Posts tagged ‘military’

the word is now a virus: Pontypool

Pontypool is in one way a simple satire with a single didactic message: English-speaking media is turning citizens into empty-headed and desperately violent zombies, and the only way to save yourself is to excise the language entirely. Metaphorical tumor and healthy flesh must be sacrificed together, and refuge is to be found in the less id-baiting vocabulary of Lacan’s French.

Why Lacan? The seemingly random words that punctured each person with this verbal infection made me think of his famous near-koan, “a letter always arrives at its destination.”

Horror is at its most effective, though, when it has some solid conceptual underpinnings, remains faithful to them, and – most importantly – allows the audience to ignore them completely. Fortunately, as the Spoony One pointed out (getting us interested enough to rent it), Pontypool has another showy concept up its sleeve: it’s practically a radio play, relying on audience imagination for the first two acts.

This leads to the film’s most common criticism, that it cheaps out on showing the horror that a viewer presumably expects to see based on the cover art. Unsurprisingly, I disagree. I love zombie flicks, but they’re samey in their special effects and “shocking” gore notes. They’re almost comforting that way, like a bedtime story you’ve heard read a hundred times…assuming your father was Jeffrey Dahmer. If a character on a crackly phone line describes an undead mob converging on a victim, I’ve got the mental image in place by the fourth word. If that mob is dog-piling on a family’s car while imitating windshield-wiper blades…I’ve got to work a little harder for it, and when the visual finally clicks…hoo boy. There’s no filmed scene that could ever match up.

Another benefit of this limitation is that it puts us inside the media body that in a typical horror flick would conveniently contextualise the mayhem with an explanation of the source, and provide an arrow toward the survivors’ solution if not the solution itself. Here, they desperately try to put together disparate reports into a coherent story to tell (because it has to be a story to be news, not just isolated facts), while debating whether they should be repeating any of it on air. Is it true, is it a prank, is it in fact life-and-death real and could get them fined for accidentally broadcasting the inappropriate reality of madness and death?

The virus, and the film, move on understanding. Currently unknown English words (although ones pertaining to love and hate, most beloved hot-buttons of infotainment, are early favorites) carry a new sort of virus, one that takes hold in the ephemeral moment when someone not just hears the word but understands it. (It’s reasonable to suspect that this will not be one of evolution’s fortunate mutations, as a successful word virus would be more like William S. Burrow’s conception of the written word as a symbiotic virus that made speech possible, not one that invariably led to its host eating all other potential hosts and then exploding.) What then? If Burroughs is right, we can’t halt our internal vocalisation, and that inevitably spills out verbally, possibly carrying the fatal virus and delivering that letter to anyone near you, or listening at home.

The film plays with the fuzzy dividing line between signal and noise. They broadcast a clear signal, but the words on it are difficult. The small town listening thrives on gossip and speculation, and fuelling this will only lead to the station’s censure, right or wrong. Give them only the boring but comprehensible signal, none of the primal and artistic noise. But the new dj, like all in his profession, thrives on attention, negative as much or more than positive. Words are not only his livelihood, they are his joy, leaping straight from his fluidly rhizoid brain to his lips, layering grains of exact truth with rhythm and melodrama. Facts and speculations fling themselves into the de-sanctified studio too quickly to be comprehended, let alone judge. As the dj states in the film’s opening monologue about a lost cat named “Honey”:

Well, Norman Mailer, he had an interesting theory that he used to explain the strange coincidences in the aftermath of the JFK assasination. In the wake of huge events, after them and before them, physical details, they spasm for a moment; they sort of unlock and when they come back into focus they suddenly coincide in a weird way. Street names and birthdates and middle names, all kind of superfluous things appear related to each other.

These details seemed related because the JFK assassination and its aftermath happened live on television. It was a seemingly direct experience, just filtered through media’s commercial imperatives. It became a story, and in a story, everything should connect, but where was the author?

A foreign doctor seemingly at the centre of the disturbances appears right on cue. They want him to explain what’s going on, he wants to explain what’s going on, they give him a microphone, and…they keep getting distracted. The speed of incoming fragments makes them feel urgent, even though they only give information we already know (something contagious is making people behave incomprehensibly), while the doctor is offering solid intel on how the affected act, and how to hide from them. But noise is news; noise gets priority.

