film_nocountry.jpg

No Country for Old Men.  I’ve never read the book, but I could feel the McCarthy seeping out of the film.  You can hear it in the dialogue, in the silence of the landscape, in the breathing and the taps of the murderous oxygen tank, you can see it and you can feel it.  McCarthy’s prose has been described as “cinematic” and the Coen Brothers were faithful to it.

The plot is unimportant to whether or not you should see the movie.  Even if you have no interest in the subject matter and have never read McCarthy (like my mother), you will still be amazed at the cinematography and the finesse of everyone involved.  Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, and Tommy Lee Jones were all brilliant.  So were Kelly Macdonald as Carla Jean (Trainspotting) and Woody Harrelson as Carson Wells.

Pete Hammond of Maxim calls it “a superior, bone-chilling ode to the New West”.  This is a film about an evolving, decaying American pastoral.  The American dream is over.  Not even treasure-hunting is possible, because there is no treasure, and don’t even suggest climbing the ladder by your merit and hard work.  Little dogs, at the beck and call of their masters, will die for the gun.  Only outlaw cats survive.  As in 4, our God now is Chaos – or if you prefer a Lovecraftian approach, “Azathoth, the blind idiot god”.  It’s the Wild West without the sunset, without the possibility of a new frontier, without the fairytale (so refreshing after all the romantic fantasy bullshit that’s being propagated to us lately: Stardust, Enchanted).  There’s sheriffs and there’s robbers, like in the Old West, but now there’s a new breed of highwayman: the Hunter, a monster of modernity (those who’ve seen the Criminal Minds episode “Open Season” or the Crime Investigation Australia episode “The Kimberley Killer” will be familiar with the type).

Paul Virilio in Strategy of Deception, italics his, bold mine: “The ‘deportees’ in the ‘camps’ of our urban wastelands are not, as our ministers go on joyfully repeating, ‘savages’ or even ‘new barbarians’.  In reality, they are merely indicating the irresistible emergence of a previously almost unknown level of deprivation and human misery.  They are waste-products of a military-industrial, scientific civilization which has applied itself for almost two centuries to depriving individuals of the knowledge and sill accumulated over generations and millennia, before a post-industrial upsurge occurred which now seeks to reject them, on the grounds of definitive uselessness, to zones of lawlessness where they are exposed defenceless to the exactions of kapos of a new kind… a ruined planet, where there will soon be nothing left to take… With the appearance of new forms of bio-political conditioning, in which the other will no longer be considered an alter ego, nor even as a potential enemy (with whom reconciliation is always possible), but as the ultimate quarry.  Nietzsche had, in his day, predicted the imminent arrival of this new misanthropy – an anthrophagy which would have no particular ritual, as he put it.”

“Call it, friend-o,” says Anton Chigurh, the Hunter of No Country for Old Men to a suspicious, pudgy gas station clerk who wants to know what he stands to win by saying either “heads” or “tails” to Chigurh’s coin toss.  Everything, of course.  He stands to win his life – on something so random as a coin toss.  He calls correctly and survives.  When Chigurh tosses the coin again at the end and tells Carla Jean to call it, saying it’s the best he can do for her survival, she refuses.  “The coin ain’t got no say,” she says, “It’s just you.”

An anthropophagy which would have no particular ritualYet this is the stuff Cormac McCarthy meditates upon.

It’s going on my top ten list, and it deserves an Oscar or five.

image.jpg

The above-titled episode of The Twilight Zone was the one that scared my then-young mother away from horror forever. Since then, she has walked out of Rosemary’s Baby and Jaws, and the only scary movies she’s agreed to see have been Kwaidan (which was her idea), and The Devil’s Backbone. “The Eye of the Beholder” is one of the most famous episodes too, because the perspective-trick and ending shock was so effective, and did not rely on particularly great costume design. Imagine the episode if it had begun with the hideous doctors discussing what this woman would look like after plastic surgery. Yes, the initial ugliness would probably repulse viewers, but there would be no shock, no horror.

My roommate and I watched two back-to-back horror movies last night that happened to be playing on channel 7: Darkness and Pitch Black. Darkness is a standard vaguely Lovecraftian spook movie, following The Others in formula: insane adults, creepy ghost children, lots of candles and rain in an old gothic house. Pitch Black is more Alien – science fiction, set on a planet that a people-carrier craft has crashed on, with miniature bat-like monsters on the surface and large xenomorph monsters below. A few nights before we watched Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows. Book of Shadows follows teens that turn on each other on a tour of the original movie’s haunted woods, but here the cinematography is standard instead of make-believe-amateur. All use CG. None of them are very scary.

We ended up talking about how a reliance on computers has ruined horror (others have talked about this too – just the other day, Wendell Jamieson did in the NY Times). I could not help comparing Pitch Black to Alien, which was unbelievably made in 1979. 1979. 1979. I still can’t get over it. It, along with its 1986 sequel, are the most effective science fiction horror I’ve ever seen. How did they achieve this with the paltry special effects they had back then? Filmmaking. Craftsmanship. And a lot of investment in one sculpted, tangible “alien”. The xenomorph was never really shown, but when it did make an appearance, sleek black shine against the duller metal of the ship, always ensconced in shadow and its own steam, jaws opening… just looking up information on Alien makes me shiver. H.R. Giger, the xenomorph’s designer, is a fantastic mad-genius and an actual artist. Here’s the trailer, which perfectly encapsulates the horror and terror of Alien – by never showing the xenomorph itself. Even the trailer scares me to hell and back. Contrast that with Pitch Black, where weightless pseudo-xenomorphs – so many of them that they look like a flock of birds – sail through an underground cave, their intangible computerization so evident that it’s impossible to fear them at all. Here’s the Pitch Black trailer – despite the metal music and blinking expository text, it is a clear and inferior rip of the Alien trailer.

