Category Archives: Film

To the Wonder

To the Wonder

To the Wonder (2012)

Magnolia Pictures

Director: Terrence Malick

Main Cast: Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem


In a way, this film is perhaps the most abstract possible art house take on a typical daytime soap opera, and also the most beautifully photographed.  Terrence Malick continues to structure his films through the fragmented flashback approach of The Tree of Life.  Though here he takes up the challenge of applying his penchant for beautiful images to a setting of dingy exurban American neighborhoods, with their imposing power line towers, rivers contaminated with toxic waste, and nearby landfills.  But To the Wonder is as much pastiche and tribute as anything.  There are the metonymns of Michelangelo Antonioni, especially in the American exurban southern plains settings with their bleak declining economic prospects — some of these bits of the plot resemble the contemporaneous The Promised Land — which parallel the relationship of the protagonists.  There is also ample reference to late-period Godard — the long shots of sunsets and water, a bit like Helas pour moi, the “mature” and “boring” relationship focus of Sauve qui peut (la vie) and Goodbye to Language (which actually came out later), or even his 1971 TV commercial for aftershave.  Following Robert Bresson, the performers in the film are more like “models” than “actors”.  Neil (Affleck) barely says a word the entire film, which is fine.  In fact, aside from disembodied voice-overs (mostly in French), there is almost no dialog between on-screen characters at all.

This film, if nothing else, is about emotion and desire.  The characters struggle to control and take responsibility for their own desires.  What do they want their lives to mean?  While it is tempting to look at Marina’s (Kurylenko’s) catholic faith as an affirmation of accepting religion to guide her, Malick does problematize her religious faith somewhat.  Her prior marriage is held against her by the church.  She perhaps wants the church to guarantee meaning in her life.  She seems to give up that futile hope somewhere along the way.  The Father Quintana (Bardem) character, though pasted onto the main story a bit, is key.  The presentation is indelicate, with its parade of downtrodden figures presented near the conclusion of the film, but when Quintana goes around to help the poor and marginalized, he simply does it without any recognition or even any sorrow.  And this character (who perhaps speaks as much or more than any other in the film, aside from the voice-overs) always helps others and asks them to persevere in working with each other.  He often does these things to a congregation of just a few people, the pews mostly empty.  One of his parishioners tells him she prays for him to have joy, because he seems to have none.  But his perspective, a rather unfashionable one, seems to connect with the two main characters by the end of the film.  They at least pause to reconsider their visions of romantic relationships, and commit to work at them.

The perspective Malick seems to put forward might be explained with reference to G.K. Chesterton‘s “Introduction to the Book of Job,” about the old testament biblical character of Job.

“God will make Job see a startling universe if He can only do it by making Job see an idiotic universe. To startle man God becomes for an instant a blasphemer; one might almost say that God becomes for an instant an atheist. He unrolls before Job a long panorama of created things, the horse, the eagle, the raven, the wild ass, the peacock, the ostrich, the crocodile. He so describes each of them that it sounds like a monster walking in the sun. The whole is a sort of psalm or rhapsody of the sense of wonder. The maker of all things is astonished at the things He has Himself made. This we may call the third point. Job puts forward a note of interrogation; God answers with a note of exclamation. Instead of proving to Job that it is an explicable world, He insists that it is a much stranger world than Job ever thought it was.  ***  Here in this Book the question is really asked whether God invariably punishes vice with terrestrial punishment and rewards virtue with terrestrial prosperity. If the Jews had answered that question wrongly they might have lost all their after influence in human history. They might have sunk even down to the level of modern well educated society. For when once people have begun to believe that prosperity is the reward of virtue their next calamity is obvious. If prosperity is regarded as the reward of virtue it will be regarded as the symptom of virtue. Men will leave off the heavy task of making good men successful. They will adopt the easier task of making out successful men good.  *** The Book of Job is chiefly remarkable . . . for the fact that it does not end in a way that is conventionally satisfactory. Job is not told that his misfortunes were due to his sins or a part of any plan for his improvement.”

