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Annihilation

The best thing about Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy is its uncompromising weirdness — its straightforward facing of the possibility that, should we ever make contact with an alien intelligence, that intelligence might be so alien that we simply cannot understand it at all, in any way — that its motives (if it has “motives”) and its technology (if it has “technology”) could be so utterly disconnected from what we think of as motives and technology as to be utterly inscrutable. The movie Annihilation is pretty weird at times, but not nearly as weird as its source material, and its steady domestication of that material takes the edge off the story. In the moments that it embraces the weirdness, it’s memorable, but there aren’t very any such moments. It’s okay; but no more than okay.

For what it’s worth, I have never seen trailers that look as bad as Ready Player One and A Wrinkle in Time. Both of them give every indication of being absolute turkeys — Ishtar-level turkeydom. Yeeessh.

On Erik Stevens

I am breaking my Lenten silence because (a) I am a poor excuse for a Christian and (b) I can’t stop thinking about Black Panther. The movie had some flaws — chief among them, I think, the exceptionally poor CGI, which is really unforgivable in a film that depends so much on CGI — but the story is the strongest, most coherent, and most meaningful one of any film in the MCU.

But you know what could have made it even better?

Let’s consider Erik Killmonger for a moment: a man whose justifiable rage at injustice (against him and against the world’s black people) has turned him into a psychopath. We see him kill several people he doesn’t have to kill, and Lord knows how many more of those there are in his past. He is, as T’Challa says, a monster (and, as T’Challa also says, one of Wakanda’s own making). But what if he weren’t a monster?

Imagine an Erik Stevens with all of the same warrior’s skills and commitment to justice who channels his rage into strategy. Who understands the fear of the ruling families of Wakanda and seeks to win them, and the people as a whole, over to his side. Who has a dream, a dream of liberation for black people around the world, and of Wakanda as the agent of that liberation — and who can powerfully and passionately articulate that dream.

He’s never going to win over Shuri, of course. But while she may be the only supergenius, she’s not the only brilliant scientist/technologist in Wakanda. Others might well rally to King N’Jadaka, seeing his plan as one that could make them famous and influential — could make them, literally, world-changers. The new King would also have the Dora Milaje on his side — something even Killmonger manages, before he throws that boon away — which would be a powerful visual manifestation of his kingship.

What then? Could T’Challa hope to reclaim his throne when such a king has claimed it, and, according to the laws of Wakanda, rightfully claimed it? Would he not go down in Wakanda’s history as the weak son of a weak king, capable of no more than scrabbling to preserve Wakanda’s secret wealth, lacking compassion for the world’s oppressed black peoples, lacking the vision to bring Wakanda to its proper place on the world stage, as a king among nations?

That probably wouldn’t be good for the MCU franchise, of course (though I can imagine some interesting possibilities). But maybe T’Challa as tragic hero, destroyed by Nemesis, would be the best T’Challa of all.

Babette the Artist

This is a slightly edited version of a post I published a long time ago at The American Conservative. The original has disappeared — removed, I suspect, by someone who has a different interpretation of Babette than I do. Well, this is another reason for me to own my own turf!

Rod Dreher calls our attention to this post about cooking the central dish from Babette’s Feast. The movie is rightly legendary among food lovers and cooks, partly for reasons specified by J. Bryan Lowder here:

Contrast that with Babette. My favorite scene in the film comes after the last, glistening course has been served, when she finally sits for a moment in the kitchen, her skin dewy from work, quietly sipping a glass of wine. The satisfaction on her face is the kind that can only come from the knowledge that you have created something that sustains both the bodies and the spirits of the people in your care. Indeed, Babette’s story is an argument for the idea that spending money, time, and energy cooking for friends is the best gift a home cook can give, especially if they enjoy themselves so much that they practically forget who’s behind the stove.

But: in the great story by Isak Dinesen on which the movie is based, Babette isn’t cooking for anyone else at all. She knows that when she cooks she makes people happy, but that isn’t why she cooks. At the end of the story, when the women who employ her learn that she spent all her savings to buy the ingredients for the magnificent meal they and their friends have just eaten, they are deeply moved. But they get a response from Babette they don’t expect.

Philippa’s heart was melting in her bosom. It seemed that an unforgettable evening was to be finished off with an unforgettable proof of human loyalty and self-sacrifice.

“Dear Babette,” she said softly, “you ought not to have given away all you had for our sake.”

