Saturday, May 29, 2010

The End

Find me now at the new Disjointed Observations.

Here's the issue: this space is stale and stagnant, at least for me. It's creation was necessitated when I took a class in the Fall of 2007 in which digital submission of writing required, and I hadn't though to use it past those ends. Eventually I found it a decent forum for responding to things I read or musing about other topics that arose as I pursued my degree, but those impulses never manifested themselves into a sustained or co
mpelling effort for me. And if it failed to be those things for me, there is slight chance that it would be those things for someone else.

I started watching Lost only this January and made my way through five seasons in six weeks as I looked forward to the final season's premiere. Curiosity sent me searching the interwebs, stumbling across the work of paid critics like Jeff Jensen from Entertainment Weekly and Alan Sepinwall, who has recently taken his very good blog to Hitfix.com. These guys were writing the sort of analysis I could only hope to produce, and ridiculously late I began to realize that this was something I could be doing too. Perhaps not for multiple television programs as I rarely watch more than a few, but for the sorts of things that interest me and might be of interest to others. In fact, I had a good time writing however briefly about the use of hypertext in film a few months ago; I am a fool for not producing this sort of content more often.

This interest in Lost coupled with the unbelievable hype that surrounded the final season introduced some new scholars to me as well. Aided by my long overdue embrace of Twitter, analysis of episodes were constantly being referred by those I followed, and I found myself with more than I could handle in terms of trying to figure out the importance of sideways-universe. But these writers produced content about a lot of things, not just Lost, and rather than being paid to write for a web/print publication, they were often graduate students or young professors--people who are walking the same path that I am, aside from the small fact that they are producing ideas while I am not.

So this (obviously) needs to change. For one, it means shutting this space down and starting up a new one, a fresh one, that will hopefully inspire me to get more done. But more importantly, it means rethinking the way I approach writing, both in this sort of online space as well as more traditional ones. Not only do I want my posting to reflect my research interests, I also want there to be a more personal element to what I write. Example: I now realize that the sort of job I have now is not the sort of job where I am setting myself up for a big payday. Neither good/bad, it is a reality. The only way for me to earn more money is to work harder, longer. I want to work smarter. It takes the same amount of effort to write a post read by one person as it does a post read by a million. If I can find a way to get paid a penny a reader, I'd be working smarter, even with far fewer than a seven-figure readership.

I have lagged far behind my peers when it comes to engaging with new media. As I now am researching a degree in the digital humanities with research interests firmly lying within the ways communication in digital spaces affects communication in non-digital ones, I need to not only engage with such things but also note my observations. I'll almost certainly continue to record my thoughts on Star Trek and mainstream fiction/nonfiction books, but I hope to write a lot more a lot more often.

This isn't the first time I have made such a vow, but with all the free time I find myself with as my wife finishes her degree while I merely work a few shifts a week, I feel it is the time. The current plan is to go live on a new site within a week. Of course, I will publicize the shift all over the place and put a link at the top of this entry, but this space will remain inactive, as a relic. Maybe I will import the content, maybe not.

I'm keeping the name though, it's too good.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Reading List: April 2010

After returning from the PCA/ACA National Conference last month, I was contacted by a couple of professors from SUNY Potsdam who are editing a book on digital rhetoric inviting me to submit my presentation as a chapter, assuming I could get it done in under two weeks. Knowing a good thing when it falls in my lap, I jumped at the opportunity, integrating a portion of my thesis with my conference paper in order to make a broader, and more lengthy, argument. So that's how I spent the last half of April and a major reason why nothing got posted here.

Now I have joined a group of colleagues in preparing an article on Facebook & Pedagogy, which will almost certainly be published. Not exactly in my area of research, but a peer-reviewed publication will be very advantageous at this stage in the career. And after receiving a call for papers from Modern Fiction Studies, I am beginning a look at the way the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise dealt with the cultural climate in the US after 9/11. I'm sure I'll find an angle somewhere, and even though I am unlikely to be published in such a prestigious
journal at this stage, it's a win/win scenario because I can always send it elsewhere if it doesn't pass muster. It's also nice to sit around and watch hours of Star Trek guilt free.

I also found out this afternoon that I was placed on the wait list for Florida's program, so I am hoping that with the book chapter, the co-authored paper, my analysis of Enterprise and 9/11, and a revised paper I did for a Writing Center Theory & Practice course, I'll be a sure thing come next year.

Anyway, last month I completed 7 books and 4 graphic novels, which were:
  • The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande
  • Queen & Country: Operation: Morningstar by Greg Rucka & Brian Hurtt
  • Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace
  • The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons
  • Fables: The Great Fables Crossover by Bill Willingham, et al.
  • The Needs of the Many by Michael A. Martin
  • Queen & Country: Operation: Crystal Ball by Rucka & Leandro Fernandez
  • Reality Hunger by David Shields
  • Queen & Country: Operation: Black Wall by Rucka & J. Alexander
  • Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith
  • Synthesis by James Swallow
Wish I would have had a little time to give these works a proper review, but here's a quick shorthand.

The Good: Wallace, Shields, Simmons, Rucka, Smith, Swallow
The Bad: Willingham, Gawande
The Ugly: Martin

Thoughts and comments are encouraged and appreciated.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Decalogue: Seven

Seventh Commandment: Thou shalt not steal.

In recovery, addicts will often refer to their behavior when using as an act of theft. If you a
re getting drunk rather than spending time with your children, you are stealing the presence of a loving parent from them. If you are ducking out of work early in order to catch happy hour, you are quite literally stealing productivity and the employer’s right o have a worker focused on his or her job. This message is rendered explicitly in the seventh film in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue, an affecting and well produced entry even if it seemed slightly transparent to me.

Majka, a young college senior, lives with her parents in the housing complex that unifies each entry in the series. She has a six-year-old daughter who live with her, Ania, but this daughter is being raised by her parents as Majka’s sister, and her mother, who was never affectionate or supportive with Majka, fawns over Ania
and is quite close to her. Majka wants to flee with Ania to Canada, but needs her mother’s permission to obtain a passport for the girl.

Already the theft is obvious. Majka has had her daughter stolen to be raised as someone else’s, just as she
has had the support of a parent stolen by her mother who lacked fairness and affection for her. Ania too has had her true mother stolen from her. It is arguable that such thefts were beneficial for some involved: Ania is likely better off in some ways not being raised by a teenager, and the freedom from childrearing responsibilities allows Majka to remain in school, with all the opportunities such advancement allows. Yet Kieslowski isn’t a moralizer; theft is theft, no matter how one may justify it.

As the story progresses, Majka steals Ania from show at the children’s theater and takes he
r to Wojtek, Ania’ father. The two met when he was hired as a literature professor by Majka’s mother, only to fall in love with the sixteen-year-old Majka and impregnate her. He is initially uncomfortable, yet warms to the young girl as time passes. Majka intends to blackmail her mother for permission to take Ania with her to Canada. Even at this point we can see theft in virtually every action one character takes in relation to another, both literal and figurative. And such actions recur until the narrative’s end and, one can imagine, continues on.

