Friday, July 3, 2015

June Reads

Ilium by Dan Simmons
Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

Alas, only two titles. I've started 6 or 7 books but I cannot make myself read right now. The world of film is far too compelling. I've seen more movies than ever, but that's certainly minimized how much I read.

Both of these were re-reads. I read Jurassic Park for the first and only time way back in 1994-1995. It took me months to read it as I was nine years old. Re-reading as an adult, trying my best to imagine myself reading it without the existence of the film, I was struck by how I much I had forgotten about the addicting properties of Crichton. I cannot overstate how much of an impact Crichton has had on me in terms of science, fiction, and science fiction. Jurassic Park is an interesting beast: awkward structure (3 different prologues? why?), an odd lack of affective attachment among the cast (they seem really calm considering the death toll), and a really lacklustre climax.

However, the didactic sequences are quite compelling, even if they're clumsily integrated into the narrative. Malcolm's tirades against the scientific discipline are more relevant than ever. What I found especially political prescient was Hammond's libertarian proto-Elon Musk tendencies were the source of conflict. Compare this with Neal Stepheson's recent libertarian masturbation fantasy Seveneves. Hammond gives a speech about how the government is always ruining his opportunities to acquire cash. I wonder if Crichton is going for an Ayn Rand John Galt parody here. It doesn't matter if it's intentional -- it works.

The novel also really works as a jeremiad against unchecked scientific progress. Yes, this is obvious thing to say, but I think it's worth mentioning that no matter how clumsy Crichton was at exposition and thematic signposting, his sheer enthusiasm and breathless authorial voice managed to work.

Ilium I read back before I knew Dan Simmons was an Islamophobe and a well known conservative. I'm not sure how I missed that reading this. There are a couple moments when Simmons' author stand-in (his Mary Sue, if you will) makes references to how politically correct things are and how that sucks --  in other words, a conservative dog whistle that means nothing. Speaking of Mary Sues, did I mention that Simmons has his stand-in fuck Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman ever? And he's apparently terrific at satisfying her needs? Ridiculous. I felt like the pages were sticky with Simmons' own self-ministrations.

The first time I read Ilium, I was bored to tears by the post-human sections of the tripartite narrative. This time, I was bored to tears by the Iliad sections. The post-human stuff and the robot stuff was so much more satisfying, especially with the introduction of Prospero and Caliban. No, the Proust stuff did not get any better; it might be even more awkward than ever. The Iliad sections just feel so staid, so safe. It doesn't help that Simmons did plenty of research and wants you to know that. And he will say and do everything to remind you that he did research. It's not very well integrated.

As a whole, Ilium was better than I remember, but only slightly. I still like it. It's just insane enough that I can't help myself.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron


An action scene's quality is determined by a variety of factors: coherence, both spatial and narrative; investment in the characters; and choreography. Imagine, if you will, that a good action scene is a successful Rube Goldberg machine. All of the elements work together, cascading one after the other, escalating in stakes in order to keep up suspense. An action scene requires coherence in order for the audience to follow, visually and narratively. The spatial and narrative relations between the pieces of the Rube Goldberg machine must be clear at all times. An incoherent action scene is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. If the narrative stakes are not clear, then the action scene is an empty vessel, telling no story beyond a series of disconnected images that concatenate to nothing. If the spatial relations are not clear, the audience cannot invest in the narrative as they cannot follow the narrative onscreen.

Another element of the action scene's quality is the conditions of production and overall aesthetic. Not all action scenes are the same, regardless of quality, and thus do not all look and feel the same. The visceral confusion and chaos of Paul Greengrass's The Bourne Ultimatum is not the same as the crisp and clean of Adam Wingard's The Guest or Chad Stahelski and David Leitch's John Wick. The rapid fire cutting of Edgar Wright's The World's End differs from the same quick cuts of Gareth Evans' The Raid: Redemption. Notice that the conditions of production are vastly different: production budgets widely divergent, countries and thus modes of production varied. Different cinematographers, production designers, stunt crews, editors, etc all change the feel of the action scene. Their overall aesthetics are different. This is a good thing. Homogeneous aesthetics can only have diminishing returns. The aesthetics of Furious 7 and The Avengers: Age of Ultron (hereafter F7 and AOU) are superficially different (colour palette, lenses, depth of field, etc) yet feel remarkably similar. However, F7's action scenes manage to be successfully coherent in both spatial relations and narrative whereas AOU suffers from fatal incoherence.

Yes, it's time for my belated #hottake on AOU in which I bemoan the state of affairs known as the mainstream Hollywood blockbuster, a topic that I return to again and again. However, this time, I have some positive things to say about the blockbusters themselves -- though I retain my ire for the production paradigm.

So far in this summer movie season, I have seen F7, AOU, Mad Max: Fury Road, Entourage, Ex Machina and a couple smaller movies. Mad Max: Fury Road is not only the best action film of the year for me, it's also probably the best film of the year. It's visceral, well-made, lean, and feminist as fuck. MMFR is the feminist action masterpiece I've been waiting for my whole life. It was like coming home. The release of MMFR has sparked endless thinkpieces about the muted response that greeted AOU and the rapturous praise garnered by MMFR. Many of them focus on the supposed exhaustion over the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its imitators. Writers and critics pontificate on the logic of anticipation and the diminishing returns from such a model. Some thinkers have opined the qualitative difference between the two films is one's reliance on practical effects over CGI heavy scenes.

Over at Variety, Brian Lowry writes that:
The pattern has become predictable. “Iron Man,” a terrific movie overall — particularly in capturing the origin story — degenerated into a mundane brawl between two armor-clad characters. Ditto the “Hulk” reboot with Edward Norton, which culminated with the title character’s ho-hum showdown with another green behemoth, the Abomination.

One can argue, in fact, that the much-maligned second “Star Wars” trilogy sacrificed an element of its humanity in George Lucas’ embrace of a wholly digital filmmaking approach. At a certain point, watching droid armies being whacked to pieces begins to yield diminishing returns.

Put more simply, just because CGI wizardry allows you to do something, whether hoisting an entire city into the air or leveling skyscrapers willy-nilly, doesn’t always mean you should. Because while the box office figures might suggest otherwise, there is an audience out there that’s weary of these movies precisely because of the hollow quality to the inevitable final 30 minutes of unrelenting mayhem.
Notice that this post has already used "diminishing returns" three times, including Lowry's use. The common complaint about these blockbuster movies is that the climactic scenes are simply unintelligible, turgid, or boring action scenes that unfold endlessly. The stakes aren't pronounced as these blobs of pixels fight other blobs of pixels with blobs of pixels between them. Lowry continues to say that AOU "becomes drearily repetitive as the heroes mow down another CGI horde, this time consisting of artificially intelligent robots[,]" the minions of Ultron, the film's titular antagonist, voiced by James Spader, but given no coherent motivation or compelling characterization by the film's script.

Ultron's plan, if it can be said to be a plan, is to "protect" humanity by wiping it off the face of the planet using a levitated city that he will drop using a countdown mechanism or a big red button, I can't remember but it doesn't matter because nothing in these films really matters in terms of narrative stakes. I'm reminded of David Bordwell's fantastic commentary on the structure of action movies. He and his critical partner Kristin Thompson outline five guiding principles of storytelling (as they dub the category):
  1. Goal orientation
  2. The double plotline
  3. Discrete part-structure
  4. Planting causes for future effects
  5. Deadlines
Bordwell demonstrates these principles in that article to Mission: Impossible III (and demonstrates them again in countless other articles) in order to show that mainstream Hollywood films do indeed depend on commonly known modes or norms as he calls them. It should be carefully noted that Bordwell and Thompson aren't making a qualitative judgement on the prima facie mobilization of these norms. Just because a screenplay follows a formula doesn't mean it's intrinsically a poor screenplay. However, I'd like to demonstrate that AOU is a bad movie not because it follows a formula but because the formula is negated by the logic of escalation and anticipation at the heart of the MCU. In other words, I'd like to perform a formal reading of AOU to show how flat and boring the film is.

In AOU, the characters have multiple goals: Tony Stark is interested in retirement by automating a system of protection, Steve Rogers is interested in eradicating the subversive and corrupting elements of HYDRA and other bad guys, Natasha Romanoff is focused on achieving a semblance of normalcy by a romantic relationship with Bruce Banner, Wanda and Piotr's goal is revenge against The Avengers, specifically Tony Stark for his complicity in their parents' death, and Ultron's goal is world destruction. Thor doesn't really have any motivation because the script has to sideline somebody when they are so many characters. The goals become more articulated and narrow as the film's plot progresses: the primary goal is to thwart Ultron.

The film features a complex but still discrete double plotline: 1) The Avengers fight Ultron and 2) the characters struggle with the divide between their personal lives and their responsibility to abstract concepts such as justice or revenge. For example, Natasha and Bruce would like to fall in love or pursue a romantic relationship but they each find themselves morally repellent (Bruce accidentally kills people, Natasha was programmed to kill).

The discrete part-structure dictates that, David writes, "[t]he action revolves around goals: defining them, modifying them, and achieving or not achieving them. Hollywood films map the process onto several parts, each running 25–35 minutes." In the first discrete part, The Avengers invade a HYDRA base with the goal of recovering Loki's staff. In the second discrete part, Tony and Bruce engineer Ultron with the goal of retirement. And so on and so forth.

A classic example of planting causes for future effects, or a Chekhov's gun, involves the famous party scene in which each Avenger attempts to lift Thor's hammer. Only the worthy are able to lift the hammer. This is both a plot and a thematic seed that is reaped when The Vision demonstrates that he is worthy by lifting the hammer, thus proving that he can be trusted (a plot point) and that his creation is worth the cost (a thematic point).

Finally, the climax of the film features a deadline: The Avengers must stop the levitating city before it reaches a critical altitude or less the city's impact with the planet will cause a mass extinction event (an idea thoroughly debunked here). Ultron will touch the big red button at the critical point, the terminal altitude, if you will, and must be stopped.

