Archive for September 24, 2012

Burning the Middle Ground: Preview of the Cover

I’ve stared long enough at Dave Mattingly’s satisfyingly creepy cover design for my forthcoming novel Burning the Middle Groundlong enough, anyway, to start sharing. Look for the novel itself from BlackWyrm Publishing, likely in December 2012 or January 2013.

cover image for Burning the Middle Ground

Resident Dredd: Summer-Ending Superlatives

According to the most recent data I’ve found online, the movie Dredd didn’t do well in first-weekend box-office returns, but I’m willing to risk the usual condescension of fellow academic critics by saying that it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. In fact, after Cabin in the Woods, which is only a 2012 title because of ludicrous industry roadblocks, it’s the best. Before I explain why, I have to admit that the entire Judge Dredd premise is politically terrifying, and before I explain why I’m able to overcome this terror and heap the film with praise, I want to review its competition.

First, the necessary Whedon-love: The Avengers is good, but I like my visual feasts and ingenious dialogue to make me see the world differently, and unlike his Cabin co-credit, The Avengers didn’t engage much beyond the visual part of the cortex. Then there was The Dark Knight Rises, which in addition to being the weakest film in its series in terms of visuals and story (forgive me, IMAX-lovers), left me so upset about its vilification of socially progressive opposition to the American aristocracy, signified by aristocrat Bruce Wayne’s opposition to Bane’s evilly co-opted rhetoric of the 99% against the 1%, that I couldn’t really enjoy it. Of course The Hunger Games gave the 99% our due, and I thought the film was pretty f’in great, but it was too geared to the under-18 set to stir the grown-up depths. Total Recall is worth a mention because its city-atop-a-city visuals were more inspired than the writing, which proved that having a better actor in a role doesn’t make for a better character or a better movie. Farrell is more generally talented, but as an action hero, Schwarzenegger reigns. And while the underrated Karl Urban brings more talent to the title role of Dredd than Sylvester Stallone dreamt of for the predecessor Judge Dredd, performance-wise, I’ll give greater credit to Stallone and Schwarzenegger both for turning in self-aware characters, in Expendables 2, who made me fondly wonder whatever happened to the Rambo action figure who emerged from my toybox again and again to avenge his Vietnamese “you not expendable” love. Still, although Expendables 2 might be fourth in my year-so-far rankings, it’s not in the same league as the second or third.

Third place: Resident Evil: Retribution. I’ve been a fan of this series since the beginning, and I think it has held up remarkably well, turning in gorgeous entry after gorgeous entry, with the most recent (the fifth) installment tying or exceeding the accomplishments of the original. Of course, Milla Jovavich’s hypnotizing beauty has always succeeded in making this gay man wonder what he’s missing, but beyond that, the combination of her overwhelming presence with stunning visuals and tomandandy‘s best score since Killing Zoe left me so psyched that I almost forgot that Prometheus, one scene excepted, made me weep for the future of sci-fi/horror/action.

Now then, all the notables noted, I need to tell you about why I initially felt embarrassed by how much I was enjoying Dredd. The premise of the film, and all its anteriors, is that in a post-apocalyptic future, the only hope of the honest folk is the Judges, heavily armed judge-jury-executioner types whose victory against the criminal overlords depends on governmental power that is undeniably fascist. OMFG, how could I cheer, in good conscience, for the idea that democratic justice should be entirely circumvented so that the elect few able to tell right from wrong can summarily execute the criminal element? Answer: I can’t. Such fantasies of totalitarian justice are, on the surface, utterly inexcusable, utterly opposed to the ideals at the heart of the U.S. constitution and anything for which I would ever cast a vote.

I’m going to delay my self-exculpating argument just a bit longer so that I can explain why, even if I don’t convince you that the film isn’t fascistic poo, you might want to see Dredd, a.k.a. Dredd 3-D. I’m sure there are all kinds of technical reasons why I shouldn’t say this, but for me, it was the most visually sumptuous experience since Avatar. The film’s central plot-conceit, that the post-apocalyptic world is threatened by another apocalypse courtesy of slo-mo, a drug that makes people perceive life at a fraction its normal speed, is an excuse for AMAZING visuals. More than once, the film earns its strong-R rating with bodies on 100-story drops exploding in sparkling glass and shimmering blood. The color palette is astonishingly warm, with reds and yellows distinguishing it from the usual dystopian sci-fi fare.  Heavy artillery unleashed by best-villain-in-ages Ma-Ma (Lena Headey, the lead from Sarah Connor Chronicles, whose show-stealing performance should earn her A-list status), culminates in one of the best boss-battle conclusions ever. I don’t want to spoil anything, but imagine the logical limit of bloody 3-D carnage–what’s the most spectacular way for a person to die on camera?

