Posts tagged ‘symbolism’

Scott Pilgrim vs my brain


I don’t know where to start with this movie. It was intolerably irritating, and also one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen this year. Often at the same time. It has a surly blue-haired girl wielding a giant pixellated sledgehammer, which alone should quality for a special award.

It often feels like Wonderfalls, a brilliant show doomed to fail as it was the best show of the mid-nineties, with the misfortune of airing in 2004. Scott Pilgrim references 8-bit video games and Seinfield (a trope namer for a very relevent concept) in the lives of early-twentysomethings…ie, people who were in diapers when Jerry Seinfeld was anything but a Bee Movie shill and never unironically played a non-3D Mario brother. This film, like Wonderfalls (and, now that I think of it, most of the references in Juno), is written from a Gen-X perspective and awkwardly grafted onto Gen-Y characters.

That’s probably why I enjoyed it so much, and why it doesn’t really hang together.

Kick-Ass is a Millennial movie in a way this isn’t. It hearkens back to the hallowed 80s trope (like goddamn everything in the last seven years) embodied by Anthony Michael Hall then and Michael Cera (…usually) now, in which a bitter, unsocialised loser boy would discover the magical solution of “confidence” that would let his inner awesomeness out, snagging the personality-free Hot Chick, thus instantly attaining maturity forever.

(Go right to hell, Nathanial Brandon. Ayn’s waiting with a carton of unfiltered Camels.)

Scott has already passed through this stage, full of unearned self-confidence and even a bit of a Casanova, why not. He’s also a complete tosser, despised by his friends and exes (everyone except his ultra-fetish fuel underage girlfriend, who is temporarily blinded by inexperience), and needs to properly grow up. The entire point of the film is that both he and his potential love are emotional idiots utterly lacking empathy. Since puberty, they’ve run through significant others like kleenex, promising relationships while actually using them as disposable props for whatever self-image suited them at the moment. Ramona’s a little ahead of the game; she’s been on the receiving end of that treatment and taken it as a mirror, making a vow to change with no clue how to go about that. Scott‘s still a dick, using the very cool Knives Chau only as proof that he’s over his last break-up and cheating on her without a thought for her existence, let along feelings.

Their bad karma catches up with them, metaphorically, as they both do battle with their own and each others’ wounded exes; the battles are wonderfully over-the-top for representing two people just coming to terms with their crush having had a life before them, and that they may be only another interchangeable future ex. Spoiler alert: by the end, they manage to grow up, realising that neither love nor self-esteem are magic unbeatable weapons, and that the best you can do is be honest with themselves and others…and try not to be such a dick. Great stuff.

And yet, the lead characters are both such horrible people! I wanted them to fail! Fail horribly, while everyone else got ponies! Especially Wallace, who took as much joy in Scott’s failures as me!

Also very 90s: the utter lack of parents, not only as characters but as any sort of presence. Video games have given these people more moral guidance than their self-obsessed boomer parents (if I learned anything at all from Reality Bites). The hangover-80s apartment furnishings and club design, setting off the retro-slacker milieu (or possibly Canada today, in the words of Tom Servo). The social circle is one of inertia, relics of high school and blood relationships and held together by schadenfreude, one meant to be left behind like chrysalis (all of whom seem to be encouraging Scott to vamoose for exactly that reason), rather than maintained forever by a complex web of social networking.

The only part that was truly irritating (in a not kinda-on-purpose way, like Scott and Ramona’s repellent immaturity) was the forced happy ending. They’ve both realised they need to get out of their niche and grow up in order to make new, less sociopathic relationship mistakes, but they bring each other along. Their relationship has been successfully argued as an extension of their mutual issues – they barely know each other, and have used each other as identity props. Scott wants to be cool, and he thinks Ramona’s cool. Ramona wants to be nice, and she thinks Scott’s nice. Together, they can only backslide into vapidity trying to keep their happy ending.

It doesn’t even fit the genre. Sure, Mario rescued the Princess, but he doesn’t marry her. At best, she non-metaphorically bakes him a cake.

