I have a love-hate relationship with zombie texts in general. Night of the Living Dead was a brilliant start to the genre, and set a high bar for subsequent texts, but zombie films, television series, and graphic novels have been up-and-down since (unlike zombie novels, which in general have remained excellent). It feels like it many ways the zombie has been milked of all its substance and had its conventions and expectations shattered (thank you Colson Whitehead for Zone One!), and I sometimes wonder why we need more of them.
Train to Busan (Yeon Sang-ho, 2016) is one of the highlights. In the best zombie film tradition it speaks directly to a specific anxiety – class – while also arguing that there are no safe spaces – survival is mostly about luck. For instance, several of the characters I assumed would make it did not, and the fact that those who do make it barely do so (in a beautiful homage to the ending of NOTLD) brought me to the edge of my seat.
In another honorable tradition of the genre, the film takes advantage of being a zombie movie to call out directly big corporations and the wannabe alpha males who run them (as well as some of the corporate lackeys who enable those folks). Several potential survivors die because they listen (against their better judgment it appears) to the COO who is a coward, and a pharmaceutical developed by one of the companies that the hedge fund manager who is perhaps the main character invests in is the cause of the outbreak.
Fatherhood is also a theme, as we get to see two fathers in direct action trying to save their families. Finally, the film also made me laugh several times, again in the best zombie tradition.
I wish I understood South Korean culture well enough to know the subtleties of the class conflicts that this film describes, but it doesn’t take much knowledge besides that of what global capitalism is doing to understand the broad picture. I’m fairly certain that there’s also a comment in here about the ways that capital has co-opted the idea of freedom, but that’s another, much larger discussion.
I’ve been thinking a lot about narrative voice as a ghost (or awakening ghosts, or impersonating ghosts, or whatever) and so I re-watched Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell animated film in order to see how it approaches memory and identity through the lens of a type of ghost. Originally written and illustrated by Masimune Shirow, as a film it’s awkward – the animated characters barely move, and the dialogue is pretty wooden (perhaps it’s better in the original Japanese). Still, it’s a fascinating take on what now has become a ubiquitous concern – when we are living in the machine what will happen to our bodies?
- The plot focuses on an elite terrorist-fighting police squad located in a fictional Japanese city, roughly translated as New Port City.
- As far as scenery goes, that’s pretty much all we see – endless city. The last scene in particular links the city directly to a data core, as its indistinct lines in the artwork make it appear to look like a series of databases. The scenery constantly changes and exposes us to new parts of the city, but we see so little green that the world’s constant rain seems like a comment on our own desires to wash the world clean.
- Cyberpunk as relentless urbanity invokes what feel like modernist anxieties in this film.
- This world is relentlessly crowded, and the city has had to adapt to global warming, all key elements in the cyberpunk world.
- My guess is that part of the lack of movement among the animated characters can be attributed to the fact that they are cyborgs. The humans in the squad move a little more – still, the lack of blinking or breathing is unnerving, and helps me realize why avatars in games like the World of Warcraft appear to breathe heavily – they look more alive.
- The questions the film raises are fascinating – Shirow invokes Arthur Koestler (who I know far better as the author of a truly terrifying novel, Darkness at Noon) and his arguments about the core of identity. Koestler’s work deserves a much longer treatment, but broadly he argues that we are not simply souls inhabiting bodies but that our connections are much more complicated.
- Shirow calls the cybernetic soul a ghost, and the term becomes increasingly more complicated as the film (and manga) proceed. The protagonist, Major Kusanagi, struggles to figure out who she is, and the connection she finds at the end of the film to the Puppet Master (a rogue AI that to me is the kissing cousin of Wintermute in the Sprawl series) speaks to Koestler’s ideas of how we (whoever the ‘we’ is) are connected.
- The violence in the film is fascinating. The cyborgs are the only bodies we see destroyed, with wires and tubes hanging out of decapitated limbs. Still, those bodies (and they’re gendered very specifically as female) are not only alive but able to function – and the ghosts can be transferred.
