Sunday, January 29, 2012

"BRAD PITT, ACTOR"


This essay by Isaac Butler is great, and should be read by anyone who has to write about film acting. The rest of you should read it, too.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"...THIS AWESOME FILM ABOUT NAZIS FROM THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON."



Hmm. Okay. I'm going to need a plane ticket to Berlin, a new passport, and a hotel room with a fainting couch. Holy fucking shit. THIS MOVIE IS ABOUT NAZIS FROM THE FUCKING MOON.

NOM NOM NOM NOM NOM NOM NOM.....

This is serious. This is science. Hi, Jennifer Lawrence!

Earlier, I wrote a thing for Hudak on Hollywood about the Oscar nominations. Then a little later I was listening to Sasha Stone and Jeff Wells talk about the nominations on their podcast and it really dawned on me: giving too much of a fuck about the Oscars is a one-way ticket to Miseryville, population you. Sure there's dumb shit about the nominations this year. There always is. It's not a meritocracy, it's Hollywood's annual stretch to see if its dick still fits in its mouth. Now, auto-fellatio is impressive, physically, just as Hollywood glamour is impressive, physically. It's something not everyone can do. But it's still kind of ridiculous and funny, and if you get too deep in it, you get funny white stuff up your nose. I shall now retire as the king of all metaphors.

Oh, and Oscar night I'm going to be drunk and making lots of jokes. This ain't nothing to be taking seriously, no way.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

LINE!



I really like this. As an (increasingly occasional) actor, I can relate.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

ON GENDER SEMIOTICS, GENRE GENTRIFICATION, AND RAW, UNCUT OWNAGE: HAYWIRE

Spoiler alert: when she catches the guy, she fucks his ass up.

Oh, Haywire. Where do we begin? With Gina Carano, the newest inductee into the Hall of Ownage? With Steven Soderbergh ticking off another genre conquered? With the utterly bizarre fact that Bill Paxton might give the best performance (and it's not that everybody else sucks, either, terrifyingly)? So much to discuss in a finite universe. The short version is it fucking rocks and you all should see it because it wasn't shot on film or digital video, it was filmed on pure fucking win.

Soderbergh reunited with the writer of The Limey (and opponent in one of the greatest “angry guy vs. passive aggressive wiseass” fights of all time on the DVD commentary track of same), Lem Dobbs, for Haywire, and the result is exactly the kind of cool, flashback-y, intelligent exercise in pure style that, in one's wildest dreams, one hopes for with a new episode of the Lem & Steve show. This one stars retired MMA fighter Gina Carano, whom we learn is an ex-Marine now kicking ass in the private sector, but before anyone even says a word, it's clear that she can (and will) fuck you up.

In a bizarre way, Haywire is of a piece with Soderbergh's Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience, discounting the obvious differences that it has twenty-five times the budget and features wall-to-wall ownage. All three are looks at different variations of being a woman who'd be doing fine if all the fuckin men would stop acting the fool for five seconds, with a protagonist who is not (yet) a professional actor (Sasha Grey got paid to be in movies, but . . . well, let's just say they were in a different genre). However, Gina Carano has a lot more support around her than Debbie Doebereiner (who didn't need any) and Sasha Grey (who could have used a bit more, though she was still better than most critics gave her credit for), as nearly the entire speaking cast are famous dudes, all of whom are terrific: Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, all guys we're used to being awesome . . . but then the oddity tier with French filmmaker Mathieu Kassovitz (who also acts occasionally), Bill Paxton (?), and Channing Tatum (???) . . . all of whom are also really good. Mathieu Kassovitz, that makes sense, he's French, that's how they do, but Bill Paxton and Channing Tatum putting in good performances—as Gina Carano's dad and maybe-in-a-parallel-universe-boyfriend type, respectively—that's just silly. And yet, it's true.

The story starts in media res, opening with Gina Carano, established as awesome in one camera move—say, why doesn't that Peter Andrews fellow work more?—tentatively heading into a diner in upstate New York for a cup of tea. Channing Tatum shows up and she's like “shit” (at this point, not knowing what her backstory was, I entertained the possibility she might be a film critic) and Channing Tatum Channing Tatums his way into the diner and a bit of cool oblique spy movie dialogue ensues until it becomes necessary for Gina Carano to unleash holy hell and beat the living shit out of him. He gets in some good shots before she puts him on his ass, at which point she shanghais civilian Michael Angarano, borrows his car, gets him to field dress her arm, and, for reasons that become clear later, tells him her story to date.

It's a humdinger, full of double-crosses, handsome men, copious ownage, and sweet David Holmes music. The kind of picture it is, we should probably leave the plot alone right here, because there are a few good surprises and things that you see coming a mile away where you're like “is this really this obvious or is there another level” and discovering whether they are or not is fun.

Also, as well-constructed as the plot is—and for a boilerplate “one-[wo]man ownage machine fends for [her]self against evil white guys in suits and attempts to restore [her] good name” plot it is well-constructed—the main attraction in Haywire is the execution, and the casual, almost offhand brilliance of the way it deals with gender. Soderbergh understands the genre on a fundamental level. He knows that if you throw in a bunch of windy, didactic dialogue and try to make your statements about gender and genre that way the audience for ownage pictures—not always the most progressive, sadly—is going to start fidgeting and grumbling what the fuck is this bullshit. No, Soderbergh knows the way. Ownage upfront. Gender commentary in the details through the deft use of signifiers.