Lost Season 6: winnowing down the Candidates

The Candidate: KwonsLost Season 6: The Candidate

It’s more than a little sad that the most engaging moment of the last several episodes was the mutual death scene of two characters that have been entirely wasted for two seasons: Jin and Sun Kwon. While entire episodes have been devoted to the eternal romantic connection forged by unconsummated crushes, the only enduring marriage among characters was reduced to a pale reflection of the Desmond and Penny saga, leaving Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim little to do but tag along with B-storylines and spout “Have you seen my spouse?” in alternating episodes. Their long-awaited reunion consisted of a beachside embrace and a hurried conversation in a polar bear cage acknowledging that they’ve produced a beautiful child.

It’s wonderfully human that neither of them mention Ji Yeon, carefully, as they argue whether Jin should leave Sun to die alone in the rapidly filling submarine. The right answer is, of course, that Jin try to escape so that their daughter will potentially have one parent to raise her rather than her terrifying and immoral grandfather. But in this moment, neither wants to be without the other, and Jin’s sacrifice of his own life is flawed self-indulgence.

The two of them are losing their hard-earned future, but the fight for the island’s future is losing much more, particularly a woman who was determined to stand against her father’s selfish machinations to align with those who would control its mysterious and dangerous energy source. But who thinks of this as their linked hands come apart – certainly not the plot, which lost this thread two years ago. Sun was no longer a nascent force of big business but a forlorn wife, needing her husband to be a whole person.

A lot happens in this episode – far too much, really. The Kwons wrap up their attenuated  storyline in minutes, and die. Sayid suddenly redeems himself with a heroic sacrifice. Lapidus dies (possibly), practically off-camera and entirely unnoticed by the other survivors. Jack embraces the way of faith, spelling out the rules of engagement Smokey seems to be held to, and Sawyer refuses to play along with anything he doesn’t understand. Boom. More importantly, Smokey himself is finally confirmed to be evil (at least from the survivors’ point of view), as he is a very resentful babysitter saying anything that might manipulate the Candidates into killing themselves off with some handy C-4. After too many episodes of long green walks, separations, reunions, and seemingly portentous chats that are so often retconned as to be meaningless, this episode was felt rushed and almost slapdash, with promised character revelations whizzing past basely seen.

The entire series is feeling like narrative Calvinball, and the final revelation will be the rules we should have been playing along to the entire time.

Kick-Ass: why?

Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl

a rare un-bloodied moment for Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl

“What works on the page doesn’t always work on the screen, asshole.” – Dave Lizewski

Of the two Kick-Ass texts, the comic is far more faithful to the world it depicts (one seemingly defined by a lack of Alan Moore). The fundamental difference is that the graphic novel blatantly loathes its audience – and is therefore able to more accurately and comically present that group’s foibles and masochistic fantasies – while the film abandons this worldview mid-Act 2 in favor of pandering to the demographic.

Dave Lizewski is an Asperger’s-esque teen who suffers from what he describes as “the perfect combination of loneliness and despair,” which drives him to nick an identity from the comics he adores (obsessively, of course – no fictional fan has any other interests). The film and comic diverge pretty quickly, despite a surface similarity. Both present the sudden but natural death of Dave’s mother as both a vague motivation and something to be resented for lacking a good revenge arc. Neither seems to mourn very much, only noting the effect it’s had on Dave’s dad, who would do well to attend a support group hosted by Charlie Swan. Movie-Dave is a lovable loser who tries to make friends with those even more socially outcast than his geek-clique and picks two men who’ve repeatedly mugged him as his first heroic effort. Comic-Dave seethes with resentment that others don’t see how wonderful he is and picks relatively harmless-looking graffiti taggers as his first target. Unexpectedly (for the genre), both Daves fail spectacularly and spend several months recovering in hospital, and both choose to continue putting their bereaved father through financially ruinous hell rather than give up their delusional identity.

Watchmen was one of the first in-universe texts to confront the fact that anyone who chose the vigilante lifestyle would not only be mentally disturbed but probably only make the world a more dangerous place through their efforts. Kick-Ass attempts to update this concept to the 21st century by using cell phone cameras and Myspace as a direct conduit to Coincidental Broadcasts, upping the childish cynicism by half, and lowering expectations of audience IQ by at least as much. One cover announces its mission statement for the slower readers:

Sickening Violence: Just the Way You Like It!

