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Category: Movies

Remix Aesthetic in Moulin Rouge and Kill Bill

An essay on postmodern remix aesthetic in Moulin Rouge and Kill Bill from a college film class I took last year. I don’t necessarily agree with all of it anymore, but I don’t necessarily disagree with any of it.

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“I stopped needing to save the world.”

Spider-Man 2

Is it a lovely romantic comedy or a superhero-action flick with delusions of seriousness? Unfortunately, pieta scenes and speechifying crowd out the superpowered romance, which is much more compelling.


I’m with David Fiore, “superhero” is no good. I’m sure it’s fine as a genre for commerical purposes, but as a critical genre, it mutates and limits the discourse in ways that are not useful to me. David’s “neo-existentialist romance” mutates and limits the discourse in ways that I find more interesting. I don’t know if he cares about this at all, but I’d be interested in some study of how the generic necessities of superheroism/crime-fighting distort the “neo-existentialist romance” in his interpretation of the Gwen Stacy clone saga. “Superhero” stories, like any fantastic stories, use fantastic elements to create pleasing and meaningful resonances with real-life stuff. (Well, that’s what I think fantastic stories do.) The generic expectations associated with “superhero” tend to calcify the potentiality of fantasy and make the resonances in “superhero” stories dull and predictable, which is how Spider-Man 2 became a movie that aches so heartbreakingly to be a romantic comedy but ends up overwhelmed by hoary old ruminations on the importance of heroes.

The Iron Giant

Now, I have to admit my favorite “superhero” movies is one about heroism. But The Iron Giant comes at the theme from an unfamiliar angle: the Giant rejects violent confrontation with “bad guys;” he wants only to protect people and rescue them from danger. It’s so refreshing to have a hero whose code of justice isn’t based on vengeance and punishment.

“Saving is what misers do.”

Is that profound or does it just make no sense? Despite my ill-advised participation in some of the debates on the artistic/critical worth of “superhero” comics several months ago, I find most “superhero” stories actually pretty dull. Most of the really good ones either ignore entirely the standard trappings of heroism and saving the world, or they shine that “existential spotlight” on heroism and find it seriously problematic. Not usually because it’s fascist so much as because it’s miserly. “Saving is what misers do.”—forget Watchmen, The Invisibles has my favorite critique of superheroic ethics.

… has gone before

I know I said I’d be writing something substantive soon, but indulge me for another post (or maybe a few). Steven and I watched Trekkies last night, and it got me thinking about community and connectedness. And yes, this has a lot to do with seeing things through my currrent lens, but I understood the interviewees talking about how they’d met each other through Star Trek and the kinship they share in being fans and all that stuff. Right now I’m getting over being totally impressed by the kind, supportive comments off all sorts of people I’ve never talked to away from this screen as well as all the live people who’ve been part of my life or Steven’s and who wanted to be with us as kind, supportive witnesses to our public commitment, which is really the only thing making it different from the private relationship we’d had previously (and, I suppose, still).

Anyway, that was me apologizing for getting a bit misty-eyed about Trekkies and about the comics blogosphere. It’s really an exciting feeling to belong in just about any situation. In college, I ran a support group for survivors of sexual assault, and I think for most of us involved the most helpful, important thing we got from group discussions was the real understanding that we had shared emotional experiences, that I could talk about something that made me feel alienated and have someone say, “Oh, yeah, I understand and for me it’s like this…” I don’t think comics bloggers are a support group, but they serve that particular function of creating a kind of connectedness or re-norming.

Part of the reason I’m thinking about this, though, is that connectedness isn’t absolute, and it has its limits. In watching, I said to Steven of one Trekkie, “The cross-dressing doesn’t bother me at all, but I can’t handle the filk,” and I was being entirely honest. Some things are just beyond the pale, and while I can appreciate that people I like enjoy them, they seem laughably bad to me. I know others think the same of me, and I still appreciate not being lynched for being unimpressed and annoyed by Eightball #23. I’ve always been interested in metablogging issues, and so it’s really fascinating to me to follow the different styles and approaches of the various comics bloggers, sometimes more than the blogs themselves. While it’s definitely fun that there are other bloggers writing analytically about mostly superhero comics — and more of them than when we began blogging here — I also read and enjoy reading writers whose aesthetic preferences have almost no overlap with mine. So while I feel a certain kind of kinship with other like-type bloggers and don’t always feel I quite fit in within the larger blogosphere (whatever that means) I get something out of all of it. And while I think I have more overlap with Steven than with anyone else probably ever, both of us appreciate having ppeople other than each other to talk to about these things we find intriguing.

But what I was really trying to get at in all that inanity is that I appreciate both the largely supportive culture and the lack of Geek Pride, which is way above filk in the list of things I dislike most. While plenty of the Trekkies seemed extreme in their dedication, they were all honest and at least a bit self-aware about their placement on the outskirts of the larger culture, whether they thought this was acceptable or not, versus their acceptance among other fans. What they largely avoided was the strange martyr complex I’ve found elsewhere, and which I haven’t noticed in comics blogging. There are geeks, and in my experience they’ve all been white men who publicly claim to be straight, and they make a lot of claims about being oppressed minorities. They say that geeks are the last acceptable stereotype (and “x is the last taboo” is also high on my hate list) and that they’re outcasts in society and that they need to reclaim the power that is rightfully theirs by somehow overturning the jocks, who will somehow recognize the error of their cruel ways. Or something like that. Since I’m a woman, I also get to hear the corollary that geek-friendly women have some kind of moral obligation to have sex with these men, since part of the curse of being a geek is that it’s hard to get a date by more standard routes. And all of this manifests itself in a whole lot of whining, not to mention complaining about other groups who supposedly benefit from affirmative action or feminism (or, uh, laws banning them from marrying their chosen partners, which is probably not the sort of thing that gets facttored in) and how it’s ok to be different in those ways, but that being a geek is both a choice and a calling and thus somehow nobler than more standard, intrinsic disenfranchisement. Yes, I’m whining about whiners, but I’m getting it out of my system so you won’t have to hear about it again.