Spook movies have an easier time incorporating CG, because they can add textured layers of fuzzy dream-space that muffle the incongruencies of the CG and make everything look a little bit awkward, disjointed, fantastical, like you’re watching it through a filter of smoke – that’s why Darkness didn’t seem as awful, and it’s also the reason that Silent Hill‘s creepies, like Pyramid Head (who rather resembles the aliens in Pitch Black) are creepy even though they are clearly computer-generated. Spook movies that don’t slather on texture and insist on realism usually just end up showing their flaws – as in Book of Shadows, where the audience becomes very aware that they are watching something that is in no way real, and the suspension of disbelief is broken – unless they do not show anything, as was the original Blair Witch Project‘s method, or they are following the J-Horror shock-and-awe, uber-real method of bludgeoning the audience with disturbing imagery.

Science fiction, on the other hand, has to be realistic unless it wants to devolve into fantasy. That is an essential of futuristic fiction: the glaring red light of H.A.L. in 2001: A Space Odyssey is perhaps the ultimate symbol of this. The future, as both Hollywood and “Soviet” Russia imagined it, is cold, barren, steely, empty, and unabashedly industrial. Books may or may not have been burned. True, there are some sci-fi movies that deviate from this: the happy types, like Independence Day, which belong more to action-adventure than to science fiction. Otherwise, our fate has been sealed, and it is a world of gritty, heavy realism, monsters you can feel and smell. Ironic, I suppose, that there is really no room in science fiction-horror for computer generation.

Doubly ironic is the insistence that Darkness and Pitch Black have on the light vs. dark tired theme – “stay in the light”, Vin Diesel says in Pitch Black; “the darkness eats my pencils,” the little boy complains in Darkness. Of course, as a narrative theme, this is the ultimate cliche – absolutist codes, with no room for error or deviation, but yet not enough time or not enough respect for the intelligence of the audience to even expand on what “light” and “dark” really mean. It sort of reminds me of the terror alerts we have in the U.S. that base their colors on traffic signals – Red = Fear, and that’s all we need to know. It’s a very authoritarian style of filmmaking, the light vs. dark thing. It’s ironic because the very emphasis on darkness actually necessitates light and destroys the fear-illusion that cannot be supported by their subpar computer graphics.

The evil things are afraid of the light, meaning the main characters go around carrying flashlights or radioactive glow tubes. My roommate’s reaction to this was: “Good – draw more attention to yourself”. That is a plot functionality problem, and it implies that the monsters do not need light to see. Regarding the ghosts of Darkness, I can believe it; regarding the biological aliens in Pitch Black, who do not seem to have any method of generating their own light, I don’t. There’s another consequence of this light vs. dark dilemma, though – by hoisting glaring bright torches all the time, for the monsters to be seen at all, they must be up-close and personal, in a swath of unforgiving light that lays bare how very, very unreal and computerized they are. This kind of lighting eliminates shadows as a tool, which is probably why there are no torchlight-against-pitch-black scenes in Alien. The proper realm of horror is in the shadows, in the space between worlds. That’s where the monsters become real.

p. s. the fact that there are some members of our generation who enjoy Pitch Black is something that makes my roommate and I quite sad. I could write a whole ‘nother entry on the sexual implications of this – that Pitch Black is ultimately a very macho movie, where maximum security prisoner Vin Diesel struts around, actually wrestling the aliens in his ripped physique (my roommate and I were playing the “search for the phallic symbol” game, and decided that Vin Diesel is a phallic symbol, in and of himself) and the waif-ish captain of the ship, Radha Mitchell (a primly named Caroline), demonstrates her leadership qualities by self-sacrifice. And that Alien features the classic sci-fi no-bullshit heroine, Ellen Ripley, one of my favorite film characters ever. And I could speculate on what this says about my generation, that it produced Pitch Black. But like I said – that’s a whole ‘nother entry.

1. Name a movie that you have seen more than 10 times.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. I saw it in theaters, rented it twice for Christmas, bought it (and saw it endless times thanks to that), and accidentally caught it on television at least three times. I’ve probably seen the other two nearly as many times, but this one follows me home. I will defend this movie till I die.

2. Name a movie that you’ve seen multiple times in the theater.

I haven’t seen anything more than twice in the theater, but I have seen the following twice: Jurassic Park: The Lost World, Inside Man, Batman Begins, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Usually once with my mother and once with my friends.

3. Name an actor that would make you more inclined to see a movie.

It used to be Christian Bale, but then I saw Equilibrium and that is no longer true. Now it’s probably Viggo Mortensen and Joaquin Phoenix (for a mix of aesthetic pleasure and talent). For actresses, probably Cate Blanchett.  It used to be Jodie Foster, but I don’t know what the hell she thinks she’s doing, with the likes of The Brave One.  We’ll see if Elizabeth: The Golden Age ruins Cate’s no-fail standard too.

4. Name an actor that would make you less likely to see a movie.

Mel Gibson. Signs was before he had his “breakdown”.

5. Name a movie that you can and do quote from.

I can talk along to The Lord of the Rings movies, clearly, but my favorite quotes come from Jurassic Park.

jp_32.png

6. Name a movie musical that you know all of the lyrics to all of the songs.

Evita.  It’s a family tradition.