This is not to say that Haywire isn't entirely about gender. It is. Gina Carano is the only woman in the picture, and being a Soderbergh joint, on a certain level the picture is about Gina Carano as a martial artist playing the lead in an action movie where she's the only woman who owns the bejesus out of all the men, and what that implies for cinema and gender. (Ed. Note: this is why Steven Soderbergh is the fucking best) When Ewan McGregor asks Gina Carano to pretend to be Michael Fassbender's wife for a job, her indignance on being the “eye candy” almost knocks Ewan McGregor through a wall, and she concludes by cracking “Maybe [Michael Fassbender] can wear the dress.”

Gina Carano is absolutely in charge. Channing Tatum? “Sure, I'll hit that.” Michael Fassbender? “Woooooooowwwwwwww, yeah, he's hot.” But always in a very in-control “sure he's hot but if he pulls anything I'll smash his face off something sharp and break every bone in his body and then if I think he's worth wasting a bullet on I'll light him the fuck up” kind of way. But still, as awesome and fully-versed in the fine arts of ownage as she is, the movie does acknowledge the issues inherent to kicking a larger opponent's ass. Some action pictures have 100 lb women punching pro football players in the face and crushing their skulls, which is cool and everything but nonetheless bullshit because physics. Gina Carano looking like a legit athlete (because she is) and being a women's middleweight—which is the same as a dudes' welterweight—eases the suspension of disbelief of something like Salt, with flyweight Angelina Jolie crushing skulls with her fists, slightly. But still, she has to compensate with technique, and this is where being a real martial artist comes in handy. Her moves employ leverage, getting the angle just right, and precision, and then using muscles. At one point, she out-Onatopps Famke Janssen in Goldeneye, asphyxiating [name of actor redacted] between her thighs, which is legendary for the several obvious reasons (ownage/hawwwwwt/Bond reference), but also because the continuity of the run in her tights that results from fighting with the guy is perfect.

And it's little details like that, and the awesome father-daughter relationship between her and Bill Paxton (who's like, “I love my little girl, but she could kung fu me in half without blinking . . . so proud! *wipes away tear*”) that lets Haywire have its cake and eat it too by simultaneously being exactly like the kind of picture Sly Stallone could have made in about 1986 (or Jean-Claude Van Damme in 1992) and yet something more. Cuz, I mean, sure, it's a gentrified Golan-Globus/Cannon Films picture . . . but fuckin a, man, it's a gentrified Golan-Globus/Cannon Films picture! This is why it's okay that Gina Carano's line readings are a bit monotone and her facial expression doesn't change that much. Dude, Sly Stallone went years at a time without changing his facial expression. Jean-Claude Van Damme his whole fucking career, practically. Action stars don't have to be “good” actors. They have to own.

And this is why Gina Carano is inducted into the Hall of Ownage, on the basis of one lead role only. Even if she does other pictures that suck, she'll always have this. Soderbergh and Dobbs set things up so she doesn't have to do any more acting than she has to, and what little she does have to works within the context of the movie. It also helps that she's got such a great supporting cast, in the truest sense of the term: good actors giving her just the right energy to work with, which is why the idea of a star vehicle starring the least famous person in the movie (another irony Soderbergh no doubt loves) works. It's all set up to make Gina Carano look good, and she does not squander it at all.

(Minor aside here: Michael Douglas is fucking rad as hell in this in the Evil White Guy In A Suit role, that with typical Soderbergh-ian subversiveness may or not be actually evil, but is totally an Evil White Guy In A Suit because Michael Douglas is awesome. In fact, he's playing the James Rebhorn role in this! Rebhorn taught him well. Give me a second to bask in the beauty of the interconnectedness of all things, then let's continue)

I mean, goddamn, Haywire's just about perfect. It's a marvelously tight ownage picture, with a rare compositional clarity and precision of structure that comes from having a really good director in charge. The fact that a director of Steven Soderbergh's stature and talents decided to make an ownage picture is just beautiful, and the fact that he pulled it off so perfectly is no mean feat. May this launch Gina Carano's movie career, and in a different direction than Out of Sight launched Jennifer Lopez, speaking of Steven Soderbergh. But none of that matters. What does is, Haywire is fucking great. Go see it, if you have any interest in things that own.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

GOLDEN GLOBES LIVE-BLOG!


I'm going to be updating this page over the course of the night with the winners of each meaningless bullshit award, to see if they match up to my predictions. Remember, if I'm wrong, it's because the Hollywood Foreign Press Association are inscrutable mercurial douchebags, but if I'm right it's because I'm a fucking genius. So, here are the predictions (originally appeared at Hudak on Hollywood last week) with winners in bold and fuckups (if any) struck through:

TV: don't know, don't care, long as Dinklage wins (which I think he will). (EDIT: He did. Fuck yeah.)

MOVIES:

Best Foreign Language Film: A Separation

Best Animated Feature Film: Tintin

Best Original Song: abstention; category is bullshit with no Muppets nominations.

Best Original Score: abstention; category is bullshit with no Attack The Block or Hanna nominations.

