Posts tagged ‘symbolism’

Silo of traumatic kernels: Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland

Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland"

The Nostalgia Critic’s Bum Review of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland sums up this film (and much of Tim Burton’s oeuvre) so well almost no other review is necessary: Seriously, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ looked great, but GOD was it stupid.

The overarching plot is pretty dire and derivative, even among the  ‘adolescent from the real world stumbles into fantasyland where he becomes Messiah-with-a-sword for the land’s darling anthropomorphic inhabitants’ genre. There are, however, a lot of nice touches underneath that made the film intermittently fascinating. For instance, Alice brings the fearsome bandersnatch over to her side by simply returning the eye taken from it in an earlier battle, one in which they’d been on opposite sides and the bandersnatch had given her a bad injury just beginning to fester. There’s no bargaining, no ‘I’ll return this if you let me get at that magic sword you’re guarding,’ only simple decency toward a dangerous enemy. After a night’s contemplation, the beast comes to the decision to disinfect her wound and hand over the key to the swordcase, and later helps her escape and partners up in battle. It wasn’t Hollywood ‘clever’ of Alice to make that gesture rather than using it as leverage, but it was quietly genuine and made for a real connection between the two.

This film also aces the Bechdel test, offering a variety of female characters who usually interact with each other in arguing about the right way to rescue Underland from the sociopathic Red Queen. Many of them are fairly complicated characters, as well, particularly the nominal white hats (some of them literally in white hats). The White Queen, for instance, has taken a mysterious but seemingly regretted vow to never hurt a living thing and swans about in an exaggerated Disney Princess posture – but she takes great glee in mixing up embiggening and ensmallening potions out of noxious or dead ingredients (which Alice, good sheltered daughter that she is, drinks down without hesitation even after seeking how they’re made). There’s a lingering worry that Underland will not fare much better under this differently-insane ruler, beautiful white dress or no.

Speaking of dress, Burton does a wonderful and almost subtle thing with the progression of Alice’s clothing. It is first a mark of her inability to truly fit into heteronormative standards, when her mother remarks in horror that she’s sneakily refused to wear her corset or stockings, items that make running or sweating difficult and uncomfortable.  She must improvise as she shrinks and grows, her pretty dress always an impractical inconvenience, progressing from a child’s pastel frills to a more punk-style red dress, to a tunic and trousers reminiscent of 1970s’ Maude, and finally into a suit of armor, coming to literally wear the pants in a gesture toward her future as a merchant businesswoman.

Still, that particular ending managed to be both anachronistic and out of date. A young woman choosing to guide her own future via a high-flying career hasn’t been cutting-edge feminism in generations, and no 19th-century lord would have taken on a female apprentice, no matter how much guilt he felt for not supporting her recently deceased father. And no person of any time period would choose a business heir immediately after she’d humiliated his son by publicly refusing his marriage proposal, alienated his bitter and domineering wife, and demonstrated a level head by literally running away from a decision, falling down a hole and knocking herself unconscious, and performing a pee-pee dance as dramatic punctuation to several condescending pronouncements to her various elders.

There’s also the awkward and quickly dumped romantic element with Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter, something that was initially almost sweetly rueful despite its perfunctory arrival: “You’re always either too small or too tall for me” nicely encapsulates the difficult adjustments of a first serious love affair. Once they are the same size, however, I was quickly reminded of Alan Kirby‘s tenants of digimodernist aesthetics in terms of modern ‘epic’ films, the “foregrounding of children’s experiences” and specifically “an elision of the question of reproduction; sexualized love may be permitted, but in sublimated form”. (Digimodernism, 2009, p 127; I’d really hoped to find something more on this in his blog to link to specifically, as I’d love it if he’d expand on this idea more…particularly if he had any ideas where the re-sexualisation of these works in online fandom would fit in to this aesthetic, or as resistance against the aesthetic, or what have you…but there ya go.)

Once Alice and the Hatter are the same size, their connection fizzes into flat lemonade, becoming generic, sexless Wuv. Any remotely realistic complexity is immediately jettisoned, despite it being exactly the messy aspect of adulthood a 19-year-old first defined as a marriage-ready almost-woman should thematically be facing and beginning to control. The somewhat positive adult-becoming of beginning a career instead becomes a retreat from Underland’s potential for adult sexuality (and the mixed blessing of a devoted and creative paramour with the face of Johnny Depp but mercury-warped sanity and gametes) to the safe protection of a substitute father-figure standing between her and the big dangerous world – even after she’s slain a skyscraper-sized monster!

