Monday, June 12, 2017

Underrated "King Arthur" Defends Authoritarian Meritocracy


King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is the sort of wholly unremarkable film that I wouldn’t feel behooved at all to review if mainstream critics hadn’t designated it for lower repute than several Amy Schumer movies. Maybe the lot of them were simply reacting out of visceral fury, having been spoiled prematurely by Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and improperly readied for their first taste of what’s sure to be a nauseating summer. Maybe they just don’t like fantasy that has no overt political overtones or purpose other than to pass people’s time for two hours.

The key to enjoying King Arthur is to enter it with no preconceived expectations of receiving a traditional Arthurian yarn, about chivalry or honor or humility or respecting women. It’s been a good seven years since I’ve delved into a book of Arthurian legend, the last of which probably being Tolkien’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, so I won’t pretend to be an expert on the movie’s background, but I can say that Guy Ritchie’s Arthur fits both visually and structurally into the well-worn superhero origin story template. The movie traces the ascension to greatness of an unappreciated, invisible orphan of humble origins (raised in a brothel) who discovers some power vested in him alone (Excalibur) as a chosen one (rightful heir of Uther Pendragon), rejects said ability initially because he’s timid and lacks the will to power, rises to the occasion when his girl is taken captive, and vanquishes an evil overlord (Vortigen, his uncle) who has a personal connection unbeknownst to him. The hero also quips a lot and bears himself into every situation with a certain affected swagger.

In other words, Legend of the Sword is a movie you’ve probably seen dozens of times before in different drapes, but I wouldn’t necessarily hold its unoriginality against it. Yasujiro Ozu recycled the same actors, shot setups, and generational conflicts over and over again throughout his robust filmography, but he’s still counted amongst the greatest filmmakers, so familiarity isn’t damnable in and of itself. What hampers Ritchie’s Arthur from attaining anything more than mediocrity is its scattershot pacing and stylistic dissonance, arising mostly from the need to be a commercially viable, PG-13 movie.

The movie’s hook immediately accorded me many reasons to second-guess how I was spending my Saturday evening. King Arthur fades in to a wide shot of a flaming Sauron eyeball tower, then fades to black right after that with no exposition or characters introduced. I don’t recall if there’s a text card after that, but the next thing that we hear is the bellow of a giant Oliphant, and it quickly becomes apparent how little computer graphics have advanced since Return of the King. An incoherent battle on a bridge ensues, then segues into some lazy, wannabe timely world-building that emphasizes a rift between prejudiced normals in Camelot and downtrodden others, the mages, a beautiful and peaceful people who have been deported back to Africa on account of the unrepresentative extremist Mordred. Certain Arthur purists may raise their noses at the gigantic war elephants in the opening sequence, but within Warner Brothers’ socially conscious revitalizing, they actually make a potent metaphor for homegrown terrorists traveling vast distances from their natural habitat to wreak righteous havoc on the West.

Not that that has anything to do with the rest of King Arthur, which is one of many foibles with the opening besides pretentious slow-motion, lack of context, some truly terrible font, and the pointless casting of Eric Bana. Maybe future entries in the now-doomed franchise would have focused more on Us. Vs. Them sermonizing, but this is more of a personal vengeance tale. Having brushed all this obligatory trailer footage out of the way, Ritchie finally gets to his hero and the film starts to develop into something halfway interesting.

The movie blazes through Arthur’s hardening childhood in a montage full of slam zooms and precisely timed cuts that serves the threefold purpose of waking up audiences, mirroring Arthur’s dexterity in thieving, and showing off Ritchie’s skill at packing much longer scenes into a concise and entertaining form. A lot of early apologists for King Arthur have erroneously complimented its dialogue for being “witty”, but it’s really not. For one thing, none of the vocabulary rises above a 5th-grade reading level, and I may have inwardly groaned when Jude Law shouted at his minion, “Do your f___ing job!” The dialogue is, however, briskly edited, and Richie uses tons of L-cuts to hasten along scenes where not much is happening. The cross-cutting doesn’t always work, mainly in the ending, which mindlessly interweaves two scenes happening in the same room under the same lighting with the same set of actors. On the whole, though, King Arthur poses a workable solution to the exposition problem that’s endemic to a lot of its contemporaries. Some have labeled Richie’s twitchy directing style as formulaic or annoying, but I’d rather watch someone try to entertain me than someone bite the bullet and willingly put out an exposition dump that’s proven antithetical to cinema time and time again.

Special credit must also be given to Daniel Pemberton, who has composed yet another unique and energetic score after gracing The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (a more satisfying movie overall). From what I’ve gathered, mainstream critics don’t pay nearly enough lip service to the role that music plays in motion pictures, which contributes to a cyclical pattern of mainstream action entertainment coasting by on extremely bland and homogeneous soundtracks. Even Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which I otherwise enjoyed, blatantly riffs on a Fury Road theme in the first five minutes, and Fury Road itself wasn’t that original in the music department. So whenever someone like Pemberton breaks through the mold of sameness and mediocrity, I feel both overjoyed and irritated, knowing the accomplishment will mostly go overlooked. If King Arthur’s score invites comparison with anything, it might be with Inception, but this is still a singularly medieval piece of work that tinkers with metallic clinking noises, elephantine rumbles, and even human hyperventilating.

In spite of its unimaginative title, most of King Arthur revolves around a meek and immature outcast who hasn’t yet grown into his social vocation. The crux of Arthur’s development is his struggle to endure a particularly scarring vision of his father’s demise, which is filtered to him through physical contact with Excalibur. The movie wisely doesn’t peddle any hackneyed message that the leader of a nation can come from anywhere; in fact, it kind of says the opposite, making the strongest case for merit-based monarchy since The Lion King.

In this Arthurian world, one is born to power and has a duty to accept that charge. The nameless enchantress who can enlarge and speak to animals (and doesn’t do much else) succinctly spells out the movie’s theme when scolding the squeamish and whiny king for averting his eyes from the past. “I look away. We all look away. But that is the difference between a man and a king.” Color me surprised that so many critics despised this in the current day and age, when many people seem eager to look away from the uglier aspects of history, when politicians recoil from “crude and disgusting Youtube videos”, or the public from live-streamed violence, when the president himself refuses to release a “graphic” picture of a deceased terrorist who murdered thousands of innocent people, or even to call him an Islamic terrorist.

If only Warner Bros. had the kingly mettle not to look away any time someone in the film dies by the sword, which happens a lot. This is a film in which multiple throats are slit off-camera, in which the main antagonist stabs and sacrifices his wives to a hideous tentacle monster for a momentary rush of power, and Ritchie paints this ruthlessness in the most blunted and bloodless of strokes. Despite the epidemic of poorly-reasoned, leftist articles complaining about unrestricted movies having “more gun violence” than restricted movies, the PG-13 label has truly been regressing into kids’ territory ever since Marvel movies became the standard-bearer for the category, to the point that studios no longer dare to depict violence either accurately or impressionistically. I don’t need every movie revolving around war or swordplay to resemble Hacksaw Ridge or 300, but when the company behind Suicide Squad and the Hobbit trilogy repeatedly waters its films down with the aim of maximizing profits, it has the cumulative effect of limiting what future art can show under that rating. This video handily traces the rating’s decline by the example of Gremlins, Titanic, and a bunch of 80’s remakes, but I’d also point to The Lord of the Rings and Peter Jackson’s King Kong, both of which secured a PG-13 while showing decapitated heads being lobbed over a wall and adventurers being devoured by giant leeches.

