Saturday, October 28, 2017

Lady Macbeth In Iraq

Bring forth men-children only, for thy undaunted mettle should compose nothing but males. -- Macbeth

Why do women tear other women down?  I ran across a hatchet job on Kathryn Bigelow by film critic Martha Nochimson at Salon this morning.  Nochimson's attack is personal, and, in a nutshell, boils down to the charge that Bigelow ditched her femininity to succeed in a man's world. A lesser included offense is the rather strange charge that Bigelow's Sgt. James in The Hurt Locker is less manly than -- of all people -- John Wayne, who consistently glorified war, but whom Nochimson characterizes as a "meaningful mentor" to young men.

There has always been tension between creative people like Bigelow and the critics who crash their parties, but this "criticism" -- which reminds me of the gender issues raised around exceptional female atheletes -- is less an example of second-rate criticism than an example of the way women tear each other down. While Bigelow is trying to crash through Hollywood's glass ceiling, Nochimson is hanging onto her legs. When will women stop acting like crabs in a basket, crawling over one another to get out?

Make no mistake about it, Nochimson's article is not about The Hurt Locker. It's about Bigelow and the kind of woman she is.

Bigelow deserves and will get the Best Director Oscar for her work on The Hurt Locker.  Her film conveys both the incredible pressure American troops in Iraq have been under to make instant life-and-death decisions and the limits of high-tech to take the pressure off of them. As she develops the film's premise, that something about war is addictive, we realize it's not just Sgt. James who's addicted. All of us are. In Sgt. James' case, it's the unmediated experience of danger that's addictive. He disarms bombs with his own hands. For the rest of us, it's war as the central reality of our time.

That Sgt. James is unable to find his way home, that by the end of the film all he wants is another moonwalk down a deserted Baghdad street in search of another bomb, says something important, though disturbing, about what it means to be a human being -- or a nation -- at war.

Ms. Nochimson should watch The Hurt Locker standing up next time. Clearly, most of it went over her head. And she should give up criticizing films until she learns what irony and metaphor are for.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Avatar: Cameron's Epic Failure

Be sure you see the 3D version of James Cameron's Avatar (2009). The 3D visuals are the only thing Avatar has going for it. Without them, it's a second-rate effort with a hackneyed plot and dialogue from a director who seems to have entered his long fingernails phase. Cameron spent so much time making Avatar that the world moved on, leaving him to obsess over yesterday's themes alone.

While Avatar, like American banks, is probably too big to fail, it will be interesting to see if America embraces Avatar the way it did Cameron's most important film, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), or Michael Bay's excellent summer blockbuster, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009).  It was Cameron's genius to create a myth in T2 that resolved the conflict between human beings and machines by uniting the best of humans and the best of machines in Schwarzenegger's cyborg.

In the Transformers films, Bay went beyond the man vs. machine myth to pursue a vision of machines transcendent. Bay's machines embody the best and the worst of human nature, while in Avatar, Cameron rejects humanity to pursue a comic book vision of nature in revolt against man and his efforts to subdue it. Bay celebrates the kickass technology of the U.S. military and its projection of power anywhere at any time, Cameron comes down on the side of the men and women who oppose the cynical exploitation of people and nature by corporations -- a theme he developed far more successfully years ago in Aliens (1986) and in The Abyss (1989) -- although Cameron's efforts along those lines never approached Roland Joffe's moving and historically accurate film, The Mission (1986) . They still don't.

Avatar has too many film-historical references to be considered original art. The warmed-over plot and characters will appeal to viewers who think of the Battle Of The Little Big Horn as the high point of the westward expansion or of Dances With Wolves as a good film. The rest of us will have to wait for a new director with fresh ideas to exploit the 3D technology Cameron has pursued so faithfully and so completely frittered away.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The 3D Bubble

After single-handedly creating a 3D bubble with Avatar, James Cameron is trying to fill it. Since Avatar was released last year, the universe of available 3D screens has doubled internationally. That's a lot of seats to fill.  So Cameron's Avatar, already the highest grossing movie of all time, is being re-released today.

The marketing angle for the re-release, aimed at filling some of those seats in the over-built world of 3D theaters, is nine -- yes, nine -- previously unseen minutes of film, picked up from the cutting room floor.

Avatar fans will see their beloved Na'vis mourn the death of a fallen warrior in a "big, emotional scene" that Cameron claims is the best CG he's done. (Like Jesus, Cameron has saved his best wine for last.)  We're also promised a "rousing action-adventure, pulse-pounding" hunting sequence.

Following the re-release today, an extended Avatar DVD will be released in November that includes the new footage, plus an "alternate reality version" of the film that is 16 minutes longer than the original.

Cameron says it will be a long time before there is an Avatar sequel -- if we're lucky, it will be a very long time -- but, apparently, Cameron will be able to find plenty of scraps to keep Avatar fans on the hook during the long wait.

The success of Avatar is a sign of the times. It tells us more about ourselves and the world we live in now than about whether Avatar is a particularly good film, or even a particularly entertaining one.
Escapist movies do well in hard times. And the times these days are hard enough to require exceptionally escapist movies. Avatar fills the bill. More than anything else, it's a movie about escaping from the reality of the human condition.

Sadly, it's not a good movie to boot. In fact, Avatar is a very bad film. The story, dialogue, art, characters, sound and music are all trite. It’s even weak in the one area you’d expect a 3D film to deliver: retinal pressure and the sensation of movement. There’s not enough subjective viewpoint to suck the viewer into the action and provide real thrills.

Worst of all, Avatar consciously tries to rise to the level of myth, but can’t quite make it. That’s what happens when a film maker succumbs to the idea he can create myths rather than channel them. In a medium that lends itself to metaphor, Avatar is remarkably without characters, scenes or images that point to anything beyond themselves. Cameron's images, like his film, are, essentially, meaningless.  Maybe the times are too hard for films that synthesize real experience. Maybe Hollywood can't afford to support producers and directors who engage the world as artists. Maybe the market will only support escapist spectaculars that distract us from the real world.

Avatar is a significant motion picture event. It was designed to revive a floundering industry by providing a 3D experience that can’t be matched by television or DVDs. Its release was accompanied by the kind of marketing campaign you’d expect for a film that took over 10 years and a few hundred million dollars to produce. The industry is betting it will be the first of many 3D blockbusters that will be cranked out over the next couple of years. The theaters and seats are waiting. And Cameron has set the bar low enough that Avatar might represent the future of the industry.  That's a pity, because Cameron has done much better in the past. In Avatar, the 3D technology Cameron pursued so faithfully and so completely was just frittered away.

In his best film, T2, Cameron resolved the age-old conflict between human beings and machines by uniting the best of humans and the best of machines in Schwarzenegger's cyborg.  In T2's Wagnerian finale, the cyborg sacrifices himself to save the human race by following his evil counterpart into the cauldron to make sure that the last remnant of the mad scientist's work, the computer chip inside the cyborg's own head, is destroyed. As the cyborg prepares to enter the flames, Cameron uses a series of close-ups to create a beautiful and unforgettable portrait of the cyborg. Half of the face is human, the other half, where the skin has been torn away to reveal the gleaming metal armor underneath, is machine.

But in Avatar Cameron rejects humanity to pursue a comic book vision of nature in revolt against man and his efforts to subdue it.

To his credit, Cameron has always sided with men and women who oppose the cynical exploitation of people and nature by corporations. But that's a theme he developed far more successfully years ago in Aliens (1986) and in The Abyss (1989), although Cameron's efforts along those lines never approached the movie Avatar reduces most blatantly, Roland Joffe's moving and historically accurate film, The Mission (1986).  Cameron's reprise of The Mission is pure escapism that offers his audience the temporary and vicarious thrill of watching alien natives defeat well-armed corporate mercenaries.

Ultimately, films exist as memories. I saw Avatar twice when it was first released, once in digital 3D and once in IMAX 3D. I don't vividly remember a single image from the film.  Maybe that's the key to a successful re-release. If you don't remember a film at all, it makes sense to see it again. In the inside out, upside down world of pop culture, the most forgettable films will have the longest lives. Viewers will watch them again and again, as though they're seeing them for the very first time.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Avatar 2: The Sequel

I don't want to wait 10 years to review the sequel to Avatar (2009), so I thought I'd pick up on some of James Cameron's main ideas and make my own sequel to review.

My Avatar 2: The Sequel begins with crowds jeering and spitting on the defeated corporate warriors as they return to earth.  The President declares that this defeat shall not stand.  Determined to lick that Pandora thing, corporate America returns to Pandora in force.  They use germ warfare this time, the kind of germs that have always worked on natives.  Measles bring the Na'vi to the brink of extinction.

After a few scenes that establish the brutality of the corporate invaders -- things like soldiers handcuffing Na'vi kids and shooting them -- the Na'vi and the anti-colonial human scientists who stayed behind on Pandora use the Avatar machines to create human avatars for the Na'vi and take the battle to earth.

Jake and Neytiri lead a band of avatars who hijack a couple of spaceships and crash them into New York City and Washington, D.C., killing millions and wiping out the government, while the Na'vi snooze comfortably in their pods.  Unfortunately, wiping out millions of bad guys doesn't stop the measles, and the Na'vi, including Neytiri and Jake, whose parents were vaccine deniers, die off anyway.

I believe that recycles enough themes and situations to be a hit while maintaining at least a semblance of historical reality, so let's review it.

Cameron has done it again!  And he has finally figured out how to use the subjective POV to exploit 3D.  Megan Fox rocks as Neytiri's human avatar.  You know the rest.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Hurt Locker May Have A Chance After All

(AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Just when I thought Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker didn't have a chance to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, the AP reports that some pesky Palestinians have decided to get into the act. Palestinian protesters at Bilin have painted themselves blue and posed as characters from Avatar.  Apparently, the demonstrators equate their fight at Bilin to the Na'vi's fight against intergalactic corporatism in Cameron's film.

With the Best Director Oscar already in the bag for Bigelow, Cameron now finds his Best Picture Oscar in jeopardy. Hollywood needs 3D, but do they need it enough to associate themselves with a film that's been picked up on by those controversial Palestinians?

Could be a sweep for Bigelow.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Cyborg

Societies resolve conflicts between opposites like good and evil by reconciling them within the fabric of myths. For me, the struggle of humans against the not so human, which has been the subject of myth since Homer, comes closest to being resolved in the myth of the cyborg, a creation that is part human and part machine. The cyborg re-unites humans with characteristics we projected onto the world of machines and set ourselves in opposition to around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Machines are cold, dead and hard, but living human beings are warm and, compared to machines, very soft. The fragility of human beings is revealed in war, murders, car wrecks and plane crashes, the art of Schwarzkogler, Burden and Mark Pauline, the reproductions of Andy Warhol, and the films of motion picture directors whose forte is the action sequence, and, piling action sequence upon action sequence and genre upon genre, the Action Adventure Science Fiction Fantasy film.

The struggle of humans against machines, as it has played out in our best films, has two main variations. In the first variation, machines are evil. In the second variation, machines are just dangerous and it's the "mad scientists" who create or use them who are evil or insane. Machines have a potential for evil, but they usually include a built-in safety mechanism to protect people -- the first law of Robotics is not to harm a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm -- but, of course, the safety mechanism doesn't always work. Forbidden Planet (1956) is an especially bleak rendering of the mad scientist myth. After thousands of years of rationality, with the assistance of a machine to end all machines, the Krell are destroyed by monsters from the id. Morbius, in his pursuit of the knowledge and power of the Krell, is transformed into a monster who, subconsiously, seeks to destroy anyone who opposes him.  In masterful renditions of the myth like Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film, Dr. Strangelove Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, both the evil machine and the mad scientist versions of the struggle between human and machine resonate at once. Dangerous men are caught up in dangerous machines. We can see the Strategic Air Command as a machine out of control, we can see it as a machine in the hands of a mad general, or we can see SAC as a cog in the menacing machine we used to call the Cold War, a concept that comes close to what the Hindus mean by karma. A clockwork.

Until the Eighties, most Science Fiction films, and in particular the ones in which the machine is a robot, cyborg, or some combination of human and machine, favored the evil machine story and reflected the ambivalence and caution toward machines that had informed the Science Fiction film since Fritz Lang created the evil robot, Maria (the original material girl) in Metropolis (1926).  These films include 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Colossus: The Forbin Project (1969),  Westworld (1973), The Demon Seed (1977), Alien (1979), and, finally, James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd's The Terminator (1984), the genre's last solid rendition of a truly evil machine. The machine in T1, like Skynet, the Artificial Intelligence that created it, is bad to its alloy bone.

The separation of humans from machines in popular culture began to close in the 1980’s. In Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), more physical damage is sustained by replicants than by people, the replicants have pitifully short life spans, and, in fact, all of the women in the film are replicants.  Scott's film stands Philip K. Dick's 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, on its head. Dicks’ novel is about a bounty hunter who is so human he is capable of empathizing with the ruthless machines he hunts down and destroys. That capacity almost destroys him. Fourteen years later, in Blade Runner, the machines are more human and compassionate than the humans. It's the machines who recite poetry and philosophy and who have "seen things you people wouldn't believe," and it's pain that keeps Roy Baty alive long enough to redeem the bounty hunter, Rick Deckard.  In Robocop (1987) the human, torn down and reconstructed with machine parts replacing limbs and organs, sustains massive injuries in his first encounter with a killer robot. And, in Cameron and Hurd's Aliens (1986), their sequel to Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), the robot or "artificial person" is ripped in half by WATCH OUT! A XENOMORPH! Cameron and Hurd's word for a non-human life form. The humans and the machines are on the same side, and, at the film's climax, it is the badly damaged "artificial person" -- his legless torso resembling a broken, plastic doll -- who saves the human child from being sucked into space.

By the time Cameron and Hurd released the sequel to their first Terminator film, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), the chasm separating people and machines was gone. T2, like The Terminator, is set within the context of an apocalyptic war between humans and machines that follows a 1997 nuclear war between the United States and Russia. The nuclear war begins when Skynet, the U.S.A.'s computer-based defense system, achieves self-awareness and attacks the Russians, hoping the human race will be destroyed in the nuclear holocaust that follows. In this, both films are consistent with each other, and with Dr. Strangelove, Colossus: The Forbin Project and other films of the Cold War era.  And Terminator 2: Judgment Day and The Terminator have the same basic plot. Skynet sends a Terminator from the future to kill Sarah Connor or her son John before John can be born, grow up, and lead the humans in their war against the machines. In both films, the humans send a warrior back through time to protect John and his mother. It is at this point that T1 and T2 diverge. In The Terminator, the protector is a human being, and the Terminator is a machine. In T2, the protector is a machine, and the Terminator is neither human nor machine. He is something else.

T2 is a brilliant rendition of the mad scientist myth.  Three heroes, John Connor, his mom, and John's cyborg protector, hustle to stop the mad scientist before he can invent the basic technology that leads to Skynet. To stay alive, they have to stay out of the clutches of a new kind of Terminator who, though Cameron and Hurd call him a machine, is depicted, especially in his grotesque death throes, as essentially organic or worse. Unlike the Terminator in T1, who is a machine disguised as a man, the Terminator in T2 is an organic whole, not an assemblage of parts, and, although it's possible to read "machine" into his strength, agility and relentless focus, when he's consigned to a caldron of molten steel at the climax of the film, he shape shifts, writhes and bellows in agony like a monstrous animal or demon.

T2 is remarkably misanthropic and predictably iconoclastic in its assault on the usual people and institutions, including Ma Bell, bank machines, cops, bikers, foster parents and the city of Los Angeles, which is flattened by a hydrogen bomb. But T2’s rendition of the cyborg who is sent back through time to protect John Connor is heroic. And, just in case we can't follow the sub-text, T2 spells it out for us in a voice-over by Sarah Connor. Watching the cyborg and her kid, Sarah says: "Watching John with the machine, it was suddenly so clear. The Terminator would never stop. It would never leave him. And it would never hurt him, never shout at him, or get drunk and hit him, or say it was too busy to spend time with him. It would always be there. And it would die to protect him. Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing, this machine, was the only one who measured up. In an insane world, it was the sanest choice."

In the film's Wagnerian finale, the cyborg sacrifices himself to save the human race by following his evil counterpart into the cauldron to make sure that the last remnant of the mad scientist's work, the computer chip inside the cyborg's own head, is destroyed. As the cyborg prepares to enter the flames, Cameron and Hurd use a series of close-ups to create a beautiful portrait of The Cyborg. Half of the face is human, the other half, where the skin has been torn away to reveal the gleaming metal armor underneath, is machine.

But there is more.  In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, James Cameron and Gayle Anne Hurd gave us our first glimpse of a new, still unformed technology that might replace the machine as the not-us adversary upon which we project our worst fears. Having united human and machine through the myth of the cyborg, having accepted the machine model of human intelligence and anatomy to the extent that we understood ourselves better as machines than as animals, having realized that we are evolving, not into angels but into machines, we have joined with The Cyborg to face the uncertain, and, because our paranoia stays one step ahead of us, always dangerous natural and supernatural worlds. The myth of the evil machine is dead. We are ready to confront, in myth and in art, the potential of bioengineering and of our own over-heated subconscious minds.