Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) – The Ambivalence of the Metallic Sublime

Michael Bay is a director whose career can best be described as a heroic fall from competence.

Bay cut his directorial teeth by producing the sort of ‘documentaries’ that allow bands and soft-core pornographers alike to bootstrap unconnected short-form material (such as music videos and photo shoots) into something that can be sold either as a DVD or a VHS. Having learned how to please the eye and how to link together completely unrelated sequences, Bay naturally made the step up to producing action movies.

While Bad Boys (1995) and The Rock (1996) were never going to win Cannes, they do stand as incontrovertible proof that Michael Bay knows how to make a film. Both films are well paced and feature some memorable dialogue delivered by casts only too aware that they are present only as human ballast designed to humanise what would otherwise be nothing more than a succession of fire-fights, chase sequences and expensive-looking explosions. Looking back over Bad Boys and The Rock, Bay’s talent for spectacle is only too evident: abandoned prisons and airfields are shot with the same impossible glamour that you find in the photo-shoots of glossy magazines. Characters in Bay’s early films do not walk, they glide and their cars do not so much accelerate as explode into the world with energy so absurd as to be joyous. There are some who would have Bay return to these sorts of films and it is easy to see why… much of what we think of when we sneer the words ‘a Michael Bay’ film are not present in either The Rock or Bad Boys, but the potential is there. Oh such potential…

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REVIEW – Battle Royale (2001)

THE ZONE has my review of  Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale: Director’s Cut, which has recently been re-released on DVD.

My review attempts to localise Battle Royale within a dystopian tradition which, it seems to me, is peculiarly Japanese. What distinguishes Battle Royale from many dystopian fictions starring plucky teenagers is that the film uses every possible opportunity to mock and ridicule the suffering of its teenaged scapegoats. Indeed, while writers in this tradition are quick to point the finger at governments that blame the young for social problems, works in this tradition also pour scorn on the youth that allow themselves to be victimised:

Again and again, Japanese genre writers depict modern Japan as a hellish place where the old lash out against the youth in ignorance, fear and hatred but the youth refuse to organise and refuse to do anything about their treatment thereby suggesting that no matter how immoral these old people might be, they are not entirely wrong about Japan’s passive, consumerist youth.

The ways in which Fukasaku mocks and trivialises his teenaged characters feeds directly into my one serious complaint about this re-edition: Was a Director’s Cut really necessary?

REVIEW – Monsters (2010)

Videovista has my review of Gareth Edwards’ low-budget science fiction film Monsters:

The ‘big idea’ behind Monsters is that instead of fearing the alien and trying to isolate ourselves from the ‘other’, we should be opening ourselves up to its strangeness by looking at it with an open mind and an open heart. Edwards initially makes us fear the creatures by drawing upon our fears of terrorism, immigration, chemical weapons and third world squalor. However, he then makes us come to appreciate the innate beauty of the creatures and, in so doing, suggests that there may be some beauty to be found in the things that we, as a culture, fear the most.

Easily one of the best science fiction films in recent memory, Monsters was (of course) absent from the recently released Hugo award shortlist for Best Dramatic Presentation – Long Form thereby raising the question, yet again, of what point the award actually serves beyond reminding the world that Hugo voters know fuck all about film.

Universal War One… Stripp’d

Gestalt Mash have the second issue of Stripp’d, my monthly column looking at translated comic series.

Written and drawn by Denis Bajram and released in two volumes by Marvel, Universal War One begins as a Dirty Dozen in Spaaaaace story but, once the characters are bedded down and the theme of redemption is introduces, Bajran starts to mess with the gonzo knobs, slowly ramping up the epic and the fantastical until the series ends in a widescreen expose of man’s unparalleled hubris. I enjoyed it quite a bit… it’s silly.

Ooku: The Inner Chambers – Volume 2

Gestalt Mash has the second of my pieces about Fumi Yoshinaga’s excellent Ooku: The Inner Chambers.

Having introduced us, in the first volume, to an alternative history of Edo-period Japan in which 75% of the male population has been killed off by disease, Yoshinaga goes about trying to explain why it is that this culture allows women to rule while also paying lip service to the idea of masculine superiority.  Intelligent, insightful and quite moving, Ooku: The Inner Chambers continues to be a very rewarding read.

Never Let Me Go (2010) – Tommy and Kathy and Paolo and Francesca

One of the founding myths of contemporary intellectual culture is the idea that, denied the consolation of religion and confronted by a universe both devoid of meaning and over-burdened with choices, humanity now finds itself in a world that has become disenchanted.  As Max Weber puts it:

The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ”disenchantment of the world.” Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations. It is not accidental that our greatest art is intimate and not monumental.