In King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Arthur fights a misty, nondescript, CG boss and is lectured against turning a blind eye to suffering, and yet the movie does just that, over and over again. There’s a smorgasbord of issues I haven’t even touched on: forced racial diversity in a place where it doesn’t make sense, an unfulfilled romantic subplot, discreetly photographed mermaids, a 15-minute portion in the middle that does basically nothing, and just how terrible some of the action is. I’d tell Warner to get their act together for the sequel, but that probably won’t be necessary after all, since this has currently made back around $134 million of its $175M budget before advertising.

In other news, the CG remake of Beauty and the Beast has become the 8th highest-grossing film of all time in the States (not adjusted for inflation), just ahead of Finding Dory and just behind Rogue One. Thanks, America!

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Hail to the Thief – The Pro-Trump, Alt-Right Protest Album We Needed, But Didn't Deserve


When it first came out back in 2003, Hail to the Thief was declared Radiohead’s most aggressive album to date and summarily pigeonholed as an invective of the Bush administration. One could easily be forgiven for thinking that that’s all it was, just going off of statements from Thom Yorke like:
* This society is still run by a bunch of misguided priests who are willing to sacrifice the people on a high altar in order to maintain the economic status quo. – 2015
* The west is creating an extremely dangerous economic, environmental and humanitarian timebomb. – 2003
and
* I can’t say I love the idea of a banker liking our music, or David Cameron. I can’t believe he’d like The King of Limbs much. – 2013

Hail has since been dismissed by music fan consensus as one of the band’s weakest, most dated works, but this speaks more to their listener’s political ignorance than to the record’s actual content, which is the most prescient poetry they’ve written in light of Donald Trump’s upset victory over the Democrat establishment and over his own, slightly less liberal party.  In spite of its less forward-looking sound, Radiohead’s sixth album speaks more directly to the contemporary grievances of the alt-right and Middle America than do any of their more hallowed, experimental albums, something that’s been entirely overlooked by staunchly leftist music critics. It’s certainly true that Hail to the Thief came out during a time when writing anti-Bush opuses was the fashionable thing for artists who wanted to be taken more seriously (P!nk, Maroon 5, Green Day, and Nine Inch Nails to name a few), but Radiohead is far from an ordinary band, nor have they ever shown themselves to be trend-followers. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say they played an instrumental role in getting Trump elected (it’s safe to say that the majority of Trump voters aren’t Radio-heads), I will assert that pretty much every word Yorke spares to bashing the president of a country that’s not his own could just as well be construed as an endorsement of Donald Trump.


The record kicks off with the absolutely livid 2+2=5, as overt an allusion to 1984 as one could request. Stanley Donwood’s liner artwork includes multiple shout-outs to “doublespeak”, which further reinforces Radiohead’s cautionary state of mind and the dystopian backdrop of the album. Doublespeak, a variation on doublethink as Orwell calls it, is the practice enforced by Big Brother of clinging to one idea while accepting an idea that directly opposes it.
To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself… Even to understand the word "doublethink" involved the use of doublethink. ~ Orwell, 1984

Aside from the literary allusions, it’s also worth noting the cheeky caveat tucked away in a footnote, alerting parents to the presence of words they may find capital-O offensive. The speaker of Hail to the Thief (and Yorke does sing in a much more talky, didactic style throughout) wavers constantly between social revolt and the contradictory or submissive modes of thought foisted on him by political correctness.

But as for the lyrics of the opening song, Yorke asks, “Are you such a dreamer / to put the world to rights?” In conjunction with the next two lines that echo the title, this sets up the conflict of idealism and stagnation that will undergird the whole record. Radiohead aren’t just making passing references to the classics for intellectual brownie points, although there is a hint of irony in the band invoking another avowed socialist whose most famous books are cherished by conservatives. 2+2=5 reads as a bona-fide indictment of low-information voters who have intentionally shuttered themselves away from political affairs, burying their heads in trendy and trite social justice “issues” that don’t make logical sense instead of seeking common ground with the rest of the electorate, which they deem deplorable. Yorke zeroes in on the outrage and incredulity that have dominated the youth’s response to some new government, presumably a Republican one, and comes to the grim conclusion that they fully deserve everything their puerile resistance has incurred.
It’s the devil’s way now
There is no way out
You can scream and you can shout
It is too late now
Because you have not
Been paying attention! (16X)
The night that Donald Trump was elected, I remember the faces of dismay and disbelief, the general air of depression that was sweeping virally over Pepperdine. “Let’s change the channel away from CNN,” one girl said in the electoral college viewing ‘party’ (dry of course, per school regulations). “These numbers aren’t accurate to what Google shows.” But changing the channel did little to allay her or anyone else’s fears. Twitter fits were thrown, tears were proclaimed to be shed, and professors made several cantankerous remarks in the coming days – one of them solemnly pulled out Maya Angelou at the beginning of class, but since it was a Creative Writing course, I was probably alone in thinking that extremely petty. Nearly everyone I spoke to about the election, which shouldn’t have numbered more than 20 people since the majority had already sequestered me to “the wrong side of history”, professed that they had been assured of Hillary Clinton’s victory. With the exception of one red-pilled philosophy student, even my friends who had the boldness to out themselves as Trump voters said they didn’t expect him to win for one second.

“I honestly hadn’t considered this was a real possibility until now,” wrote someone that fateful night, in a manner typical of many in my generation. Like the speaker of Hail to the Thief, millennials had been living in a la la land of their own imagining, a humanist, altruist echo chamber where transgender activism and 3rd Wave Feminism share mutually compatible goals, Islam doesn’t have anything to do with the oppression of homosexuals or women, and requiring a state I.D. to vote constitutes a reprehensible, racist form of voter suppression. Two and two always make up five, it’s easier to buy an “assault rifle” than it is to vote, and cooling winters support, don’t undermine climate change.

Yorke’s voice and Greenwood’s guitar take on a whiny, agitated inflection as the track progresses, until the former is crying out loud, “Go and tell the king that the sky is falling in when it’s not! Maybe not!” Whether the band is addressing Alex Jones listeners or leftists whose cultural arrogance helped elect both Bush and Trump, the message translates the same: when your whole engagement with politics consists of regurgitating unfounded clichés, doomsday prophesying, and demonizing your opponents as Hitler reincarnate, you don’t have much of a right to complain about the consequences of such rhetoric.

