idea of combining American corporations to construct a rocket to the moon is pitched, Thayer's reasoning is simply that if America does not get to the moon, another party will, and should they succeed it would pose a threat to American democracy. 

The script is vague on this issue, refusing to explicitly name this other party, but it is obvious who the characters mean to refer to: The Soviet Union. Much like Destination Moon, the real-life space race became a situation of establishing power. The American and Soviet governments were competing against each other to build rockets and eventually to put someone on the moon. Each party wanted to get to the moon before the other. President John F. Kennedy famous promised to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960's. 

Though America ultimately won, the Soviet Union proved to be a formidable opponent. While they failed to land an astronaut on the moon, they did beat America in several other aspects of space exploration. Sputnik was the first man-made object to enter orbit. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to enter Earth's orbit in 1961 and return safely (America launched its first astronaut, John Glenn, a year later). In 1963, cosmonaut Valentina Tereskhova would become the first woman in space (America's first female astronaut would not be launched until the 1980's). In many ways the Soviet Union was one step ahead of them, and at a time when communist paranoia was seen as a valid concern there was a pressing need by the American government to gain some sort of advantage; hence travelling to the moon.

Destination Moon was released before Sputnik, but the Cold War was also reaching its height. It would only be a few years later that Senator Joseph McCarthy would begin his infamous series of "Communist Witch-Trials" that would hit a lot of the American population hard. At the time, nuclear Armageddon seemed inevitable for most people. It was actually believed to be only a matter of time before either the United States or Russia launched their missiles and provoked a massive war against one another. Naturally, any advantage either side could acquire in this conflict was seen as valuable, and that included the possibility of using outer space.

Finally of note is the presence of two serious disasters that fall upon the cast of Destination Moon. There are two dangerous situations both of which come close to ending in tragedy. The first occurs on the way to the moon, when astronaut Jim Barnes (John Archer) falls off the side of the ship while examining its engines. He gets set adrift and the other men have to improvise a solution to save him. The second disaster occurs after the men have had some time to explore the lunar surface. This time, a serious fuel miscalculation forces the crew to think outside the box in order to lose weight until they realize that they might have to leave someone behind. Fortunately in both cases, the tragedy is averted, but they do serve to emphasize that the danger is real.

These two specific situations might not have happened on the Apollo missions, but they do foreshadow the various disasters that would be faced by the real astronauts. Apollo 1 did not even make it off the ground; several technical flaws resulted in the deaths of the three-man crew when a fire broke out in the cabin and they were unable to get out. More famously, the Apollo 13 mission had to be re-routed back to Earth after an oxygen tank exploded. Much like the two crises faced in Destination Moon, this was an unexpected problem that required fast improvisation and out-of-the-box thinking using only whatever was on board the spaceship to get everyone back safely.

When seen today, Destination Moon is a flawed experience, even when compared to Pal's later science fiction work such as When Worlds Collide and Conquest of Space (both of which put more focus on developing the story while simultaneously trying to incorporate realistic science), but it historical significance cannot be denied. It was because of Destination Moon that other, perhaps better-made science fiction films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Contact, and Interstellar were able to be made. Destination Moon not only predicted the beginnings of early space exploration but also set the scene for the modern science fiction film. Had it not been for the efforts of George Pal modern science fiction might not have existed.

This post was written for the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon hosted by Fritzi Kramer at Movies Silently, Ruth of Silver Screenings, and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen.