Friday, June 7, 2019

Fundamental Notions Of The Hive

The quality of our lives matters.

We don't have the political clout to change economic policy in our favor.  We have to adapt to economic conditions that will favor the rich for a long time.  If we can't become wealthy ourselves, we have to learn to think like the wealthy think, to anticipate their moves.

Debt is not a good thing to have.

Find a cheap, warm place to live.  Stay close to clean water.

Try to think of yourself as a producer.

Cooperate.  Contribute.  Serve.  Hold fast.  Don't fall through the cracks.

At it's limit freedom is the ability to reimagine and reprogram yourself in any way you choose.



Monday, December 24, 2018

Time Travel In The Sixties

Compared to the action-packed super-realism of time travel films like the Terminator series, 12 Monkeys and Planet of the Apes, the black-and-white video technology of The Star Wagon, a 1966 television play, written by Maxwell Anderson and directed by Karl Genus, is archaic. But Genus’ direction and the relaxed and intimate acting of a cast that includes Orson Bean, Joan Lorring, Eileen Brennan and Dustin Hoffman make The Star Wagon one of the most entertaining attempts to use the idea of time travel to dramatize the tension between free will and destiny I’ve seen.

The Star Wagon, produced for WNET and NET Playhouse at the time that National Educational Television was evolving into the Public Broadcasting System, is one of the television plays available from distributors like Broadway Theatre Archive who specialize in early television productions. It’s also available as a rental from Netflix.

Taped mainly on location, The Star Wagon follows Bean, a dreamy inventor, and his earthy sidekick, Hoffman, as they try to reverse their fortunes by turning back time. If the outcome of their journey through time seems sappy and predictable nowadays, that may say more about the cynicism of the 21st Century than it does about the naiveté of television audiences in the '60s, who were comfortable with Hollywood endings, the triumph of good over evil and the idea that innocence, lost in time, can be restored. And some of Anderson’s themes — that there are no great men, that nothing matters more than freedom, and that the business of business is the fleecing of the unwary – seem, in this age of Ponzi schemes and bailouts, downright timeless.

Television is an intimate medium, suited for low-key performances, and Genus’ cast, led by Bean and Lorring in the role of Bean’s long-suffering wife, deliver the kind of casual intimacy seldom seen in film. Genus uses his performers and the low resolution images of early black-and-white video to create a unique mix of impressionism and naturalism. The high contrast images of Genus’ actors, overexposed to the extent that the actors’ bodies seem to glow, are painterly and impressionistic, but the performances Genus and his actors create are natural and realistic.



Genus’ cast has a remarkable ability to be with one another, to be with Maxwell Anderson’s script, and to demonstrate that good acting is, in fact, reacting. The result is a kind of naturalness that even directors like John Cassavetes, who were completely committed to naturalism and improvisation, never achieved. Cassavetes was able to use improvisation to structure his films by creating realistic situations, but the dialogue his actors improvised seldom matched Anderson’s ear for small talk, flip comments, and the kind of gentle razzing we see in The Star Wagon.

Anderson and Genus deliver poetry, as well. Standing on the star wagon, Hoffman looks like an angel with one good wing. There is a dreamlike, druggy quality to Bean and Hoffman’s laughter as they launch themselves back through time. Bean moves effortlessly from innocence, as he rehearses a hymn, The Holy City, with Lorring, to funny sexuality as Eileen Brennan digs in his front pocket for candy at a picnic; and Bean’s dark and violent rebirth leaves the impression of opera, of voices singing together to reveal the dark underside of Anderson’s comedy before Hoffman yanks Bean from the river to begin life over, half-drowned and miserable, lying in the mud with his head in Brennan’s wet lap.


Technically, these scenes of Bean’s death and rebirth by the river are as advanced as any experimental cinema of the Sixties. Bean’s passage begins with the sound of Hoffman pushing Brennan out to the way and jumping into the river, but we aren’t allowed to see Hoffman pull Bean out of the water until we enter the drowning Bean’s thoughts and contemplate nothing less than the meaning of life.

