Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water (2017; dir. Guillermo del Toro) is a fantasy about a mute woman who falls in love with a creature captured by scientists in South America.  He looks like the creature in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954; dir. Jack Arnold).  So much about this film was novel, fanciful, unusual, off-kilter.  It has elements of comedy and is definitely a satire on 1950s Cold War America.  The creature itself (in the credits he is listed as Amphibian Man, played by Doug Jones, in heavy makeup) embodies the Other.  He is, of course, a large amphibian with certain human features.  He is intelligent, self-aware, and feels emotion.  To the military, and to the Russian espionage agents who want to kidnap him, he is simply an “asset,” a thing to be vivisected and killed.  The mute woman who works as a janitor in the research lab, Elisa Esposito, played by Sally Hawkins, is the only person able to recognize him for what he is.  She lacks the ability to talk, and he has difficulty communicating as well—this draws them together and their bond gradually strengthens. 
Michael Shannon is Colonel Richard Strickland, the evil director of the research lab where the creature is confined.  He is a deliberate stereotype, the quintessential 1950s American man, rigid in his thinking, narcissistic, materialistic, ambitious at the cost of all others.  When he has sex with his wife, he puts his arm across her mouth so he doesn’t have to hear her respond.  He is attracted to Elisa because she is mute and tries to come on to her.  He is singularly focused on his career, on himself, on following orders. He refuses to consider that the creature in his lab might be worth keeping alive. He is especially angry that the creature bit off two of his fingers in an early encounter.
Elisa’s roommate, Giles (Richard Jenkins) is a middle-aged illustrator, a recovering alcoholic who draws hyper-traditional magazine covers (in the style of Norman Rockwell). Along with Elisa, he watches saccharine 1940s and 50s musicals.  They’re both romantics. Occasionally, he takes her to dinner, but there is nothing sexual between them. He’s timid and unassertive, afraid to make waves, but in the end, he becomes Elisa’s ally in her attempt to save the creature, as does a scientist in the lab, an undercover spy who doesn’t agree with his Russian superiors that the creature should be killed to prevent the Americans from studying it.
The creature may be an alien being.  He has the ability to heal the humans around it, and when he is aroused his skin illuminates in beads of bluish-green light.  The natives in the jungle where he was captured are said to have worshipped him, and Giles even wonders whether he might be a god.  The movie doesn’t encourage or pursue such possibilities.  This film is, after all, a fantasy, so there is no surprise that he is a fantastic creature.  While many 1950s and 60s monster films portrayed threatening creatures as soulless horrors, this film takes the opposite tack.
The soundtrack consists of lush romantic music, mostly by Alexandre Duplat, composed in 1940s and 50s styles, some of it performed by contemporary singers such as Renee Fleming. A scene reminiscent of La La Land (2016; dir. Damien Chazelle) shows the creature and Elisa dancing a waltz in the style of Rogers and Astaire. (I was far more charmed by this film than by La La Land). Clips from period movies and television shows and news broadcasts embed the film in its time period. The film is lushly romantic.  Accordion music that recurs throughout the film almost makes one think that it’s a French romantic musical. Yet its commentary on racism, homophobia, otherness, scientific research, military indifference is serious.
All elements of this film cohere in a nearly seamless and wholly entertaining experience. The neon color palette is wonderful. The Shape of Water is a love story, an espionage thriller, a comedy, a study of 1950s Cold War America, and an enthralling, emotionally fulfilling cinematic achievement. I think this film was even better than del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), which itself was quite a remarkable film.

Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump, by Harry Hurt III

It may be that when Harry Hurt III set out to write Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump (1993), he meant to do a hatchet job.  It’s possible he wasn’t trying to write a balanced account.  On the other hand, a true and factual account of the subject’s life up to 1993 might have in the end seemed a hatchet job, an unbalanced narrative, simply because the details of Donald Trump’s life do not provide the basis for balanced biography.  One suspects that, in order to write an account that did seem balanced and fair, one would have to lie. In any event, Hurt did not lie in this book. In addition to interviews he conducted, he cites in his notes numerous published interviews, court papers, newspaper accounts, and other sources. Many of the episodes recounted in this book are corroborated in other published sources.
This biography covers Donald Trump’s life up to the verge of his first bankruptcies, around 1993.  The title suggests that with those first bankruptcies the “lost tycoon” moniker seems appropriate.  However, as we all know, there have been additional bankruptcies, several rises and falls in the ever-wavering career of the Donald (which is how his close associates and his first wife Ivana referred to him), since then. (By bankruptcies I mean those of his businesses, not of Trump personally).
Trump did not build his empire using primarily his own funds.  He borrowed money from his father early in career, and his father was a crucial financial deus ex machina in the years leading up to 1993.  Trump lived off loans and grants.  He would borrow money to build a hotel or apartment complex and skim money off the top of the loan for his own living expenses.  When his funds grew tight, or when he faced difficulty making payments on an earlier loan, he’d take out another loan.  Banks made money off big loans, so it paid them (up until the point they began to worry his financial empire was about to collapse) to lend him more money.  Banks share much of the responsibility for helping Trump to become what he became. At his worst, he didn’t pay bills, reneged on contracts (he tried to renege on a prenuptial account with Ivana), mistreated employees, lied, and attacked and blamed close associates, including his own family members, for his failures. His conduct of relationships with women, including his first wife Ivana and his girlfriend Marla Maples, in addition to a retinue of well known and anonymous women, was deplorable.  Ivana claimed in her divorce deposition that he raped her on one occasion, as punishment for the pain and disfigurement he felt from plastic surgery that she’d recommended.  Later, she maintained that she used the term rape as a figure of speech, not as a criminal allegation.
Little about Trump was admirable.  Nothing about him would make him any kind of role model.  He exemplified the worst characteristics of American capitalism.  In the years covered by this biography, he was venal, acquisitive, narcissistic, and dishonest. He continues to be.