- As one can imagine, the idea of sentience becomes up for grabs by the end.
Although I’m not exactly sure how the themes in this text connect to the ones that I’m trying to identify, I’m glad I re-watched the film. It clearly hits a cultural sweet spot, and as we find ourselves ever more immersed in screens we can probably learn a thing or two from it. The artwork is damn near hallucinatory at points, and I found myself glad that the film moved so slowly, as I could spend time drinking in the arcane and stuffed world that the artwork spends time developing.
Parasite (dir. by Bong Joon Ho) had me far closer to the edge of my seat than I would have imagined. It’s not billed as a thriller, necessarily, but I guess that the borders between classes are fraught with this if played right…
- These types of films are often used to highlight the inherent virtue of being able to obtain lots of money – Taxi Driver and Cape Fear are ancient examples that come to mind immediately, with the lower class guy who can’t get rich by legitimate means (define legitimate how you will). If you are a member of the one percent in this configuration, it’s because you deserve it.
- The rich family in this film – the Parks – are not evil, and they earn their money legitimately I would guess, but they are also somehow (perhaps if I understood South Korea better I would know how) to lots of money, while the Kims have a son and daughter who are college and art-school educated but who cannot find jobs, much like their parents.
- My guess is that this film condemns the crazy economic system that exists in South Korea – at one point the dad, Kim Ki-tek, says that 500 people with college degrees apply for jobs as drivers, like the one he used to have. I have no idea how accurate that is, as according to at least this site unemployment there is around 3.5 percent, but perhaps that rate hides a gig economy with insecure employment.
- The interaction between the Parks and the Kims is always fraught with danger. The Kims take full advantage of their scam and get all family members ensconced in the house, only to see things go horribly wrong.
- As a viewer, I get nervous for the Kims as I watch them flout class conventions. At one point while the Parks are camping they take over the house, drinking the good booze, eating their food, enjoying the view, only to have the night come crashing down on them when the Parks return early.
- The Parks will be able to bring the institutional power of the state on the Kims, and the narrative that will result will reify the power of wealth.
- The other theme is the blindness of the Parks, a blindness derived from their class advantages. Mr. and Mrs. Park have sex while their staff (having been busted in the house, and now hiding) lie silently under the huge coffee table, waiting for their chance to escape. Mr. Park talks about how Mr. Kim, his driver, gets too comfortable at times, and how he smells bad, all while the Kims are lying there trying not to breathe loudly.
- We know that the Parks do not have to live by their wits in the same way, as they are able to simply be blind. The film is not that simple – we see through the eyes of Kim the chaos that is Park’s workplace, and he seems stressed even if he is sort of bland – but the Parks have a lot more margin for error, and we know that the full powers of the state will be brought to bear against the Kims for their transgressions.
- The blindness even goes to the news media – we see multiple reports trying to explain what happened, and all of the official outlets say they are baffled as to what could have gone wrong.
- The final scenes, in which all the Kims are driven once again underground, make the class delineations visceral. These distinctions make the film a powerful one, and I’d happily watch it again…
My re-read of Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever series continues with The Illearth War. As a kid I blew through these fast, mostly because they did not feature Covenant as a combination Frodo-Aragorn-Gandalf. As an adult, I am finding these novels pretty amazing, and way ahead of their genre time…
- I think that I kept wanting these to be some sort of eco-criticism fantasy, and the first two books keep offering this – the Lords (who are high-powered mages) are kind, wise, brave, powerful, and empathetic, and obsessed with protecting The Land. The Land itself (and it always appears in Elegantly-Capitalized Glory) is constantly being described as being at-risk, prompting a war with those who would do it damage. There are even characters who live in the forest and serve humans sort of magically. Hell, there are Giants, and they are everything we want Giants to be: alien, lovers of stone and trees, funny, incredible warriors, and so on. And there are forms of Ents, although these Ents have a mean streak a mile wide, and enjoy hanging evil creatures (that the combined force of all the good characters cannot touch) on a gallows on a hill for all to see, sort of just for the grins.
