Friday, January 12, 2007

Children of Men

Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men is one of the best dystopian environments ever realized on film. What's more, the portrayal of that environment so thoroughly seeps into your bones as to make the movie it contains that much better. By the time the movie reaches its climactic passages, it becomes an almost emotionally overwhelming experience, a bleak ode to taking action against unbearable policies and ideas.

In his review of the film, my House Next Door editor and colleague Matt Zoller Seitz suggests that Children of Men is all technical exercise, no statement on the universe conveyed through that technical exercise (I paraphrase, of course; go read his excellent review for a mixed positive take on the film). In his piece, Seitz says friend (and fellow HND colleague) Keith Uhlich said the film's extended use of long, single-shot takes that follow Clive Owen's hero, Theo, from just behind and over-the-shoulder reminded him of a video game. While I think Seitz and Uhlich are viewing this as a bad thing, I think it's part of the key to understanding what Cuaron is up to in the film.

But to get to that, we have to talk a little about video game narrative and how it involves the audience (or doesn't involve them).

The gaming experience is different from almost any other artistic experience in how it forces the audience to identify with the narrative. In most artistic experiences, the audience is held at arm's length -- we may identify with the main character (or read ourselves into the work somehow), but we have to remain spectators. There's no way we can break through and, say, BECOME Elizabeth Bennett or Tony Soprano or the third skeleton from the right in Bosch's Triumph of Death.

But video games flip that paradigm on its head. Obviously, since you're watching a video game and not immersed in it completely, you remain a spectator. But you're also a participant in the action. The sprite that you're observing -- even in something as simple as Pong -- becomes, in a real way, YOU. There's still a level of remove from the experience itself, but you're in charge. The question becomes, what are YOU going to do next? Here comes the ball/enemy/power pellet. What are you gonna do?

Video games are becoming more and more immersive, too (though the leaps and bounds made from Pong to Pac-Man to Super Mario Bros. and so on are slowing, naturally coming to a stopping point dictated by the uncanny valley). The original perspective was from the top, looking down on the characters at a bit of a skewed angle. Gradually, that changed so we were looking at the characters from the side. Then, as 3D became more popular, we were right up next to the characters or even inside their heads. The level of identification became more and more pronounced.

I think the reason Children of Men has been so popular with younger critics (especially ones on the Internet) isn't because of a fully realized world that's tucked away in the edges of the frames (though there is that) but because it uses this video game-styled imagery to advocate for political activism. This is not to say that those outside of the "Nintendo generation" "just don't get it" or anything so diminutive as that; it's just to say that for a generation that has just sort of accepted gaming as a part of its life, this stuff is buried so deep in our subconscious that we know it backwards and forwards.

(Note: Some have commented that the footage of Theo wandering through his world and getting trapped in increasingly harrowing situations seems like embedded journalism from the front in Iraq. I won't argue with that, but I've long thought that THAT footage resembled a video game too.)

One of the complaints of critics of Children of Men is that it tosses in a laundry list of traditional lefty complaints, dropping in broad imagery that extends from whiffs of Guantanamo to fears of illegal immigrants, but never really does anything with those complaints, using them, instead, to tweak the audience, attempt to galvanize it emotionally by using potent political imagery without preparing to comment on it or discuss it in any real way (even within the film's dystopic universe where all women are infertile). But the imagery DOES comment on those issues just by using the gaming aesthetics.

In some ways, the use of the frustratingly limited perspective -- stuck on Theo -- resembles the limited range of concerns Theo has when the film starts -- he's mostly interested in self-preservation and drinking. As the film goes on, Theo's world becomes wider as he tries to protect the first pregnant woman in 18 years from leftist terrorists and a brutally fascist government. The baby, he feels, should be above politicizing. But the camera remains frustratingly closed in on Theo, stuck right over his shoulder. His worldview has broadened; ours hasn't.

And that's the genius of Cuaron's work here. By forcing us into the video game perspective, he rather makes the camera man (and by proxy, us) a character in the movie. We want to see more as the film goes on, not only to protect Theo, but also because we want to know what's going to happen to those hooded prisoners or to the various illegal immigrants -- we want our worst fears confirmed so we can have an emotional reaction like Theo is having. But the film doesn't allow us that emotional reaction. It wants to prompt us, rather, to have a similar sociopolitical reaction to our OWN culture.