Kieslowski’s narrative is so effective because it allows on to view strained relationships the way those i
n addiction recovery often do: as acts of theft. While the story provides characters and situations with which to practice such an evaluation, it is in our own lives that such analysis can be the most painful, yet also provide the basis for much healing.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Decalogue: Six

Sixth Commandment: Thou shalt not commit adultery.

In the sixth film of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue first seems to be about a naïve young man who develops an obsessive attraction to a woman he doesn’t even know. Both he and the woman he admires live in the same apartment complex that serves as a link between the characters in each episode. Tomek is a
shy young man who works in the post office by day and by night spies on his neighbor Magda with a telescope he has stolen specifically for this purpose. As we see Magda through Tomek’s gaze, we learn that she is a bold and confident woman, an artist, who shares her bed with several men who make frequent visits.

In order to get closer to her, Tomek calls her home but says nothing when she answers, sends her fake
money order notices so that she is forced to come into his post office, steals some of her letters and reads them, and even goes so far as to get a job as a milkman just to get close to her apartment. When one of his fake notices causes a confrontation between Magda and his manager, he feels guilty and confesses everything to her. When she asks why he has done all these things, he replies that he loves her.

For Magda, love means the carnal act, the playful banter that has no deeper emotion behind it. There is no such thing as true romantic love. But despite what one might think by merely reading about Tomek’s actions, his love is not carnal at all; instead, he simply loves her. Since he is so shy and innocent, presenting no threat to her, Magda toys
with Tomek, putting on a show for him by positioning her bed in front of the window and seducing a lover when she knows he is watching. When informing her lover that they have been spied upon, he flies into a rage and punches Tomek. Now it is Magda’s turn to feel guilty.

After accepting Tomek’s offer to go to an ice cream parlor, Magda hears him tell all about his love for her. In a truly erotic scene, she tries to entice him into the sort of love she knows, only to have it end disastrously as Tomek runs away in horror. Now the tables are turned as she uses binoculars to try and find out what has happened to him. His innocent ways have awakened something inside of her, yet he has slashed his wrists and is taken to the hosp
ital.

The film isn’t about adultery, as neither Tomek nor Magda are married, but instead about adulterated love., love that has become debased. Many of the scenes place the viewer as a gazer, emphasizing the male eye of the camera, yet desensualizes that look to come more into line with the views on love of Tomek rather than those of Magda. Yet he himself has been the subject of a gaze the entire time, that of his godmother, who understands his loneliness as she herself is lonely after her son has left and never really returned home.

This sixth entry is as much Magda’s story as it is Tomek’s, for her concern for him changes the way she conceptualizes love, marking that change as the crux of the narrative. Yet after Tomek returns from the hospital and encounters Magda, he tells her that he doesn’t look at her anymore. She has changed, but now her love is as unfulfilled as his once was. The redemption of love is blunted by the dismissal of one’s affection. Magda is now in the place Tomek inhabited in the first scene, and Kieslowski’s slam cut to end the film is jarring and effective.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Decalogue: Five

Fifth Commandment: Thou shalt not kill.

Krzysztof Kieslowski begins the fifth entry in The Decalogue depicting three characters who are initially separate, but whose paths not unexpectedly cross as the narrative progresses. By choosing to leave almost all contextualization out of the story as it opens, he is able to reveal needed information when it will be the most effectiv
e in terms of creating a certain sensibility with the viewer. In fact, this is Kieslowski’s most polemic entry thus far.

The director introduces the three main characters separately, using distinctive cinematography that uses almost no establishing shots in order to make the three men seem even more isolated. In fact, the extensive use of close-ups on each individual throughout the film serves to make the narrative seem more abstract, to make the characters seem less like individuals and more like types.

Jacek is a young man not quite twenty-one who is angry and seems alienated as he wanders the city, looking for and causing trouble wherever he goes. He drops a rock off a bridge and onto a car’s windshield as it drives underneath, causing an accident. He scares away pigeons who are being fed by an old lady, even as she asks him not to. Piotr is a young, handsome lawyer who is interviewing with a job at a prestigious law firm. He is firmly committed to the highest ideals of justice and stridently opposes the death penalty. And the taxi driver is a middle aged man who is mean spirited and unsympathetic. He leers at young girls, scares small dogs with his horn, and promises to wait for a couple only to drive away without them.

It doesn’t take long for one to realize that Jacek is going to commit a murder, which logically must be the taxi driver. The murder isn’t quick and easy as we often see it portrayed in entertainment; instead, Jacek strangles the man, beats him with a pipe, drags his body towards a body of water to dump it in, realizes the man is still alive, and then as the driver begs for his life, smashes his head with a large rock.


Cut to a year later. Piotr is serving as the defense attorney for Jacek, whereby they immediately lose their appeal to stave off the death penalty. The rest of the film portrays the cruelty and detachment of the state when implementing the harshest of all penalties.

Yet what separates this film from the typical polemic against the death penalty is the nature of both victims: neither is a sympathetic character. As an audience, we realize that the killing of the taxi driver I not justified even though he is presented as a bad person. And with no doubt about the guilt of Jacek from either the state or the viewer, an argument against capital punishment is automatically more difficult to make. Nevertheless, as we learn the first real information about Jacek just before he is taken to be hanged, that his young sister was killed by one of his friend’s with a tractor after he and Jacek spent the afternoon getting drunk when they were thirteen or so, he becomes more than just grist in the argument.

At the start of the film, Piotr mention that vales in Poland are declining, and thus as people ask themselves whether they are doing things of value, that definition is constantly shifting. What Kieslowski is trying to impart with this film, from my perspective, is to ask how society should respond to this shift, a shift that produces small sinners like the taxi driver and egregious ones like Jacek. Does it merely punish those who have lost their way, or does it try and restore those lost values to the individual in question? By depicting the machinery of the state to be just as valueless and inhuman as Jacek, his execution serves only to further erode the values of the society.


We often have arguments over the penal system here in America, asking whether it is for punishment or for rehabilitation. The state claims it’s the latter, but recidivism rates would argue that it is in fact the former. Even if it could be proven that the death penalty served as a deterrent, it still wouldn’t make executions moral. Instead, imagine if the resources for Jacek to seek counseling after his sister’s death had been in place. Perhaps he would have remained at home, as he speculated, and the murder never would have taken place. Or perhaps if the sort of moral society Piotr was lamenting the loss of would have existed enough that two thirteen year old boys wouldn’t have been getting drunk and driving a tractor. While the abstract nature of the story clashes with the intense characters of the previous four films, Kieslowski argues effectively here that killing itself is wrong and that a society who engages in killing as punishment is contributing to the problem of moral decay, not combating it.