And the point, as I keep claiming I’ll tell you, is that I really, really appreciate not having to hear that much if at all anymore. I like this current life in which I’m not supposed to be a judge at a Losers Contest. I’m glad to watch a show about people who idolize a show I’ve never seen, and it makes me think of me and of you poor readers, and all of us who are making tenuous connections and finding ways to make them stick and managing to build places for ourselves. I didn’t start blogging looking for affirmation, but because I’d been so depressed and troubled that I was almost physically unable to write, and so it waas painful practice, and also because Steven and I were far apart and wanted to be together and talking. And while it’s still really about us and what we find interesting and the ways our conversations with each other can be translated onto a bigger scale, I’m now very much in conversation with other bloggers and with non-bloggers who comment and even with a few brave friends of mine who don’t even read comics and yet have probably read every word of the post to this point because they care about me. And while in some sense I don’t care who cares about me, I care that I care and that there are these connections being forged and that in a year or so of blogging I’ve become someone who can write more easily, if not yet with total comfort, and can sometimes even be proud of what I’ve written. But I’m also proud that those who respond find meaning (or problems) in what I say, just as I’m proud of bloggers I read who are saying good, smart things even if they have no idea who I am or that I read their words. And I’m pretty sure this is my most self-indulgent post ever, so I appreciate that I expect to be forgiven my temporary lapse, which can be blamed in part on long-term lack of sleep I’m going to try to rectify a bit now. Thanksgiving seems to be coming to me late this year, but I assure you it’s entirely heartfelt. Now live long and prosper.

Fair Trade?

I’m not very good with promises, but I’m aiming for one blog update per weekend (and I hope one during the week, but we’ll see) just to keep me going, because this has been an unexpectedly taxing autumn. To prove I can keep promises after a fashion, though, I once told Jim Henley I’d write more about my thoughts on The Filth and gender. And while I’m on a roll, I asked Graeme McMillan whether he thought Rosie in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate was a good guy, a bad guy, or neither, but I never responded with my thoughts.

Rectifying two old birds with one stone, in quasi-realistic situations (and it’s not entirely clear to me why I put The Filth in this class) we expect the good guys to avoid trading sex for information. OK, it’s entirely possible that this is just me and that the rest of the world assumes that the FBI adheres to James Bond standards of sexual involvement and intrigue, but I think not. And so in The Manchurian Candidate it set off alarms for me that Rosie was willing to become (I assume sexually) intimate with Ben to be a part of his deepest secrets. We see her doing other things like being involved in evidence tampering that make it seems she’s not interested in preserving truth and encouraging justice, at least as those terms are generally used. And then at the end of the movie she’s still with Ben at the scene of the crime that thrust him into this whole mess, and he’s letting some memory-heavy artifacts wash out to sea. Is she at his side because she really came to love this broken man she met on the train, this man she spied on and comforted? Is this part of her job, to keep him whole enough that he can finish the job of putting this plot in the past? Or is something more sinister going on? Sure, her work helps bring down members of the Manchurian Corp. conspiracy, but in a movie where every conspiracy is linked to something deeper and more far-reaching, why should we believe that this pulls out a root? Could she be working for some even more shadowy group to defuse this conspiracy and take control of Ben? Her demeanor doesn’t change from when she’s pretending to love him so she can keep him under surveillance to the time when she tracks him down at the scene of the assassination to their farewell to the past at the seaside ruins. Something strange is going on here, and it’s not just that she seems to use sex or even (worse?) love as a weapon but that this is so mundane. Perhaps it is in the normal world, although I don’t think many people could pull it off as calmly as Rosie seems to, but I think we hold our national security folks to higher standards, or at least I do.

And that brings me to a slight aside, which is that I don’t think it’s meaningless that I’m talking about female spies here. This is not Mata Hari-style seduction but is still a power play in a way that perhaps James Bond dalliances aren’t. After all, Rosie doesn’t have signature drinks or swank suits or anything obvious at all, but it’s the conspicuous lack of anything extraordinary, a seeming sweet absence of guile in a movie where everyone else churns with intrigue, that makes her suspicious. But sometimes it’s just the gender patterns that are suspicious. In gearing up for Neal Stephenson’s The Confusion, which I read this weekend, I reread his The Diamond Age last weekend. One of the strangest episodes, and one that has soured the book for me a bit each time I’ve read it, involves a cult called The Drummers who live in a sleeplike state under the sea while their dreaming minds interact to form a sort of metaphorical computer. They carry particles in their bloodstreams that enhance this process and they can exchange these particles through intercourse, basically sharing smart STDs. The way this is carried out is that periodically there will be all sorts of drumming and then a woman becomes the center of attention and men dance around her. Eventually, after much buildup, each of the men has sex with her in front of the whole group, during which time she gets hotter and hotter because each of these little viruses raises blood temperature, until eventually she explodes and releases the viruses like spores and the men have picked up her viruses and so it keeps on spreading. Now, the book never says that this is how it always works, but it also never shows us a man being this exploding vessel in the several times we see the scene played out. To me, that’s telling in the same way that it’s telling that Rosie’s mother/lover act seemed uncontroversial. If the genders in The Manchurian Candidate had been reversed and Ross had seduced Beth to be able to keep an eye on her and keep her out of trouble, I don’t think I’m the only one who would have found it weird and problematic.