Best Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, The Descendants Woody Allen, Midnight In Paris (can't fuck with that AT ALL)

Best Director: Alexander Payne, The Descendants Martin Scorsese, Hugo. I mean, yeah, can't fuck with this one either)

Best Supporting Actress: Bérénice Bejo, The Artist Octavia Spencer, The Help. Whoa. Actually, more I think about this win I dig it, not for The Help but for her.

Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer, Beginners

Best Actress, Musical or Comedy: Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn

Best Actor, Musical or Comedy: Jean Dujardin, The Artist

Best Actress, Drama: Viola Davis, The Help Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady

Best Actor, Drama: Brad Pitt, Moneyball George Clooney, The Descendants. I was a fuckin dumbass, I shoulda had this, but I fucked around with that counter-intuition fuckshit.

Best Picture, Musical or Comedy: The Artist

Best Picture, Drama: The Descendants

Wow, my picks were decidedly mediocre. Damn you, inscrutable mercurial HFPA douchebags. Ricky Gervais' hosting was kinda whatever. Funny opener, later bits kinda meh. The whole thing was kinda meh. Live-blogging sucks. I'm getting a bottle of whiskey and a typist for the Oscars.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

BOOK TO FILM TO STAGE: BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING

Ken Simon (L), Victoria Anne Miller (R), Bunny Lake Is Missing

So, last night I went to the theater. The reason why I have to write about it here on my own site is because otherwise it would be a massive conflict of interest, considering that it was at the Brick, where almost every play I've ever written and/or directed was staged, and where a very large chunk of my acting took place as well. Among the creative personnel of the play I saw, an adaptation of (mostly) the novel and (to a lesser extent) movie Bunny Lake Is Missing, are a number of good friends of mine, so it's up to you to decide whether I'm being objective. I mean, I am. (Ed. Note: blah blah blah “inasmuch as any human being is capable of objectivity at all” yeah yeah etc etc)

Anyway, a ways back when my friend Ken Simon told me he wanted to do a stage version of Bunny Lake Is Missing, I was like “AWESOME” because I'd seen the movie and could talk your ear off for days about Otto Preminger's cinema de je ne sais quoi, because oh man when Otto Preminger was behind a camera really good things happened, and his pictures were often greater than the sum of their parts and had an ineffable something extra. First of all, dude directed Laura, and Laura's one of the greatest goddamn movies of all time. All the awesome is right up front in that one, with Dana Andrews puttin' in work as a cop who gets a little in over his head investigating a case involving Gene Tierney (Gene Tierney bends the corners of the fucking universe in this movie), and there's Clifton Webb (!!!), and basically you either need to see Laura if you haven't yet or watch it again if you have because Laura's Laura.

A lot of people (including, in weaker moments, myself) would have just hung 'em up there and then, but Otto Preminger wasn't done being awesome. The next twenty-plus years saw a whole bunch of really well-composed shots, willingness to explore transgressive themes, and a whole bunch of “so and so was really good in that . . . like, better than normal even” performances. And then there was Bunny Lake Is Missing.



It's not one of his best movies, but a) the bar was fucking high and b) it influenced a lot of better movies; the bit with having the Zombies be in it doing a couple songs was one of the first instances of that “hey, let's have a band be in the movie doing a couple songs” trend like when Antonioni got the Yardbirds for Blow-Up, which trend Woody Allen made fun of getting the Lovin' Spoonful for What's Up Tiger Lily. Andrew Sarris thought Bunny Lake was good and Andrew Sarris liked lots of really good stuff. It has Laurence Olivier in paycheck mode (which weirdly probably worked better for the movie than Laurence Olivier in “I FUCKING MEAN IT” mode, and for all I know he might have made a conscious choice to play the role as if he was in paycheck mode for that reason. He was Laurence Olivier, after all.) Carol Lynley holds it down fairly effectively in the lead (and looking at her is never a chore), but it's Keir Dullea's creepy incesty performance that's most memorable; he quietly had a pretty good run there in the mid-60s playing weird guys, culminating with 2001. The picture gets a little goofy in places and departs a bit far from the realistic or even plausible, but it's stylishly executed. I mean, it's Otto Preminger. Goofy, unrealistic, and implausible is no match for him, Otto Preminger'll make you a good movie out of that.

The movie departs from the book in a number of ways, most notably the setting, transplanting the action from New York to London. And where it ends up being a kind of proto-Swinging London picture, the book, published in 1957, was very much a thing of Old New York. The play, taking more from the book than the movie, comes across as a film adaptation of the book the year of its release: while part of the initial period of classical noir, it feels like a hybrid between that and what they called “women's pictures” at the time, but like the kind of “women's picture” Douglas Sirk made, with lots of nice lighting and Technicolor but a prevailing self-conscious sense of the material's limitations and ridiculousness.

We open with Blanche Lake going to pick up her daughter Bunny from nursery school, only to be told (by a combination of unseen voices and a couple actual people; nota bene, the unseen voices are a lot more informative and certain than those of the actual on-stage actors. Just file that one away for future reference) that Bunny has never been a student at the school . . . and that there's no proof that she's ever existed. DUM DUM DUMMMMMM!!!!