Okay, now for the exculpation. How can I champion a film in which the title character is a state-empowered judge-jury-executioner? While Americans often forget that this country is about justice that protects minorities, how can I, an American with a memory, support such a vision of rights-ignoring empowerment?

Answer: Dredd, like the entire Resident Evil franchise, is based on the aesthetics of a first-person-shooter video game. In fact, Resident Evil movies have distinguished themselves by being more-video-game-than-video-game. The first film of the series features a multi-level “hive” through which characters must battle like characters seeking to “level up” by clearing tier after tier of enemies. How shocked was I, since I saw the movie before I played the game, that The Hive doesn’t even exist beneath the game’s terror-inducing mansion! Resident Evil: Retribution improves this gaming aesthetic by having characters advance through levels of terror represented by environments from earlier films–the Tokyo level, for example–that present ass after ass for sexy Milla Jovovich to kick. Resident Evil: Retribution and Dredd, both 3-D, are both first-person-shooter films, which means that they both equate their lead characters’ perspectives with those of the spectators, whose pleasures drive the slaughter of enemies.

Dredd‘s video-gaminess is no less obvious than Resident Evil‘s: at the beginning of the film, Dredd enters a 200-level building. He must fight his way up through the levels, where Ma-Ma, the big boss, waits at the top.

Alice, Milla Jovovich’s character in Resident Evil, is a genetically superior warrior who used to work for the evil military-industrial-pharmaceutical power-corporation Umbrella. Although a woman, she’s an ubermensch, which might make her a fascist fantasy comparable to the judge-jury-executioner Judge Dredd. So… how can I cheer for them? How can I rate their movies so highly?

Answer (again): both films are first-person shooters, which means that the heroes are stand-ins for the spectators. While the films’ stories may position the heroes as totalitarian powers, the structures and perspectives endow the spectators with such power, making the viewer’s, the democratic everyperson’s, the empowered position, NOT the rarefied position of the genetically or financially superior 1%’s. As Alice and Dredd fight their way through the levels, so do we. Ma-Ma, despite her gender (a weak mask–she’s still patriarchy), is The Man.

Ma-Ma’s Man status may not be as obvious as that of Umbrella, the evil pharmaceuticals company in the Resident Evil franchise that turns most of the world into zombies. But Ma-Ma is a drug dealer, planning to take over the world with the drug slo-mo. With her market-cornering muscle and bullying disposition, she is far more like policy-shaping American drug companies than she is like the heroin-pushing thugs she more superficially resembles. By putting viewers in the first-person-shooter position, Dredd and Resident Evil both empower the viewers, us 99%-ers, to take on the military-industrial-medical complex in ways we never thought possible. I’m not saying these films or I advocate for violent revolution. The fantasy of first-person shooters isn’t, for the sane, the fantasy of mowing down the innocent with a hail of bullets. It’s the fantasy of resisting seemingly impossible powers, Ma-Ma, Umbrella, the military-industrial-medical complex. And that’s the fantasy behind breathtakingly beautiful films like Resident Evil: Retribution and Dredd. I’m sorry that these films had to wait until the end of summer to get their blockbuster due, but I hope they do, inspiring viewers like you the same way they’ve inspired me.

Last House on the Left: Old-Fashioned Eyefuls

My course “The American Horror Film Since 1960” was cancelled today for a university function, so the two-class discussion of Last House on the Left (1972) has to be whittled down. I tend to come to class with a list of talking points and then follow the students’ interests anyway, so I don’t know if even two full classes would get us where I intend to go with this blog, which is a fairly uncomfortable place.

The bottom line: on rewatching Last House on the Left, potentially one of the most offensive titles on my syllabus, I was again disappointed because it isn’t violent enough. Don’t get me wrong–the rapes and murders of two girls at the hands of Krug and his gang are even more graphic than I remembered, and as I get older, I tend to feel more rather than less sick to my stomach as I see such things on screen. What left me wanting more was the third act, the revenge that marks Wes Craven’s opus as a remake and Americanization of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960). The killers wind up at the home of one of their victims, and the girl’s parents serve up bloody justice that includes toothy castration and a prescient chainsaw (Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre appeared two years later).