All of the visual quotes Cuaron does of our current political scene are there to galvanize us into preventing the dystopia the film warns about. Obviously women aren't going to stop having babies anytime soon, but is it really so far off the mark that a brutal crackdown on illegal immigrants could leave them in refugee camps? Cuaron is saying that we, all of us right-thinking, politically inactive people, are like Theo -- concerned mostly with self-preservation. By using a perspective we're used to from art that draws us into it, he's asking what we're going to do about the things around the edges. The things we try to ignore.

All of this theorizing about narrative devices and video gaming shouldn't prevent you from seeing this movie. It's a fine piece of science fiction, and its action scenes are among the best of the decade. The acting is top notch across the board (particularly from Michael Caine and Owen), and the denouement is as draining as it is hopeful.

But the real reason to see it is to get rid of your own limited range of vision. Look at all this crap out there in the world, Cuaron is saying. Somebody needs to do something about it.

So you. What are you gonna do?

(Coming soon: Letters from Iwo Jima and Pan's Labyrinth. And check out this blog, which may be the oddest thing I've ever seen on the Internet, featuring a collective of commentors who gather together every day to play out the back stories of For Better or for Worse comic strips with bizarre and hilarious results.)


Thursday, January 11, 2007

South Dakota Exclusive!: Two Tracks from the Upcoming Album "Some Loud Thunder" by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

This isn't actually an exclusive at all. I just like saying that. You can listen as well right here.

1) "Satan Said Dance"

The deliberately eerie framing here is key, because it never seems forced even though it really is. Computer chirps, static bassline, xylophone droplets, all gaining momentum with no real destination. Ounsworth and his sparse chimes, still with that Byrne swagger, is an exhaustive testament to the disconnect between words and timbre. "Satan, Satan, Satan, Satan, Satan, Satan, Satan, Satan.." never sounded so delicately earnest, I would wager. "Satan Said Dance" is abrupt, imposing, curious, and addictive. We're off to a good start here.

2) "Underwater You and Me"

This seems to be more in the vein of their debut, if not a bit more dreamy--or, more accurately, boring. It has an obvious 60's Chamber Pop feel to it, but the whole aura is all so very tedious. It gallops along at an even pace with those fluttering guitars and vocal peaks with no actual sharp edges. Though purposely monotonous, it fails to be purposeful. Very much a filler track (I hope.) Sure, it goes down easy, but it is just as forgettable as it lets itself be.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The final leg of a race around the world

We've got company, so posting here may be sporadic.

In the meantime, my resolution is to resume writing about the TV I watch from night to night. It's what you guys want, so it is what you guys shall get.

More when I get a chance.


T.V. on TV: 24 and American Idol

The first four hours of 24's sixth season premiere (Sunday and Monday, 8 to 10 p.m. ET) misplace what makes the series so effective, fixating on stilted policy debates and characters we've never met. Yet two moments at the tail end are so legitimately shocking that they seem to kick the whole season into gear. The first is a plot twist, arrived at via barely-motivated plot machinations but carried out with ruthless efficiency; the second is a moment of absolute terror, played with the requisite gravitas. Together, these incidents encapsulate what the series does best: kinetic melodrama and political exploitation. The two go hand-in-hand.

24 is one of the few series on television that is willing to engage in the things that frighten Americans most. Some of the show’s strongest hours came in its second and third seasons, when, respectively, it detonated a nuclear bomb (in the desert, far from people) and released a virus in a crowded hotel. Even the fourth season’s attack on Air Force One, conveyed almost entirely through the worried faces of the actors watching the plane come down at the Los Angeles Counter Terrorist Unit offices, managed to hit that “Oh shit! Could that happen here?” button.

The show's immediate connection to post-Sept. 11 fears is the source of both its power and its crudeness. A friend describes the show as a “Republican wonderland,” and he’s not far off. The series often wanders close to pure fascism and never seems apologetic for doing so; the subliminal refrain is, “Sure there are badasses like Jack Bauer out there who have to torture and kill indiscriminately, but think of what would happen if there weren't!” The nadir of the show’s views in this regard also came in Season Four, when a liberal human rights lawyer had the nerve to intrude on CTU business (in a thoroughly unrealistic fashion) and demand that the rights of a terrorist suspect be respected. Who did he think he was?

There's more, along with a review of American Idol, here. And leave a comment!


Tuesday, January 09, 2007


Just got done with a column, which, hopefully, will be linked to tomorrow night (a review of 24's sixth season opener, which I'm sure you're all thrilled about), so just some links for now.

Before you ask, we will be covering American Idol here at the SDD this year. Libby will be giving her wrapups of the competition rounds from week to week, but we won't be doing any roundups of the audition rounds because a.) they're mean and b.) we can't influence them anyway.

