On holiday: a review of The Lobster

the lobster

Films that are initially unsatisfying are often the ones that stick with me. The Lobster is that sort of film. In terms of plot, The Lobster is incomplete. It loses steam in the second half and ends on a cliffhanger, leaving the fate of the two protagonists in question. As with so many films that do this, I got the sense that the filmmakers just ran out of things to say, and tried to hide this with a Pee-wee Herman-style ‘I meant to do that.’

Visually, the film is a banquet. The setting, an isolated oceanside resort on the craggy barrens of southern Ireland, brings to mind turn-of-the-century sanatoriums for wealthy wastrels and neurotics. The grounds are pristine. The maids and wait staff are delightfully starched and proper; the decor- with victorian ferns, mahogany woodwork, and floral-patterned furniture- recalls a lost age.

Aurally, the film pursues my favorite course: a sparse soundtrack and strategically deployed silences.

In the world of The Lobster, couples are mandated, and being single is taboo. Single members are institutionalized in an isolated resort, and if they fail to find a new partner among the other denizens within 45 days, they are turned into an animal of their choosing and released into the wild. We later find in the woods a group of escapees known as the loners, whom inmates are forced to hunt using tranquilizer rifles. The film was written by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, and stars Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, and John C. Reilly.

The acting is bad, which I initially thought was strange because the cast is so talented. The characters are for the most part mercenary and unsympathetic. They do a lot of wide-eyed staring, and their words are stilted, uttered quickly and softly, like those of a timid child. They seem like young heirs and heiresses neglected by jet-setting parents, before being sent to finishing school. Social encounters are uncomfortable and unpredictable. The inmates don’t react properly, they don’t display emotions in the normal way. Conversations are brief and anemic, but brutally direct. This jarring awkwardness struck me as a bit much when I first saw the film, and I dismissed it as a bit of overwrought tryhard on the part of the creators, an unfortunate stylistic mishap.

Later, I saw an interview with Colin Farrell, and it became clear that this plays a role in the film’s meaning. He said, “The film does question…how easily we as a human race can become duped under the craftily designed power structures that are represented by governments and religions.” The director made the characters act badly, in order to make their ploys utterly transparent to us. The characters don’t say how they feel or act naturally. Their words and actions simply consist of whatever scripts they believe will get them what they want- whether that be companionship, or sex, or an alliance. A notable exception is John C. Reilly’s character, shown below, offering camaraderie to his fellow inmates.


This almost-universal insincerity enforces barriers between the inmates, such that they can’t reach each other, and stagnate inside self-enforced prisons. They are totally alone. Even when Colin Farrell’s character and Rachel Weisz’s character fall in love, their relationship is disjointed. In order to avoid punishment by the Lonely Leader, they make up a secret language that involves gestures for things like “I love you more than anything in the world,” and we are struck with how inadequate the language is for what they wish to express. Are they even reaching each other? By their faces, we just can’t tell.

As an allegory, The Lobster is compelling. But the picture is unrealistic, in the sense that it overshoots on the bleakness scale. It leaves no room for natural human interaction, which happens all over the place, every day. We can be individuals and yet reach each other. It’s the easiest thing in the world.


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.

Biking to Work: a review of “Barbara” (2012)

barbara picture

Some films are squirt guns that shoot something onto the front of your viewfinder and distress you.  These are the unsubtle ones.  Others are a body of water like a lake or pond that you can wade into, or a summer shower that spreads over you.  Barbara is the latter kind of film.

Barbara is a striking and ambitious young doctor from Berlin living out a purgatorial existence in an out-of the way agricultural province of Communist East Germany in the early eighties.  She has a mind for cutting-edge research and the pace of the metropolis, but occupies this more pedestrian post because “the farmers and craftsmen paid for your education, and they need you here.”  She suffers frequent invasions of privacy under the humorless watch of local Stasi agent Klaus Schutz, who suspects she’s planning an escape.  His suspicions are justified.

I found the small town where she works agreeably depopulated.  Some of my favorite films (Valhalla Rising, A Single Man) have quiet, still settings with sparse habitation, that stand in stark relief to the few characters, leaving them alone with their choices and accentuating the gravity of their words.  Barbara bicycles down sandy paths to the hospital, past a forest, through a town, along a line of trees buffeted by brine winds from a North Sea beach just over the hills that will feature prominently in her coming bid for freedom.

Her only companion is chief surgeon Andre, a big, bearded, soft-spoken lad obviously smitten with Barbara from the first.  He makes various attempts at establishing friendly relations with her, which she rebuffs as she knows he has orders from the capital to gain her trust and report on her.  But Andre- literate, witty, idiosyncratic, with his personal warmth and affinity for Rembrandt and books about rural doctors and talent for cooking- is not a good communist.  He is an individual, like Barbara, and she comes to see this- to see him.

A profound scene occurs about midway through when Barbara has a clandestine rendezvous at a hotel with her West German lover who informs her that she won’t have to work on the other side because he makes enough money for them both. While he is away at a meeting, a prostitute wanders through the connecting door to Barbara’s room.  She is spending the night with another Westerner, and is starstruck by his promises to marry her and a gift- a jewelry catalogue.  As the girl pores over the pages of trinkets wide-eyed, Barbara does her best to feign interest.

From where we stand, atop the rubble of the Berlin Wall and Fukuyama’s End of History and Friedman’s Flat World, it may be hard at first blush to get into the dilemma.  We know that a few short years later, the Iron Curtain will be rolled back.  But Barbara doesn’t.  She sees no end to the system she labors under. Much is at stake- not only her dreams and ambitions, but those of a patient of hers, a pregnant girl who repeatedly escapes from a nearby forced labor camp, only to end up in a sickbed, wanting hope and something better for her child someday.

Barbara is a woman and a professional torn between places, ideologies, and people. No one is a cardboard cutout, even Klaus the Stasi agent, whose dying wife Andre treats on the side. All are victims of a system that simultaneously oppresses them and shapes the possibility space for their choices, in part making them who they are.  I recommend Barbara for its depth, its perspicacity, its subtlety, its resonance.

Cinematalk February 2 2014

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John Ciecka is your guide for this part of the journey in Cinematalk! (Sundays from 2-3pm on WKCO 91.9 FM Gambier Ohio). In this episode, Johnnymelodica talks about one of his favorite film intro monologues (Boiler Room, 2000), examines an excerpt from the Translator’s Preface of the McQuarrie translation of Martin Heidegger’s Seit Und Zeit (1927), and gives dramatic readings and on-the-fly critical analysis of some Kerouac, Coleridge, and Frost. Allergy Warning: this podcast may include Groove.

cinematalk november 17 2013

cinematalk november 17 2013

In this episode, Johnnymelodica takes a look at infamous portrayals of healthcare professionals in film: Alec Baldwin’s ‘I am God’ speech as Dr. Jed Hill from Malice (1993), and Laurence Olivier’s ‘Is it safe?’ speech as Nazi expatriate Dr. Christian Szell in Marathon Man (1976). Next, he combs the silky-smooth coat of 1950s sitcom Mister Ed, a show centered around the eponymous talking horse, for anthropomorphic tropes and tendencies in popular media. After a brief bout of ‘Name that Quote’s Author: Nietzsche or Oscar Wilde?’ and a detour through Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, he ends with a discussion of the anti-industrialism and aristocratic pastoral nostalgia of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.