And yet the comic is less insulting than the film, which promises graphic deconstruction and provides Rambo-esque clichés. Dave gets beaten down, but then gets Real Mad and kills bad guys with a Gatling-enhanced jet pack and a rocket launcher (with no fear of the justice system). He gets the assigned most beautiful girl in school, after shamming as a GBF in order to amass the Nice Guy points that will make her owe him a relationship. He rescues one of the city’s only genuine superheroes and becomes he school “protector.”

All this with nary a synapse spark over committing mass murderer.

In a straight popcorn flick, this might be good enough, given that Kick-Ass was the hero of the movie named after him. But he’s not. He’s a mildly irritating prologue glommed onto Big Daddy and Hit-Girl’s star turn. From the moment the appear on screen or paper, , Kick-Ass becomes part of the audience. This works – on its own level – because the father-daughter team is both more competent and far more interesting than the talentless and asocial imitative fanboy. Watching real superheroes do their thing is his natural level. The film demands a suspension of disbelief and basic humanity appropriate to a later Die Hard sequel, then flings an affectless and brainwashed 11-year-old serial killer at us.

She hacks and slashes her way through a room full of stereotypical thugs – and there is something primal and wonderful about that sight familiar to any fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, just as it’s oddly heartwarming that a father would train his daughter to be tough rather than decorative, how not to freeze when faced with the physical threats a small and pretty girl is likely to encounter as she ventures into the world.

Kick-Ass, Big Daddy and Hit-Girl

Father-daughter bonding, Macready-style

But Buffy spent entire seasons mourning her lost potential of becoming someone who didn’t spend her nights killing other sentient beings. Hit-Girl and, more importantly, her father have no such qualms.

The film takes the easy route again by giving Big Daddy the standard Antihero’s Journey – a good cop framed by the Mob he refused to work for, which somehow leads to his wife’s suicide – and a clear mission of revenge. Comicverse Bid Daddy made this story up and picked a target at random. He was just an accountant, and obsessive comic book fan – an adult Dave Lizewski and obvious sociopath – who ran away from his career and wife into fantasy, kidnapping his daughter and raising her to live out his violent daydreams. He never comes near the bad guys, sending his daughter in alone and watching from a safe distance through the scope of a sniper rifle.

Hit-Girl, the only real superhero (and innocent), is the only comic character who catches a break in the end.  She avenges her father’s completely deserved death and gives up mass murder in favour of a relatively normal (if bully-proof) life with her mother. Actually, Dave’s father, whom the comic never marginalises as much as the film does, also breaks even. His son gives up getting beat up and running up hospital bills, and he even begins to move on from his paralysing grief to begin dating again. Big Daddy and the local Mob branch all die badly, and Dave (thank god) is roundly rejected by the object of his obsession when he confesses his deception and “love.” He tries to comfort himself that he’s changed the world by inspiring a legion of mentally unbalances poseurs, but the last frame goes to one of these deluded souls, the Armenian about to become pavement pizza when his homemade wings fail twenty floors up.

The uncompromising comic is a far superior story…but neither is worth the time it takes to see – or review – them.

dreams whipping by: Coffee and Cigarettes

Coffee and Cigarettes

Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil: Coffee and Cigarettes

Coffee and Cigarettes is a film that is better to have watched than watch, both irritating and enthralling, an impatience I’ve experienced with other Jim Jarmusch projects. It particularly suits this collection of vignettes. though, because it’s a feeling shared by nearly all of the characters. Wanting nothing more than to contemplate the pleasurable minor vices of the title, they are forced instead to interact with other people, to navigate through shared antipathy and neediness.

There’s something painfully nostalgic about these spaces, pre-smoking ban cafes and diners and bars. They offer at their best a luxurious anonymity, somewhere to pause for the price of bottomless coffee with only a pack of cigarettes, a book, or one’s thoughts for company. These places were going extinct when I fell in love with them, uniquely uncool places with an accumulation of calcified locals. It felt like trespassing in another decade, one with real adults, and being tolerated rather than welcomed, a surprisingly fruitful atmosphere for in-depth navel gazing. The drink-up-and-get-out anonymity offered by the chains that replaced these joints (along with their significantly better coffee) just isn’t the same.