In the same article, Bordwell cites Thompson by contending that, "[i]n features running around two hours, we typically find a four-part structure: Setup, Complicating Action, Development, and Climax. Usually there’s a brief epilogue tacked on. Filmmakers working in the three-act paradigm in effect split the second act into two stretches around a midpoint." The Setup in AOU involves the invasion at Hydra and the creation of Ultron. The Complicating Action is, of course, Ultron going evil and marshalling Wanda and Piotr. The Development involves The Avengers trying to get ahold of Ultron's new body and succeeding, resulting in the creation of The Vision. The Climax is the long CGI fight on the levitating city. The Epilogue introduces the new team of Avengers. This broad outline is of course reductive, but the film does quite neatly fit into these broad categories. However, as with many bloated blockbusters, AOU is 140 minutes and thus each discrete part eats up a little bit more time.

None of these observations I've made using Bordwell's basic formal methodology are qualitative judgements. Stories that use appropriate and familiar structures are not to be dismissed on the basis of their use. Rather, it's like any genre exercise: if it's done well, then any formulaic aspect can be forgiven or minimized in terms of judgement.

I really don't think AOU does any of this particular well. In fact, it feels all rather rote, and this is because there are little narrative stakes thanks to the logic of the escalating blockbuster. Allow me to quote myself on the logic of escalation:
The films themselves present themselves as both the object of desire and the cause of the desire for the desired object. Each item in the series of advertisements (another endless wave of production) simply teases the inevitable tease that is the film itself.

This constant anticipation has, of course, an unintended side effect within the overarching structure of the production of blockbusters. Each film, independent of intellectual property or studio, must somehow compete with the very aesthetic. That is to say, that each subsequent item in the endless series must somehow replace and better the previous item. The stakes in films get higher with each new release.
The world was at stake in the first Avengers film and again, the world is at stake in the second Avengers film. Each film must both reset the status quo (The Avengers themselves continue to fight another day) and set up the next antagonist (Thanos continues his mind numbingly dumb plan to assemble the Infinity Gems or Stones). The films are, in essence, a holding pattern with the illusion of increased narrative stakes. They bide time while increasing the audience anticipation for the next film, the next "world in peril" problem that we know will be thwarted. The problems of the previous films are diminished as the problems of the future unreleased films tease their importance. The audience strains to take seriously the threat of Ultron when around the corner (three years in the future), Thanos bides his time with his nonsensical plan.

It doesn't help that Ultron is a poorly drawn villain and a poorly established threat. If this is a sentient AI that is endlessly self-replicating, it strains credibility that he would put all of his focus on a single half-organic, half-cybernetic body. It also strains credibility that his army of drones would be so... weak and tiny. His AI has the ability to stretch out infinitely as he can colonize computing power for increased numerical superiority. The Avengers themselves should have been thoroughly overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Yet, Ultron puts all of his eggs in the Vision's casket.

Lowry writes that, "there is an audience out there that’s weary of these movies precisely because of the hollow quality to the inevitable final 30 minutes of unrelenting mayhem" and I put myself and many others firmly in that camp. The hollowness of Ultron himself echoes out to the entire film itself. It's as by the numbers, formally speaking, as the worst of its ilk.

A great example of the formal mishandling of this film, then. Unfortunately, I cannot find of a screenshot of the film (and hopefully when the film is officially released for home use, I can remember to come back and delete this part and include the shot) so you'll have to bear with my description.

Natasha Romanoff has been captured by Ultron and is being held in his underground lair. Seemingly hundreds of his drones scramble around building the thrusters for the levitating city trick. Ultron speaks through the prison bars to Natasha in an attempt to scare her. This Ultron's head is crushed by the hand of a bigger Ultron. This scene has a few purposes: to demonstrate the increased stakes of a superior Ultron body; to indicate Ultron's ruthless nature (he would destroy his own body); and to be a "cool" moment, memorable to the audience.

This scene fails on every level it attempts. Firstly, the destruction of his own body is wasteful and nonsensical. The smaller body could still function as a drone, as an even better version than the weak drones Ultron uses. The increased stakes aren't articulated very well as the crew shoots this scene in a nonsensical manner. Ultron is a motion capture CGI creation, but he shares his screen with a real life background. The crew chose a particular lens that puts the background in least amount of focus. Thus, the relation between the figure and the background become distant. The distance of the background creates ambiguity in the size of the figure; with no point of reference, the figure could be any size. In order words, the practical increase of size that Ultron is supposedly demonstrating is nullified by the ambiguous spatial relation between the figure and the background. He's supposed to be bigger but because we have no frame of reference to know how much bigger, the scene fails.

While Whedon might be great with dialogue ("please be a secret door. Yay!") and, most of the time, character, he is not a visual director. The medium of film uses a wide range of artistic tools in order to convey important information, whether that info be affective, metaphorical, plotting, or data. An excellent filmmaker uses all aspects of the medium: editing, sound, composition, dialogue, etc, etc, etc. Whedon is not a filmmaker that uses all of these elements together in a beautiful or affecting manner. Rather, his sense of the visual is muted or even blunted. The failure of the scene of the bigger Ultron is repeated throughout the film.

In one discrete part of the film, Ultron is attempting to abscond with the creche that holds the nascent Vision. The Avengers' goal in this scene is to capture the casket. In order to accomplish this goal, Captain America plans to distract the main body of Ultron through hand-to-hand combat. The scene depicts Cap and Ultron fighting on a train. From a shot-by-shot basis, it's not always entirely clear where Cap is in relation to Ultron, or even where they are on the train itself. The audience is left unmoored from the spatial signifying chain through inept intercutting between Natasha on a motorcycle fighting drones and Cap fighting Ultron on the train. Of course, Ultron escapes (this is the Development part of the film) and Cap is left to stop the barrelling train... which inexplicably comes to a dead-end with a station in between. It's pure nonsense.

It goes on and on as bundles of pixels fly across the screen against other bundles of pixels. None of the specific shots are memorable as composition is not regarded or even considered it seems. Many shots are dizzyingly short, too short for the human eye to consider and evaluate the studium and the punctum. The action scenes fail because the stakes are either nonexistent or unclear. Thanks to the logic of blockbusters, the threat of Ultron can never be established fully. The film is a holding pattern and thus each action beat, each note of each bar, is essentially an empty moment, a rest camouflaged as a note. Each punch is meaningless.

Again, the formulaic structure of the individual film is not the problem. The rote motions of the plot could be exciting or successful if the full spectrum of filmic elements were mobilized. Recall my use of the Rube Goldberg machine. Each element cascades into the next, each moving part affects the next, requires the previous. It's the difference between  the inferior "and then" between moments and the superior "because" between moments. While AOU might use the storytelling principles that other films use, it fails as a whole because nothing matters in the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and nothing matters within the individual film itself. "Cool" moments are strung together in a discrete linear fashion, where each "cool" moment sits unmotivated to affect the next. It's just so boring. If nothing matters, then the audience is given nothing to care about.

I cited F7 up at the beginning of this post. It's, in every way, a better movie than AOU. Not only because James Wan knows how to use more tools from the filmic toolbox, but because the stakes are always crisp and clear. The best scene in the film is the attack on the convoy. In the film, during the Complicating Action stage of the structure (this film slavishly follows the structure just as much as AOU), the ersatz crew is tasked with liberating a hacker from a heavily guarded and heavily armed convoy of trucks. The goal is clearly articulated by exposition. The trucks are moving through a mountain pass that has no intersections and the crew has no way to intercept other than to release cars from the hold of a plane in flight and land them on the road (impossible but always clear). Then, the cars must quickly drive up the road, intercept the convoy, liberate the hacker, all before the convoy reaches a critical spot in the drive and thus the crew would lose that important and solitary window of opportunity.

During the sequence, Wan cuts between five muscle cars on the road, the four or five trucks, and the single personnel carrier in which their quarry is confined. As each part of the plan progresses, the fortunes of the heroes is overturned. Each moment features a complication, each time increasing the stakes as the goal becomes increasingly more difficult to accomplish. One of the muscle cars fires a harpoon into the back of the personnel carrier. The back of the carrier is ripped off. Paul Walker's character, Brian, must jump from his car into the carrier. However, the carrier is armed and fires machine guns at the crew, ie a development and then a complication. Once inside the carrier, Brian's task is not finished as he must release the hacker from the cage using the computer. A development. Then, a complication in the form of Tony Jaa's character Kiet. He seeks to stop Brian; they fight.

Each moment increases the stakes as the complications increased in their complexity. The incredible scene culminates in the carrier on its side going over the edge of a cliff, Brian running across the side of the carrier and jumping off at the last moment onto Letty's car. However, Letty's car did not come from nowhere and raced through its own series of complications including armed trucks with blazing guns.

Wan deftly intercuts between each character's complications and their efforts to overcome the obstacle. Each character is given something clear to do and has a clear throughline. Each complication increases the stakes for each character in a clear manner (such as for example, one of the parachutes not deploying correctly leaving one car to catch up).

It's one of the finest action scenes I've seen in a long time. Consider then, as an alternative, AOU's climactic action scene.

In the city centre, Ultron has set up his big red button. The Avengers invade the city with the goal of stopping Ultron from dropping the city. So far, no problem: clear goals, clear geography: get to the city's centre. As the fight progresses between Ultron's drones and the team, complications occur. One of these complications is that Cap is determined to evacuate all of the civilians no matter what. Another complication is that Wanda is facing a bit of cowardice. None of these complications build in terms of a Rube Goldberg machine. Wanda's cowardice doesn't get overturned into another complication with increased stakes, either narrative or thematic.

At one point, The Vision and Ultron's main body get into a fist fight with Thor sort of on the sidelines. Once the scene comes to its natural end (The Vision punching Ultron away from the machine, giving The Avengers space to control the space around the machine), The Vision is sidelined in terms of screen time. We do not know what happens to The Vision. He and Thor are so overpowered that it makes narrative sense to keep them offscreen; otherwise they would dominate the fight and there would be no tension. Thus, Whedon keeps him offscreen. It makes sense logistically but it's quite disappointing narratively speaking.