One difference between the play and the previous iterations of this material—that all friendship and so forth aside I thought was pretty fucking brilliant—is that the design and performances actually do an excellent job of convincing the audience that Blanche Lake really is nuts. As Blanche, Victoria Anne Miller teeters right on the exact median between concerned young mother and delusional cuckoo, but it's mainly the choice to have so many of the people she goes around talking to about her (allegedly) missing daughter be invisible voices. Even though I'd read the book (a really long time ago) and seen the movie (not quite as long a time ago, but it was still a while back) this design choice—part of a brilliant goddamn sound design job by Chris Chappell—had me wondering whether the big reveal in the play was going to be that Blanche Lake was making the whole thing up. That's powerful stuff right there.

But—spoilers for those who haven't read the book or seen the movie or play—Bunny Lake really is missing. In what appeared in the moment to be an awkward bit of plotting, we step back from Blanche's POV and have a scene with two guys—shrink Ken Simon and flamboyant writer Walter Brandes—who are revealed to not be conspirators in the Bunny-napping as Blanche had thought but just a couple dudes on that “oh, you silly hysterical woman” trip. They swing into action to help Blanche, and everything turns out okay and she's reunited with her missing daughter. The climax is a bit sudden and way too neat, but a number of touches point to the writer, director, and cast being aware of how artificial the climax is, foremost among which is Justin Holcomb's “I seriously do not give a fuck” cop delivering the infodump of just how the hell they managed to find Bunny and just why the hell they didn't believe she even existed in three parts, having to be summoned back to finish expositing. Holcomb's vaudevillian tightness makes the scene, and the pulpy material, quite funny.

The play does a good job of simultaneously acknowledging that the material is kind of ridiculous without ever laughing at it, an important balance, because really. If you're going to do a show just to laugh at it, ya know, go fuck yourself. You're not above the material. But maintaining a bit of perspective on the artificiality of the thing while simultaneously reveling in it—Josephine Cashman's supporting turn as a martini-drinking hardass is a good example: she seems to be having a great deal of fun with the role while never talking down to it—makes for an entertainment that's self-aware without being cloyingly so, and keeps things light.

This Bunny Lake Is Missing is a fine piece of stage noir, with excellent design (as well as Chappell's terrific sound design, Amanda Woodward's lights suit the mood very well) and with the exception of the (unavoidably) cumbersome scene changes, it's a crisply directed—collaboratively by adapter Simon and Patrice Miller, who's rapidly building a body of work in indie theatre on which she can hang any variety of hats but most certainly her own—piece of work that will hopefully see a more extended run than its current (ending today) two-week run at the Brick. With the evolution of cinema and theatre, classic noir, with its long takes and shadowy visual aesthetic, almost plays better on stage now. Maybe I'm just saying that because this show was good, maybe I'm just saying that because I want to see more snappy dialogue and awesome costumes onstage, whatever. Bunny Lake Is Missing was a lot of fun.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

GUNS GUNS GUNS!


I present all in search of a time-killer with the Internet Movie Firearms Database. Because Robocop is one of the greatest things to ever exist, start with it. You're welcome.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

UNLEARNING THE TOP 10 CONSERVATIVE LESSONS OF ROCKY IV

Forget the politics, how are these two motherfuckers even in the same weight class?

I'm no stranger to banging the drums for weird, or even bad, movies. Two of the most enduringly popular posts in the history of this blog are the one consisting in large (and aesthetically central) part with advocating for Ocean's Twelve as the great unappreciated studio picture of our time, and the one where I discussed my lifelong love for the cinema of Chris Tucker. Tilting at windmills is shitloads of fun: Cervantes was on that hundreds of fucking years ago, and all he did was coin the phrase, not the concept. But the important thing to remember in all this is that down is not up, making an idiosyncratic critical argument requires a critical approach, and that assumptions are not facts. Not even that whole “come on, let's keep it real, we all know [x]” fallacy, where x = a simplistic generalization based on a cynical, pessimistic assumption masquerading as realism.

Also, we need to be careful to remember that movies are movies, not containers into which we can pour our political biases. This brings me to a post on the blog Big Hollywood, wherein the writer outlined the Top 10 Conservative Lessons of Rocky IV. It violates every single principle listed above. It posits that reality is something other than it is. It presents assumptions and opinions as facts, with plenty of “come on, we all know” bullshit. And nine of them are completely untrue.

Before breaking down the list, a bit of historical context is necessary. Rocky IV came out in 1985, the first year of Ronald Reagan's second term, which he won in one of the biggest electoral landslides in American history. There was no way of knowing that in only a couple years, Communism would collapse, and so popular culture was consumed with the Cold War and the Soviet threat. Not only the fight against Communism but money and cocaine as well pushed Hollywood rightward, and the industry cranked out movies where American supermen prevailed over all odds. Sometimes they explicitly fought Commies, sometimes proxies. But Rocky IV fell squarely within that trend, with Sly appropriating Rocky to, like his Rambo franchise, fight Commies. Considering Sly's success at the box office, and the theme, this may have been the easiest green light in the history of Hollywood (and, given the climate, getting the studio to sign off on the line “Hey, we don't keep our people behind a wall with machine guns” was not even a thing that needed to be done, so if the writer ever gets to ask Sly how he pulled that off, she should expect a blank stare). It was not a rebellious island in a sea of craven liberal capitulation to the Soviet beast. It was a conservative movie in multiple senses of the term. That understood, let us proceed:


“1—Communism (let me be succinct and find the right word here) sucks.”

