Sunday, December 30, 2007

Notes on Galileo

I came across this information in a book my father lent to me, From Five Fingers to Infinity by Frank J. Swetz, and I thought I'd pass it on. I hope it's as interesting to you as it was to me.

The Roman Catholic Church’s historic condemnation of Galileo and his theory of a heliocentric, Copernican cosmology are often used as a symbol – and as a rallying cry for the “free-thinking” literati and scientist – of Christian anti-intellectualism and of Christianity’s reluctance to accept, and its antagonism towards, scientific inquiry. Christians, they say, are mired in a state of blind and refusing faith, a faith that is unwilling to see reason and that is unable to accept fact. Christians are small-minded, irrational, superstitious and seditious of free mental activity; they want to suppress any idea that may contradict of confuse their dogma; anyone who disagrees with this evaluation needs only to look at the case of Galileo to see that it is true.

As a Christian apologist, and as someone very much invested in the idea of free intellectual pursuit, the case of Galileo has always been a point of embarrassment for me as, I’d imagine, it has been for many other thinking Christians. Of course, it’s quite possible to avoid the whole issue, or at least to try to avoid it, by shifting the blame from Christianity at large to Catholicism in particular or to any organized and centralized religion in general; but rather than solving the problem this merely moves it, creates other problems, and ultimately creates greater points of schism in the universal church itself. Shifting blame amounts only to finger pointing and that gets us nowhere. Besides, it’s insincere. Evangelical America is hardly more open-minded than the Roman Catholic Church and if we were to condemn one brand of Christianity as anti-intellectual we would need to condemn them all.

However, as it is with all matters deeply entrenched in either dogma or ideology, the controversy surrounding Galileo’s confrontation with the Church has been related in history by the authority of biased pens, by authors guided by love for their own agendas, many of which are all too pleased to subvert religious belief of any kind by any means. Recently I read a portion of a very interesting book called From Five Fingers to Infinity, in which can be read a very interesting discussion of Galileo and the Church. The Church, it seems, did not take issue with Galileo’s science or even with the fact that his science seemed to contradict certain aspects of interpreted Scripture; rather they took issue with the fact that, despite the vehemence of his conviction, Galileo failed provide sufficient enough proof of his conclusions. Now, in our day, Galileo has the benefit of having since been proven right (about some things; certainly not about all that he proposed); then, however, when new cosmologies battled old ones for cultural ascendancy, he himself failed to convince. He simply did not have the scientific proof to convince anyone but those already convinced.

So what’s the point I’m trying to make? Perhaps rather than having a point this is more a note to myself; perhaps I’m simply using my blog as a commonplace book and I’m jotting down a piece of information that interests me. As an apologist, and as someone committed to free thought, however, I’m very much concerned about the manipulation of information, with the ways in which what actually happened differs from how we relate what happened; I’m especially concerned when that manipulation is designed to dirty and smear my faith. I am not an unthinking man and yet I am a man of faith. To many this is a contradiction; but it seems to me that the deliberate misrepresentation of an historical fact to further an agenda is also a contradiction, one entirely less justifiable. If Galileo indeed could not prove his theories to a great enough degree of satisfaction, than it is far less troublesome that the Church attempted to suppress him; the fact that Galileo happened to be right, right in spite of his proof and not because of it, cannot be taken as evidence of the Church’s “fear” of science. The controversy surrounding Galileo is not that the Church, faced with the indisputable evidence of a scientific fact, attempted to silence the voice of reason; this did not happen; the controversy is that the whole episode has been taken as evidence against something that does not exist. The Church did not and does not fear science; ironically, in demanding that the evidence by incontrovertible, the Church was holding Galileo to a higher degree of empirical rationalism than he could deliver.

For a more detailed discussion on Galileo’s confrontation with the Church, read From Five Fingers to Infinity, by Frank J. Swetz (pages 444-47).

Friday, December 21, 2007

Review :: Sweeney Todd

I haven't seen the musical. I have no intentions of ever seeing the musical. I watched Sweeney Todd as a movie and that's how I am going to approach it in this review.

I can never really get a handle on how I feel about Tim Burton. I actually like many of his films, especially Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas (which, yes I know, he technically did not direct) and Sleepy Hollow. At the same time, however, while I really like what he has done, I'm often struck by the suspicion that, rather than being a visionary or an auteur, Burton is actually an artist mired in a state of creative limbo; I fear that he cannot escape the over-produced gothic pretensions for which he is known. Big Fish, easily his best film to date, succeeded so well because it managed to force those pretensions into the service of a story that truly used them instead of simply relying wholly upon them. With Big Fish, Burton seemed to transcend himself and really grow as an artist. But he last two films, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the miserable Corpse Bride, both felt disingenuous and like awkward attempts to create a trademark "Burton" film. I had hoped that Big Fish signaled a maturation in Burton's work; but then I feared that it were merely an interesting digression in an otherwise stalling career. So I entered Sweeney Todd with mixed feelings, hoping for an enjoyable Burton film and fearing that I might get exactly that.

While Sweeney Todd did little to assuage my fears about Burton's inability to transcend his own style, it did demonstrate once again that, when used correctly, the Burton style can still create enjoyable, if somewhat vacuous, films. Based on the Broadway musical, and very much a musical itself, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is the story of, as you'd expect, Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp), a barber-turned-serial-killer out for blood and vengeance against the London judge (Alan Rickman) who violently separated Todd from his wife and who sent him away to prison under false charges. Upon returning to London years later, Todd meets Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who tells him of his wife's death and of his daughter's adoption by the same judge who sent Todd away. Mrs. Lovett becomes his partner in crime and together they ghoulishly slaughter unsuspecting victims, whose only crime was wanting a good shave, and they then... well, they then cook them and serve them in Mrs. Lovett's meat pie shop.

The biggest problem with Sweeney Todd is that it doesn't really work as a movie. Perhaps it works better as a musical, I'm not sure. But while the performances are generally solid, especially Depp's, the characters are really very, well, obvious. They are exactly what they seem to be, each and everyone one of them. There is never any question that Todd will begin slitting throats; Rickman's Judge Turpin is simply as cruel and depraved as you think he is; the young sailer Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) is the virtuous lovestruck young man; etc, etc. And while each character is essentially a cartoon of itself, we are never really given a reason to believe in any of them. Todd is a murderous monster and yet he is never justified or explained. He just is. Why he begins killing people at random, people who have neither done anything to him nor who facilitate his revenge, is a mystery, especially since, as we see in a long song/montage in which he cuts many, many throats, he doesn't seem to be enjoying himself but rather simply going through the motions of murder. Why Mrs. Lovett, who is at least as monstrous as Todd, wants to help him is an even bigger mystery. I'm not familiar with the language of the stage but in the language of film this type of omission is just sloppy and rather obnoxious. If you want your main characters to kill and cook people you should at least go out of your way to earn it. What the film actually feels like is a the retelling of a legend that the audience is already familiar with and simply accepts without argument or hesitation. Unfortunately, the story of Sweeney Todd is neither well-known nor interesting enough to warrant this kind of treatment.

That being said, there is enough in Sweeney Todd to enjoy that I'd still recommend it. Those Burton pretensions really pay off in the production department. While I still wish he'd outgrow them, his gothic sensibilities really work well here, much like they did in Sleepy Hollow. London has never before looked this dirty and this disgusting which, of course, means that it looks beautiful on film; Mrs. Lovett's over-sized oven and meat grinder are hilarious and appropriately terrifying; and the blood, which flows liberally in this solidly 18A-rated film, is garishly red and thick. The movie actually meanders a bit and gets distracted by a b-plot about two young lovers that isn't really all that interesting. But once the blood starts flowing, and flow it does, the movie regains its focus and becomes rather macabrely enjoyable as we all get to see what we wanted to see coming into the film: Johnny Depp slitting throats. Speaking of Depp, he is once again quite entertaining. Depp has lately managed to make a career out of playing quirky/cartoonish characters, something I'm not sure I like. Just look at the three-movie fiasco that is Pirates of the Caribbean. While I'm still not convinced that Depp is a great actor, I am convinced that under the right conditions he can really perform and those conditions seem to be right when Burton is around.