And that’s why I’m not sure what to make of this issue in The Filth. The way Greg/Ned changes from nobody to superspy is through psychedelic sex with agent Miami. But how does she change over, then? And is this in her job description? That’s what I kept thinking as I read, wondering whether she enjoyed this aspect of things, this being a virus that translates a man into part of a larger being/organization and I don’t think there’s any way to know. Jim wanted to know whether female characters were fully realized enough for female readers to make guesses about their motives and so on, and while right now I can’t look at the book because I’ve lent it to a friend who is probably reading this and feeling guilty, I can say that I wished I knew better what was going on in Miami’s mind, but that we never really knew what was going on in any of the character’s heads. If Jim’s theory that the women are all playing almost archetypal roles of what men expect from them, maybe that’s why the absence of Miami’s viewpoint seemed more poignant than that of the unnamed female Dreamers or Rosie, who at least seems to have a mind of her own in there somewhere. At the core of this, for me at least, is curiosity about to what extent sex like this is fully consensual for the (admittedly fictional) women involved. If it’s your job to have sex with guys to make them remember how cool they really are, do you hate your job? I realize I’m probably making too much of this, but it’s something that stuck out enough that I still think of it months later and I really don’t know what the answers are. I do know I’m probably having a nonstandard response to all of this, but I accept that too. I just think it’s interesting that sexual ethics don’t necessarily follow the same track as political ethics (or perhaps, in The Filth at least, they do) or professional ethics and yet this disconnect is commonplace enough that I haven’t seen people commenting on it. I suppose once this is posted, though, I will have, and that’s what counts.

31 October 2004 Update Just to be clear, since I’m pretty sure I didn’t say this outright, I have no problems whatsoever with people choosing to trade sex for whatever they like, although my general ideal is that everyone should be as close to fully aware and fully consenting as possible. I do think it’s problematic for employers to expect their employees to have sex as part of their work, especially if this is something expected only of female employees. And if, in the case of The Manchurian Candidate, we assume that this is Our Tax Dollars at work, I imagine that would ruffle some feathers too. But I’m not trying to be anti-sex or opposed to these texts in general, because I think their creators were trying to grapple with just these sorts of messy issues and I’m glad that they did as it gave me something to think about and post.

i ♥ huckabees

Well, the interconnection thing is definitely true!
Yeah, I know! Isn’t it amazing?
But it’s also nothing special.
Right, because it rises from the manure of human drama.
So, what are you doing tomorrow?
Well, I was thinking about chaining myself to a bulldozer. Wanna come?
Sure. Should I bring my own chains?
We always do.

That’s probably not an exact quote, but I did my best to remember the dialogue from the closing scene of David O. Russell’s I ♥ Huckabees. The “interconnection thing” is a.k.a. the Blanket Theory, of which the Jaffes, existential detectives, are the leading proponents: All the matter and energy in the universe are connected, everything affects everything else. If you think your life is bad—if, e.g., a middle manager in the Huckabees Corporation has invaded your environmentalist coalition and turned it into a PR vehicle, or if you’re a firefighter who’s been in the grip of existential crisis since “that big September thing”* and can’t stand all the hypocritical petroleum users calling you a hero—well, moments of traumatic crisis are the perfect opportunity to dismantle your alienated identity, look at the big picture, see the Blanket, and recognize your interconnectedness. Everything is the same even if it’s different. Your journey to enlightenment will bring a little more enlightenment to the entire universe. This is what Vivian and Bernard Jaffe are trying to show environmentalist and amateur poet Albert Markovski and firefighter Tommy Corn as they investigate their respective existential crises.

But—what about Brad Stand, the Huckabees executive who’s turned Albert’s coalition into a Huckabees promotional machine, and all those petroleum-using selfish people(for example, Tommy’s wife, who doesn’t care what life means and would prefer simply to live it, preferably without philosophers like Tommy hanging around)? If everything’s connected and everything’s great, why do Albert and Tommy keep getting fucked over by everybody around them? The Jaffes can’t answer that question for them. (Albert doesn’t really want them to—he only wants to know why he keeps coincidentally(?) running into the same African man—but Bernard Jaffe pushes him into examining the Blanket Theory, which leads to hard questions about the basic indecency of people that the Jaffes fail to answer to Albert’s satisfaction.) Who can answer it? Caterine Vauban, a French existentialist, archenemy of the Jaffes, who teaches Albert and Tommy her philosophy of “cruelty, manipulation, meaninglessness.” A state of pure being (what the Jaffes would think of as seeing the Blanket, but according to Vauban’s teaching involves getting hit in the face with a large rubber ball) is obtainable but ephemeral. Human drama is inevitable, and you’ll find yourself kicked out of your pure being as soon as, for example, your best friend and your philosophy instructor dump you to go have sex in the woods. Vauban’s pure being, contra the Jaffes, is pure disconnection from the universe, and her concept of human relationships leads inevitably to alienation—no Blanket here. Life is absurd.

The movie’s plot, then (and there is one), is dialectic, with Vauban’s nihilism the antithesis to the Jaffes’ feel-good answer to the existentialist dilemma. Is there synthesis? Yes, as Albert and Tommy work out in the dialogue quoted above. Everything is connected and everything affects everything else, but realizing this isn’t the key to happiness and inner peace, because the connections run through Vauban’s “human drama,” which includes the bad stuff (cruelty, manipulation, betrayal) in addition to warm fuzzy feelings.