Having just read a partial synopsis of the extreme violence that plays as just deserts, you might be wondering what more I could want. It’s a fair question. The seemingly safe answer is that I want to see the criminals suffer just as much as their victims, meaning that as a spectator I buy into the eye-for-an-eye justice that critics typically read as debasing the vengeful parents, making them mirror images of the people who have destroyed their daughter. And thus I would seem to be caught up in the film’s exposition of the violence at the heart of American culture, the violence sustaining the Vietnam War contemporary with Craven’s film. To recognize that the film works on me simultaneously justifies my decision to teach it (it really is more than exploitative garbage!) and exculpates my private bloodlust as a symptom of culture, which I can enjoy from a cozy and distant intellectual plane.

If only the answer were that easy. As the film sifts through various brain cells, I realize that the way it makes me feel raises questions about my political opposition to capital punishment. At least since I saw a certain movie released in the year 2000 (SPOILER ALERT–click only if you don’t mind knowing), my position has been that although in abstract principle I don’t object to state-sanctioned murder, I don’t see a way for any state to administer such punishment fairly, so I cannot will my abstract principle to be concrete law (and yes, friends of Kant, the preceding sentence is full of deep inconsistencies). And yet in Last House on the Left, I want the killers to die horribly, and I want the police who arrive at the end to approve.

Last House avoids some ethical messiness by not showing any real legal response to the vengeful parents, Dr. and Mrs. Collingwood. It even spares the Collingwoods the worst moral ambiguity by having Krug’s heroin-addicted accomplice-son, who doesn’t participate directly in the crimes and even tries to stop them, commit suicide at his father’s urging rather than fall victim to the Collingwoods’ wrath. Bergman’s version of the scenario doesn’t let wronged-parent bloodlust off so easily, but then again, it’s set safely in the distant past and thus lacks Last House‘s overt cultural correspondences. But the trouble is that I think I’d like Last House more if it went all the way, eschewing both Bergman and Craven’s ethical escape hatches by having the Collingwoods be even nastier.

So what does that say about me?

I don’t think it means I have to start supporting the death penalty. My own house may be on the political left, but I don’t really think this film places it far enough down the street to change its zip code. While Last House does raise the issues of class found in Virgin Spring–the Collingwoods are accustomed to wealth and education far beyond “animal” Krug and his friends, so their imposition of the death penalty mirrors a bias of the state’s–it also leaves no doubt about the criminals’ guilt. If the state could ever be as doubtless on this point as the film’s spectators, if the state could be as total a witness as Last House‘s camera, which sees all facts that are see-able because it constitutes the film’s entire visible world, I’d have to re-evaluate my political platform. It can’t, though, so I don’t.

It does mean that my investment in extreme aesthetics, in art that goes places I’d never want to get anywhere near in real life, potentially runs deeper than the “gore does political and philosophical work” position I’ve articulated in Gothic Realities and Dario Argento. For me, violence’s onscreen absence is potentially more of a problem than its presence, however much its presence may turn my aging stomach. Since I see so much of the violence against Last House‘s murdered girls, I feel a need to see a comparable amount of violence against their murderers, which is an aesthetic if not a political endorsement of eyeful-for-an-eyeful, which is uncannily similar to and yet significantly different from eye-for-an-eye. What I want to see is not coextensive with, and even opposes, what I want to be (both in the sense of who “I” is and what “I” thinks should exist). But what I want to see reveals an aesthetic conservatism even as it resists political conservatism. Gosh darn it, I demand symmetry and proportion, which means that while on the surface I champion cinema that seems profoundly messy, deep down, I share the biases that have defined Western art for millennia. I pose at being edgy, but really I’m an old-fashioned guy.

Granted, the students in “The American Horror Film Since 1960” probably don’t see me as particularly edgy or particularly anything other than professorial. Last House on the Left celebrates its 40th this year, so how could it really be on the edge of anything other than senility? This is one of those cases where I’d strongly prefer not to listen to my gut.