Of course, the big question going into the film not whether Depp can act but whether he can sing. For the most part, Depp (and everyone else in the film for that matter, except for maybe Carter) is able to pull off the songs. He's not Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge! and he seems to be able to only sing one style but he gets the job done. However, the big problem turns out to be not the actors but to be the songs themselves. Most of the movie is sung and about halfway through you start to suspect that the lines are simply being sung for the sake of singing them. There is nothing truly remarkable or memorable about any of the songs and I walked out of the theater unable to remember the melody of any of them, a major failing when it comes to a musical.

Ultimately, Sweeney Todd is a mixed bag. The combination of the light-hearted musical atmosphere and the slasher-style blood splatters, not to mention the cannibalism that our antiheroes foist on the unsuspecting London populace, creates a strange and almost schizophrenic feel, a juxtaposition which I suppose is intended to be part of the story's charm but which really didn't work for me. It ultimately feels like something was missing, some bit of social or political commentary, some shred of poetry that could tie the whole thing together and explain why Todd and Lovett resorted to such extreme measures. And yet, even with all these criticisms of it, I'd still recommend Sweeney Todd. It's ghoulish and fun... if you don't think about it too much. And hey, any movie in which you get to see Sacha Baron Cohen's throat slit can't be all bad, right?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Atlas Shrugged (excerpt)

(I've lately been reading Atlas Shrugged in my spare time. It's an enormous novel and much of it is philosophical discourse. It's wildly didactic and I'm constantly wary of it's claims. And yet, their is a power and a majesty to it that comes from absolute sincerity. I may not agree with her, but I can't not hear Ayn Rand's voice, shouting through these pages with prophetic intensity. Regardless of it's particular ideology, it is a keen and acerbic look into human nature and it is fascinating. There are certain novels which, when you read them, you find that they perfectly articulate many of your own unarticulated and only hinted at thoughts. This is one of the novels for me. This except is a crucial scene between Henry Rearden, one of America's leading and most persecuted industrialist, and Francisco d'Anconia, a supposed playboy and a philosopher of the highest order and a man trying to save Rearden's soul. Enjoy.)

"You take pride in setting no limit to your endurance, Mr. Rearden, because you think that you are doing right. What if you aren't? What if you're placing your virtue in the service of evil and letting it become a tool for the destruction of everything you love, respect and admire? Why don't you uphold your own code of values among men as you do among iron smelters? You who won't allow once per cent of impurity into an alloy of metal - what have you allowed into your moral code?"

Rearden sat very still; the words in his mind were like the beat of steps down the trail he had been seeking: the words were the sanction of the victim.

"You, who would not submit to the hardships of nature, but set out to conquer it and placed it in the service of your joy and your comfort - to what have you submitted at the hands of men? You, who know from your work that one bears punishment only for being wrong - what have you been willing to bear and for what reason? All your life, you have heard yourself denounced, not for your faults, but for your greatest virtues. You have been hated, not for your mistakes, but for your achievements. You have been scorned for all those qualities of character which are your highest pride. You have been called selfish for the courage of acting on your own judgment and bearing sole responsibility for your own life. You have been called arrogant for your independent mind. You have been called cruel for your unyielding integrity. You have been called antisocial for the vision that made you venture upon undiscovered roads. You have been called ruthless for the strength and self-discipline of your drive to your purpose. You have been called greedy for the magnificence of your power to create wealth. You, who've expanded an inconceivable flow of energy, have been called a parasite. You, who've created abundance where there had been nothing but wastelands and helpless, starving men before you, have been called a robber. You, who've kept them all alive, have been called an exploiter. You, the purest and more moral man among them, have been sneered at as a 'vulgar materialist.' Have you stopped to ask them: by what right? - by what code? - by what standard? No, you have borne it all and kept silent. You bowed to their code and you never upheld your own. You knew what exacting morality was needed to produce a single metal nail, but you let them brand you as immoral. You knew that man needs the strictest code of values to deal with nature, but you left the deadliest weapon in the hands of your enemies, a weapon you never suspected or understood. Their moral code is their weapon. Ask yourself what it is that a code of moral values does to a man's life, and why he can't exist without it, and what happens to him if he accepts the wrong standard, by which the evil is the good. Shall I tell you why you're drawn to me, even though you think you ought to damn me? It's because I'm the first man who has given you what the whole world owes you and what you should have demanded of all men before you dealt with them: a moral sanction."

Rearden whirled to him, then remained still, with a stillness like a gasp. Francisco leaned forward, as if he were reaching the landing of a dangerous flight; and his eyes were steady, but their glance seemed to tremble with intensity.

"You're guilty of a great sin, Mr. Rearden, much guiltier than they tell you, but not in the way they preach. The worst guilt is to accept an undeserved guilt - and that is what you have been doing all your life. You have been paying blackmail, not for your vices, but for your virtues. You have been willing to carry the load of an unearned punishment - and to let it grow heavier the greater the virtues you practiced. But your virtues were those which keep men alive. Your own moral code - the one you lived by, but never stated, acknowledged or defended - was the code that preserves man's existence. If you were punished for it, what was the nature of those who punished you? Yours was the code of life. What, then, is theirs? What standard of values lies at its root? What is its ultimate purpose? Do you think that what you're facing is merely a conspiracy to seize your wealth? You, who know the source of wealth, should know it's much more and much worse than that. Did you ask me to name man's motive power? Man's motive power is his moral code. Ask yourself where their code is leading you and what it offers you as your final goal. A viler evil than to murder a man, is to sell him suicide as an act of virtue. A viler evil than to throw a man into a sacrificial furnace, is to demand that he leap in, of his own will, and that be build the furnace, besides. By their own statement, it is they who need you and have nothing to offer you in return. By their own statement, you must support them because they cannot survive without you. Consider the obscenity of offering their impotence and their need - their need of you - as a justification for your torture. Are you willing to accept it? Do you care to purchase - at the price of your great endurance, at the price of your agony - the satisfaction of the needs of your own destroyers?"


"Mr. Rearden," said Francisco, his voice solemnly calm, "if you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down on his shoulders - what would you tell him to do?"

"I... don't know. What... could he do? What would you tell him?"

"To shrug."

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York, NY: Signet, 2007. 420-22.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Postmodernity and Literature

In the last couple weeks, a debate of sorts has been taking place in the university newspaper I write for, The Sheaf. Doug Goldie fearlessly and ignorantly attacked the study of classic literature, saying that the mores and sensibilities of Homer and his Iliad were so outmoded and so detached from our postmodern way of life as to be pointless. What value, he asked, can there be in a document that contains such fierce violence, such prejudiced hierarchy, and such obviously chauvinistic views of women? The article both angered and depressed me, filling me a sense of creeping dread. Thankfully, however, it also sparked an outcry and in the following issue an article by Brennan Richardson appeared, denouncing and rebuking Goldie for his short-sighted and narrow article.

While postmodernity may not be all bad, as I sometimes think, it certainly is not all good and Goldie's article contained many of the alarming symptoms of postmodernity that frighten me, symptoms which threaten not only to destroy our sense of greatness and worth but also to unhinge our society and kick it loose from its foundations. The past, its accomplishments, its failures and its literature - especially its literature! - is the foundation of our minds. Whether we like what our heritage offers to us or not, whether we agree with it philosophically or morally, our heritage must be acknowledged; if we ignore it or, worse, alter it to fit our own preferences, we lie to ourselves, we deceive ourselves and the truth will never be found within us. We may stand on the mountain's top but we do so only because there is a mountain standing below us which we did not make. If we step off the mountain, we fall and we die.