7. Name a movie that you have been known to sing along with.

I don’t sing during movies.

8. Name a movie that you would recommend everyone see.

See my Honor Roll.  All of those apply.

9. Name a movie that you own.

Um, I own more than a few.  Here’s one I haven’t mentioned: Walk The Line.

10. Name an actor that launched his/her entertainment career in another medium but who has surprised you with his/her acting chops.

Keith Richards.  Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.  Only thing I can think of.

11. Have you ever seen a movie in a drive-in? If so, what?

No.  No drive-ins exist anywhere I’ve lived.

12. Name a movie that you keep meaning to see but just haven’t yet gotten around to it.

See Up Next.

13. Ever walked out of a movie?

Not in a theater.  I have wanted to walk out of a few romantic comedies, like Failure to Launch, and some blatantly horrid movies, like The Libertine.  But I don’t waste eleven dollars.

14. Name a movie that made you cry in the theater.

Jet Li’s Fearless.

fearless009.jpg

15. Popcorn?

Yes.  No butter, no water needed.  But watch the movie.  It’s absolutely necessary for, say, King Kong, but not for, say, Jarhead.

16. How often do you go to the movies (as opposed to renting them or watching them at home)?

Depends.  In Melbourne I’ve only done so twice.  In New York, maybe once every two months.  In Lincoln, probably once a month or more.

17. What’s the last movie you saw in the theater?

Rush Hour 3.  Oh yes.  It wasn’t that bad, but you have to go in with no expectations.  I’m a fan of the Rush Hour movies.  They get away with so much racial innuendos, because the main characters are minorities, and they always team up on the white people.  It’s hilarious.  I think it’s the half-Asian in me, it makes me think I’m in on the joke.  My best friend’s Asian too, and my mother is practically Asian, given how much she knows Indonesia and Japan.

18. What’s your favorite/preferred genre of movie?

Bleak and surreal.

19. What’s the first movie you remember seeing in the theater?

Aladdin.  We saw the five o’clock show because the three o’clock show sold out, and the theater people wanted to make us stand in line for the entire two hours, but my mother bullied them into letting us buy tickets at three, and then we went and ate Baskin Robbins on the ground floor of the mall.  I was happy, but my parents weren’t.  Going to the movies in Jakarta is a very royal pain in the behind – there’s no such thing as buying tickets early, only waiting in lines and running to the correct ticket booth in a frenzy that could only exist in the third world.

20. What movie do you wish you had never seen?

The Producers.  There are a lot of bad movies out there, but none worse than this.

21. What is the weirdest movie you enjoyed?

Uh?  4Mulholland DriveBeing John Malkovich?  Oh, wait, Gozu – Takashi Miike, who’s clinically insane.

22. What is the scariest movie you’ve seen?

Depends on the definition of scary.  The Ring and Ju-On are two movies that I literally could not watch because they were, in a strictly sensual (eyes, ears) way, far too frightening for me.  I am not a fan of ghosts or deformities.  But in terms of psychologically scary for conceptual reasons, I would say Kairo, which I actually very much enjoyed.

23. What is the funniest movie you’ve seen?

Hot Fuzz.  Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are ridiculously talented (as is Edgar Wright, their writer).  Shaun of the Dead is number two.  My roommate and I think they should be required to make two movies a year, and they should do the antique-safari genre next.

hot-fuzz-03.jpg

24.  What is your favorite movie line ever?

“Where you’re going is the only place in the world where the geese chase you.” – Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park: The Lost World.

25.  Who is your favorite movie character?

Aside from being far too difficult of a question… I’ll have to say Kurtz of Apocalypse Now, partly because he’s played by Marlon Brando.

26.  What movie do you love that most people hate?

The Mothman Prophecies.  Random, but true.  It’s because most people expect a horror movie and it’s very slow without big shock scares.  But it’s a beautiful, haunting, quiet type of horror – there is a horror there.  A lot of people don’t like Contact either, though I don’t know why.

27.  What movie do you hate that most people love?

Several.  I’m a contrarian.  The Neverending Story, A Clockwork Orange (although I appreciate what it’s trying to do, I don’t think it does it well).  V For Vendetta, too – any political science major who loves this movie should be ashamed.  Not only is it terrible as a film – can you say amateur?  the dialogue was even worse than Children of Men – but its supposed radical political message is one that revolutionaries and marginalized people everywhere have known and lived by for years.  Obviously, the Del Toro and Cuaron twins too: Y Tu Mama Tambien, and Motorcycle Diaries.  Maybe I just don’t like the Latin American aesthetic, since I have massive problems with both boys (with the exception of The Devil’s Backbone and Harry Potter: The Prisoner of Azkaban).  And don’t forget the Star Wars behemoth.

28.  What was the last movie you watched on DVD?

Shaun of the Dead.  It was a re-watch.

29.  What was the first DVD you bought?

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.  It blew my mind.  I was an atheist before I saw that movie.    It has a strange kind of benevolent and inexplicable, unknowable mecha-deity, and buildings that take on a life of their own (see, the extinction aesthetic) – very reminescent of Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, a movie that had a similar effect on me.  I think it’s the postwar-Japanese aesthetic – philosophical and religious (Cormac McCarthy’s religiosity, though: shaking your fist at God), technologically-advanced and emotionally numb, until the extinction process is complete, an anti-Earth nirvana is reached – but do you want that nirvana at all? (see: Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion)  The scenes of New York submerged and then frozen still astound me.