What flaw in democracy, in the American populace, led to the election of such a man as President of the United States?

Friday, December 29, 2017

Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2017) is powerful and sometimes moving. It's not perfect. And it may be one of those films that will work better for viewers who have seen the 1982 Blade Runner because it really is a continuation of that film. It's tied to the original in a number of ways, and characters from the earlier film, including Agent Deckard, reappear.

At least in the theater where I saw it, Blade Runner 2049 was incredibly loud. Maybe the sound should have been turned down a bit. But it's a film that relies on sound, on atmospheric and abstract and desolate sonic landscapes. The visual landscapes are often desolate as well. And it is moody. There were moments when it seemed too moody, moments when the characters seemed to get lost. But these were moments, and the film always came back to itself.

The main character in the film is himself a replicant, an artificially created human and computer cyborg, an android.  He works for the LAPD as a “blade runner” who hunts down and "retires" other replicants, especially ones that are 30 years old or more who managed to survive an environmental disaster some years in the past. His name is K. Ryan Gosling as K is extremely effective. In the original film Harrison Ford was inexpressive and stoic. Gosling follows in that vein, but in his own way. He rarely alters his expression, but as the film progresses his inexpressive face conveys much. Maybe the audience learns to find expressiveness in his face. The film is about K’s dawning awareness of himself as an individual with interests and emotions and questions. It becomes his search for his own identity, for his own sense of self and of humanness.

The basic concerns of this Blade Runner film are consistent with those of the original: are replicants human, are they individuals with their own rights, do they have souls? Blade Runner 2049 adds the question of whether the ability to reproduce makes them human, or more human. The film centers on the search for a baby born 29 years in the past. It's the only baby ever born to a replicant. Obviously, if replicants can reproduce, their whole relationship with the human beings who created them changes fundamentally.

Ryan Gosling's character begins to wonder whether he is in fact that baby. I'm not going to ruin the movie by revealing what K discovers or the role of Harrison Ford's character.

Ryan Gosling's character loves a woman who is the creation of artificial intelligence and a computer. She’s his virtual romantic partner. She seems to have a completely developed personality. Gosling can turn her on or off, but he does seem to love her. There is a moving scene between her and Gosling just as she's about to be terminated by one of the many people who are trying to hunt him down. We could say that she's an extremely advanced sex toy, which is not entirely untrue, and we can say that she's the artificial creation of advanced technology, and in a sense that's true. But she seems to have her own will, her own self, and whether or not these are simply part of her programming, they seem real. (She’s also aware of the artificial nature of her being). Who's to say that the actions and thoughts and emotions of replicants are merely the product of programming? Who's to say that the emotions and thoughts and actions of human beings are merely the product of evolutionary programming? These are head-spinning questions. My head is spinning right now.

The final scene is powerful. It dovetails with the ending of the original Blade Runner. I was tempted to find it more powerful, more moving, than the original.

The 1982 Blade Runner had novelty and unexpected moments. Blade Runner 2049 still inhabits the same world of the original film, though 30 years later. And, therefore, certain elements of surprise and novelty are missing. Though I find this sequel flawed in certain ways—it’s long, there are a few non-sequiturs, it's difficult to follow the plot at moments, and the film overindulges in atmosphere and mood--I still found it compelling and emotionally powerful.