There isn’t much to dissect lyrically about the next track, Sit Down Stand Up, which both continues the theme of doublethink and emblematically portrays the Democrat Party’s eternal condescension towards Republicans. We see this condescension especially in regards to identity politics: notice the endless spate of articles every election cycle pointlessly chastising the GOP for a lack of dark people or women or some other special interest group at their conventions. But whenever the GOP does present qualified candidates for office matching those physical characteristics, one can anticipate an equally endless spate of articles maligning said candidates’ intelligence, anonymously accusing them of groping some employee thirty years ago, or describing them as token figures. “Sit down, stand up” is basically the anthem of the mainstream media when it comes to counseling conservatives on how to win. Wealthy businessmen who run for office ought to uncover their tax returns, even though no one really has a right to see them. So the reasoning goes, that if Mitt Romney and Donald Trump have followed the law, then they should have nothing to hide from the public. If, however, it turns out that said businessman wasn’t hiding anything and filed by completely legal means, then he must have cheated the system, and his willingness to exploit the law to keep more of his own fruits proves he can’t be trusted to hold office. Sit down, neo-con cis scum. Stand up.

There’s another popular theory online linking the title of this song to Vice-President Joe Biden’s famous gaffe, whereby he told Senator Chuck Graham, “Stand up, Chuck, let them see you – oh, God love ya, what am I talking about?” Or maybe Radiohead was referring to the one-time Speaker of the Texas House, Gib Lewis, who issued the same exhortation to an entire crowd of people in wheelchairs. But even I think this is a stretch; our media circus interpretation makes much more sense overall, and far be it from the Author to besmirch one of the band’s most evocative compositions with such a ridiculous exegesis.

After these first two tracks, Sail to the Moon may sound relatively neutral to the unversed ear, but politically savvy fans will know better. On a literal level, Yorke is obviously paying lip service to Newt Gingrich’s proposal to colonize the moon, as well as the short rush of liberal enthusiasm for space travel coinciding with liquid being found on Mars and with Ridley Scott’s masterful return to sci-fi, The Matt Damon. Deniers of this reading may object that no one could possibly have anticipated these developments, but any man as intelligent as Yorke could easily have extrapolated Gingrich’s lunar leanings from his impeccable congressional track record.  On a second, metaphorical level, Radiohead is dryly mocking refugee resettlement operations gone haywire, comparing them to a massive, life-giving ark in the midst of perilous rising waters.
Maybe you’ll be president
But know right from wrong
Or in the flood you’ll build an Ark
And sail us to the moon.
Whether the lyrics are poking fun at the colonization dreams of Newt (who actually wants to do it) or of leftists (who won’t stop making movies about people doing it and think they have a monopoly on morality), the object of derision is the same. Career politicians have long been oblivious to the concerns of ordinary Americans, wiling away countless hours on climate negotiations (so sailing to the moon will be a privilege, not a necessity), trying to achieve some abstract goal of 100% coverage, bullying states that don’t believe in same-sex marriage, and solving other crises that they made up.

Next up, the underrated electro-banger Backdrifts signals a turning point in Obama’s presidency, when the criminality of the Democrat Party was finally starting to crystallize for many people. “We’re rotten fruit, we’re damaged goods,” intones Yorke over swirling, gale-like beats. “What the hell, we got nothing more to lose. One gust and we will probably crumble. We’re backdrifters.” There are almost too many parallels to the cursed Clinton campaign in these lyrics to enumerate. Back in 2003, who besides maybe Bruce Springstreen was more qualified than Thom Yorke to synthesize the desperation of the Democrats into music, a desperation that would drive the DNC to rig their primary for a former first lady who was mainly renowned for lying to Americans’ faces, shielding rapists, and deleting thousands of records of unknown significance?

What the hell, they had nothing more to lose indeed. Moreover, Democrat voters and leadership intentionally erred on the safe side of history, nominating someone who fancied herself a “progressive”, not a liberal, while rejecting the marginally more radical Bernie Sanders, paragon of college-age Marxists. Strategists hoped that backdrifting into the mold of Woodrow Wilson would propel them ahead of Trump’s populism; we needn’t review how that turned out. Backdrifts is alternatively titled (Honeymoon is Over), implying a marital component to this malaise on top of the social/political one. Still, the song isn’t over, and Radiohead’s axe keeps on grinding.
All evidence has been buried
All tapes have been erased
But your footprints give you away so
You’re backdrifting.
Later on, Where I End And You Begin is replete with images of separation and insulation, coupled with a frenetic bassline and Yorke’s unhinged delivery. “There’s a gap in between, there’s a gap where we meet,” says the singer, bemoaning the incumbent party’s detachment from the common people. He continues:
I am up in the clouds
I am up in the clouds
And I can’t
And I can’t come down
I can watch but not take part.
This calls to the mind the famous Limbaugh theorem, which postulated that President Obama was never perceived as governing and effectively enjoyed dissociation from any policies he enacted. Likewise, in stark contrast to pop music by OneRepublic or political hip-hop by A Tribe Called Quest, much of Hail to the Thief is written in a somewhat haughty first person singular, maintaining a distanced, even accusatory tone. “I could have told you this would happen,” is the gist of Radiohead’s message. “But there’s nothing I can do about it now.”

A track with a name like We Suck Young Blood begs little explanation; this is the Democrats’ field, not Republicans’. Who could forget Obama’s coolness when it came to iPods, rappers, or Jedi mind melds? Or how skillfully he harnessed compliant movie stars’ Twitters to manipulate and mobilize the youth? Who could forget the day when Clinton said, “I’m trying to figure out how we get them to have Pokemon GO to the polls!” A Punchup at a Wedding is similarly straightforward, invoking the flurry of pseudo-philosophical articles published by toxic landfills like VICE or Salon questioning whether punching a “Nazi” unprovoked can be “ethically” justified. The lyrics themselves ridicule the perpetually offended subset of the Left that derives electoral and cultural power from sowing strife where none should rightly exist. In this case, they have poisoned the most joyous of all social occasions, which our Supreme Court and White House have since debased into just another legal proceeding.
I don’t know why you bother
Nothing’s ever good enough for you
I was there
And it wasn’t like that
You came here
Just to start a fight

You had to piss on our parade
You had to shred our big day
You had to ruin it for all concerned
In a drunken punchup at a wedding.
The passages highlighted here only comprise the more lucid cases of coded messaging by which Radiohead predict (and celebrate) the presidency of Donald Trump. If any fan who accidentally happened upon this analysis remotely agreed with it – an unlikely occurrence, seeing as I know exactly one Republican and zero quasi-Randians who like the band –, we would surely delve more into A Wolf at the Door, arguably the only rap song Radiohead have penned, as well as their best album closer. For now, though, we think it’s sufficient to notice the subtitle: (It Girl. Rag Doll).



