7/10/2006

a scanner darkly

This is an ostensibly anti-drug movie you should do drugs before, during, and after seeing, if possible. Otherwise you'll get nothing out of it but a few laughs, a numb bum, and a pounding headache. It's trying for something dark (thus the title), but in the end it's a cartoon: the medium itself defies the message. The best moments are the most cartoonish ones, which are straight-up, old-school, three-stooges-style slapstick, not the maudlin, emotional bits that try to tug at your heart-strings.

That said, I enjoyed all the performances here, except for the bland Winona Ryder's (she may be an old hand at stealing sweaters from Saks, but she can't steal a scene to save her life). She is reunited in "A Scanner Darkly" with the bland Keanu Reeves, of course, but although I have generally been as unimpressed by him as her, I had a revelation about him in this role: he is his generation's Clint Eastwood. But rather than become a denizen of spaghetti westerns he's carved out his own specific subgenre of surreal kung-fu-inflected martyrological IT-guy sci-fi.

Also, as an animated character here he is more animated than in any of his live-action roles.

Robert Downey, Jr., who chews up the scenery as a motor-mouthed stool pigeon , and Woody Harrelson as an old-school stoner, are both terrific, too, but the real gem is Rory Cochrane, whom you'd never know was cute as a button in real life, since here he's twitching and foaming at the mouth most of the time.

That's because, like I said, the movie is about drugs. More specifically, about those addicted to them. The problem with this is that addicts are boring. The only people who can stand hanging out with people on drugs are other people on drugs (which is why I recommend taking some beforehand).

The addicts are only half the story, but you have to get to the other half through them, and, again, I think drugs are the only way. According to the press kit, “‘A Scanner Darkly’ tells the darkly comedic, caustic, but deeply tragic tale of drug use in the modern world.’ I would omit “deeply tragic,” myself, as I think it vastly overstates the case. The characters here are not tragic. They're comic. Yet another case of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-to-ism. You cannot have darkly comedic and deeply tragic. You have to choose. A vague sense of existential dread in someone with two synapses in his fried brain firing hardly makes an Oedipus Rex. Sorry.

But the movie is also about “America’s endless and futile war on drugs.” OK. Fine. But this is another thing you sort of need to take drugs to get too exercised over. I remember caring about it a good deal when I was in college, but not so much anymore.

The problem for the rest of us, those who aren’t currently on drugs, is that, storywise, once you take the plunge into that paranoid demimonde of drugs, you no longer have sympathetic, and more importantly, reliable characters or a sympathetic, or more importantly, reliable narrator. One of the things that most drugs eventually do is radically isolate people in their own subjectivities, precisely through the promise (and sometimes even the delivery) of a radical objectivity. They are emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually unreachable, and it is futile to try to get there from here.

Don't get me wrong, we are all more or less emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually in our own locked rooms. Some have been locked in by someone else, some have locked themselves in, some have merely misplaced the key, others have swallowed it. But occasionally we escape, or venture out when the weather's nice, and find others who have ventured out as well. On drugs, it's hopeless. You can't remember where you are, would need a map to find the door, and all your energy to get to it, have pissed yourself and have nothing else to wear if you did go out, and anyway you're face down in your own puke and and can't seem to recall which way is up, or even that there is an up. You can't even remember how to roll over, never mind that key in your hip pocket.

So the second half of “A Scanner Darkly”s equation—the big conspiracy theory—could as easily be a paranoid fantasy as a reality, which doesn’t make it less engrossing, if that’s your thing, but isn’t all that ominous and scary, either. You pretty much know where the whole thing’s going anyway.

There are some neat things to muse over, though. Could evil scientists develop a drug that is universally, instantly addictive, even to those without the “addict gene”? And then could the evil government co-opt it and start fucking with everyone for no reason?

Break out the bong, dude, and let's talk about it!

7/07/2006

The Office

There's a debate raging at Ground Zero about how the names of the dead should be listed. First of all, they need not be. You know, we've gone about as far as you can go with individualizing monuments to mass atrocities. It started with the brilliantly stark, perfectly appropriate Vietnam War Memorial by Maya Lin, and has morphed into the tacky chairs in Oklahoma City, with more to come at the Pentagon.

The controversy at Ground Zero--and it is becoming a bloody one--has to do with how the names of the dead should be listed. Representatives of the families of the dead seem to overwhelmingly oppose a random listing (with an alphabetically-arranged guide to help visitors to the site find the names), and are even divided on listing them alphabetically. They seem to mostly favor, in the words of one victim's mother: "listing them by who they were affiliated with at the time of their death. Stating where they worked or what they were doing that morning gives more individuality to their lives than a hodgepodge of 2,979 names."

I'm here to tell you, no, it doesn't. At least not to non-family members. I mean, maybe it is important for the families that we all know where their loved ones worked. I can't imagine why it would be in the big picture.

