Thursday, July 27, 2017

Boss Baby

Undoubtedly, the making of Boss Baby (2017, dir. Tom McGrath) involved some moments of imagination and creativity. Choosing Alec Baldwin to voice the boss baby certainly was a promising move. But Baldwin's voice, and his cheeky satirical persona, are poorly used. They are hardly used at all. I think Baldwin was chosen to attract viewers familiar with his work in 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live. Children, young children particularly, may find this film entertaining. As an adult who came to it with some hopes of comedy and satire, I didn't find much. It was a silly film that must've been made mainly in the hopes of large ticket revenues. I don't know if that goal was accomplished, and it really doesn't matter. The motives behind it might involve tax breaks or greed, but they didn't involve the creation of anything truly interesting or entertaining or artful. Would I show this film to a child? No. I wouldn't want to expose a child to such a cynical, crass, low, and exploitative entertainment.

What can I say about this film that's worth saying? I'm thinking long and hard. I didn't like it. I had difficulty staying awake while watching it. I hated it. This film is a good example of why the film industry is in crisis, why really good films are not being made, or only rarely being made. If I compare this film to some of the old Warner Brothers cartoons, I might find a remote connection. But the really good Warner Brothers cartoons were artful, and well made, and entertaining. There's nothing, nothing, in this film that approaches the best of the Bugs Bunny or Roadrunner or Daffy Duck cartoons, nothing, nothing at all. Nothing in this film that comes close to being comparable to the good animated films being made by Disney Studios or by Pixar or by other companies that emulate them.

Step to the Stars, by Lester del Ray

Step to the Stars by Lester del Ray (1954) was the first "adult" book I ever read. I read it in the third grade. I chose it because I was fascinated with the United States space program and with space in general and this relatively short novel about the building of the first space station must have interested me. The plot involves a U.S. company working under federal contract to build the first space station in the early 1950s. In some ways, the novel is prescient. The principles of orbital mechanics that allow a space station to be placed in orbit were already known. There was already discussion about putting a space station in orbit, although it didn't take place for the next 20 years if you count Skylab or 30 years if you count the International Space Station.

In the novel, various obstacles along the way interfere with the building of the space station. A group of hostile nations called the Combine have placed spies among the workers building the station. They explode bombs and commit other forms of sabotage. The Combine itself is attempting to develop an atomic powered rocket that will allow its own space station to be built and placed in orbit. (When the first launch of the atomic rocket ends in an explosion, the Americans set out to rescue the crew members, who by some miraculous means have survived).

The building of the space station itself causes an international crisis. The military potential of the space station is much discussed in the novel, which expresses mixed views about whether using it for military rather than scientific purposes is a good idea. Nearly 70 years have passed since Step to the Stars was written, and in that time many significant technical, scientific, and social advances have occurred. Solar panels power today's space station, while a mirror that focuses the sun's rays on a steam generator powers the one in del Ray's novel. The novel's attitude towards women is old-fashioned, although the presence of a few women on the space station is significant. One of them, Nora, who enters the novel as a nurse, ends up with considerable responsibility and is promoted to pilot status by the end of the novel. The manager of the team building the space station even says that, with a few caveats, women can perform as well in space as men. No people of color, at least no African-Americans, work on the space station. There is one Mexican among the teambuilding the space station. He is repeatedly referred to as "the little man," and he is occasionally described with equivocal language. Yet the main character in the novel thinks highly of him and gives him significant responsibility.

What seems most old-fashioned and wrong about Step to the Stars is the ease with which the space station is built. A fleet of three or four rockets takes off on a daily basis from a spaceport on Johnston Island to ferry equipment and people to the space station. Building this station takes a year's time. At the end of the novel, we’re told that the U. S. government is planning to send a rocket with people aboard to the moon "next year." We know now from our experience with the last 60 years that putting people into space, building space stations, going to the moon, planning to go Mars, is difficult, complex, fraught with difficulty, arduous, and time-consuming. Most of all space travel involves immense amounts of money.