30.  What movie have you seen that you never want to see again?

The Host.  It wrenched my heart.  It started out comedic and then became a total tragedy, and I hate it when movies trick me like that.

31.  What is your least favorite movie ever?

I have major problems with a couple movies I’ve never seen: Troy, Gladiator, Braveheart.  As for movies I have seen…  The Green Berets.  It should, for moral reasons, be illegal.  It’s a propaganda pro-war movie made in 1968 to silence those who didn’t support the Vietnam War.  It’s the only John Wayne movie I’ve ever seen.  His Vietcong-killing ways are questioned by a weak-spined embedded journalist, but John Wayne shows the stupid journo who’s boss.  Also features a little Vietnamese boy named – I kid you not – Hamchunk.

32.  Favorite soundtrack?

Too many.  Solaris is really good, though – instrumental, soft, moody… the kind of music that seems at first glance to be relaxing, but is actually hiding a deep fear and unease: “Is That What Everybody Wants?” is the title of one song, and “Maybe You’re My Puppet” is another – matches perfectly with the idea of a sentient god-planet.

33.   What classic movie are you embarrassed to admit you’ve never seen?

Many.  The Maltese Falcon, 12 Angry Men, Casablanca, The Manchurian Candidate.  I don’t watch classic movies, that’s why.

34.  Movie that should have won an Oscar but didn’t:

Apocalypse Now.  Christ.  The fact that the movie that won was about divorce in suburbia says a whole lot about America’s psyche.

apocalypse-now.jpg

Before I took this class, I considered myself a fairly high-brow moviegoer. In Lincoln, Nebraska, that’s not a hard designation to give yourself. I ran with the intellectually snotty crowd, the speech and debate team/math nerds/artisans, and even for them, Donnie Darko was considered artsy – being a connoisseur of foreign films meant seeing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I considered my politically active “thinking blockbusters” a sure mark of my intellectual superiority. Before I went to college, I think the least mainstream film I ever saw was Juliet of the Spirits, my mother’s favorite film when she was in college. I did not “get” it, to say the least.

I haven’t “gotten” most of the movies we’ve seen in World Screen: Aesthetics and Politics. I surely don’t feel like an intellectual cinephile anymore, but I’ve also come to realize that it’s all right not to “get” movies – that’s not really the point of cinema. I think it was 4 that broke down this mental obstacle, and I’m glad I met it. I do know new ways to think about how I’m thinking about – receiving, interacting with, forming memories of even while I watch – films, new things to consider.

Since aesthetics is the theme of the class, though, I am trying to figure out what my aesthetic is. I changed my top ten list during the last week, from where it sat unchanged since the beginning of the semester, and I think the new list reflects what I feel my aesthetic is. I write fiction too, so aesthetics are doubly important – it translates to “voice” in writing, and voice is something I have always struggled with. I always considered myself “versatile”, both in taste and style, but I think what I really meant was that I did not know what to call my own, what resonated in the soul. But I read an essay this semester while researching Japanese domestic politics that did resonate in the soul: “Revenge and Recapitation”, by Marilyn Ivy, in the anthology of essays, Japan After Japan (highly recommended, by the way). I didn’t even end up using the essay. It was far too psychocultural for a politics class obsessed with realism and strategy. But it said, in brief: “Embodying a consumerist and self-absorbed subjectivity (if one can still call it that), the young no longer have the capacity to die for anything; even their suicides are completely self-referential. If they could only be rearticulated as subjects of an intact nation-state in which war atrocities no longer figured as such, then the banality of everyday peace could be refigured. But to do so, they must be willing to die – sacrifice has to be made real – and to kill.”

Around this same time that I was researching Japan, my mother said to me that I really liked the theme of extinction, didn’t I. She’s right. Extinction is my aesthetic. The deterioration of civilization. And that’s the reason that my first favorite, soul-shaking film – the first movie that I did not love because I loved my father, now dead, or because I was proudly aware of political complexity, and I was a political science major, no, the first film I loved for no reason I could then discern – was Akira. I saw it the summer after my freshman year at college. It remains my second-favorite today, a close second to Apocalypse Now. To quote my blog, where I originally wrote the following paragraph,

Because it really shows Japan as a model – and possibly the only model, because it was the only country to receive an atomic bomb, let alone two – of what a post-apocalyptic society on Earth might look like. We destroyed Japan in World War II. With pardon to Holocaust victims, Japan experienced “destruction of the world in miniature form”. I don’t think anybody would argue that Akira is a response to that. In Akira, the atomic bombs are replaced with this boy-wonder, Akira, whose mental and psychic powers spiralled out of the control of his military programmers and resulted in a blast that wiped out Tokyo – thus the movie takes place in Neo-Tokyo. So, too, Japan survived, almost inexplicably. But it can’t return to the status quo, never. If you have fears, like I do, that the world is moving toward some kind of self-decimation, Japan is the forecast for the future, at least in terms of its people. I can see aspects of it emerging already, even outside Japan:

Thus Japanese youths are still being force-fed the anachronistic ideologies of modernization – taught to compete for the monolithic postwar Japanese middle-class goals of good diploma, good job at a big company, and good marriages (for girls) – centered on institutions such as homes, schools, and corporations that used to socialize individuals into national subjects. Yet the validity of this message is constantly undermined by images in the media and everyday experiences surrounding the youths. They cannot help but notice the deterioration of these once-unquestioned institutions and their creeds, and they see the unhappiness and self-destructive conducts of adults still tethered to them. The violence and moral paralysis of youths today, according to Murakami, is symptomatic of the profound and widespread confusion they suffer as the result of this contradiction. The adult Japanese, on the other hand, are wallowing in an acute sense of desolation; middle-aged Japanese men, for example, continue to cling to the corporate collective even though it no longer offers them a sense of larger purpose and meaning, as it did during the era of national modernization. (Japan After Japan, p. 39)

This is a best of a tangent, I know, but it explains my love for 4, especially of the parts no one else loves – the scenes of post-industrial Russia, with its fields of decay and its hostile dogs. They are, I think, open images, although the discourse they force is strictly between you and the panorama, between you and the civilization you belong to. It’s uncomfortable but it’s necessary, it’s profound.