- And yet at no point does this become a not-so-subtle treatise on the ravages of polluters or what humans are doing to the planet. Instead, Donaldson I think challenges the genre, and what it demands of its readers.
I have no idea why the half-griffin is fighting a wolf-bear-lion…
- In this vein, the Lords are fascinating – they are everything that fantasy fans could want from mortals who are more like Gandalf than Frodo, and scream at us to believe in them (and offer themselves as Donaldson’s contribution to the canon).
- Still, they cannot stop Lord Foul, nor can they convince Covenant to understand (believe) that he has a critical part to play (or that he will not wake up).
- As a hint at what he is playing at, my guess is that Donaldson knows his Tolkien – here’s a passage from Tolkien’s genre-defining essay “On Fairy-Stories”:
The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.
- My guess is that this passage holds a key for Donaldson – Covenant is definitely the unbeliever – not just in The Land but in the idea of fantasy. He has entered a fantasy novel and is every young nerdy boy’s dream – he has a source of power that he just has to figure out how to use, and he is being catered to by powerful figures because they are sure that he is the key to them expelling evil from their world.
- All Donaldson wants to do, though, is to end this nightmare and head home, a place where he even has a horrible, disfiguring, medieval disease that has caused him to lose nearly everything and to have go to obsessive lengths in his attempts to arrest its progress.
For those who are interested in dwarves and elves and humans battling some form of evil, whether in the form of orc or balrog or whatever, these novels will not be your cup of tea. If, though, you want to read a series that will ask you why you believe what you believe at every step of the way, why, dive right in – the water is ice cold but epiphany-producing.
The Mountain surprised me. We saw it recently at @nightlightakron, and on the surface I expected it to be an expose of the horrors of psychiatry in the 1940s and 50s, a worthy enough subject but one that has been done (and enables us to pretend that we are so much more civilized now). Instead, it was a bunch of films in one. I’ll try to characterize them here…
- Its color scheme invoked camouflage – characters tried to fit into horribly unnatural settings, hiding as much as possible despite the insane brightness of the often all-white interior.
- Spoiler alert – hiding is not possible, even for a once-renowned lobotomist who has now been proven to be a quack.
- The film abruptly transitions from interior to exterior spaces (and back), with almost no focus on the liminal space crossed. We see an inordinate number of doors opening and closing, but the transition happens with no muss or fuss.
- My guess is that the film argues that these spaces are really one and the same, and that the distinctions that we make are useless (until they’re not, when the young lovers see the mountain).
- The inability to communicate dominates. Tye Sheridan is almost mute, and Jeff Goldblum’s doctor is best when he’s drunk.
- Inarticulation is a theme – the one long rant we get is from a drunk Frenchman (who seems to make a living as a hypnotist, and we know that he knows that what he does is bullshit and his clients are morons) – and the rant is almost incoherent, as he tries to make a spit-flecked, alcohol-fueled argument for the uselessness of love.
- Typical of the film, after suffering through this rant Sheridan’s character then does the only act in the film that shows evidence of love, as he essentially gets himself diagnosed as needing a lobotomy – and gets one – in order to be one with the only person he has made a connection with (who gets lobotomized at the instance of her father, the drunk Frenchman).
- The fact that we are given a character to sympathize with, even if he doesn’t make sympathizing with him easy, works against our common notions of film viewership, and even, perhaps, what makes us sympathetic to each other.
- I kept hoping that he’s going to punch someone (anyone), but unfortunately he does not.
- It’s not an easy film in any sense of the word – but it has stuck with me for a long time…
See You Yesterday is one of a series of scifi films made by African-American directors (thank you Jordan Peele and Spike Lee!), and this one felt true to black lived experience.