The story of the happening has to be plucked from noise. Here’s where the writing and acting are particularly strong, with characters speaking in elliptical, semi-conscious prestidigitation, trying to verbally camouflage their own fears and secrets. Early on, the show’s producer defends specific townspeople who are precariously recovering alcoholics just trying to hold onto their jobs; later, she seeks refuge in the dj’s bottle of Glenfiddich and refers to being continually drunk at the end of her marriage. Ah…so her earlier words were partly about herself, and partly a feint away from “I’m an alcoholic and your jokes about drunks are painful.”

That, or anyone would hit the bottle during a painful divorce or “conversationalist” zombie siege, and it has nothing to do with her comment before. Is Honey the lost cat, and the dj’s broadcast about her, at the epicentre of the outbreak, or is it just a coincidence that the animal’s name is in the “love” circle of seemingly infected words? It appears to line up, strung together by adequate coincidences, to produce meaning, but are you convinced? What’s your criteria for being convinced; do you even know? Meanwhile, doom is close…so they tell you.

My impression: the dj and producer are carriers, Typhoid Marys, able to fight off the disease themselves but also infecting every poor soul who hears them. They are both depressed, both regularly self-medicating, and unable to meaningfully connect with others. They both want to – the dj’s handmade Valentine’s Day cards for his coworkers, the producer’s fatal phone calls to her distant children – but are only hearing others through a thick filter of helpless gloom, distorting their meaning. Their well-meaning attempts to warn listeners – not-so-incidentally skyrocketing their own profile in the process – are spreading the disease to everyone who tunes in from as far away as the UK via a BBC simulcast. Their dissociated thinking can save them, but trying to pass the trick on to others is impossible as even they don’t truly know

Where did the virus come from; did the mysterious doctor create it or just study its rapid development? It’s inconceivable in any case, right? Barack Obama is a Muslim from Kenya who wants to put Grandpa in front of a death panel, and Dick Cheney personally orchestrated September 11 2001 to justify his imperialist war machine. Desecrating a holy text is a Christian act; that potential desecration justifies violent demonstrations against uninvolved parties. How have sections of societies been infected with these illogical ideas?

Frankly, the world would be better off with the conversationalist zombies.

Also: I have no idea what to make of the dadaist stinger after the credits, but if it were a movie I would buy the dvd and every scrap of related merchandise.

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Lost, Actually: Happily Ever After


symbolic Driveshaft/Dexter Stratton ring

Happily Ever After is another episode that offers possible big-picture answers, but filtered though one character’s heavily biased perspective. Here, they break out Desmond, Lost’s go-to guy for bringing the heart to lacklustre mini-arcs. Introduced in the second season premier, Desmond is a modern-day Odysseus, spending much of his adult life attempting to simultaneously return to his first love while running from himself – first into a monastery, then the military, and finally the seven seas. He was the rare Islander who got exactly his desired happy ending after much travail – helped along by a contemporary Penelope not content to simply wait at home when she can fund a worldwide search – so he deserves a little celebratory hyperbole where love is concerned.

Daniel and Charlie, however, don’t. And unlike Jacob and the Man in Black in Ab Aeterno, they don’t have a real reason to alter their conversation to suit their reluctant disciple’s mindset. They’re speaking from the heart…unfortunately. Bizarro-world Charlie is following the example of noted relationship guru Bella Swan, seeking near-death experiences in order to have visions of a lost love. Fellow musician Daniel is moved not to compose a Michelle for the 00s but spontaneously emit advanced quantum mechanics equations in his sleep (which is actually a adorable nerdlinger reaction to love at first sight) after spotting a pre-blind date Charlotte. Their Harlequin descriptions (“I’ve seen something real. I’ve seen the truth.”) resonate with Desmond when he has his own magnetically-induced visions and ultimately lead him to resume his role as the helpful visionary spanner in the works.

nerd love

nerd love

There was an awful lot of arc-y goodness in this episode, particularly the hint that Eloise and Charles Widmore are the architects or maintainers of the flash-sideways universe and quite possibly at odds in that venture, but the bulk of the character interactions gave lip service to the Power of Love. Only one kind of love, mind you – platonic or parental or any other sort of love has no place saving the world. No, long-term relationships are a person’s sole anchor (or Constant) in a real world, and the only motivation to return. (Sorry, Ji Yeon.)

Desmond, with his decade of love, loss, and reunion can be forgiven a few goggle-eyed flights of near-poetry, but can Daniel or Charlie’s mutual-but-unconsummated crushes with women they’ve known less than three months really be called “spectacular, consciousness-altering love”? It’s unfair to expect and adult audience the show has often forced to educate themselves in classical philosophy and modern quantum physics to roll with that.