The same happens to Hulk. He gets punched and thrown across the city. We don't follow up with him for what seems like ten minutes. What is he doing in that ten to fifteen minutes of diegetic time? It of course doesn't matter. The audience is always unsure of where the Hulk has landed -- this is especially unclear when Black Widow, while fighting drones in the streets, just comes across him. How far was he thrown? How far is the city centre from his point of impact? Who knows? What this demonstrates is that Whedon is unable to juggle all of the elements of the action scene coherently. He is unable to provide clear goals from one scene to the next and he is unable to string those moments together in a meaningful or suspenseful way.

The climax culminates in The Avengers surrounding the machine and holding at bay the endless drones. The camera circles around the team showcasing each one hitting the drones. The credits of the film depicts this moment as a statue. This begs the question: how dynamic can a cinematic action sequence be if you can easily depict it as a static, unmoving, never changing statue?

Action scenes depend on spatial awareness, narrative stakes, and clarity. The Avengers: Age of Ultron is not great at any of these things. It's not even good at setting up the next crisis. In a scene already infamous, during the Developing part of the film, Thor takes off from the team, picks up that scientist from the Thor movies, strips his clothes and takes a bath in a cavern. This submerging provides him with a vision of the future or something blah blah blah. It's stupendously unclear and the scene's purpose is twofold: provide Thor with the necessary information for the creation of The Vision and to set up the vast and terrible threat of Thanos. It is amazingly unclear how the vision (which is of the Infinity Stones) is able to give Thor the information on how to bring The Vision to life. Which he didn't even know about. Because he took off. Ugh.

In other words, the movie is far too busy with incident and yet paradoxically empty with incident. Nothing happens but lots of things happen. It's 140 minutes of discrete moments that do not concatenate to a meaningful experience. And it's not because it's formulaic or because it's a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster (because F7 and MMFR seem to be successful). It's the utter inept manner in which it goes through the motions. Other than Entourage, AOU has been easily the worst film I've seen all year.

I certainly didn't go into AOU expecting to hate it as much as I did. The first one was okay enough. Guardians of the Galaxy and Iron Man 3 and especially Captain America: The Winter Soldier were all decent enough. These movies are good examples of how to just simply be good at the bare minimum. AOU just doesn't. It's awful.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

May Reads

Pandora's Star by Peter F. Hamilton
The Scar by China Mieville
Redemption Ark by Alastair Reynolds
The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
Crash by J. G. Ballard

A lighter month. Sometimes I go through phases where I'm unable to concentrate to read. These phases usually mean, in substitution, a surfeit of comic books, movies, and rarely television (though, my TV watching has all but disappeared; there's nothing on anymore). End of April to the end of May, I watched a bunch of movies and read a bunch of comic books, but I'm not really tracking comics on this blog and for film, I'm reviewing them on Letterboxd (here). I had gotten about halfway through both Pandora's Star and The Scar in April when I simply gave up. Then, about a week ago, I decided to finish them. In other words, I read those 5 novels in about 10 days. Back up to speed, I suppose. 

Peter Hamilton and I have a storied history. I tried reading the first book of the massive Night's Dawn Trilogy way back in 2004, 2005? And promptly gave up after reading only 1/6 of the entire thing. It was just too big. I remember it being a bit silly, too, and I don't think I was prepared for the silliness (not in tone, but in subject matter). I then tried Pandora's Star again around 2008, 2010? and gave up roughly 100 pages into it. Pandora's Star, a 900 page monster, is only half of the story, with Judas Unchained being the concluding 1,000 page monster. I remember exactly where I had left off (though I started from the beginning) and pushed through, trying to remember the scale required for such a story and not to get discouraged from all the setup. This time around, I managed to push through and I finished the remaining 600 pages in about two days. I did like it, enough that I'm going to tackle the concluding volume after taking a break. I liked the scale, the ideas, the momentum. I also enjoyed how the size of Hamilton's canvas meant that the disparate story threads could mimic genre conventions, such as the cop's seemingly discrete arc is a murder mystery. There's also political machinations similar to the shit that Game of Thrones fans seem to fetishize.

For a good chunk of Hamilton's novel, I attempted to understand and articulate a political throughline in the novel. Does Hamilton's vision of the future valorize or condemn a specific political structure? One of the major villains -- if he can be said to be villainous -- works for a anarcho-socialist terrorist group, but when provided a soapbox, Hamilton depicts him with a rather dispassionate eye, letting his argument sound quite convincing. [Anarcho-socialism seemed to have been a theme this month, as we'll see in both Mieville's and Banks' novel.] However, the Confederation, the organizing political party of this future world, seems extravagantly capitalistic, with a small number of ultra-rich families controlling the otherwise democratically elected President. Even still, Hamilton doesn't depict this oligarchy with anything other than the same impassive tone. I wonder, then, if this is the same political incoherence that mars Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises or if this is purposeful, an attempt at objectivity, to show the positive and negative aspects of political structures. If that is the case, then this is not successful, as Hamilton only depicts the anarcho-socialists engaging in terrorism and only depicts the oligarchy as corrupt, distant and disconnected from the everyday reality. There's also a range of planets that have monolithic purpose (a trope of science fiction that drives me nuts) such as an entirely industrial planet consisting of endless factories. This is implied to be a necessary but unfortunate result of the late late stage capitalism the Confederation is built on. So I'm left without a stable ground to stand on, politically speaking, with Pandora's Star. I'm guessing, and I'm probably correct, that the next volume will conclude in some pan-humanity effort to stop the alien invasion, a collective effort that appeals to the human spirit. The alien enemy is a singular mind that controls an infinite army of extensions of itself. It's not a hive-mind (like the Borg), so the age-old trope of rugged individuality triumphing doesn't seem to apply either. These questions, and the chugging train of the plot, kept me quite interested.

I did not care for Hamilton's retrograde gender disparity and extreme whitewashing. Once it was pointed out that science fiction can imagine infinite aliens but can't fathom black people in space, I can't stop noticing. There's a single black person in this novel. In a cast of hundreds. Most of the cast are recognizably English stereotypes (Hamilton's Englishness is a deep deep element of this novel, no matter how hard he tries to avoid it), which is another way of saying it's a very very white novel. His handling of gender and feminism is childlike and retrograde, with women fulfilling a mix of only three types: the bitch, the slut, and the woman with a heart of gold. Every single character is horny all the time and of course sexual dynamos. Women are always looking to fuck their way up the ladder -- corporate, social, or political -- and men are always looking to benefit from this dynamic. It's very tiring. It's emblematic of science fiction at its absolute worst. However, Hamilton's plotting, scale, and fun make up for this, in a way. I haven't read much like this in a long time and it's very fun. I just wish it wasn't so shitty in terms of women or people of colour.

I really loved Perdido Street Station and loved the world that Mieville created. So it was a smidge disappointing that in the sequel (which is only tangentially related to the first), Mieville leaves the city for the sea. The Scar was good, but it didn't quite have the narrative momentum of his first novel. In fact, the awkwardness of The Scar made me think that this was his first novel and not Perdido Street Station. Though, as anybody who knows me well knows that kraken are a beloved subject matter to me. Despite the structural and plotting weaknesses of this novel, the use of the giant sea monster, hinting at it only, filled me with glee. I wasn't particularly disappointed by the whole of the novel by the time I finished it, though I could see why others would. The novel ends in a purposefully anticlimactic fashion and withholds its major secrets for a surprisingly political reason. Mieville is often lauded as one of the few Marxist fantasy writers, uninterested in the common fetishizing of the crown, and The Scar is a perfect demonstration of that. The main cast of the novel are all citizens of a floating armada of ships salvaged and tied together. Political power is focused on a small groups of people who have fully given into the armada's social structure. Nationalism is an integral component of the armada's success, as they increase their population by pirating, kidnapping, and freeing convicts and others low on the social rungs. New citizens are given jobs based on their abilities and given a wage, a purpose, and a freedom. Thus, their longterm residents are fiercely loyal. When two political figures usurp the purpose of the armada for their own gain, the populace and the other political figures react in complex and believable ways: some are resistant, some are on board, some are resistant but participate out of loyalty. The climax of the novel, one that teeters close to outright fantasy and fairy tale, pulls back from that for a people's revolution against the corrupt leadership. Instead of a fireworks climax full of impossible things, Mieville grounds his ending in a change of regime. It's lovely.

The Scar is again full of these wondrous bizarre things such as a community of mosquito people or a dolphin man, or a prostitute with half of her body human and the other half a tank. But this is no freakshow. Mieville's gaze doesn't ogle or linger disturbingly, leeringly; instead he imbues his characters with humanity, feelings, moods. People's reactions change depending on weather, food, their health. It's a sign of good writing to include moods (beyond "horny" *cough Hamilton cough*). Mieville's protagonist is also a rather complex woman with sexuality, feelings, moods, desires, needs. A good section of the first third depicts the protagonist's romantic and sexual entanglement with another character. Instead of a narrative necessity (love interests at all cost), it's an organic result of her loneliness and her attraction. When this entanglement ends, it's because of their mutual loss of interest, not some dramatic plot point. In other words, it's a mature and rather adult perspective on romance and sex -- a refreshing change from science fiction and fantasy's normal adolescent power and sexual fantasies (eg Game of Thrones and its neverending rapes).

Redemption Ark is both an improvement on Revelation Space and a step backward. It's in dire need of an edit; the novel's far too flabby. It's a great 400 page novel buried in a 650 page tub. The forward momentum of the plot was certainly executed well, a nice change from the languid and scattered beginnings of Revelation Space -- save for the last 150 pages of Redemption Ark -- which could almost entirely be cut as Clavain and Ilia's détente was inevitable. Their space battle had no narrative stakes as the result had to end in only one way. The epilogue, the last 50 pages, was brutally sluggish and not very interesting; it would have been better left unsaid and remained a cliffhanger.

