Category Archives: Film

The Pursuit of Happyness

Thr Pursuit of Happyness

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

Columbia Pictures

Director: Gabriele Muccino

Main Cast: Will Smith, Jaden Smith


The Pursuit of Crappyness?

The Will Smith movie The Pursuit of Happyness, based on a memoir by Chris Gardner, is meant to be a heartwarming tale of overcoming adversity, and all that.  Of course, another way to view it is as a polemic of dubious realism and accuracy extolling the worldview of the wealthy (the book on which the film was based was written by someone who was a multimillionaire).  This is one long conservative trope, on film.

Will Smith plays a Navy veteran living with his wife (Thandie Newton) and son in San Francisco, trying to sell off an inventory of bone density scanners they purchased with their life savings while he pursues an unpaid internship at a securities and investment brokerage firm.  He struggles to sell his wares and to get a job interview.  His wife leaves (she is portrayed unsympathetically).  He demands that their son stay with him.  He does get the internship, after showing up to the interview in tattered closes covered in paint after being held in jail for an unpaid parking ticket.  But, as he undertakes the internship, he has little or no money.  He ends up homeless after the IRS attaches his bank account for failure to pay taxes.  He and his son live in a church-run homeless shelter.

The storyline is highly selective, implausible in places, and is mostly invested in isolated scenes of intensely emotional acting.  In other words, it is emotionally manipulative and counterfactual.  Numerous key scenes are deus ex machina — information available online suggests that the film modifies/distorts key real-life events.  Certainly, some scenes are simply implausible wholly apart from any origins in a memoir.  There is never any explanation given as to why the protagonist does not seek welfare or other public social services, or why he persists in pursuing an unpaid internship rather than another line of remunerative work (and, at least by today’s standards, the unpaid internship is illegal — the employer derives benefit form the interns cold-calling prospective clients, and the interns are judged by how many new clients they bring in).  Even the insistence that his son remain with him is not explained — could the mother provide for the son better?  But to the extent that some of this comes from a real memoir, it is worth bearing in mind here F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum from The Beautiful and Damned about how “the type of man who attains commercial success seldom knows how or why, and,…when he ascribes reasons, the reasons are generally inaccurate and absurd.”  In fact, Fitzgerald is a pretty good touchstone here, as few writers capture the banal depravity and moral shallowness of the strivers for material wealth so well.  The Beautiful and Damned, in particular, has only a slightly different story arc than The Pursuit of Happyness.  Yet they draw opposite conclusions.  In Fitzgerald’s tale the protagonists emerge scarred and damaged (“damned”).  In this film, the protagonist emerges triumphant.

Mostly, the film’s story is meant to emphasize the so-called “culture of poverty” theory/myth — that success or failure is determined primarily or exclusively by the degree an individual is committed to hard work and perseverance.  The film does not address racism in any way (despite how much that would affect the protagonist in real life).  It scrupulously avoids addressing any structural or institutional causes for the protagonist’s situation.  There is a single-minded focus on the success of the protagonist, with no concern whatsoever for the other homeless people shown in the film.  Audiences are expected to root for the protagonist to succeed, and are not supposed to analyze or question the other poverty around him, or why he is so devoted to a “winner take all” system.  When the IRS seizes the main character’s last bit of money in his bank account for failure to pay taxes (the film portrays it as a surprise to Smith’s character, which is utterly preposterous and misleading), there is a steadfast assumption that the government is unfairly taking his money — even as most of the film suggests his poverty would probably exempt him from income taxes (or is he really not as poor as the film lets on?).  Practically the entire discipline of sociology probably cringes at this film and the discredited ideology it flacks — Loïc Wacquant called this sort of thing “an old theoretical carcass periodically exhumed from the graveyard of stillborn concepts[.]”

One of the most groan-inducing moments is from the epilogue titles, in which it is conveyed that the real-life person on which the film is based later became rich.  This reveals the true heart of the film.  Everything before that was supposedly about the main character’s relationship with his son and being happy, but the ending titles suggest that it was really just about money all along.  After all, Thomas Jefferson adapted John Locke‘s crude protection of “life, liberty and estate” (Two Treatises of Government, Book II) into “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for the Declaration of Independence, a slogan the main character mentions thinking about a lot.  Jefferson supposedly changed the wording to make it seem less crass, without intending to really change the meaning.  So this film actually gets that part right, in a strange way, by repeating the deception.