I returned to this novel for reasons of nostalgia and because I wanted to see how I would view it now, from my adult perspective. It was pretty much as I remembered it. It's not the kind of novel I would choose to read today, but it was the kind of book I needed to get me started as a serious reader in the third grade. I read science fiction almost exclusively for the next five or six years of my life, and then moved to other literature.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Fixed Ideas: America Since 9.11, by Joan Didion

Joan Didion's Fixed Ideas: America Since 9.11 was published as a booklet in 2003, on the eve of the American invasion of Iraq. The essay it contains was initially published in the New York Review of Books. Didion contends that President George W. Bush and many American politicians used the events of September 11, 2001, to buttress their own political agendas and to transform the identity of the United States and its role in the international world. She sees this as an abdication of reason in the most basic sense, an abandonment of ideals and principles set forth the Constitution and Bill of Rights. She notes attacks on the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech: in the weeks following 9-11 the Secretary of State encouraged Americans not to speak carelessly because their words might serve the interests of the enemy and weaken the United States position. Plays dealing with controversial subjects were cancelled.  People advocating points of view critical of the Bush administration were branded as unpatriotic.  Americans were encouraged to think of the Bush agenda as the anti-terrorism, the anti-bin Laden agenda.  In other words, to be for America, one had to support the goals of the Bush administration.  Dissent was, in effect, forbidden.

In 2001, and in the years immediately following, the national and international situation was more complicated than it is today. We've been dealing for only half a year with Donald J. Trump and his new way of conducting American affairs.  Yet the national environment seems far more poisoned and divided and in danger of collapse that it ever was during the Bush years. Many of the same developments that Didion complained about in 2003 are again evident today. People who speak out against the new president are lambasted as disloyal, as unintelligent, as unpatriotic. (Of course, Trump opponents use similar words to insult Trump supporters). Reince Priebus (before his departure as chief of staff) revealed that Trumps advisers have investigated ways to modify the first amendment and revise libel laws so that Trump can sue newspapers whose stories he doesnt like. The level of discoursein the press, on the Internet, Twitter, Facebook--has sunken to a low far below that of the years of the Bush administration. Facts are disputedalternative facts are presented as equally valid.  We have abdicated reason. We have abandoned basic American ideals – or at least the leaders that we elected have abandoned them (of course, Trump was not elected with a popular vote majorityhe was anointed through the archaic and anachronistic process of the Electoral College).

Didion's concern with America's abandonment of reason, with the hypocrisy, and the blind sightedness of our leaders, and with the basic decline in the levels of ethics, intelligence, and civility that we normally expect our leaders to exhibit, seems in no way dated.  Its directly relevant to our present situation.

Kong: Skull Island

Films should create a world that makes sense. Underlying rules (natural or human-made) and logic should govern the environment in which characters live and make decisions. In the recent film Kong: Skull Island (2017; dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts), an expedition is undertaken to a remote South Pacific island encircled by storm clouds. There are rumors about the island, but no one has ever visited. At least no one who has escaped. An eccentric rich man played by John Goodman believes that huge creatures from prehistoric times still exist there. He convinces the federal government to help him finance an expedition and takes a crew of scientists and photographers with him. One member of his crew is a geologist who believes in the hollow earth theory. This is the films explanation for the various monsters who appear: they live in empty spaces beneath the surface of the earth. Makes a lot of sense, right? The military escort is commanded by Samuel L. Jackson, who has a reputation for being hard-nosed and for never leaving a man behind on the battlefield.

Six helicopters take off from the expeditionary ship and fly through severe weather towards the island. They fly through canyons and over mountains that it's difficult to imagine an island such as this could accommodate. But, okay. We can accept that. What we cannot accept is that when a huge hundred-foot tall ape suddenly begins attacking the helicopters, instead of taking evasive action, they continue on straight towards him, so that within a short time he has knocked all six helicopters to the ground. Many crew members are killed.  Only a few survive. Not surprisingly, the survivors include the principal members of the cast.