In recent news, Thom Yorke has shot down Roger Waters’ arrogant petition for him to cancel shows in Israel, stopping short of calling the long-irrelevant musician a conceited moron, yet soundly denouncing the implication that he as a 48-year-old man can’t judge basic right from wrong. While I’m still on the fence over that implication, Yorke’s response confirms what Hail to the Thief suggested 13 years ago: the environmentally conscious British cuckold act is just a ploy to get good ratings, and Radiohead really are neo-Nazi, Zionist, alt-right trolls.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Alien: Covenant – A Litany of Reasons Why It Is Just the Worst

Alien: Covenant is the most disappointing thing since my father’s son.


In an ideal universe, I would be able to go to sleep and wake up in a world where Ridley Scott had discretion and gentility enough not to go ahead with its script, a rare breed of prequel/sequel that by its very existence manages to lessen the merits of its titanic forebears. As with Prometheus, its title refers to thinly concealed religious themes, and while Covenant certainly sustains that film’s concern with creation and epistemology, there’s not a single covenant made or broken in the movie aside from the one between Scott and all his viewers who thought his films bore some seal of quality. I would call it an unmitigated disaster if not for the involvement of Michael Fassbender, who plays his unkillable android David with malicious glee but can’t save him from the sheer stupidity or audacity of Oscar-nominee John Logan’s writing.

Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb both currently show Covenant sitting pretty around 70% or 7/10, a figure I expect to plummet in time as the true consensus emerges. Or maybe IQ levels dropped sharply while I was sleeping. With that exigency in mind, the following review will consist more of disparate, jumbled reactions to the film, which were probably shared by a great many people, than of a structured, focused case against it, which would take even longer to write and of which it isn’t really deserving.

* It’s stunning how much one can induce about the evolution of the Alien series, the evolution of film in general, and the downfall of Covenant just from its opening titles. In 1979, the logo slowly faded in over a minute and twenty seconds of mysterious music and a mostly empty shot of outer space. In 2017, the title similarly materializes line by line but in a third of the time, serving as a microcosm for all the rushed, frenetic storytelling and shameless fan service to follow (that Jerry Goldsmith theme, do you recognize it?). Big-budget science-fiction in the 21st century has no patience for the long hallway crawls and purposely restrained reveals that typified Scott and Dan O’Bannon’s classic. Everything in Covenant is accelerated to an absurd degree, from the lettering to the cascade of animalistic bloodletting in the second half.

* The movie opens upon the most chilling and ominous of Alien locales, a sunny, white, and glass-walled room on earth that’s decorated with a piano and Michelangelo’s David, solely in order that David can remember (or determine) that he’s David. This prelude clumsily draws attention to the theme of creation and subcreation that Scott will ram through the rest of the picture, and does so with such devices as Pierro Della Francesca’s “The Nativity” and David playing his favorite Wagner piece, “The Entry of the Gods Into Valhalla”. Later on, when David escorts one of the marooned crew through his laboratory, the camera passes over a xenomorph miniature crucified on a stick. “What do you believe in, David?” asks the hapless wayfarer. “Creation,” he answers wistfully, and further on poses a question of his own: “The choice is yours, brother. Serve in heaven, or reign in hell?” The message is anything but clear, though if I had to hazard a guess, it might be: Man creates his own gods, but can’t make them benevolent to him. Those “gods” in turn go looking for their own, arrogantly try to duplicate the process of creation, and eventually turn into the demons of their worshippers.

It goes without saying that Covenant’s philosophical pretensions are about as translucent as the alien’s curved dome, and as deep. Prometheus got a lot of flack for its overbearing philosophizing, right down to its mythological title, but at least that movie had something resembling a thesis and didn’t try to force-feed symbolism to audiences. Alien, by contrast, is a pedantic and blustery retelling of Noah’s Ark that’s all flood, no covenant, listlessly dropping references to Biblical, Catholic, and Norse heritage without a care to anything besides fooling gullible, insecure teenagers that Horror is finally an intellectual genre worth taking seriously.

* Apparently James Franco dies in a fire mere seconds after he’s introduced, something my brain didn’t even take note of until several Youtube comments informed me – so crucial was his role to the plot and heroine Daniels’ development. For anyone who mistakenly wandered into the theater expecting a classy horror film, Franco’s incineration sets the standard of treatment for many other victims whom Scott will gift with increasingly gruesome ends but nary a distinguishing line or trait.

* Doing my best to re-watch Alien in a vacuum as people would have in theaters, one of the most suspenseful things I notice about the original is how it withholds a clear protagonist for the first 40 minutes or so. Screen time and lines are divided pretty evenly between all the crew members, and Ripley only comes out as the most collected character later. From the very start of Covenant, Scott tries to recreate his own table banter scenes, but immediately props up Katherine Waterston as a blatant stand-in for Ripley, this time contending with the cheesy chauvinism of Billy Crudup’s interim captain. Feminism, or girl power at least, has always been lightly woven into the series – especially after James Cameron’s involvement –, to the extent that knowing audiences have been trained to look for male-female antagonism and expect the female to triumph over social adversity. Instead of anticipating that, subverting it, and taking advantage of their brand new cast of characters, Scott and his writers play directly into the formula of Ripley facing off against arrogant men.

As a result, the only tension one can feel throughout the entire movie is whether one will be able to stomach the next gore effect. Boring Ripley-lite is secure. All other considerations secondary. Crew expendable.

* Why are so many of the personnel aboard this monumental, high-risk colonization vessel with 2000 passengers married to each other? Watching it a second time with a keener eye to the minutia, I gleaned that every single one of the crew members is married to someone else aboard the mission, including two gay men, for reasons of modernizing the series, I guess. For what purpose could Weyland Corp. possibly have approved this as the best arrangement? In the event that unforeseen complications might ensue during space travel, as they do in Covenant, wouldn’t a rational company seek to minimize chances of failure by removing personal attachments from the equation altogether, picking workers who don’t stand to be compromised, as they are in Covenant? I seem to recall another space exploration movie which provided that very rationale for the lack of couples on the ship; alas, the name of it eludes me.

The primal dangers of sexuality or physical invasion have been a subtextual element throughout the series, mostly in the first and third films, so maybe the marital unions here are supposed to extend that. Two of the characters are even punished by the alien for having steamy shower sex, but punishing hot young adults for having sex is a cliché in horror generally, so perhaps I’m giving Scott too much credit. Even if all the couples do add up to some symbolic significance, their presence on a multitrillion dollar expedition doesn’t make much practical sense.

* Billy Crudup’s character, referred to once or twice as Chris, happens to be a man of faith, which doesn’t impact the story whatsoever but gives him the excuse to deliver lines like, “I have to go collect my strayed flock.” In one of the few scenes to illuminate anybody’s personality, he complains to his subordinate Daniels that no one in corporate trusts a believer like him to make rational decisions. No more than five minutes later, he suggests diverting the ship from its current course to go investigate another planet because they heard a transmission of a singing voice and “none of the crew want to get back in the pods”. Heaven forbid they complete their journey to the planet they’ve thoroughly mapped out and prepared for if it means getting back in those damned cryogenic pods!