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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.

Running Man, minus the dignity

Gamer is a terrible movie.

It’s also a strangely written movie, one that goes out of its way to insult its assumed target audience, portraying gaming enthusiasts in lazy shorthand: either spoiled ADHD-addled teenagers or grotesquely obese shut-in perverts.  Who would immediately get the reference to a game changing mod (as opposed to a cheat), or the sight gag of soldiers purchasing upgrades from blank-faced merchants mid-battlefield, but those who spend much of their leisure time gaming?

Also, the aesthetic is an odd choice – in the ersatz Sim world, the clothing, leisure and clubbing set-ups are straight out of Spice World, far more a late-90s hedonistic look than the current scenester gestalt:

Sims 1 didn’t even come out until 2000, and the franchise-defining Sims 2 in 2004 even had an H&M expansion pack, completing the neo-80s modern look of the game. The plotless carnage of the avatar-assisted gameplay is also far more 90s-influenced than the current generation of games, which now more often than not include complex storylines and karmic morality choices.  The hysterical Fake-Violence-Makes-Real-Psychopaths controversy that fuels this ‘sploitation movie belongs to another time, a quaint past that includes Marilyn Manson and a careful hedonism peeking out under the childhood boogieman of AIDS.  Video games want to be your Jiminy Cricket now, putting players through the negative consequences of fun, fun wholesale slaughter.

And yet, it often catches the youthful Web 2.0 drift eerily well, particularly in the cheapness of thrills, the naïve perception that flashing some of your amateur skin is something both expected and hugely valuable.  In fact, the 90s aesthetic would have been a pleasantly nostalgic redeeming feature of this shallow and mean-spirited movie if the Millennial generation’s pre-fab jadedness hadn’t been grafted onto it.

Well, there was a bizarre Michael C Hall dance number.  It’s got that going for it.

All in all: it’s always much more fun to play video games than watch someone else play them.  If nothing else, this movie has left me half-tempted to reinstall Sims 2 (and track down Autonomous Causal Romance mod, of course), but I’m halfway through Bioshock…Mr Bubbles, are you there?

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

He, She, and it: Antichrist

Antichrist - Eden

Antichrist is not an enjoyable experience, but it does make a small and permanent place in your brain afterward.  Lars von Trier wrote the script in the middle of a profound depression, and I’d comfortably wager much of the audience response splits between those who’ve gone through depression or intense mourning and those who’ve yet to have the pleasure.

In the interpretation that makes sense to me, much of the film comes down to the struggle between the Lacanian/Zizekian Symbolic and the Real.  The Real in this definition (as least what I’ve grasped of it) is impenetrable, only perceived as chaos.  We experience it as traumatic kernels hiding within the symbolic order – think of a basic life definition, which this film plays with like a feral cat with a dead mouse: Man and Woman.  Individuals with male genitalia are Men, defined by a set of attributes and (more importantly) their lack of another set of attributes that have been assigned to those with female genitalia, who are Women because they lack the male-assigned attributes.

These gendered definitions usually work well enough, as most people don’t encounter many others who don’t make the effort to fit them.  But picture their discomfort and even disgust at meeting a male or female transvestite, or outright horror if they were to learn someone they were close to had been born of the opposite gender or hermaphroditic.  Hello, traumatic kernel.

The general response – the psychologically healthy one, you could argue – to one of these kernels is to either reject them out of hand as something perverse and thus unworthy of attention, or to examine the sense of disquiet and eventually incorporate the disturbing thing into a more complicated definition of life’s essential truths.  Neither approach gets a person closer to the Real, of course, but the Real is made of madness and should be avoided.  That space is left blank on purpose, as the form tells us.

The fact that the laws of physics we experience on Earth seem to be consistent across as much of the universe as we’ve been able to observe convinces me that there’s probably some overarching logic or meaning to the universe (thank you, Carl Sagan).  What that meaning might be, no human has any hope of grasping.  It’s too big, and too impersonal, and frankly as terrifying as it is comforting.  So, for my own sanity, I generally stop at ‘there’s some order out there.’

The film, like nearly all organised religions since a breed of sociopathic prehistoric apes lost some body hair, takes on reproduction and death, two forces in human existence that shred the boundaries between the relatively comfortable Symbolic order and the Real.  It seems that whoever can take those living nightmares and trap them in a logical order will win the big prize, but no one’s claimed it yet.  The Antichrist of the title, a couple’s very young son, escapes from his crib and falls to his death while his parents are distracted with passionate lovemaking, plunging the two of them into intolerable torment.  Sex and Death, Freud’s chocolate and peanut butter, in beautiful slow-motion.