I do respect how... unexcited Reynolds is about women and representation. He doesn't portray women in the usual sci fi manner (sexpot who kills!) nor does he overcorrect the course by featuring a STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER, the kind that ravages well-meaning male writers' work. Instead, he simply features women, capable, complex, nuanced, and interesting with the same level of focus that he does with male characters. It's refreshing.

In terms of political structure, I see a distrust of oligarchies and hive-minds, but unlike other science fiction writers, Reynolds is exceedingly bleak, almost nihilistic. No political system seems to last long in his future, and governments are almost always corrupt in the end. I wouldn't say that he's espousing a libertarian system if only because even his individual characters are prone to corruption. Redemption Ark as its title implies is also interested in religion and faith. Numerous times, characters demand evidence of something, but have to take what is presented as faith. As technology seems to rule everything, even more so than currency or markets, scientism seems to be the ruling ideology. Yet, Reynolds' characters are constantly faced with things beyond the scope of evidence, beyond perception, beyond rationality. These characters struggle negotiating these impossibilities with their evidence-based reality. However, I don't think that Reynolds is advocating abandoning scientism in favour of faith-based reasoning. It seems to me that Reynolds is cautioning against absolutisms, a reasonable position to take, I should think. Reynolds' bleak and existential vision of the future is both disheartening and inspiring as the main throughline of the two novels seems to the indomitable spirit of humanity. Despite the crushing emptiness of space and the oppression of the alien enemies, humanity lingers on, thanks to a matrix of technology, faith, and basic humanity.

Ah, Iain M. Banks. We've had a long history, he and I. For almost no specific reason, I've managed to avoid his science fiction. I've read almost all of his "literary" works (a couple novels here and there), but never one of his novels that truly paid his salary (he has said a couple times that the sci fi allowed him the freedom to write the lit stuff). I purchased a box set of the first three Culture novels but it gathered dust for years. I had heard that the first one is a bit of a slog and it's best to come back to it, so I skipped Consider Phlebas and went straight to The Player of Games. My word. I am so fucking glad I read this book. This is a goddamn masterpiece of worldbuilding, plotting, political analysis, and character. I knew I was going to love this novel when I found myself reaching for Post-It notes so I could return to the ideas, the prose, the characters. I haven't loved a sci fi novel this much since Leckie's Ancillary Justice. Not surprising, both that novel and Player of Games explicitly criticize an imperialistic political structure. In Banks' novel, the Culture (an anarcho-socialist almost utopia) sends its greatest player of games (any games) to a barbarous Empire built entirely on a) the successful playing of the only game they play, in which the winner of the game is the Emperor and b) ownership, of anything and anybody. Here is the sentient spaceship that the protagonist travels within to this grotesque world:
'a guilty system recognises no innocents. As with any power apparatus which thinks everybody's either for it or against it, we're against it. You would be too, if you thought about it. The very way you think places you amongst its enemies. This might not be your fault, because every society imposes some of its values on those raised within it, but the point is that some societies try to maximise that effect, and some try to minimise it. You come from one of the latter and you're being asked to explain yourself to one of the former. Prevarication will be more difficult than you might imagine; neutrality is probably impossible. You cannot choose not to have the politics you do; they are not some separate set of entities somehow detachable from the rest of your being; they are a function of your existence.' (page 171)
My italics. This is something I'm constantly moaning about on the Internet: no cultural object is produced in a political, cultural, or social vacuum. No matter how, that culture imprints something upon the work, upon the artist, upon the reader. I found it absolutely invigorating to read a science fiction author who not only acknowledges this fact, but makes it an integral part of their political schema. Instead of blathering on about how much I love the novel, let me conclude with a quote from the sentient drone that shows the protagonist, Gurgeh, how truly barbarous this Empire is:
'That's it,' the drone said. 'I'm sorry if what I've shown you has upset you, Jernau Gurgeh, but I didn't want you to leave here thinking the Empire was just a few venerable game-players, some impressive architecture and a few glorified night-clubs. What you've seen tonight is also what it's about. And there's plenty in between that I can't show you; all the frustrations that affect the poor and the relatively well-off alike, caused simply because they live in a society where one is not free to do as one chooses. There's the journalist who can't write what he knows is the truth, the doctor who can't treat somebody in pain because they're the wrong sex… a million things every day, things that aren't as melodramatic and gross as what I've shown you, but which are still part of it, still some of the effects.
'The ship told you a guilty system recognises no innocents. I'd say it does. It recognises the innocence of a young child, for example, and you saw how they treated that. In a sense it even recognises the sanctity of the body… but only to violate it. Once again, Gurgeh, it all boils down to ownership, possession; about taking and having.'
How nice to read science fiction that is both political and coherent in its politics. It's nice that Banks recognizes that the Culture isn't perfect, but it's vastly preferable to a system built entirely on ownership.

Ballard's novel was great. I think a lot of the objections to the novel are located in the monotony, the repetitions, the flatness. None of these things are accidents; Ballard constructed this novel purposefully and with a genius eye for detail. I can't say I enjoyed reading the novel, but as with most Ballard works, I always appreciate how fucking terrific his comparisons, metaphors, and similes are.

Friday, May 1, 2015

April Reads

The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek
The Crystal World by J. G. Ballard
Expiration Date by Tim Powers
The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer
Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

Notes specific to Missoula
I'm uncomfortable with the mansplaining aspect of this book. Inevitably, I'm uncomfortable that it took a man to publish a major work of journalism about rape through by a major publisher. Especially since Joanna Bourke's history of rape is much better, more academic, more rigorous, and has better prose. If Krakauer is going to mansplain rape, at least he could mobilize some better prose.

In terms of journalism, Krakauer's bias is a flag waving proud. He paints such ruthlessly unflattering portraits of those he considers to be the villains that it strains credibility. Even though I'm intrinsically in agreement with Krakauer's thesis (that institutions share the majority of blame for rape culture), I was taken aback by the ad hominems, the shady character assassination, and careful descriptions -- all of which, he contends, the villains do to provide them their villainous status. Simply reporting the facts might have worked better, to paraphrase one of the members of the jury who criticizes the "theatrics" of the defense attorneys.

I was quite pleased by Krakauer's insistence on tricking his readers into agreeing with fundamental feminist principles by explaining the concepts without using the contentious verbiage of "privilege" or "rape culture" or anything else. For those that read feminist theory, none of the contents of this book are surprising in any way. However, for Krakauer's dudebro fanbase, presumably these concepts are brand new and revelatory.

I predict that constructive and productive criticism (in the cultural studies sense of the word of criticism) will be rare and discourse will be limited when speaking of this book. The subject matter is far too important. Any nuance in regards to the book will be met with swift critique as discourse in the age of the Internet is either preposterously positive or overwhelming and existentially negative. Critics of this book, even if they agree with the central thesis, will encounter resistance because to critique an aspect of the book will be confused with critiquing the thesis. Which is another way to say that the deficiencies of this book will be propagated and replicated in subsequent texts, such as the histrionics of Krakauer's narrator and the childlike wonder that jeez, rape does happen on a huge scale.

I must resist reading negative reviews of the book.

Sports fans continue to be the worst fucking people on the planet, apparently.

This was the second time I tried reading Revelation Space and I'm pleased to report that I had a much better time with Reynolds. I'm not sure what the problem was before. Revelation Space though is not perfect -- far from it: the book suffers from first-novel-itis in that it's a bit too long and overstuffed, and not quite focused enough to hold it all together. The characters are more flat than sheets of paper, which does make for some trying moments when Reynolds tries to deploy pathos -- obviously unsuccessfully. This wasn't enough to stop me from reading the book. I was concerned that, at the level of plot, he wouldn't be able to tie it all together, but in the last 30 pages, or maybe even the last 15, he pulls it off. I was quite impressed -- enough to finish it and look forward to the next instalment.

Elfriede Jelinek's The Piano Teacher might be my favourite novel of 2015 (though it was published in the 80s). It was just so angry and in a good way. To sum up why I liked this novel so much, let me paraphrase Wikipedia's section on Jelinek's themes: she writes about two things: how patriarchy oppresses women and how capitalism oppresses everybody. That's like catnip for me.

Jelinek's novel is just this angry screed about how women are utterly controlled, repressed, and abused by a social system oriented towards men. There's this phenomenal scene in which the main character reminisces about her youth, when a strapping young Aryan god would entertain his circle of friends by forcing women to their knees in front of him. This is of course completely creepy and a symptom of rape culture. It's also terrifying in the sense that this type of behaviour remains common; perhaps it doesn't manifest in the exact same way, but the spirit of the act persists.

The Piano Teacher is also hilarious. Her descriptions of sex acts remains some of the funniest bits on sex I've ever read. Instead of the kind of self-deprecating while simultaneously boasting tone that many American narcissists use (Updike, Roth, Mailer, Franzen, etc), Jelinek satirizes even the sex act, demonstrating that when such an extreme power differential exists, it's degrading for all parties. The very first major sex scene between the two main characters occurs in a dirty bathroom stall, to provide an idea of the tone Jelinek is going for.

The Price of Salt was pulpy, but way better than her Ripley novels which I forced myself through out of a sense of cultural duty. The novel was the April selection for our Queer Bookclub. I seemed to be the only person who liked it, though.

The Crystal World was early Ballard, and I quite liked it. I didn't love it, but I find the more I read Ballard, the more I get the appeal. He's just unlike any other author. In my previous reviews of Ballard novels, I lamented the lack of characterization, but I was missing the point. I lamented the plot, but I was missing the point. Ballard is writer of ideas and defamiliarization, not of tidy stories and relatable characters.