As Prometheus did with Elizabeth Shaw, Covenant begs the question of why Chris’ religiosity even comes up at all, but even more so, since this crew never aspired to find some cosmic deity who engineered them. Is Scott just trying to voice his disdain for religion by assigning all the dumbest choices to the stubborn religious man who won’t take advice from a woman? Yet the villain of the film is a power-hungry eugenicist who doesn’t seem to believe in God and delights in playing out his godlike fantasies, so what is the point of demonizing the token religious character?

* After 30 minutes or so of uninvolving space scenes that retread the beginning of Alien, the ship finally touches down on the shore of a lake. Detractors of Prometheus will no doubt recall one of the most common complaints against it, namely the scientists’ decision to take off their helmets because the atmosphere seems safe. In Covenant, the scientists see fit to one-up this stupidity by not putting their helmets on at all, either for reasons of saving time or as a giant middle finger to those who hated Prometheus.

* One of the most persistent talking points about Alien: Covenant is how beautiful it is. This is grasping at straws, and not even all that honest. Completely barren of life for some reason, the Engineer homeworld doesn’t look that far removed from real-life valleys, unlike LV-426, which artists on Alien and Aliens painstakingly crafted to look like a craggy, inhospitable, storm-battered moon. Covenant was shot in New Zealand for the sake of redeeming tax credits, and while the setting has certainly been modified to some extent, the effort put into differentiating this world seems dwarfed by the effects work on Prometheus. On top of that, the whole movie is gray and dim and dull except for a few torch-lit scenes in the middle.

Some may argue that the similarity to an earth environment is intentional and a non-issue, but the aesthetics of Covenant’s landscapes still don’t lend themselves functionally to a terrifying Alien film. The original Alien trilogy owed as much of its horror to incredible, claustrophobic set design as it did to the aliens. The series followed the same conventional wisdom that applies to any haunted house movie: the home must look interesting before victims can go wandering around in it, and people tend to feel more dread when they don’t know where the monster’s lurking. The Nostromo corridors, underground hive, and lice-ridden correctional facility of Covenant’s predecessors provided no end of nooks and crannies to conceal the xenomorph, which put the audience in the same heightened state of alertness as the characters. I will never forget the first appearance of the creature in Aliens, when it lunges out of a seemingly natural wall formation, or the lengthy evacuation scene in the original that merely consists of Ripley creeping through a bunch of darkened hallways.

The CG aliens also look really bad, especially the white ones with no articulated jaw. Some of the shots look blatantly unfinished; e.g., one clip that Fox is using to promote the movie shows the aliens’ spinal tubes either vanishing through the floor or bending back at a right angle in a couple frames, an ability none of the prior films established. This shot, it happens, is one of the lesser ways the movie disrespects its source material, but more on that later. The point is that the monster which is the movie’s namesake looks worse than it did 38 years ago, and the most memorable scene in Covenant is a possibly homoerotic flute lesson given by Fassbender to Fassbender. The issue doesn’t lie with computers inherently; Prometheus used CGI to beautiful effect, and the facehugger could conceivably benefit from not being a puppet. The issue lies with laziness or apathy.

What image in Covenant can compare to the holographic star map, crash sequence, or birth of the deacon in Prometheus? I suppose it can boast of having the single bloodiest shot in the entire series, for whatever that matters. So when people say, “Ridley Scott has made yet another gorgeous film,” I have to ask not only, “How?” but also, “How are you letting him get away with this?”

* Alien: Covenant considers itself a successor to the movie that started it all, and won’t let anyone forget it through numerous aural and visual references. The soundtrack frequently tributes the series’ roots, the bobbing bird prop gets a cameo, David recycles the “perfect organism” or “magnificent specimen” canard that drove other Weyland-Yutani villains, and Scott recreates several of his scenes from the original – the first facehugger attack, the snaking of the creature’s tail between a girl’s legs, the discovery of Parker and Lambert’s bodies, etc. The allusions get even more offensive when one goes on Youtube and finds the deleted “Prologue”, wherein a character swallows something down the wrong pipe and starts to reenact Alien’s dinner table disaster to, ahem, hilarious results. Covenant shows as much dedication to milking fans’ memories for unearned commendation as Rogue One obscenely did back in December.

The structure of the plot itself is nothing new, but this isn’t ruinous in itself. I recently listened to Red Letter Media’s commentary on the series, in which Mike and Jay shrewdly pointed out that every Alien movie is virtually identical plot-wise but filtered through another director’s unique vision. Even Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection has an eccentric style entirely its own, if not a good style. Covenant’s undoing is that Scott ambivalently mashes together the gunfire and chases of Aliens, the extravagant gore of Alien 3, and the theological babble of Prometheus, but does none of those things as well as the artists who did them first. To watch the fifth film in the series is to see a 79-year-old Ridley Scott mimicking the work of his younger self in wholly superficial ways and failing miserably to capture the tone that set Alien apart.

* Around the 50-minute mark, two of the crew who aren’t wearing their helmets get infected by airborne black goo, and before long we have ourselves a severely dumbed-down slasher in the vein of Prometheus. The camera dwells on the swirling particles as if to imply that they are visible to the naked eye, but apparently they aren’t, and so the guys are made unwilling hosts. This is also the mark where Covenant devolves from merely derivative and confused into downright farcical and obnoxious.

Every character in the movie is a disposable idiot whose actions beg a barrage of unanswerable questions. First up is the lady who quarantines her friend with a gyrating infected man only to open the door later after a vicious monster has burst out of his back, completely nullifying the purpose of sacrificing her friend in the first place. Then there’s the chick who walks off by herself shortly after being attacked by a ruthless monkey creature because she “needs to wash up”. When the captain told her, “Don’t go too far,” I whispered to my friend, “She’s going to go too far,” which she did, but characters did seldom split up in the original Alien, so I’ll give Scott a pass on that part.

What I’m not willing to forgive, and where the movie backslides into pure comedy, is the egg scene. As stated earlier, Captain Crudup has gone looking for his missing sheep and comes across a sight that would strike any reasonable person as somewhat suspicious: the synthetic which helped rescue them a few hours ago appears to be pacifying the now-gaunt albinomorph, the pair of them locked in an intimate staring match. As the captain raises his firearm to shoot the blasted hellspawn which ripped his pal’s head off, David cautions him, “Don’t shoot,” then protests wildly when he does indeed shoot (the only sensible action that he takes). “It trusted me!” he screams, which doesn’t abate the captain’s desire to know what the hell is happening.

David promptly gives him a tour of his experimentation chamber, monologuing about all the imperfect iterations of the alien he’s engineered over the years, apparently from local fauna, in spite of a character in the trailer making a point of there being “no birds, no animals, nothing”. David confesses that all his efforts have failed by the lack of “one key ingredient”, but declines to name what it is. From there, the two descend into a damp and creepy-looking cave, where the strange and patently untrustworthy robot urges Crudup to stick his head into a creepy-looking egg that clearly encases another wiggling life form. “What are they waiting for, David?” asks the captain skeptically. “Mother,” the sinister android smiles. “Take a look. It’s perfectly safe, I assure you.”