In Milton's great poem Paradise Lost, Satan, filled with hate and arrogance, boldly declares to the angel Abdiel,

"That we were formed then, say'st thou? And the work
Of secondary hands, by task transferred
From Father to his Son? Strange point and new!
Doctrine which we would know whence learnt. Who saw
When this creation was? Remember'st thou
Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now;
Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised
By our own quickening power, when fatal course
Had circled his full orb, the birth mature
Of this our native heav'n, ethereal sons." (Paradise Lost, V.853-863)

Milton was not familiar with postmodernity but was nevertheless familiar with its impulse, its desire to cut itself off from its own creation, to cut off the very branch upon which it sits. We are not self-made, as Milton's Satan claimed of himself; we are not of "birth mature." We are who we are and what we are because of a long history of human success and failure. In Paradise Lost, Satan, because of his deliberate refusal to acknowledge his own debt of creation, to acknowledge that he is dependent on something outside himself, was confronted with the vengeance of a justifiably wrathful God; the sight of that flaming chariot was so horrible and so revelatory that, instead of engaging it in impossible battle, he instantly leaped into the horror of chaos and eventually landed in hell. It may seem like too outrageous an analogy, but it seems to me that postmodern man runs the risk of facing a similar sort of judgment when he rejects or ignores that which created him, be it a God, an empire or simply a heritage. The past is immovable; it remains; it guides us, shapes us and, when we ignore it, punishes us.

The great literature of the past is the record of human accomplishment; it is our document of lineage; the proof that we can create great things, that we as a species can rise above the mud and accomplish more than merely war and death. I don't care that The Iliad hurt Doug Goldie's feelings. The Iliad has survived and been revered for thousands of years. It is, quite frankly, more important than Doug Goldie and his narrow opinions. If you cannot gain insight into the human condition from the man Matthew Arnold called "the clearest-souled of men," the fault is not with Homer but with you. The problem with classic literature is not that it contradicts what we'd like to think; the problem is that not enough of us are listening to what it has to say.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Review :: Beowulf

Postmodern man is a like a child who, when confronted with the laws of his parents, breaks down in a weeping, screaming fit of rage, howling at the injustice of not being allowed to do what he pleases. The child is ignorant and impudent and cannot respect either authority of tradition. A story is told for hundreds of years but when postmodern man, this child, hears the story he feels he must change it, make it look more like himself. He tells himself he is "updating" the story, making it more "relevant" to his own situation, but he is lying to himself. He is polluting the story, changing its essential meaning; he is forcing it to please him; he does not want to be offended by what it says.

I am not judging the film as a film at this point. If it were only a film, and if it were not adapted from a canonical text, I would probably have enjoyed it. It is inventive and really quite breathtaking display of graphical prowess. But it calls itself Beowulf and I am judging it as an artifact, as a symptom, of postmodernity, as a display of what is wrong with out current modes of thought. We don't believe in pure heroes anymore; instead of reaching up to them, we pull them down to our level.

That is all I have to say. I loathed Beowulf for no other reason than that it is not Beowulf. Change the name, make a new story, say whatever you would like to say, but do not tell me this is Beowulf. This film is a mockery of that heroic poem. It creates ambiguity where none exists; it takes heroism of the highest order and smears mud all over it; it rejects greatness in favour of a flawed character. This is not Beowulf.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Werner Herzog

There are some artists who, when you are finally made aware of them, completely take over your imagination. They restructure everything about your experience of a medium, whether it is a newly discovered poet renovating your experience of poetry or a newly found painter revolutionizing your experience of canvas. In the world of film, I've had this experience three times now. The first time, three years ago, was when I devoured the films of Stanley Kubrick. For months, he took over my mind and I found my experience of film constantly evolving. Then it happened again two years ago when I finally discovered the brightest star in cinema, Akira Kurosawa. The experience was almost sublime and for months the images of Seven Samurai haunted me like no film has ever done before. Now, I find that it is happening again. It is not happening on as revolutionary a scale as with Kubrick or Kurosawa (there are only so many times your understanding of something can be destroyed and remade, after all), but it is happening in subtle ways that I appreciate just as much. I have discovered the films of Werner Herzog and I have fallen in love all over again.

I have now watched five of Herzog's films: Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, Woyzeck, Fitzcarraldo, and his most recent film Rescue Dawn. All of them have been exercises in madness and nature, in reaching the limits of human endurance and sanity, and all of them have gently shaped my expectations for what film can do. For so long I have lived and breathed in a cinematic world of stylization, from the pure bravado and exhilaration of Sergio Leone's West to the hallucinations and nightmare of David Lynch's human interior and to the mutation and evolution of the human mind and body in David Cronenberg's world of medical horror. And I have enjoyed these worlds completely. The fantastic and the stylized throws reality into glaring relief; we understand the shape of humanity by charting its outer limits, tracing it's boundaries and by occasionally stepping out further than ordinary human experience demands. Herzog does this too but from an entirely different vantage point, one from which artifice itself nearly disappears and we are left only with the human, naked and exposed, the subject of intense and unblinking scrutiny.
Anyone who has seen a Herzog film has probably, or at the least should have been, struck by his documentarian sensibility. It would be a lie to say that artifice disappears in a Herzog film but it would not be a lie to say that he often manages to make us forget about the artifice, forget that we are looking at something essentially unreal. He gives us images so tactile, so visceral and grueling, so candid and almost voyeuristic, that we are tempted to believe he has stolen away into the jungle with only a camera and managed to capture an event as it unfolds before him. There are moments when this documentary style is almost distracting, as when the camera lingers on little accidents or unscripted events, which ironically draw attention to the artifice of the film exactly by highlighting its lack of cinematic polish, but these moments are rare and forgivable, if one even notices them. While the rigor and clarity of vision of a Stanley Kubrick produces some of the greatest and strongest works of cinema, Herzog's steady and unflinching gaze penetrates deeper into the tissues of humanity and nature and makes us feel like we are watching ourselves, watching a real human drama full of obsessions and madness.

And the world of Herzog is a world of madness, of men stretched to the limits of experience either by insanity or obsession. These are the extremes, these are the myths of man that define us. Here on the edge, here in the jungle, here on the very brink of murder, here is where Herzog defines the human. Herzog's examination of humanity can be startlingly bleak, as in the haunting Aguirre, and it can also be triumphant even in the midst of despair, as in Fitzcarraldo or Rescue Dawn. The human spirit has a great capacity for insanity, it seems, but only because it has a great capacity for strength and power. The films of Werner Herzog explore these two extremes, both of which he suggests are often far more closely related than we'd like to think or admit.

Once a revolution has occurred, it is almost impossible to return to the way things used to be. After Kubrick, I saw movies differently. I had experienced the medium's true potential in the hand's of a true artist. I feel the same way, now, with Herzog.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Election

Today it's election day in Saskatchewan. I thought of this.

"There is no end to suffering, Glaucon, for our cities, and none, I suspect, for the human race, unless either philosophers becomes kings in our cities, or the people who are now called kings and rulers become real, true philosophers - unless there is this amalgamation of political power and philosophy, with all those people whose inclination is to pursue one or other exclusively being forcibly prevented from doing so."

Plato, The Republic. Translated by Tom Griffith. Cambridge University Press, 2004. 175.

Review :: The Darjeeling Limited

The first Wes Anderson movie I saw was The Royal Tenenbaums and it was on a lazy weekend while I was working at a summer camp. Another counselor and I went into the nearby town to buy pizza and rent some movies. I had recently heard about Anderson and was interested; I remember her being interested in it only because she thought it was another Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson comedy. It is not just another comedy and I think our different reactions to the movie are rather typical of responses to Anderson in general: I fell completely and immediately in love with the film's quirky and loving attention to nuance and minutia while she was simply bewildered by it and probably indifferent to the film as a whole. I don't think she hated it; she just didn't get it.

There is a tendency for some critics and fans to snobbishly say to a film's detractors, "you don't get it," as if this declaration somehow demonstrated a film's value or, worse, as if they, the fans, were somehow privy to secret knowledge about the film which everyone else missed because they are simply not as intelligent. I have often wondered whether I sound like this. The truth is, however, that some people "get" Anderson and others do not. But it's not a matter of esoteric gnostic insight or even about being smarter than the average bear; it's simply a matter of sensibility. Anderson is not the most insightful or mysterious of directors; his stories are not really all that more intelligent than any other well-made and serious comedy or drama. But it is his visual style, his lavish attention to detail and minutia, and his quirky and almost excruciatingly deadpan sense of humour, which set him apart. You either like that or you do not.