Expiration Date was my second Tim Powers, and I think I was unduly harsh on my first reading of him. I'm thinking of writing an essay on non-Tolkien fantasy, so I'll hold off from saying much more than I liked Expiration Date. It wasn't as bananas as I had been hoping for, but it was still better fantasy than most schlock I've contemplated reading (*cough* GRRM *cough*)

Thoughts on Neal Stephenson's new novel Seveneves which I abandoned around page 300 (and thus haven't included in the list of read books):

I knew I was going to hate this novel around page 270 when Mr Stephenson, technocrat extraordinaire, decided to spend a page complaining about modern gender theory and "academic leftists" who were wasting time and energy. I had already been put off by the jingoistic libertarian nonsense promulgated through a lot of science fiction and given centre stage in this novel, but this anti-humanities screed was the last straw. It's not just that it's intellectually lazy (it is, though, full of strawmen) or that it's politically objectionable (Stephenson has his heart in the right place). The problem is that it's a propos of nothing. The questionable section is added not as characterization but as polemic. Life is too short for lazy strawmen in fiction.

If you thought the gun-fetish heavy Reamde was Stephenson's worst, don't bother reading this. This novel is even more execrable and contains none of the wit or charm of earlier Stephenson. His prose flops around -- short, declarative sentences that even children could read. There is none of Stephenson's artfulness, none of his ability to defamiliarize the recognizable into beautiful metaphors and similes (such as when he describes, in Quicksilver, I believe, the stream of urine as the arc of a comet). As a fan of Stephenson, I'm wholly disappointed to have trudged through this dreck, hoping for some sort of revelation that this book was worth it. Alas, there is none.

The plot of the novel, such as it is, is a poor man's Kim Stanley Robinson. You'd be better served to read Red Mars; at least the politics are more complex and nuanced than "government is BAD, you guys!"

I keep thinking I'll return to Seveneves but I just can't muster the enthusiasm. I remember quite liking Reamde but fuck there's no accounting for taste, is there? 

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Emperor Waltz

If you were to do a Google search for the words, "relatable characters, you'd get millions of results. A good chunk of which would be guides, tips and tricks, and instructions for writing. Here is the first page of results when I searched the words today:


You'll have to click to make it bigger. Suffice it to say that relatable characters, it seems, is a desirable trait. Let's click on the second link (that's what I did, randomly, I suppose) and pull out some relevant quotes that I think will illustrate something particularly intriguing about contemporary fiction. Here is the introduction to the page, "Creating Believable, Relatable Characters: Character Development 101":
Everywhere you turn, you see people telling you to develop your characters. And they’re absolutely right. Character development is essential to the success of any narrative. Static and flat characters, whose personality, goals and motives remain superficial and unchanged throughout the story, often don’t allow the reader to fully connect, understand and support them.

In order to have characters whom your characters can relate to and root for, you need to create characters with depth, characters who develop throughout the story. There are so many ways of making your characters more relatable and believable.
I find this as fascinating as I find it tiresome. The salient idea to be gleaned from this article -- and countless others -- is that the success or failure of a story hinges on whether or not your audience is able to see at least a part of themselves reflected in the characters. The title of the article really says it all for me, I should think, specifically the word, "believable."


Here we see the familiar villainous head of realism rear its head, the scourge of literary fiction, that which lays waste to feats of imagination. A narrative must be believable, with believable characters, in order to be successful. Of course, what "successful" here means isn't necessarily artistic success but economic success as well. Apparently, the audience, monolith that it is, demands believability. Here's a hilariously relevant paragraph from the third result of that page:
No matter what kind of character you are making, whether it is a witch, vampire, or werewolf, they must be relatable to your audience. Readers like to read about characters that go through similar situations and feel emotions! In fact, you should try to make your characters as human-like as possible so your readers can both connect with and befriend them.
I can only presume that the second sentence is missing the word "similar" between "feel" and "emotions." Your audience likes things to be relatable, believable, accessible. There shouldn't be any barrier between the reader and the character's emotions. The reader should be able to apprehend how the character is feeling, either through relatability, in the sense that the character is familiar enough that the emotion can be correctly guessed by the reader, or through the narrator's intervention ("he said with a grimace"). In order words, the labour of affect should be performed by the text, rather than the reader. Feelings should be conveyed to the reader without too much work on the reader's part. Characters should be accessible, approachable, real enough that the reader is able to discern how they are feeling. The dominance of accessibility is part of the ascendancy of realism. Realistic characters go hand-in-hand with realistic scenarios. Even if those scenarios stretch immediate possibilities, the limits should still be apprehended and understood. I'm thinking here, specifically, of realism's infiltration of science fiction and fantasy. Gone are the days of the unknowable, the unfathomable, the sheer impossibility of things. Not anymore. Now we have realism that must "engage" the audience, must allow the audience to see themselves in the fiction, as if fiction must perform the same function as a comforting blanket. Here's a quote from a blogger:
Here's some honesty for you: The number one factor that determines whether or not I like a book is if I like the book's protagonist. If I can't relate to a story's protagonist, or if I really disagree with her choices, or if I just flat out don't like her character, it's hard for me to enjoy the rest of the story.
This is a unsurprisingly common reaction on sites like Goodreads. The actions and choices of the character should be correct... in the view of the reader. Be careful not to imagine that the blogger and her ilk mean that choices should be true to the character but that the choices themselves are correct. The story, regardless of its symbolism, setting, atmosphere, thematic depth, intended and unintended meaning, it all lives and dies according to whether the audience can relate to the character. Unrelatable characters, and to a lesser extent, unlikable characters, have the power to dismantle the artifice, to shatter the reader's suspension of disbelief, and thus remind the reader that realism is an illusion like any other -- a frightening and undesirable revelation. The relatability of the characters indicates the sheer paucity of imaginative labour performed by the reader. Instead of asking the reader to go beyond themselves, to imagine beyond what they were previously capable of, contemporary fiction rewards those that see themselves in characters. How much imagination is really required to envision another version of one's self?


Relatability is not evil. I would hope to avoid giving the impression that I believe all fiction should be alienating or abstruse. Impenetrability has its place, just as relatability does as well. There should be a spectrum, a beautiful oscillation as the text's form and content merits. The problem is when one dominates over the other so completely as to obliterate all other possibilities. Some texts are able to balance the two ends; I'm thinking of David Foster Wallace as a prime example, who uses complexity and verbosity to interrogate realism. I'm also thinking of J. G. Ballard, who uses scenarios and characters drawn from possibility in order to explore the furthest reaches of the human psyche. Another example, relevant to this post, is Philip Hensher and his new novel The Emperor's Waltz.

2014's The Emperor Waltz takes a lot of inspiration from "hypertext" writers such as David Mitchell, Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, etc in the sense that this novel is actually two novellas and three short stories, but intercut with each other. The two novellas, the main narratives, focus on, respectively, a young artist attending the Bauhaus in 1922 and a young man opening up London's first gay bookshop in the 1970s.


The other three stories range from the "Last Month" to the early years of Christianity. Superficially, what seems to tie these disparate and definitely discrete narratives is the song, "Kaiser-Walzer" by Johann Strauss II, composed in 1889. The song pops up in various ways, none of which are particularly revelatory or -- thankfully -- obvious ways. Instead, the main thematic thrust of the novel appears to be the different ways in which classes are persecuted, maligned, and misunderstood.

In the 1922 sections, hyperinflation during the Weimar Republic, the reader's awareness of the coming Third Reich darkens every encounter with Jewish folks. Hensher plays his hand a little too forcefully when, without specificity, he refers to men wearing brown shirts with a distinct logo on the arm. Regardless, Jewish folks in this small town are blamed for various tribulations such as the hyperinflation, the striking workers, and other problems. The Jews are persecuted simply for being of a certain culture and faith.

Likewise, the bookshop narrative features anecdotes and incidents of gay men being persecuted for their sexual orientation. The bookshop's front window is smashed many times; the police harass the employees and attempt to elicit a bribe to avoid more harassment, essentially a protection racket; schoolboys in the street shout hateful things as AIDS arrives in full force.

In the smaller stories that pop up in between the larger sections, Hensher examines the matrydom of a future saint, persecuted for her faith in the Christian god while Roman society merely asks for lip-service. In a more metafictional gambit, Hensher details the infection of his toe and subsequent hospitalization. He spends his time in bed reading and listening to songs on his iPad (one of which is -- predictably, "Kaiser-Walzer"). The hospital, Hensher snootily observes, is a space constructed for those outside of his social and artistic class. He is surrounded by the poor, the ill, the uncouth, a contrast he highlights with his dropping of famous names that visit him during his stay and his taste for classical music. He contrasts his own supple elegant prose with the vulgar and offensive mutterings of fellow patients. It's all very arrogant, but the limit of interiority effectively limits the reader's engagement with Hensher as a character. Despite a first person narrator, the reader is kept at arm's length about not only the themes (what is the point of this detour?) but also Hensher's own affect. We are effectively denied the opportunity to relate to Hensher (not very many of us are famous authors).

This pattern of affective denial is repeated throughout the novel, at almost every level. Going against the tsunami-like trend of interiority, Hensher distances the reader from the characters. We are rarely given intimate access to the interior lives of his characters. This is especially noticeable during the gay bookshop narrative. Characters are introduced quickly and ruthlessly, with very little prose given to their physical characteristics, or even their personalities. Instead, the characters, especially the secondary cast, simply act of functional. They perform symbolic and semiotic functions to further the themes or plot. It's not as alienating as say, Beckett's fiction -- which was intent on alienation, but it's certainly not as welcoming as realism would prefer.

For example, a character named Paul features heavily in the establishment of the bookshop, but he is quickly dispatched by the pen of the author. The main cast attends his funeral, but the reader is left unmoored in a sea of names without familiar or relatable attributes. The funeral is not affecting because Paul was never developed beyond a symbolic function (the persecution of those who refuse to align with the majority rule). Paul doesn't need to be developed; he performs his function; he is eliminated when no longer useful. Or rather, it is in his absence as a relatable character does he perform the most symbolic labour.