With that, the captain wastes no more time and leans over the egg to take a look.

* And yet Alien: Covenant keeps finding new paths to slide downhill, mainly in its treatment of the xenomorph’s development and behavior, which defies and significantly reverses all past precedent. The rest of this section will probably bore or bemuse anyone who isn’t that avid an Alien fan, but for me this constituted one of the movie’s worst transgressions.

Because the Alien movies aren’t real-time documentaries of the species’ life cycle, it’s impossible to say with certainty how long each phase of the alien is supposed to last, but one can make certain assumptions about the timeline based on the films’ editing. In the original Alien, it took around 20 minutes between Kane falling victim to the egg and the eruption of the chestburster. Over this period, we see the team trek back to the Nostromo, attempt to sever the facehugger from Kane (back in space), run down several levels to observe the dripping acid, look for the missing creature, and do some other things, implying the passage of several hours. Other subtle signs suggest it takes a while for the facehugger to plant its larva and for the alien to gestate. When someone tries to loosen its grasp on the host, the alien wraps its tail tighter around Kane’s neck, which seems like an evolutionary trait designed to prevent premature detachment.

Alien: Covenant takes a torch to all of that by turning the alien, presumably in its first and least perfected generation, into a risible sex machine capable of reproducing at hyper-speed. The film presents at least two types of alien generation, one through black goo infection, the other through the traditional method, and somehow makes a mockery of both. Laying aside the writers’ total disregard for how the black goo works in Prometheus, it takes 2-3 minutes of film time for people who contract the goo to start displaying symptoms of deathly illness and 9-10.5 minutes for the albinomorrphs to burst from them. Later, when David lures the captain to the eggs he’s somehow created without a queen, it takes approximately 2 minutes and 30 seconds of film time between the facehugger springing on him and the alien pushing out of his chest. Overall, then, in movie-minutes the monsters of Covenant take anywhere from half to a tenth of the time to materialize as those in Scott’s original, Alien 3, or Resurrection.

This isn’t just an illusion caused by editing, though, as a second facehugger later attacks another human and finishes its work in 14 real-time seconds. Hence we can deduce by Covenant that the facehugger in Alien had either regressed substantially, liked to take its time, or suffered from erectile dysfunction, none of which are options I am willing to entertain. This second victim, however, doesn’t explode until several hours later, after they’ve returned to the main ship. In other words, even if one is able to pardon Covenant for breaking continuity with the other films, one still must overlook how carelessly it shatters continuity with itself.

But the alien’s problems don’t stop at biological technicalities. On a more fundamental level, Scott has fallen out of touch with what made his monster so monstrous. Alien, it’s no mystery, is teeming with sexual overtones, uncomfortable forced perspective, and implications of rape. Being a parasitical hybrid, the xenomorph endures on a different level than other movie monsters because it represents the most savage and predatory things man is capable of committing. The more I rewatch the film’s most controversial scene, the more convinced I get that Veronica Cartwright’s hyperventilating gasps are meant to evoke more than simply death, especially taking into account the shot of her dangling, bare feet. Nor is Ripley undressing meant to be a bit of exploitive pleasure; rather, it’s a projection of the carnal thoughts rushing through the head of the alien, which seems to be spying on her from the darkness.

The various aliens of Covenant have no such sexual urgings, nor do they act upon the self-preserving hive mentality that took over in Aliens (foreshadowed in a deleted cocoon scene by Scott). They’ve been tragically reduced to the intricacy of dumb animals, senselessly biting and stabbing every organic thing in sight to service the morbid demands of general horror moviegoers who think that better and more abundant gore intrinsically leads to better horror stories.

* In retrospect, I may have been too harsh when I called the alien a dumb animal. It’s really a dumb cartoon. Witness the scene that someone apparently approved where the newly-born xenomorph (which looks like a miniature version of the adult one instead of a snake with tiny T-rex arms) raises its limbs and chirps excitedly in imitation of its creator, David, whom it can somehow see well enough to copy despite not having eyes. Awwhhhh. This is easily the cutest thing the franchise has seen since Newt.

* I used to tell myself that while this movie vastly weakened the later stories, it actually strengthened Prometheus by explaining one of David’s more irrational decisions. Then I revisited Prometheus with the screenwriters’ commentary, realized there was already a perfectly rational reason for David to spike Holloway’s drink with black goo, and lent myself yet another reason to hate Alien: Covenant. While the movie does derive some philosophical tension from David’s creative passion (making him more human, he argues) and Walter’s mechanical sense of duty, Covenant woefully perverts its most interesting and enigmatic character into a mad scientist archetype with a god complex.

The film conveniently ignores dialogue that previously characterized David as subservient or unemotional. “I was designed like this you are more comfortable interacting with your own kind,” he tells one of the crew before they disembark from the Prometheus. “If I didn't wear a suit, it would defeat the purpose.” Yet the David of the Covenant script appears to take pleasure in making people uncomfortable, viz. the captain, Walter, and Daniels, whom he tries to force himself upon for no reason.

In Prometheus, several people call attention to the robot’s inability to feel emotions, since he has no soul. Talking about the reason for his creation, Holloway tells David, “I guess it’s good you can’t be disappointed.” In Covenant, David walks away from his deactivated younger “brother” whom he met a couple hours ago and murmurs, “You were so disappointing to me.”

In Prometheus, Vickers pushes the android roughly against the wall and he doesn’t resist, because that would contradict his programming. In Covenant, David eventually turns into a superpowered brute who throws people around and has a kung fu punching match with his likeness. All of this asinine, inconsistent stuff occurs so that the film can have a standout antagonist in the absence of intimidating monsters, or perhaps it’s just another gratuitous callback to evil Ian Holm in Alien. Either way, making David a genocidal and oversexed robot gone wild undercuts the mystery and intellect that made him such a powerful force in the first film. Why does David need to physically assault one of his enemies if he can manipulate someone into drinking poison or walking straight into an alien? One of my literature teachers in high-school once criticized a movie I liked for relying so much on violence to advance the plot, essentially describing violence as a tool of lazy storytellers.  If anything good has come of my experience with Alien: Covenant, I think I finally understand what Dr. McMenomy was saying.

* To briefly throw in a good word about this movie, the score is fantastic per usual. Jed Kurzel reincorporates a lot of music from Alien and Prometheus, now stirringly performed on the flute, while providing menacing new themes that rely heavily on otherworldly electronics. It kind of sounds like Johann Johansson’s Sicario score mixed with industrial ambience from the first Alien, and it flows surprisingly well as an album for a soundtrack.