A film like I, Daniel Blake from a decade later is kind of the polar opposite of The Pursuit of Happyness.  The Blake film is a critique of the system, which is to say social and government institutions, whereas Happyness is sub-Horatio Alger rags-to-riches claptrap pushing a myth of meritocracy.

Will Smith’s performance is actually quite good, as is that of his real-life son Jaden.  But it is ridiculous to focus on such performances when the film is as contrived as it is so as to provide disjointed individual scenes solely as vehicles for emoting by the lead actors.

On Criticism (3)

There is an old saying the newspaper business.  Although it has been formulated different ways through the years, the most concise may be, “News is what somebody does not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.”

When it comes to criticism, there is a real question as to whether it is mere advertising and boosterism, or something else.  In that category of “something else” falls a few things.  One is the insertion of the personality of the critic.  In other words, the critic inserts or attaches himself or herself into the work.  The critique becomes, in part, about the critic.  Another aspect is the reproduction of social relations.  This arises most often through editorial decisions, as published criticism is as much about what is excluded and included within the attentions (or “gaze”) of the critic.  But it also arises through a frame of reference, enforcing certain points of view (or “habitus”).

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue one: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Walt Disney Pictures

Director: Gareth Edwards

Main Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Alan Tudyk


This movie is complete garbage.  The main characters are, for the most part, completely unsympathetic and the film hardly ever bothers to explain their motivations.  This (long) film mostly fills in the back story for some minor plot points in the original Star Wars films, with maximum emphasis on melodrama.  Just some examples of the absurdities that abound.  The characters need to get some saved electronic data.  In an era of hyperspace transport, this data is saved on magnetic cassette tapes.  Desperately escaping a villain, the protagonists flee to the roof of the storage facility.  Luckily for them there is a cassette player there that is hooked up to a satellite broadcasting antenna.  (It is funnier/campier when in National Treasure Nicholas Cage‘s character needs lemon juice to read “invisible ink” writings, and he opens a refrigerator to find only a large bowl of lemons).  And there is no meaningful explanation of why Forrest Whitaker‘s character is in the film, or does anything that he does.  Is he just around to draw comparisons to Battlefield Earth?  I have read reviews of this film praising the story and such.  Were those critics watching the same film?  Of course, the special effects are expertly crafted.  Big deal.

Aside from how terrible this film is, it might be worth reexamining it from the standpoint of “socialist realism”.  Obviously, this sci-fi epic is not socialist realism.  As science fiction it does not aim for “realism” as such.  And for that matter, the film engages in the well-known Hollywood trope of showing acts of labor only in conjunction with evil (the evil Galactic Empire that is building a space weapon, using some slave labor no less).  So it isn’t socialist either.  But the genre of socialist realism was at bottom about the critique of bureaucracy.  Isn’t that what the larger story arc here is about (if the melodrama is peeled away)?  It is simply really, really bad socialist realism.  Anthropologist David Graeber wrote The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy and said there are no critiques of bureaucracy anymore.  He’s wrong in that respect, as this film shows.  But like actual 20th Century socialist realism, Rogue One approaches the question from the standpoint of the political center-right (and Stalinism), trying to put a happy human face on a bureaucracy that remains exploitative.  After all, looking at the entire Star Wars franchise, isn’t the vaunted Galactic Senate that ruled the Old Republic just a bourgeois center-right representative parliamentary system based on aristocratic privilege?  What good is that?  In other words, wouldn’t the entire Star Wars franchise be more interesting if there was some third group fighting alongside (and against) both the Rebels and the Empire, but fighting to make the fictional universe different/better than anything the Rebels or Empire put forward — like a secular state (not ruled by the Force and the attendant pagan religious cults) stripped of aristocracy, crime syndicates and such, and instead based on egalitarian principles.  Just take the high technology but advance the social structures through Enlightenment principles.  (Even the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation did this, in its own way, by introducing the authoritarian Q Continuum and the hive-mind villains the Borg on opposite political flanks of the liberal Starfleet Federation).  So, the problem with this film is ultimately that it takes itself far too seriously.  Its pretensions spoil what would have been a lot more fun as camp.  Popular fare usually works best when it is campy — the essence of which is naive unpretentiousness.  By bracketing the political background of the story as a struggle between the far-right Empire and the center-right Rebels (plus a few tangential warlords and crime bosses who are just small scale versions of either the Rebels or Empire), it fails to have a serious political grounding — lying by omission, in a way, by ignoring a substantial facet of the political field.  But if the film naively presented the political struggle that way, then it could work, with the naivety suggesting/implying the possibility of the missing political coordinates.

