Robert Kenner vs. the Merchants of Doubt

Posted by Charles Reece, March 9, 2015 08:06am | Post a Comment

Q&A with Robert Kenner about his film Merchants of Doubt, a documentary about
professional climate warming denial. Recorded with my phone on March 7th, 2015 at
Arclight Hollywood (so, it ain't beautiful).

The Late, Great Leonard Nimoy

Posted by Charles Reece, February 27, 2015 09:33am | Post a Comment

From the second greatest adaptation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Leonard Nimoy, he lived, prospered and is now dead at 83.

My Own Personal Oscar: 11 Best Films of 2014

Posted by Charles Reece, February 23, 2015 02:18am | Post a Comment
Hohum, the Academy Awards are over for the mostly lackluster year of 2014. Here are a few gems, very few of which were celebrated or probably even noticed by those deciding on nominees. In no particular order ...

Wild Tales - Damián Szifrón

Six short short stories of vegeance that evince a Coen brothers level of comedic tension (recall the classic bag drop off scene from The Big Lebowski, for example). Pure cinematic bliss.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - Matt Reeves

Aside from getting to see apes double-fisting arms on horseback, I loved the atypically depressing political message of this film. No matter how much a few individual apes and humans might strive to get over interpersonal problems, that doesn't mean shit in the overall scheme of things. For once, a Hollywood film portrays the problem of structural difference (the unbridgeable otherness of ape culture to what's left of humanity) instead of pasting some subjectivized problem over the gap that allows for a pat narrative resolution (more often than not in the form of a loving relation or the superhero's coup de grâce to the face).

Goodnight Mommy - Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz

This film has the most agonized scream I've encountered since the beginning of Cries & Whispers. A parable for contemporary times that asks how much plastic surgery can a person have before she becomes someone else. Twin sons spend the duration of the film brutally experimenting on their mother to answer that question. Obviously, this one cuts too deep for the aging Academy. Skip the overhyped Babadook, Goodnight Mommy is the only dyadic familial horror film that matters.

The Duke of Burgundy - Peter Strickland

Whereas something like Fifty Shades of Grey attempts to mystify fetishism through censor-evading occlusion, Duke of Burgundy denudes its mind numbing repetitious detail. The former's trepidation (anyone over 12 can see the film in France) results in boredom, which the latter can only mock ... and without men. BDSM isn't dangerous or challenging, just kind of silly -- something the middle aged bourgeoisie do in their leisure time, because they can't get it up otherwise.

Calvary - John Michael McDonagh

Given a title like that for a story about a priest being threatened due to the sins of his church, the central theme is heavy handed enough to drive the point into the skull of any viewer. But Brendan Gleeson's character is so engaging and humane that he manages to escape all the ideological chains and wounded character cliches trying to tie him down to yet another lame social message picture about the Catholic Church. Gleeson should star in everything.

Force Majeure - Ruben Östlund

With a stringent formalism that's admirable particularly in the age of shaky cam, Östlund investigates the role of masculinity in the family unit. A man runs away from his wife and kids during an avalanche, but is too ashamed to admit it later. Thus, the setup for a tough feminist dilemma: how to distinguish patriarchal presumptions about women and children first from any moral outrage that might be felt at the father's fleeing. 

Gone Girl - David Fincher

Another interesting feminist twist last year, and one which the ideological victim wing can't stand. The smartest, most devious, most evil and all around most interesting character in a story is a woman. Actresses get so few chances to play the malevolent mastermind (even worse is that one of the rare exceptions, Disney's Maleficent, has now been retrofitted as mere victim). Together, Gillian Flynn and Rosamund Pike have created the best onscreen feminist villain since Basic Instinct. I'm sure Camille Paglia will love this film, too.

Oculus - Mike Flanagan

In a better year, this one might've not made my list, but it's definitely a cut above most of what I saw or refused to see in 2014 for it's elegant use of old fashioned in-camera trickery to destabilize the viewer's ability to determine whether the characters are hallucinating or seeing reality. The film never gets to the diegetic facts of the matter until the tragic denouement. Much eerier than the digital monsters that pop up in most horror films these days (including the aforementioned and -dismissed Babadook).

The Rover - David Michod

I imagine this dystopia is something like the horrific vision Susan Brownmiller had in mind when she wrote about 'rape culture.' Goddamn, but it's mean! It's like Mad Max with all the hope and comfort of genre tropes stripped away. Of course, it, too, is Australian. What a country.

Sabotage - David Ayer

I'm not sure it was intentional, but unlike the vast majority of macho-fascistic action fantasies, this one portrays the protagonists as the steal your lunch money assholes they would be in real life. In lieu of having you root for them, the pleasure comes from watching them eat each other alive in what amounts to a Hobbesian microcosm qua heist gone wrong film. Sabotage allows for a more real Arnold, both in terms of his wrinkles and as a summation of what type of character he tended to play back in the 80s. And given the increased diversity in such films these days, it turns out that the women who fall for these australopithecine goons ain't so nice, either.

The Raid 2 - Gareth Evans

Best director of the year award! If Michael Bay (or some other purveyor of chaos cinema) takes an Eisensteinian approach to action, Gareth Evans is the genre's Bazinian rebuttal. For example, consider the prison fight sequence in light of Bazin's much beloved Citizen Kane. The camera movement and editing are there to ground and reveal the reality of the fighting, not to have the audience infer something must've happened after the fact.


Most of the above are available for your home viewing pleasure: The RoverDawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Raid 2, Sabotage, Oculus, Gone Girl and Force Majeure.