It is possible to think of life as a long series of paths not taken, doors opened or not opened, decisions made one way instead of another. It is a convention of most time travel films that the journey back through time will either change nothing, or it will change everything. The art of those films is to show why this should be so, to explain in a satisfying way why history had to happen exactly as it did happen. In The Star Wagon, Anderson breaks with that convention. He raises the possibility of changing history by going back in time, and then rejects that possibility as an act of will. Orson Bean’s Stephen returns to the present tense of his life as we found him, not because he has to, but because he wants to. But he is better for having made the journey, even if the world is not, and, watching the film, I felt the sweetness of life in a way I had not felt it since those summer evenings long ago, when I was a boy and I waited nervously at shortstop for our pitcher to deliver his first pitch.

At the end of the play, Stephen tells us his time machine is just a way of remembering the past. Karl Genus’ The Star Wagon is as good a way as any of remembering some of broadcast television’s best years. And that’s something, in my view, upon which it is worth spending some time.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Escape To Reality

When the world gets to be too much for me, I pull out one of my video collections and escape for a couple of days.  I have Angels In America, all of The Sopranos, RomeLonesome Dove, and a ton of Bergman.  Most of the time they'll do, but, when things get really rough, I turn to my John Cassavetes Criterion Collection.

More than any other director, John Cassavetes portrays people at their limits, bound up, boxed in by their marriages, their friends, their sex, their race, their age, the limits of their talent, and any other cage or corner Cassavetes can cram them into. And they usually don’t get out. They find their salvations, if they find them, inside their cages. Even if a Cassavetes character appears to escape, we can’t be sure. When Cassavetes and Peter Falk leave Ben Gazzara in London at the end of Husbands (1970), it doesn’t feel like Gazzara has slipped out of his cage. It feels like his friends have left him on the battlefield to die.

Although it doesn’t include Husbands, the Criterion Collection’s boxed set of five Cassavetes films provides an easy, though expensive, way to acquire a taste for Cassavetes. The set has Shadows (1959), Faces (1968), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Opening Night (1977) and the 2000 documentary, A Constant Forge: The Life and Art of John Cassavetes. Or you can watch most of Cassavetes’ films and the documentary individually on Netflix or Amazon Prime.

Cassavetes was, arguably, the father of American independent film. His first film, Shadows, was made at about the time French directors were creating the New Wave. It's a beat film.  Cassavetes, like the French, subordinated plot to the mise-en-scène. His films weren’t about the narrative. The story was often beside the point; just something to hang the film on. To Cassavetes and the French auteurs, film was synthesized experience, and the story was just an occasion for that synthesis. The French bought the rights to dime store novels for their plots. Cassavetes invented situations. His films have beginnings and ends, but they are, like direct cinema and cinema verite documentaries, essentially situational and episodic. The end of each episode and the way it’s resolved are determined, not by the requirements of a plot, but by the inner workings of the episode itself. Affairs end. Men go home to their wives. Women who have nervous breakdowns come home to their families when they get out of the hospital. They put their kids to bed, clean up the dishes and go to bed with their husbands. Strip joint owners who get mixed up with the mob get killed. And the play must go on.

To the cinema verité style and structure, Cassavetes added improvisation.  He worked out scenes in collaboration with his actors instead of forcing his view of the scenes on them. Cassavetes’ approach to directing let his actors bring their own life experiences to situations and allowed him to add their sense of what is authentic and what is not to his own. The tension between rigid direction and improvisation, between conformity and self-expression, is a recurring subtext in Cassavetes’ films, from Shadows to his Pirandellian masterpiece, Opening Night.