It even explains why I said a couple years ago that my first favorite movie ever was Jurassic Park: life finds a way. I firmly believe that we are a phase on the planet, that biology is stronger than any one species – that’s my religion.

I’m not sure why this is my aesthetic, however. That would require some therapy. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s partly caused by general upheaval in the world – the massive changes that Felicity and others say are in the process of sweeping the globe, tsunami-like – and the general upheaval of my life. To call it the doomsday aesthetic would be wrong, however, because mine is quieter than that. It’s On The Beach, not The Day After Tomorrow. I guess this is the way I react to change. I’m a pessimist, but at the same time I’m naturally curious. All this probably makes you (as it makes me) wonder why I want to be a political analyst and make policy recommendations. I do have ethics, and I do not want the world to speed toward oblivion, but if it is, we have to find a way to live through it. I’m an INTJ, according to Myers-Briggs – I want to make the system work. 4 laughs at me for this, I know.

I also used to live in a decaying city, Jakarta. The more I find myself writing about Jakarta, the more I realize how much my ten years there affected me, even as a child. I keep thinking back to The Year of Living Dangerously, which I saw before I realized any of this. I think it’s the only Western movie that pretends to be set in Jakarta, or maybe all of Indonesia. It’s fascinating how the U.S. insists on ignoring Southeast Asia, no matter what, except when it’s impossible to avoid – the endless Vietnam War movies attest to this. Besides that, there’s Bangkok Hilton, The Beach, Brokedown Palace – all tales of tourists in Thailand who meet terrible drug-induced ends. I think Southeast Asia makes the United States terrifically uncomfortable, in a way that Africa, say, doesn’t. And I know why too: Africa is Europe’s problem, Europe’s slave-child. Southeast Asia was, in many ways, America’s unresolved elephant in the room that nobody talks about. Vietnam’s the center of America’s neurosis, and you can tell that by all the movies we’ve made about it. But consider that I can’t name an American movie set in Singapore or Malaysia or Laos. For that reason I’m thankful for The Year of Living Dangerously. As much as I criticize it for its Hollywood derivatives, there was a certain feel of Jakarta that it got right – the shadows in the alleys, the foreboding doom, the incredible alienation despite being surrounded by thousands of people. I was there, as a Chinese couple once told me, in the “good years”, the years before the Financial Crisis of 1997-98. But they weren’t really “good years”. That’s part of extinction’s illusion. That’s what we were told, yes – the economy is booming, everyone is happy. No need to be afraid. It didn’t explain the figurative hole-in-the-soul, though. And when the Crisis hit, the elaborately constructed illusion collapsed on itself, like the Wizard’s screen falling in The Wizard of Oz. Like the power outage in Jurassic Park, and Hammond’s false flea circus that all the little children did so believe was real – trapeze fleas, fleas on parade. Real flea circuses sometimes took to propping up dead fleas on pins to heighten the illusion of a working flea society. (Laura Dern in that movie: “You never had control. That’s the illusion.”) And that’s extinction. The collapse of systems.

Like the Radiohead song, “Fitter Happier” goes: “sleeping well, no bad dreams, no paranoia… more and more calculated, no chance of escape, not self-employed, concerned but powerless, an empowered and informed member of society, pragmatism, not idealism… the ability to laugh at weakness, calm, fitter, healthier, a pig in a cage on antibiotics”.

Speaking of songs, I actually have an “extinction” playlist. It’s called If Only Tonight We Could Sleep (named after a song by Explosions in the Sky), and it goes like this:

  1. Felbomlasztott Mentökocsi – Venetian Snares (instrumental)
  2. Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box – Radiohead (“I’m a reasonable man, get off my case/ after years of waiting, nothing came”)
  3. Mt. Eeire – the Microphones (“do you see what happens?/ when big black death breathes on you with his breath?/ I’m wild and woolly, a bloated bully, I’ll strike you down and then/ I’ll strike you down again”)
  4. Mezzanine – Massive Attack (“I’m a little curious of you in crowded scenes/ and how serene your friends and fiends/ you’d agree it’s a typical high, you fly as you watch your name go by, and once the name goes by/ not thicker than water, not thicker than mud/ and the AK thuds, it does”)
  5. Backdrifts – Radiohead (“we’re rotting fruit, we’re damaged goods, what the hell, we’ve got nothing more to lose/ one gust and we will probably crumble, we’re backdrifting/ this far – but no further – I’m hanging off a branch, I’m teetering on the brink of honey sweet, so full of sleep, I’m backsliding/ you fell into our arms, we tried but there was nothing we could do”)

When all is said and done, I’ve learned an awful lot about myself this semester. I’m not sure if what I’ve learned is pejoratively good or bad, but I think I’ve decided that that is in the eye of the beholder, as it were.

seven_swords_011_rgb_7ffc48b3125903a28384be1b9071d73d.jpg

I really don’t know what to make of Seven Swords. As Felicity said in class, it’s a bad movie. That’s an understatement that doesn’t even really need to be stated, but I’ll pause a bit to show what I mean.

