Monday, December 23, 2013

Exceptional Men, and Varying Realisms


Both the recently released Jobs, about Apple's co-founder and domineering personality, and Tim Burton's Big Fish look at the life of exceptional men. While the biopic purports to be a straight-forward recounting of the rise, and the fall, and subsequent resurrection, of one of the 'visionaries' of our time, Burton's tall-tell interweaves fact and fiction, pushing us to unravel the difference between the two and what our feelings about the proper place of each tells us about ourselves and the world around us. Perhaps because Jobs has a higher bar of reality to surmount before we can deem it satisfactory, the direct approach actually imbues us with less a sense of the world than Burton's novel adaptation. While Big Fish asks us to think about ourselves, Jobs requests that we praise the another's ability.

How can a fictive account strike us as more truly resonant? Surely this is largely an assignment of the observer. Nevertheless, there seems to be more good and true in Burton's work - this is not to suggest that it is a triumph. Surprisingly, Kutcher excels in the role of Jobs, but he is left little to excel towards. The film felt like an Apple vanity project through-and-through. Big Fish nestles into a world where both myth and reality are interwoven. In doing so it creates a world that we can feel, that lives and breathes. Rather than demand our fealty, it excites our wonder. Such is an accomplishment too often overlooked.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Geopolitical Implications of Armageddon-Inducing Reptiles

The existence of a fire-breathing, ill-tempered dragon suggests the creation of one geopolitical pole. Perhaps the inhabitants of Middle-Earth are simply inured to the existence of fantastical, and violent, creatures.  Yet, it seems that the existence of a super-predator would demand a new political calculus, both within and between societies. The cultural evolution of any group negotiating common space with a dragon suggests the transformation of a society. Surely we can imagine powers within the world so imposing that all aspects of a people would be touched.

This may resemble a certain type of defeatism, yet it is difficult to imagine a social sphere which would willingly antagonize a sleeping dragon. When Thorin and his band arrive in Lake-town, and subsequently announce their intentions to both awaken and slay Smaug the Terrible, surely a debate is in order about rousing this beast. Shut-up in a mountain, quietly sleeping, seems the perfect place for a dragon. The well-worn argument, this evil must be dealt with, while a certainly heroic trope, doesn't address the implications for others. If people are living under a repressive regime it is one thing to loosen their shackles. However, awakening the threat of annihilation while it peacefully sleeps, is another thing entirely. One type of politics can address living life in the shadow of a terrible, but contained, nearby power. Yet awakening that power would forcibly transform all social frameworks. I imagine that the presence of dragons would be cause for a re-calculation of economic and political focuses and power structures. The inclusion of such super-predators always seems to ignore their novel and transformative impacts manifest in how people interact with the world. Rather than a vast opposition, perhaps it would be better to say that the existence of such terrible power would haunt the very words and deeds of men and women in everything they did - at least in comparison to a non-dragon world. If evolution is the co-production of things with their environment, then people co-existing with dragons must become so culturally dissimilar that, over time, we would not recognize their kinship with us. Can we imagine powers so awesome that everything is significantly different in relationship to them? How would this foster novel creations?

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Birth of the Modern

That a story which takes place in New York City can feel parochial is, perhaps, an achievement of note. Beyond the nativist versus immigrant violence which mainly characterizes Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York, a violence that is, at turns, political, sexual, spatial, economic, and, mostly, physical, are the currents of history which frame the characters and the story. The influx of the immigration - particularly from Ireland in the wake of the Great Famine - to the United States would, by sheer force of numbers alter the political balance of power. Changing relationships of fealty to familial, religious, ethnic, community, state and national institutions and ideologies would demand a re-organization and re-constitution of a man's, and a society's, overlapping structures of power. The growth and centralization of the political aspect - herein the birth of Tammany Hall - through box-stuffing, the buying of influence, and recognition of differing power-bases, all of these, we might suppose, would eventuate grasps at influence and authority, cause no small bit of hope amongst some and consternation for others. Yes, a political reading (power) to be sure, but Gangs of New York, while it supposes to be about freedom, and America, and inequality, and honor, and other assortments of specifically Americanized, masculine tropes, ends as a statement about how power will be exercised in a society suffering her birthing pangs.

I say parochial because all the machinations and concerns of the rival gangs of the Five Points eventually pale in comparison to the awe-inspiring destructive ability of the Union government. Let these thugs debate the extent to which they will allow pistols in their inconsequential street skirmishes. Make no mistake, if the Union feels threatened it will not hesitate to turn heavy artillery onto the City of New York. Indiscriminately taking the wicked with the innocent, this mechanized government will not allow the quarrels or complaints of such marginal power brokers to interrupt the assertion of one country suffering mortal combat for an even greater cause. The force of violence and the power of persuasion eventually rest in the hands of a government and its new-found ability to conscript its citizens (this is not an attempt to assess the historical accuracy of the work). Herein lies the parochial problem. There is never any sense until the film's climax that the broader effects of the war or a changing society are impacting the concerns of these gangs. In the isolated enclaves, they seem to be at-turns engaged in battle and uneasy truce with one another, separate from the broader city, state or country. While the force of law may seem almost non-existent (sorry John C. Reilly), it will strike back with a vengeance terrible to behold. Are we left to believe, as Bill and Vallon battle it out, that they remain unconcerned with, or unaware of the changes of, and consequences that come with living in, a society around them? There's is but a footnote in the broader tale of America's birth into a modern, mechanized age. Concerns over immigration versus nativists, the rights of whites and blacks, Tammany Hall versus neighborhood independence, draft riots versus law and order, all feel as though they pale at the hands of coming mechanisms and control by a domineering government. The flows of time move around the Five Points and the gangs. In Scorsese's work the characters seem untouched, until they are. Thus, their story cannot help but feel marginalized. While it may seem that history frames the conflict and feud, as we step back, and become displaced from perspective of the tale, we rather become aware that this story inhabits one small corner of a broader picture. The manner of the sudden displacement, however, draws our gaze away from this single stroke, and we wonder had this moment been different would it have changed the broader work at all? To what end these efforts?