I think it's a piece with the appalling government buy-off of the victims' families in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe. Compensation, you will recall, was linked to projected income. A monetary value was set on each individual life, and you can bet the cleaning staff's weren't worth what a top exec's was. America found a way to make even death, the great equalizer, see dollar signs. But this should surprise no one. The first thing all of America was urged by our President to do in the wake of the disaster was to "buy something, no matter how small." Talk about retail therapy.

This is yet another sad, sad reminder of what these days defines the indefinable individual to even those closest to them.

I, personally, would be horrified to think that my family would remember me chiefly as an employee of a corporation, that finding meaning in my death would be linked to thinking of me in the office killing time surfing the net, sending faxes, hiding from an irritating coworker, or day-dreaming about my weekend, when the airplane struck my office building. Work is something you do. It is not who you are. It certainly doesn't make you any more individual than a name, or necessarily lend your life special significance.

7/01/2006

Lois Returns/Jesus in a leotard

I don’t know what all the movie reviewers are smoking these days, but Superman Returns, which has been praised to the skies, is utter shite. UTTER. SHITE. Did I stutter?

I keep hearing it called a chick-flick, too, but, please, my chick friends out there, tell me you can’t be so easily suckered into shite like this. I mean, here’s a movie produced, written and directed by men, based on a comic book hero by and for boys.

You know how these men made this a chick-flick? They turned the spotlight on Lois, whom they also turned into a crazy, raging bitch. Never, in the history of Superman has there been a Lois as utterly devoid of charm as this one, and as cruelly and crassly dismissive of poor Clark. You may have hated Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, but she had a goofy charm, and a bumbling goodwill that complemented Christopher Reeve’s shy, stuttering Clark. Kate Bosworth’s Lois is a cunt, pure and simple. This is not a chick-flick, it's a bitch-flick.

Now, it’s not like I’m a Superman fanatic. I'm not even a fan. I was never into the comic books. I watched the old Superfriends cartoon on Saturday morning TV when I was a kid, and saw the seventies movie franchise, but so did everyone else. I don't look to comic book superheroes as role models, and never did. And frankly it's the same to me what happens to them over the course of their careers. So I think I'm probably like most folks who will shell out ten bucks to see this bitch-flick. And the fact is: even on the level of mindless entertainment, it fails miserably.

There are no sympathetic characters. Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor and that cannibal Pomeranian are the only ones in the movie that are even remotely personable. Even Jimmy—who at the very least was always a fun homoerotic foil— is, in this version, a dead ringer for the nauseating former Cross-Fire flack Tucker Carlson. Eee-ooo. These characters aren’t even worthy of a kids’ comic book. Aside from Lex Luthor they aren't even fun. And we're supposed to take them seriously! Richard Donner didn't ask it of us in his 1978 version. His Superman and Lois were light-hearted and, like I said, a little goofy. But we liked them. Bryan Singer wants us to revere and worship his, and it's a bit much to ask.

You might ask it of kids, but this movie is too long, and too tediously paced to appeal to kids. I was in the theater with a bunch of them, and they were fidgeting all through it, and going back and forth to the john five and ten times to boot. You can't ask it of adults. You have to keep a sense of humor about a musclebound freak in bright blue tights who wears his underwear on the outside and sports a cape. No matter how cute he is, once you lose the sense of humor, the comic part of the comic book hero, you've crossed the line. This movie takes itself so seriously it's embarrassing to watch at times.

What plot there is can be summed up in the title: Superman returns. There. Save yourself ten bucks. There's hardly any plot here. As reported in the New Yorker, this movie is about real estate.

And there is, in fact, very little action. There isn’t a lot of Superman, even. What there is a lot of, as I've said, is Lois. Lois pouting, Lois crying, Lois chiding, Lois whining, Lois pleading, Lois grimacing, Lois grousing. Lois declaiming, proclaiming, complaining, and deplaning. Lois worried, trapped, panicked. Lois angry, Lois bitter, Lois bitchy. Lois confused, in despair, resolute. Mean, spiteful, acid-tongued. Mother Lois, jilted old-flame Lois, fiancee Lois, career-girl Lois, captive Lois, lifeguard Lois, savior Lois.

But, curiously, for all the attempts made in the ridiculous screenplay to give her emotional breadth and depth, as epic as Lois is in Lois Returns, the character still somehow manages to come across as totally flat. This Lois is even more a cartoon than the old cartoon Lois.

What makes the focus on Lois interesting is that it is obviously based on a certain pop-cultural idea of the feminist New Woman. A career woman, she has had a child out of wedlock whose parentage is uncertain. She retains a simpering, emasculated man-servant, Richard, (played ably enough by James Marsden), whose chief functions are to worship her, wait on her, take care of her son, and nag her to quit smoking.