Cassavetes' first film, Shadows, features Lelia, a young, black artist, cornered by race, gender and family. She’s the kid sister of Hugh, a singer who can’t sing, and Ben, a horn player who never plays for us. Hugh and his agent, the only person who can stand the way Hugh sings, tour second-rate clubs in the Midwest. Ben listens to jazz from the corners of rooms; cruises New York City bars and cafes with his friends, trying to get laid. Lelia hangs out with Ben and his crew, and with artists and intellectuals, older guys who know things Ben and his friends don’t know. She falls for a good-looking white boy, who dumps her when he meets brother Hugh, because, unlike Lelia and Ben, Hugh is obviously black. Lelia ends up on a dance floor in the arms of a middle-class black man she meets at a party, the kind of man Lelia and her brothers think of as a square but others might call solid. Cassavetes leaves her there, moves on to watch Hugh go off on another road trip, and to watch Ben and his pals get beaten into unconsciousness in the men’s room of a bar when they try to pick up the wrong women. Cassavetes crammed that action and the feeling of the beat Fifties into one black-and-white box in 1959. It was ten years later before he was able to make his next independent film, Faces, a portrait of a marriage on the rocks.

Faces was Cassavetes’ film for the Sixties, and the first Cassavetes and Rowlands collaboration. It was the beginning of a body of work that eventually exhausted the themes Cassavetes took up in Shadows: women on the edge, the way families and friends tie us up but make us strong, the life and death struggle to be authentic and spontaneous instead of phony. Faces is Cassavetes' least successful film, although it's his most accessible and appreciated effort.  It's his least filmic and most photographic film.  In Faces, an L.A. executive leaves his wife for a prostitute, played by Rowlands. His wife, Lynn Carlin, tries to commit suicide after a one-night stand with Seymour Cassel, a hipster she picks up in a club. The executive goes home to his wife and, in a scene that breaks the static, monotonous repetition of faces that dominates the film, chases the hipster out of the house.  In addition to Rowlands, Carlin and Cassel, the cast of Faces included Fred Draper, Val Avery and Elizabeth Deering, actors Cassavetes worked with for the next ten years. Faces was Rowland’s first shot at portraying a woman on the verge of a breakdown. Her second shot came six years later in A Woman Under the Influence.

There is something almost unbearably edgy about the young Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence. It’s as if somebody has jammed a 220v wire into her brain. It takes her about two minutes to convince me she’s the most troubled woman I’ll ever see. Her relationship with Peter Falk is tense. There is an acceptance of violence against women in the film I find deeply disturbing. And yet, A Woman Under the Influence is about the kind of people I know well. Working class people. Never enough living space. Not much education and culture. Sometimes not enough money. They fight at the dinner table. But there is redemption in the physicality of these Cassavetes’ characters, in their muscle. It’s a punch, a roundhouse right, that brings Rowlands down to earth and restores her to her family. To her kids. To the dirty dishes that, when all is said and done, have to be taken from the table to the sink. In A Woman Under the Influence, Cassavetes shows us a family coming together, closing the doors on the outside world and making what they can of their lives. A Woman Under the Influence added Lady Rowlands and Katherine Cassavetes to Cassavetes’ troop of actors.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, the fourth film in the Criterion set, is Cassavetes’ film noir classic. It’s the darkest of Cassavetes’ films, not just visually – most of it was filmed at night with available light — but emotionally as well. It’s Cassavetes’ most bitter film. When the mob decides to kill him for his club, escape is never an option for Cosmo Vitelli. He has no real family or friends. The most important thing in his life is a third-rate floor show he created for his tawdry strip joint. Vitelli, played by Ben Gazzara, gets shot in the gut while he’s trying to murder a Chinese bookie to pay off a debt to the mob. He manages to kill most of the mob, but he ends up bleeding to death, slowly, while he paces the sidewalk outside his club.