We can skip the assertion that the assertion that Rocky IV is the greatest movie of all time is not an opinion but fact, because as much as I could get all bent out of shape about logical fallacies and the difference between opinion and fact, the writer was kidding, to a certain extent. And this is the one lesson that doesn't have a rebuttal. Communism, in every practical application, did suck. As a philosophy, it's like running the wrong operating system on a computer. Even though it's possible to split hairs and point out (as countless college freshmen have) that all of the ostensibly Communist regimes in history have been top-down dictatorships where ultimately one dude was in charge, and that “pure” Communism has never been implemented, pure Communism is completely untenable outside small, completely homogenous groups, because it's one of those things that sounds cool in theory but is completely antithetical to human nature in practice. Which is why everyone who wanted to try it made a couple strategic edits to the philosophy, and brought guns.

Problem is, a lot of anti-Communists didn't know when to leave well enough alone, and attributed every perfidious act by every person in every Communist regime to Communism as a philosophy. The writer mentions the Russians cheating and shooting Dolph up with drugs, which Sly didn't just pull out of his ass. The Soviets and other Eastern Bloc countries did that shit all the time. But it had nothing to do with Marx. It had to do with people living in a system that was simultaneously fundamentally broken and obsessed with the glory of the state. That desperation backed people into corners where they had to make the choice between being unethical or facing pretty severe consequences. This isn't exactly a contradiction of the drugged-up Dolph point, it's more that when you imagine Dolph as existing in a real world, he's someone to be pitied rather than loathed. That said, the assumption that, in the 80s, he'd be on his way to a Siberian labor camp just for losing to Rocky is faulty. He might not have even been sent to Siberia for his outburst of cartoonish individualism—I mean, if he'd pulled that shit during the Stalin era someone would have shot him in the head in the ring, but then again, if it was the Stalin era, Rocky wouldn't have been allowed into Russia in the first place—either. Nothing terribly fun would have happened to him. Dolph's life would have sucked til Communism fell, but the likelihood of it sucking somewhere relatively near Moscow or Leningrad was better than you'd think.

One final point about lesson 1: the assumption of knowledge of Brigitte Nielsen's character's inner life is entirely without merit. You'd need to perform feats of rhetorical alchemy to convince me that her character had an inner life at all, let alone that her leaving Dolph was a fait accompli. Assumption, not fact.


“2—There are wealthy people who are also (gasp!) perfectly good people.”

This is where the lessons devolve into silliness. It's easier to count mainstream Hollywood movies without wealthy or well-off protagonists than it is ones with same. Just about the entire romantic comedy genre is either about rich women trying to find love or not necessarily rich women trying to find love with rich guys. The default state for protagonists, in any mainstream genre, unless the plot requires otherwise, is to be middle class. Sure, middle class people aren't rich, but they are privileged. Material success is portrayed in Hollywood as either matter of fact, or aspirational. To assert otherwise requires a lot of cherry-picking, carefully ignoring almost every movie released by a major studio.

I'm not going to touch the literal reading of this assertion, that there are wealthy people who are perfect at being good. That would be excessive shit-starting. Also, all evil white guys in suits jokes aside, it is theoretically possible that there is a wealthy person out there who is perfectly good. But I highly doubt s/he would vote Republican.


“3—Traditional family values are beautiful.”

They're also a myth. Concocted by Hollywood. The mythical 1950s-ish world to which conservatives want to “return” never existed. Getting married and being loyal to your spouse is good, but it is not the most important thing in the world. And there is no conflict whatsoever between straight people getting married to each other and gay people getting married to each other. Marriage is an affirmation of the strength of one's bond with one's partner. Note the absence of gender pronouns there.

Also, Rocky is a guy who punches people. The reason why he's the avatar of the American way in Rocky IV is because Sly wrote a script where Rocky is the avatar of the American way, and Sly did so because Sly was going to be directing Sly in the lead role. He has a wife because his relationship with Adrian generated audience sympathy in the first movie. The reason she's in the fourth movie is because she was in the first three. She does not help Rocky punch people.


“4—Patriotism.”

All fine and good. America's pretty rad, no argument there. But . . . wait a minute, what comes next?

“Three words: APOLLO 'effing CREED.”

Oh, boy. This is followed by a whole bunch of bullshit about how awesome it is that Apollo Creed loves his country and drives liberals crazy because he's wearing red, white, and blue. That didn't really bug me, but I'm not a “liberal,” which must explain that. What's telling is the writer going on and on about Apollo Creed being “[o]ne of cinematic history's greatest characters, period” because he doesn't care about racism, ignoring a couple important points, first that he's not a real person, and second, that he's a fictional character written by a white guy. Apollo Creed not feeling like he's the victim of racism is because a white guy doesn't feel like Apollo Creed is a victim of racism. This lessens the impact of Apollo's patriotism a bit, and makes the next lesson—


“5—Color-blind race relations are the way to go.”