The way Chesterton interprets to story of Job is to say that when Job demands an explanation from god about why he suffered so, god responds with a “that’s such a ‘first world’ problem” sort of answer!  It isn’t that god operates on a level beyond human understanding, which is the more conventional interpretation of the story.  Job’s suffering and misfortune is insignificant in a universe full of such things.  And so it is with Neil and Marina.  Yes their relationship is fraught, but of what importance is their failure to hold together a stupid, happy nuclear family in the face of a universe of (much greater) suffering?

This point is underscored, in a different way, in a scene in which Marina’s friend walks through a neighborhood with her, and suggests she make a calculated bid for her own happiness, just the way Chesterton suggests that god’s explanation of the creation of the universe is blasphemous, a kind of calculated wager in which god performs all sorts of selfish acts in preparation for his own battle of armageddon without much concern for the suffering inflicted along the way.  Marina ultimately doesn’t accept that sort of narcissism, though she toys with it briefly.

There is an amazing unfinished novella by Andrey Platonov titled Happy Moscow, in which a parachutist — a glamorous occupation in its 1920s Soviet Union setting — named Moscow Chestnova goes to work building a subway and is maimed, then goes to live with a derelict and helps him get on with his bleak life.  The story is so compelling because of its arc away from personal achievement and recognition.  Chestnova accepts the lowest possible social position and helps others as a kind of gray duty.  She finds nothing unhappy in a landscape usually considered dystopian.  This is what “happy” Moscow looks like!  The tenor of Platonov’s  story recalls a little bit the Lao Tzu saying that a good person is like water, always going to the lowest places where no one wishes to be, benefiting everyone and harming no one, without striving.  This humble, unglamorous sense of duty is lurking behind many of the scenes in the film.

The melodramatic story of To the Wonder repeats age-old wisdom, suggesting that ascending steps “to the wonder” and the rush of “new romantic love” need to give way to hard work at relationships, and on one’s own desires and subjective reactions to objective circumstance.  But the film addresses all this on the level of emotion and feeling.  It might be fair to call it “trite”, but only when looking at the premise from a cerebral and intellectual position, which is what this film challenges the viewer to reject.  I think this is most true of the semi-urban modern landscapes.  Can the viewer choose to find the beauty in those images and be awed by that beauty?  Can the viewer find a sense of wonder and awe in “trite”, common human situations?

At a deeper level, the film suggests that the main couple’s original desire was built around just the simple pleasures of their tryst and its playful, romantic games so characteristic of “new love”, and any long-term relationship was really perceived as some bonus or unexpected surplus, a kind of insatiable gap of unconscious social expectations never satisfied or bridged by the simple pleasures.  Even the couple’s other affairs that happen later suggest a conscious pursuit of simple sensual pleasures and no more, yet a fundamental void remained unfulfilled by those pleasures because they hadn’t grasped that they were bound to further social expectations.  This is what the film questions.  By the end, the main characters have started to probe and understand their desires, and they decide for themselves to build relationships (though it is ambiguous if that means staying together, or seeking other partners, given the film’s non-linear chronology), accepting simple pleasures along the way for what they are.  The broken flashback approach strengthens this conclusion, by suggesting the memories of simple pleasures remain, re-contextualized in the face of new desires that really go beyond what they were originally.  So, the ultimate choice is one different from imposed social expectations, to instead fashion lives/relationships on the couple’s own terms, but making that choice consciously and without the traumatic, insatiable emptiness of having to constantly convince themselves that they want to accede to social pressures to have a “stable nuclear family” required making the “wrong” choice first.  Like Moscow Chestnova in Happy Moscow, they ultimately opt for a kind of dingy view of relationships, stripped of the glamour of some idealized and unobtainable social conception of the perfect marriage, but with a sense of mutual duty and recognition of what are not fundamental needs, and no demand for martyr status or vindication for past suffering.  (For what it’s worth, episodes in season three of the cartoon TV show Rick and Morty dealing with the character Beth focus on similar issues).  Maybe the ambiguity of the film’s ending suggests that the main characters see relationships as only fleeting, grasped when they can be and relinquished when the cannot hold.  Thankfully, there is no didactic characterization in the film.