--This is a year old, but it's hilarious, so that's all that matters. Furthermore, if you are a writer of the fictional novel type persuasion, Miss Snark is the place to be. She's more into potboilers than you might be, but so is most of America. (And yes, I know everyone else knew about this roughly fifty years ago. I'm late. Sorry.)

--I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels this way about Archie Andrews and the gang.

--Glenn Greenwald socks it to the right wing blogosphere on this latest, manufactured non-controversy about the legitimacy of the AP's reporting.

--John Rogers is convinced the network television model as we understand it heard its death knell this week.

--I feel remiss in not having posted this before, but Edward Copeland is running another Oscar survey. This year's topic? Best and worst Best Actress winners. It's a topic that I'm surprised to find I don't know a lot about (I've seen 95% or so of the Best Picture nominees and all of the winners, but many, many, many Best Actress winners aren't from Best Picture nominees), so I'll probably not vote, but you can read the qualifications here. And please vote. Copeland will go. . .INSANE if you don't.


Monday, January 08, 2007

The Arcade Fire, "Intervention"

The slowly churned dramatics of The Arcade Fire still seem to work for the most part. Through out "Intervention" you kind of feel like you're in on some joke that no one really wants to reveal the punch line to, but you enjoy yourself in the only way you can enjoy yourself when someone is trying to make you cry--which is to say, not much. Still, there's something about the bombast of the funeral organ (yeah, they haven't quite moved on yet) and Butler with that apprehensive croon of his that still gels so well with the overall Arcade fire aesthetic that, believe it or not, is rather exclusive to them. The track hits about all of the notes that you'd expect it to hit, and pulls about all of the strings you would expect it to pull. It's predictable and mediocre. However, the impressive element lies in the fact that it still manages to be effective in spite of itself. "Who's gonna reset the bone?" "Don't wanna fight, don't wanna die, just wanna hear you cry." These are examples of useless melodrama that The Arcade Fire can wield to their advantage at any given moment. That is, and has always been, their power: creating emotional resonance through theatrical pomposity. You hate yourself for liking it so, but you can't really ever get it out of your head.


Sunday, January 07, 2007

Trailer curmudgeons, Volume 4: Who doesn't want to win an Oscar?

It's been too long. We know.

This week's edition features films that aren't horribly likely to win Oscars. The movies that the studios release to make a quick buck when you want to go to the movies, get there, and say, "That's all there is?"


Bridge to Terabithia (Feb. 16):

(See it in Quicktime.)

Todd: First things first, why, exactly, did they copy the cover of Where the Red Fern Grows for the poster design? I mean, granted, the lower person is holding the lantern on the poster, but the angles and everything are still the same.

Secondly, this is a fantasy movie? With flying porcupines (though that, albeit, is pretty awesome)? What in blazes?

Although Zooey Deschanel is in this. That lights my fire!

Libby: Less fancy pantsin' around, more tragic death. This is gonna mess some little kids up.

The Hitcher (Jan. 19):


Todd: The original The Hitcher was a pretty entertaining (if slightly too brutal) horror movie, done up in the best mid-80s we-have-no-budget-but-we-must-scream style. This, sensing that the original's spareness was what made it so effective, piles on the excess, up to and including gratuitous Sophia Bush T&A and (apparently) a gunfight with a police helicopter. When the plot summary for the movie prominently features the brand and make of the car, you KNOW you're in good hands.

Libby: If he has an automatic weapon, why is he hitchhiking?

Daddy's Little Girls (Feb. 14)


Todd: So, as it turns out, Stringer Bell didn't die at the end of The Wire, season three. What really happened was he moved to the least threatening "hood" in the history of American film, fathered three children, then lost them to a judicial system that just didn't care. Then, after being told by his ex-wife's new boyfriend "I'm gonna really enjoy raising your little girls" (also, collective shudder?), he vowed to both win back his daughters (from said judicial system that just didn't care) AND the heart of his ultra-hot lawyer. Also, there would be tears and laughter and gospel music and a title that would spawn a million stories.

Libby: Is Gabrielle Union in the army? Why does she only wear khaki in this? I'm so confused! Who is the Houston family?

(The cultural gap between us and the target market for this movie reminds me of the time we saw a special that proclaimed, "Everybody was watching Martin on Thursday nights! Except for the people watching Seinfeld." Right you are!)

Speaking of Martin. . .