We are treated to a seemingly endless cavalcade of friends and customers of the bookshop, but rarely are we treated to a glimpse inside their heads. The same can be said of the two main characters: Duncan, the owner of the shop; and Arthur, the bookshop's first and only employee (up until his abrupt departure after the bookshop has become mainstream). We understand Duncan and Arthur's motivations and goals because they state them rather explicitly; however we are rarely allowed a moment with their inner lives to contemplate the why of their decisions. The why I believe Hensher finds irrelevant. The text is interested in patterns and motifs of persecution and community.

During the Bauhaus sequence, we observe Christopher, the young artist, fall in love with a stern and organized young woman. He pursues her relentlessly until she succumbs the practical possibilities afforded by marriage. When the narrative jumps forward 5 years, hyperinflation is slowly being solved but Christopher loathes his shrew of a wife. He feels persecuted, simply for being an unsuccessful artist and an uneven teacher of art. The reader is left to guess at what happens in the intervening years, affectively speaking. Christopher, in free indirect speech, relates that he no longer feels welcome at home, but this is not interiority, this is not intimate access to the character.


In Germany, Hensher stops in at various people, giving us moments with them at labour, at socializing, at play, but none of the characters emerge out of the symbolic to become real. The reader meets Paul Klee, and we learn that he enjoys practical jokes. The reader meets a group of students who drink excessively and pontificate ponderously on politics at high volume. We learn nothing of them. Instead, they all perform functions, symbolic functions to advance the text's interest in interrogating the various forms that zealotry takes.

The situations are real. They are based on actual events, for the most part. One could argue, effectively, that The Emperor Waltz is fully engaged in realism as any other novel. But this admission implies that realism is a binary, a dilemma, as opposed to the beautiful oscillation that art should be. The text provides situations that easily apprehended and understood: the opening of a gay bookshop, the persecution of Jewish folks, the struggles of a young married man to feed his family in an economic recession. However, Hensher repeatedly and obstinately refuses the interiority that definitively marks realism as a literary mode in the current era. This could go a long way to describe the thudding silence that greeted the novel at its publication (beyond some polite and reserved reviews in the UK). Characters must be relatable, accessible, believable. Realism is the dominant mode. It must be satiated.

In order to wrap my head around this, I need to theorize further on the dominance of relatability and realism. In her article, "Intimacy and the New Sentimental Order," Bernadette Bawin-Legros mobilizes Anthony Giddens's idea that "the influence of traditional sources of authority and of social bounds has increasingly receded in favour of an endless and obsessive preoccuption with personal identity" (241). The subject of her paper, romantic love, "is not only a matter of imagination but holds the promise of a potential experience" (241). In other words, narratives of romance, realistic narratives, are aspirational as well as key components in the construction of the self. This highly individualistic reality is coined "the new sentimental order" which "now rests more upon an individualistic withdrawal into self and a fundamental and newly redefined distinction between private and public sphere rather than upon tradition" (242). In Western society, this should sound familiar, as the cult of the rights of the individual has taken control of government and policy. The rise of the libertarian as a legitimate political position coincides perfectly with the advent of the new sentimental order.

Likewise, Bawin-Legros writes that, "intimacy has become the principal indicator of the quality of interpersonal connections and the core of love relations" which is to say the deeper the intimacy, the deeper the connection (242). Again, this is familiar thanks to the promise of literary realism which promises "more interiority." Bawin-Legros continues on, writing that "love no longer necessarily requires a serious dimension implied by duration but appeals to the imaginary dimension linked to the constituent continuity of self" (246). The construction of self is linked to the deepness of the intimacy rather than the length of intimacy.

In the era of late capitalism, when individual choice is paramount, choices need to be made frequently and routinely. In order to give substance to these choices, the quality of the relationship is judged rather than the duration. That quality is judged by the level of access to the interiority. "In postmodern love, only individualization matters. Lovers today want both fusion and individualization in the unity and autonomy of the person," Bawin-Legros writes (247).

In her article, "The Precariousness of Choice in the New Sentimental Order: A Response to Bawin-Legros," Mary Holmes continues to expand on Giddens' definition of the new sentimental order. She writes that Giddens believes "that romantic love has now been replaced by confluent love, which focuses on a special relationship rather than a special person" (251). Holmes confirms and concurs with the statistical data Bawin-Legros offers and adds complementary data that suggests during this new sentimental order, "gender roles might be becoming retraditionalized" (252) despite the supremacy of individual choice. She writes that, "gendered divisions of labour combined with continued disapproval of ‘selfish’ women militate against any easy road to self-fulfilment for women " (252). In other words, this ascendancy of individual choice has both positive and negative possibilities.

I would like to suggest that this sociological theorizing does indeed align with the supremacy of realism and relatability. Like the prioritizing of the relationship over the other individual, the affective connection between text and reader is prized over any specific element of the text. The increase of intimacy between text and reader is facilitated by realism's promise of increased interiority. Realism, then, is aspirational, in that, by increasing the level of access to the characters and text, the reader can construct the self from intimate relationships. Thanks to the new sentimental order, relatability has become the de facto coin of the realm of realism.

Considering that Hensher's novel is interested in constructions of community and groups, this fetishizing of individualism holds little sway in The Emperor Waltz. The text seeks to interrogate the dynamics of groups; the individual is a necessity in order to differentiate the members of the group; the individual is not prioritized in the interest of groups. The realism of the situation is a necessary evil in order to poke and prod at communities. Hensher's novel isn't about realism or individuals; it's about the power of community, the power of a public. Likewise, as a gay text, The Emperor Waltz taps into the concept of a public and a counterpublic, as developed by Michael Warner. The individual seeks to construct an identity not out of a rigid preoccupation with individualism, but with a participation in a subculture, the formation of a counterpublic. As Warner writes in his important essay, “Counterpublics are, by definition, formed by their conflict with the norms and contexts of their cultural environment, and this context of domination inevitably entails distortion." It is in this distortion between mass publics and counterpublics that The Emperor Waltz finds its community of zealots, whether good or bad. Individuals get power from the participation and inclusion within a public -- and without a counterpublic -- or vice versa. It is their involvement in the group that creates the group. Thus, The Emperor Waltz doesn't need to be concerned with individuals. Believable, accessible, relatable characters aren't necessary.

It's beautiful to read a novel that understands realism doesn't need to be used wholecloth. A great artist knows how to assemble and mobilize the various strands. A great artist is a magpie, not a parrot.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

2014's Film Favourites

Year-end lists are both awful and necessary at the time. Such lists allow people to become aware of cultural objects they might have missed, a strong possibility in an age of never-ending cultural production. There is just too damn much out there, and year-end lists aggregate cultural objects worthy of consumption. Perhaps this critic over here saw a film that’s worth seeing, but it wasn’t released wide enough for other critics to have had a chance to see it. Perhaps this critic over there champions a film less liked, but is able to articulate why this film deserves a wider appreciation. Year-end lists have their uses. They are imminently subjective, a personal statement, a manifesto of sorts from the critic: “these are the artistic objects I believe in.” Implicitly, the year-end lists are all very aspirational; readers of the list seek out new cultural objects to consume, in order to stay relevant or topical.

On the other hand, year-end lists are awful. For many consumers, the year-end list replaces the necessary hunt, the sheer fun and mystery of discovering things that perhaps nobody else has (or at least, no critic you follow). Since there is so much out there to consume, and people are extremely busy (work, family, etc), it makes perfect sense that consumers would outsource the labour of searching. Why go through all that work, especially when the point of cultural objects, the status quo says, is to distract you from work? Thus, year-end lists functions as consumer substitute, replacing the search function with an easy to digest list (ie the Internet’s favourite mode of article). Additionally, year-end lists are, by nature of their form, reductive. Film criticism should be a dialogue between object and critic; it should be more than a simple recommendation. Year-end lists strip the critic’s nuanced thoughts and feelings and reduce the dialogue to a simple yes or no. Or even worse, a ranking, as if cultural objects can be switched around in a system of equivalences. Scores and rankings should have no place in film criticism, and yet, year-end lists are the common publication; every critic does them.

I wish I could avoid writing a year-end list, but the logic of film criticism compels me, the logic of the Internet compels me. Also, I'm lazy.

My three favourite films in 2014, the first three I've listed here, used the affect of anxiety to great effect. While most movies use the rise and fall of tension -- as in tension only exists in the release of it -- these three films made me feel anxious throughout the running time. There's a subtle but important distinction between anxiety and tension. I'm glad 2014 was able to make me feel so at unease in the theatre.

Whiplash. Dir. Damien Chazelle. Right of Way Films, 2014. Film.

I'm confused that people read this film as some sort of inspirational sports movie, in which hyperbolically manic work can achieve some sort of greatness. The Chicago Reader published a woefully misguided reading of the film in which the writer argues that Whiplash celebrates the final sequence. I couldn't disagree more. For me, the only way to read the ending is to see it as mutually assured destruction of both of their artistic and professional careers. It's resolutely nihilistic in its climax.

In addition to the aforementioned feeling of anxiety, I was impressed by this film as a film. This couldn't have been anything other than film, which is kind of rare for most movies. Lots of other cultural objects can switch media without too much fuss, but Whiplash mobilizes the forces of editing, sound, performance, composition, and time to great effect.

J. K. Simmons' supporting performance was quite good, in that showy, actorly way. I've never been one for actors; famous performances have often left me cold. This could be due to my ignorance of the craft (I would never claim there isn't skill and craft involved in acting) but it might be more indifference in relation to the other technical aspects of film.

An anecdote from my viewing of Whiplash. During the sequence in which Miles Teller's drummer is first witnessing J. K. Simmons' ruthless coaching style, Simmons' character uses homophobic language to elicit reactions from his band. The scene has multiple functions: introduce Simmons' villainous behaviour, demonstrate the dynamic between band and conductor, and show how Teller's skills are woefully inadequate in the conductor's eyes. Most importantly, we the audience are shown that Simmons' style is outdated, offensive, and dangerous. In the logic of the scene, Simmons is not to be sympathized with. Yet, during this scene, each time Simmons said something homophobic, three young men in the theatre laughed. They tittered over his use of "pussy," they giggled when he asked if someone was going to cry. These weren't chuckles borne from an uncomfortable experience; they were laughing with Simmons. How astonishing. Though, perhaps this anecdote shows in the microcosm how easily people have misread the movie.