Thursday, October 31, 2013

On Beginnings

The messiness of beginnings always arouses feelings of uncertainty. D. Graham Burnett calls this uncertainty a messy and startling hubbub. Michel Serres speaks of headwaters; the birth of flows which resemble noise. James Joyce, perhaps most famously, recounted his birth and continual (re?)-creation. We are given many opportunities to fill space, or step-aside; the sum of these decisions results in the creation of time.

The Rum Diaries examines the creation of Paul Kemp. An adaptation of a similarly-named novel by Hunter S. Thompson, we wonder to what extent this is a a recounting versus a fictionalization of the Good Doctor's younger years. But if we have learned anything from Thompson (and Jann Wenner hopes we have) it is that the truth is an arrival of the reporter and the reader; an emergent creation of spirit and event. If "turbulence is an intermediate state between redundant order and pure chaos" (Serres 1995), then life is lived amongst turbulence. We create ourselves and the world between the known, which helps to guide us, and the unknown, which we pursue into the distance. In other words: the creation of time.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Movie Stars in Space!

Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity sets the familiar faces of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney adrift above the Earth. Wheeling freely around the shuttle Explorer, our own minds take flight with them. What would it be like to feel the effects of weightlessness, to at once glance across the Sahara and contemplate the ice-caps? Space. Into the reaches of dreams.

Such dreamy-eyed reflections are necessary because Cuaron too relies upon them to hook us in. Feeling the kinship of common humanity within the barren vacuum: like those courageous astronauts, we too are looking for purchase, something to grab a hold of. But of course, it all goes terribly wrong.

Alone. Stranded. Beyond all vestiges of hope. Death closing in fast.

That grim friend has already smiled upon too many. A survivor's pangs demands a body count. But why this woman? That's the crux really. Woe to he who could not identify with his fellow man - even in a vacuum. Nevertheless: what about Sandra Bullock demands our fealty? So we summon our common humanity to invest in survival - so what?

When Tom Hanks was lost at sea on Christmas Eve in Cast Away he was able to, over an hour, draw us into the vivid world of one. With Sandra Bullock racing against the clock (and the oxygen, and the fire and Russian space debris) we too are scarcely left with time to breathe - maybe that's the point. Nevertheless we are left with what often feels like simply being chased by a rolling boulder. Woman desperately trying to escape, and survive, circumstance. The fierce urgency of circumstance.

Yet the thread is lost at the precise moment common humanity takes over. No, that's wrong. It is revealed that the thread was never achieved. Are there angels in our midst? Dense apparitions? Light-headedness? What is drawn to save lonely man? It could simply remain unclear. Worse: it is realized as uninteresting. That is a vexation which creates distance. In the paradoxical claustrophobia of space the one thing that cannot be abided is such distance.

Beautiful, certainly. A woven tapestry hung in front of us.

If we are not all astronauts, what then, is a movie star in space?

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Bad Timing and Love in New York

A small story about us all. Even if we don't display our neurosis as publicly as Woody Allen, its hard to deny that they are all in there. Are his own, any more or less than ours, keeping him from being happy? Do we each, at turns, undermine the possibility of our own happiness? Even if any match between two people is little more or less than an arrangement between colliding deranged personas, this need not marginalize the importance of the loves we share.

Sometimes it works out. Mostly it doesn't. And, really, romances that work are rarely funny, or interesting. Its a take on Tolstoy: all happy relationships are the same; every unhappy relationship is unhappy in its own way. It is the failure that makes them most interesting. But, sometimes, the failure is not of our doing. What if, truly, the time just wasn't right? Allen's Manhattan is mostly about relationships doomed by the intricate failures of time. One of you is married; or both. Someone is too old; or too young. You're going away and I'm right here. It may not be particularly romantic, and certainly undermines any notion of "soul mates," but relationships are also about making our lives fit together at the right time. What if we were always, just, missing the right time to find love?

Friday, July 19, 2013

"Everything ends badly - otherwise it wouldn't end."

So wise, Young Tom Cruise. So... so wise.

He is right, you know. And Cocktail is no exception. It ends badly: with Young Tom Cruise reciting crap, pub-poetry on a bar that he owns. Of course, the journey isn't much better. I was certain Young Cruise would be proven-wrong: that any ending would be a cause for celebration. A celebration we get, but it is on-screen, and I realize Young Cruise has stolen my long-expected moment of triumph. Though I am happy the ending has come, it still ends badly.

Damn you, Young Tom Cruise, damn you.

So.... let me get this straight: this would-be captain of industry (self-appointed) is precluded from proving his mettle by a society seemingly structured against his dreams, decides to become a vice-merchant, never stops lamenting his unrealized desire for monetary success, and finds a measure of happiness in his defeat and shotgun wedding? Supposedly he learns something about happiness when he finds Flanagan dead in his yacht (spoiler!). Tearing up $10,000 checks on his way to the middle.

How dated this pursuit of cynical success feels to the larger cultural milieu. We can almost see the last vestiges of Reaganomics gasping for air on the Manhattan sidewalk. Maybe Young Cruise feels the shallowness, but specifically by allowing him to seemingly succeed - when, in fact his dreams have come to naught - without exploring the ramifications of why he is so driven, or what it is that blocks his success, the film does little more than paint a thin veneer of wisdom gained upon the crushing of one's dreams in a society constructed to ensure that upward mobility is largely an illusion.

Who needs a drink?