Meeting for coffee is defined as undefined, lacking the commitment of a meal or even a drink. Someone’s late, someone’s waiting, someone has someplace better to be, someone really doesn’t. It’s the dentist’s waiting room of sociability, one eye always on the door and wishing the liminal uncomfortableness will mercifully end, wishing for enough time to somehow make it end well. Chess patterns lurk in every vignette, reflecting the patrons’ inability to simply converse or share the quiet, perpetually competing for the upper hand, to be interesting or admired or just the first person to leave the table. Offenses are passed back and forth like sugar jars, but no one has the gumption to fight, cringing at the formica instead. No one comes off well (I found myself really disliking Tom Waits, in fact, who I otherwise admire very much), but they are all too familiar, mapping onto personal memories and tingeing them tragicomic.

It’s a film of fleeting pleasures (dipping into the light nonsense of a conversation shared en masse by everyone with a cup in one hand and a cigarette in the other) and punishing self-awareness amid the impossibility of truly meeting anyone else, blindly focused on how we’re coming across ourselves. We’ve met, we’ve conversed, going through the steps of the dance without ever getting to our feet. Are we friends? Why don’t I enjoy your company, when I want to, when I’ve made the effort to see you? Why can’t we share something as meaninglessly solacing as coffee and cigarettes?

Strange to Meet You: Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni

Strange to Meet You: Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni

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

childhood’s refugees: Goodbye Lenin!

Goodbye Lenin!

A hilariously touching coming-of-age story, Goodbye Lenin! not only places the protagonists at a contemporary transitional threshold of very late teens/early twenties but also defines modern adulthood as taking control of the lie you live.

Germany’s unification is shown as something driven by youth who first fear an empty adulthood perpetually waiting for poor-quality necessities but are then left adrift by a first surge of capitalism that offers no adulthood at all, only menial jobs that fund ephemeral childish entertainments. The focus is on one family who, since the father’s defection into the West (and the arms of a western mistress), have been defined by their mother’s passionate Socialist activism. Ariane, a young mother, is forced to give up studying for an economics degree and experience the business world directly as a fast-food worker. Her little brother finds a job mocking his youthful dreams of following the East German cosmonaut Sigmund Jähn into space, selling satellite tv door to door. The wonder of outer space has been replaced by the capitalist utilitarianism of bringing massive spectator sports events to the dull-eyed masses, each in their separate boxes.

The speed of this change is striking. Their mother, Christiane, lies in a coma for only eight months (caused by the heart attack she suffered, seeing her son arrested for striking against the state she’d devoted her life to), but her children struggle to comprehend, let alone recreate, that former world to protect her fragile health. “I can’t believe we used to wear this shit,” Ariane complains, already missing her gaudy new clothes. All the food brands their mother requests have disappeared from shelves, driving Alex to dumpster-dive for old jars to sterilise and re-use.

Despite being set a generation behind the present, this film captures a very contemporary feeling better than any film set recently: how do young people grow up when the world they’ve been prepared for is wiped away in – seemingly – moments? My own generation, awkwardly perched between X and Y, was pushed to embrace technological education (with all the debt that brings) and specialise in order to be valuable as part of a well-paid, globalised, free-moving world workforce, and when we are at the age of these siblings, that crumbled with the same finality as the Cold War Eastern Bloc.

Despite the frantic improvisation required to keep his mother (possibly) convinced her beloved state is still functional, Alex comes to see the tiny world he’s made as a quiet haven from the chaos of change outside – just as his mother is able to get out of bed and takes a stab at reclaiming her independence by going outside. There she finds a riot of advertising, consumer goods, and most bizarrely telling, a statue of Lenin being airlifted out of the city (presumably to the scrapyard), seeming to wave solemnly to her as it passes. Does she realise now what has happened, is that why she is able later to tell her children that their despised father did not run away with another woman but emigrate, expecting her to follow with his family? Deeply frightened by the police interrogation and the likelihood of losing her children if she applied for a visa, Christiane had created and wholeheartedly embraced a fantasy that made the feared communist state a beloved protector that required her constant support. This gave her a meaningful life as the go-to person in their area for help with every small problem, but deprived her children of even their father’s letters, let alone presence, and she does not know whether she truly made the right choice.