Does Blade Runner 2049 exist as a work independent from the original? I can't say. I've seen the original numerous times and count it among my favorite films. It's impossible for me to view Blade Runner 2049 and separate it from my experiences with the 1982 film. I certainly cannot say how I would react to this film if I'd never seen the original. My reactions might differ somewhat, but I hope they would not differ significantly.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Forge of God, by Greg Bear

The destruction of the earth takes forty-five minutes in Greg Bear’s The Forge of God (1987).  One must credit Mr. Bear for a degree of originality and skill in depicting this apocalyptic conclusion which is foregone almost from the beginning of the novel.  Seen from a distance out in space, clouds of steam shoot up from fault lines and deep sea trenches as thousands of hydrogen bombs and a neutronium device at the core of the earth explode.  Fire erupts, continents disappear, explosions of ever growing intensity follow, and the earth begins to expand as it slowly disintegrates.  This was unsettling.  It is probably the most unsettling account of the earth’s end of any that I have seen or read.  Not that I seek such accounts out.
The basic cause of this destruction is an alien race of robots attracted to the earth by electronic signals (television, radio, radar, and so on) that make them aware that the plant might be worth visiting.  The alien robots roam across the cosmos seeking out viable planets that they consume for fuel.  An opposing race of robots tracks them and tries to save targeted planets. The alien robots plant false leads so that humans will not notice what they are really up to, and by the time humans figure it all out, all is lost.  Bear moves from one individual or group of individuals to another and describes how they react to and prepare for the earth’s end.  The U. S. President decides, not very helpfully, that the earth’s impending doom is a sign of God’s vengeance on a world that has failed to measure up.  He advises everyone to pray.  Needless to say, this is not helpful, and prayers go unanswered.  Scientists and military men consider various ways of combatting the aliens, but their plans don’t succeed. Other people go on with their lives as if nothing is going to happen.  In fact, many embrace illusions of normalcy right up until the end.  Some choose locations where they want to be (one group chooses Yosemite Park) when the moment arrives.
Bear is effective at building tension and anticipation.  Like many novelists, he embeds the dramatic moments of his story in long stretches of narrative where not much is taking place: he describes character histories, friendships, marriages, personal and professional conflicts, and so on.  This is a way of treading narrative water.  It is also a way of dramatizing what is about to be lost. This novel specifically reminded me of Nevil Shute’s novel about the end of the world via nuclear fallout, On the Beach (1957), and the film adaptation (1959; dir. Stanley Kramer). 
Greg Bear would probably agree with Stephen Hawking and others who oppose attempts to contact aliens or to announce our existence to the cosmos.  We can’t assume that anyone out there who might respond to such entreaties would be friendly.  Of course, in this novel, aliens do not respond to messages of welcome—they simply notice we are here.
Although portions of this book were a slog, it had its moments, especially towards the end, and it held my attention.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars has always, at least in part, been about itself.  Even the first film nodded to 1930s movie serials, World War II aerial combat scenes, tough guy detectives, and so on.  The 2015 film Star Wars: The Force Awakens (dir. J. J. Abrams) was so busy paying tribute to its 1977 predecessor (especially in the first scenes on the Millennium Falcon) that the film nearly lost track of itself.   Intertextual references have been part of the fun of the series.  They continue in the most recent installment, Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017; dir. Rian Johnson), where Luke Skywalker returns, after a fashion, as a Jedi knight, remembering or refusing to remember his old friends and his former Jedi self. The new film makes a few self-conscious references to the death of Carrie Fisher, especially in the final scenes, in her role as Leia Organa.  The film is dedicated to her, and in the final scene, after Leia comments that there will be others to take the place of rebellion members who have died, the film quickly switches to the face of a young boy on a distant planet gazing up into the stars.  The sense is that these references were fashioned in post-production, after Fisher’s death, which is entirely appropriate.
Of all the films in the series, this most recent one brims over with hooey.  By hooey, I mean the Force and all attendant mythic religiosity.  Nearly all of the Skywalker scenes take place at a Jedi temple, where Luke once trained aspiring Jedi knights and where he now hides out, shamed that one of his former students turned against the rebellion and fully embraced the Dark Side as Kylo Ren (who is himself the intertextual product of Leia and Solo). The powers of the Force and the Jedi are much more in play here.  Crucial plot points depend on them: especially in the final battle between Skywalker and Ren.  The ability of the rebellion to survive, barely, the events in the film is much more the result of Force hokum and magic than it is of the heroism or skills or ingenuity of any of the characters.  Which is not to say that heroism isn’t in evidence: it definitely is, in characters who risk or sacrifice their lives in support of the effort. But there are more instances of deus ex machina in this film than there are in all surviving works of Greek drama.
This film is more fantasy than science fiction.  Too much happens that is not based on, or supported by, principles of science. It is space romance infused with mysticism that is, after all the hokum is pulled aside, not especially well camouflaged Christian mysticism, which is not really a problem since the film’s embrace of the virtues of good over evil, of heroism, of freedom, and so on, are commonplace (though some might argue that freedom hasn’t been especially well served by the Faith).
Was it entertaining? Yes, without a doubt. Was it the best film in the series since The Empire Strikes Back, as one reviewer argued?[i] Both Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and The Force Awakens were better and more satisfying, in my opinion.