Let us call the ape Kong.  No one in the film actually refers to him as Kong, but his name is in the title.  At times in the film Kong seems to be much taller than 100 feet tall. At other times 100 feet seems about right. But the relationship of Kong to the humans who are pursuing him is inconsistent in terms of perspective. Sometimes he is large. Sometimes he is small. At one point he rescues the photographer who's on the expedition (played by Brie Larson, one of the few highlights of the film) and holds her unconscious body in his hand. She's a tiny figure and his hand is huge, suggesting that he should be much taller than 100 feet. But this inconsistency, this point of illogic, doesn't really seem to matter. Obviously, it bothered me.

It's not really clear what the expedition members expect to find on the island. Once they arrive, their main concern becomes survival. They have to reach the north side of the island in three days so they can be rescued. But Kong is angry that they've invaded his space and dropped bombs and shot at him numerous times. Only gradually do the members of the expedition (some of them, at least) realize that he is actually defending a tribe of natives who live on the island. How the natives got there, we don't know. Theyre Asian, they don't talk much, and they cover their bodies with tattoos.

The expedition's military escort, commanded by Jackson, who never leaves a man behind, wants revenge on Kong, who killed many of its men. Jackson sets himself up as an Ahab: the ape is his whale. In various moments, he stares at Kong in the distance with a gaze of intense hatred. He wants to kill Kong. Kong wants to return the favor. The scientists want to save Kong because he is, in the end, only defending himself and his territory and the natives. What does he defend the natives against? Skull-faced lizards, of course--huge and vicious, always hungry, and fundamentally unconvincing: theyre clearly studio creations. Even Kong looks like a man in an ape suit, though the director assures us that he's a digital creation. Maybe the digital creation of a man in an ape suit.

Of the monsters in this film, I noted a huge spider who lives in the forest. Kong fights a huge octopus which lurks in a lake. Dont forget the skull-faced lizard monsters. There is a huge water buffalo, and I mean huge. Pterodactyls fly around at various moments. Maybe I've missed a few creatures. These all came, apparently, from the hollow earth.

This is the kind of film one looks to for mindless diversion. Watching it, I spent my time hating it and thinking of how I needed to go to sleep.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Don't Kill It

Don’t Kill It (2016; Mark Mendez) opens with scenes of the Mississippi swamp where a man is hunting with his dog. Ominous music and thunderclaps provide the backdrop as the dog wanders off the trail and finds a strange looking object. That object, as we come to know, contains an ancient demon which escapes to terrorize the small Mississippi town where this film is set. The film makes use of the backwoods landscape and the comical, dimwitted citizens of the small Southern town as it shows us how the demon possesses one person after another, compelling them to kill anyone who comes in sight. The violence in this movie is considerable though not realistic -- in realism it reminded me of the original version of 200 Maniacs. We have several scenes of carnage, of families being killed, of teenagers being obliterated. A number of children are killed too, mostly off-screen. A demon killer named Jebediah Woodley finds his way to town. He's played by Dolph Lundgren. Jebediah teams up with FBI agent Evelyn Pierce to track down the demon. She has returned to the town after a long absence. The difficulty about the demon is the fact that it moves from one person's body to the next. When someone shoots the person whom the demon has possessed, the demon immediately transitions to the killer’s body. Hence the title of the film. If you kill the demon, he possesses you. Instead of being killed, he needs to be contained. No one can tell who the demon is, except for the way his or her eyes turn completely black and for the shotgun or the pistol or the machete that he or she is carrying and the roaring sound he or she makes as he or she runs towards the next victim – in other words, the demon is fairly obvious. The plot is slightly more intricate than I've made it out to be. We learn that the FBI agent Pierce is descended from an angelic lineage, a fact that plays conveniently into the plot, though it's not explained very well. Oddly, there's comedy in this film, which makes fun of the limitations of the people of the small town, many of whom are dead by the end of the film. This was a film so unlikely and so ludicrous that I found myself longing before the midpoint for it to end yet at the same time not willing to give up on it.