After all, that insane giddiness only lasts during a few weeks of infatuation in any ultimately functional relationship. Then, the connection is primarily fantasy, the unreasonable expectation that this time, this person will fulfill every desire, and it naturally doesn’t last beyond actually getting to know each other. Love isn’t something like an eternal first shot of heroin, wiping away all problems and wrapping both in superficial bliss, despite a total lack of specific connection (sorry, 99% of fanfiction.net). Good long-term relationships are better defined as things that make most aspects of your life happier and more interesting, and provides at least a distraction from the rest. And that’s absolutely brilliant.

I think, as a character, Desmond certainly gets that. I hope the writers do as well (although the Jack/Kate/Sawyer romantic plot tumor doesn’t give me a lot of hope).

LA's only tour de stade venue

the lone ranger and tonto fistfight on Pandora: Avatar

Avatar is an extremely pretty and well-meaning film that suffers from the same core problem that plagued Drag Me To Hell, another mostly enjoyable 2009 film: both were written in the early/mid-90s, a different cultural epoch for both the horror and fantasy genres.  Drag Me To Hell was somewhat disappointing because the marketing:

Poster: Drag Me To Hell

had me ready for a fierce woman battling the forces of darkness for possession of her soul when the main character was, in fact, maybe 3% fierce at most.  And that was only to battle mud and a gross but inanimate opponent.  The remaining 97%, she was pathetically likable and personality-free, hiring others to fight and die on her behalf.  Around Army of Darkness‘s release, it would have been enough to have a non-Final Girl female protagonist, but in the post-Whedon era, that’s retrograde and (worse) dull.

Avatar immediately suffers from plot and thematic parallels to environmental films of the previous decade (Dances With Wolves, Ferngully: The Last Rainforst, Pocahontas) that didn’t age well, or weren’t fine cinema (or aimed at adults) to begin with.  These films were rooted in a less sophisticated conception of post-imperialist theory, little more than a generational update on cowboys and indians that allowed little white boys to join the bows and arrows brigade (as the leader, as was appropriate to their majority status).  This genre illuminated the inhumane actions of historical oppressors and modern land developers while leaving the oppressed as voiceless and objectified as Rudyard Kipling’s Gunga Din.

The script has been somewhat updated from its original form to become a heavy-handed allegory for the last several years of US and UK military action.  I agree with Miles Antwiler that this is a very valid massage that shouldn’t be dismissed solely out of cynicism, but here the execution is mis-aimed and even childish, refusing to risk losing audience sympathy in any small aspect.  The planet Pandora and the Na’vi living on it are initially presented as pants-crappingly terrifying to a large settlement of hardened former-Marine mercenaries, but the only evidence of their deadly nature is a few ineffective arrows stuck in a futuristic Hummer’s tires.

In this allegory, the Na’vi represent real people in occupied areas who’ve resorted to guerilla tactics, blurring the line between combatants and civilians for the uniformed soldiers charged with pacifying those areas.  Unfortunately, James Cameron is unwilling to bring any level of subtlety to the simplistic morality at play or challenge the audience by having the Na’vi assault even valid military targets on screen, let alone exploiting vulnerable civilian areas with terrifying, showy attacks designed to drive the humans off-planet.  This is an insult to all oppressed people, whose cultures are twisted by the dirty, dehumanizing tactics required to resist an overwhelming force.  That is the unique tragedy of occupation.  The Na’vi suffer massive loss of life and significant habitat destruction, but this could be caused by fires, floods, earthquakes, etc – disasters a mystical culture “living in harmony with nature” would be expected to encounter from time to time.  Occupied nations suffer this destruction along with the wholesale loss or perversion of a cultural identity, whether their citizens capitulate or resist.

Na’vi culture is somehow unstained by many years of humanity’s strip-mining and attempted infiltration, a miraculously preserved playland that welcomes and seduces interlopers who should by all rights be shot on sight and have their bodies left in some horrible state as a message to others.  (Corporal Sully is spared exactly this fate by godly intervention; there’s no mention if the scientists who had previously spent enough time with the tribe to learn their language and make lifelong friendships had a similar divine dispensation.)

That culture is visually stunning and fulfils every wish a daydreaming suburban white boy could have, but dull, far more suited to a children’s direct-to-video cartoon.  There’s no ideological flaws to add depth and personality to the people as a whole, nothing that individuals can rail against and thus create their own character arc separate from that of the outsiders observing them.  One interesting possibility avoided is the question raised by the Na’vi’s uniform physical perfection – where are the weak or disabled natives?  Nature, which the Na’vi are so in tune with, is a great lover of congenital oddities and offers many misadventures that can permanently injure even those who don’t regularly plummet several hundred metres for lols.  Is there a 300-esque Spartan cliff with generations of rejected infant corpses at the foot of it?  Even a much more palatable scenario, such as the obvious fetishism of athletic ability verging on a fascistic requirement, could have made for an interesting knot when Sully’s real-body disability was revealed.

There is one interesting, even nuanced allegory running through the film, illuminating the human (and possibly filmmakers’) neurotic mass psyche.  The avatars referenced in the title – genetically engineered hybrid bodies remotely inhabited by humans – are only the tip of the body-horror iceberg.  The bad military humans also (literally) step into bigger, stronger versions of their ordinary bodies, mechanical exoskeletons that stand, move, and fight just as a meat-body would.

These robotic extensions don’t even provide a faster or more stable method of locomotion or even come with a jet-pack for independent short flights.  They even use the same weapons as human soldiers, large handguns and combat knives.  Their ridiculous, redundant design is highlighted when the hoo-rah Colonel Quaritch conspicuously meets with the newest recruit while bench-pressing a gigantic load, warns the recruit that any physical softness will get a person killed on Pandora, and then immediately hops into a protective exoskeleton that will face the dangerous world for him.

Even the supermodel natives of Pandora aren’t satisfied with their ubermensch physicality, using an organic USB connector to hijack the bodies of larger creatures.  The only individual in the film truly pushing his own body to its physical limits, refusing assistance, is the injured marine who’s lost the use of his legs.  Even he gives up this effort as soon as he’s able to sometimes inhabit a fully functional body.  Eventually he abandons his broken, neglected body entirely, his mystical transfer into the better, non-disabled abomination of corporate science symbolising his rejection of tarnished humanity and birth as a truly whole spirit.  Ideologically, it’s pretty gross, taken on face value.

On a deeper level, though, it could be only species-wide self-disgust and childish rage against the generational slowness of evolution; humans want to be physically more from the bones out and lack the creativity to fully utilise technology for anything but destruction and the extension of what already exists.  This conceptual thread is particularly appealing because the solution it offers is not to retreat intosopophoric Na’vi connectivity, as they suffer the same neurosis.  It’s the sole dissonant note in the final triumphant chorus.

Midichlorian-free: The Men Who Stare At Goats

ewan mcgregor tries to make his skull pop out his eye sockets

As a kid I was a sucker for the patriotic or counterculture fist-pump, the humanised enemy representative who receives a grand rescue by White America Man, who is raging against the machine of Evil White Men Who Won’t Listen To Humanistic Reason And Probably Smirk A Lot, thus signifying that White America in the audience was ok after all – because they’re certainly represented by the good guy, not the suits, right?  Didn’t our soulful proxy just save the doe-eyed enemy, making us realise we’re really One World, Together?

Unfortunately, I grew out of that happy fuzziness into retching at smug self-effacement and wishing we were following the enemy’s story instead, getting into their head.  And I can’t help but wonder that these portrayals aren’t salt in the wounds of real individuals represented, first abused and then symbolically rescued by the dominant culture attempting to wipe out theirs.  So, based solely on a triumphant rescue scene that liberates starving, tortured, orange jumpsuit-clad Iraqi prisoners to the desert with no supplies, I can’t entirely recommend The Men Who Stare At Goats, despite this being what supposedly happened to journalist Jon Ronson in the course of investigating the US military’s experiments with New Age techniques well after the most credulous hippies had abandoned them.

Aside from this problematic thread, The Men Who Stare At Goats is an often fascinating black comedy exploring a (somewhat true) recent iteration of humanity’s continual need for mythic superhumans, those whose mental and physical abilities breech – just slightly – the limits of human possibility.  It’s satisfying to hear of warriors and sages who can, after years of esoteric study, leap great distances or see beyond the range of their eyes.  This superman defines the human by providing both a clear dividing line and the inspiration to achieve full potential by trying to leap beyond it.

The needful human relationship to myths officially goes skew-wiff, though, when people start believing they’ve achieved magic abilities themselves.