Music and brass: La vie est belle

The University of Louisville kicked off the 2012 – 2013 Postcolonial Film Series today with La vie est belle (Life Is Rosy, 1987). Not knowing a lot about African film–or Africa, for that matter–I didn’t really know what to expect beyond music with infectious rhythm. As a result, catching my feet moving without conscious volition didn’t surprise me. Since Dr. Beth Willey, a specialist in postcolonial theory and African literature, chose the film for the series, the postcolonial overtones didn’t surprise me, either. What I didn’t expect were the ways in which the music points toward the film’s layered cultural resonance. I spent much of the movie listening to my brain, but I think my feet were actually more in tune with the film’s significance.

Movie art found at “Forgotten Classics” site

My brain told me that the film’s narrative had a lot in common with European narrative traditions. Dr. Willey pointed out, and I agree, that the story of lovers who have to work hard to get their couplings sorted out is classic Shakespeare. During the movie, though, Jane Austen was more present to me than Will–no character in the film seems untouched by the “amorous effect of ‘brass‘”. In fact, early on I felt really uncomfortable with a reduction of people, especially women, to monetary value, a relationship literally written on the wall as a woman chalks rental prices outside people’s homes. Thinking about the horrific results of the myth that having sex with a virgin can cure HIV, I shuddered as a mystic counselor in the film advised a rich man to restore his potency by pursuing a virgin girl. The traffic in women, and in some cases infant girls, has reached deadly new lows, and I didn’t like the idea of a film promoting such exchanges in the guise of romance.

The film doesn’t endorse all the cultural mores it reflects, however, and as it unfolded, I felt a growing critical awareness of the love-money link that Austen herself might well applaud. Indeed, just as the tension in Austen’s novels often comes from the perilous positions of young women who must rely on marriage for their economic survival, the tension in La vie est belle stems largely from the economic consequences of mating and dating. And in the context of sub-Saharan Africa, where polygamy is common, marriage isn’t the resolution it is (or at least seems to be) in Pride and Prejudice. The same man who has police throw an alleged thief in the trunk of his Mercedes also has the power to make his wife compete with a new bride decades her junior. In the end, the older wife has to apologize for being jealous because she hangs out too much with “liberated women,” and though the man who rides in the back end of the Mercedes gets the girl that the rich man wants, it’s only after he has proven his own economic viability as the right sort of musician (i.e., the sort of musician who gets paid). Even though lovers come together, brass wins the day: as characters explain more than once, when you don’t have money, life doesn’t seem as rosy as it’s supposed to be.

So that’s what my brain told me as I watched, but all that thinking about Shakespeare and Austen seemed to impose an Anglo-European paradigm on a film I was supposed to see in a postcolonial light. Was I colonizing the film with my English-major training? Fearing that I was, I looked to the film’s form, which didn’t immediately offer any comforting resistance to imperialistic conventions. The compositions and editing are classic Hollywood in their balance and continuity. When I looked closer, though, I noticed that almost every shot involves some kind of movement–the camera moves, the figures move, or both. Then I realized that the cinematographic movement and my feet had a lot in common. I’d have to see the film again to be sure, but I’d almost swear that at times the frame bounces with the rhythm of the onscreen performers singing about life’s rosiness. Supporting the Euro-conventional narrative and Hollywood-conventional style, then, are sonic conventions and spirit from traditions that make Shakespeare seem like a toddler. Even as a lead character discusses his ambitions in electronic music, he never gets far from the traditions that technological instruments merely give new shape. In fact, technological instrumentation in the film is manifold: a young woman pursuing an education longs for a typewriter people refer to as her “instrument,” and women and men alike thrill at the prospect of a new electronic oven that can cook three chickens at once. This technology doesn’t seem like a tool of the colonizer in danger of wiping out traditional cultures. Like La vie est belle, a story told through an electronic medium, the tech gives the culture new expression.

The expression is not unaffected by the technology’s history and origins. Like the Austenian narrative, the film form carries the impression of the colonizer, and so La vie est belle is, in the true postcolonial-theory sense, hybrid. Hybridity can be both good and bad in its effects on colonized peoples, but in La vie est belle, it’s at least good in that it enables a film that is as intellectually satisfying as it is physically moving. I’m not suggesting an alignment of colonizer/colonized with mind/body, where the colonizer has all the smarts while the colonized bears the burden of physicality. I’m saying that the best ideas I have about this film–the best thinking I’ve been able to do–started with my feet.