The Darjeeling Limited is the story of three estranged brothers, Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrian Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman), who have not seen each other since their father's funeral over a year ago. Each of the brother's lives are imploding in various ways and so, convinced and slightly duped by Francis, the eldest of the three, they decide to make a "spiritual journey" across India on a train, the Darjeeling Limited.

The story is not complicated and I don't suppose it needs to be. The journey metaphor has been seen many times before and we are all familiar with its tropes and idioms. Anderson is not reinventing the wheel. What is interesting about this story, however, and what separates it from most other road or journey movies, is how little actually happens on this journey. They don't meet a wide variety of odd characters; they are the odd ones. At the end of their journey, they don't find anything - no wizard behind the curtain, no Kurtz in his jungle; they find themselves. The brothers, Francis especially, are deliberately attempting to prompt some sort of religious experience; they've scheduled their enlightenment and reconciliation on the itinerary. And yet, even though they tell themselves they have noble motives, they are consistently petty and thoughtless, self-indulgent and more often than not they exploit their exotic surroundings in a typically Western and material manner. They visit temples and spend more time buying shoes than saying prayers. It is only when they are finally forced off the itinerary and confront the humanity of the people around them that they discover something profound and ultimately unarticulated about themselves.

Of course, all the regular criticisms of Anderson could still be said of The Darjeeling Limited. The film appears pretentious and arrogant and seems to be filled with an inflated sense of self-importance. I think it is. And I think it probably deserves to be. Anderson has achieved something that most filmmakers rarely do: the creation of a completely idiosyncratic and convincing style. He inhabits every frame of this film. He is complete control and he never falters in his execution. Nearly every frame is densely packed with details, each one of which contributes to a deeper and more satisfying understanding of the characters. However, the one criticism that I do think holds water, a few drops anyway, is that Anderson is sometimes a bit too heavy-handed in his execution. Some of his metaphors seem too obvious. Most of the time this fits in nicely with the film's themes, as when Francis, who is looking too hard for an authentic experience and probably measuring his life according to the familiar conventions of a journey metaphor, receives a flash of insight when their train becomes "lost." Other times, though, this heavy-handedness seems unnecessary, as if Anderson could have achieved the same thing without actually having his characters articulate it.

Yet while it sometimes feels like Anderson is hitting you over the head, it at other times feeling like he is a master of the ambiguous and the unspoken, as in the brilliantly executed short film Hotel Chevalier, a companion piece of sorts to The Darjeeling Limited. Anderson can be subtle; sometimes he chooses to be obvious. In either mode, he's crafting brilliant and enjoyable films. The Darjeeling Limited doesn't replace The Royal Tenenbaums as my favourite of his films but it does once again validate my opinion of him as an artist. The Darjeeling Limited demonstrates that after five feature length films, Wes Anderson is not loosing steam and remains an important and brilliant director.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Heart of Darkness (excerpt #2)

"I directed my glass to the house. There were no signs of life, but there were the ruined roof, the long mud wall peeping above the grass, with three little square window-holes no two of the same size, all this brought within reach of my hand, as it were. And then I made a brusque movement and one of the remaining posts of that vanished fence leaped up in the field of my glass. You remember I told you I have been struck at the distance by certain attempts at ornamentation, rather remarkable in the ruinous aspect of the place. Now I had suddenly a nearer view and its first result was to make me throw my head back as if before a blow. Then I went carefully from post to post with my glass, and I saw my mistake. These round knobs were not ornamentation but symbolic; they were expressive and puzzling, striking and disturbing - food for thought and also for vultures if there had been any looking down from the sky; but at all events for such ants as were industrious enough to ascend the pole. They would have been even more impressive, those heads on stakes, if their faces had not been turned to the house. Only one, the first I had made out, was facing my way. I was not so shocked as you may think. The start back I had given was really nothing but a movement of surprise. I had expected to see a knob of wood there, you know. I returned deliberately to the first I had seen - and there it was black, dried, sunken, with closed eyes - a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, and with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth, was smiling too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber.

"I am not disclosing any trade secrets. In fact the Manager said afterwards the Mr. Kurtz's methods had ruined the district. I have no opinion on that point, but I want you clearly to understand that there was nothing exactly profitable in these heads being there. They only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him - some small matter which when the pressing need arose could not be found under his magnificent eloquence. Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can't say. I think the knowledge came to him at last - only at the very last. But the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude - and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. it echoed loudly within him because he was hollow to the core... I put down the glass, and the head that had appeared near enough to be spoke to seemed at once to have leaped away from me into inaccessible distance."

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006. 55-6.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Human Animal

The novels I've been reading lately - William Golding's Lord of the Flies, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and now Ayn Rand's massive Atlas Shrugged - and even the television I have been watching lately, such as the new season of Dexter, all force a confrontation, messy and painful as it usually is, with a the ugly and true nature of humanity; and they all ask this questions, What does it mean to be human? How are we authentically human? Does morality, either innate within us or imposed from without us by society or tradition or religion, make us more or less human?

Several hundred years ago, the answers to these questions would be nearly laughably obvious. Man is an animal, depraved from all goodness; he can, however, aspire to greater thing and, through moral and religious training, become more human and more heavenly; as the prophetic Milton wrote, humanity could be be "by gradual scale sublimed, / To vital spirits aspire... improved by tract of time, and winged ascend / Ethereal" (Paradise Lost, V.483-4... 498-9). Man was the missing link - not some hypothetical stage in an overblown cosmological conceit, but the very real connection of earth and heaven, a combination of matter and spirit that could either ascend the Great Chain into the presence of God or wallow in the dirt, mired forever in animal impulses. Man lived in two worlds and it was up to him to decide which one he preferred.

Today, of course, we are disillusioned with such notions; we reject the possibility of an objective standard of morality, that is to say, of righteousness, and we insist, through our myths, our science and our theories, that man is only an animal, the purposeless product of chance and aimless design. But this insistence brings us no comfort. Since Darwin, humanity has struggled to come to terms with our own unflattering ideas about ourselves and this struggle, this conflict of myth and ideology, is reflected in our literature and our entertainment. We do not know who we are. We do not know how to live with each other. Society collapses in the face of nature. We kill the pig and exterminate all the brutes and become savages - not the politically incorrect savages of Western imperialism, but the savage human beings feared by Milton and other Renaissance thinkers - the base, material animals of wasted and fallen humanity. We've broken the link, severed Man from his higher nature and forfeited heaven, the proper inheritance of Man.

I know that a return to a Christian mythos is an impossible proposition and one that is ugly to many people, at least in today's political and ideological milieu. But we as a society have replaced the elevating Christian ideals with an ideological of self-deprecation, an ideology that makes us loathe ourselves and which promotes savagery instead of inspiring greater humanity. An ideology that does not give us an identity but forces us to constantly ask, Who am I and what does it mean to be human? Until we stop telling ourselves that we are merely advanced animals, until we regain a greater sense of what it means to be moral and free-choosing creatures, until we see that we are more than an collection of material instincts, and until we turn our eyes away from the dirt and up once again to the heavens, we will not build a better world, we will not see the end of war, we will not even live in happy families, we will not even be satisfied with who or what we are. We are greater than we think we are. We just need to learn how to be so again.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Heart of Darkness (excerpt)

I've been reading Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness these last couple days. It's a terrifying novel. I've read it before, but its potency is just as sharp today as the first time I read it. Like Lord of the Flies, Heart of Darkness tears long, jagged strips off the flesh of human society and fills these bleeding gaps with terrifying images of what, as Marlowe reminds us, is all too bleakly human. I'm not sure there is any hope to be found in this novel, but its terror is grand and apocalyptic nonetheless. Enjoy.

