Storm’s a-coming: a review of “The Dark Knight Rises”

“You think this can last?” says a master-thief Catwoman to Batman. “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”

I like to think that fiction, though it is (and must necessarily be, contrary to what the postmodernists had hoped) a structured dream, a slave to convention and the narrow limits of a satisfying human story arc—though fiction is all these things, that it can be more; and I leave that ‘more’ undefined, because it must be.  Fiction is not a panacea; it is not an oracle which can predict the future.  It cannot deify us.  It is not revelation, to be used as a lens through which to interpret and explain every whim of fate and development of the news.  It doesn’t have that much power.  And it certainly isn’t an efficient vessel for philosophy, contrary to what Ayn Rand clearly wished.  All fiction can do is reflect (imperfectly) our world, and all we can hope is that we can learn something from those discrepancies.  And be entertained in the process.

Well, Christopher Nolan’s final piece in the Dark Knight trilogy does seem to reflect our world—strikingly.  In Gotham City, we have a world unsure of itself.  Where the normal distinctions between right and wrong, between good and evil, are in such a late stage of breakdown, that questions about a character’s morality almost cease to be relevant—replaced, it seems, by convoluted contests of ego.  We have small-minded corporate men who, in their blind hunger for wealth and consolidation, unleashed forces they had not the foresight to see would destabilize and engulf their own fragile power structure.  We have leaders who, after building lie upon lie to protect the people from a horrible truth about the lesser evils they once had to commit, have lost sight of what they were even trying to accomplish in the first place.  We have a massive research juggernaut turning out marvels of technology, only to see them repurposed and used against the very ones they were designed to protect. And we have a people so misguided, faced with so many unanswered questions, that they see phantom enemies in every shadow, and are willing to accept any creed that will afford some modicum of certainty.  And remember, I speak here not about America, but about Nolan’s Gotham City (those who haven’t seen the movie will have to trust me on that).

And what arises from this kind of listless confusion?  None other than our old friend, Fundamentalism.  Fundamentalism shines a light amidst the moral darkness.  It gives the hopelessly lost a strictly defined path to follow.  It gives a sense of purpose to those who might believe their condition meaningless and futile.  And above all, it gives us a simple story.  It reorganizes an unfathomable chaos into clearly defined camps of good and evil, of us and the other, makes the world intelligible again.  It speaks to a kind of Bronze Age nostalgia for simplicity, for the desire to not compromise or question oneself.

The Dark Knight Rises is a movie, above all else, about fundamentalism and its consequences.  Its villain, Bane, recruits orphans and cast-offs of the system and spouts rhetoric that would be at home in the mouth of a Goebbels or of a certain Dark Ages religious unifier and general whom I choose not to name here.  The parallels between Bane’s takeover and the early stages of the French Revolution are so obvious as to come off as a little heavy-handed.  Bane leads a popular coup, and plays a convincing Robespierre to the disenfranchised and angry Gotham citizens’ Parisian mob.  An economic leveling ensues.  Socialites are turned out of their posh apartments.  A court sans jury or appeal (headed by a deliciously imperious Cilian Murphy) orders the death of various loyalists to the previous order.  A pseudo-Bastille (Gotham Prison) is even stormed!  The allusion is complete.

Can what’s left of Batman, the recluse and former billionaire (penniless due to the aforementioned stock market shenanigans) get his act together and beat ‘the bad guys’ (always a tricky label in the Batman series), or is his vision of justice just as outmoded as Commisioner Gordon’s, or anyone else’s, for that matter?  Can he play the role of a beleaugered and compromised, though still thoroughly dedicated hero, the very symbol we (and I mean we as Americans, just as much as the Gothamites) desperately need?  Or are heroes just a pop culture throwoff, a naiive dream?

As stated above, I have nothing much to say about the real-world parallels I see in Nolan’s epic.  I can only outline them as I have, and (without spoiling the movie) leave the audience to decide precisely what the director was trying to tell us.  Perhaps nothing.  Perhaps it was just great entertainment.  And great it was: I give The Dark Knight Rises five melodicas out of five.

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“I’m not even supposed to be here today!”: The Quick Stop where Clerks was filmed

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Me loitering outside of the Quick Stop where Clerks was filmed; a hidden backstreet in New Jersey.

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Looks like times have changed in Dante’s hometown.  Or have they just stayed the same?

What do we do now?: an analysis of “Garden State”

Spoiler Alert

Why am I writing this right now, a blog entry that few people will ever see, on a movie that has been reviewed and analyzed to death by countless others with more credentials and experience than me?