Dont Kill It employs a number of southern conventions:  Gothicism, religious extremism, small-town hokum, the supernatural, swamps. A fundamentalist minister in town is convinced that the demon hunter Jebediah is himself the demon. He musters the paranoid support of parishioners to try to stop the demon hunter and the FBI agent. I've already mentioned the small town and its dimwitted citizens. A bumbling Barney Fife-like policeman provides minor comic relief. Dolph Lundgren's character is eccentric and mysterious and crazy. Lundgren does a good job with his character. He's the only strong point of the film, in a relative way. But the major relief this film provides comes when the closing credits roll.
Why a demon in a small Mississippi town? Is there anything particularly southern about the demon in this film? I suppose demons, if you believe in them, can appear anywhere. One could argue that the demon in Don't Shoot It incorporates all the stereotypical worst traits of a small town southern resident: love of weapons, love of violence, pleasure in shooting or assaulting anything, whether animal or human, religious mania. This demon’s appearance in a Mississippi swamp is totally arbitrary, which is not to say that arbitrariness somehow invalidates its existence there. The appearance of the demon, which we can understand as a source of bad luck, terrible events, misfortune, random chaos, that is, as a supernatural explanation for anything evil that can happen in the world, is explanation enough. We’re always looking for explanations: for what caused the Deep Water Horizon disaster, what led to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, what led to any number of terrible earthquakes or tsunami or volcanic eruptions or hurricanes or tornadoes, for plagues. We’re always grasping for explanations, and we’re always fearful of them. The demon in this film is one explanation and it certainly  stimulates enough fear. But I prefer to spend my time considering more plausible, rational, human, physical explanations.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology (2017) reminded me of Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, a book that as a child I found on the bookshelf of my grandmother’s front porch.  Edith Hamilton was the author.  It was a collection of the mythology of Roman religion and literature, and I spent many hours reading and browsing through it.  Gaiman’s book is his version of Scandinavian myths as passed down through oral history and finally recorded by medieval scribes.  In his introduction, he makes clear that he is relying on certain translations of the myths, so he makes no pretense of having translated them himself.  He does suggest that he embellished and shaped them and put them into his own prose.  I’d like to know the extent to which he was inventing and embellishing, and to which he was simply rendering translations.
In his novel American Gods (2001), which uses Norse mythology and other world mythologies in various ways, we see Gaiman’s imagination at work in creative and inventive ways.  In Norse Mythology, the tone is more formal, a bit removed from the subject matter, and perhaps bound by the material—that is (I’m guessing) that while Gaiman could invent or embellish details he felt an obligation to honor the basic Norse tales themselves.
The myths of the Nordic people and of Greek and Roman civilizations have many similarities.  But there are distinctive differences.  Norse mythology shows the Nordic people’s love of nomenclature—everything, no matter how inanimate or insignificant, has a name—in one scene the god Odin bores through the side of a mountain with an augur named Rati, for example.  Perhaps such objects are given names because they are the possessions of gods, part of an epic Nordic epic saga.
One point Gaiman makes in this volume is to illustrate the ways in which women were subjugated, how they were allowed little agency and had virtually no say in decisions that affected their lives.  They were the possessions of men.  One notable exception is the goddess Freya, renowned as the most beautiful of the gods.  On several occasions when males try to bargain her away in marriage in return for rewards or alliances, she fiercely resists and makes clear that she will decide whom she will marry.
Gaiman begins with the origins of the Nordic world while at the same time anticipating its end.  The tales are organized in order to highlight the final movement of the gods towards Ragnorak, a final battle in which all the Gods and the world itself will be destroyed.
The apocalyptic ending is foreshadowed from the start.  The gods make mistakes and misjudgments that later come back to haunt them.  They are not immortal—though they might live millennia, able to resist the effects of aging through various magic remedies, in the end they can die.  Nordic myth according to Gaiman has more awareness of the end times, the final Battle of Ragnorak, the Nordic version of the Christian apocalypse, than I find in Greco/Roman myth.
The Nordic people, with relatively little knowledge of science, driven by superstitious and religious belief, by ignorance, had a more realistic view of the fate of the universe than the modern world seems to have, though I suppose the gradual cooling and dissolution predicted by cosmologists is a modern version of the Twilight of the Gods after all.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Flight Path, by Hannah Palmer