Non-studio posters came from: Fro Design Company, Design Dragus and Harry Movie Art

Is Survival Always the Best Option? Pessimism, Anti-Natalism and Bloodchildren

Posted by Charles Reece, September 14, 2014 09:35am | Post a Comment

If we count not only the unusually severe harms that anybody could endure, but also the quite routine ones of ordinary human life, then we find that matters are still worse for cheery procreators. It shows that they play Russian roulette with a fully loaded gun -- aimed, of course, not at their own heads, but at those of their future offspring. – David Benatar, Better Never to Have Been, p. 92

Benatar’s anti-natalism is not likely to capture the popular imagination any time, soon; probably never, I’d wager. What kind of person accepts that it would be for the best should humanity stop reproducing? But a few metaphysical defeatists do indeed take some solace in it, at least by discovering a comrade in bleakness who attempts rational arguments for our shared existential plight – justifications that aren’t reducible to some mere psychological fracture.

The psychologistic dismissals of pessimism are widespread, most recently and disappointingly exemplified by writer Nic Pizzolatto in his TV series, True Detective. Disappointing, because Pizzolatto clearly shares my love for the most ontologically downtrodden horror author working today, Thomas Ligotti. Nevertheless, after 7 hours of episodes that dismantle straight guy Marty Hart’s ideas of family, hard work and law as delusional distractions which keep him from confronting the abyssal punchlines consistently delivered by pessimistic funny man Rust Cohle, and despite having the latter nearly quote Ligotti verbatim at times [1], Pizzolatto betrays all of this with a denouement that makes the show into little more than religious propaganda hidden in a blighted form. Rust has a metaphysical conversion in the finale after a near death visitation by his dead daughter and father: he begins to see little rays of hope peeking out of the darkness of the nighttime sky. Turns out it was the trauma of losing a child and of not having reconciled with his father – genetically, a future deadend and an unresolved past – that lead to those previously expressed dark thoughts, and not, say, facing the objective ramifications of the eternal perspective, or
sub specie aeternitatis
, which can only reveal an end to humanity, its concerns and all its artifacts. Rust and the audience need no longer worry about such ramifications with the hope of continuing as an immortal soul. Ligotti refers to such pessimistic flimflam as a “façade of ruins, a trompe l'oeil of bleakness.” (Ligotti, p. 147)

Another shell game with hope is played out in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men where an inexplicable apocalyptic plague has resulted in universal infertility. Regarding anti-natalism, 
Peter Singer naïvely wonders, “If we would all agree to have ourselves sterilized then no sacrifices would be required — we could party our way into extinction!” Instead, the film offers a more psychologically plausible scenario: With humanity facing its true endgame, the last generation behaves like a coyote chewing through its ensnared limb, only to realize that each of its limbs is equally trapped. There’s no shared hedonistic spirit, where the world turns into one big Burning Man festival, rather the state (England) erects more barriers, whereby the more privileged, based on the same old fears of class and race, try desperately to reduce the possibilities of the less fortunate ruining whatever pleasures are left in the one thing everyone is forced to share, a moribund genetic fate. Shit never stops running down hill.

Cuarón’s film suggests is that thanatopobia is part of our psychological foundation. “To subdue our death anxiety, we have trumped up a world to deceive ourselves into believing that we will persist – if only symbolically – beyond the breakdown of our bodies.” (Ligotti, p. 159) When we can no longer postpone reflecting on the nothingness of the final true death to some future progeny, we can no longer rely on the comforts of a symbolic immortality. Instead, we would behave like caged animals. But, then, the bait-and-switch: one of those rays of hope shows up in the form of a pregnant woman, suggesting the human race isn’t finished yet. After which, the story becomes one of a formerly defeatist protagonist making sacrifices for the benefit of some future society that he hopes (with his re-discovered faith) will be better than the current one. The ending is ambivalent enough that the materially inclined need not feel betrayed like we were with True Detective, but it still gives the viewer an emotional escape hatch. (Unsurprising, I suppose, if you already knew that the adapted book is by a devout Anglican).

Likewise, thanatophobia – the maternal instinct being the relevant strain here – is the structuring motivation running through Octavia Butler’s tale of survival at any cost, Xenogenesis (aka Lilith’s Brood). After a nutwing contingent of ideologues wipes out most of the life on Earth with nuclear bombs, the few remaining humans are “rescued” by the Oankali, a parasitical species of date-raping colonialists with grotesque worm-like sensors all over their bodies who solve most of their problems with the evolved ability of genetic manipulation, a biologically inherited eugenics. Their means of survival is, like capitalism or the culture industry, to consume qua incorporation all the different beings and materials they find across the universe into their own genetic history, making the new more of the same.

What’s particularly interesting about Butler’s take on the alien invasion trope is that she focuses on a human collaborator, Lilith, and not the heroic figure of the resistance fighter. Not that there’s much possibility for resistance once Lilith is awakened from her stasis, hundreds of years after the nuclear winter. The aliens have rebuilt much of the Earth’s topography and restructured the humans to suit their expansionist goals, which amount to serving the Earth as food to their massive living spaceships and propagating a new strain of the Oankali species using the human gene pool as a reproduction machine. Use it all up and move on. The only two forms of rebellion left to the humans are bitching a lot among themselves and a noncompliance that will result in an eventual death that’s not much more than long-form suicide. Lilith chooses the symbolic immortality of humanity by helping her fellow Terrans accept the idea of humanity becoming one more admixture to the collective genetic memory of the Oankali.

Continue reading...

The Late, Great Eli Wallach

Posted by Charles Reece, June 25, 2014 08:15am | Post a Comment

The most likable of unlikable character actors, Eli Wallach. Here he is sleazing it up in one of my favorite Elia Kazan flicks, Baby Doll. The actor died of really old age yesterday.

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