Writing a blog gives me a sense of accomplishment, despite the fact that, since by some estimates, there is one blog for every six people on earth, blogging is rather like shouting into an abyss. Ah! What an apt topical reference, since the dvd cover of this movie, Garden State, is a shot of the three main characters shouting into what they call the “infinite abyss,” an underground cavern of indefinite depth recently uncovered by the attempted construction of a supermall just outside of Newark, New Jersey.

Zach Braff’s choice to give his twentysomething coming-of-age (or not) romantic comedy the setting of New Jersey is fitting for a number of reasons.  First, as per the oft-given advice of ‘write what you know,’ Braff himself grew up in the state, and had a background and early life not unlike his alter ego, Andrew Largeman: pushed by high-powered parents, pumped full of antidepressant drugs for perceived ‘disorders’ since before puberty, and driven forward only by the vague, oft-cited dream of becoming an actor.

Second, New Jersey has a fairly long history in our culture as a byword and synecdoche for greater suburbia, dating back at least to Kevin Smith’s Clerks, which takes as its subject a similar group of comfortably numb, idle youths.  While it has been made prosperous by its location within the Northeastern corridor, convenient proximity to major cities like Philadelphia and New York, abundance of ready-to-develop farmland, and string of Atlantic vacation towns, New Jersey in itself really has no reason to exist, or at least to boast the massive population it does.  It is a place of strip-malls, boarding schools, office complexes, and bedroom communities, where baby boomers went to buy McMansions and plunk their families, while they communted into the city to win the bread, and where, to this day, most of their progeny still languish, living out various degraded versions of ‘the Dream.’  Though the state is by no means as socially homogenous as it is often portrayed, New Jersey remains entrenched in our minds as the quintessential example of what rabble-rouser James Howard Kuntsler calls “The Geography of Nowhere.”

And that’s precisely where Largeman and his friends find themselves, ten years or so after graduation: nowhere.  Their disillusionment is palpable, and all the more humiliating and pathetic for their recognition that they have little to be disillusioned about, little justification to feel that they missed out on something, or were dealt a bad hand.  After all, none of them are starving, or without a home.  (it is perhaps this very inability to articulate their failures, even to remember what their vague, unrealistic dreams once were, that left Largeman’s generation doomed. What is worse, to have a plan and fail in its execution, or to never have had a plan at all?  Theirs is the latter, a problem too deep and systemic to be solved even by the herculean effort of a rom-com trope like the fairy-tale ending (as we shall see).

Take Largeman’s friend Mark (played brilliantly by Peter Saarsgard).  A stay-at-home son and part-time grave-digger, with ‘investments’ like Star Wars figurines and Desert Storm trading cards, who hosts parties in his parents’ circa-seventies wood-panneled rancher and hustles big box stores with fake returns for pocket money.  His mother (who is romantically involved with one of her son’s former classmates, a timid clerk in a medieval-themed fast food joint who appears onscreen in full knight’s armor) keeps urging her son Mark to ‘apply himself’ and buy some ‘real-estate tapes’ to learn the biz and make a fortune, so the disfuncional family can ‘buy a yacht.’  These scenes barely require commentary.  With a keen eye for the absurd, director Braff really piles the levels of unreality and dream-logic on here.

Every character in the movie, in one way or another, is floating in a fallen fantasy land—not living a life, but rather acting a part, chronically uncomfortable in his or her own skin.  Early on, Largeman is pulled over by one of his old schoolchums, a former cokehead-turned police officer who, after letting him go, asks Largeman tentatively of his own macho performance, “How’d I do?”, and then quotes a Robert De Niro movie.  This is characteristic of Largeman’s friends.  Raised on Hollywood and having grown up insulated from the exigencies of reality, they have no references but fictional ones.  Anything they do will be acting, for they’ve never had to ‘do’ anything; only play the part.

And the problem is not simply a financial one; these kids (for what else can one call them; not adults, surely) are not failures simply because they can’t find decent jobs and still live with their parents.  Take the super-nerd Jesse, who earned a fortune from “the Man” through his patent on silent velcro.  When Andrew and Sam visit his freshly constructed and unfurnished mansion (still in their old neighborhood, of course; no one moves away) he introduces them to his favorite pastime: shooting a flaming arrow directly up into the air, and then dodging as it plummets down upon him.  When they ask what else he’s been doing lately, the lucky inventor says, “Nothing—really.  I’ve never been so bored in my life.”  The malaise of these people is independent of material prosperity—what they lack is not quantifiable, and their condition can’t be remedied by anything you can find at the department store or on the prescription counter.