The author of Flight Path: A Search for Roots Beneath the World’s Busiest Airport (2017), Hannah Palmer, takes on several subjects that seem unrelated: the history of the Atlanta Airport, her own biography and that of her parents, his marriage to her husband Jake and their son, born in the penultimate chapter.  This book is a memoir, a book about urban planning (or the lack of it), a study of economic and social forces that at least in the case of the small cities and towns around the airport separated and ultimately excluded residents on the basis of race and economic class.  The search for “roots” for Palmer involves finding the houses where she lived as a child, where she grew up.  This becomes difficult because most of the neighborhoods where she lived were bought up and razed either by the airport or by developers.  Her own memory along with her research into county maps and records allow her to find these houses, or the vacant lots where they once stood.  The house she is most interested in is one where she and her sister lived with their father and stepmother for nine years, but it has either been burned in a fire department exercise or moved to another location—she can never determine which.

Time is one subject of this book.  In the case of the airport, expansion, developer greed, and shifting racial demographics—along with the ever-present noise of the airport—pushed people out.  The neighborhoods and houses in which people live, with which they identified in a personal way, are wiped out.  Even geography changes—this is how time’s impact becomes manifest.  Palmer fixes on the small town of Mountain View, where she lived in part of her childhood, and which, in 1977, by legislative mandate, ceased to exist and was absorbed into land marked for seizure or development around the airport.

Palmer sees a sharp divide between the economic forces surrounding the airport and the lives of the people who live in near it—people who are powerless to influence decisions of corporations and legislative bodies that directly affect their lives.  These residents have almost no voice. She wonders how identification with place, with the land of one’s birth, can survive in an age where things can disappear so fast, where one’s identification with place becomes a weak or non-existent factor in decisions that are made, where one’s significance as an individual becomes meaningless.

I lived in College Park near the airport for the first two decades of my life, from 1950 to 1970.  The deafening noise of jets flying in and out of the airport was a constant part of the environment.  During peak traffic times, we often had to stop talking because the noise made it impossible to hear what others were saying. Palmer discusses the ever-present airport noise. In the 1970s, when I came home from college to visit, I saw the gradual changes being worked by the airport.  I saw a neighborhood, Newton Estates, where I used to go to play with friends, become a wasteland of empty, silent, uninhabited houses, bought out by the airport’s noise abatement programs.

Palmer’s book is surprisingly good—surprisingly because one doesn’t often expect a book about the impact of an airport’s growth and development to be so full of intelligence, compassion, human insight, interest, and life.  Flight Path has all these qualities.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Twin Peaks: The Return, episode 8

At the beginning of the eighth episode of Twin Peaks: The Return, the evil twin of Agent Cooper is driving down the freeway in the dark along with a young accomplice named Ray whom he has just broken out of prison. As is true of many parts of Twin Peaks, especially the revived version, certain scenes take an inordinately long time. In the dark, with the roadside barely illuminated by the headlights of the car, Agent Cooper drives and drives and drives. After a while he exits the expressway on to what appears to be a state highway. Then he leaves the state highway and turns onto a single-lane road that soon turns into a dirt road. Agent Cooper tells Ray that he needs certain information from him. Ray tells Cooper that he will have to pay for it. Agent Cooper pulls the car to a stop and gets out to relieve himself. Ray gets out of the car, comes towards Cooper with a pistol, and begins shooting. Cooper falls over dead. Bizarre wraith-like phantoms appear out of the darkness and begin touching and waving their hands back and forth over the body. The terrified Ray gets into the car and drives away. Agent Cooper comes back to life.