The Blanket Theory is visually represented in the movie by a special effect in which little blocks (usually containing eyes or lips or noses) detach from their positions onscreen and float about interconnecting with one another. The blocks usually float in a disorganized jumble—they represent the inner perceptions of Albert and Tommy, who certainly don’t perfectly perceive the Blanket. But at the turning point of the movie, the pieces slide into place: Brad Stand is weeping (his house has just burnt down), Caterine Vauban (the arsonist with Albert’s help) snaps a Polaroid of him and hands it to Albert, who watches the features of his own face detach, float to the photo, and superimpose themselves on Brad’s face. A moment of pure empathy. Everything is the same—even if it’s different. Albert knows how Brad feels. The fact that Albert caused Brad’s despair by setting fire to his house only tightens this moment of human interconnection.

* Any story that takes on existential philosophy and the absurdity of the world must take on the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001—maybe especially one that uses “liberal-left despair” (Manohla Dargis, New York Times) as its Muse. “That big September thing” is the only direct mention of 9/11. The way Lily Tomlin, playing Vivian Jaffe, hesitates almost imperceptibly before saying it is at the heart of the lovely subtlety that slips around beneath the movie’s explosive mania and rewards viewers who pay attention.

Although Rose seems to have an idea that the movie’s conclusion is deconstructive rather than synthetic, or perhaps both. Or that the entire movie is deconstructive or something. I’m sure she’ll comment and explain herself.


Rose and I have seen two Mamoru Oshii movies lately: Avalon (which I have sought for months and finally found through Netflix) and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence.

Avalon is certainly the most convincing rendering of a virtual-reality video game I’ve seen. (The others I can think of are eXistenZ, sort of The Matrix, and the strange William Gibson-penned episode of The X-Files.) The question then is what makes a fictional game for a science-fiction VR platform “convincing,” but I think the answer is simply that it looks like a logical development from current real-life games. The squad-based multiplayer, class-based military action games are a popular genre in real-world games of the last several years. The half-baked tactical play also seems realistic—I’m thinking of the way the players alternate between acting sensibly, running around like mad, and just standing around stupidly while shooting.

Unfortunately, the English subtitles on the DVD seem to have only a tangential relationship to the dialogue. The basics of the plot seem to have survived the translation, but very little else. Actually, there’s a lot of what seems to be subtitles for voiceover narration laid over the otherwise silent parts of the movie, for no discernible reason (maybe somebody thought American audiences would need extra exposition to figure out what’s going on).

I was expecting a plot twist in which what appears to be the real world (the future one, not the secret level of Avalon) is revealed to be another layer of the VR, since both Avalon and the real world are filmed with the same sepia-toned, hazy visual effects. There seem to be unsettling connections between the real and VR worlds: Ash’s dog disappears in the real world and returns in Class Real as the poster ad for an orchestra concert. The real-world scenes have just enough repetitive looping to make them feel like a not-quite-realistic simulation — the exterior shot of the subway train that plays every time Ash goes home was especially reminiscent of a computer-game cut scene, I thought.

I expected that Ash would have to choose between reality and escapism, or that escape into the video game would become a means of transcending space and time or something (two of the major themes of the Matrix trilogy, it occurs to me), but the movie knocks both those concerns off balance with the introduction of Class Real. The secret level certainly looks real compared with the two sepia-toned worlds, but it still has the death animations and the weird little girl. Is Murphy a cataleptic in a hospital bed, or is he a guy living in modern-day Warsaw? The scene-selection menu calls the final chapter “Real Choices,” but what will Ash choose? What choice is she deciding, anyway?

Bright Young Things

Rose and I saw Bright Young Things a few weeks ago but haven’t written about it because we’ve both been awfully lazy w/r/t blogging. Oh well. I’ve also been reading the literary source, Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, except I haven’t actually read any of it in a couple weeks, so I suppose I’m not reading it anymore right not. Not because I didn’t enjoy what I read or anything.

Anyway, the most immediately obvious reading of Bright Young Things, and one which many reviewers have pointed out, is as a social critique of our modern society’s own Hiltons and Britneys. It certainly is, although not directly. The public obsession with celebrity qua celebrity is much the same, but the scandal is different. There’s a big difference between reading a pruriently coy report of the exploits of Agatha Runcible in a gossip column and watching a porn video of Paris Hilton. There’s a subplot in Bright Young Things in which Agatha and friends inadvertently destroy the political career of the Prime Minister after his daughter invites them to wrap up a night’s partying at her house. It’s a fictional counterpart of the Clinton sex scandals, but the vitally important difference is that Clinton got away with it. That ridiculous orgy of scandalized public entertainment forever changed the relationship in American culture between sex, morality hypocrisy.

Every aspect of the movie’s construction—the visuals, the editing, the narrative—feels like a freewheeling jazz band gone out of control. The central narrative thread, as much as there is one, is a romantic farce in which Adam Fenwick Symes continuously is unable to marry his fiancée Nina Blount on account of being broke. He’s supposed to publish a book and get rich from that, but the manuscript is confiscated at customs. He wins a thousand pounds in a bet, but he foolishly gives to an unreliable drunken major to bet on a worthless horse. He gets a check for a thousand pounds from Nina’s father Colonel Blount—but the colonel signs the check “Charlie Chaplin.” These misadventures weave through an unending series of vibrantly filmed parties at which everybody snorts cocaine and expresses profound boredom. The one early moment that threatens to put the brakes on the fun is the suicide of Simon, Earl of Balcairn and writer of the famed gossip column Mr. Chatterbox. The passing mention in the movie that he’s twenty-three when he kills himself is sobering—he’s twenty-three years old and he’s killing himself because he wasn’t invited to a party? or maybe simply because he’s bored? But the unstoppable fun/gossip machine grinds right over his corpse and churns out more scandalous gossip.