Which is another thing. We all know the history of smoking and cinema are deliciously entwined. In the golden age of cinema a woman with a cigarette was a woman defying convention, a strong woman doing what was unladylike in public. Lois never actually gets to take a puff, but the cigarette (aside from being a not-too clever recurring bit of product placement) is a full-blown motif here.

This postmodern feminista has it both ways. We see that she has settled for her would-be mate, Richard (Dick), who needs a proxy--an airplane--to fly, poor sod. In addition, Richard has a stubby nose that makes him look, at times, like a little hedgehog. But he is a loving cuckold, and never betrays any suspicion that the child he treats as his own isn't. He is as devoted a father to his bastard son as he is a slave to his cheating fiancee. There is more than a whiff in this triangle of theories of behavior advanced by Evolutionary Psychologists. Women, according to theory, settle down with men like Richard, the gentle, loving, doting types, but especially when they are ovulating they go for guys like Superman, who prance around in their underwear showing off their big bulge and flexing their muscles. These big, hunky dudes don't make good partners (mainly due to the fact that they're all gay), but they've got the DNA the ladies want. Their job is simply to inseminate and then fly off in their blue leotards with their underwear on the outside, leaving the parenting to the pussies. It's rough, I know, but that's evolution.

So Lois is an avatar of both a pop-feminist-infused culture and a slave to her evolutionary instincts as well. This does not make her character compelling, however, just confused. And she never transcends confusion to experience catharsis, which the complexity of her character seems to point the way towards. She never summons the courage to choose between the men who love her (for what reason is the only real mystery in the film). Perhaps she wasn't ovulating at the time.

Of course, Bosworth & Co. have signed on to two more installments, so our feminist Magdelene (more about that in a moment) will have plenty of chances to redeem herself. I'm sure it will all be very exciting. My hope is that little Jahweh--er, I mean, "Jason," Superman's illegitimate son, will actually turn out by episode three to be the anti-Superman, and seek to destroy his father, before the latter is able to rapture all of Gotham.

But back to the movie that's out now. Don’t believe the hype: the special effects are not exceptional. They consist of a couple of obligatory scenes of Superman’s super prowess, like the one we have all seen, where the bullet ricochets off his eyeball, which was not in the least impressive, effectswise, although I heard appreciative oohs and ahs from the peanut gallery.

In addition to these scenes of super prowess, you’ve got your run-of-the-mill chase scenes. But the camerawork is too hectic (unlike the virtuosic sequences in The Bourne Supremacy, for example) for us to be drawn in and engaged. The scenes of violence and chaos flit across the screen without ever touching us.

Aside from these there are lots and lots of scenes of growing crystals and muddy underwater earthquakes.

There is a running gag, I guess you’d call it, where Frank Langella’s Perry White, editor of the Daily Planet, chides Jimmy, the budding boy photojournalist, for not being able to capture an iconic image of Superman. They are looking at a tiny blurred image of him flying between some skyscrapers. That’s what this whole movie felt like. The effects were little more than blurred images crossing the screen.

Which is not to say there were no iconic images. This Superman is always spreading his arms, striking a Jesus pose. It is so blatant as to be laughable. Such naked pandering borders on mockery. But your average Evangelical is flattered by all the attention he’s getting from Washington and Hollywood these days. Predictably, the Evangelical wedge of the web is abuzz with praise for Superman Returns:

Stephen Skelton, on beliefnet.com gurgles: “'Superman Returns' presents a gospel story as moving as 'The Passion of the Christ'--and possibly more affecting.”

We know those Evangelicals love gobbledygook, disconnected numbers and names and dates—dots that they can connect to get whatever result they crave, poor empty, desperate souls—and Superman Returns, as evidenced by Lois's character, throws in everything but the kitchen sink . Skelton takes the bait:

When Superman comes back to Earth, he finds a world much worse off than when he left. Most upsetting to him personally, Lois Lane--our Mary figure, with resonances of both the Magdalene and Mary the mother--has moved on. She has a fiancé and a 5-year-old son named Jason (which is a derivation of the name Jesus).

I've already heard from several Christians upset at this plot point--Lois Lane having a child out of wedlock. But I don't think that's the only interpretation. Watch carefully, and you'll find suggestions of virgin birth--not surprising, given the heavy gospel allusions throughout the movie.

… despite his broken heart, Superman must face a more far-reaching and potentially tragic challenge. Lex Luthor (our "Lex Lucifer") has been released from prison--like Lucifer released from the prison of the Abyss. Once free, Luthor immediately sets about his plan to create a worldly kingdom (sound biblically familiar?): Using land-forming crystals stolen from Superman's Fortress of Solitude, he plans to raises [sic] a new landmass in the middle of the ocean, obliterating billions of people in the process, paralleling the events predicted in the Bible for Armageddon. In an exchange laced with Satanic undertones, Lex's girlfriend Kitty, upon hearing his plan, reminds him, "You're not a god." Lex shoots back: "Gods are selfish beings who fly around in little red capes and don't share their power with mankind."