- I was surprised by the ending (which I’m trying not to spoil). I assumed this film was going to go in the usual “save the brother” direction, but it didn’t…
- The speed with which this film went from a nerdy celebration of time travel as a concept and young people – especially of color – as scientists to nuanced discussion of the impossibility of righting historical wrongs by traveling back in time was sort of breath-taking.
- And not inappropriate – we don’t get beat over the head with explanations of the problems of going back in time, which also means that a) the director trusted us and b) we have all seen enough about the concept of time travel to understand the basic problems.
- The cameo by Michael J. Fox as the young people’s supportive science teacher was well-done…
- The existence of an independent set of retail opportunities (street vendors, folks selling both electronics and geek squad type help out of their garage) always makes me smile…
- Watching this film I couldn’t but think of Wells and his Morlocks. He got the class issues right – race, not so much…
- Finally, for a first-time director Bristol sure got a lot of stuff right…
I’m always interested in views of our dystopian future, especially when they involve robots, so I watched I am Mother recently. My thoughts below:
- I’m not always good at identifying how a film will end (my wife guessed the ending of Sixth Sense way before I did) so I’m probably a bad source, but I at times had trouble seeing which way the plot would go. (SPOILER ALERT) It certainly didn’t end as I expected, with the spunky-but-conflicted humans blowing up all the robots.
- I also kept wondering just how aware the director was of what felt to me like plot holes – as becomes evident at the end of the film he is (and was), but my guess is that the misdirections that felt unfollowed were designed to lead us astray as to what the ending would be.
- One of my major obsessions with robots is how they are represented in terms of power and control – this film messes with those ideas, as the killer droids seem to not be all that interested in killing unless they are ordered to do so (despite their fearsome appearance). I’m not exactly sure in this filmic world who does that ordering…and the hints are that Mother’s desire to save us from ourselves is not necessarily a bad thing…
- Mother seems too eerily drawn to be the perfect mom, and I’m guessing that’s designed to show that her coding is done from a robot’s perspective, with all coding errors done on the side of appearing as human as possible.
- It’s not exactly the sort of the Asimovian cyborg gets elected president because he’s perfect story, but there are hints that the robots truly do know better…
Her Smell just finished a run at the Nightlight, and it brought me back to a couple of very late 80s/early 90s moments. More thoughts below:
- I guess Moss (who I will watch in nearly anything these days) called this a passion project, and as such she must have listened to some of the bands of the 80s and 90s that this reminded me of. I saw L7, Babes in Toyland, and Hole in it, and Moss’s character Becky Something sure seems like a mix of Kat Bjelleland from BiT and Courtney Love.
- I’ve listened to people describe the film as a fictional biopic, and if so only because it defies the generic expectations. Biopics in my mind tend to follow the VH1 format – lots of focus on the rise and success of the band, a relatively brief wallow in the break-up and nadir, and then a sometimes sort of forced redemption narrative that it finishes with.
- Her Smell has almost nothing about the rise to fame – we see two or three songs played live and that’s it for the glory years, except for three or four home movie-type segments about collecting gold records and getting magazine covers and jokes about selling out.
- We spend an inordinate amount of time on the fall, and we see Something in some pretty manic and frightening states. The camera also spends a lot of time on the reactions of those around her, and less on the bad girl of rock n roll misbehaving in ways that are fucking stereotypes at this point.
- The redemption is also short, and full of anxiety and moments in which I for one thought she was going to blow it. The fact that the band doesn’t go back out for one more song made me happy – the encore-as-redemption-for-all-the-horrible-shit-I’ve-done-to-people theme is sort of played out I think.
- There is also very little justification of her behavior, and even part of that justification is ridiculous, such as when Something tells her ex-husband that she dreamed they were part of a Native American tribe and he killed all the children and that’s why she was so horrible to him. He just stares at her, the only response that makes sense.