Monday, April 5, 2010

From Space Exploration to Time Travel

While attending a panel on time travel this weekend at the National PCA/ACA Conference in St. Louis, a panel that at one point was so boring that I prayed to time travel to the end of it, a fellow audience member asked a question that has had me thinking since: what are we to make of the professed shift from science fiction narratives centering around space exploration to those centering on time travel?

Of course, this shift is not comprehensive. A presentation by Korcaighe Hale examined the selection of historical events in three time travel shows ranging from the later 60s to the early 90s, but with shows like Lost and Flashforward dominating the airwaves and others centered on exploration, like Enterprise, incorporating elements of time travel into their mythologies, it’s not hard to argue
that this shift has taken (or is taking) place. But what reasons could there be?

One person acknowledged that as we learn more and more about our universe, about how unlikely it is that we will ever be able to leave our solar system, such stories of exploration no longer have real traction. I suppose this is true to some extent, though it’s not as if a show like Star Trek took the science all that seriously and viewers didn’t seem to have big problems with that. I have another idea, but as I am severely ignorant of much of science fiction and its discourses, I am going to argue through the prism of Trek and let my argument be judged as in/adequate based on such a decision.

Why did the public so engage with the space exploration narrative central to Trek in the late 60s and through syndication in the 70s? Coming out of the policies of brinksmanship in the 1950s, where the Eisenhower Administration moved to contain communism within the Soviet Union, it seems to me that a show about a peaceful (military) explorers spreading a message of human rights and a celebration of the individual would have some traction from a purely patriotic standpoint. It allowed the viewers of that era to identify the positive intentions of their government separate from the unpopular policies by which they were implemented.

But with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the need to spread the message of anti-communism was no longer necessary, and as a result, the sort of space exploration narrative eventually lost its traction as well. Sure we had The Next Generation going strong through 1994, but even the popular Deep
Space Nine abandoned the exploration format in order to tell the story of a Federation trying to broker peace in a rapidly changing galactic landscape, arguably analogous to the state of the world after the fall of the Soviet Union.

We now live in a world where we aren’t threatened with death every day, on a societal scale at least, and thus we can relax from spreading our message and take time to appreciate the differences between us and others by studying how we got here. And thus the time travel story resonates, for we can go back and see what choices shaped our society, how different (and the same) people were in the past versus today. And we forecast what will happen to us in the future along these same principles.

I’m not even sure I totally buy this, but it seems a framework for a larger discussion can begin here. It’s even possible that I will be presenting a paper on this topic at next year’s conference, but before I get ahead of myself, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, perhaps contextualizing this argument within the greater scope of science fiction literature, but certainly offering your own takes even if they blow my hypothesis out of the proverbial water.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Reading List: March 2010

Right now I am in St. Louis at the PCA/ACA National Conference where I am presenting my paper on hyperlink cinema tomorrow afternoon. I've attended a few panels over the past two days, including a great one comparing changes in baseball as being reflective to changes in the nation (and the reverse). I also have been immersed within the world of adaptation studies, trying to decide if that is a possible home for at least some of my interests. I'll likely be writing about some of what I've heard in future entries here.

Only seven posts of substance last month, but I am proud of them. I thought I'd blow through Kieslowski's Decalogue, but spacing them out has made for a more relaxed and reasoned response. That said, I hope to be done before April is over.

On the academic career front, I have some acceptances but as of now no funding, meaning I'll likely be taking a year off. In many ways this is a good thing: it gives my wife more time to
finish her degree; more time for my house to accrue some value before I have to put it on the market; another year of banking real money before taking the huge cut to teach. Yet I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed, that it didn't feel like a step backwards. I have some ideas on how to make myself a better candidate to programs that will probably suit me better next year, so I am confident that I'll land in a better spot eventually, though on a day to day basis this is occasionally hard to remember.

March saw me avoid reading a novel for the first month since, well, before I started keeping a list. I'm still unengaged by literary fiction, though I may take a look at an occasional story or novel w/r/t adaptation studies in the near future. The best book I read was Nonzero by Robert Wright, an application of game theory to cultural and biological evolution. Since I finished this the night before leaving for St. Louis, I haven't written thoughts on it yet, but look for those in the future. Anyway, I read 4 books and 4 graphic novels last month:
  • Bomb Power by Garry Wills
  • Reading Judas by Elaine Pagels & Karen L. King
  • The Return of Depression Economics by Paul Krugman
  • Astro City: The Dark Age: Brothers & Other Strangers by Kurt Busiek & Brent Eric Anderson
  • Queen & Country: Operation: Broken Ground by Greg Rucka & Steve Rolston
  • Rasl: The Drift by Jeff Smith
  • Batman: Cacophony by Kevin Smith & Walt Flanagan
  • Nonzero by Robert Wright
Thoughts or questions about anything, whether related or not, are welcome as always.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Batman & the Failure of Moral Absolutism

Earlier this week I read Kevin Smith’s new collected Batman tale, Cacophony, which takes the villain Onomatopoeia from his run on Green Arrow from about ten years ago (!) and sends him after the Caped Crusader. Smith acknowledges in his introduction the series’ main weakness, the excessive dialogue in the first issue, but he then overcorrects in the final two, leaving too much unsaid. The guy can write dialogue, and while I could have done without the reference to a green merkin, the shift made the later issues seem too sparse.

Anyway, Onomatopoeia really serves as a catalyst for a Batman/Joker story in which the Joker is shot, the bullet nicking his aorta, and Batman must decide whether to seek help for him or pursue Onomatopoeia. Knowing what one does about Batman, that he is a thoroughly good person despite the fact that he beats the shit out of petty criminals on a regular basis and spends millions of dollars on gadgets that could otherwise be used to clean up Gotham’s slums, it’s obvious what decision he makes. Even with Jim Gordon arguing forcefully that the Joker is a horrible person who killed a school full of children earlier in the series and should be left to bleed out, Batman can’t do it. This leads to a pretty good scene at the series’ end where the Joker, filled with anti-psychotics, explains to Batman that he will never be at peace until he is able to kill him. So the dilemma is that Batman can’t live with himself by killing the Joker, but if he had killed him then the Joker would be at peace and Gotham would be (relatively) safe, or if he himself was killed then the Joker would be at peace. Not terribly compelling, but Smith did a reasonably good job with it.

But what bothers me is that such a conversation is so blindingly obvious that it needn’t have happened. Of course Batman couldn’t kill the Joker, for his character is good while the Joker is evil. There’s no grey area, and thus by not protecting all life, the character would be forever tarnished. But placing such a virtuous character in such a situation makes for a disingenuous story, because who among us wouldn’t let the Joker bleed out in that situation? Batman didn’t shoot him, in fact he let the shooter escape to save him. So we, the audience, are Jim Gordon arguing for real justice and the understanding that moral absolutes are at times counterproductive, while Batman remains better than humanity. This of course may mean that as a result of his moral stance, Batman isn’t so much better than humanity, but that he stands apart from it as an Other.