The party parade does finally begin to fall apart. I think the turning point is when Miles mentions he’s the new Mr. Chatterbox writer. It’s understandable when Adam takes the Mr. Chatterbox job earlier in the movie, since he’s at least pretending to want to make something of himself, but Miles is one of the true decadents, whom you can’t imagine has done a single useful thing in his life. That he would stoop to employment–albeit employment that involves doing what he always does anyway and then writing about it—he must be really desperate for cash. In fact, the only characters in the movie who aren’t broke seem to be the two nobody likes: Archie Schwert, an entirely uninteresting fellow who nevertheless throws the best parties, and Ginger, a creepy slug whom Nina ends up deciding to marry only for his money. The drunken major and Colonel Blount also seem to have money they want to give to Adam, but they’re also both mad as hatters and serve as mostly unwitting antagonists in his desire to get the money.

The best thing about Bright Young Things is the way it avoids moralistic critiques. In fact, it saves its sharpest satiric derision for those shouting the loudest moral denunciations. The disgraced Prime Minister and the evangelist Mrs. Melrose Ape both condemn the activities of the beautiful young people, but they both participate in and are complicit in those very activities. The movie suggests Mrs. Ape prostitutes her Christian choir of young girls to party goers. Their true enemies are the gossip columnists, who gleefully expose their hypocrisy. As for the beautiful young people themselves, the movie is content to subtly point out the pathetic truth about them: they’re all penniless and bored. They like to talk about how bored they always are, but it’s a long time before they realize they’re telling the truth when they say it.

The arrival of World War II near the end of the movie isn’t a comeuppance for the characters. Their world has already collapsed, and the war only marks the finality of the collapse. The only ones left by the end are Ginger, Nina and Adam. Their younger selves, from before the war, would probably say they’re much worse off in the end, but they’re really not. Ginger has lost his vast wealth (if he even had it in the first place) and is a fugitive from the law, but at least he’s got £34,000 and a means of escape to America (where he’s sure people appreciate outlaws like him). Adam and Nina, inevitably, are still broke, but they’re together and in love, and that was all they ever wanted anyway, even when they wouldn’t admit it to themselves.

Wicker Park

Rose and I saw Wicker Park this weekend—which, as you’ll see if you check out Rotten Tomatoes, is not generally loved by critics (22% of the reviews are positive). Nor, judging by the reactions of certain members of the audience with whom we shared our theater on Saturday (and I can confidently say that these certain members are representative of the levels of intelligence, maturity, and critical-reading ability cultivated by many if not most Americans), will the movie go over well with the general public. The row behind us in the theater held two young teenaged girls, their middle-aged mother, and a middle-aged man. The girls giggled helplessly through the entire movie—especially during the sex scenes, which they thought were “sick.” The adults managed to restrain themselves until the climactic scene, when they began making snide comments to cover their abject confusion at the movie. I don’t really blame these people for their bad behavior—they’ve probably all been stunted by too many viewings of The Rock and Jersey Girl. They simply don’t have the mental faculties to grasp movies that deal in ambiguity, thoughtfulness, and emotional complexity. Wicker Park demands the viewer consider and even sympathize with the perspective of people who do bad things, and these people were simply not mature enough to abandon the comfort of dividing the characters into heroes and villains. I don’t blame them for their sad stupidity (or maybe just intellectual laziness), but I do wish they’d stayed out of my theater and seen something more appropriate to their intelligence, like Without a Paddle.

(Not that I want to equate the critics who reviewed the movie with the idiots who watched it with Rose and me. Most of the critics listed on Rotten Tomatoes seem to have reasonably sophisticated reasons for disliking the movie.)

Anyway, Rose and I enjoyed the movie. It’s a remake of the French L’Appartement. Matthew is a talented advertising designer, engaged to his boss’s sister Rebecca, and about to fly to China to seal a deal with a Chinese client of the ad agency. This isn’t the life he wants, and he drifts through it with a sense of dissatisfaction. He’s still hung up on a woman named Lisa, who apparently dumped him and disappeared from his life two years ago. He moved to New York after Lisa left, but he returned to Chicago a couple months before the movie begins. Going to a dinner meeting with representatives of the Chinese client, he runs into an old friend, Luke, whom he dropped when he moved to New York. Luke’s reappearance in Matt’s life foreshadows another specter from the past: he thinks he hears Lisa in a private phone booth in the restaurant, but she runs away (from him?) before he can confront her, breaking her shoe on the way out. The lure of finally solving the Lisa mystery outweighs Matt’s sense of responsibility to his fianc????e and his employer—he cancels his plane ticket, calls ahead to China claiming he’s sick and will be a few days late, and soon is hanging out at Luke’s apartment and applying his amateur sleuthing skills to track down Lisa. He finds a hotel key where she dropped it in the restaurant, breaks into her hotel room, steals her compact, and promptly falls unconscious as some sleeping pills Rebecca gave him take effect. Eventually he tracks her to her apartment, where he spies as an apparent ex-lover slips his key to the apartment under the door along with a farewell note. Matt steals the key and replaces the other guy’s note with one of his own. Later, he breaks into the apartment to wait for Lisa to return. Lisa does return—but it’s not his Lisa. She was at the restaurant the other day, she did run out and break her shoe, she did have the hotel room Matt broke into, the compact is hers—but she’s not the right Lisa. Even though she looked (from behind, at least) and sounded exactly like the right Lisa in the restaurant. What’s going on?