* Now that that’s out of the way, Alien: Covenant closes out on possibly the worst climax I’ve ever seen; making matters worse, it has two of them. What really appalls me about it is how easily a simple rewrite or couple altered shots could have fixed the whole thing.

After the shlock-tacular robot fistfight, Walter rushes away from the broken corpse of David to board the ship that Danny McBride is piloting, except that Walter isn’t Walter any more. Scott edits this scene to hide the victor of the duel, cutting right after David gets his hand on a knife. The intention, I suppose, is to keep the audience guessing which android really prevailed, but in so doing, it basically communicates to anyone who’s ever seen a movie before that the opposite of what the characters think is true. A real twist in this situation would be that Walter is actually Walter, and David didn’t miraculously manage to change his clothes, cut off his hand, and trim his hair (without a mirror) in less than a minute of film time.

The only purpose that withholding this information could possibly serve is to create a shock “twist ending”, one which every person I’ve talked to about Covenant predicted the moment the camera cut away. How much more suspenseful could Scott have made the finale if he hadn’t taken his audience for cinematic illiterates and just shown David killing Walter? Doesn’t it stand to reason that a viewer who knows Daniels is effectively facing two threats at once would feel more concern than a viewer who only knows about the alien and is scratching his head over the motives of the robot? Moreover, what sense does it make for David to aid the two survivors when his goal is to exterminate the human race and replace it with something he deems superior? Scott has already established that David enjoys godly sway over the aliens, and he’s also a non-organic being, so the xenomorph shouldn’t pose a threat to him. Basically the only reason he does anything heroic in the final act is to throw Katherine Waterston off his scent, so he can then lean over her in the cryo pod and sneer, “Don’t let the bed bugs bite. I’ll tuck in the children.” I can’t emphasize enough how John Logan takes a formerly cryptic, fascinating character and reforms him into a total cornball.

On a secondary level, including two xenomorphs in the climactic showdown adds nothing to the story and just symbolizes reversion to more-is-better sequel ideology. Considering the manifold other parallels this movie forces in to the original, culminating in a woman calling the alien a son of a bitch and blowing it out an airlock, the natural course for Scott would be to terrorize the crew with one alien, which seems to be defeated yet miraculously resurfaces for one last battle. This is the formula set by Alien, Aliens, and Prometheus, a formula that works because it makes the hero’s triumph seem greater and the alien more formidable. So why doesn’t Covenant follow this formula, if it’s already making such an effort to ape its source material? On one hand, it would have done away with the 14-second impregnation detailed earlier, on another it would have lessened the absurdity of the alien growing to full size in a couple minutes without the computers detecting it. I know the xenomorphs are essentially giant space bugs with abbreviated lifespans, but Covenant abuses suspension of disbelief the most of any film in the franchise.

Moreover, why do alarms have to sound everywhere in the ship except for the shower, or go off at all? I don’t recall the MUTHER intelligence in Alien or Aliens (both occurring later chronologically) detecting unknown passengers and making a lot of noise to alert the crew, but purely on a storytelling level, how much more intense could the ending have been if Daniels just happened upon the bloodied corpses and had to adapt on the fly, instead of being rudely awoken, finding the guy with his chest exploded, running around with a gun for a while, happening upon two more dead people, and finally finding the alien? In a $97 million film, one would think the easiest and least expensive thing to get right would be the script.

But who am I objecting to nothing in this movie making sense? They don’t let me write these scripts. If Scott had asked Logan to revise the thing until it felt more true to Alien, then he couldn’t have shot a sleazy shower scene or CG alien banging its head against a window. Neither of those things would have made it into the trailer, and Covenant might have crashed with something like $36 mil in its opening weekend.

Thank God that didn’t happen.

A collage of bloggers with better S.E.O. who think Covenant > Prometheus

To tell the truth, I probably wouldn’t have come this far if reactions to Covenant had been more tempered. It features some conventionally attractive people and enough intriguing platitudes that I’d normally just let it go. Yet the majority of critics and audiences genuinely seem to believe the film improves upon Prometheus, because it has an alien that murders people and it constantly echoes things they recognize. I don’t want to live in a society that thinks Alien: Covenant is better written, filmed, or conceived than Prometheus. It would be like living in a society that considers Gillian Flynn more important to its literary tradition than Flannery O’Connor, or a society where high-schoolers study Kendrick Lamar and Drake over Beethoven, or a society that spends more time watching Netflix original TV shows than it spends watching political affairs.

In the most intelligent dialogue of the film, Walter reprimands David for misidentifying the poet of “Ozymandias”. “When one note is off,” he warns, “it eventually destroys the whole symphony.” Would that Scott had heeded his character’s wisdom. Watching Alien: Covenant is alike to beholding a magnificent symphony gradually and excruciatingly destroying itself, again and again, into eternity, demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that sometimes to create, one must first destroy.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Over-analyzing Arrested Development in Saul Bellow's Seize the Day

Seize the Day by Saul Bellow is one of the worst books I have read to completion, so the essay that follows should not be taken as a recommendation so much as a deconstructive cheat sheet for anyone who is considering or being coerced to read it.  With any luck, this will be the last so-called close-reading I have to do in, like, ever.


The protagonist of Seize the Day by Saul Bellow is 44 years old, married, and a father, but continuously exhibits tendencies that suggest he’s trapped in some kind of arrested development. Themes of adolescence, adulthood, and masculinity to a lesser extent all pervade Seize the Day, and Bellow traces most of Wilhelm’s psychological malaise back to a lack of sympathy from his father, Dr. Adler. Instead of giving in to pity, Adler’s apathetic attitude towards his beleaguered son compounds with Wilhelm’s problems, engendering a cycle of passive behavior and unfulfilled dependency on paternal affirmation. The further Wilhelm drifts from his father and his father’s approval, the harder he finds it to attain fulfillment as a grown man, and the more entrenched he gets in a prodigal son inertia of his own making. The final scene depicts the culmination of all Wilhelm’s varied reversions to childhood, rendering Seize the Day an essentially deterministic novel.

Although Wilhelm thinks, “Dad never was a pal to my when I was young,” the son’s first major act of straying from his detached father is abandoning his education to chase after a highly dubious career in acting. Wilhelm bears disdain towards academic pursuits, personified by his cousin Artie, an intelligent professor whom his mother casually brings up to avail him against leaving for Los Angeles. Artie is competent in multiple languages, and Wilhelm dislikes him for that very fact, thinking him “boring” or, worse, cynical.
How could anyone bear to know so many languages… Did Artie love his languages, and live for them, or was he also, in his heart, cynical? So many people nowadays were. No one seemed satisfied, and Wilhelm was especially horrified by the cynicism of successful people.

As a child might, Wilhelm strains to see the value of learning in and of itself, and looks down on the elitism he observes in people like Artie or Adler, whom he deems a “vain man”, albeit a respected and medically knowledgeable one. Moreover, he condenses the nearly two years of college he did experience into a set of memories with no educational aspect, and prides himself on eventually taking a different course.
Sometimes he told people, “I was too mature for college. I was a big boy, you see. Well, I thought, when do you start to become a man?” After he had driven a painted flivver and had worn a yellow slicker with slogans on it, and played illegal poker, and gone out on Coke dates, he had had college.