Wild Hogs (March 2):


Todd: Round about the early 90s or so, I always wanted to go to the movies, but the closest movie theater was 45 miles away, so it didn't happen that often. When we did get to go, inevitably, my family would be sitting there, watching the trailers, only to see some stupid ensemble comedy starring a bunch of TV stars in an improbable situation involving heavy machinery. Inevitably, my father would laugh long and hard at these trailers, then say, "Oh, we are seeing that!" Inevitably, it would be Down Periscope or some such crap. Somewhere, my mother and he are sitting in a theater, watching this, and he is saying, "Oh, we are SEEING that!" It gets bonus points from him for featuring a.) Tim Allen, b.) motorcycles and c.) cell phones.

I love John C. McGinley. And I see movies for free. I will not be seeing this film.

The Tiger and the Snow (now playing in limited release):


Todd: When Roberto Benigni opens the door at the end of the movie, which will be waiting for him? The tiger? Or the snow? I'm glad the eternally irritating Benigni has, having assuaged our pain over the Holocaust, decided to solve the conflict in Iraq. I'm even more glad that he's chosen to do so with the help of some crazy animal companions, including himself, a camel, a kangaroo, an ostrich and Tom Waits. If you're even thinking of going to see this, I think that I will direct you to a little more Benigni.

Libby: I'm rooting for the tiger.

Epic Movie (Jan. 26)


Todd: Look, Jayma Mays. We've had this talk before. I love you. I want ONLY GOOD THINGS for you. I don't have a lot of money, but I would have gladly paid you whatever they did for this movie just to sit around my apartment and make fun of the TV with Libby and me in that adorable voice of yours. But this? This puts you on my list. You've been warned.

(Also, none of these movies are actually epic? Narnia, maybe, but was THAT crying out for a extensive parody? Where's Lord of the Rings? Gladiator? Master and Commander? Does the average teenager ONLY REMEMBER BACK TO AUGUST 2005? Actually, don't answer that.)

Libby: I don't really have a problem with those movies not being epics, because I'm pretty sure this was supposed to be a comedy, and it doesn't really bother with actual, y'know, humor or any of that.

Zodiac (coming soon, at a non-specific date):


Todd: This has been sitting in the can for a long time, reportedly because the studio thinks director David Fincher should cut an hour or so out of it and he's refusing to because the plot is so dense no one could follow it at a shorter length. I have to say, as a fan of unsolved serial murders and pretty much every damn member of the cast, I'm on board even if they have to release it as an eight-hour miniseries or something. Fincher's last (Panic Room) was needlessly nihilistic (actually, he's ALWAYS needlessly nihilistic), but the Zodiac killer deserves the added gloom. I mean LOOK AT HIM. He's got his glasses on over his bag!

Libby: My brain is having trouble processing quality. We should get back to the crap.

If you insist, my dear!

Primeval (Jan. 12)


Todd: When we first saw this trailer among a bunch of jaded LA hipsters, some guy started laughing at the "Inspired by a True Story" tagline and set us all off. It's not hard to see why. This movie makes the villain out to be the GREATEST SERIAL KILLER OF ALL TIME, capable of killing over 300, tipping boats over, hiding underground, driving a car and sensing a single drop of blood in a river. Well, actually, the greatest serial killer of all time is a crocodile. That's right. A crocodile. Save your $10.

Libby: I mean, it's not like he's a criminal mastermind. He's a crocodile! Also, is there any way Orlando Jones makes it out of this movie alive?

Dinosaurs 3D (March 1):


Todd: So Donald Sutherland and his dinosaur pals have been looking for a project to work on together for a long time now. Finally, they found a guy in a hat who could complete their trio. This trailer is mostly worth watching for the blatant 3D excitement that is made out of the logo at the very end, but, really, who's not going to go see this just to see something called the GIGANTOSAUR?

Libby: Well, the plot summary doesn't lie. It DOES look titanesque. And very realistic. Every paleontologist I've ever known wears that hat. Seriously!

Music and Lyrics (Feb. 14):


Todd: Here's the obligatory romantic comedy released on Valentine's Day that will make a ton of money, even though no one who goes to it will think it's all that good, for the year. I used to like Hugh Grant. I even used to like Drew Barrymore (greatly underrated in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind). But I'm not sure I needed to see them together in a strained premise. Also, the phrase "Written and directed by the writer of Two Weeks Notice" doesn't fill my heart with joy. Dread is more like it.

If I'm going to waste my time going to see a crap-ass romantic comedy, I'm going to see Sydney Bristow and Sheriff Seth Bullock get it on. Not. . .this.

Thanks for reading, folks. We'll be here all week.