Unlike Malick’s early films, which tended to take aim at shibboleths of modern society in ways that had parallels in the counter-culture and high art, To the Wonder is rather more daring in its use of “lowbrow” melodrama, juxtaposed against high-concept cinematography of the type that appeals primarily to viewers who normally look down upon melodrama.  This may be one of Malick’s least regarded late-period films.  But it has things to offer, even if, no, it isn’t up to his first three features — though few films are.  Most detractors seem to focus on the characters being thin, undeveloped or uncompelling, or something like that, but those criticisms seem to miss the point in that they are meant to be shells without their own positive desires, which they try (and at least initially fail) to construct.

Joseph Ramsey – Does America Have a Gun Problem… or a White Supremacy Capitalist Empire Problem?

Link to an article by Joseph Ramsey:

“Does America Have a Gun Problem… or a White Supremacy Capitalist Empire Problem?”

I find it much harder to look past the problems with Michael Moore’s film Bowling for Columbine, but Ramsey offers some extremely interesting observations that don’t really depend on even seeing the film.

Bonus link: “When Liberals Go Wrong”

Jim Thorpe -All American

Jim Thorpe -All American

Jim Thorpe -All American (1951)

Warner Bros.

Director: Michael Curtiz

Main Cast: Burt Lancaster, Charles Bickford, Jim Thorpe


On the one hand, this film admirably portrays the life of a native american.  On the other hand, it is highly problematic.  There are some decent acting performances, but the score is tedious Hollywood pap.  The script is the biggest problem.  First of all, it is not very historically accurate, sacrificing facts to develop melodramatic plot points.  But the worst thing about it is that the story is designed to emphasize personal failings to diminish the nagging problem of racism.  Now, the film does address racism.  But it is brought up mainly as a “strawman” to be knocked down in favor of a formulaic personal struggle narrative arc.  It presents Thorpe’s life as one of him being too emotionally weak to succeed (in the face of racism, personal tragedies).  To draw an analogy, this is premised on the Louis Armstrong model — a great individual can overcome all institutional and social obstacles (racism) just by being personally talented enough in ways that are non-threatening to social power structures.  This is essentially a parallel of the “Talented Tenth” theory of W.E.B. Du Bois (later disavowed) and the questionable advocacy of Booker T. Washington.  In other words, without any irony, Thorpe is merely expected to have a superhuman willpower and resolve to overcome discrimination.  The real-life Jim Thorpe was subject to a level of discrimination well beyond anything depicted in the film, and the film would have been much better if it addressed that (and had a better score).  For that matter, one would hardly realize from the film that its timeline runs through the Great Depression.  Anyway, fortunately in the coming years there were other, sounder ways of looking at these sorts of questions gaining traction (see Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire, etc.).

Eddie the Eagle

Eddie the Eagle

Eddie the Eagle (2016)

20th Century Fox

Director: Dexter Fletcher

Main Cast: Taron Egerton, Hugh Jackman


A comedic sports biopic that is a bit too corny and hamfisted to really succeed.  It is loosely (very loosely) based on the story of real-life ski jumper Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards, who was one of the most inspiring figures of the modern olympic games.  Emma Goldman is credited with saying, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”  The story of Eddie the Eagle and the Jamaican bobsled team (both competed in the 1988 winter olympics) are kind of the sports corollary to that saying.  Their presence resulted in rule changes to ban any others from following in their footsteps.  If there was hope for anything good in the olympics, it was (and is) in athletes like Edwards, who came from a working class background and self-funded his training.  Sadly, the olympics are bastion of corruption — from the U.S. government pulling the term “olympics” out of the public domain (privatizing the commons), to out-of-control corporate sponsorships/bribery/consumerism, to bribes and scandals with the top committees, to financial chicanery and defrauding of public budgets for funding, to wasteful construction, … ahh, the list goes on.  They might represent everything wrong with sports — though there are so many examples of dirty business in sports that there are many other contenders (FIFA, NFL, NCAA, etc., etc.!).  The world would be a better place without them all, frankly.

