Posts tagged ‘symbolism’

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 The wonder of outer space has been replaced by the capitalist utilitarianism of bringing massive spectator sports events to the dull-eyed masses, each in their separate boxes.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?

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!

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?