I had to remember to breathe during this movie. This wasn't tension in the sense that there would be relief. This wasn't suspense, in the sense that my expectation of the next move in the plot was suspended. This was pure anxiety. Rarely have I felt so uncomfortable in a movie theatre. I applaud the film for its ability to show me how to feel rather than demand.

Nightcrawler. Dir. Dan Gilroy. Open Road Films, 2014. Film.

Yes, Gyllenhaal's performance is top-notch, but for me the film's superior status is due more to the absolutely perfect car chase at the end of the film. Rarely have I seen a car chase so utterly lean, tense, and geographically clear. It's a masterclass in editing and blocking.

I'm also a big fan of the sequence in which he films the interior of the massacre in the mansion. It's a very anxious scene, despite its lack of clear action.

A friend commented that perhaps the film would have benefited from more of Bill Paxton's character, or more obstacles for the protagonist. I think if these had been included, the conventionality of the plot would have suffocated the leanness of the film, the crispness of Gyllenhaal's protagonist.

As with most movies, though, I didn't think this was perfect. Due to my education on editing at the feet of Steven Soderbergh, I imagined where I would easily trim 10 to 15 minutes of superfluous shots that have little or no narrative consequence. But I blame Soderbergh for making me think of editing in this way.

The Babadook. Dir. Jennifer Kent. Smoking Gun Productions, 2014. Film.

The third act is obviously less interesting than the rest of the film, but that's really the case with horror movies. What makes this movie stand out is the first half, a riveting and anxiety-inducing portrait of an impatient mother and an annoying child. Kudos to both actors for their full bodied performances. If you were on the fence about having children, see this movie; it'll convince you that procreation isn't necessarily life-fulfilling.

The Lego Movie. Dir. Chris Miller, Phil Lord. Warner Bros, 2014. Film.

Surprisingly adept at complex thought and thematic depth. I refuse to couch my admiration for this movie in cynical film critic snobbery disguised as disclaimer; this is a good film, regardless of its position as advertisement for toys. It's emotionally astute and thematically nuanced. How many films in 2014 can boast the same?

I saw this film once in my home city, in a theatre crowded with children choking with laughter, and then a second time in Albuquerque, NM. in an almost empty multiplex. The American theatre was a strange experience: there were 4 different commercials reminding me to turn off my phone and keep quiet during the film. 4 different prompts. Are Americans that terrible with film etiquette that they need redundant reminders?

Force Majeure. Dir. Ruben Östlund. Film i Väst, 2014. Film.

The funniest drama I saw all year. It's dark comedy not in the Coen brothers sense in which bad people do bad things but dark in the sense that these people are pathetic and deserve our pity for their awful behaviour. I'm still on the fence about the very final sequence on the bus, though I'm willing to admit that perhaps it is because I don't quite understand it. Why is the bus driver so reckless? Why is everybody else so passive?

Part of what I enjoyed about Force Majeure is the ambiguity of it all, especially the final ski day. At work, I asked those that had seen it if they thought the husband and wife colluded to reinstate the husband as patriarchal power in front of the children or if they thought only the wife was behind the subterfuge. There is no answer, of course, because if there had been an answer it would have been given to us. Ambiguity is something modern filmgoers (read: Americans) have real difficulty with. For example, see how people vociferously debate the final shot of Christopher Nolan's Inception. Over at Criticwire, Sam Adams writes of this trend:
the... tendency of... essays to treat their subjects less as a work of art than a puzzle to be solved. This kind of superficial sophistry used to be the domain of renegade nutters like the ones depicted in Rodney Ascher's "Room 237," but online communities -- Usenet groups, message boards, and now Reddit -- have provided fertile soil in which these theories flourish. Shows like "Lost" and "How I Met Your Mother" have played into and encouraged the phenomenon, sometimes at the expense of, or at least as a substitute for, the more substantial exploration of character and theme.
He later writes that, "[i]t's not only counter-productive but tone-deaf, a way of scrutinizing the subject without actually engaging it." In other words, this replaces the critical dialogue with the superficial joys of narrative. There's nothing inherently wrong with enjoying only narrative, but it's problematic when it's the only thing people enjoy about cultural objects.

David Bordwell (my current favourite film critic) writes of Room 237 that there is a danger in going too far down the rabbit hole to interpret. He writes that critics "tend to look for how something got into the film rather than what it’s doing in the film." I extrapolate from Bordwel: critical dialogue that guesses the filmmakers' intent has become de rigueur.

However, Bordwell softens his approach by ending on an optimistic note, appealing to the history of "puzzle movies." He writes:
the implication being that puzzle movies are inferior forms of cinema. Yet I don’t see a good reason to scorn them. Assuming that films often solicit our cognitive capacities, I don’t see why artists shouldn’t ask us to exercise them. Cinema takes many shapes, and one critic’s puzzle (“Rosebud,” “Keyser Söze”) is another critic’s mystery.
I'd like to think that Bordwell, as in much of his work, is arguing for a more well-rounded approach to film. Just as he expends academic energy working with critically lauded films that are "high art," he also appreciates and studies "low art" such as Mission: Impossible 3. The film should ignite the critic's affective and cognitive powers in interpretation.

Unfortunately, it seems that the current paradigm of online film fan criticism consists of brute force solutions applied to films that aren't even puzzles in the first place. Nolan, a filmmaker I have such mixed feelings about nowadays, "cautions, audiences shouldn’t approach his movies like puzzles to be solved. 'What I’ve found with my movies is, people who sit back and relax and try to enjoy them as a ride, they understand and enjoy them much more'" (here). This statement from Nolan is worth unpacking, but that's another discussion for another day. Ambiguity in film seems utterly verboten, according to fans. They must crush any ambiguity with theories, endless theories. Every culture website I visit seems to have the same story: "New Games of Thrones trailer confirms/denies/implies a major fan theory!" Who the fuck cares about fan's theories? Endless speculation about the future of the property is part and parcel of the logic of blockbusters (of which I've written about a lot). We're trained to only look forward, that the object we want exists just out of our grasp. This tight logic refuses ambiguity. The object must remain the object in order for it to be the object of our desires.

Perhaps this is why I've grown so attached to Force Majeure. It is a film that rewards and defies expectations of convention. It uses ambiguity, not just narrative ambiguity, but moral and tonal ambiguity in order to tell its tale. Are we meant to laugh at them? Are we meant to pity them? Both?

The Guest. Dir. Adam Wingard. Hanway Films, 2014. Film.

From the John Carpenter typeface (Albertus, hello!) to the climax set in a hall of mirrors, The Guest is a film about its influences, rather than about its subject matter. So rarely has pastiche been done so well. The strobing synth soundtrack recalls Refn's Drive while the climactic shoot-out is heavily indebted to De Palma's chiaroscuro setpieces. Everything is colourful and fun to look at, while Wingard keeps action clear and focused. It's genre done extremely efficiently.

I've written before about the pleasures of genre (here, here, and most relevant, here) and The Guest mobilizes a lot of what makes the fulfilment of genre so satisfying. Watching the beginning of The Guest, we are introduced to a number of details that prime us, that identify the genre of the film and thus the expected conventions. These expectations might be thwarted, temporarily. When the expectations are fulfilled, we are satisfied. To borrow from music, this is the appoggiatura, the dissonant note that makes the return to the melody all the sweeter.

The Guest operates within its genre not in a reactionary way, but a loving way. Jonathan McCalmont writes about genre that:
Genre is like a long-suffering parent. Endlessly forgiving and endlessly patient, it responds to its children’s professions of hatred with an affectionate pat on the head and a mug of hot chocolate to calm them down. You can scream, “I hate you! I wish you were dead!” at genre till you are blue in the face and genre will still be there when you need your next film financing or a convention circuit for your book tour. There is nothing heroic or original in transgressing genre because that is precisely what it is there for. So perhaps we should look upon genre not as some cartoon tyrant that artists can easily defeat but rather as a part of what makes up a work of fiction no different to language or lighting or pace.
Here, McCalmont is writing about a film mobilizing the conventions of the art-house drama to great effect. With The Guest, the conventions are being used to replicate an 1970s, 1980s lean tight thriller. Instead of childishly transgressing the genre boundaries, petulantly, Wingard and his crew lovingly dedicate themselves to the effort. When we are introduced to the premise of the film, we know one of two things: either Dan Stevens' character is lying or there has been a switch in identities. Wingard doesn't waste time prolonging the reveal; after the first act of the film, Dan Stevens is revealed to be exactly what the audience expected him to be: insane. We are then treated to wondering if there will be an additional twist, as modern genre films such as this have taught audiences to question everything up until the end. The proliferation of twist upon twist upon twist is tiring, The Guest seems to say. The film does what it says on the tin: a lean, taut thriller that wastes little time. There's the teen that suspects but her parents won't understand, there's the mom that falls for the stranger despite evidence to the contrary. At no point does any of these conventions feel exhausted. Rather, there's a glee in every frame: "can you believe we get to do this thing for a living?" The same sense of fun permeated You're Next, though The Guest is a quantum leap in quality, both in staging, framing, pacing, and colour.

Everybody knows nowadays that films are orange and teal. Every major Hollywood film seems to have the same colour palette. It's especially noticeable the higher the budget. Michael Bay's Transformers films are the most obvious examples to point to, but most Hollywood films traffic in this palette. Either that or a drab grey. Over at Cracked (ugh I can't believe I'm linking to Cracked), Dan Seitz writes of the orange and teal paradigm:
here in the era of easy digital color correction, they've taken this so far that you get that ridiculous two-color system, where every room is bathed in blue and every human looks like he has a bad spray-on douche-tan.