He seeks to escape his grief by focusing on that of his wife.  He’s a medication-hating psychiatrist, the embodiment of order imposed upon the chaos of human experience.  She’s younger and an academic, already half driven mad by her own intense study of witch hunts.  Her grief is mostly insanity, directly staring into the Real, and her guilt doesn’t allow her to contextualise that ugliness back into the Symbolic’s order without some crushing punishment.  She’s probably wise to accept her doctor’s deadening medication, providing the only reprieve possible, but accepts her husband’s judgement that he can fix her with words, instead.

Her state of mind was familiar to me.  When I was a teenager, my only sibling committed suicide.  Already struggling with many of the same issues that drove him to it, I was simultaneously thrust into a terrifying adult world in which anyone can die at any time and suddenly expected to live up to every family expectation in order to make up for his death – my resounding success in every area (and production of grandchildren) would make his suicide, and the inherent rebuke to their parenting, symbolically nullified.

By which I’m saying, people respond to grief with varying levels of insanity, and I believe the way that Death is removed from ordinary life in the modern world, something to be shoved aside and spoken of in hushed, almost ashamed tones, has only made those responses crazier.

He looks for ways to bring her away from the terror of loss and the absence of any mental safety by imposing a Symbolic order, represented by a pyramid of words – at the top will be her true fear, which he will force her to confront, and then, badda bing, she’ll be back in the orderly land with him.  It’s quite likely he’s aware on some level that this is an impossible task, and hopes it’ll be a lifelong quest that keeps him safely in the role of carer, not grieving father.

She confesses her nightmares of their rustic cabin and the woods surrounding it, so he takes her there.  Even as he sees the harshness she justifiably fears (a beautiful deer which turns to reveal a malformed, stillborn fawn still half-trapped inside, a fox consuming itself which informs him that “chaos reigns”), he insists more stridently on his sense of order, seeing her as the chaos she confronts.

In a key moment, she tells him that the acorns constantly raining down on the tin roof make her unbearably sad, because an oak tree only needs one of these in a hundred years to germinate in order to propagate itself.  The abundance of acorns, except for that one in a billion, exist solely to be consumed by other life, by the other ones in a billion that were able to go from potential to actual.  It’s obvious she sees her son, and herself, as those extraneous acorns.  In my experience, the only way to get through this state of mind – which is not inaccurate, just impossible to sustain while retaining sanity – is to stay away from sharp things while looking at the chaos until it loses all meaning, until the inadequate descriptive words allow the Symbolic to mercifully creep up over it.

Her husband, instead, tells her that’s the dumbest thing he’s ever heard, and tries to make her accept nature by walking in the tall grass outside the cabin.  His desperate need to save his shattered wife and unacknowledged bruised ego (after all, as the older and more educated partner, he’s right, she should listen and accept his view) merge into a disastrous effort to force order onto grief, even as he loses his own grip.

Unfortunately, it soon comes out that she had started to lose her sanity several months before their son’s death, in that cabin, confronting the Real more distantly: the hysteria that drove entire communities to torture and murder their own neighbors.  She began with the assertion that it was “gynocide,” the killing of women, the attempt to destroy subversive femininity via the symbolic murder of these real women and leave behind only the cowed and controlled.  In isolation, with only her pre-verbal son and these images for company, her view began to shift – if these men were evil, because humanity is at its dark heart a nasty brutal thing, are not woman, as human beings, equally evil?  In that sense, didn’t those tortured women deserve death, as things equally evil to the men putting them to death?

Thus we get our second example of why it’s a Very Bad Thing to try to contextualise the harsh chaos of the Real into a neat philosophical context.  Logic is just as brutal, in its own way, as nature.

For instance, it might be logical to move from this discussion of the sad but sane-ish chapters to the brutal one Antichrist is infamous for by defining the maiming and murder as the abandonment of the Symbolic order for the immediate physical experience, a closer approximation of the Real.  I’d argue, however, that the torture and murder only go deeper into the Symbolic order, to the depths of the human soul that believe in sacrifice to appease forces beyond their control.

