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.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Crush It! by Gary Vaynerchuk

I’ve known about Gary Vaynerchuk for a few years now; being in the restaurant industry and selling a lot of wine turns one onto new approaches in the name of the almighty dollar. But I avoided his business book Crush It! for several months because his manic style just wasn’t all that appealing to me. But after one of the professors on my thesis committee recommended it to me, I finally found myself, copy in hand, wondering if the principles he lays out for building a personal brand can really help me and if I have the energy to fully exploit them.

Vaynerchuk wants you to find the one thing you want to do more than any other and then build a personal brand around it. The immediate problem for me? I have no idea what I want to do more than any other. In fact, I think such a dilemma has been a struggle for a long time now, as I am unenthused about this blog yet unwilling to abandon it. How does someone with near equal fascination with foreign policy, Green Lantern comics, NASCAR, and Scrooge McDuck supposed to figure out what he is truly passionate about? However, one thing seems to be overarching in not only my academic research but also the above wide ranging interests: narrative. I dig how stories are told, how events unfold and are presented to an audience. Currently, I am blowing through LOST at an incredible pace, not only because I want to figure out what happened with the Dharma Initiative, but also because the use on nonlinear narration gets me literally excited.

So Vaynerchuk wants me to build a brand around this interest. First is to set up a blog and start reaching out to likeminded individuals by coming up with the topics for fifty posts. I already have a blog, though honestly I think I may be moving it soon to a domain with more freedom (more on that when and if it comes). But I wonder if I really can sit down and come up with fifty topics. That’s ten weeks at five posts a week, a total that I have been aspiring to without actually really trying. So this evening, as I sit and watch the Super Bowl, I am going to brainstorm certain topics that might fit these parameters. Even if I can't come up with fifty, maybe I can come up with twenty and at least get started.

Getting your name out in the community is another of Vaynerchuk’s missions for the entrepreneur. Not only does he want relentless promotion of your content across a wide range of sites like Facebook, Twitter, and a bunch of other sites I’ve only heard of, he wants you out there on specific forums, responding insightfully to others discussing your interests. I’ve already adopted a few of these myself, but what I really don’t do is participate in the larger c
onversations about narrative. The reasons are plentiful, but they boil down to a failure to remain comfortable with the unstructured communication blitz one encounters in all sorts of places online; it’s hard to parse what is relevant and real. However, joining Twitter has helped me adjust to this slightly, so perhaps I am moving in the right direction. And if I am engaged in discussion about narrative with others, that seems less a task to be completed as it does a passion to be fed.

Monetizing such an enterprise is where Vaynerchuk seems a little weak. For a person who does not offer tangible goods for others to purchase, there seems little one can do really make a living off something like this. Sure, yo
u might end up getting some advertising revenue and be asked to speak at a few places, but pulling in something in the mid-five figures seems nigh impossible. That said, if I pursue my research further in getting a PhD and working in academia, branding myself as one of the guys to talk to when you want to know about disjointed narratives will serve me well. Perhaps I couldn’t earn my living purely through a thriving blog about narrative and technology, but it could supplement my work as a scholar and give me the opportunity to attend conferences on someone else’s dime.

Writing everyday will also help me hone my personal style, hopefully working out some of the disastrous kinks when it comes to me writing humor. Again, a study in narrative.

This post is not a review of Vaynerchuk’s book, nor is it likely to be of use to anyone reading it. It’s merely a way for me to work through the issues that Crush It! inspired after I finished it, and to formulate a plan on where to go from here. Let’s see how it goes.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Reading List: January 2010

Though the past couple of months have seen posts of substance, said posts have been infrequent at best. I hope they have been entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking, and while I hope to post more often, I wonder if I have the discipline to actually knock out thoughtful posts on a more frequent basis. Nevertheless, discipline is something I sorely need to improve upon in several walks of life, so I shall try. Progress on my conference paper has been proceeding fairly well, though I need to organize my thoughts again and define the parameters of my question in order to adequately yet concisely address the emerging film genre of hyperlink cinema.

Over the past month I only managed to complete six books and two graphic novels, which is due to a changing emphasis on my reading. Joining Twitter has provided me with a near
constant stream of links to new stories and essays on film, and I started to watch Lost online, which I have generally enjoyed. Anyway, I've decided to return to the old format of capsule reviews instead of a dry list, so here it goes:

1. The Audacity to Win by David Plouffe: Obama for America campaign director Plouffe recaps how the current administration navigated the tumultuous primaries and slaughtered John McCain in the general election. A fascinating behind the scenes account, the author too often shoulders the responsibility for anything that went wrong and rarely characterizes any candidate missteps as mistakes, proving his loyalty but making one wonder how accurate such an account is. It would be interesting to read the Obama sections in Game Change, to compare and contrast.

2. Green Lantern Corps: Sins of the Star Sapphire by Peter J. Tomasi, et al.: After the Sinestro Corps War, new lanterns across the color spectrum were created and have led up to the current Blackest Night storyline. The Star Sapphire Corps represent love, and as the Guardians order that relationships and love by Green Lanterns are forbidden, a hole in the feeling spectrum is filled. Overall, I found the story to be mediocre, seeming only to be putting pieces into place for later storylines. In addition, I've never really liked Guy Gardener, so Tomasi's work here doesn't resonate with me on two levels. I'm taking steps to get the collections on the Red and Orange Lanterns, so expect updates to follow.

3. Flight, Volume 3 edited by Kazu Kibuishi: The third excellent collection in this series. Overall quite entertaining, though I was a bit disappointed that certain storylines that continued from the first volume to the second weren't followed through here. That aside, such collections collect and display emerging talent, and I look forward to reading more by several of these creators in the future.

4. Mendoza in Hollywood by Kage Baker: I am interested in the mythology surrounding Baker's Company, but it only serves as a background to a mediocre story about a British plot to steal California during the Civil Wa
r. The narrative is bogged down with a twenty page recount of a D.W. Griffith film, and I struggled to make it through the whole thing. I understand that there is more of a focus on the Company in future novels, but I honestly don't know that I'll be going back.

5. The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliott: Heaps of praise made me want to read this new 'crime memoir' by an author whose work I have previously enjoyed, and while this was a decent book, it falls short of the expectations I had for it. While covering a murder trial, Elliott simultaneously investigates his relationship with his father, who abandoned him into foster care as a teenager, as well as his penchant for masochistic relationship. Good, entertaining, just not great.

6. Let's Talk About Love by Carl Wilson: Highly recommended. Read my thoughts on this book here.

7. Eating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman: Klosterman writes intelligently about pop culture; in this book he has new essays on topics like the liberalism of the NFL, time travel, and the parallels between David Koresh and Kurt Cobain. Such essays are fantastically entertaining, but even at their most insightful, they seem to lack
resonance. Perhaps this is one of the hazards of writing about pop culture, a lesson that perhaps I should learn in a hurry.

8. Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde: Fforde's new universe imagines a future in which social castes and protocols are regulated by one's individual color perception. Protagonist Eddie Russet is looking to marry up when he and his father are shipped to one of the outer territories, where he learns that the rigid rules of society have a dark side as he begins to question the status quo with the help of Jane, a Grey who exists as a menial servant due to her a
pparent lack of color perception. While the story moves along quickly enough, the creation of this world seemed to take precedence over telling an entertaining yarn, setting up for future stories at the expense of this one. However, a new work by Fforde is always welcome, and I am excited to read future stories set within this universe.

There it is. As always, I welcome comments, questions, corrections, unrelated hilarity, and
other notes of substance. I'll endeavor to post more often over the coming month, but of course, I've said that before.