Matt’s stalker-like mission to find Lisa is juxtaposed with flashbacks to his first meeting and early relationship with Lisa. He, in fact, met her when he began stalking her. His first sight of her was in a video tape he watched when he was fixing her video camera (he worked in a camera store two years ago). His second was when he accidentally caught her onscreen on the sidewalk outside the store while playing with a video camera. After that, he followed her to the studio where she practiced dance, then pretended to be a shoe salesperson to get close enough to ask her out. Alas, she was onto his stalkerish ways, but she agreed to go out for coffee anyway.

I don’t usually bother avoiding spoilers, but I’m reluctant to give too much of this movie away to anybody who hasn’t seen it. A lot of the fun of the movie is watching the clockwork of the plot tick along and gradually break down, and observing how deftly the story sidesteps predictability. (It’s not that the story is really unpredictable or surprising, but the twisty plot is so clever that it never lets you get comfortable knowing what’s going to happen. Anybody who complains about the predictability of the plot is probably being disingenuous.) So, given my reluctance to spoil the movie, I warn you now that I’m going to give away the answers to some mysteries.

Wicker Park seems to follow the standard “breakdown of reality” narrative, as in stories like Vanilla Sky and many of Philip K. Dick’s novels: a regular, usually bland and mundane, protagonist sleepwalks through life, often vaguely dissatisfied, until he or she notices some little crack in reality, some small inconsistency or inexplicable oddness. Exploration of the crack leads to more and larger cracks, until finally the very foundations of the world shatter and the protagonist spirals down a vortex of insanity—or maybe finds a doorway and steps out into some new world. These stories usually offer a literal breaking of reality, on a cosmological level, but Wicker Park gives the formula a twist: there’s a seemingly mundane force behind the mysterious events tearing apart Matt’s life. Matt’s investigations, and the flashbacks to various important backstory events, suggest conspiracies and other sinister goings on, but it turns out that a woman named Alex who is in love with and/or obsessed with both Matt and Lisa has been manipulating them to keep them apart. Two years ago, Matt had asked Lisa to move to New York with him, and she wanted to go but couldn’t tell him in person (she had been selected to replace a famous dancer on a European tour and needed to leave immediately). She asked her friend Alex to deliver a letter to Matt, but Alex didn’t deliver the letter and told Lisa she found Matt in bed with another woman. Matt thought Lisa had dumped him, Lisa thought Matt had dumped her. Two years later, Alex is meeting Lisa in the same restaurant where Matt is meeting with his Chinese clients. Alex gets Lisa out of the restaurant with some quick maneuvering on a pay phone—but not before Matt thinks he sees her. The rest of the movie spans three days in which Alex insinuates herself into Matt’s life so she can manipulate both Lisa and Matt to keep them from finding each other. Her ruse finally collapses, though. She’s been dating Luke, at first without realizing the connection and later in order to keep tabs on Matt. By the closing scenes of the movie, the smooth clockwork of Alex’s machinations has transformed into a rickety love quadrangle that’s bound to implode on itself at any moment.

The answer to the mystery of Lisa’s disappearance is a case of mundane romantic obsession and manipulation, but the movie amplifies and skews it all until it takes on frightening proportions. It reminds me of The Usual Suspects, which takes a mundane activity (lying to cops to cover up a crime) and amplifies it until it becomes a horror story of a corrupted world, controlled by a man so powerful in his deceit that he might as well be the Devil himself, the Prince of Lies. Alex doesn’t achieve the terrifying power of Verbal Kint/Keyser Soze/the Devil in The Usual Suspects, but her deceit is nearly as devastating. The most important thing to realize about Wicker Park (something that entirely escaped the sadly stupid audience members behind us) is that she did fail—she’s only human.

The dominant theme in the movie, both visually and narratively, is perspective. What people see and why is central. Obviously, this is central to Alex’s plot: she strives to control what everybody sees. There’s a recurring split-screen visual motif used to show what people see. One half of the screen contains a character who is looking at something, the other half shows the object of observation from the character’s point of view. The split-screen motif is cleverly echoed in the flashback scene in which Matt first sees Lisa—he stands in the foreground aiming the camera, while the background is filled with TV screens displaying his tracking shot of Lisa. The movie constantly reminds us that the images on the movie screen are subjective, not objective. There are scenes shot from an objective perspective, such as one in which Matt and Lisa stand ten feet apart on a sidewalk and miss noticing each other by less than a second, but those scenes also emphasize the limitations 0f what we see.

There’s a more subtle use of the perspective theme in the narrative. Alex is superficially the bad guy of the story, Matt is superficially the beleageured hero, but only because the story is told from Matt’s perspective. He and Alex are both stalkers, but Matt’s stalking Lisa seems more harmless because nothing too bad comes of it. Stalking people you’ve never met to get close enough to ask them on a date, breaking into a hotel room and apartment you think belong to somebody you knew a couple years ago, and screwing your employer and dumping your fianc????e in an airport because you’ve rediscovered an old girlfriend you wish you’d never lost—these crimes of Matt’s are hardly less destructive and irresponsible than Alex’s. Matt and Lisa have a sweet reunion at the end of the movie, but it’s hard to be happy for them since the reunion occurs seconds after Matt cruelly and unceremoniously boots Rebecca out of his life. The movie makes Matt look like the hero by pushing the results of his destructive behavior to the margins, but a small alteration of perspective makes him as villainous as Alex.

The Manchurian Candidates 2: Corporations

Part two of a two(?)-part post. See The Manchurian Candidates 1: Communists. Yesterday was John Frankenheimer’s 1962 The Manchurian Candidate, today is Jonathan Demme’s 2004 version.