It’s not all negative, though.  These man-children and girl-women can be endearing in their childishness—like Largeman’s girlfriend Sam, who still eulogizes and buries her pets in a giant pet cematery in the back yard, next to the abandoned above-ground pool.  Largeman himself, as he rides about suburbia on his grandfather’s WWII motorbike, conjures the cute image of a boy playing with his veteran father’s war trophies and paraphernalia.  Except Andrew Largeman is not a boy, he’s a man; and in order to find something heroic and inspiring, he has to reach back two generations, instead of just one.  That’s how removed from anything essential, immediate, purposeful, or meaning-endowing Largeman, and by extension his whole generation, is.

Andrew Largeman begins the movie asleep in a sterile apartment in LA, where he’s searching for bit acting roles and working as a waiter—in short, both figuratively and literally in a dream.  He ends the movie in the arms of his true love, Sam: cue romantic kiss and swell of uplifting music—in other words, in the midst of another dream.  But it all falls flat, because the couple’s last words, repeated to each other, still haunt us: “What do we do now?”  “What do we do now?”

“You can be anything you want to be,” said the prosperous baby boomers to their pampered children. “Pursue your dreams.”  Hey, dreaming that biggest of dreams, the American one, worked for them, right?  Well, this time, it’s different, as was apparent back in 2004 when this movie released, as has only become more painfully apparent since then.  And the zeitgeist that Garden State captured almost a decade ago, the ambiguous note it ended on, just keeps ringing through the youth’s ears, becoming softer and more distant with each passing year, as each graduating class takes its turn at shouting into that infinite abyss, somewhere east of eden, somewhere west of the mall, and somewhere that is no longer (because it never was) home.

An Affront to Greek Mythology: a review of Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus”

It seems like the media’s projection of what aliens would look like is thoroughly anchored and limited by our all-too terrestrial biases, namely mammalian (always with the reptilians, insectoids and tentacles) and western European conceptions of the other (think Avatar and other thinly-veiled tribal society colonization metaphors), though inexplicably often anthropomorphic—I assume to make them intelligible as characters.

Take the overrated director Ridley Scott’s dreadfully uninspired Prometheus, for example.  Borrowing heavily from the past forty years of Ancient Astronaut Theory (authors like Erich von Daniken and Zechariah Sitchin), the movie places near-future humans in possession of the means to interstellar space travel (not even a pseudoscientific explanation of this, par for the sci-fi course) and archeological evidence that Earth was visited at an unspecified point in the past by giant beings who genetically engineered us, more or less in their image, and then left.  How the archeologists were able to derive the specific galactic location of the Engineers’ presumed home world from a few vague, forty thousand-year-old cave paintings scribbled in sheep’s blood, the movie declines to explain (not that we should care—I guess Scott assumes from the outset that the audience is there for his signature visual effects and disgusting nigh-pornographic tentacle action, rather than any attempt at a compelling backstory or coherent plot).

Once a corporate-financed human expedition lands on the alien planet, much of the rest of the movie consists of forgettable, annoying, stereotypically dull-witted non-characters bumbling around in dark tunnels, being infected and molested by snake- and octopus-like creatures in ways sure to scar the minds of the audience and thus cash in on shock value (for example, a robotic cesarean section of an angry alien fetus from a woman sans anesthetic).

Turns out all these abominations are actually manifestations of a bio-weapon created by the all-powerful engineers, before it turned on them and wiped most of them out.  How do I know this?  Not from any evidence the characters find.  This convoluted plot twist (shamelessly lifted from about a thousand other sci-fi franchises, most notably the Halo series) is simply dropped on the audience (and the rest of the characters) like a misplaced lead weight by the captain of the ship.  No joke!  This lowly ship’s pilot just ambles into a room filled with baffled scientists of every relevant discipline, and concisely summarizes the answer to the biggest mystery of the movie.  How did he find this out?  Short Answer: the screenwriters put it in his mouth.

The only semi-intriguing part of the movie is a subplot in which the ailing, elderly head of the corporation that financed the expedition unfreezes himself from cryo-sleep in order to talk to the last remaining Engineer (one of the anthropomorphic aliens who designed homo sapiens), in the hopes of finding a way to prolong his life.  Ah, the New-World parallels once again abound! Eldorado, the city of gold just over the next hill!  The Conquistadores and the hunt for the Fountain of Youth and immortality!  When will the Hollywood sci-fi machine come up with something I couldn’t have read in a Middle Ages explorer’s log or nineteenth century British boys’ adventure paperback?