Babette gave her mistress a deep glance, a strange glance. Was there not pity, even scorn, at the bottom of it?

“For your sake?” she replied. “No. For my own.”

She rose from the chopping block and stood up before the two sisters.

“I am a great artist!” she said.

She waited a moment and then repeated: “I arn a great artist, Mesdames.”

Again for a long time there was deep silence in the kitchen.

Then Martine said: “So you will be poor now all your life, Babette?”

“Poor?” said Babette. She smiled as if to herself. “No, I shall never be poor. I told you that I am a great artist. A great artist, Mesdames, is never poor. We have something, Mesdames, of which other people know nothing.”

Indeed, Babette’s art gives great pleasure to others — but she does not care. How other people feel about her work is a matter of complete indifference to her, because she knows herself to be a great artist and therefore to be utterly superior to them, to be made of different stuff. Lowder writes, “The satisfaction on her face is the kind that can only come from the knowledge that you have created something that sustains both the bodies and the spirits of the people in your care” — but nothing could be farther from the truth for the Babette of the original story.

There is, from our point of view, which is necessarily that of the sisters, something inhuman about Babette. “Philippa went up to Babette and put her arms round her. She felt the cook’s body like a marble monument against her own, but she herself shook and trembled from head to foot.” Lowder believes, and I guess the movie believes, and certainly I believe, in the beauty of a gift that is both given and received in love. But that is not what happens in the story. There Babette loves only her art. That that art pleases us is not, in her view, worthy even of consideration, and when the importance of our pleasure is suggested to her she responds with contempt.

The movie of Babette’s Feast is lovely, I think, but it takes, or can be read to take, Philippa’s view of the matter: “It seemed that an unforgettable evening was to be finished off with an unforgettable proof of human loyalty and self-sacrifice.”  It is therefore something of a sentimentalizing of the story on which it is based, which does not care about gift and grace but rather limns the peculiar character of the capital-A Artist.

the casting game

Everyone who loves movies plays the Casting Game: Who would you cast if you could make a movie based on this novel or that comic? My son and I play this game on a regular basis and so have developed a series of more-or-less formal rules: for instance, he decreed some time ago that suggesting Daniel Day-Lewis for pretty much any part amounts to using a cheat code: not the sort of thing a person who takes a game seriously should do.

But that example raises another question: Is Day-Lewis eligible for the game at all?

There are two general version of the Casting Game, and it can only be played properly once you decide which version you’re using:

  1. Only actors who are active, age-appropriate, and available may be considered. For instance, if you try to cast a good Fantastic Four movie, you can’t pick Mark Ruffalo as Reed Richards. In the Marvelworld, he’s taken. (But Ruffalo would be a great Richards.) And now you can’t cast Daniel Day-Lewis in anything, because he has retired from acting to become a dressmaker. You can’t say “A young Meryl Streep would be great” for this or that part.
  2. In this second version, you can cast anyone from any time. I can do what I’ve wanted to do for thirty years now: cast a young Day-Lewis in an adaptation — to be written by myself — of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. (Other cast members: a young Naomi Watts as Sonia and a middle-aged Wallace Shawn as Porfiry Petrovich.)

My son thinks that V1 offers the proper degree of challenge, while V2 is the equivalent of playing a video game on the easiest setting. I am not so sure — but of course, that may be because I’ve watched more old movies than he has, which gives me a bit of an advantage while playing V2. I like V2 because it allows the imagination free play: it’s wonderful, I think, to consider what a Batman movie directed by Billy Wilder would look like, especially if it starred the best possible Bruce Wayne: Cary Grant.

On the other side of the ledger, a significant advantage for V1 is that what it imagines could possibly happen, which can make for some real excitement.

So maybe the best way to think about V1 and V2 is not as versions of the same game, but as two completely different endeavors. But in any case, you have to know what the rules are before you play, or bickering will ensue.

A plea for The Replicant Edit

I do not believe that there are any exceptions to the rule that big-budget Hollywood action movies today — within which I include many SF and all superhero movies — possess the following traits:

  • They’re at least 30 minutes too long;
  • Most of that excessive length results from the decision to stage one massive action set-piece too many;
  • The decision to stage one massive action set-piece too many stems, in turn, from the catastrophically erroneous belief that raising the stakes — putting a city or (better) a country or (better still) a planet or (even more better) the universe or (best of all) ALL THE UNIVERSES THERE EVER WERE OR EVER COULD BE at risk — will increase viewers’ emotional investment in the story;
  • In order to turn the screw of tension ever tighter, some characters will be made to behave in ways wildly inconsistent with what they appear to be throughout most of the movie, while other characters will be pressed towards the abaolute extremes of heroism or wickedness.