The term ‘disenchantment of the world’ is not in fact Weber’s but that of Friedrich Schiller whose critical writings — including Letters Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794) — can be seen as attempts to come to terms with his feeling of being somehow out of step with the world and more in tune with the by-gone age of classical Greece.  An age which:

Displaced humanity, and recast it on a magnified scale in the glorious circle of its gods; but it did this not by dissecting human nature, but by giving it fresh combinations, for the whole of human nature was represented in each of the gods.

With characteristic insight, Gabriel Josipovici suggests in Whatever Happened to Modernism? (2010) that this sense of displacement flows not from a fundamental change in the nature of the world or of man’s relation to it, but from a sense of romantic nostalgia.

This sense of somehow having arrived too late, of having lost for ever something that was once a common possession, is a, if not the, key Romantic concern.

This sense of detachment from the world and yearning after a time when life had meaning is elegantly articulated by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly’s new book All Things Shining – Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age (2011).  In an early chapter, Dreyfus and Kelly compare the affairs of Emma Bovary in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857)) with the adulterous affair of Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini in Dante’s Inferno.  Whereas Flaubert depicts Emma’s betrayal of her witless husband in a way that can continue to command our sympathies, Dante depicts adultery as a form of moral incontinence:

The medieval couple knew that it was wrong to engage in an adulterous affair – there was no question about it; unfortunately, they couldn’t resist the sinful passion of lust.

The medieval couple lived their lives within religion’s enchanted bubble of certainty and, as a result, they knew that they were doing wrong whereas Charles and Emma Bovary, living in the modern disenchanted world, lack a basic moral infrastructure. In fact, despite her shallow tastes, emotional remoteness and infidelity, Charles comes to the point of admiring his unfaithful wife for her betrayal.

Dreyfus and Kelly’s account of Dante’s psychology is above reproach.  It is lucid.  It is elegant.  It is comprehensive.  However, the psychological model underpinning Dante’s characterisation is profoundly alien to our modern eyes.  If Paolo and Francesca were so sure as to the ‘right thing’ to do, why did they act otherwise? And, more importantly, how did they act otherwise?  Dreyfus and Kelly speak of the couple as suffering from what ancient philosophers called akrasia or weakness of the will, but they do not delve deeply into the psychology of akrasia and the ways in which a mindset characterised by moral certainty and a tendency to akrasia might differ from a modern one.  Indeed, as modern disenchanted readers we find it easy to empathise with Charles Bovary’s refusal to condemn his wife because, like him, we have trouble choosing which moral framework to apply to her actions.  Should we judge her by the standards of Christianity?  Or should we be understanding of the fact that she was trapped in a loveless marriage to a dull and unambitious man?  This inability to choose between frameworks is, according to Dreyfus and Kelly, the defining characteristic of our modern disenchanted state:

This sense of certainty is rare in the contemporary world. Indeed, modern life can seem to be defined by its opposite. An unrelenting flow of choices confronts us at nearly every moment of our lives, and most of us could admit to find ourselves at least occasionally wavering.

But what is this “wavering” if not akrasia repackaged in existentialist livery?  Dante may claim that Paolo and Francesca knew that they were doing wrong but their actions suggest a degree of uncertainty as to whether or not ‘the right thing to do’ was actually the right thing to do in that particular situation.  It is my contention that, far from being a modern invention, existential anguish and lack of certainty are fundamental to the human condition.  They are necessary by-products of the way in which human consciousness engages with the world.  As John Gray puts it in Straw Dogs (2002):

When we are on the point of acting, we cannot predict what we are about to do. Yet when we look back we may see our decision as a step on a path on which we were already bound. We see our thoughts sometimes as events that happen to us, and sometimes as our acts. Our feeling of freedom comes about through switching between these two angles of vision. Free will is a trick of perspective.

While we may not possess free will, our consciousness is such that we cannot help but see ourselves as free.  This perception of limitless freedom and responsibility for making choices creates a sense of existential vertigo as we struggle to come to terms with the fact that we could have acted differently and yet did not.  This sense of existential vertigo is omnipresent in contemporary intellectual culture because all systems of value are now open to scrutiny, but even if our culture did not tolerate dissent or ‘shopping around’ for values, we would still feel that lack of certainty.  We would still feel that lack of meaning.  We would still desperately try to latch on to any system that would help our conscious minds make sense of our actions.

Mark Romanek’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) explores both the universality of existential anguish and the universality of the need for consolatory myths.  Deploying science fictional tropes to create a world in which people’s lives have both a meaning and a purpose, Never Let Me Go suggests that the lost certainty lamented by Romantics is nothing more than another myth concocted as a remedy to our innate sense of alienation from the world.