Well, I won’t further spoil what few compelling tidbits Prometheus has still to offer, except to say that at the end, you’ll surely come away unsatisfied, and willing to sit through another round of foul and tasteless scenes of gore the next time the director needs some money, simply to gain for yourself some closure of the many plot threads he leaves hanging for just this purpose.  Despite his twisted imagination, Scott proves once again that he has nothing original left to offer moviegoers, and that his heyday, if he ever had one, lies squarely in the deep past, just like the Engineers, the doomed alien species of this film’s creation.  I give Prometheus one melodica out of five.

“I’m just the servant, madam”: an analysis of Joseph Losey’s “The Servant”

Spoiler Alert

I have no doubt that, over the past forty years, a lot of ink has been spilled on account of Joseph Losey’s The Servant, a 1963 film adaptation of Robin Maugham’s (a nephew of W. Somerset’s) novelette.  And why not?  It’s a perfect literal telling of Nietzsche’s myth of the inversion of master and slave morality, the odd phenomenon that occurs when a master gives up all his powers and responsibilities to his slave for the sake of convenience, and somehow (go figure) loses his authority in the process.  Something akin to this must have been what our patron saint B. Franklin was afraid of, when he warned (under the guise of Poor Richard): “Those who would give up freedom for security deserve neither.”

It’s a tale that every society fat enough to support an idle aristocracy must come to terms with, and the Brits, with their peerage that has managed to prolong its existence through all the turbulences and revolutions of the past four centuries only by relegating itself to the status of a quaint tradition, the knickknacks on the nation’s cultural shelves, obviously take the cake in this category.  To conjure the right image here, just think of the BBC show, Jeeves and Wooster.  Whose name comes first in the title?  The personal valet’s, the servant Jeeves’, of course.  High-born Wooster is more of a pretext than a character, an idle parasite cowed by his aunt, the holder of his trust fund, an animate, awkward, unpolished plot device who gets himself into jams precisely so Jeeves can show off his finesse, masterful grasp of British social convention, and deep nobility of character.  It’s almost inevitable that the slaves (and the future eye of history) will in the end think more highly of themselves than of their masters.  Not to steal from Nietzsche again, but just think of the Christians and the Romans.

So why am I writing this, if all this territory has been covered already, and brilliantly, by philosophers, historical commentators, and literary critics?  Well, because I am interested not in the first and last iconic scenes of this movie, but the ambiguous middle.  I want to know precisely how and when the aristocratic Tony, with his nonchalant after-dinner talk of building cities and toying with whole populations, loses his power to his cunning manservant Hugo Barrett.  In what scene did this happen, on what look, on what turn of phrase did tall, blonde Tony seal his future fate—cowering like a dog on the floor while Hugo has his way with both the women Tony loves, in Tony’s house and bed, wearing Tony’s smoking jacket, and drinking Tony’s liquor?

It’s easy to say that this process is inevitable, a slippery-slope eventuality—but let’s nail this down.  Let’s be scientific here.  Let’s establish some causal relationships, as far as that can be done with a piece of fiction.

Hugo’s first assertion of will over his lord Tony is indirect, and not physical, but artistic.  Tony has already given over to Hugo the task of decorating the new house, and when Tony’s fiancée Susan comes over with a vase of flowers, Hugo almost immediately removes them.  Even after Susan retrieves them and voices her dislike of the manservant to Tony, Tony does nothing.  I suspect he’s caught in a bit of a power struggle here, and views Susan’s attack on his manservant as an attack on himself.  Wouldn’t want to get henpecked, right?  Well, as Tony will see, better to be henpecked than slave-pecked.  After Susan leaves, Hugo throws out the flowers, commenting to Tony, “Not very practical, they aren’t, sir.”  So here we see the lower taste, practicality, overcoming the higher, more refined taste of superfluous intricacy.  From here on, it’s only downhill.  Once Tony cedes control of interior decoration to Hugo, he basically seals his own fate as a dog.

A few scenes later, young Tony gets a glimpse of his future, when he visits his fiancée Susan’s aristocratic parents at their country manor.  There’s a great shot of the Sir and Lady posed before classical arches, indoor faux roman columns, and statues of classical figures, the man with a cane, the woman reclining on a couch, dressed to a T, devoid of the spark of life, more like statues themselves.  They’ve become relics, and the distinction between owner and owned has fallen apart.  They’re just part of the aesthetic, their only purpose to display a long-dead way of life to the onlookers of their social circle.  Their country manor is more like a museum diorama than a home.