I don’t think my claims here are seriously contestable, which leaves us with two kinds of movie viewers: those who don’t mind, and those who mind: those who can accept these traits as conventions of the genre and move beyond them in evaluating the success or failure of a picture, and those who can’t be reconciled to these traits.

I am in the latter camp, which is why I am not as crazy about Blade Runner 2049 as many of my friends. BR2049 is visually and aurally stunning — and I mean truly stunning: I am very happy that I got to experience the movie at an Alamo Drafthouse, where they really care about both projection and sound quality. But the screenplay is often inept, and the pacing is abysmally bad. During the interminable final fight scene I got seriously drowsy, and and possibly would have nodded off altogether if it hadn’t been for the occasional loud noises.

I read or heard somewhere that Denis Villanueve has said that there won’t be a director’s cut of BR2049 because “This is the director’s cut.” Well, good. But what we need instead is a Phantom Edit-style reduction. Call it The Replicant Edit. My suggestions: first, do away with that last big fight scene, and second (this is even more important), eliminate Jared Leto’s Wallace altogether. Delete him. Wallace is the Jar Jar Binks of BR2049. A number of people have complained about Leto’s performance, but I don’t blame him: the part is horrifically badly written, and literally no actor in the world could have made it work. In fact, everything between the crucial meeting in Las Vegas and the final scene could be done away with: the whole Replicant Resistance is introduced only in order to Raise Those Stakes and give K some information that he could have gotten in any number of other ways.

With all the crap out of the way, we’d have a story that is just as visually and aurally powerful as the version now on display, and one focused more consistently on Ryan Gosling’s K, who is the heart and soul of the movie. (N.B.: soul.) Gosling’s performance is truly remarkable, and his part is brilliantly written, thank God: through K all the questions about what it means to be human that were raised so powerfully and disturbingly in Blade Runner are extended and developed here with a shrewdness that quite overcomes all the fears fans of the original had about the likelihood of ham-fisted answers to subtle questions. If the internal crisis of Gosling’s K could be brought more consistently to the movie’s center of attention, BR2049 would be a worthy successor to the original, and the two films together would make a profound diptych for the emergent Age of AI. As it stands, I’m just looking forward to buying the Blu-Ray and skipping the scenes I hate. I think some important matters might come clear for me then.

“this is what you no longer understand”

We live in an era in which the overwhelming majority of filmgoers will have no experience of military life whatsoever, either as veterans or relatives thereof. “Dunkirk,” a visually stunning film—overwhelming in IMAX— will not give those audience members the illusion that by having watched the film they understand what war is. They will be moved, I’m sure; this particular story cannot be anything but. But its very distance from the communal character of military experience marks it as a film of our time trying to reach back to another era, when military culture was more generally understood, and show us: see, this is what you no longer understand.

Noah Millman

“Picturization”

Is it a good movie? No, not if you want plots you can follow and visuals that don’t seem to be maiming themselves. (On the other hand, why would you?) But it’s greater and stranger than most conventionally good movies because of this bizarre thematic Möbius strip: Welles tried to make a personal artistic statement out of a B-movie thriller, and the thriller became the exact nightmare he was trying to make a statement about. In a way, the art was more self-aware than he was; it refused to stop being life. He had built the hall of mirrors, then found that he’d wandered into it. Audiences in 1948, when Columbia released the film in America, were not prepared for something this opulently broken. The movie flopped.

Brian Phillips on The Lady from Shanghai

In 2005, The Lancet published a comprehensive review of the literature on media violence to date. The bottom line: The weight of the studies supports the position that exposure to media violence leads to aggression, desensitization toward violence and lack of sympathy for victims of violence, particularly in children.

In fact the surgeon general, the National Institute of Mental Health and multiple professional organizations — including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association — all consider media violence exposure a risk factor for actual violence.

To be fair, some question whether the correlations are significant enough to justify considering media violence a substantial public health issue. And violent behavior is a complex issue with a host of other risk factors.

But although exposure to violent media isn’t the only or even the strongest risk factor for violence, it’s more easily modified than other risk factors (like being male or having a low socioeconomic status or low I.Q.).

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