First of all, a question. Does anybody know what year the new movie takes place? Rose is convinced she saw a “2008″ somewhere in the movie, but I did not and assumed the year was 2004. When the events of the movie occur is important. The 1962 Candidate is set in 1956, making it alternate history. It’s not about what is happening or what will happen, but about what might have happened. The movie’s concern is not paranoid speculation about Communist plots, but criticism of that paranoia.

I wrote yesterday that the movie validates McCarthyist fear even as it criticizes it—except that the validation is subverted by the fact that the object of fear is created through manipulation of fear. The alternate history further subverts. If the movie were set in the future, there would be room for speculation as to the possibility of a real Communist plot. But set in the past (or the present time, creating an alternate present), the movie explicitly discourages such speculation by emphasizing the fictionality of the threat. You can still speculate about possible Communist plots, certainly, but the alternate history is a subtle warning that speculation isn’t the point.

The 1962 Candidate, set in 1956, is about a Communist conspiracy that manipulates anti-Commie fear to turn a fictional threat of Commie infiltration into a real threat. The 2004 Candidate is about a plot to manipulate fear that’s going on now, in the real world. The United States government is manipulating public fear and insecurity, for good or ill, to promote the War on Terror(ism). (This isn’t a new tactic for the governments—in fact, it’s exactly what Senator McCarthy was doing.) If the movie is set in 2004, it’s metaphorically about that manipulation of fear. If it’s set in 2008, it enters the scary realm of possibility. The movie’s residence in the realm of implausibility does little to soften its speculative power. Rogue government officials and corporate officers are probably not going to be endorsing a science-fictional mind-controlled candidate in the 2008 elections—but people with power are capable of inventing, and have actually and will continue to invent, more viable and no less drastic conspiracies.

The modern equivalent of Commies would be Islamic terrorists (although planting sleepers in the White House isn’t really their style), but the new movie abandons the old movie’s specter of an outside threat. Terrorism is a constant present in the movie, but never a direct one. There are news reports of terrorist attacks, orange and red terror(ism) alerts, the familiar political debate of security against outsider terrorist vs. civil liberties for American citizens—but there are no terrorists or terrorist attacks. The terrorists are phantoms, much less substantial than the fear of terrorism. The old Candidate is resolutely anti-Communist even as it criticizes McCarthyism, but the new movie focuses its critique solely on current American political rhetoric. (An absence of anti-terrorist sentiment is not the same as implicit approval of terrorism.)

The older movie is at least a little optimistic, letting rationalism and democracy save the day as Ben Marco breaks his brainwashing and breaks out Raymond Shaw as well. It’s not a great victory for America—the government would probably have fallen to the Commies if not for Raymond’s desperate intervention—but it’s more than the new movie offers. Frank Sinatra’s Ben Marco is basically a good guy who seems to be going crazy for a while but manages to pull himself together and convince his Army superiors about the Commie conspiracy. Denzel Washington’s Ben seems to begin along the same trajectory, but he never pulls out of the descent into madness—he never manages to convince the Army, and most of the people who believe either disappear or turn out to be working for the other side. Delp seems to be Ben’s friend, but he used to work for Manchurian International making brain implants. And after Delp helps Ben recover his hidden memories, Delp disappears—did the conspiracy get rid of him, or was he working for them all along, Ben’s recovery of his memories merely part of their plan? Rosie seems to be helping Ben—but why is she helping? (More on Rosie below.) Ben seems to be the only character in the story definitely not in on the conspiracy—until that scene in the classroom on election day, when Raymond asks him why he never wondered if the conspiracy knew he was going to discover the truth. What if Ben’s discovery of the truth and attempts to convince people of it are only another part of the conspiracy’s byzantine plot? Frank Sinatra saved us from the Communists, but now there’s nobody to save us from ourselves.

The Rosie subplot in the new movie may be the most brilliant evocation of conspiracy-theory paranoia I’ve seen on film. Janet Leigh’s Rosie is intriguing and worrying, but Kimberly Elise’s is downright scary. This Rosie is definitely spying on Ben—she works for the FBI. She seems to be trying to protect him. Why? The obvious answer is that she was sent to keep an eye on him after the Army decided he was unstable and dangerous to Raymond, and that she gradually becomes convinced that Ben is right about the conspiracy and decides to help him defeat it or at least protect him from it. The Manchurian Candidate is the sort of movie that makes you distrust anything that can be described as the “obvious” answer, especially if the obvious answer makes somebody seem trustworthy. Rosie is as untrustworthy as any character in the movie, but the disturbing thing about her is that her allegiance is genuinely unknowable. Her actions make it look superficially like she’s working against the conspiracy or at least doesn’t know it exists—she never does anything that makes her obviously a conspirator. She never even does anything that might arouse suspicion. But she also never does anything that can’t be interpreted as benefiting the conspiracy. Why does she shoot but not kill Ben after he assassinates Raymond and Eleanor Shaw? Was it an panicked impulse reaction, or was she trying to make it look like he’d been killed? For whose benefit? Why does she erase all records of his being in the building where the assassination took place? Is she simply protecting him from the consequences of the murders he was brainwashed into committing (or hiding him from the remnants of the conspiracy), or is she covering up for the conspiracy? Who’s really in charge of the investigation of the secret brainwashing hospital at the end of the movie?

The new The Manchurian Candidate isn’t exactly pessimistic. It doesn’t preclude the older Candidate’s guardedly optimistic ending, but it doesn’t offer the luxury of security as the older movie does. After all, Eleanor Shaw is the movie’s foremost proponent of security.