—even more ridiculous, which is impressive considering how stupid the last one was. This whole “color-blind” fallacy is not unique to conservatives, but conservatives have massive boners for it. For a bunch of purportedly grounded realists, claiming that ignoring race is, ipso facto, eradicating racism is like sticking your fingers in your ears and going “LALALALALALA I CAN'T HEAR YOU RACISM LOOK I SHUT MY EYES TOO SO I CAN'T SEE YOU SO YOU AREN'T THERE LALALALALA.” The worst part is, none of the accompanying text with this lesson in any way refutes the existence of institutional racism. Apollo training Rocky to beat Clubber Lang doesn't refute shit. Clubber Lang was a fucking asshole. But was he a fucking asshole inherently, or was he made that way experientially by a country that hated him on principle from birth? Would Apollo Creed have still chosen to be a boxer if he'd known there were other options? Muhammad Ali became a boxer basically because he had to, and Muhammad Ali was the basis for Apollo Creed in the first movie, which was inspired by the 1975 fight in which Chuck Wepner took Ali 15 rounds. It should be noted that Muhammad Ali never subsequently trained Chuck Wepner, and until Parkinson's robbed him of his ability to speak as freely as he once did, he was as outspoken a critic of institutional racism as ever existed in American public life. Turning Muhammad Ali into Apollo Creed and writing him further and further into compliant, apolitical impotence as Sly did over the course of the Rocky series is borderline sinister (writing it off to intellectual laziness, which I do, is extremely generous), and then killing him off to get the audience on Rocky's side is sickeningly fucking gratuitous.


“6—There is no room for moral relativism.”

Well, sure. It's propaganda. Actually what I think the writer might mean is: “There is no room to disagree with what I'm saying.” But this is also clearly not the case. What have I been doing thus far?


“7—Faith in God is paramount.”

No, faith in God is Warner Bros. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA oh man am I the best or am I the best. Seriously, though, Rocky is a guy who punches people. God doesn't punch anyone in this movie. And the writer clearly hasn't seen Warrior if she thinks fighters praying before a fight would be edited out today. Wait, bad example, no one saw Warrior. But she mentions Tim Tebow, and all you need to know about Tim Tebow and atheists is, I started that fuckin guy on my fantasy team all the way to the playoff finals, when I second-guessed myself and started Mike Vick instead because I thought Tebow had a bad matchup. I mean, I still would have lost even if I'd started Tebow because my opponent had Aaron Rodgers, who is better at football than Tim Tebow, but I'm not burning copies of the Bible because I lost. These things happen when one guy is better at something than another guy.

The conclusion to this thought—“Judeo-Christian beliefs are as American as apple pie”—only requires a reminder that what originally united the various states of America was a philosophy based almost entirely in Enlightenment thinking. Some of the Founding Fathers identified as Christians. Others, like Thomas Jefferson, did not (he was a Deist, and famously owned a copy of the Bible with all references to the divinity of Jesus Christ excised). The government was specifically designed to be separate from any institutional religious influences. But then again, apple pie came from Europe, so the writer may be indulging in the pleasure of the non sequitur.


“8—Manliness personified.”

While I'm certainly not going to criticize the author for liking butch guys, being a man means having a dick. That's it.


“9—Think for yourself rather than going with the tides.”

On the surface, not a bad piece of advice at all, until the punchline, which makes it clear that supporting Barack Obama is being equated with not thinking for oneself, presented without any correlation and with a bit of a sneer. The last Rocky movie came out in 2006, which means Rocky has never existed in a world in which Barack Obama would have been on his radar (of course, assuming that any presidential candidate would ever be on Rocky's radar, which is a stretch.) Also, Rocky is a guy who punches people, not a politician or a pundit. Who he supports for president has nothing to do with anything.


“10—If you apply yourself and work hard, success is attainable i.e. the very essence of capitalism.”

The big finish! Though what capitalism has to do with Rocky is unclear, when at the beginning of the series of movies, Rocky is working hard and not getting anywhere until by an enormous coincidence he's selected at the whim of Apollo Creed to fight in what Apollo basically regards as an exhibition. Which is straight-up Horatio Alger: in Ragged Dick, the protagonist is hustling for his subsistence until a series of rich people all go “why, look at that lovable scamp, I'm going to rain opportunities and the luxuries of privilege on him.” That has nothing to do with applying yourself and working hard. That's people being handed success. I mean, shit, if you're going to advocate the importance of focused diligence, why not use the example of someone who actually succeeded due to focusing and being diligent?

It is true, though, that the American system affords victors a whole lotta fuckin' spoils. For all that's wrong with it, America does rock when you're in position to take advantage of what it has to offer. But, as in all things, there's a catch. It really, really helps to be a healthy white heterosexual male who belongs to a Protestant Christian denomination and whose family has money. With each qualifier removed, the likelihood of success diminishes, as each removed qualifier is replaced by institutional barriers. That is reality. That is the way things are on Earth. The reference to the Occupy movement is ridiculous, as no one in Zuccotti Park or any other Occupied space, is asking to be given anything. Ironically, what the Occupiers are after is a system in which applying oneself and working hard actually are rewarded proportional to the work done. Also, it bears mentioning yet again that Rocky's participation in the capitalist system is entirely to the extent that people pay him to punch people.


The author concludes by calling Rocky IV “the greatest unintentionally-conservative film ever made, and not coincidentally, a cultural masterpiece.” I'll leave the latter assertion alone for a minute, but Rocky IV is most certainly conservative absolutely on purpose. Even without all the shit the author projects onto the movie, it absolutely serves a conservative purpose: the Russians are BAD! The Americans are GOOD! Sly is the EMBODIMENT OF VIRTUE! Dolph is REIFIED PERFIDY! It's a morally black-and-white bit of “fuck the Commies” propaganda.