Opening Night is Cassavetes' last film.  Gena Rowlands stars as an aging actress, struggling with her age, her relationship with her co-star, played by Cassavetes, the demands of her director, the limits of the script, and the death of a young fan who gets hit by a car while she’s watching Rowlands leave the theater. Rowlands is haunted by the girl’s ghost. On the verge of breaking down, Rowlands murders the girl’s ghost and her own youth. Playing a scene with Cassavetes, she saves the show and her career with an improvised performance on opening night. The film is a triumph for Cassavetes. As the writer and director of Opening Night, he can do what he was never able to do in the real world. He can direct the play’s audience and their reaction to him and his wife.

The audience loves them, of course .

I guess I do, too. The easy explanation for that is to say I like melancholy moods, dark streets, and the rain. I like redemption. I like to see the old order brought down and to see chaos reign. I like reluctant heroes and the kind of women who work retail. And there’s plenty of that in Cassavetes. But it’s more than that.

Cassavetes knew that it’s not what you see, but what you remember that counts. It’s the way films live in our memories that matters. And he gave us a lot to remember. He gave us close-ups, and he gave us enough time with his characters to get to know them well.

I remember Ben Carruthers in Shadows, walking down the street in a coat that’s too light for New York City in the wintertime; Seymour Cassel fleeing down the hill in Faces; Gena Rowlands dancing, Peter Falk climbing a hill with his crew, Katherine Cassavetes guarding the stairs to keep Rowlands away from the kids in A Woman Under the Influence; Ben Gazzara in the dark, getting his orders from the mob, and Gazzara in the light, standing in the spotlight with Mr. Sophistication and his strippers in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. I remember Rowlands, beating her youth to death in a hotel room, crawling toward her dressing room, putting her dukes up when she’s improvising with Cassavetes in Opening Night. And I remember John Cassavetes, laughing and bounding around the stage in Opening Night, while the audience laughs out loud and applauds.

When I watch Cassavetes’ films I feel I’m in the presence of myths.

Can I name the myths? Can I say who Cassavetes’ characters remind me of, who the major and minor deities are in Cassavetes’ pantheon? Who is that with the wound that will not heal? Who is that, chasing the suitor from his house? Who is that, leading his men out to work? Who is that, leading the women out to dance? Can I name them? Not a chance. It was Cassavetes’ achievement to create a pantheon of characters who suggest mythic figures without names. I could no more name them than the Greeks, gathered around the hearth to listen to the poet spin his yarns, could say who Achilles and Odysseus reminded them of.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Grey Gardens Revisited

There is an element of the hunt in documentary films, a delicious kind of trophy hunting at its lightest, but, at its heaviest, a predatory savaging of people and events that exposes the dark side of subjects and the exploitative nature of documentary film.

The Maysles brothers' Grey Gardens (1975) is a film portrait of Big Edie and Little Edie Beale. It’s a film about eccentrics and eccentricity, about marginal people whose living conditions reflect the condition of their lives.



Film lends itself exceptionally well to the substitution of one thing for another when two things regularly appear together. Over the course of the Maysles brothers' film, the Grey Gardens estate comes to stand for the lives of the Beales in the same way the American flag has come to stand for America and the White House for the President. If there were nothing more to Grey Gardens (1975) than that – and there is – it would still be an important work of art, because it’s a wonderful example of film as sympathetic magic. It gives us the illusion of power over the world by reducing complicated people and situations to a manageable size.

The genre the Maysles brothers chose to work in had rules, and they were accused from time to time of breaking them, of manipulating events, of straying outside the boundaries of direct cinema and cinéma vérité, particularly in the case of Gimme Shelter (1970), a sensational film that features the murder of a black Rolling Stones fan at Altamont.

Direct cinema captures real events as they happen, without interfering with them in any way. There is no direction in direct cinema, no “do this” or “do that again.” No questions. No staged scenes. Nature documentaries are perhaps the purest example of the form. The film makers witness horrific events, but never interfere. Cinéma vérité, another style of modern documentary, has some latitude. It’s more about truth than about reality, and, as long as the film conveys the truth, it may wander away from real events.