Destroying part, perhaps the best part, of what a person valued was a way to let destructive chaos into the small area of imposed order in the hopes that this would fill some cosmic chaos quota, and leave the rest of the life untouched.  When this impulse provokes more psychopathic impulses, like the torture or ritual murder of a chosen victim, the meaning behind it was more direct, simply an attempt to provoke a reaction from the indifferent beyond by violating the consciously and unconsciously held rules: look what we’ve done, respond to us, even if it’s to fry us all with lightening.  Don’t withhold meaning any longer.

This new level begins as she seems to have turned a corner, begun to reconstruct a sense of life and her place in it that keeps the terror of reality at bay.  He turns spiteful, from lack of control over this breakthrough and from the fear that he’ll now have to face his own grief, and viciously attacks her with words.  This escalates quickly, from forced sexual intercourse (her on him, as many of their sexual encounters have been throughout the grieving process) to torture, to attempted murder and actual murder.  They visit horrors on each other, and hers in particular spiral as each act, so terrible and transgressive it must force a response from the powers that be and end her torment, provokes nothing.  No punishment and thus no meaning falls from the sky or crawls up from the earth.

In the end, all reproductive possibilities brutally destroyed in both, there is only survival.  The final scene, his vision of a crowd of faceless women streaming past him to Eden, has been decried as misogyny, of admittance that she was right, that women are evil and will return to a primal horror that lives in their base souls if men push too close.  Putting aside the question of big-E Evil, I think it’s more interesting that this is his vision, women like his wife who he can not only not save but now not even comprehend simple facial expressions.

He’s a man who’s dedicated his life to penetrating the human psyche, a grief-stricken father who felt confident he could not only understand but fix his wife’s internal workings.  Here, he emerges as a broken person who has walked into and – barely – out of his own and his wife’s hearts of darkness.  The truly crushing realisation: he has gained no understanding of deeper truths, only new grief, and has lost the ordered structure that gave life any meaning at all.

Dollhouse 1.01, Ghost: welcome to the

Eliza Dushku in Dollhouse

Eliza Dushku in Dollhouse

Dollhouse 1.01: Ghost

Every new Joss Whedon show will be evaluated first and foremost on its feminist merits, which may be exactly how Whedon likes it. That’s difficult going, however, as feminism has as many different definitions as there are feminists and misogynists. That single question alone could be debated without end without touching any other quality, with tea break to deride Eliza Dushku’s lack of range.

(Which, by the way, is getting so old it’s drawing a pension. I’ve generally agreed with that assessment, but hearing it repeated with every mention of the show has made me re-evaluate its fairness. Why exactly do we condemn young actors, comparing them with those who didn’t get their breakout roles until their thirties with an additional decade of experience behind them? My judgement on the actress is based on only two roles, neither of which particularly interested me as written or called for a range broader than appearing young, inexperienced, and clinging to bravado – exactly what many young actors would be feeling in their first major roles. Give her a chance to do something interesting with a meatier role.)

My particular bias in judging fictional feminist cred is toward equality across individuality, ie male and female characters have an equal shot at characteristics without them being processed through a ‘manly’ or ‘womanly’ scale. Buffy Summers, for instance, has never passed on my criteria (as much as I and was affected enjoyed the show) because he character is built around the shockhorror! of a young woman being physically strong and tasked with the mission to save the world. The times she revelled in her strength or was proud of ability to save people were paltry compared to the moments she worried her strength made her too unfeminine to be attractive (as opposed to the garden-variety teenage insecurities that made her a good audience identification figure). Angel wasn’t the best for non-stereotypical adult women, but Firefly provided three adult women who were comfortable with their balance of skills and femininity. Even the Companion (Fox’s requested ‘hooker with a heart of gold’) drew confidence in uncivilised surroundings from both her charismatic sex appeal and her skill with a sword.

The glimpse of a traditional geisha in the first episode’s teaser heading out on assignment recalls both Inara, Whedon’s most problematic character so far, and the Japanese figure often misidentified in Western culture as a simple prostitute. The question is the same, but amplified: where is the liberation in prettily presented human trafficking?

To partially address this issue: Whedon is expanding on a concept from William Gibson’s technological dystopia, the “meat puppet.” Two of his characters, Molly Millions in Neuromancer and Rikki in Burning Chrome worked as prostitutes to finance their dream enhancements, a specialised subset in which they would be put into a planned trance while they acted out their clients’ pre-programmed orders. Their designer orgasms would be real, but unfelt; the entire process was to occur without their awareness, but unsettling images inevitably began to slip into their dreams…

The narrative doesn’t follow the women into the brothel. Instead, this employment is discovered by the male protagonists, and the focus in on their shock and confusion that someone they see as an individual had been working as someone they consider a non-person. Both women slip out of the men’s lives without resolving their lovers’ uncertainty, and thus out of the story.