And there you have it, folks.  Tony’s downfall was, initially, artistic.  Cede your aesthetics to your lessers, and they will rule you.  When does Tony finally realize his plight?  In the last scene of the movie, when he holds a crystal ball up to his eyes, and sees, through this convex lens, his house inverted, the peasant partygoers lounging, upside-down, on his antique, heirloom furniture.

So the artistic eye is everything.  Just ask the Romans, with their fondness for imported Greek architecture, philosophy, and slave tutors for their children; as the saying goes: “First the Romans conquered the Greeks, and then the Greeks conquered the Romans.”

What is it about Nicholas Cage and rabbits?: a review of “Seeking Justice”

Put the bunny back in the box.

What would you do if your wife was assaulted and raped?  If you’re Nicholas Cage, you’d buy two candy bars.

In Seeking Justice, Nicholas Cage plays Will Gerard, a regular guy driven, like so many of Cage’s characters, to the edge by extraordinary circumstances—driven to do things he never would have thought himself capable of, driven to employ skills he never would have guessed he possesed.  In short, to transcend the commonplace.  To be transformed by an oftentimes cruel world, and in turn to transform it, to bend fortune to his own will.  Did I just compare Nicholas Cage to Nietzsche’s Ubermensch?  Yes, I did.

As the high school teacher sits in a New Orleans hospital lounge, waiting for his battered wife to regain consciousness, a curiously Bostonian, Wahlberg-esque fellow approaches him.  Sympathizes.  Introduces himself as Simon.  Offers to “take care” of his wife’s attacker.  What must Gerard do to signal his approval?  Saunter over to the lounge’s vending machine and buy two ‘Forever Bars.’  What would Gerard owe this Simon, were the deed done?  Eh, a ‘favor.’  What does Will do?  What any dazed, emotionally traumatized, and enraged husband would do.  He ‘goes ahead,’ as Bill Lumbergh would say, and drops some change for a little snack.

And so the deed is indeed done.  But that’s not all, folks!  Simon’s group, like any vigilante conspiracy, is given to excesses, and Will Gerard, the english prof and avid chess player from New Orleans has bit off more than he can chew.  And I’m not talking about those Forever Bars.

“The hungry rabbit jumps,” goes the shadowy group’s catchphrase (for every secret society needs a cool thing to say; it’s like a handshake!).  Meet another member of the Brotherhood?  “The hungry rabbit jumps.”  Eliminated a target? “The hungry rabbit jumps.”  Mutate into a long-eared rodent a la Donnie Darko, become ravenous and leap up onto the kitchen table to reach some truffles? You guessed it: “The hungry rabbit jumps.”  The whole time I’m sitting there going, “Put the bunneh in the box.  Why didn’t you just put the bunneh in the box?”  What is it with Nicholas Cage and these furry little creatures?

New Orleans works wonders for any film with a dark, criminal theme, and Seeking Justice is no exception.  It’s no wonder why Nicholas Cage, that pioneer of the bizarre, seems to favor this setting (see “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”).  The post-Katrina city is a place of sharp juxtaposition, of wanton, costumed Creole excess crowded up against shopping-cart-pushing destitution, of posh hotels with Versailles-style french architecture a few blocks away from shantytowns.  I like to think of it as a place where our dreams collide with our nightmares, where things both sacred and profane can occur.  Like so many places recovering from devastation, New Orleans has an aura of unreality about it, of being outside of time, of being beyond any common measure of health or normality.  And what could be more surreal than wandering through this mad place, pursued by criminals and cops alike for a crime you didn’t commit?  Ask Will Gerard, he knows.

The suspension bridge-tense plot takes Gerard from the jazz-echoing streets of the French Quarter to the obscure bayous of rural Louisiana, from the Superdome to a still-vacant mall replete with creepy mannequins, their plastic stares paranoid and accusatory in the lonely darkness, on a desperate quest for truth and redemption.

Will the unfortunate English wonk  find what he’s looking for, let alone a fairytale ending with his stunning and (and stunningly accurate with a pistol) wife?  If you like vigilantes, candy, unintentionally humorous deaths, gun rights, or Nicholas Cage’s oddly sincere and utterly unique acting style (which he calls “Noveau Shamanic;” I do not jest—google it), then take the journey to find out.  I give Seeking Justice four out of five melodicas, because I’m a hungry rabbit for more Cage.  Put me back in the Cage.  I could go on, but you get the idea.