I still remember the real-life Eddie the Eagle jumping in the olympics.  I was in a bar or restaurant of some sort with my family.  Everyone in the place watched the TV to see Eddie the Eagle jump.

Anyway, this film is dumb but the story of the real-life Eddie the Eagle remains a great thumb in the eye of elitist twats who run the world (for now).

Arrival

Arrival

Arrival (2016)

Paramount Pictures

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Main Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker


This sci-fi film has roughly the feel of Contact (1997), with a bit of The Tree of Life (2011) thrown in for good measure. Credit goes to the many members of the crew who make this a marvel of technical skill. But the script falls apart in confusion as the film goes on. The central story line involves the arrival of extra-terrestrials to Earth, and the attempts of humans to communicate with the aliens. The protagonist is Dr. Louise Banks (Adams), a linguist brought in by the U.S. military. A central plot point involves invocation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a real-life theory that is stretched to absurd lengths in the film. This is precisely where the film fails.  Rather than the grand tradition of using sci-fi scenarios to open space to discuss wholly realistic human social concerns otherwise barred from “respectable” discourse, Arrival reverts to empty deployment of “magical” actions. Actually, from the beginning to roughly the middle of the film, it seems almost that it will be about something that was in Stanisław Lem’s classic sci-fi novel Solaris that was excised from every film version — that humans are unable to comprehend “otherness” (explicitly that of aliens, but implicitly of other humans). But that would seem to be beyond what Hollywood permits, so by the end the plot gets dumbed down to pointless time-travel drivel.

I, Daniel Blake

I, Daniel Blake

I, Daniel Blake (2016)

Canal+

Director: Ken Loach

Main Cast: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires


One of the best “straight narrative” films I’ve seen in a while — reminiscent in some ways of Mathieu Kassovitz‘s La Haine [Hate] (1995). Basically, the premise of the film comes from Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward‘s theory about social welfare programs being about politically “regulating the poor” rather than solving the problems that create poverty.  (It is a modern twist on something that people have written about for a long time). In that respect, the film is meant to convey how the politicians who intentionally — though never explicitly, that is, they never openly admit as much — seek to implement policies that are ultimately cruel to the poor and trap them in extreme poverty have “blood on their hands”. At the extreme end of that spectrum, historically, would be the imperialist British policies in India during the late Victorian era, in which British support for native Indians was at levels less than what the Nazis gave to concentration camp prisoners during WWII (!).  While the film’s narrative is pared back from all the complexities of the real world, notably racial animosities used to prevent the kinds of solidarity repeatedly shown in the film, there is nothing far-fetched in the story.  The concision is understandable for a film meant to be accessible.

The most blunt premise of the film is unabashedly political: “Does the masses’ struggle for emancipation pose a threat to civilization as such, since civilization can thrive only in a hierarchical social order? Or is it that the ruling class is a parasite threatening to drag society into self-destruction, so that the only alternative to socialism is barbarism?” Slavoj Žižek, Afterword to Revolution at the Gates: Selected Writings of Lenin From 1917 (p. 210). This film argues the latter. And the way it does so is to magnificently depict the so-called “banality of evil”, the way the Kafkaesque bureaucracy mostly turns a blind eye to the callousness of its action in exchange for a (semi) privileged position above those who bear the burdens.  It also bears mentioning that I, Daniel Blake makes very modest demands.  For instance, the film goes to great lengths to depict the protagonist as someone who has skills (he is a carpenter) who simply can’t work because of a health condition (he recently had a major heart attack), as opposed to defending, say, someone who has no skills but still deserves to be treated with dignity.  In other words, the film goes out of its way to make clear it is not endorsing the notion of “to each according to her needs, from each according to her abilities.”  It might well have.