This sort of thing isn’t unique to Batman and comic characters, but also infiltrates the realm of the utopian future society in Star Trek. So-called evolved humanity at times seems so distant from current humanity as to be unrelatable, something that obviously doesn’t click with viewers as exemplified with Voyager and Enterprise. The Federation has moral absolutes about how other people should be treated, how a society should act, so it prevents them from violating said morals for the greater good. In fact, some of the most popular and resonating episodes of Star Trek involve someone breaking the moral code to effect a necessary change, like the members of Section 31 or Captain Sisko conspiring with Garak to bring the Romulans into the Dominion War.

I don’t want to get into a metaphysical discussion about why the ends can sometimes justify the means, not just because it is an unwinnable argument but also because it’s not important here. I merely want to make the point that by setting up characters or societies with moral absolutes that are inviolable, an honest portrayal of the human experience will be near impossible to convey, for while we may one day hope to be like Batman or to live in the utopian Federation, it nevertheless will be difficult to ever relate to these types of characters as their experiences and worldview are necessarily so different from our own.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Decalogue: Four

Fourth Commandment: Honor thy father and thy mother.

Krzysztof Kieslowski didn’t set out to create simple parables with The Decalogue; instead, he sought to complicate the binary nature of the Ten Commandments and demonstrate greater implications of their dictums. In the fourth film, based around the commandment to honor one’s parents, Kieslowski expands his story to encompass the societal relationships between parents and children and the rigidity with which we adopt these roles.


The story tells of Anka, a beautiful twenty-year-old drama student, who lives at home with her father, Michal. The two have a very close, personal relationship, since Anka has been raised entirely by her father following
her mother's death when she was only five days old. One day Michal leaves on a business trip for a few weeks, and during his absence, Anka discovers a letter in his desk that says, ‘to be opened after my death.’ As anyone would be, she is tempted to open the letter and read it anyway, dishonoring her father’s wishes that it remain unopened until his demise. Ultimately after much agonizing, she determines to open it and finds a letter addressed to her from her mother.

Now the simple moral is already in place. Anka’s father requested that the letter not be opened until he dies, yet she opens it anyway. And the letter serves as a Pandora’s box, for all that once was will be irrevocably altered now that it has been opened. When her father returns, Anka angrily confronts him with what she has learned from the letter: that Michal is not her real, biological father. She is angry that she was never told the truth, but her father responds that he never knew the contents of that letter and was never sure about the truth of this, himself, and so he always delayed revealing her mother’s letter to her. To Kieslowski’s credit, he does not allow the moral compunctions of the two characters to remain at this level, delving deeper into their relationship in a manner that one is unaccustomed to seeing even today, when so-called taboo subject matter is so common.

The rest of the film is essentially a long, beautifully photographed conversation between the two in order to get to the bottom of things. Anka is committed to knowing the truth and avoiding deception, and she gets Michal to swear to revealing his true feelings, no matter how painful. In the ensuing conversations, she reveals to her father that she has always a more than straightforward filial feelings for him—she has always had ambiguous, long-
suppressed urges that suggested to her the romantic love between a man and a woman. She then gets him to confess that he too has had similar unrealized feelings for her. The implication from all this is that now that she was a mature and biologically unrelated woman, there was no moral law standing in the way of their consummating their long-held-back love.

Of course, society would recoil from such an arrangement, and as a viewer I couldn’t help but feel a bit of revulsion myself. Yet just because such behavior is not often addresses in literature or popular culture does not mean that such feelings are nonexistent, or even all that rare. While making his audience quite uncomfortable, Kieslowski is able to express a story that seems to reveal an aspect of the human condition worthy of further thought and introspection.

The morning after these searing revelations, Anka runs to her father and confesses that she had never really read her mother’s letter. The whole story about Michal not being her father had been a forgery, a fake letter in her mother's handwriting to show to Michal. Both she and her father may have their suspicions about her true parentage, but the truth still remains buried and unrevealed in her mother’s letter. Nevertheless, this lie of Anka's has led to the revelations of other truths concerning the real feelings between the two. She now asks Michal what they should do about the real, still-unread letter. But even with the truth still unknown, the Pandora’s box has still already been open, for the two have been playing the social roles of father and daughter for twenty years; an ability to shift into new roles as romantic partners seems not just improbable but likely impossible.

Anka’s lie reveals a continuation in the pattern concerning ‘honoring’ her father and her mother. On
the surface of things, she has dishonored her parents in many ways, especially when she lied to Michal about having read the letter after opening it against his wishes. And her culminating action at the end of the film concerning the disposition of the real letter is also a dishonoring of her mother's wishes, in a way, as she decides to burn it without knowing the contents. Yet through these actions she and her father come to the conclusion that violating the social roles of father and daughter is impossible for they have inhabited them for so long. Her father is her father, perhaps not biologically as the remnants of the burned letter suggest, but rather because he played the role of her father for twenty years. It’s a cliché to say it, but it’s true, and as Anka and her father adjust to the altered relationship created as they confessed their desires, they respect the social roles and thus boundaries in the filial relationship, which of course is a way of saying that they honor it.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Decalogue: Three

Third Commandment: Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.

After a very mixed two week stretch in which guarded highs and lows feeling like I got punche
d in the gut have left me disoriented and directionless, I realize that what I need is to just continue to write while I pursue some options and wait on situations to further develop. More on this in a week or two when I know more about it, but as I watched the third film in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue about a week ago and haven’t written anything about it, I’ll take it as an opportunity to dip my toes back in the water.

Kieslowski misfires in the third entry in his series, something that caused me to have little to no opi
nion on the film and thus little inclination to sit down and write up thoughts on it. On Christmas Eve, Janusz returns home from his job as a taxi driver dressed as Santa Claus in order to amuse his small children. On the way into the building, he passes Krzysztof, the professor whose son died in the first film, reminding the viewer of the importance of family and the extent to which these events all take place in a small fixed area. Paralleled to Janusz and his family, we also see Ewa visit her senile aunt at a nursing home. As we soon learn, Ewa and Janusz were former lovers and will spend most of the night together, though unromantically. Later most of the town attends a Midnight Mass and the two notice each other in the congregation.

While the events of the first two entries are associated with the internal journeys of the characters within, the weakness in the third entry stems from the lack of direction for these characters and their journey. Ewa comes to Janusz to ask his help tracking down her husband who has gone missing, the two spend the bulk of the narrative trying to find him, and then Ewa admits at the conclusion that he left her three years ago when he discovered Ewa and Janusz together. Kieslowski slowly reveals all the background information, so the viewer is engaged in pursuing a mystery him or herself, which parallels the characters, I suppose, though I wasn’t all that invested in deciphering the clues.

Nothing is resolved with the events of the episode. Ewa having confessed to Janusz her deception, realizes that while he is the only one who truly knows her (after her husband left and her aunt is rendered senile), he is now unavailable and feels little more than fond nostalgia and pity for her. Returning home, Janusz’s wife asks whether he was out with Ewa and whether that meant he’d be gone at nights from now on; he replies no, and that brief scene at the very end is so well acted that I wish we had seen a focus between these two characters with Ewa playing a secondary role.