"The moon had spread over everything a thin layer of silver - over the rank grass, over the mud, upon the wall of matted vegetation standing higher than the wall of a temple, over the great river I could see through a sombre gap glittering, glittering as it flowed broadly by without a murmur. All this was great, expectant, mute, while the man jabbered about himself. I wondered whether the stillness on the face of the immensity looking at us two were meant as an appeal or as a menace. What were we who had strayed in here? Could we handle that dumb thing, or would it handle us? I felt how big, how confoundedly big, was that thing that couldn't talk and perhaps was deaf as well. What was in there? I could see a little ivory coming out from there and I had heard Mr. Kurtz was in there. I had heard enough about it too - God know! Yet somehow it didn't bring any image with it - no more than if I had been told an angel or a fiend was in there. I believed it in the same way one of you might believe there are inhabitants on the planet Mars. I know a Scotch sailmaker who was certain, dead sure, there were people in Mars. If you asked him for some idea how they looked and behaved he would get shy and mutter something about 'walking on all-fours.' If you as much as smiled he would - though a man of sixty - offer to fight you. I would not have gone so far as to fight for Kurtz, but I went for him near enough to lie. You know I hate, detest, and can't bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appals me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies - which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world - what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick like biting something rotten would do. Temperament, I suppose. Well, I went near enough to it by letting the young fool there believe anything he liked to imagine as to my influence in Europe. I become in an instant as much of a pretence as the rest of the bewitched pilgrims. This simply because I had a notion it somehow would be of help to that Kurtz whom at the time I did not see - you understand. He was just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do. Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream - making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams..."

He was silent for a while.

"... No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence - that which makes its truth, its meaning - its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream - alone."

Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006. 26-7.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Review :: Eastern Promises

(It's almost impossible to talk about this film intelligently or at any length without mentioning at least some essential plot-points. While I've tried to keep it spoiler free, it does touch upon at least one major plot element but you've probably already heard about it if you've heard anything at all about the film. Anyway, just thought I'd warn you.)

Transformation of the human body and mind has always been the grand theme of the David Cronenberg oeuvre. In films like Videodrome or The Fly and in most of his early genre films (the so-called "venereal" horror films), Cronenberg used the shocking metaphors that the genre offered him to explore his own ideas about the relationship of the body and the mind, a dichotomy that Cronenberg ultimately rejects. However, in his more mature films like Dead Ringers, Spider and A History of Violence, Cronenberg put aside the effective though ultimately clumsy metaphors of the horror genre and began to shift his focus from mutation to psychology. His sensibilities and obsessions have remained the same, though: the creation or alteration of human identity. With Eastern Promises, his latest foray into the human mind, Cronenberg continues to obsess over the question of identity and creates another minor masterpiece of philosophy and violence, two elements that seem to fit together oddly and beautifully in his films.

When a young Russian prostitute dies while giving birth in a London hospital, Anna (Naomi Watts) attempts to use the girl's diary to identify her in order to deliver the newborn child to the girl's relatives. She discovers that the girl worked for the vory v zakone, a particularly notorious Russian crime organization, and that both the diary and the baby pose a threat to the organization's boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Meanwhile, Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen, delivering another nearly perfect performance) is rising through the vory ranks and earning the right to full inclusion in the crime syndicate. The intersection of Anna and Nikolai forces certain confrontations and transformations that will change and threaten everyone involved.

In any film, perception is identity; that is, a character is who he is perceived to be. As in A History of Violence, perception and identity in Eastern Promises is revealed and transformed both through the suffering and inflicting of violence. This tension of vulnerability and violence forms the film's essential matrix of identity and the its centerpiece - the scene you've heard about if you've heard anything about the film - is a savage and perhaps perfect image of that tension: in the sweaty and steaming isolation of a bathhouse, Nikolai is savagely attacked by rival mobsters and must fight for his life using the most brutal and immediate means possible - all while being completely naked. It is perhaps one of the most audacious and exhilarating scenes in movie history for a long while, as both Cronenberg and Mortensen lay it all on the line. But the scene is far from exploitive or shocking for shock's sake; it is a near-perfect rendering of the Cronenberg sensibility and an absolute marvel to behold. Besides being its strongest moment, the scene is the film's pivot. The encounter forces Nikolai to reevaluate his position and, ultimately, forces him to transform, or perhaps simply to reveal to us, who he really is. This distinction of transformation and revelation is ultimately artificial, though, since even if Nikolai himself has known who he was, we the audience have not. Identity is perception, and changing how we perceive a character changes the character.

There are only a few living directors who really excite me: David Lynch, Werner Herzog, the Coen Brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson and, yes, David Cronenberg (that all of these directors have had, or will have, films out this year only means that this is a great year for film). These are the auteurs, the artists and philosophers pushing the medium as far as it will go. Cronenberg isn't for everyone. His methodical style and somewhat stilted dialogue often turns people away from his films. Questions of artifice don't generally bother me, however, since I see Cronenberg, and all these directors for that matter, as being involved in concerns so much greater than the realistic portrayal of human conversation. They are driven by idiosyncratic obsessions rather than box office returns. Eastern Promises is poetry and philosophy wrapped in a pulsing tissue of human violence. So while it might not suit the tastes of everyone, if you are looking for an intelligent thriller that is almost laughably unconcerned with meeting conventional expectations, than look no further than Eastern Promises.

Experto crede: very strongly recommended for Cronenberg fans and anyone looking for an intelligent thriller.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Review :: Dexter: The First Season

(I've been meaning to write this for a while but every time I started I got scared. It's intimidating to write about something truly great and I really wanted to do the series justice. With season two looming just overheard, though, I figured if I was going to write something about it than it was now or never so I finally gathered my thoughts about the series and wrote them down.)

Last year, Showtime produced one of the most interesting and daring television series ever. Dexter, based on the Jeff Lindsay novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter and starring Michael C. Hall as the eponymous character, is a twelve episode serialized crime drama that focuses upon one Dexter Morgan, a Miami police department forensic scientist specializing in blood spatter analysis - and a serial killer.

Unable to feel human emotion and experiencing irrepressible urges to kill since he was very young, Dexter (the almost too talented Michael C. Hall) was guided and shaped by Harry Morgan (the stalwart James Remar), the cop and adoptive father who rescued the damaged child from a crime scene; Harry taught him to channel his impulses and to blend in with normal society, to hide the monster in plain sight. Recognizing Dexter for what he was, and loving him nonetheless, Harry conditioned his murderous adopted son to target only the worst of society - the murderers and rapists who, for whatever reason, had escaped society's more conventional forms of punishment. As the series begins, the now adult Dexter has been comfortably living two lives, as both man and monster, as a member of society and as the flaw within it. But a bizarre encounter with another serial killer threatens to shatter his ideas of identity and forces him to confront who and what he really is.

No other series on television has embraced irony as a narrative device as much as Dexter has. The stories are pitch black and often hilarious and yet bloody as hell and still, strangely, oddly comforting. Dexter, murderous and monstrous and yet distressingly charming, is a postmodern and disillusioned (which I guess is what postmodernity really amounts to) take on the vigilante super-hero. However, unlike a Clark Kent or a Bruce Wayne, Dexter lacks a sense of morality, justice or even vengeance. He simply enjoys killing - it's his compulsion and he makes no apologies and suffers no guilt. That he kills other murderers is simply a protective measure: these criminal victims are less likely to be missed than, say, the average housewife. No one really misses the dregs of society. It's a sly and unsettling take on postmodern ethics and morality, in which one only acts decently or lawfully as a self-protective measure.

And yet, amidst all the carnage, Dexter is just like us. If, like myself, you are inclined to look for deeper and symbolic meanings in a story, you might begin to suspect that Dexter is really just an average guy and like all people he is just searching for meaning and identity. The very fact that he is so cut off from everyone else forces us, especially on a visceral level, to identify with him. He's just trying to make sense of himself and the world in which he lives. Dexter exposes the everyday rituals and pleasantries of society makes them look uncomfortable and alien; as the show subtly detaches us from our own surroundings we realize that much of our social conditioning is just that... conditioning: an artificial superstructure of rituals and niceties imposed upon human behaviour, maybe for the good of humanity and maybe not. As the series progresses, this is the question Dexter will eventually face: do these artificial impositions of morality and banal ritual in fact make us more human or are we most human when we give into our darkest urges and desires.