Goats brings together people of two modern eras when Americans en masse felt they’d lost the national narrative and were susceptible to magical thinking, the beginnings of the 1980s and 2000s.  Based on the real-life First Earth Battalion and the Stargate Project, which ultimately only contributed to the psychological warfare tactics of the US military, the film follows a man rocked primarily by divorce and obligatorily by the cultural turmoil following the 2001 terrorist attacks who connects with a former Jedi Warrior / test subject who believes he’s been reactivated.  Like many young adults in September’s immediate aftermath, Bob feels his personal problems should be taking a back seat to those in the larger world he’s suddenly aware of.  Unlike most of them, who attended protests and blogged furiously and ultimately realised that horrific world events went on whether they paid attention or not, Bob went to Kuwait and tried to get imbedded with troops in Iraq.

Instead, he meets Lyn – a name he knows from interviewing a local crazy / former First-Earther who claimed to have psychic abilities – and plunges into two decades of flashbacks detailing a Vietnam War vet’s immersion in post-sixties counterculture and his attempt to forge “Jedi Warriors” out of soldiers.  The soldiers themselves are mostly the typical waifs and strays that drift into military life, looking for connection, discipline, and meaning, and one spoon-bending huckster.  It’s an obvious train wreck waiting to happen, with surprising moments of sweetness along the way.  Bob tags along, unsure whether he’s uncovering a tale of classified governmental insanity or true superhumans, but sure either will establish him as a serious journalist and impress his ex-wife.

There’s a core of sadness running through the dark comedy, and the film itself would fail if it was merely a Dr Strangelove-style satire.  Only the awareness that this is based on real madness, that the potential for paranormal warfare was embraced by two presidents – one enamoured with astrology and the Star Wars movies, the other drawing strength from a mystical evangelic tradition – provides the stranger-than-fiction hilarity.  Underneath the self-delusions, however, are lonely people looking for an explanation that forces some sense onto the randomness of life.  Bill Django, severely wounded by a single foe his troop of green soldiers fail to hit, has the revelation that even trained soldiers, new to the battlefield, will avoid killing another human being.  Revering this ‘gentleness,’ he doesn’t leave the army but instead counter-intuitively seeks to bring it into the military paradigm as a combat advantage.  It’s as if being part of that system is imperative to his identity, even as his values move in direct opposition to the business of killing.

The soldiers brought into the program embrace the warmfuzzy self-actualisation exercises, despite the divergence from their military training.  They also prove to be mentally flexible enough to encompass both the military setting that has given them a recognised niche in life and the silly activities that feel good and garner them praise from authority.  There’s a snake in this doomed garden, of course, the huckster mentioned above who might believe in his own advertised powers but is far better at cynically manipulating his superiors using real-world leverage.  After a series of embarrassments, he stages a coup and pushes the old guard out of the program, which he changes to focus on practical methods of undermining and killing the enemy.

Here lies the film’s most simple and genuine journey – the mildly brainwashed Lyn, leaving the military, is ‘cursed’ by his enemy.  He feels he left himself open to that by impulsively using his powers to kill an innocent being (the stared-at goat of the title), thus perverting the life-affirming philosophies on which his new identity of a Jedi Warrior are based.  Years later, dying of exposure in the Iraqi desert, he’s saved by a goat who leads him first to an oasis, then to rescue.  He repays this implied forgiveness by rescuing a flock of military goats destined for painful experimentation (and, in the process, the tortured prisoners mentioned above, but they are a conceptual afterthought), and is able to face the end of his life in peace, with his mentor at his side.

These are men sifting through their lives for a core, heroic narrative, as evidenced by unironically taking on the identity of fictional space samurai.  They attempt to take the occasional flashes of brilliance that make mundane life interesting or just bearable and force them to become something controllable and permanent.  The constant tease of the movie is whether they’ve managed to do so, in any way, or if their belief that they have supernatural powers merely allows them to sometimes pull off impressive stunts attainable by meat and nerves.  Perhaps Lyn and Bill have, taking the long way, attained a sort of wu wei, accepting that where they are is where they are meant to be at that moment, and accomplish what anyone could without the cloud of pointless anxiety fogging their decisions (instead of a massive dose of psychotomimetics, which apparently fixes all ills).

The film ends anticlimactically, with Bob’s exposé of cruel and unusual prisoner torture and military experimentation receiving only the smallest, pettiest media coverage (that prisoners were forced to listen to Barney the Dinosaur).  Inspired by the First Earth principles, however, Bob vows to soldier on and achieves the trick all others had failed, phasing through an office wall.  Or, retreats into a hallucination of doing so while he actually smacks himself unconscious.  (Why, exactly, must they keep attempting this at work, with witnesses?)  Whether they actually succeed is a moot point; only that the potential they might have becomes a fantasy-sustaining myth for the rest.

the men who stare at goats