People tend to be lenient with action movies – we don’t expect much – especially Eastern action movies – we don’t understand much – which makes the terrible reception somewhat more telling of exactly how bad Seven Swords is. It has a 23% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes, which takes mainly American/Canadian/British reviewers, with reviewers saying that “Tsui is capable of better than this” and expressing boredom, feeling unengaged. Asian reviewers haven’t smiled on it either. The Kung Fu Cult Cinema review (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai films and reviewers) cites a lack of sufficient action to make up for the subpar plot and shallow characters: “while each sword is unique in its own way, we only get a slight taste of their destruction” – he concludes it is “just another film in the large library of the wuxia genre”. Twitch, a review of self-described strange little films around the world, with an emphasis on Asian movies, does not even give it that honor: “A very disappointing film and falling far short of the mark in the wuxia genre”, faulting a disjointed narrative and cliched action sequences. Love Hong Kong Film was kinder – action, “iconic” characters, cinematic vibe are all “good enough”.

What I found most strange about Seven Swords was not the lackluster action or subpar narrative – that no longer surprises me, having spent a semester watching Taiwanese fantasy action-dramas – it was the pseudo-Western approach he took to his movie (Western as in the West, not as in cowboys, which would have been more interesting). Particularly the futuristic villains that looked like KISS fans and had spinning toothed wheels that cut limbs off with what appeared to be robotic power. Plus the scene at Mt. Heaven looked like it was sliced out of Batman Begins. The traditional vs. industrial theme is one usually hyped by European fantasizers – they have older, scarier dreams of the industrial revolution – Asians are still in the midst of their industrial revolution. I’m glad I’m not the only one that got the Lord of the Rings vibe: movieXclusive, a Singaporean site, felt the same: “a cousin of LOTR: The Two Towers, with its marauding band of villains and foot soldiers in black armour looking like nasty Uruk-hais, the heralding of villagers to safe haven, and the featuring of archers and cannons in battles. Some might even see similarities to the Star Wars subplot of the Jedi extermination here”.

I don’t see this as a bad thing – far be it for a biracial child to decry cultural experimentation – and when I saw the opening sequence, I was excited: old-style martial arts in a technologically advanced world on Asia’s terms? I’ve been waiting my whole life for this, I thought – it even reminded me of my novel. Besides, it’s a fitting response to the incorporation of wuxia themes into American action productions (see L. Crystal Michallet-Romero‘s thesis on this). One wonders if perhaps the China-thing might be replaced (or at least challenged) by the West-thing. Unfortunately, Seven Swords does not carry this (admittedly heavy) burden successfully. Whereas the far superior Once Upon a Time in China I and II offered insight into the depiction and portrayal of the West in Hong Kong thought, Seven Swords can’t comment on Tolkien or Lucas because it seems to forget about the obvious Western influence of the beginning in the second half. Whereas the Once Upon a Time in China movies actively engaged, through dialogue and characterization, with images of the West, Seven Swords simply takes these images like clothes, puts them on, and then kills the characters wearing them – no commentary, no critique.

To make it worse, Seven Swords does this to the detriment of its traditional wuxia elements (as the reviews indicate), as well as failing to evolve the way other recent wuxia films (Hero, Fearless, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) have of late. These other movies have shown a moral-spiritual elevation over violence and glory (as argued by The Straits Times), requiring strong central heroes with noble, self-sacrifical traits. Seven Swords is surprisingly devoid of such characters, instead letting the (rather Western) Three Musketeers’ all-for-one-and-one-for-all mentality succeed as all not only do the seven swordsmen survive unscathed, but none of them explicitly sacrifice anything for another (showing great divergence from the Seven Samurai Kurosawa picture it’s based on). Neither true wuxia nor an interesting merge, Seven Swords is left half-baked, halfway effort. If the West was the object-desire, this movie found a false version of it, but does not seem to be conscious that it is a false version, because it offers no commentary of potential falsehoods and discrepancies. Ironically, the audience realizes that our “Maltese Falcon” is false (as Mike Pinsky discusses in relation to Lacan), partly because the editing job – the “smoothing over” of the mirror to give the illusion of the complete whole – is so shoddy.

2003_cabin_fever_003.jpg

I know it isn’t a World Screen movie, but it came on television on Friday night, and my roommate and I refused to watch Troy for a variety of reasons, so we were left with Cabin Fever.  I had heard of it from somewhere – or maybe it was while researching Hostel.  Anyway: College kids go out to hicksville, rent a cabin, and come into contact with a deadly flesh-eating virus that slowly consumes them all.

The reviews – which I only read after watching the movie – suggested a cinematic experience quite different from the one I had.  Richard Roeper unsurprisingly called the movie an “ugly gorefest” – he’s the conservative of the couple, after all – while Roger Ebert admitted that director Eli Roth was “trying to do about four things at once, to make a horror film, a comedy, a satire, and a political parable about infectious diseases and none of them work”.  Hackneyed, they called it – cliched.  I think these reviews are unfair.  I did see the substantially cut television version, devoid of a dog mauling a dead body (although plenty of corpses with the flesh eaten off), but I’ve seen far worse gore.  More importantly, I think Eli Roth is trying to do something new with Cabin Fever.