It used to be that television was just the "small screen" and that real philosophy and poetry, at least in the realm of the motion picture, was reserved for the "big screen," for the cinema. In the last few years, though, television has experienced a sort of Golden Age and you are now more likely to find true art on cable than in the movie theater. In the world of television art, Dexter, at least for the moment and in my opinion, represents the absolute height of art and wit. If that were not hyperbolic enough for you than let me say this (and I'm being perfectly serious when I say this): Dexter is the greatest thing to happen to television since Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, which was the greatest thing since The X-Files, which was the greatest thing since Twin Peaks, which was the greatest thing to ever happen to television. Seriously, if you are looking for intelligent and challenging television, than go watch Dexter. You won't be disappointed.

Dexter: The First Season is now available on DVD. Season two begins airing on Showtime on September 30.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Review :: 3:10 to Yuma

I haven't had much interest or faith in the modern western-movie. Even Clint Eastwood's famous and much beloved deconstruction of the wild west left my mostly bored. In fact, if pressed on the issue, I'd probably say the western died after Once Upon a Time in the West, Sergio Leone's true wild west masterpiece and the western that made almost every single western after it an exercise in superfluity and derivation, with the possible exception of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. Since Leone and his coterie of stark and mythic figures rode off, and especially in our modern takes on the genre, westerns have become burdened with an almost morbid fixation on psychological motivations and moral imperatives, both of which twist characters and propel them forward, often against the own wishes. Heroes, and perhaps more often anti-heroes, are tortured by their convictions and lead to extreme circumstances that somehow, in the end, justify or prove that they were Men. So often, however, these stories feel contrived, disingenuous or just plain clumsy. Cinematic verve and pure entertainment has been sucked from the western, leaving us with an incarnation of a once-great genre that now pales in comparison to its former self.

While managing to be quite entertaining, at least up until it's ridiculous and improbable ending, 3:10 to Yuma I think falls prey to these pitfalls. Similar to the much better The Proposition from two years ago, 3:10 to Yuma is more concerned with being an introspective character study than a gunslinging action film, which would be fine if it were done honestly. But while all the characters' actions and decisions made sense and felt real in The Proposition, even in the most extreme of circumstances, they feel slightly contrived and too convenient here, especially in the last act when the bullets start flying. When notorious outlaw and glorified serial killer Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is captured, Dan Evans (Christian Bale, who isn't nearly as believable or effective as he is normally) is among those recruited to fend off Wade's gang and escort the famed outlaw to the 3:10 to Yuma, a prison train. Along the way to the train, Wade develops a fondness, or at least a grudging respect, for Evans, a relationship which in the end both vindicates the Evans character and, for some unknown and contrived reason, brings out a touch of goodness in the Wade character.

3:10 to Yuma only works as a character study and honestly I think that's all it wants to be. However, it is surprisingly uninteresting and ineffective for a movie so focused on character development and psychological drama. Evans is an earnest and moral character trying to instruct his dismissive and unimpressed son on the ways of being a man; Wade is a sadistic killer and a leader of a pack of even more sadistic killers. They are both unfortunately rather one-note up until the end when, without much warning, Wade demonstrates that he's not as bad as everyone thinks he is. But this is baffling. Several of Wade's actions in the last act, and one particularly bloody one at the very end, just do not make any sense, especially given the level of sadism and callousness that he demonstrates throughout most of the film. If the film is trying to suggest that the goodness of Evans overcame the evilness of Wade, it is doing so in a very contrived and clumsy manner, since nothing ever happens between them that would justify a friendship; if it's trying to say Wade wasn't actually as evil as he appeared, it is glossing over the vicious nature of many of Wade's crimes. What makes any character drama effective is the believability of actions and decisions and, ultimately, 3:10 to Yuma fails to convince in this area. Perhaps in 1957, when the original 3:10 to Yuma was released (the film is a remake, after all), this rather contrived treatment of morality might have made sense; here, though, it just feels silly and fails to capture the psychological complexity of good and evil natures.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

And So it Begins... Again

And now, time for some satire and some cynicism...

With the summer weather just beginning to turn, giving itself over to a slow and casual and not unpleasant death, the once calm and pleasant campus lurches back into violent, shuddering life; the lighting having struck, the switch having been thrown, the flesh is once again animated and Dr. Frankenstein's monster, that ghastly assembly of once dead parts now newly given form and meaning, comes back into pulsing, glorious life! Yes, that's right: school is back in session at the University of Saskatchewan, my not so beloved but at the moment necessary institution of higher learning. All around, in every nook and cranny, filling every hall and hemorrhaging riotously off of every walkway and well beaten path, clotting about in sanguine clumps that are desperate for identity and validation, are people, an endless barrage of sweating and shouting people who seem to have no business in the supposedly dignified and hallowed halls of the Academy; they are a swirling mass that staggers and reels about, fueled by a seemingly endless supply of excitement, liberation, anxiety and more than a little alcohol. God bless Welcome Week! The new flesh swaggers and lurks, uncertain of what's really going on and yet trying to enjoy the madness of what they no doubt still think of more as a National Lampoon's comic fantasy than as a regular life. For now, the new flesh revels and celebrates. Soon, though, much sooner than they may now realize, these vibrating mobs will be reduced to lonely huddling clumps, their once great organs slowly dissected into their constituent parts, anatomized, the individual pieces peeled off and left to twitch and scurry by themselves back and forth from class to library to class to study session. But this autopsy is regenerative; this dissection is restorative. For here, alone and finally enjoying some privacy, here in the quiet hours of the library, in the late night lamp-light reading, in the contemplative and introspective life of growing self-awareness and critical thought, here is the real meaning of the University, the heart of education. Not in the quivering, sweating flesh of self-indulgence and hysteria, but in the still, quiet hours in which you can hear the voices of God, of reason and education and, perhaps the most unlikely of all, of yourself. So enjoy your badly played outdoor concerts and your beer gardens for now, but know that University is about more, so much more, than getting laid, getting high, getting drunk or getting lost. It is about understanding and self-awareness. Know thyself, nosce te ipsum, and find time to think privately and intensely. Flee the insane mob if you must and retreat into some quiet corner of some dimly light diner or coffee shop. The University is, or at least should be, about mature thought and it is hard, exceedingly hard, to think for yourself in the midst of a crowd.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Review :: Halloween (2007)

I think Rob Zombie fancies himself a bit of a Hollywood renegade, a genre auteur bravely recapturing a bygone true horror aesthetic. And maybe he is. His previous efforts, the ambitious but far too campy schlock-horror flick House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and the ultra-violent hillbilly torture/road trip flick The Devil's Rejects (2005), both tried to recapture the gritty and blood-soaked idioms of a pre-mainstream horror genre, the sub-culture that created films like The Last House on the Left and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Zombie's filmography demonstrates both the heights and the pitfalls of being too obviously self-conscious: House of 1000 Corpses was a self-referential mess; The Devil's Rejects came close to macabre genius. Zombie obviously has talent and the amount of growth he demonstrated between his first and second films left me almost giddy with excitement.

Enter Halloween, Rob Zombie's third film and a remake of the John Carpenter slasher. Part grindhouse exploitation and part horror slasher, Halloween is unfortunately a very mixed bag. Why Zombie felt the need to update a classic instead of develop his own property is unclear, especially since he frustratingly dedicates himself whole-heartedly neither to the source material not to his own reinterpretation of it. What we get instead is a movie that sometimes feels like the cutting edge of modern horror, a la the so called "torture porn" sub-genre, and sometimes like a derivative and almost anachronistic rip-off. Halloween works best when Zombie ignore the source material and tries to make a movie that no longer resembles the original. Unfortunately, other an an almost too long prologue/first act which tries to explain the childhood factors that created the legendary slasher Michael Myers and other than an added plot element that clumsily explains Michael's motives after he escapes, Zombie does not alter the story all that much and ends up making a rather conflicted film that seems at odds with itself. Most of his "updates" are really just added brutality and sexuality. And let me tell you, Rob Zombie's Halloween is a very brutal and very uncomfortably sexualized film.