Where I am baffled is how this story relates to the commandment to keep the
Sabbath day holy. Assuming that Christmas Eve, one of the holiest days, is representative of the Sabbath, perhaps Janusz should have remembered to put his priorities with his family and not be so torn with regards to his feelings for Ewa. But perhaps he helps her out of a sense of doing what is right, especially on the Sabbath, and by not giving in to a desire to sleep with her, is an example of not violating the Sabbath.

In all, this is a weak entry that up until this point had been a stellar series. A friend tells me that the fourth film was the most powerful for her, and I look forward to reviewing that for you tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (2009)

I’ve read perhaps five times the number of plays I’ve seen, a ratio that skews horribly the way one approaches drama. Often people say that plays are meant to be seen and not read, but while begging the question then why they are published and sold to the mass market, it is a valid point. Several playwrights that have garnered heavy acclaim, like Sam Shepard and the late Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, were ones I didn’t care for all that much upon first reading them. It was only when seeing their works brought to life that the power of their drama came alive for me, and the limitations on merely reading a play were forever etched in my mind.

One could make a very similar comparison to John Krasinski’s new film, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
, and its source material, the stories of David Foster Wallace. Though he takes some creative liberties with the material, which we’ll explore in a moment, he essentially just produces dramatic readings from the text and films them, sometimes in a straightforward manner and sometimes not, creating a power within these stories that I didn’t feel the first time I read them almost ten years ago.

Wallace’s stories contained long interviews with men which basically amounted to monologues as the interviewers dialogue was excised and replaced solely with the letter ‘Q’ in order to indicate that something had been said. Apparently and experiment to write a narrative in which the main character is neither seen nor mentioned, Krasinski takes this idea and brings the interviewer to life as Sara Quinn (Julianne Nicholson), a graduate student who attempting to examine the impact of feminism, and to get over a messy breakup, by recording the desires and fears of men.

The film has received its share of negative reviews, and in a way I see where this is coming from. What basically amounts to a loosely collected series of monologues, one can sometimes feel that they are watching a college’s theater review rather than a cinematic narrative. But as all monologues can be judged on the strength of their actors, Krasinski has done well to cast the film with a powerhouse ranging from the comedic likes of Will Arnett and Will Forte to a very good performance by Dominic Cooper. But what really engaged me was the way that certain scenes were filmed, the way certain stories were told, in a more effective way than was possible for Wallace when he was wri
ting on the page. Such adaptations to the strength of the medium is always and engaging topic for me, and I’d like to discuss just two here.

In one delightful sequence, Josh Charles presents the exact same speech five times to different women in order to break up with them. Krasinski cuts from scene to scene throughout the unbroken monologue, showing Charles and the different women in different locations without breaking the narration. It’s incredible and hilarious, and example of hideous behavior for sure, but one that is rendered so effectively in this medium as opposed to recitation in an interview which is what one would have gotten by just filming the page being read.

The second scene involves an overheard conversation between two men, one played by Law and Order: SVU actor Christopher Meloni. Meloni’s character relates a scene he witnessed when getting off an airplane and seeing a woman in a hysterical breakdown over the failure of her lover to return from breaking up with his girlfriend. Krasinski begins in the coffee shop where Sara overhears the conversation, but Meloni’s character relates the story, the scene shifts to the airport and again we have unbroken narration as we witness what happened. Meloni is in the scene, but is telling it to his friend at the same time; thus, when he speaks to the woman in his story, he actually turns to her and speaks. Yet he speaks of many things he wasn’t witness for, like the lead up for the trip that the boyfriend was makin
g to break off his other relationship, and we see that happening, but by detaching from that coffeehouse and showing us the story, we no longer are watching Sara overhear a story with hideous actions, but we lose the mediation as we become the ones overhearing the exchange. In both of these cases, Krasinski adapts the verbatim narration in Wallace’s stories to make them successful in the medium of film, a perfect example of how such a transition can work.

This isn’t to say that I found the movie to be a great one, though the performances were stellar. The tone of the different men are sometimes hard to reconcile with the tone of Krasinski’s overall narrative. For example, there is a powerful scene in which Frankie Faison tells Sara about his father who worked for years as a bathroo
m attendant and is joined in the scene within the bathroom by his father as a much younger man. Their interaction, sort of a dual-monologue if one will forgive the contradiction in terms, is easily one of the most stirring performances in the film. But this jibes poorly with the protestations of Will Forte on how he loves everything about all women.

Everyone knows Krasinski for his role as Jim Halpert on the US version of The Office, and while it may be hard for some to see why he is being considered for the role of Captain America, watching his dramatic turn here makes the role seem more plausible. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is not a great film by any means, but it is a film worth your time, both for aspects of its narrative and for the insight into the way some men think. It might not be all that different from what a man close to you thinks himself.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Bomb Power by Garry Wills

There is a simple and straightforward thesis to historian Garry Wills’s new book Bomb Power: the atomic bomb altered history down to its deepest constitutional roots by redefining the presidency with regards to the function of the Commander and Chief. He claims that it ‘fostered an anxiety of continuing crisis, so that society was pervasively militarized. It redefined the government as a national Security State, with an apparatus of secrecy and executive control’ which in turn redefined Congress as the ‘executor of the executive.’

Wills quickly moves the reader through episodes in the developmental history of the bomb, emphasizing how its development led to damages to both liberty and the constitutional system of checks and balances; with secrecy surrounding the project at such a premium, there was virtually no oversight from Congress. Shockingly, President Truman wasn’t even made aware of the existence of the atomic bomb until nine days after he assumed the presidency.


Wills acts as an iconoclast when examining the Cuban Missile Crisis which he asserts was caused by an overactive Kennedy Administration. That warheads were placed in Cuba as a deterrent against the use of American missiles in Turkey was not something that could go public; therefore the Soviets were portrayed as the aggressors and executive secrecy was invoked to cover up the quid pro quo of the missiles in Turkey being removed in exchange for removal of the Cuban missiles, a telling that seems absent from most accounts of JFK hagiography. And as is well known, Congress is granted the authority to declare war in the Constitution, but war hasn’t been declared after Word War II. Thus, Vietnam, Korea, Grenada, Nicaragua, Iraq (twice), and Afghanistan have been wars waged without the moniker from Congress, which often retroactively approved military actions the president had already ordered.