We then move to July 16, 1945, in the New Mexico desert and the occasion of the first atomic bomb test. The bomb detonates, and the camera moves closer and closer to the blast, approaching the mushroom cloud and finally entering it. We see turmoil and turbulence and, apparently, molecules racing back and forth. Occasionally a form seems about to take shape but it never does. This goes on for quite a while. Next, we move to a scene outside a convenience store in 1956. A teenage boy and a 14- or 15-year-old girl are standing together outside a convenience store where they have enjoyed each other's company. He walks her to her house, and this again takes quite a while. He asks if he can kiss her good night. She's hesitant at first, but finally agrees, and they briefly kiss. It’s a sappily innocent scene. Next, we shift to the middle of the desert where what appears to be a pebble turns out to be an egg that hatches into a creature that appears to be half-cockroach and half-lizard. The creature crawls across the desert floor. A strange man who has descended out of the clouds invades a radio station and, after killing the receptionist and before killing the DJ, broadcasts a bizarre message. Everyone who hears it loses consciousness. Finally, the creature arrives at the house of the girl, who is lying on her bed listening to music. She loses consciousness as she hears the radio message. While she sleeps, the creature crawls through her window, across the floor and onto her bed, and into her mouth. She swallows.

These events take up about half the episode. I've left a lot out, especially a scene in a strange antique room with an old, overly made-up woman and her Lurch-like servant.  He walks into another room and begins to levitate and emits glowing material from his mouth. And, oh yes, Laura Palmer's face, along with the face of the demon Bob (so important to the original series), also plays into this sequence.

I think the whole point of these scenes is to illustrate Bob’s origins.

I am a fan of Twin Peaks. I intend to watch every remaining episode. I greatly admired David Lynch's film Blue Velvet. Wild at Heart was good. I did not care for Eraser Head, or Inland Empire, or Mulholland Drive. I think what we see in Episode 8 is what happens when one has insufficient content to fill 17 episodes. In the end, Twin Peaks: The Return may all make sense, and I'll have to eat my words. (Just as the girl had to eat that creature). Some may believe that what we're given in Episode 8 is the vision of a true genius. I think it’s a failure of imagination.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

I Am Not Your Negro

I Am Not Your Negro (dir. Raoul Peck, 2016) is uncomfortable to watch.  No white viewer can escape its condemnations. Even progressive, liberal, racially enlightened and/or sensitive viewers cannot escape.  The documentary is about the brilliant writer James Baldwin and his provocative analyses of America’s racial history.   Using clips from films, newsreels, and interviews with Baldwin,  it  investigates the responsibility of white Americans for creating the historical, social, and cultural matrix of causes and effects that led to the nation’s fraught racial history and situation.  The film centers on interviews and public statements made by Baldwin from the 1950s through the late 1970s.  It’s loosely structured around a book Baldwin proposed to write (but never finished) on the lives of three assassinated icons of the Civil Rights movement: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, and Malcom X, all of whom Baldwin knew.  His plan was to discuss the racial environment of the United States by focusing on these three figures.

Baldwin was a brilliant talker and thinker.  Especially impressive are sequences from his appearance on the Dick Cavett show in 1968, where comments offered by a professor of sociology at Yale provoke him into an incredible series of incisive statements about the situation of black Americans in the 1960s.  The film deliberately ties the problems targeted by the Civil Rights movements to the racial situation in contemporary America by using images and film clips of black Americans killed by policemen and other law enforcement officials in the last several years. Baldwin finds apologies and other gestures offered by white Americans concerning the treatment of African Americans to be unsatisfactory.  He wants white Americans to take action, real action, to correct the injustices that people of color suffered in the 1960s, and that they continue to suffer today.  Baldwin indicts not so much white Americans individually (though he describes them as culturally dead) as he does the institutions, cultural conventions, laws, economic divides that they helped to create.

The film takes a pessimistic view of race relations and the likelihood of their improvement—Baldwin saw little hope for improvement in his own lifetime, even though he held hopes for American democracy, and the filmmaker sees little hope in 2016. 

As bad as the racial situation was in the 1950s and 1960s, I disagree that it has not improved in the intervening years.  There have been clear progress and improvement.  By so saying, I don’t dismiss the serious problems—economically, judicially, legally, culturally, and otherwise—that African Americans and other minorities continue to face.

This film is instructive, compelling, disturbing, infuriating, and uncompromised in its presentation of its subject.  It’s a wonderful presentation of Baldwin and proof that the writer, dead now for over thirty years, remains pertinent.  It’s also a panoramic view of racism and race in America—the nature of racism, its manifestations in violence, murder, subjugation, and denial—over its four hundred-year history.