Not like this is anything new. The combination of death and sex has always meant that horror and exploitation films flirt with outright misogyny. Zombie, aware of what's preceded him, is I think trying to be sly and comment on this particular feature of the genre. Unfortunately, his use of horror conventions is not so much ironic as it is troublingly sincere. The men in the movie are dispatched efficiently but the girls, often naked or mostly so, dies in protracted and bloody fashion. If Zombie is winking at us, he is going so with the straightest of faces. If this is irony, it is exploitive and clumsy irony. Maybe Zombie should take notes from fellow splat-packer Eli Roth, who has a much more developed sense of irony, on how to properly kill girls in a movie without offending everyone in the theater.

But as far as most genre fans are concerned, blood and sex is all they want in a horror flick. Going into them, I can't say I have much hope for these films even though the genre fan in me demands that I see them anyway. In the end, Halloween will not make much of a splash and will probably disappear rather quickly, as it likely should. Hopefully, Rob Zombie himself will not turn out to have been a one hit wonder. Maybe his next flick will be better. Here's hoping. After all, it's so hard to be a self-respecting horror fan and we need as many good directors as we can get.

Experto crede: not recommended for anyone except those die-hard fans who, like me, never learn from their mistakes.

Friday, August 31, 2007

"Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Review :: Sunshine

In the pantheon of great science fiction, there are only a few truly great films. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Andrei Tarkovsky's Solyaris, Ridley Scott's Alien and Blade Runner: these are the types of films that define the genre and they are the benchmarks against which all sci-fi films, especially those with a philosophical bent, are measured. Executed well, a science fiction film can nearly transcend the medium; executed poorly, a science fiction film can fail spectacularly. Danny Boyle's Sunshine does neither and falls somewhere in the middle of these two extremes: it's not a brilliant flick but neither is it a disastrous one. Those like myself who were expecting Boyle to deliver another groundbreaking film of Trainspotting or 28 Days Later-like proportions will likely be disappointed by Sunshine since, unlike what he did in those films, Boyle does not really bring anything new or all that compelling to the board here other than a few interesting visuals. That said, Sunshine is an enjoyable and often exhilarating film that, if you are willing to suspend an almost unreasonable amount of disbelief and just go along with it, can prove quite entertaining.

The premise of Sunshine is simple enough and at first blush seems too ridiculous even for hardened sci-fi veterans. The sun is cooling; the earth is freezing; humanity's last hope is a crew of eight sent to deploy a "stellar bomb" into the sun, which will apparently somehow solve the problem. While it may sound like a ridiculously bad disaster movie, it is somewhat more intelligent than might be expected. The exposition is handled in the film's first few minutes, allowing Boyle to settle back and craft what turns out to be, at least until the action heavy final act, an effective if somewhat conventional isolation drama. The crew faces all of the expected challenges: equipment failure, human error, interpersonal conflicts, morally ambiguous life and death decisions and, of course, an almost obligatory intercepted transmission. All of these elements are woven together by Boyle to form a tight, well-structured narrative that at the very least resonates on all the right emotional levels. Even in the most extreme situations, the choices that the characters make feel like the right ones and not like mere plot contrivances.

However, while it is reasonably intelligent and quite a lot of fun, Sunshine fails to be what it really wants to be. Boyle, probably too conscious of the great films that have boldly gone before him, has attempted to make the next 2001: A Space Odyssey. Philosophically minded sci-fi is a tricky bag. What made 2001 so effective was its brilliant marriage of realistic technology and pure visual poetry. Even though he tries very hard to achieve it, Boyle never manages to arrive at this marriage like Kubrick did: inevitably, both the science and the poetry of the film interfere with each other. The poetry of Boyle's images is crushed beneath our unwillingness to believe what we are seeing and the images just don't make much sense from a rational point of view. For instance, in the final act there are several visual distortions and some editing techniques that are, as far as I can tell, supposed to be taken as representations both of madness and of the spatial and temporal implications of approaching the sun and its gravity. However, aside from some moments of real visual beauty, what is happening on screen is never quite clear - is this really happening or is this a metaphorical representation of a distorted mental state? This uneasy combination of science and poetry means that Sunshine often feels a bit conflicted and that it ultimately fails to overwhelm like good science fiction should. It packs punch but lacks elegance.

Sunshine is not a bad film. It is very competently directed, very well acted and it looks very good. It just isn't a great film. I really like Danny Boyle - Trainspotting is probably one of my favourite movies and I thought 28 Days Later was a brilliant reinvention of the zombie genre. Like 28 Days Later, Sunshine is at its best when it is played like a parable about human nature. Perhaps if Danny Boyle had foregone scientific plausibility entirely and attempted to make a work of pure poetry, like Darren Aronosky's under appreciated film The Fountain, he might have made a better film. As it is, Sunshine is entertaining and interesting flick that, though it aspires to it, falls short of true greatness.

experto crede: a casual recommendation

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Bergman Marathon :: The Seventh Seal (1957)

"Say anything you want against The Seventh Seal. My fear of death—this infantile fixation of mine—was, at that moment, overwhelming. I felt myself in contact with death day and night, and my fear was tremendous. When I finished the picture, my fear went away. I have the feeling simply of having painted a canvas in an enormous hurry—with enormous pretension but without any arrogance. I said, 'Here is a painting; take it, please.'"
— Ingmar Bergman, (1971)

In The Seventh Seal, a knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow, in one of his earliest roles), and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) return from the crusades to find medieval Sweden teetering on the brink of apocalypse. The plague ravages the land, the church scours the country with doomsday rhetoric and zealotry, and the common people live in squalor and fear. Block, like his country, faces the dark night of his soul as Death (eerily personified by Bengt Ekerot) comes to claim him. However, Block, though not surprised that Death should find him, is suffering a crisis of faith and so, wracked with doubts about life, death and God and seeking a stay of execution just long enough to find some answers, proposes to Death that they play a game of chess in order to delay the inevitable.

The Seventh Seal is a much more complex film than Smiles of a Summer Night; it is personal and yet mythic, harrowing and yet somehow cathartic. While neither Bergman nor the knight seem to really arrive at any of the answers that the Knight seeks, both of them seem to find some comfort along the way. While The Seventh Seal is not necessarily an atheistic or sacrilegious film, it does lean towards a a sense of frustrated agnosticism and, emerging out of this frustration, towards a sense of burgeoning humanism . The only real comfort Antonius Block ever finds during his journey is in the company of other people, such as the troupe of actors that eventually travel with him. These actors, Jof (Nils Poppe) and Mia (Bibi Andersson), along with their infant son Michael, seem to form Bergman's own version of the holy family, reconstituted in The Seventh Seal as common, earthy people, free from the vulgarities and pretenses of organized religion and politics. Like Petra and Frid in Smiles of a Summer Night, Jof and Mia seem to represent Bergman's ideal. The two films, in fact, end in similar fashions, with both happy young couples living freely and simply in nature while at the same time possessing a sobering insight into the condition of humanity.

Bergman is a master a human sympathy and he is able, seemingly out of the air, to conjure within his audience feelings of intense affection, startling terror, honour, anxiety, disgust and love. Max von Sydow, tormented by doubt, is at once both Bergman and the audience. However, almost every major character in Bergman's films are rich and human and so, depending upon the scene, audiences find themselves effortlessly identifying with each major character, now with the anxiety of Antonius Block, now with the cynicism and world-weary honour of Jöns, now with the the soft sensuality of Mia. In fact, the only major character unable to arouse sympathy at all is Death, a character without personality or temperament. He merely is and, like he himself says, is "unknowing." On top of all this, and enhancing the actors brilliant performances, is that fact that the film is utterly beautiful. Its stark and iconic images, its subtle and gentle camera moves, its steady and soft editing all combine to create a visually stunning experience. There are no extravagances here; the artifice is almost invisible, allowing the characters to simply be.