But where Wills really begins to make a worthy point is in his lengthy screed against the centralization of power within the executive branch, often referred to as the unitary executive. While I am familiar with the excessive use of presidential signing statements that were commonplace within the administration of George W. Bush, I was unaware that up until President Reagan and his Attorney General Edwin Meese, these signing statements were mostly ceremonial expressions of the executive branch’s receipt of a law from Congress. Under Meese, the statements
were transformed as a way for the executive to impose meaning on legislation by dissenting from clauses it disagreed with, interpreting mandates, etc. Essentially, the constitutional authority to write the laws were being usurped by the executive, who got the last word on legislation with these signing statements, statements that have also been used by the judiciary in ruling on the application of these laws. In essence, the executive branch can disagree with a portion of a law in a signing statement, be sued for violating the law, and then be exonerated by the court citing the signing statement in question. But the author fails to link these signing statements to the influence of the bomb, placing it within the legacy of Vietnam and the War Powers Act, but failing to note that signing statements are used for all sorts of things, not merely national security/military issues. Such an oversight drastically weakens the argument just when he is trying to contextualize the bomb's influence in the politics of the past decade.

Wills is right that the bomb poses profound challenges to American constitutional governance. Congress's sole authority to authorize war is difficult to reconcile with the five minutes President Obama would have to decide whether to order the launch of nuclear weapons in retaliation if the United States were under missile attack. The
end of the Cold War should allow alternative ways to balance nuclear deterrence with deliberative decision-making, though the antiquated secrecy apparatuses remain in place. Secrecy is required to interdict nuclear proliferation or prevent adversaries from learning how to undermine the deterrent effects of U.S. nuclear forces, but reforms clearly are necessary to prevent secrecy from being used to cover incompetence, folly, criminality and military-industrial aggrandizement, all areas in which Wills points to multiple abuses.

Wills is effective in presenting the argument that the unitary executive and the secrecy with which it is free to act must be adapted to a post-Cold war paradigm in which the ability annihilate an opponent is not the solution to any problem our country faces. But Bomb Power
fails to offer solutions as to where such reforms might take place, something that is lacking in what is otherwise an interesting if not a compelling read.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Decalogue: Two

Second Commandment: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.

The powerful second volume in Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue concerns Dorota, a woman seemingly in her thirties who is seeking consultation with an elderly doctor who lives in the
housing complex in which the totality of the series is situated. The doctor is a senior physician at the local hospital and lives alone, having lost his family years before. Dorota’s husband is ill and resides in the doctor’s ward, and she is urgently trying to find out about his condition, specifically the chances of his living through the illness. This information is revealed quite slowly over the first act, featuring close-ups on the two characters as they go about their routines.

The doctor is gruff and seems detached from human caring. As Dorota implores him for knowledge on her husband’s condition in their apartment building, he replies that family consultations take place on Wednesday afternoons during a two-hour period. Yet this detachment is revealed in the way he tells an old and often repeated story to his housekeeper, his only friendly acquaintance within the film. He slowly tells her about his children, wife, and father, who all lived with him when he was a young doctor. The stories have a bit of charm, the sort of wistfulness that reminded me of my own grandfather with a gruff exterior. But during an air raid during World War II, the entire house is destroyed killing everyone inside; the doctor only lived for he had yet to return home from the hospital. This dispassionate storytelling serves to demonstrate how far he has insulated himself from the feelings that arise when one lets themselves form a familial attachment.

Dorota is so insistent on seeing the doctor that he finally relents, and then we learn the dynamics of her situation. She is pregnant, but not by her husband who is lying near death in a hospital, but instead by her lover. She claims to love both men, and we believe her because of the way she speaks about both of them and the way that the doctor says he has seen her and her husband together. Dorota wants to know whether her husband will recover, for if h
e does she must have an abortion, but if not she could keep the child and be with the lover. Up until now, she has been unable to conceive and feels that this is her only chance to be a mother.

Such a setup presents a delightfully complex problem for the doctor, as he knows that medical science cannot accurately predict whether her husband will live or die. Yet, he does try and offer some statistical information, claiming that there is perhaps a 15% chance of survival. As she tries to discuss the issue with him on multiple occasions, attempting to force a solid opinion on what she should do, he is slowly drawn back into the life of another person; he begins to care about her.

In a brilliant final sequence, Dorota, agonizing over her decision, resolves herself to terminate the pregnancy, knowing that even if her husband dies, such an act will prevent her and her lover from ever being able to be together. She informs the doctor of her decision to let him off the hook for the fate of the unborn child, yet he surprises her with an emphatic declaration that she not have the abortion because her husband is going to die. She wavers and asks him to swear, which he does, thus violating the commandment to not take the Lord’s name in vain. In a final twist, Dorota’s husband recovers and thanks the doctor for saving his life, telling him that they are going to have a child together. He then asks the doctor is he knows what it is like to have a child, which sadly he does.

While this episode was highly satisfying and for me more unsettling than the first volume, the commandment forbidding one to take the Lord’s name in vain has always been a nonstarter for me, though I am unable t
o explain why this is so. The doctor makes an oath that Dorota’s husband will die, yet as he is in no position from which to make such a certain determination, which he admits earlier in the film repeatedly, it is obvious that he making the sort of claim that only God would know, thus invoking God into an oath from which he has no real place. The irony of the story is that both the doctor and Dorota must live with the knowledge that the unborn baby is not that of the husband who will raise him, perhaps because the doctor’s implicit invocation of God into the oath may have indirectly led to the healing.

The idea that the Lord works in mysterious ways and that science cannot predict everything is a sobering one, yet as this was pretty much the message of the first volume in the series, such a quick repetition seems unnecessary and even a bit redundant. So while I found this film to be especially resonating, I don’t think its power will diminish in my mind for a long time, I am not sure that it works too well within the greater framework of the series. Further reflection on this question will be necessary as I continue through the films.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Reading List: February 2010

For some reason these monthly recaps of my reading have also become a place for me to keep those who read this space updated on my scholarship and academic life, and though I am not all that traditional, I do not like change all that much either. As such, I haven't spent as much time as I would have liked working on my conference paper on hyperlink cinema, but I do have a decent outline. Currently, I am working on the tone, wanting to move away from the style of reading a paper to tailoring a presentation for an audience, a skill in which I possess some talent that I would like to further cultivate. I've spent a lot of time the past week or so watching the presentations given at the various TED conferences, and I'm planning something along these lines. If this approach is successful, I think it will go a long way in helping me make a name for myself in the field, for hopefully at future conferences I will start to generate preliminary buzz. That said, I worry that such an approach may not be met with respect due to being outside the norm. However, I have got to be me.

March 1st was the date by which graduate programs were to let me know their decisions on admission
to a doctoral program, yet that day ended without a letter, email, or phone call. Perhaps that's holding them too strictly to a standard, but somehow I feel like if my application would have come a day (or more?) late then it wouldn't have been accepted. The stress over the uncertainty is palpable, for so many decisions that affect not only my life but also the lives of my wife and others wait in the interim. And while a friend of mine received an acceptance email last week, I am unsure whether or not to wait on a letter like I did for college thirteen years ago.