The beginning of the movie is far from interesting.  That’s the part that reads like a typical horror movie.  There’s the Good Girl, the Good Guy, the Slutty Girl, the Bad-Ass Guy, and the Stupid Guy.  There’s also the crazy yokels at the general store, racist and inbred.  They all act according to their roles.   But after an afternoon of sweet romancing (for the Good Girl and Guy), hot sex (for the Slutty Girl and Bad-Ass Guy), and shooting squirrels and a diseased hick (for the Stupid Guy), things start going a little bit off – not just the meat, but the formula, and it’s all started by a pothead from California named Justin, who calls himself Grim, who used to compete in the X-Games and has a dog named Doctor  Mambo.

After five minutes with Grim, he is never seen again (whole, that is), and at first we tried to figure out why Grim was introduced at all.  We decided it was to give Good Guy a truck to drive to town later on, but this could have been managed without such intent focus on  Grim (such focus in a horror movie usually implicates Grim as the bearer of a Dark Secret or as the villain himself).  But Grim marks the departure from all rationale in Cabin Fever.  After this the formula cracks – the Good Girl is the first to get infected and is quarantined to the shed, where she dies; the Stupid Guy turns out to have the best survival instincts; the Slutty Girl displays the most loving and maternal behavior out of everyone; the Good Guy becomes a skillful killer of innocent people in addition to displaying astounding stupidity; the Bad-Ass Guy, after abandoning the others, comes back to the cabin after the rest are dead and though at first he seems to cry and show remorse, he starts smiling and laughing: “I made it!  I made it!”  Then of course there’s the “worst cop ever” whose sole philosophy is partying, and who only agrees to kill Good Guy after he chases the other party-goers away by killing a few with guitars and vomiting blood on some others (this movie was also reminescent of 28 Days Later for this and many other reasons, although in substance alone, not style), saying, “You killed the party, man!”  And if that’s not enough to convince you of this movie’s psychosis, it ends with the cops stopping by the general store to drink some contaminated lemonade – suddenly rap music intrudes on hicksville and a group of black teenagers walks toward the store.  You remember from earlier that the store owner has some means of disposing of black people, being the hick he is, and you see him hurry into the store with a scowl.  Inside the store, he takes a rifle off his shelf as the black teens approach – then hands it to the first one, singing the rifle’s praises, and starts to greet them with ghetto handshakes, saying, “word” and “dog” and all of that.  Yes, a fact we learned in the beginning of the movie is now null.

In the hands of a less skilled director I would submit Cabin Fever‘s lack of logical flow to Something Awful‘s movie reviews.  Yet, I don’t write off this one.  There is a fair amount of cinematographic coherence, after all – as the movie winds on the cuts and flashbacks and random flashes of red all serve to remind the viewer of what “cabin fever” really is: “a condition that produces restlessness and irritability caused from being in a confined space”.  Informally, it drives people mad, and what are we if sitting still watching a movie about college kids being picked off one by one in a remote location if not trapped in a confined space of the mundane horror plot?  No wonder we, like Good Guy’s hallucination in the hospital of a large bunny-suited man leaning over another patient (Donnie Darko‘s Frank, perhaps?  He’s listed as “we’ll never tell” in the credits), start seeing things.

So yes, this movie degenerates into a hallucination.  It doesn’t have the sharp technological awareness of The Signal, so all it can manipulate is plot and vision, but it does so fairly convincingly.

Toward the end, the Good Guy has smashed up hicks that have come to kill them (an admitted homage to The Hills Have Eyes) and is searching for help or civilization, whichever comes first.  He’s stolen Grim’s truck and is driving down the highway when he runs into a deer, which inexplicably has two of its legs stuck in the windshield and starts frantically flailing them in Good Guy’s face, like it’s dancing – it’s a spastic, maddening scene of pure absurdity, and my favorite in the whole movie, I have to say – until he shoots the creature off the hood, then gets out and looks at it for a while, as if remembering he’s supposed to be Good.  The car engine then inexplicably dies (perhaps a nod to the inane plot devices that riddle most horror movies).  Cut then, to a new group of college students partying by a bonfire, just like our crew was before the virus came – a stranger comes out of the woods, interrupting their normality, covered in blood.  We know, of course, that it’s Good Guy, but they see the same thing that our main characters saw when the diseased stranger came rambling up to their front door – a threat, a bloody disgusting menace whose pleas for help must not only be turned down, but forever suppressed in violent death.  Except Good Guy manages to kill them or otherwise frighten them away.

And I think that’s a good analogy to what shoestring-budgeted Cabin Fever is trying to do to the horror genre as a whole.  I wouldn’t interpret this scene or the quarantine theme as some kind of sociopolitical commentary on the state of the world as a whole – I would, however, concede that it’s commentary on the state of the horror movie.  Good Guy reaches this semi-climax after having a realistic reaction to a crisis, because what is realistic in a horror situation is a bloody disgusting mess of a plot with no neat wrap-ups, no satisfying endings, no narrative coherence.  That’s what actually happens to people in crisis situations, but formulas, like most anti-crisis systems, defy realism in favor of practiced procedure.  Cabin Fever is the threat, the mess, the nonsensical stranger, breaking the calm of the standard formulaic Hollywood horror and butchering it.  And for that, it’s bloody wonderful.

(throughout the movie, I kept thinking of the video for “No One Knows”, by Queens of the Stone Age.  especially when the deer went through the windshield.)

springsummer20a.jpg

Rituals are used to tie together communities, to reinforce identity. They are necessarily meaningful and repetitive. Often times they are associated with spirituality and with the intangible – intangible rewards, intangible bonds. They are particularly important in the establishment of a “nation” – as in, a group of people who share commonalities, esp. a common history – thus, the nation as an “imagined community” (Benedict Anderson).