In the case of films like Grey Gardens (2009), a historical drama that HBO has run off and on since its triumph at the Emmies, neither the rules of direct cinema nor cinéma vérité apply. The intention of the producers is simply entertainment, and they're free to pick over the bones of the Maysles' kill any way they can.  HBO doesn't broadcast Grey Gardens as part of it's regular schedule anymore, but, in a move that harkens back to the days when movies were all glitz and glitter to brighten the lives of the little people, they put it up on HBO On Demand over the Christmas holidays.  "They were steeped in affluence and privilege," the HBO promo proclaims.  "Yet their lives in East Hampton became a riches-to-rags story that made national headlines."  There is a metaphor lurking around there somewhere.



A cottage industry has sprung up around Grey Gardens and the Beales since the Maysles first documented the squalor and decay of the Beales’ lives. Since Grey Gardens (1975) the documentary, we’ve had Grey Gardens the musical, Grey Gardens the book, Grey Gardens the web site and, finally, HBO's version of the Beales' story.  But I doubt HBO will have the last word.

Over the years, the Beales have attracted a cult following: people who know what it’s like to live on the fringe. But the audience for works based on the lives of the Edies is more general than a cult. It includes any of us who have ever slowed down to look at the scene of an accident. 

The story of the Edies coincides with the long, downhill slide of American society, the decay of the American dream, and the slow stratification of America into two cultures, one affluent and above ground, the other underground, it’s people trapped in poverty.  If it could happen to the Edies, it could happen to anyone.

American capitalism has always had two spurs to keep us moving up the steep hill of success. One boot prods us with the promise of fortune and fame, the other with the specter of disaster, with the threat of losing all we have suddenly or, like the Beales, gradually, as we get older. The Beales’ story is frightening and fascinating. It’s hard to look at it, but it’s harder to look away. 

The Maysles brothers had an eye for the wounded straggler, for the animal ready to die. Perhaps it’s because their subjects knew they were damaged that the Maysles brothers were able to stay above the people and events they filmed, to appear to be superior to their subjects, to have the upper hand. Their contemporary, D. A. Pennebaker, seemed more respectful, more deferential to his subjects – even, as in the case of the War Room (1993) when Pennebaker’s camera grovels at the feet of James Carville and Mary Matalin, obsequious.

Pennebaker had a knack for getting in on the beginning of things: Timothy Leary and the counterculture; Bob Dylan; Joplin and Hendricks at the Monterrey Pop Festival; and, finally, the Clintons. The Maysles brothers, Al and David, had a knack for being there at the end of things, the final acts, the death throes of the traveling salesman and the Counterculture, the unraveling of Camelot. 

By the time he filmed Grey Gardens (1975), Al Maysles was one of the best cinematographers in the world, and the Maysles brothers had mastered the art of manipulating subjects and situations. They had developed a gift for narrative unmatched in documentary film. No one tells a story the way the Maysles brothers do.



“Once you’ve lost that push, you’ve had it,” Paul Brennan, the "Badger," tells the camera in Salesman (1968). Brennan suffers from too much awareness. He knows he’s a dead-ender in a dying profession. Negativity is the unpardonable sin of Brennan’s world, and Al Maysles patiently and carefully documents Brennan’s descent into negativity during Brennan’s last days as a bible salesman.

“We can get it together,” Mick Jagger tells the crowd at Altamont, just before a shot of what appears to be the Hell’s Angels killing a black fan who pulled a gun on them. Earlier in the concert, when Grace Slick, watching the Hell’s Angels beat her fans with pool cues, said: “People get weird, and you need people like the Angels to keep people in line,” she was, at that spaced-out, sappy moment, more in touch with the direction of American society than the slightly confused Jagger who believed Altamont was going to set an example for America about how to behave at large gatherings.