Bulworth

Bulworth

Bulworth (1998)

Twentieth Century Fox

Director: Warren Beatty

Main Cast:  Warren Beatty, Halle Berry, Oliver Platt, Jack Warden, Joshua Malina


There are two political films from the 1990s that took on added intrigue around the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election: Bob Roberts and Bulworth.

In Bob Roberts, Tim Robbins provides a realistic satire of a right-wing populist running for political office.  The film seeks to skewer the hypocrisy and rapacious aims of such a candidate.  Looking back on the film in 2017, there are many resemblances (and some differences) with the successful candidacy of President Donald Trump.  But Robbins’ sanctimonious liberal critique does get a little tedious, and for all the complaining the film does it stops well short of offering any sort of meaningful alternative.

Bulworth came along a few years later.  It was the work of writer/director/star Warren Beatty.  Beatty is kind of an old Hollywood icon, known for his egotistical preening.  But perhaps more than any other such big, preening Hollywood star, he repeatedly made films with some sort of connection to leftist politics.  In Bulworth, Beatty plays incumbent U.S. Senator Jay Billington Bulworth from California, who is running for reelection.  Early on, the film reveals him to be a kind of apostate leftist, whose office has photos of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., etc.  He is now a corrupt Washington insider, doing the bidding of big business campaign funders to sustain his reelection campaign and coddle his estranged family members.  He gets an insurance company lobbyist to give him a big life insurance policy in exchange (i.e., as a bribe) for stalling some insurance regulations in legislative committee.  Beatty’s character then hires a hit man to have himself killed.  But he has a change of heart, and over the course of the next few days goes around suddenly speaking bluntly and honestly about corruption in Washington and sensible left-leaning social policies.  Amiri Baraka makes a cameo as a homeless man shouting advice to Beatty’s character, which Beatty’s character then applies by starting to deliver speeches and interviews as hip-hop raps — Beatty does a superb job making these raps as awkward as they are enlightening.  Much of the film relies on zany comedy bits, reminiscent of another Beatty film from a decade prior, Ishtar.  Almost all of the characters and many broad plot points are contrived and unrealistic — the polar opposite of Robbins’ mockumentary Bob Roberts.  The characters are especially one-dimensional for the most part.  But the characters and broad plot points are really just pretexts for Beatty’s Jay Billington Bulworth to suddenly speak sensibly in individual scenes, highlighting how that doesn’t seem to happen in contemporary “real life”.  What, exactly, does he talk about?:  corrupt campaign financing, lack of journalistic integrity, the need for socialized health care, the need for corporate regulation, the decimation of manufacturing jobs, outsourcing, exploitation of the third world to extract natural resources, the hypocrisy and deceptions of the Democratic Party, etc.  Most if not all of what he says became the platform of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic Presidential Primary.  In the film, Bulworth’s hip-hop rants gain him enormous popularity, even as party insiders and big business insiders try to contain or repudiate him.  At the time the film came out, the realism of those portrayals might have been questioned.  Would such a candidate really be popular?  The Sanders primary campaign and its aftermath demonstrated the underlying realism.  A candidate standing for such things (minus the hip-hop flamboyance) would be enormously popular.  That is why the establishment and big business always seeks to prevent such a candidate from ever being treated as viable.  The contrived part of Bulworth requiring the audience’s suspension of disbelief is that an incumbent politician from the establishment, with a history of big business collaboration, would suddenly shift back to the political left, thereby being inherently “viable” (and setting aside all so-called “third party” campaigns of this sort, like those of Henry Wallace and Teddy Roosevelt).  But this plot contrivance is no more a problem than Jimmy Stewart‘s character getting appointed to the senate in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Another interesting this to consider about this film is the way that Beatty suggests a left-leaning candidate could gain popularity through sensational and outrageous public acts.  Could it be that he got the idea based on what he experienced as part of filming Madonna: Truth or Dare? Beatty was dating pop singer Madonna around the time she filmed the behind-the-scenes documentary.  Beatty appeared in it as kind of an out-of-touch old timer.  Is Bulworth his answer to how an old timer can use vaguely Madonna-like spectacle to put forward a left-leaning political platform?