Passing this burden on to her offspring is – along with Ariane and her partner’s new attitude toward being a parents rather than reluctant babysitters – a first indication they’ve become real adults. Christiane is able to die somewhat contented, even accepting someone else’s comforting fantasy, because Alex proves he can carry it. In order to camouflage the markers of change he couldn’t hide, he’d enlisted first his cinema-mad work partner and eventually an entire circle of friends to create fake newscast videos. The first claimed Coca Cola had been discovered to be a socialist invention of the 1950s (hence why the building across the way suddenly sprouted the iconic red banner); the second explained the world Christiane had wandered into as populated by West German refugees, desperate to escape the miserable life suffered under capitalism; and his final pièce de résistance incorporated both his childhood hero (once cosmonaut, now a taxi driver) as the new East German leader and actual footage of the Berlin wall being torn down – as West Germans poured into the city to embrace the potentials of socialism while rejecting the soul-killing goals of mindless consumerism.

Christiane drifts away while fireworks and celebrations break out in the streets below, letting herself believe they celebrate a humanitarian socialist unification (not knowing that newly united Germany’s football team had just won the World Cup). Her children will not achieve their dreams of space travel, but they have synthesized from East and West their own compassionate meanings to guide them through the chaos of change. It left me feeling quite sad, actually, seeing this just after the historic US healthcare bill finally passed, among a flood of reflexive selfishness and fear-mongering. Unlike this family, my own generation seems to have claimed a much darker and short-sighted set of meanings as our guiding star.

Vorlons and cylons and Jacob: Lost Season 6

drowning in symbolism

Lost Season 6: Ab Aeterno

I always prefer questions to answers (while demanding the answers that will ruin my fun).  Lost hasn’t been nearly as much fun since it switched from world-building mode to a self-conscious endgame, too often combining glaringly on-the-nose dialogue with half-hearted jungle-walking scenes to pad out time between those revelations. The multi-layered storytelling (providing us with either an alternative reality to be crushed or an extended happier-ending epilogue to the entire series) is a fascinating device – I keep forgetting how amazing it is to have a major network show with an unexplained non-linear structure! – but the stories it tells are (possibly by necessity) more like bullet-point references to well worn tropes.

Depending on where the season heads, Ab Aeterno was either a refreshing break from that trend or the worst example of this tell-don’t-show headache. Concerning the ethical seduction of Richard Alpert, the episode is (possibly) filtered through the point of view of an uneducated 19th-century Catholic who’s recently lost his beloved wife and been condemned to death for the murder of the doctor who refused to save her – so Heaven, Hell, and the (im)possibility of redemption weight heavily on his mind. Both men offer him a version of salvation: Smokey releasing the starving man from his chains and bringing a vision of his lost wife, Jacob providing the immortal Purgatory that will give him time to redeem himself, or at least delay entering the fires of wife-less Hell.

It’s quite simple here: the Man in Black is sexy, persuasive Evil and the Man in White is remote, dissociated Good. Jacob keeps Smokey locked on the island – the metaphorical cork in the bottle – to protect the world.

Even this simple paradigm is a bit complicated: Jacob is a strange Good, bringing an endless stream of unsuspecting mortals to the island to be slaughtered in a vague effort to make Smokey see good in them (just before he rips them limb from limb, dying in agony and bewildered terror?). Their deaths are their own fault, he reasons, because they had to choose the mysterious right path on their own, without any intervention from him. This seems like the logic of a very old god, angered when individuals don’t chose against their own survival without compelling, or any, reason to do so.

Smokey, on the other hand, is much more basic. After releasing Richardo, he feeds him roasted boar, likely from the same menacing beast that feasted on the dead slaves chained next to him. There’s a clear message about life’s brutality there, an understanding and warning of what humans and gods will or must do when trapped. There may be a greater purpose to uphold or face punishment, but without the Cliff Notes, people have to make decisions based on the little information they’ve got.

Whether I’ll love or loathe this episode will depend on whether the Candidates ultimately take the Babylon 5 route and reject choosing between the powerful beings in favor of writing their own meanings on the blank canvas of the universe, or if it ends like the poor Battlestar Gallactica victims, frantically playing a rigged game in hopes they’d be rewarded with their bare lives. If it is (sigh) the latter, I’m joining Team Smokey, even if it does destroy the world (…more than we already have), solely because he’s got a much better grasp of free will, seeking to break the game rather than simply play it.

half a bottle of wine...thanks?