 

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Vanishing Point (2010) by Ander Monson – Describing the Self that was not there

The existential tradition — via Pascal, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre — has it that there is no fundamental essence to human existence:  For Pascal, our nature lies in our customs. For Sartre, existence precedes essence. A simple way of interpreting this viewpoint is through the notion that we, as individuals, are radically free and that we define ourselves through our actions. But if this vision of the self is correct then what does it mean for society as a whole?  what does it mean for our culture?  For an answer to this, we must look to Heidegger. The American philosopher Hubert L. Dreyfus interprets Heidegger as saying that each culture defines for itself what it means to be human. This conception of human nature allows them to live as though each culture has a predefined essence, an absolute morality and an objective meaning of life. As history changes, so too does the conception of human nature and all of the philosophical infrastructure built up around it.  Looking back on discrete periods of human history such as Ancient Greece and Medieval Europe, it is relatively easy to isolate their conceptions of being in the world because those conceptions were fully articulated by particular authors; Homer in the case of the Ancient Greeks and Dante in the case of the Medieval Christians.

One’s attitude to this understanding of the evolution of culture will most likely depend upon the amount of ontological weight one ascribes to Heidegger’s conception of being-in-the-world:

In his book The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976), Julian Jaynes argues that the ancient Greeks had a fundamentally different form of consciousness to contemporary humans.  A form of consciousness that made introversion impossible but which allowed desires and ideas to take perceived physical form in the shape of gods.  According to Jaynes, Homer’s descriptions of human cognition were literally true at the time.  Under this interpretation of Homer, there is a near one-to-one correspondence between the scientific understanding of existence and that of Heidegger: This we can call the Strong Dasein Hypothesis.

The other way of looking at the issue is voiced by Brian Boyd in his On The Origin of Stories – Evolution, Cognition and, Fiction (2009), which states that the difference between Homer and Proust is not that Homer’s mind worked differently to Proust’s but that the folk psychological model that informed Homer’s writing was less advanced than that which informed the rendering of Proust’s characters.  So Homer’s failure to discuss the inner psychology of his characters does not reflect his own lack of inner state but rather an incomplete conceptual framework which did not allow for this inner state to be rendered in a fictional form.  According to this view, which we can call the Weak Dasein Hypothesis, Heidegger spoke not of being but of world-view and dealt not in actual things but in perceptions.

Regardless of where one stands along a presumed spectrum of attitudes towards Heideggerian ontology, the fact remains that art does reflect upon how we think about ourselves.  So how do we represent the modern self?  Again, there is a spectrum of viewpoints.  The literary critic for The New Yorker James Woods argues in his book How Fiction Works (2008) that the novel effectively reached a state of perfection with the development of the “free indirect style” prevalent in the work of authors such as Flaubert, Dostoyevsky and Proust.  However, David Shields has argued in his book Reality Hunger – A Manifesto (2010) that many of the techniques and conceits of the modern novel are hopelessly outdated when it comes to describing a culture imbued with radically different values by individuals with very different conceptions of themselves and their place in the world.  As an example of works that do capture our epochal Dasein, Shields offers up a list of works mostly drawn from the emerging genre of creative or literary non-fiction.  Works such as Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point, a collection of themed essays which, as the book’s sub-title assures us, is not a memoir.

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REVIEW – The Box (2009)

Videovista have my review of Richard Kelly’s The Box.

From the director of Donnie Darko comes a weirdly iconoclastic film based upon a Richard Matheson short story.  Initially, the film structures itself around a moral thought experiment asking us to consider whether we would kill someone we do not know for $1,000,000.  However, then the film opens up into a science fiction conspiracy theory that is one part Alan J. Pakula to one part Arthur C. Clarke.  Not entirely convincing partly because the ideas it contains are so utterly weird, but I did enjoy the rather brutal satire of Christianity as a sinister alien conspiracy.

REVIEW – Pandorum (2009)

Videovista have my review of Christian Alvart’s Science Fiction Horror film Pandorum.

This was a terrible film to watch but an interesting film to write about as its action sequences have some quite interesting technical flaws and because its overburdened narrative demonstrates one of the more depressing tendencies in Horror film-making, particularly when that Horror takes place in a Science Fictional setting.

REVIEW – Moon (2009)

Sometimes it isn’t easy to love the cinema.  Increasingly, the greatest popular art form of the 20th Century has become a means of oppression  :  Every year, the summer blockbuster season lasts that little bit longer.  The season of empty months.  Months during which the few decent films that do make it into cinemas are instantly forced out by over-hyped sequels and works of distorted genre.  Works so disjointed and violent in their imagery that they have come to resemble twisted parodies of the world we know.  Works that do not seek to elevate our collective humanity but to pervert it by filling our poor throbbing skulls with whole new vistas of psychosis and paranoia.  Vistas we can only escape from with the help of consumer products, the antics of boy wizards and bellicose robots.  Vistas produced by a media-industrial complex that keeps us supine and malleable lest we realise the living hell that we have made of our collective existence.  A collective existence so cruel and unhinged that were we to grasp its true nature for even a second we would all run screaming into the streets, tearing at our clothes and flesh in a hideous and brutal attempt to somehow get clean and free of a system that has crushed us beneath its heel for far too long.

But then a film comes along that seems to recognise all of this.

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