To be fair, it's not necessarily laziness per se. Your average colorist has to grade about two hours of movie, frame by frame sometimes, in the space of a couple of weeks. It doesn't take that many glances at the deadline bearing down on the calendar before you throw up your hands and say, "Fuck it. Everybody likes teal and orange!"
The theory is that most actors fall in the range of orange and the complementary colour for orange on the colour wheel is blue. Putting the complementary colours together creates contrast. Contrast has a visual pop that catches the eye. Unfortunately, when all movies fall within this drab trap of orange and teal, this contrast loses its pop quickly. The Guest, thankfully, has a nice bright colour palette. It's fun to look at. There are oranges, red, pinks, purples, blues, greens, from subtle to neon. Colour has its own syntax within film. Here, The Guest provides a well rounded palette. I suppose part of my infatuation with this film is just the sheer variety of the palette. I'm so starved of rich lush colours that I'm willing to grasp any film that gives me more.

Starry Eyes. Dir. Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer. Dark Sky Films, 2014.

A combination of body-horror films and Satanic cult horror movies, Starry Eyes does a hell of a lot with a tiny budget. The lead performance is revelatory, and the inevitable third act bloodletting is actually interesting to watch and thematically apropos -- as opposed to the vast majority of horror's third act which is to abandon tension for spectacle. Starry Eyes should be commended for its restraint without being a sleepy slow-burner that goes nowhere (I'm looking at you, Ti West).

In conversation with a friend (the same one as in the convo about Nightcrawler), we discussed the inability of horror films to sustain tension in the third act. Very few horror films really land the ending. They often sputter, flailing about in gore and sound as a replacement to the scares so carefully laboured over in the first two acts. Slasher films are excellent examples of this inability to maintain suspense or fear. Last year at Halloween, I saw, for the first time, Prom Night from 1980. I enjoyed the sequences of stalking despite the fact that they're clumsier versions of what Carpenter did so well in Halloween (1978). However, I grew restless during the climax, which seemed to be a disco dance sequence. Unless the filmmakers wanted to draw a parallel between the choreography of dance and the staging of murder sequences, in which case, the film is a masterpiece. Though, this is highly doubtful. Instead, Prom Night squanders any tension or suspense by having the killer get hit on the head by the protagonist. It's anticlimactic and thematically empty. There's no parallelism in regards to the opening sequence (the best part of the movie) in which a child falls to her death (I mean the best part in the sense it's well made, not in the sense that a child dies). This is why I found the ending to Starry Eyes to be so enjoyable; the climax comes organically from the decisions made by and actions of the protagonist. Instead of a Grand Guignol spectacle of blood and gore, the filmmakers keep the tension by confounding our expectations. It's a small thing, but it makes a huge difference.

Part of what draws me back to Starry Eyes is the little bits tucked away in the corners. Often, I'm attracted to films that fill in their world and make it either believable or memorable (a great example would be Shane West and his use of henchmen). Starry Eyes does some interesting stuff with the protagonist's friends that doesn't detract from the momentum of the plot, but fills in the world a bit more with life. These details are a subtle but important element horror writers should remember.

Honourable Mentions:

Honeymoon. Dir. Leigh Janiak. Fewlas Entertainment, 2014. Film.

I liked this movie, but I didn't love it. It is badly in need of a trim, and the cinematography is pretty lacklustre considering the possibilities of digital film and the location. However, the two performances are stellar and the screenplay's commitment to the premise is laudable. The film relies on the rather scary premise that you don't really know your loved ones and that you never will. It's an intriguing idea that is really followed through. The filmmakers cleverly use parallelism in the form of another couple to suggest the darker aspects of marriage. As someone who was just legally married (back in August), I found the material quite compelling. I'm also a huge fan of the exceedingly nihilistic ending.

Other films I saw in 2014 that I have thoughts on:

Birdman. Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu. New Regency Pictures, 2014. Film.

In his book 10/40/70: Constraint as Liberation in the Era of Digital Film Theory, Nicholas Rombes writes:
that the choreographed unfolding of reality in digital long-take films such as Time Code, Russian Ark, and Ten is considered a stunt or an experiment only serves to show how deeply montage and rapid editing have become the dominant visual grammar of our lives.
Rombes could have easily added Birdman to this list without thinking twice. It seems part of the film's critical success is due to the gimmick (2014 seemed a year of film gimmicks) which is that Iñárritu chose to shoot it in as few shots as possible. Supposedly, this is a moment where form meets content considering the film is about the staging of a play. Yet, people fell all over themselves to congratulate the filmmakers for their boldness in using long-takes. "The staging is complicated," they say, "and thus must be praised!" Too bad the rest of the film isn't quite as virtuoso as its camera movements. The film within these long-takes is an experiment with tedium and pablum. Birdman panders to the Hollywood elite by giving them a movie about art or whatever lets them feel less guilty for churning out countless blockbusters in a ruthless attempt at profit. Birdman lets them feel as if art is still possible in the current paradigm. Sure, why not.

The long-takes are an extension of this pandering; the "stunt" is bold and resolutely contrarian when compared to the fast cuts and montage editing of blockbusters. Still, as Rombes astutely points out, it's utterly intriguing that we consider long-takes to be stunts. Later in the introduction to 10/40/70, Rombes talks about how the long-take is far more subversive than the hegemonic fast style. He writes:
In what might be the supreme irony, it turns out that the re-emergence of realism in the cinema can be traced directly to a technological form that seems to represent a final break with the real. For doesn't the digital -- in its very process of capturing reality -- break with the old photographic process upon which classical cinema was built? Doesn't the digital remove us even deeper from the real world?
He opens up this possibility only to close it by referring to our lives as the ultimate long-take, interrupted only by blinks (cuts) and sleep (fade-out). The long-take is closer to reality, Rombes argues because it strips film of the illusion of artifice. It's an attempt to use the artifice of the stunt in order to dive further into the real. The technological possibilities of digital film have allowed for longer takes (bigger hard drives) that take the viewer "deeper into natural time."

Though, perhaps Birdman doesn't fit entirely within Rombes' schema due to the fact that Birdman takes place over 7 days but has a running time of an hour and a half. Bordwell writes of Birdman that the film:
plays it straight. Like a normal movie, it uses sound bridges and night-to-day transitions to skip over stretches of story time. The film is a clear-cut example of the difference between story time (the years of Riggan’s career and the others’ lives), plot time (six days), and screen time (about 110 minutes).
Emphasis mine. If you follow the link, you'll be entertained with shot-by-shot breakdowns about how utterly formulaic and conventional this movie truly is. All of the recognizable stylistics of conventional editing are contained within this film. It's Hollywood ego-stroking masquerading as avant garde, or edgy, or bold filmmaking.

I'm reminded of Jean Baudrillard. In the book, Why Hasn't Everything Already Disappeared? he writes of the disappearance of the human in a technologically oriented future present. The best example, he believes, is the digital photograph replacing the analogue. He writes:
the photograph that has become digital, being liberated at a single stroke from both the negative and the real world. And the consequences of both these things are incalculable, though on different scales, of course. This marks the end of a singular presence for the object, since it may now be digitally constructed. And the end of the singular moment of the photographic act, since the image can now be immediately erased or reconstructed. And the end of the irrefutable testimony of the negative. Both the time-lag and distance disappear at the same time, and with them that blank between object and image that was the negative. The traditional photograph is an image produced by the world, which, thanks to the medium of film, still involves a dimension of representation. The digital image is an image that comes straight out of the screen and becomes submerged in the mass of all the other images from screens. (37)
Digital film, no matter the style, has taken the form of ones and zeroes. There is no variety in content as the medium of delivery is the exact same, he argues. Differences in imagery is superficial and cosmetic; no matter what, the image is made up of ones and zeroes. All images are made of ones and zeroes and thus all images are the same, lost in an ocean of similar ones and zeroes. Soon, he writes, everything will be a "single continuous flow, a single integrated circuit"  (40). If only Baudrillard had seen Birdman, he could have written about the monotony and sameness of the film, thanks to the long-take, the single continuous flow.

All this postmodern theorizing makes it sound like I hated the film; I didn't. I just felt this immense apathy for it, an holistic apathy that transcended any affect on the spectrum of like or dislike. I feel a tremendous exhaustion in regards to this film and movies like this. I suppose this is why I've been slowly teaching myself film studies, in an attempt to learn how to watch movies. Perhaps, like literature, I've reached my limit for sameness, for the crumbling ruins of realism.

Interstellar. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Syncopy, 2014. Film.

As with many things I'm deeply excited about, I quickly lose patience when I see little to no development or improvement. I love Doctor Who but I'm slowly losing patience with the monotony of it. Nothing has changed and nothing will change. It's tiresome. The same can be said of Christopher Nolan. My appreciation for Nolan has had a precipitous drop recently thanks to rewatching The Dark Knight Rises and seeing Interstellar in the theatres. I really disliked Interstellar. A lot.

Nolan just does not have the directing skills to maintain the level of sentimentality this film hinges on. His skills reside more in setting up complicated sequences. Notice I did not write "executing" those complicated sequences. Interstellar throws in absolute stark relief the fact that Nolan is unable or unwilling to use establishing shots to determine the geography of scenes. His depiction of space (ironically in a film about space) is worrisome and inept. At no point are the dimensions of the spaceship clear.

Also tiresome is Nolan's reliance on exposition. Characters aren't characters, but rather vehicles for dumping poorly articulated information in the audience's laps. This is problematic in a film that hinges entirely on the power of love to transcend time and space. How are we supposed to care about these characters and their journey when Nolan seems unable to sketch them as human, with desires, traits, beliefs? It's a sad state of affairs when the robot in the film is more human than the humans.

Nolan spends so much time (169 fucking minutes) setting up a closed time travel loop that's obvious from the first ten minutes of the movie. Instead of putting in all this effort about black holes and spaceships and whatnot, all this noise, constant noise, he might have spent some time refining the characters and shaping them, or showing me why they love each other or why Coop would decide to leave his family five minutes after learning about this suicide mission. Ugh.

I can't write any more about this movie. I hated it.