In Dollhouse, the workers are the story, and the men who hire them and sleep with them are the ones who leave the narrative. The focus is on the Actives who have had their own personalities removed (and hopefully stored on several back-up servers) and are implanted with the ordered personalities as needed. Much like the artificial humans in Blade Runner (this show certainly has deep sci-fi roots), the central tragedy is that the most intense human experiences are pushed from ordinary lives to non-people, and the memories and character built are flushed away. The losses of the trafficked victims are the focus, not the reactions of those who use them.

In any case, it’s far too soon to make any judgements. The exact nature of the titular Dollhouse and those who run it is still a mystery. Exposition tells us it is extremely illegal and, if discovered, would put all employees in prison for a very long time, but the FBI agent assigned to the trafficking investigation is several credibility rungs below “Spooky” Mulder. The Dollhouse staff exhibit varying levels of commitment and unease with their jobs. One exposits that those in charge feel they are serving a humanitarian purpose, and he pushes them to briefly live up to this with a little risky pro bono work (which is quite profitable in the end). There’s apparently a large enough pool of super-rich folk aware of and willing to work with an extremely illegal service to at least cover the extensive spa overhead. No Blue Sun branding has been in view thus far.

They do something to the Actives to make them so strong, and it looks like it hurts.

The dolls themselves are possibly volunteers, or else coerced. Central character Echo’s obviously among the coerced, by some mysterious means, which may involve a charismatic professor who inspired her to save the world. Her work often involves sex, which, given her programmed state, can be defined as both prostitution and rape. This week’s first client clearly wanted the full meat puppet experience, ordering a three-day weekend of excitement and adventure complete with growing emotional attachment along with his vanilla-kinky bondage workout.

Yet the bulk of the episode was given over to a different job, in which Echo is implanted with the intellectual gifts and physical weaknesses of a crack negotiator. As this character, there’s no nurturing for the male client, no emotional interactions she isn’t being paid for. She only has to be smart and in control. When she does invest, facing down the demon that drove the originator of her borrowed personality to suicide, she saves the day as that professional, being both brave and very good at her job. Then, like a ghost, she is exorcized, and I missed that character.

I hope to see more grown women like that as the show goes on.

Hopefully Fox doesn’t cancel this one before I can decide if I like it or not.

men in high castles

Frost/Nixon Interview

Frost/Nixon Interview

Frost/Nixon, 2008

“That poor poor man,” I said once to my wife, with tears in my eyes. “Shut up in the darkness, playing the piano in the night to himself, alone and afraid, knowing what’s to come.” For God’s sake, let us forgive him, finally. But what was done to him and all his men—”all the President’s men,” as it’s put—had to be done. But it is over, and he should be let out into the sunlight again; no creature, no person, should be shut up in darkness forever, in fear. It is not humane.

Philip K Dick, How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart in Two Days

Nixon just doesn’t seem so bad any more. Not after the last eight years, and not when he is up against the lightweight avatar of politics’ television-ruled future, trying to convince himself this is a worthy adversary.

Frost/Nixon is an uncomfortable experience. Our “hero” is a placeholder protagonist – the promo materials promise a flawed white knight who stalks, fights, and eventually slays the mighty beast, but it gives us a fluffy chancer who is driven only by a vague entrepreneurial greed and the petulant desire to have his face on telly. The devil himself is a miserable man in poor health who dreads the inactivity of early and ignoble retirement, who would trade anything for a return to the challenge, excitement, and stress of politics.

Is the dichotomy of cultural meta-narrative against the worth of characters purposeful? The infinitely annoying framing device – faux documentary cutscenes, with the actors still playing the roles – continually provide exposition and character motivation that has usually been imparted quite well by the actors (and if it wasn’t, it damn well should’ve been) or blandly trot out the well known myth.

(Seriously, Ron? Either leave it for the audience to learn on wikipedia later or directly stage it in an engaging manner. If all else fails, at least get in the actual people to have the stage, describing their place in history!)

The “interviews” tell us one thing – Nixon ruined America, man! – but the action presents a more complicated story, one that doesn’t exonerate Nixon but does kind of hate Frost-the-cipher and the men who passionately want to pillory the ex-president.