And yet, here's the thing. The Rocky movies are completely successful at doing what they do. As much as the unintentional (cutting Sly massive amounts of slack) racism bugs me, the first picture in particular and the sequels to diminishing degrees are marvels of cinematic button-pushing. Putting everything else aside, the primary criteria for judging whether a movie is good or bad are first determining what the movie is setting out to do, and second determining how well the movie succeeded in doing that thing. You don't compare Rocky to Citizen Kane. They're different pictures made for different purposes. Rocky set out to make American white people feel good. Rocky made a lot of American white people feel good. Thus, Rocky is a successful movie, and a successful franchise. This is born out in the massive amounts of money each picture made (even the Tommy Morrison one made lots of money). But let's cool it with the cultural masterpiece bullshit. The aesthetic goals of the Rocky series, especially by the time we get to Rocky IV, even though met are extremely modest, and one simply cannot walk in the room with the amount of racial politics swept under the rug. Rocky IV is a crystalline cultural artifact of its time, the preoccupations of that time, and it has a bitchin' montage, but give me a fucking break. And pick 10 things that actually have something to do with the movie next time.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A VERY HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO DAVID ROBERT JONES



The following was originally written for Tor.com, who are kicking off a whole week of David Bowie love in honor of the great man's birthday. Unfortunately, due to me misinterpreting my instructions, I had written this whole thing before discovering that a couple other writers had basically covered all this and made it redundant, so it will not, alas, be part of the Bowie fawning (I gotta say, I love working for people who are even bigger Bowie fans than I am). But, rather than just let this gather virtual dust sitting on my hard drive, I figured, what the hell. Here, then, is a brief piece about David Bowie's music as relates to science fiction:


From the very beginning of his career, David Bowie's career has had close ties to science fiction. His first commercially successful single, “Space Oddity,” a sprawling, haunting tale of the doomed astronaut Major Tom (on the literal level, at least; there were heavily metaphorical undercurrents of drug addiction as well, but that's Bowie for you, he's rarely if ever only doing one thing.)

Bowie's penchant for both vivid visuals and science-fictional themes and allusions in his lyrics was at its most consistent in the first few years of his fame, spanning multiple stage personae. After Major Tom, and a few references here and there on The Man Who Fell To Earth, Bowie wrote two explicitly SF-inspired songs for his extraordinary album Hunky Dory: “Oh! You Pretty Things,” which looks forward to an apocalyptic shift from the human race as it currently exists to the next stage in evolution (while also simultaneously, and more overtly, being a middle finger to homophobes), and the epic drama “Life On Mars?”, another portrait of (general and sexual) otherness where Bowie first employed the metaphor of an alien world to illuminate the separation that kind of otherness causes with the rest of society.

He proceeded to extrapolate this metaphor, most obviously and famously in his Ziggy Stardust alter ego. His next album, The Rise And Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, over the course of whose 12 songs—peppered with a number of oblique non sequiturs—tells the titular story. Whether or not Ziggy and the other spiders were literally from Mars was a bit beside the point; they were sufficiently not of this earth that only an SF metaphor would do do describe them. Much, it should be noted, like Bowie himself.

The strange and, in more ways than one, alien sexuality of Ziggy combined with perfect timing and the fact that the album was really good made Ziggy Stardust a massive success. It put Bowie in a position where he was forced to either stay Ziggy forever or evolve. He chose the latter, subtly at first. His follow-up album, Aladdin Sane, featured a logical continuation of many of Ziggy's musical ideas, but with the overt SF imagery confined almost exclusively to the title track; “Aladdin Sane” being a play on the phrase “a lad, insane.” Inspired by the Evelyn Waugh novel Vile Bodies, the characters in which Bowie saw as consumed by a meaningless, doomed lifestyle that was both caused by imminent global catastrophe and at the same time the cause thereof, “Aladdin Sane” looked forward to World War III both lyrically and in its spooky, furtively experimental music, that managed to evoke both Berlin cabarets and the apocalyptic future.

For his followup, Bowie—a bit addled by drug use and the pressures of the commercial music industry—wanted to write, and worked out a few rough sketches of songs for a stage musical of George Orwell's 1984, but was denied the rights by Orwell's estate. Then he planned a concept album set in and around a post-apocalyptic city. Upon completion, Diamond Dogs would be a combination of both ideas, featuring a good deal of SF in the lyrics and a couple killer singles.

Although he had not maintained his Ziggy persona throughout this initial period—which also featured covers album Pin-Ups—his shift to “blue-eyed soul” singer was a much more significant shift, and the first such that could be described as a reinvention. This period, consisting of the album Young Americans, didn't traffic in the same SF references as before, primarily because they'd always been a mark of Bowie's sense of his own otherness, and now he was trying to assimilate. That being said, the idea of Bowie co-writing songs with Luther Vandross was sufficiently (and awesomely) strange that it seemed like something out of parallel universe SF.