Bulworth is also somewhat a historical curiosity.  Released in 1998, just before the Glass-Steagall Legislation was repealed to put Wall Street corruption on steroids, Beatty does not spend any time railing against financialization or predatory banking/finance in general — of the sort that would come to dominate American society for the next two decades.  There is also nothing said about environmental destruction.  And, much like the real-life Bernie Sanders, Beatty’s character also spends relatively little attention to imperialist wars (though Saddam Hussein gets mentioned).  He does talk-up the anti-capitalist Black Panthers a bit — Bernie Sanders never did that.

One thing the film does have going for it is that the zany escapades of Mr. Bulworth take place over a few sleep-deprived nights, kind of like a “lost weekend” sort of scenario.  In a time just before the Internet sped up the pace of new reporting (and the dissemination of gossip), there is slightly more believably that the senator could have gone along for a while as he did.

The ending of the film is unintentionally anti-climactic.  However, there is something to be said about the real-life fates of most left-leaning politicians.

Bulworth may not be a great film, but it is a good one.  It seems to have held up beyond its immediate time period, which is more than most political-themed films can say.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

Paramount Pictures

Director: Michael Bay

Main Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Tyrese Gibson, Frances McDormand, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley


Basically one long product placement advertisement that, at best, distracts from that agenda with thin and disjointed scenes of meaningless heroism.  One of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.  Add one more to the tally of Michael Bay’s crimes against humanity.

Fury

Fury

Fury (2014)

Columbia Pictures

Director: David Ayer

Main Cast: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Jon Bernthal, Michael Peña, Shia LaBeouf


The problem with this film is that it has a beginning and an end.  Both are terrible.  In the middle there are worthy things.  But the ending is so stupefyingly, implausibly bad that viewers have to walk away embarrassed for having sat through it.  After opening titles that glorify American Exceptionalism, twisting the history of World War II to frame it as a conflict just between the noble but underdog Americans and the Nazis, the film starts by making Brad Pitt’s character out to be an inhuman monster (seemingly equally as bad as the Nazis), and those around him one-dimensional caricatures.  The film then seeks to humanize Pitt’s character, and add dimension to those around him.  The battle scenes in the middle of the film are excellently staged and are thrilling.  Of course, then there is the ending, which is so preposterously staged as to garner sympathy for the Nazis.  The Nazis (in vastly superior numbers) stand around waiting to be shot (really!).  The weapons they are shown marching with suddenly disappear and one Nazi indicates that a small box of other weapons must be rationed carefully.  The movie banks on viewers thinking that Nazi are so terrible that they should completely suspend disbelief at the staging of the final battle scene.  Ughhhh.  Terrible.

While clearly trying to follow on the style of Saving Private Ryan (an arguably even worse film), this ends up being a second (or third) rate version of The Big Red One.  Just compare the endings.  Lee Marvin‘s character in The Big Red One is, objectively, one who stands for something beyond himself.  Brad Pitt’s character stands for empty valor, no more.

Oblivion

Oblivion

Oblivion (2013)

Universal Pictures

Director: Joseph Kosinski

Main Cast: Tom Cruise, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko, Morgan Freeman


The story is really just an amalgamation of plot points from other films: Moon, Total Recall, Independence Day, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Inception, The Matrix, etc.  But the special effects and technical realization of this movie really outshines all those others.  While the plot may not be ingeniously new, it blends known elements together in a way that is cohesive and effective.  Once the viewer accepts the basic conceits of the science fiction setting, every scene is staged plausibly — there are no scenes that prompt guffaws due to trivial yet implausible details.  At the risk of spoiling a plot twist, the film also takes a surprising matter-of-fact view toward cloning and the social interchangeability of clones.  Reviews of the film were poor.  No surprise, really.  This sort of film, though coming from Hollywood, chafes against what Hollywood prizes.  In other words, it is a better film than Hollywood normally permits, and the plot — derivative or not — has a kind of anti-corporate message that is always officially frowned upon even as Hollywood keeps inserting such messages into various films.  There is also some serious, if under-/unstated, questioning of how contrived and fake certain emotions and social institutions can be.  Tom Cruise is the perfect lead, able to convincingly deliver a role that requires a “useful idiot.”  The rest of roles are well cast too.