Of the characters presented, Nixon is a much better fit for a hero story: the disgraced and beaten former champion seeking redemption while battling the internal demons that ruined him. He is compelling in a way the other characters aren’t, a self-loathing and charmless intellectual who brutally forced his way into the one field that absolutely requires charm and bulletproof confidence. He’s fixated on his finances – after all, he can hardly count on the high-paying speaking and consulting milk runs an ex-president can usually expect. He envies the happiness and hedonism of his political and cultural enemies desperately, but can’t identify with it. His eyes may linger on the lovely body of Frost’s girl-of-the-moment, but when he tells Frost to marry her, it’s not so he can vicariously keep her nubile charms close but secure his fiscal future: she lives in Monte Carlo, where they pay no income tax.

Most painfully, this Nixon is intensely conscious of his flaws and their permanence. He muses with Frost that perhaps they should have lived each others’ lives: Nixon the brilliant, incisive interviewer and Frost the motivating, emotive politician. This character, though, could never have been happy with a career path that would leave him happy; he needs an outward doomed struggle to mirror his internal self-hatred in order to simply function.

This Nixon defends himself: every other president has done exactly the same things, but (it’s implied) had the savvy to delegate the dirty work. How much of Latin America was covered in Nixon’s fingerprints during his vice-presidency in Eisenhower ‘do-nothing’ era? He not only got caught masterminding the amateurish mess, but couldn’t bring himself to confess or deflect the fallout before this had eclipsed all other political matters in the country, as well as wiping his earlier accomplishments from the nation’s memory.

This is the Nixon that even Philip K Dick, author of VALIS and occasional Nixonian arch-enemy, could feel some compassion for.

His opponent, David Frost, is a man whose main talent in life is knowing what will bring the maximum number of eyes to television sets. He has talk shows in the UK and Australia and once had a third in the US, which he recalls as a fairyland celebrating his specialness. Frost wants to interview Nixon because it will draw a large audience, which would give him the chance to pitch another US show, which would allow him to once again get good tables in exclusive restaurants. He assembles a two-man research team, who are bent on taking down the devil, to provide him with information and strategy – and then ignores them. They pull endless material from obscure archives, pore over the details, and roleplay scenarios, gleefully embodying Nixon’s larger-then-life persona, while Frost chases advertisers and races to the opening of every envelope in LA.

It is difficult to root for this hero. Frost has no great goal, nothing he is burning to prove – when his team asks what he hopes to achieve in the interview, his face is blank with surprise. The thought hadn’t occurred to him; he had Nixon, they’d fill time, and people would watch. The end. He didn’t even review the material his team had painstakingly gathered until the final hours before the last recording session, and even that was only motivated by a shot of Nixon’s poisonous vitality in the form of a midnight drunk dial.

Even this montage is de-motivating for the audience. He’s gambled his career and savings on this one event, and he’s never glanced at the research he commissioned? It’s as if Rocky consisted of a somewhat successful boxer who’d been briefly on top, who spends all the time leading up to final his title fight gorging on KFC and chasing endorsement deals, finally hitting the gym during a break between rounds.

He could have put the slightest bit of effort into this interview, and all 8 hours would have been brilliant.

In many ways, to continue to film’s overt boxing metaphor, the final fight is before the last interview. Nixon, having uneasily accepting the premature praise from his staff at how well he’d managed the interviews, has a few drinks and calls Frost at his hotel room. He may be winning, but it’s against a pitifully overmatched opponent with whom he has no connection. There’s no satisfaction, no real struggle. He convinces himself he’s dealing with a worthy adversary based on a history of succeeding beyond the situations they were born into and because they both want to return to past success – wilfully ignoring the fact that he wants to wield real power again, while Frost just wants the warm glow of the limelight and better party invitations.

At least the call does level the playing field. Frost does his research, allowing Nixon to take a longed-for dive with some dignity.

This last interview session could be seen as the moment Nixon began to move out of the dark. True, he would never hold office again, and he would be forced to fill his time with inane retirement activities. But he did go on to give more interviews, write more books, and was even quietly consulted as an elder politician, allowing him some measure of influence. More importantly, though, it allowed him to take his place in the American pantheon as a timeless personality, like Elvis or his great rival, Kennedy. Years after his death, Nixon (…er, his preserved cranium) became a popular recurring character on Futurama, making a successful grab at the President of Earth slot, a position that suited his Machiavellian schemes.

David Frost reads the Sunday papers on television every week.

Futurama's Earth-President Nixon

Futurama's Earth-President Nixon