A meditation on “Sicario” (2015)


“The history of civilization is nothing more or less than the development of order.” -August Comte

“Order out of chaos.” -Old secret society motto

“Better an injustice than disorder.” -Goethe

“All good things on this earth flow into the city.” -Pericles of Athens

“He who’s not busy being born is busy dying.” -Bob Dylan

Like most of the films featured on this blog, Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario” is about America. More specifically, it concerns the efforts of a waggish, wily government spook, played by Josh Brolin, to sew a little chaos, and weave a bit of order, along America’s southern border in the no-man’s land of Juarez, Mexico. He is joined by a soft-spoken mercenary, played by Benicio Del Toro, who undertakes this mission for his own opaque reasons. Central is the agonizing internal struggle of a young FBI attache, played by Emily Blunt, over whether their methods-and ultimately their motives-are sound.

The cinematography mimicks the gaze of a shellshocked bystander: tunnel vision sweeping sluggishly from detail to detail- someone’s shoes, a gun, the face of a sleeping man, the desert wastes scrolling past a jet window. The soundtrack is unsettlingly sparse: only atmospheric bass that is easily mistaken for the beating of your own heart. Both convey volumes by gesture and implication, leaving much space and time for the viewer to ponder the gravity of what he is witnessing. The descent into Juarez is reminiscent of Brueghel’s paintings of the Black Death.

* * *

Over the course of a few hundred years, tiny, militaristic, republican Rome came to dominate the Mediterranean, enveloping territories, resources, and peoples, bringing them under a single world-order. Where there had once been only endless, village-by-village butchery and the caprice of the local chief, now in every city was a Roman tax collector, a Roman court, a Roman bathhouse, and a Roman theater. The city personified its will, and its dizzying bureaucratic edifice, in a single man, the Caesar. Its offer was an ultimatum: Bow to Caesar, prosper in peace. Reject Caesar, and die by his metal.

But seemingly just as soon as Rome had actualized its wildest goal, conquering the farthest reaches of the known world, the tide reversed, and this youthful command would be whittled down, over the course of the next millennium, to the bargain of an aging manager: “I’ll pay your tribe to guard the border along the Danube,” and finally to the pathetic plea of a senile puppet: “Here’s one-and-a-half tons of gold, if you promise not to sack the capital again.” The Eastern Empire continued in this sad state for centuries before it was finally put out of its misery by the Muslim Turks in 1453. Citizenship, once restricted to the inhabitants of Rome, became a reward for military service, then a tool of assimilation, then a bargaining chip, then nothing at all. Rome’s effort to embrace the infinite, to throw its arms madly around all of existence, ended when it was engulfed.

To love something is to want to dominate it, to merge with it- and, finally, to surrender to it. Just as Rome once had, America fell in love with the world. It dominated the world. It is in the process of merging with the world. (There is much work still to be done on this front.) Sicario’s depiction of the drug cartel affords a glimpse of the new world America might some day surrender to, a world it formed in its own image, a world increasingly out of its control.

Some might call America’s project good, others will call it evil. They will attribute America’s actions to greed, or power lust, or idealism, or chauvinism, or madness. The same things can all be said of one person’s love for another person, the causes of which are inevitably obscure, even to the lover himself. Good or evil, love is about power. And the loved will always hold more power than the one who loves. And the master will always end up as the slave.


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.

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.