Bowie would not stray long from SF, as his very next studio album, Station to Station, originated in an attempt to write a song score for the SF movie The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which Bowie was playing the main character, the alien Thomas Jerome Newton. A combination of preparing for his first lead role as an actor and his debilitating drug regimen led to Bowie's arguably most fascinating—and least sustainable—persona: that of The Thin White Duke. The Thin White Duke was from another planet much like Ziggy Stardust, but rather than the former's relatively benign mission of sex, drugs, and rock n roll, The Thin White Duke was up to something far more sinister and mysterious. The music on Station to Station was forward-thinking and packed with spooky (and spooked) futurism. Everything about this iteration was less explicit, more elusive, which oddly made Station to Station and the following period—Bowie's “Berlin trilogy,” over the course of which he gradually weaned himself off cocaine and returned to relative sanity—nearly perfect soundtracks for SF cinema, both real and hypothetical.

A sane, sober Bowie was not much for the science-fiction imagery, even going so far, in “Ashes to Ashes,” to turn his back on the entire period with the line “We know Major Tom's a junkie.” Still, he didn't abandon SFF completely, turning in a haunting, beautifully rendered performance as a dying vampire in The Hunger (a movie otherwise only notable for being the feature directing debut of Tony Scott and for the legendary sex scene between Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon; something's wrong when David Bowie isn't involved in the sexy parts of a movie) and his indelible turn as goblin king Jareth in Labyrinth, for which he also wrote the songs.

Labyrinth is an extremely important movie for reasons I'm sure I don't need to explain to anyone still reading at this point, and its soundtrack has its ups and downs, though those ups are very, very up indeed. “Magic Dance” is one of the greatest things to ever exist. Bowie takes elements of every one of his previous personae for his character and—to a lesser extent—songs in Labyrinth, ending up with a result that somehow manages to carry undertones of his old dangerous sexuality and yet still be (kind of) suitable for a kids' movie.

Still, fairly or not, the period in Bowie's career in which he made Labyrinth was one of his critically least successful. Almost a decade later, he was at a point at which his own career and shifting popular tastes in music required a “comeback” album, for which he reunited with producer Brian Eno. In trying to recapture his 70s glory, the album—written entirely in the studio—was linked by the overarching theme, detailed by Bowie in a short SF story that he included as liner notes, of a dystopian near future, with songs told from the perspectives of several different characters.

While regarding Outside as a “comeback” album slightly devalues the work Bowie had been doing at the time—among which were the under-appreciated album Black Tie, White Noise and the excellent, adventurous soundtrack to the BBC adaptation of Hanef Kureishi's novel The Buddha of Suburbia—it is nonetheless a return to Bowie's explicitly science-fictional lyrics. Being vastly more lucid than he was in the 70s (when he wasn't at all) makes Outside at once less thrilling an evocation of an SF universe than its predecessors and a far more coherent one. It's a big, long experience that evokes, far more clearly and consistently than any of Bowie's other concept albums, a science-fiction movie. The album isn't only the score but the script and cinematography as well.

Outside was Bowie's last grand statement in musical SF. His subsequent work has occasionally alluded to SF and related themes, but not to the extent Outside or his 70s period did. Still, Bowie's manifest, wondrous strangeness has led many a filmmaker, and specifically an SF filmmaker , to use one of his songs for the soundtrack, since there are certain situations where only David Bowie will do. Even in the non-SF comedy Zoolander, there was a point of debate about who was cooler than who, leading Bowie to step into frame and say “Perhaps I can be of assistance.” An expert consultant, if you will.

It was also a lovely touch in Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, set so far in the future that humans have interstellar travel (and are united under one highly fascistic planetary government), that the band playing the high school prom before all the 30 year old high school students go off to war is covering Bowie's “I Have Not Been To Oxford Town.” It's at least a century in the future, and Bowie's still cool. It warms the heart.

And last but not least, one use of a Bowie song that I think speaks volumes of his supremacy not only as the last word in cool but his status as the rock star laureate of science fiction, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, which absolutely beyond any doubt qualifies as alternate history SF, even if it isn't immediately apparent as such. The movie is Tarantino's typically feverish blend of literary and cinematic pastiche, lengthy dialogue scenes, and extreme violence, assembled meticulously and with intelligence. It does, at the climax, take a turn from historical fiction to alternate history, a turn that satisfies the savage wish-fulfillment aspects of the story. It still requires something to grease the wheels a bit, to mask how implausible the climactic action is, to set a tone of ultimate cool, of seductive danger, of otherworldly strangeness. It is thus that, at the perfect moment to do so, the soundtrack starts playing David Bowie's “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” featuring, at the exact moment a plot involving incinerating the entire German high command is nearing completion, the line “Putting out fire with gasoline.” Watching that scene, the movie's already been great up to that point, and at the exact moment the thought “Wait . . . that's David Bowie!” enters one's mind, it becomes clear that the rest is going to be even better. Which, at long last, brings us to the point: there is nothing that David Bowie cannot make better. Nothing. At. All.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A FOOLPROOF POSITIVE DRUG TEST



Now, I'm not saying this like it's a bad thing or anything, but how fucking high is Harrison Ford in this?

(EDIT 1/5: Turns out this is a clever bit of editing, made from that clip a while ago of Harrison Ford, looking really high, playing Uncharted 3. So, the point stands that ol' Harrison looks baked as baked, but for clarification he's not actually watching the Indiana Jones movies for the first time. As you were.)