The Manchurian Candidates 1: Communists

Roger Ebert, in his review of Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate, writes, “To compare Demme’s version with Frankenheimer’s is sort of irrelevant.” This is a ridiculous statement. As J.W. Hastings pointed out when somebody asked him why on Earth he was comparing apples and oranges J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Howard, “I firmly believe that it is not only okay but a critic’s duty to compare apples and oranges.” Indeed. Of course, John Frankenheimer’s and Demme’s movies aren’t like apples and orange, they’re more like—oranges and grapefruits? At any rate, they’re both based on the same novel by Richard Condon, they have similar plots, they engage related political themes in very different political climates. What’s not to compare?

If Frankheimer’s Candidate has a flaw, it’s that it seems to want to criticize McCarthyism even as it validates McCarthyism’s worst nightmares of Communist infiltration. The movie conjures a paranoid fantasy of Cold War politics in which there don’t seem to be any genuinely Communist politicians in the U.S. government, but there is at least one who’s married to a Communist. Senator Johnny Iselin, a bold caricature of Senator Joseph McCarthy, is a drunken buffoon easily controlled by his wife Eleanor, who is the American handler for a brainwashed Soviet sleeper agent planted in the United States. The sleeper happens to be Eleanor’s son Raymond Shaw. The plan: get Senator Iselin on the ballot as the vice-presidential candidate, then send Raymond to the convention to assassinate presidential candidate Ben Arthur, leaving Iselin to ride a wave of freedom-loving hysteria right into the Oval Office, where he will be controlled by the Communists through Eleanor. (Except that Eleanor, upon learning her own son is the assassin, vows to avenge her son and destroy her Communist allies who destroyed her son.) This ridiculous plan would have gone off smoothly if not for the intervention of Major Ben Marco, who was leader of Raymond’s platoon during the Korean War and who, when the platoon was captured and taken to Manchuria for brainwashing, was instructed to award Raymond the Congressional Medal of Honor (part of the plan to make Raymond’s stepfather Senator Iselin look like a good vice-presidential candidate). Ben, plagued by nightmares—a ladies’ gardening club meeting mixed surreally with a meeting of Russian and Chinese military leaders in which a Chinese doctor does Freudian brainwashing/hypnotism on Marco and his platoon—figures something must be wrong. At first he fails to convince his Army commanders anything but that he’s going insane, but he eventually convinces them he’s onto something and an investigation of Raymond begins. Ben tries to unhypnotize Raymond, thinks he must have failed when Raymond disappears on a mission with instructions from his evil mother—only to discover, to his relief and horror, that he had succeeded in breaking Raymond free, but that Raymond decided the only way to stop the Commie plot was to assassinate his mother and Johnny Iselin himself. He explains to Ben, “You couldn’t have stopped them, the army couldn’t have stopped them—so I had to.” Then he shoots himself. Not a happy ending, but at least a victory for the good guys, such as they are. The movie suggests that the United States is vulnerable to Communist infiltration—not least because hysterical fearmongers like McCarthy make it easier for infiltrators to manipulate the public—but that there are a few good people willing and able to stand up and fight back for America.

I said that if the movie has a flaw, it’s the simultaneous criticism and validation of McCarthyism. This isn’t quite a flaw, but it is a little weak. If the Commies had been capable of orchestrating and nearly carrying off such an intricate plot to seize control of the White House, Joe McCarthy would have had reason to be worried. On the other hand, the movie makes a good point that those who wish to take power unscrupulously could easily adopt McCarthyist tactics to cultivate public fear and manipulate political paranoia to their advantage.

The good guys win in the end, but there’s one worrying thread left untied at the end: Rosie, Ben’s weirdo girlfriend he meets on a train. The common theory to explain Rosie’s strange behavior is, maybe Ben has also been brainwashed to receive post-hypnotic instructions, and Rosie speaks to him in code to trigger instructions. The biggest problem with the theory is that, if it’s right, Ben’s hypnotic triggers are nothing at all like Raymond’s. Raymond always responds to a suggestion to play Solitaire, and the sight of the Queen of Diamonds (a symbol associated with his mother by way of a massive oedipal complex) puts him in a receiving state where he obeys any command he hears. Rosie’s dialogue with Ben is much more complex, and Ben never enters a trance state as does Raymond. There is one tenuous coincidence which seems to support the theory: The first thing Rosie says to Ben when they meet on the train is, “Maryland is a beautiful state.” Ben replies by pointing out that they’re in currently in Delaware—why would Rosie mention Maryland? Later in the movie, Raymond and his love Josie fly overnight from New York to Maryland to get married. Why go to Maryland? Ben is waiting to arrest Raymond when they return, and Josie informs Ben they’ve just returned from Maryland. Raymond ended up marrying Josie after years of estrangement only because his mother invited her to a party. Is this some absurdly convoluted subplot put in motion by Eleanor Iselin? Get Raymond and Josie married and then hypnotically command Ben to believe that the power of love may cure Raymond of his brainwashing? The idea is even more implausible than the rest of the movie, but it’s the sort of paranoid speculation the movie seems to encourage. Nevertheless, nothing more than paranoid speculation ever comes of it. Ben tells Rosie everything he plans to do—she could easily have prevented him from helping Raymond. Rosie may very well be Ben’s handler, but there’s no indication that Ben can be controlled as Raymond can.

Eleanor Iselin (and Johnny, unwittingly) are apparently the only Americans involved in the Communist conspiracy. If the conspiracy remains intact after their deaths, that fact remains buried deep in the movie’s subtext. More likely, this plot has been defeated. (But will there be more?)