Still, there is a possible negative aspect of rituals. As the Strictly Film School blog says in reviewing Kim Ki-Duk’s Time: “the metaphoric collapse… of humanity itself, where identity is reduced to the reinforcement of meaningless social rituals”. So when rituals lose their meaning, they lose their emotional power, even though society may still require them to be enforced. Rituals might lose their meaning if they lose their relevance – if the external world changes too much, and the once-potent rituals become backward. This plays a role in the loss of traditions. Other times, rituals may be meaningless because they never had a meaning to begin with (but were reinforced in order to uphold, say, market capitalism or a totalitarian government). Rituals can also be directly harmful to certain members of society, and as a society’s values change, these rituals are increasingly seen in a negative light – in order to reduce their social power, these “negative” rituals are seen as “meaningless”. Time, about the evils of plastic surgery, (too) blatantly criticizes Korea’s social norms. Most critics saw Time as overwrought, too moralistic in its condemnation of the Korean plastic surgery trend.

Spring, Summer, however, is criticized for not being critical enough of these negative social rituals, but celebrating them instead, even if it means “selling” “authentic” Korea or reinforcing Korea’s patriarchy (“the killings are all forced upon animals and women… Why doesn’t Mom get to carve through her so-called ‘sin’?” – Adam Hartzell).

Spring, Summer is a very meditative movie.  It is an example of “a historical, situated film: a body that intends in relation to the world and other films… ethically-invested. The materiality of the (non-metaphorical) film-body claims its world – the vagaries of time and space are brought together, are synthesised in its experience… active cinema allows us to see film-intention in action” (Daniel Frampton, Phenomenology).  Likewise, as Amos Gitaï (director of Kadosh, a movie about Judaism made by a nonreligious Israeli, and has been criticized as demeaning Orthodox Jews – an interesting common experience he shares with Kim Ki-Duk) says, “cinema often has a ritualistic element. You have a fetish, a very powerful fetish, and that is the camera. Sometimes it is too powerful. [The camera] moves, circling objects and human beings. In a way, that is what [religious] ritual was always about.”

Everything in Spring, Summer is deliberate, and makes ample use of both time and space in order to create a kind of intangible order and structure. The cinematography is ritualistic: every season opens with the ceremonial doors at the edge of the lake opening through no human power; the slow repetition of the animals held down by stones.

Spring, Summer is full of ritualistic performance too – scheduled prayer, walking through doors when there is no wall, because the division between rooms must be somehow upheld. However, these rituals are not static: in Spring, they are respected and taught; in Summer, they are broken, with the result of the young monk leaving the temple for the “material world”. At the beginning of Fall, we learn that the young monk has killed his wife. If critics stop here, it is easy to conclude that Kim Ki-Duk is both orientalizing Korea (by stressing the traditional rituals as good, pure, natural), and reinforcing social norms (because not following the social norms of walking through doors, not sitting on Buddhas, listening to your elders results in murder; women are the bringer of men’s corruption).

However, penance and correction of the balance are not associated with a complete return to the norms of Spring. While carving the sutras is a form of Buddhist spiritual therapy, painting them multiple colors is not (neither is using a cat’s tail to paint the sutras). The ritual is embellished. Nor does the “spiritual cleansing” of the cops (they participate in painting) result in the young monk escaping punishment – the modern world cannot be ignored, and its laws must be enforced. The world has changed; the ritual changes with it. Unlike the old monk who sleeps through the night as if disturbances in the temple don’t exist, in Winter the young – now adult – monk consciously acknowledges that the wall to the bedroom does not exist and watches the crying woman through the empty space, although the door is still respected. The ritual is altered. The ritual of final penance of dragging the stone up the hill and meditating at the top of the hill is one Kim Ki-Duk invented. A ritual is invented.

So what is the ethical intention of this reconfiguration of ritual? Maybe it has to do with the reconfiguration of norms -> the subtle reshaping of social norms. Social norms and politics are in dialogue – as one changes, the other must adjust, however slowly. Spring, Summer doesn’t reflect a reinforcement of social norms, but a subtle shifting of them, as seen through changing rituals. By adapting to changing external contexts (namely political contexts), the temple neither gives in to the force of change nor completely retreats from the force of change.

In Kim Ki-Duk’s 3-Iron, a similar evolution occurs. A man breaks into houses when no one’s home to eat their food and drink their tea; when a married woman turns out to be home, they fall in love, and try to create a home-like atmosphere that has to be conscious of existing social norms and try to get around them by being subversive.
Cynthia Fuchs writes of it: “Together they live as pseudo ghosts, unmoored to any address or community, losing and also finding themselves in the shadows of others.”

So as Korean cinema is reined in by censorship, rituals are re-imagined, reconfigured, reborn (rebirth is a theme that Spring, Summer meditates on) in order to survive in the new political environment while still maintaining space for another vision of the world, whether it is traditional/Buddhist/Christian/something else entirely.

Seen another way, this process might reflect the nation-state’s efforts to survive the wave of globalization. Some scholars view the fates of nation-states as either: 1) becoming absorbed into a homogenized world/Western culture; or 2) becoming anti-modern and degenerating into local identities and conflicts, tribal warfare. But there is a third path – the nation-state can adapt to the social, cultural, economic, technological, military changes that globalization brings and survive.