The Maysles brothers persuaded Jagger and the Stones to let Al film them watching a rough cut of Gimme Shelter on a Steenbeck editing table, ostensibly to provide a gimmick to structure the film. The brothers’ real reason was to make the apparent knifing of a fan by the Angels the central point of the film. Without the knifing and the opportunity to make Jagger eat his words, the Maysles brothers would have had a mediocre, though beautifully photographed concert film, whose high points were scenes of Jagger expressing his androgynous sexuality and young Tina Turner fellating her microphone. The violence and the obvious naiveté of the Stones and Grace Slick gave the brothers a chance for something much bigger, a chance to take down the Stones, Slick and the Counterculture at the same time. Eerily, Jagger’s helicopter exit from the Altamont speedway foreshadowed America’s final exit from Saigon, and, by the end of Gimme Shelter, Jagger’s stare was as vacant as the barren landscape in the last shot of the film.

For big-game hunters like the Maysles brothers, who already had bagged the "Badger", the Stones, Grace Slick and the beginning of the end of the Counterculture, two eccentric ladies in a run-down mansion were sitting ducks.

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.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Hollywood's Real Glass Ceiling

Kathyrn Bigelow is about to become the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director.

Whether she deserves the Best Director prize -- and I happen to think she does -- is beside the point.  Ms. Bigelow will come away with the Oscar for Best Director as a consolation prize, because the Academy can't afford to admit that The Hurt Locker was the best picture of the year.

The Hurt Locker is up against Hollywood's real glass ceiling:  the industry's profit margin.

Can Hollywood acknowledge that a low-budget movie that has grossed less than $20 million is a better film than the box office event Avatar that has grossed over $1 billion and is on its way to becoming one of the most profitable films of all time?  Can the industry tell moviegoers:  Thanks for the bucks, but the 3D spectacle you blew your money on last Christmas wasn't a great movie after all?

The face-off between The Hurt Locker and Avatar has been billed as woman against man, ex-wife against ex-husband, blockbuster against art house breakout.  But, in the most basic sense, the confrontation looming at the Academy Awards is about whether movies can come to grips with the human condition instead of trying to escape from it.

Can we afford to make movies that synthesize real experience, to support producers and directors who engage the world as artists, or can we only support escapist spectaculars that distract us from the real world?

Rejecting The Hurt Locker will be a clear statement that Hollywood doesn't have the heart to take on the real world.  In the head-to-head match-up between The Hurt Locker and Avatar, there is no question that The Hurt Locker is the better film.

Avatar is a significant motion picture event, designed to revive a floundering industry by providing a 3D experience that can’t be matched by television or DVDs. Its release has been 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. It’s probably the first of many 3D blockbusters Hollywood will crank out over the next couple of years, and, in that sense at least, it represents the future of the industry.

Unfortunately, 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, the film 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.

There is more real meaning in any single scene of The Hurt Locker than there is in all of Avatar.

Ms. Bigelow's 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 war is addictive, it doesn't take us long to discover it's not just Sgt. James who's addicted to war, it's America itself that's addicted as well.  In James' case, it's an addiction that craves the unmediated experience of danger.  He disarms bombs with his own hands.  But it's an addiction that's tempered by James' and his team's regard for human life.

Ms. Bigelow's GIs are reluctant killers who risk their own lives to save the lives of others.  Somehow, as we watch James' teammate, Specialist Eldridge, struggle to engage the enemy, Ms. Bigelow leads us to the realization that we are all Specialists now.

Critics of the Iraq occupation will find no cheap shots at America or the American military in The Hurt Locker.  Ms. Bigelow invites us to see the war from the point of view of our best kind of soldier -- one whose job is to save lives, not take them.

That one of them 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.


Nevertheless, Hollywood will split the Oscars between Ms. Bigelow and Mr. Cameron.  Ms. Bigelow will win the Best Director Oscar, but the Best Picture award will go to Avatar.  That's the bottom line.

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

We resolve conflicts between opposites like good and evil by reconciling them within the fabric of myths. For me, the struggle of human 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: Judgement 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.