To the point of this post, a list of the books I read in February, there were 4 books and 7 graphic novels. Here is what they were:
  • Ex Machina: Dirty Tricks by Brian K. Vaughan & Tony Harris
  • Crush It! by Gary Vaynerchuk
  • Green Lantern: Rage of the Red Lanterns by Geoff Johns, et al.
  • You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier
  • Green Lantern: Agent Orange by Johns & Philip Tan
  • DMZ: War Powers by Brian Wood & Riccardo Burchielli
  • Precipice by David Mack
  • Green Lantern Corps: Emerald Eclipse by Peter J. Tomasi & Patrick Gleason
  • Killing Yourself to Live by Chuck Klosterman
  • Flight, Volume 4 edited by Kazu Kizbuishi
  • Strangers in Paradise: Pocket Book 1 by Terry Moore
Anyone interested in technology or Web 2.0 needs to read Lanier's book, something I should have written about while I still had a copy. I was a bit underwhelmed by the Green Lantern stories, making me a bit skeptical concerning Blackest Night, though I'll almost certainly read it. And I think Chuck Klosterman is doing the sort of thing with journalism that I'd like to do in academia: writing seriously, if humorously, about semi-serious things.

Give me some feedback, ask me some questions, tell me about your most recent dream, etc.

The Decalogue: One

First Commandment: I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have no other gods before Me.

The first film in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue concerns a university professor who trains hi
s young son to use reason and the scientific method, but is confronted with tragedy when he is subjected to the unpredictability of fate. What follows is a synopsis of the action with some rambling commentary that would likely be helped with additional thoughts and criticisms. Please oblige.

The professor, Krzysztof, who shares a name with the director, lives alone with his eleven-year-old son Pavel in the housing complex around which the action of all ten films is based. Pavel’s mother lives elsewhere and is now only a peripheral presence in his life; the boy is now looked after by his Aunt Irena when his father is occupied. Kieslowski quickly establishes that Pavel is a gifted child, showing him ask his father for a mathematical problem to solve and then inputting a formula onto a computer to determine its solution.

Even without a mother, Pavel seems to be happy and well adjusted, with a close and loving relationship with both his father and aunt. His father treats him with respect, playing intellectual games with him and honestly sharing his thoughts. Over breakfast early in the film, Pavel asks his father about the existential dilemma we all know so well: what happens to us after we die? His father answers that all that is left is memories in others, that any notion of a soul is one that helps the less rational cope with their mortality. Yet there is a difference n the two adults who look after him; Pavel’s aunt believes in God and feels there are limits to what science can explain, further adding that the father’s rationalism is not incompatible with a belief in God. Such an assertion is much more palatable than the usual dichotomy with which we are assaulted in the religion/atheist debate, a welcome middle ground from which those fighting on the fringes seem even more ridiculous than before.

For Krzysztof, the nature of reality, i.e. what is, is only what we can understand and manipulate, only what can be expressed semantically using logical constructions. Everything else must be held in doubt. In this, he embraces the mainstream position of the educated class. In a lecture later on, Krzysztof, whose field seems to be
computational linguistics, discusses the great difficulty of expressing all the various cultural associations of people and their language. But he stops near the end of his lecture and speculates that with more computational resources, new algorithms and such, it may be possible to create a computer that can replicate a human, one that can have an authentic aesthetic experience. Many of us are familiar with scholars who argue that there is no fundamental difference between neurons firing or not firing in a brain and a computer program in which such a pattern is replicated. One thinks that Kieslowski placed such scenes within his film in order to demonstrate that by failing to reconcile religious and rational thinking, a rationalist may not just be putting something else before God, but putting himself in the place of God if he thinks he can create an artificial person.

One day in the winter, Pavel wants to try out his new ice skates on the frozen lake. Krzysztof shows Pavel how his mathematical modeling computer program can determine whether the ice on the lake will be thick enough to allow safe skating. It should be based on whether the air temperature over the preceding few days was low enough, what would seem to be a simple enough calculation using physics. The pair observe that the program returns values that indicate that the ice will be safe, but like a good father, Krzysztof goes out on the ice after Pavel goes to sleep and tests it with his own weight.

However, the world isn’t always predictable, even with the laws of physics at hand. One afternoon while Krzysztof is at his desk writing in his notebook, he notices a mysterious black spot spreading across the page. It turns out to be ink from an unexpectedly cracked ink bottle. What seems to Krzysztof and the viewer to be shocking and unpredictable is easily enough explained, but only in retrospect. No matter how rational the thinker, there are some things which cannot be foreseen. Yet this begs the question of whether some sort of hypothetical massive computational model could adequately account for all variables and predict the future, which would be a win for rationalism fo
r sure, but in building such a model wouldn’t we be creating God the same way that Krzysztof believes we could create human thought within a computer?

And in the film, the unexpected happens when Pavel is skating on the ice and it breaks, and the last third of the film follows the father as he deals with this tragedy. A simplistic interpretation would conclude that God has punished Krzysztof for placing science and rationalism before him by taking his son, but the film is more complex than that. As Krzysztof and Irena grieve together, neither has an answer for why this has happened, and Kieslowski makes us empathize with these characters, as we realize that we have so little control over our own lives as well. The director is not advocating a certain course of action nor adherence to any rule, but rather is establishing a universal truth in what happens to this father and his son.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Decalogue: An Exploration in Ten Parts

‘The commandments work not like science but like art; they are instructions for how to paint a worthy portrait with our lives.’ –Roger Ebert

Sometimes I find it hard to believe that even as recently as two years ago, I not only knew p
ractically nothing about film theory, but I probably hadn’t seen more than a dozen movies in the preceding five years. I’m not just speaking of trips to the cinema either, which are incredibly rare for someone like me who find sitting closely with strangers in the dark an especially troubling proposition, but I didn’t watch movies on DVD or television much either. I had attention problems for sure, but the medium wasn’t one of great appeal for me.

Last year I took a class in film theory and feminism, and the last few months have seen me make small strides in integrating the medium of film and television into my research interests in remediati
on of the digital. I watch a film almost every day, and while I can’t seem to read a novel anymore, I have no issue watching a fictional film. My own personal research in both film and cultural criticism has led me to read quite a bit of Roger Ebert, which in turn has spurred me to watch films I otherwise would not have, especially in the areas of foreign cinema.

With a desire to use this space to do something a little different and perhaps a bit more personal, I have decided to watch The Decalogue, the acclaimed 1989 ten-part television series from Poland, which was
directed and co-conceived by Krzysztof Kieslowski, and weigh in each night with thoughts on that episode in particular and the greater moralistic implications in general, as the mood strikes me. I’ve never done anything like this before, so it is a bit intimidating, but I feel it will help me work through my own thoughts on the series while perhaps serving as a blueprint for how to do reviews that are meaningful to me as well as to an audience.

Each film in Kieslowski’s series is based upon one of the Ten Commandments and are based within a large housing project in Warsaw, where characters from the different films appear in others as there is often some relationship between people living in such a tight community. Rather than focusing on the difficulties in Poland at the time, the director focuses instead on moral issues that have a more universal, and therefore timeless, appeal. Much of what I have read about the series suggests that the stories are populated not by characters from a typical Hollywood drama who have a problem they most overcome, but instead with characters who are like real adults: happy with some things, sad about others, but with complex motivations and at times contrary inclinations.