A few words for non-British viewers are in order.  The plot involves the protagonist seeking social welfare benefits after his doctor says his recent heart attack means that he cannot safely work.  In England, there is a national health service (i.e., socialized medicine), meaning that the (unseen) doctor who gives that diagnosis is a government doctor.  The welfare officials who deny him benefits constitute a vying faction of the government.  What isn’t made explicit in the film is that the Tory (conservative) government of David Cameron had gone to great lengths to purposefully undermine social welfare benefits, for ideological reasons.  Those sorts of cruel efforts continued in various arenas under the Theresa May government.

Shin Godzilla

Shin Godzilla

シン・ゴジラ [Shin Godzilla] (2016)

Toho Pictures

Directors: Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi

Main Cast: Hiroki Hasegawa, Satomi Ishihara, Yutaka Takenouchi


A reboot of the Gojira/Godzilla franchise, this is really an excellent monster film.  The best parts are about political symbolism. Having watched a number of dumb big-budget Hollywood superhero films recently, I was troubled by how many relied on a frame of a “post-political” society, where all important political decisions are just handed out (down) by unseen technocrats. I thought it would be more interesting to show the deliberations of politicians. Well, Shin Godzilla does exactly that!

The Gojira/Godzilla franchise has shown many different sides of the monster, from an uncontrollable force of destruction, to a helper of humanity, to an object of scientific study. Aspects of this film draw upon some of the ways scientific inquiry was vaunted in the 1990s films. But there is a much more political and serious tone to this film.  Here, the monster is finally defeated by a mostly self-organized team of nerds that works together in parallel with the military to defeat the monster, following much destruction.

The political commentary in the film ranges from traditional franchise concerns about nuclear energy and weapons (Gojira/Godzilla in this film is a sea creature that self-mutates after eating nuclear waste, and is powered by nuclear fission), including the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi reactor meltdown, to post WWII pacifism (including Shinzō Abe‘s plan to re-write the Japanese constitution to step away from pacifism), the (real or perceived) subordinate relationship of Japan to U.S. political interests, corporatization and putting profits over people, and more. While the film is sometimes a bit ridiculous — often in a good, campy way, like the wonderfully unrealistic depiction of the monster with bulging eyes and a bulk that still resembles an actor in a rubber monster suit — mostly, this film is expertly delivered. Central to the story is the way it presents existing political institutions as being unable or unwilling to confront current circumstances.  The monster is a symbol of the internal contradictions of Japanese society (and capitalism). It would not be too much to say that this is one of the most Leninist films of its day!

The Purge: Election Year

The Purge: Election Year

The Purge: Election Year (2016)

Universal Pictures

Director: James DeMonaco

Main Cast: Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Mykelti Williamson, Joseph Julian Soria, Betty Gabriel


The Purge series falls into the tradition of relatively low-budget horror films with dodgy technique that use the “lowbrow” appeal of the film as an opportunity to critique the upper classes.  The first film in the series is rather poor, caught up in empty suspense for its own sake (and presumably, due to budget constraints too).  But the second film, The Purge: Anarchy, is actually quite good — even going so far as to feature a Black Panther-like group presented sympathetically.  The third film, Election Year, is pretty raw and blunt with its message.  There is no nuance.  And yet, the bad guys are bad guys  and the good guys are worth rooting for.  The good guys are never saintly.  They all face moral challenges, and most are presented as having overcome mistakes of their past.  The bad guys are truly monstrous, employing self-serving religious dogmatism and the fascist concept of redemptive violence to further a thinly-veiled class war against the poor — notably along racist lines.  The script seems flawed, in that the characters are slow to pick up on plot points that are quickly apparent to the audience.  There is also a group of annoying teenager characters who all seem entirely superfluous to the main plotline.  So, while falling short of the previous film, this one is still better than the first Purge film.  It may be simplistic, but, unlike most commercial films, it actually has a moral center that isn’t stupid.