- The film deliberately uses that scene to illustrate how tense the struggle to justify her own actions is, especially in contrast to moments when she says that she was horrible to people.
- (I’m always a little weirded out by how much punk rock stars wanted to get married – it makes me proud, especially in light of the alpha male wannabe culture of the hippies.)
- I think that if the film argues anything it argues that there is a fundamental difference in rock and roll stardom that comes from the female bands of the 90s, especially in contrast to the rise of the alt-rock movement that again was heavily male. Becky Something has to rely on her bandmates, even in the end, and they seem to depend on her for more than just a meal ticket.
- She also at least in part relies on motherhood as a way to connect, even in her least lucid moments. She has clearly ingested the cultural attitudes towards being a mom enough to at least voice regret about missing time, and her big moment at the end comes not from the crowd adulation (which she has clearly enjoyed earlier in her career) but from the fact that her daughter comes running to her.
The Field Guide to Evil is a crowd-funded horror anthology, and in my recent viewing at the Nightlight we went with some other horror fans who had decidedly mixed opinions about it.
- Being crowd-funded made some of the choices make sense, and it’s sort of hard to imagine a horror film these days that doesn’t use green screens or other types of digital effects. The old-fashioned types of trick camera work and stunts that they used were really cool and an homage of sorts to the films of the 60s and 70s that didn’t have access to digital camera effects.
- Each focused on a folklorish approach, but they treated all kinds of texts as ones worthy of producing folklore, including texts that are more recent. In particular, I liked one that the rest of the group found hoky – a story about big-headed children in the forests of California, children who are actually the product of a mad scientist (as we find out). The mix of genres felt like a particularly useful way to look at the ways that we create folklore.
- I think my favorite was one of the first ones, featuring a tinker who went from village to village and who was told by an evil spirit that if he ate the heart of corpses he would be all-powerful. He ends up in a jail cell, but the vignette finishes with him listening to the sound of troops marching off to war, as the emperor has obviously taken on the powers by doing the crimes that he has committed.
Us, directed by Jordan Peele, has already generated a ton of theory-mongering, which makes sense since Peele’s last film (Get Out) generated a bunch of its own. Those theories show a willingness to engage with the film’s content as well as simply enjoy a good scare, and they’re backed by the box office revenue the film generated in its first weekend – $70 million, according to Variety. My thoughts on the film are below the trailer:
- The idea of an entire underworld of doppelgangers evokes what I think is one of the ultimate fears of most of us living in a corporatist world – the ease with which we can be replaced.
- Few of the scenes in this film are made scary by effects. There are no greyed out screens or stop-motion photography (unless it’s done as an homage, of which more later). The fact that the film relies on its story to carry the fear is pretty cool.
- I lost track of the number of films that Peele references, but some of the clearest are the slasher movies, especially A Nightmare on Elm Street. Building on the filmic codes established in early films often saves director’s work, but this film doesn’t use the expectations generated by those common references as shortcuts – instead, it interrogates them.
- As an example, the killers in Us use scissors as their weapons of choice. The choice of killing implement in horror is iconic – it’s not the Texas Chainsaw Massacre for nothing, after all, and Freddie Kreuger’s knife hands still make me shudder.
- Peele though I think is using the scissors not just as icons – they carry weight, both narratively and visually. The gold color, the variety of purposes, the idea of matching pieces of metal joined by a bolt, implying duality and connection – that’s more than the average horror weapon.
- Using the idiocy of the Hands Across America is a beautiful metaphor for ridiculous corporate gestures made by an economic system that is about to run head over heels into extreme income inequality.
- The arguments about race are far more muted in this – My guess is that class is his focus. Still, it’s not a surprise that the black family surprises, and that mom has them immediately head to Mexico, a la Sarah Conner. And of course the assumption that this doppelganger phenomenon is not happening in Mexico is probably true – Mexico has its own problems, but this tethering-to-our-shadow is uniquely American.