In one of Superman's confrontations with his arch-enemy, Luthor stabs Superman in the right side with a kryptonite dagger, which recalls the spear that pierced the right side of Christ. Our superhero then undergoes a brief reenactment of the march of the Passion. Superman tries to crawl away from his persecutors while struggling under the weight of kryptonite poisoning. His recovery is only one of two resurrections he undergoes in the movie; the second even involves the discovery of the modern-day equivalent of an empty tomb.

Superman discovers to his horror that the entire landmass Luthor created is laced with kryptonite. Here, as in other stories of Superman, kryptonite represents sin: Not only does kryptonite cause great pain to our Christ figure, but it gives power to his evil enemies. In setting about to rescue the world from this deadly danger, Superman symbolically takes the weight of a world of sin upon himself. As in the Gospel story, this supreme act of sacrificial suffering has disastrous consequences and Superman plummets back toward the Earth--in the crucifixion pose, no less.

As a parable of Christ, "Superman Returns" is truly miraculous. And as a mainstream movie, the film has it all: solid storytelling, fast-paced action, eye-popping special effects (some used for Christic effect), and even romance. See it. Soar with it. And, just in case you go with a non-Christian, be prepared to quote book, chapter, and verse from this latest and perhaps best edition of the Kryptonian gospel--as well as from that original story it so clearly parallels.
The blatant pandering to the SuperJesus crowd is not subtle, though when seriously considered it should be insulting to Christians, it's so breathtakingly trivializing. Not to mention what must be a blasphemously ridiculous (emphasis on ridicule, here) depiction of their savior as a bodybuilder in a blue leotard that leaves nothing to the imagination who wears his red jockey shorts on the outside, and prances around in a cape. I mean, if that doesn't count as blasphemy, I can't imagine what would.

But it's no secret the studios have been proactive in courting Evangelicals. Superman Returns Director Bryan Singer gave an interview to beliefnet.com, where he demurely admits his movie is “a Judeo-Christian allegory.” In fact, his movie is a mess. It is an inexpert mishmash of disconnected pop-culture and cinematic references and silly, overt pop-religious images, that could as readily insult as flatter, according to how easily taken in by utter nonsense you are, and how receptive to blatant pandering.

After having read the beliefnet interview I have the distinct feeling Singer was encouraged by the studio to Jesus it up. The parallels are so silly and sloppy, obviously made to sucker in just the types who tune into beliefnet.com. If it makes you feel like you're winning your culture war, I guess that's something. Pandering in itself is the point.

But it doesn't hang together as anything but. Personally, I find it interesting that when Superman hovers above the earth hearing everything on the planet all at once (as he does, you know--he's also making a list and checking it twice, so watch out!), instead of deciding to intervene in all the domestic violence, rape, child abuse that's going on—after listening for a moment he zips back down to Gotham to foil a bank robbery.

So, for those having trouble telling Jesus and the Superman from Superman Returns apart I have come up with ten differences, so you can distinguish them if you see them both in, like, the same room (but it's funny how you never do, isn't it?):

1. Jesus wore a long, flowy white robe or a loincloth, and Birkenstocks (without the big wooly sox, people). Superman wears blue leotards with his bright red underwear on the outside, a big “S” on his chest, a red cape, and funky knee-high platform boots.

2. Jesus had a beard and long, flowy hair. Superman is clean-shaven with a slicked-up pompadour with a cute little curlicue in front.

3. Jesus’s father’s name was God. Superman’s dad’s name was Jor-El (not to be confused with jurel, A yellow carangoid fish of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, also called skipjack, yellow mackerel, and sometimes, improperly, horse mackerel).

4. Jesus was a carpenter by profession. Superman is a newspaper reporter.

5. Jesus had twelve disciples and a lot of funky hangers-on who followed him around everywhere. Superman has some superfriends but no disciples, and usually travels solo.

6. Jesus walked on water but did not fly. Superman flies, but does not walk on water.

7. Jesus did not knock up Mary Magdelene (unless you believe Dan Brown), disappear to outer space for five years, never once send a child support check, and then come back and try to get back in there. The Superman of Superman Returns, on the other hand, not only did all of the above, he also stalked Lois Lane (his Magdelene, according to Evangelicals), peeped on her with his X-Ray vision, eavesdropped on her with his superhuman sonar, and then creepily revealed to her that he knew exactly where she lived, and could see and hear everything, in case she thought she could get away from him. Can you say “restraining order”?

8. Jesus might be mistaken for Johnny Damon, but never for a bird or a plane, like Superman always is.

9. Jesus spoke Aramaic. Superman speaks English.

10. Jesus was black.