It is really quite possible to go on at great length about The Seventh Seal. Its tightly allegorical structure, its political and religious anxieties, its rich and metaphorical characters, all of these can inspire pages and pages of commentary. What resonates so timelessly, though, are the raw and basic questions that the film asks and, unlike most films, attempts to answer.

experto crede: an undeniable masterpiece

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Bergman Marathon :: Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

(As most people with even a passing interest in film already know, the legendary Ingmar Bergman recently passed away. It seems obscene, but I had never before seen a Bergman film. With his passing, and by way of tribute, I have decided that it's about time that I catch up with this auteur. This review will be the first of several reviews, or rather miscellaneous notes and comments, on several classic Bergman films. Whenever I begin to explore a new filmmaker, I like to begin close to the beginning in order to get a sense of the artistic trajectory of his or her career. Smiles of a Summer Night was one of Bergman's first international successes, so I will begin here.)

Smiles of a Summer Night is about love, sex and society and how the three interact, complicate or complement each other, and about what (if anything) can bring happiness to more-often-than-not unhappy people. Like most great films, there is no true precision when it comes to identifying the generic label of Smiles - it is a drama, a comedy, a period piece and a comedy of manners. It is all these thing, and it is seamlessly so. The film follows four perhaps mismatched couples as they try to understand their lives and their desires, all of whom find themselves exposed to each other and vulnerable during one weekend in the country. In its depiction of the dark waters of human emotion, Smiles of a Summer Night is not quite uplifting, not quite depressing, but gently straddles the line between the two, leaning sometimes towards a breezy sense of romantic ennui, sometimes towards a renewed sense of life and lust. None of this is to say that Smiles lacks focus, as if it cannot quite make up its mind about what it wants to be or say. Rather, the film seems to be saying that the enjoyment of love, sex and society is complicated and perhaps even foiled by imposed issues of class and morality and the anxieties, pressures and neuroses that are created by both.

Like Stanley Kubrick will later do, Bergman seems to suggest that much of society - with its rituals, rules and highly wrought codes of manners - is essentially sterile, mostly devoid of life and vigor. These rituals, instead of facilitating human enjoyment only seem to frustrate it. Smiles of a Summer Night, however, is not nearly as fatalist or as nihilistic as Kubrick's films. Bergman's bourgeoisie drift about, plagued by doubt and regret, seemingly content and yet haunted by past infatuations (like the character of Fredrik Egerman), they plot and scheme in order to get their own way (like Desiree Armfeldt and the Countess Malcolm), they are tormented by the strict morality imposed upon them by society and religion (like Fredrik's son, Henrik). It is the lower classes, the maids and the butlers who, like in so many Shakespearean plays, manifest a careless bawdiness and an innocent carnality, who live outside the strictures of polite society, who give themselves over to warm sensual pleasures, it is these who get any sort of enjoyment and fulfillment from life and yet even this enjoyment is coloured by a slightly melancholy tint of realism, by the awareness that life and love are rarely perfect and so one might as well make the best of it.

The internal conflict between the rituals of society and the desires of the flesh is vividly encapsulated in the character of Henrik, Fredrik's conflicted son who cannot find peace in the strict religious life he has chosen for himself. In one scene, Henrik, vexed by his own self- and church-imposed virtue, prepares to commit suicide while from a window he enviously watches the uninhibited Petra the Maid and Frid the Groom flirt, giggle and dance. Henrik, in spite of himself and his rigid sense of morality, is in love his his father's young virgin wife Anne (whom Fredrik, still in love with a former mistress, has not yet made love to). At the moment of despair and suicide, however, Henrik is saved by a chance turn of events that leads him, not only to a personal revelation, but also into the arms of Anne, who, young and eager and sexually ignored by her husband, has apparently been in love with him all the time. Mutually disregarding social convention, the new young lovers elope, leaving Fredrik not so much angry at the betrayal as simply bewildered that he has misunderstood love for so long (a betrayal, it is probably important to note, that goes against law and not flesh, since the marriage of Anne and Fredrik had never been consummated).

But perhaps the quintessential scene from Smiles of a Summer Night is the final one, in which Petra, while literally rolling in the hay, playfully forces Frid to swear that he will marry her. "Swear by everything you hold sacred," she demands, to which Frid happily replies, "I swear by my manhood!" Bergman, at least on this film, seems to have settled on lusty, rustic, full-bodied sensuality as the ideal pleasure in life. Here, on the outskirts of society, sex and love and playfulness combine to create a warm, earthy ideal in which men and women, without the pretense of ritual and convention, simply enjoy one another. I don't think that Bergman is saying high society needs to get off its high horse and play in the dirt; I think that he may be saying that the dirt isn't really all that dirty and should be raised up too.

With Smiles of a Summer Night, Bergman created a sly, slightly subversive look at polite society. It is a parable of love that just barely refrains from being didactic. The film actually resembles several of Shakespeare's own comedies: a certain carnivalesque atmosphere presides over the entire film, conventions are upset, jealousies are aroused, duels ensue and, in the end, everyone ends paired together as they should be. Even this early in his career, Bergman shows real artistry and he finds a why to make what is essentially a very "talky" movie seem dramatic, compelling and quite exquisite. Since this is the first Bergman film I have seen, I do not yet have a body of work against which to compare this film. Perhaps I have misread several of Bergman's concerns; if I have, that's all part of the fun of discovering new landscapes. However, this much I can say: based on viewing this film, I am very much looking forward to exploring more of his work. The human heart is a fascinating thing, and getting to know an artist's understanding of it, regardless of whether or not you agree with him, is always an intriguing and compelling project. One could do a lot worse than spend some time with Ingmar Bergman.

experto crede: a strong recommendation, especially for those looking for comedy or romance with a slightly philosophical bent

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Lord of the Flies (excerpt)

(I'm reading Lord of the Flies at the moment. I had read it years ago in high school and had forgotten most of it. It is apocalyptic and savage, a howling microcosm of human society and the evils that tear it apart from within. Enjoy.)

Simon stayed where he was, a small brown image, concealed by the leaves. Even if he shut his eyes the sow's head still remained like an after-image. The half-shut eyes were dim with the infinite cynicism of adult life. They assured Simon that everything was a bad business.

"I know that."

Simon discovered that he had spoken aloud. He opened his eyes quickly and there was the head grinning amusedly in the strange daylight, ignoring the flies, the spilled guts, even ignoring the indignity of being spiked on a stick.

He looked away, licking his dry lips.

A gift for the beast. Might not the beast come for it? The head, he thought, appeared to agree with him. Run away, said the head silently, go back to the others. It was a joke, really - why should you bother? You were just wrong, that's all. A little headache, something you ate, perhaps. Go back, child, said the head silently.

Simon looked up, feeling the weight of his wet hair, and gazed at the sky. Up there, for once, were clouds, great bulging towers that sprouted away over the island, grey and cream and copper-coloured. The clouds were sitting on the land; they squeezed, produced moment by moment, this close, tormenting heat. Even the butterflies deserted the open space where the obscene thing grinned and dripped. Simon lowered his head, carefully keeping his eyes shut, then sheltered them with his hand. There were no shadows under the trees but everywhere a pearly stillness, so that what was real seemed illusive and without definition. The pile of guts was a black blob of flies that buzzed like a saw. After a while these flies found Simon. Gorged, they alighted by his runnels of sweat and drank. They tickled under his nostrils and played leap-frog on his thighs. They were black and iridescent green and without number; and in front of Simon, the Lord of the Flies hung on his stick and grinned. At last Simon gave up and looked back; saw the white teeth and dim eyes, the blood - and his gaze was held by that ancient, inescapable recognition. In Simon's right temple, a pulse began to beat on the brain.

Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. London, UK: Faber and Faber, 1954. 151-2.