What is so exciting about watching the film and providing commentary here is that I have no real notion of how it will go. What texts will I seek out to enhance my understanding of The Decalogue, and how will I present them to the audience? How much will I be personally affected by what is shown on the screen? What sorts of discussions may be generated by such an experiment? Such questions are what makes such an endeavor so thrilling, and I hope some of you find yourselves engaged in what transpires.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Moon (2009)

Sometimes it’s not so much what happens in a story, it’s how what happens is told. So even if I can quickly figure out what is going to happen, I try to let that go and let the story reveal its twists on its own terms. This is sometimes easier said than done, especially when a story is full of unlikable or one-dimensional characters (Grey’s Anatomy, I am looking at you), but it is a principle I try and maintain.

Thus, what bothers me about Duncan Jones’s debut film, Moon, isn’t that I figured out at the end of the first act what was going to happen, but rather that as the events unfold, the director fails to make the issues raised resonate in any but the most superficial way. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t like the film, which is fairly haunting and reminiscent of previous films in the sci-fi genre, just that I was a bit disappointed with a film that has gotten so much praise from so many quarters.

Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is the only worker manning a lunar outpost where he manages a large, mostly automated mining operation that provides relief from the energy crisis that strikes the Earth at an unspecified future time. He lives with a friendly, super intelligent computer named GERTY (voice of Kevin Spacey), who speaks in a tone that instantly reminds one of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. He is approaching the end of his three year stint, excited to go back home and reunite with his wife and young daughter. He hasn’t been able to communicate with them in anything other than recordings due to a failure in the satellite.

Bell has an excellent work ethic and makes sure his job is done correctly, yet he is a bit of a slob with his appearance. One day he is involved in an accident while riding in his LEM. He is somehow rescued form the wreckage and awakes in the infirmary with no real memory of the events that transpired. Quickly discerning that GERTY is keeping something from him, forbidding him to leave the compound even when necessary to repair some of the excavation equipment, Bell manages to trick GERTY and leave, only to find the wreckage of his craft with someone inside. Him.

I don’t wish to give away too much of the film, yet I would like to drop one more spoiler likely to be guessable to anyone whose read the previous paragraph anyway: the two men are clones. And it is this revelation, along wit
h the isolation in which Sam has lived for three long years, that raise significant existential issues. But rather than addressing said issues, Jones seems more eager to just move along the story, dropping a line here and there but failing to delve into the really interesting parts of the film. I wasn’t disappointed that I figured out hat was going to happen almost immediately, but that there wasn’t really any additional payoff beyond these revelations when they finally occurred.

All this said, I still enjoyed the film and would recommend it with the above reservations. The intense solitude and Spacey’s voice as the robot are in the best tradition of 2001 and Solaris, and a worthy entry into the subgenre of isolated men in space. Sam Rockwell is also excellent, as two very different men with identical DNA. I just wish that Moon would have been a deeper film, taken an extra ten minutes to really explore issues raised by long term isolation and cloning. Jones is apparently working on another film entitled Mute, which will take place on Earth following the events of Moon with a cameo by Rockwell as Bell. Perhaps we will get some of the depth this story warranted in the follow-up.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

District 9 (2009)

It isn’t difficult to understand why District 9, a South African film directed by Neill Blomkamp was nominated for Best Picture in the expanded category at this year’s Oscars. It is an exciting film that does some amazing things with special effects, especially in representing the alien ‘prawns,’ and the whole point of doubling the field from five films to ten was to allow such crowd pleasers into competition in order to make the awards seem more relevant. I watched the film last week, and while I see why others are so fond of it, I was slightly disappointed by the way the film’s narrative was executed.

Twenty years before film’s beginning, a huge spacecraft appeared and stationed itself directly ove
r Johannesburg. An exploratory team discovers over a million sick and starving members of an alien people who have no leader. Morality being what it is, the people of South Africa began to care for this leaderless population, and set up a section just outside of town and directly underneath the ship called District 9. Flash forward twenty years and the place is a slum, a horrible place inhabited by creatures that are rendered as disgusting and animalistic. A drain on the economy of Johannesburg and a source of great angst for the citizens, a decision is made by the government and military corporation Multinational United (MNU) to move the 1.8 million aliens to a new camp 200 kilometers away. Tasked to lead this relocation is Wikus Van De Merwe, played engagingly by Sharlto Copley, a field operative from MNU.

All this is established within the first ten minutes. What seems like a ridiculous amount of exposition is crafted into the main narrative through the device of the documentary. A series of interviews and broadcasts, taking place after the film’s main timeline is complete, provide the viewer with all the information listed above. These interviews not only set the stage for the story to play out, they also provide a richness that makes the story more believable, answering questions like where the rest of the world stands on the alien issue and other concerns necessary for verisimilitude but outside the needs of the film’s narrative. News reports form Johannesburg, complete with cameramen on the ground with Wikus as he serves notice of the evictions to the aliens as well as overhead shots common to anyone watching a breaking story on cable news, provide us with the bulk of the first act. However, even while most of the first act is shown from this perspective, Blomkamp breaks from this conceit into classical film narrative in order to introduce two aliens who are preparing some sort of mysterious black fluid, which Wikus later finds and is accidentally sprayed with.

Straying from the idea that the audience is only privy to the information being shown because it was recorded feels like a misstep to me, though it is near impossible to imagine how Blomkamp would have presented the rest of the story
if he hadn’t. The aliens have weapons that have some sort of biological lockout, meaning they can’t be used by humans. After being exposed to the black liquid, Wikus’s arm begins to change into that of the aliens, making him capable of firing these weapons and of great interest to MNU, the evil military corporation run by, coincidentally enough, Wikius’s father-in-law. It’s understandable that the story moving in such a direction necessitates the shift away from the documentary format, but because Blomkamp presented so much of the early parts of the movie through this perspective, the change feels a bit jarring, at least to this viewer. By transitioning from the documentary to the news report to the omniscient eye of film, he loses some of the magic that drew me into his story.

In the third act, Wikus escapes MNU and teams up with the alien who created the black liquid in order to retrieve it so he can return to the mothership and restore Wikus to human form. Without giving away the film’s ending, Blomkamp returns to the documentary device at the conclusion, with journalists and others speculating o
n the questions left at the end of the narrative, some of which is dramatic irony since the audience knows things that the citizens watching such a documentary wouldn’t.

Perhaps it is not the choice to move from documentary to news report to classical film narrative and then back again that irks me, but rather the lack of a segue to ease the viewer into the changes. District 9 presents itself in the first act as being a narrative composed of previously recorded material (in the film’s universe) only to drop it abruptly and embrace a classical style. As I said before, it is near impossible to conceive of how the film would change had Blomkamp stayed with the documentary format, so I don’t fault him for going the way he did; it is a good film, and one worth seeing.