Here, and also later in the book when Margaret admits that college “seemed practical”, Bellow gives a window into Wilhelm’s prevailing, reactionary mindset, and leaves little room to wonder why he finds Tamkin’s carpe diem speech so enticing. Because of his overwhelming inadequacies relative to his father’s accomplishments, Wilhelm reassures himself by diminishing these accomplishments as empty or somehow injurious to him. In the paragraph describing Wilhelm’s fear of Artie’s cynicism, Bellow goes on to write, “Whenever at the end of the day he was unnaturally fatigued he attributed it to cynicism. Too much of the world’s business done.” Wilhelm’s default recourse in his extended adolescence tends to lie in distancing himself as much as possible from the antiquated success models of his parents, hence his “bid for liberty” in choosing the actor name Tommy. As the only person in his family not to complete higher education, he retains a scornful distaste for those who do adhere to that tradition, calling them cynical or selfish, and he mentally justifies his less prudent alternative as more independent or adult. “But Wilhelm had been eager for life to start. College was merely another delay.”

Nonetheless, for one reason or another, Wilhelm chooses to lie about his educational history, perhaps for fear of being rebuked, perhaps because he knows subconsciously he was wrong and doesn’t want to admit it. “Wilhelm respected the truth, but he could lie and one of the things he lied often about was his education, [saying] he was an alumnus of Penn State.” In fact, the son lies constantly, even to himself sometimes, and when he isn’t lying, he happens to be drawn to habitual liars, viz. Tamkin and Venice. First he lies about his prospects of actually making it in Hollywood, massively inflating the credibility of Venice’s offer when “the scout had never made him a definite offer of a studio connection”. Once his trust in Venice starts to disintegrate, he lies to his parents yet again, saying the scout fully believes in his acting talents. Then he lies to his father about the pills he’s taking and the woman he has been seeing in Roxbury.

On top of these dishonesties, the son willfully indulges Tamkin’s clearly fabricated claims simply because the man makes him feel better than his own father. When Adler ridicules one of the “psychological poet’s” conceptual inventions, Wilhelm excuses it as “just his kind of fantasy”, and later he ponders to himself, “I must be a real jerk to sit and listen to such impossible stories. I guess I am a sucker for people who talk about the deeper things of life, even the way he does.”

Wilhelm’s predilection to telling and tolerating lies is closely related to his childlike ego, which is always excusing itself from responsibility and avoiding commitment. As has already been mentioned, “he used to pretend that it [Hollywood] had all been the doing of a certain talent scout,” even though the idea to drop out of college originated with him. In response to his dad reprimanding him over his messy room – another youthful quality –, he places the room’s condition squarely on his wife, or lack thereof. Wilhelm’s conviction of his own helplessness manifests most clearly in his thoughts after meeting with his father. “And not only is death on his mind but through money he forces me to think about it, too. It gives him power over me. He forces me that way, he himself, and then he’s sore.” Wilhelm cannot help but see himself as a victim of others’ cruelty: his company’s, his wife’s, and his father’s. His future in his view is so laid out before him that he is basically enslaved. “The Emancipation Proclamation was only for colored people,” he mopes. “A husband like me is a slave, with an iron collar.”

In puerile fashion, he refuses to take responsibility whenever he is in the wrong, up until the very end, when he tells his pale father, “I should have listened to you,” but not before checking to see if the masseur is paying attention to them. Even after this humble admission, though, he backpedals and hides behind “bad luck”, the perennial cause of his woes. Just so, he reels at the thought of groveling before his former employees and begging them to take him back. “I can’t get on my knees to them,” he exclaims. “Rojax take me back? I’d have to crawl back.” His character is completely passive and determined by his social climate, borne along by forces he dares not oppose. This fact elucidates the meaning of one of the final scenes, in which he walks along Broadway with a great crowd, “in every face the refinement of one particular motive or essence – I labor, I spend, I strive…” (111) In such a crowd, the motiveless Wilhelm must stand out.

The protagonist also balks at opportunities to promote himself, letting his father do that work for him. Multiple times Adler is described as a salesman, boasting of his son and daughter to business associates, but Wilhelm considers this inappropriate. “Now God alone can tell me why I have to lay my whole life bare to this blasted herring here. I’m sure nobody else does it.” Repelled by the success of his father, he generally shies from asserting himself in any threatening capacity or even from contradicting other people. Like a typical millennial critic who’s afraid of drawing harsh words from others, he peppers his speech with weasel phrases that downplay his own observations as subjective and undermine the purpose of argument altogether. Bellow writes, “When he was forced to differ he would declare, ‘Well, I’m not sure. I don’t really see it that way. I’m of two minds about it.’ He would never willingly hurt any man’s feelings.” He won’t venture even to criticize his sister Catherine’s art, waving away any misgivings he has with it as a matter of personal taste.


Driving home his pessimistic determinism, Wilhelm also has a habit of hugely overstating and dramatizing the plights in which he finds himself, bringing everything back to his literal suffocation and murder. “It would kill me to go back to school now,” he tells Venice at one point. Later in the book, he actually starts choking himself in front of his father to demonstrate his wife’s animosity towards him, and on the phone with her he yet again brings up the topic of her choking him. “You must realize you’re killing me,” he says. “You can’t be as blind as all that. Thou shalt not kill! Don’t you remember that?” When Tamkin elaborately compares money-making to the art of killing, Wilhelm listens, ill at ease, possibly because he connects it to his own life. All these references to or mock enactments of violence serve two purposes: first to emphasize the childish mentality of Wilhelm, second to show how powerless he feels to change his fortunes.

Bellow insinuates the son’s immaturity, and the immaturity of modern society broadly, in many other ways both subtle and patently obvious.  As an example of the former, there is Wilhelm’s heavy reliance on Coca Cola, which Mr. Perls disapprovingly notices him drinking for breakfast.  As for the latter, the point that Wilhelm’s job at Rojax Manufacturing involved selling “kiddie’s furniture” can hardly be dismissed as mere coincidence.  Extended adolescence applies to women too in the world of Seize the Day: inside the cafeteria, Wilhelm observes a crowd of elderly ladies who are heavily made-up and acting in a manner he thinks unbecoming of their age.  “Were there no longer any respectable old ladies who knitted and cooked and looked after their grandchildren?”  At the same time, the sight of the ostentatious women stirs in him a memory of how his grandmother treated him as a small child, implying that he is still mired to some extent in the stage of youth.  In his argument with Margaret on the phone, the wife expresses dedication to her traditional role as mother, saying, “Growing boys need parental authority and a home,” but even this exchange harkens back to the theme of Wilhelm’s arrested development.  Margaret says she has cannot afford to get a job if it means having a couple kids running loose, to which Wilhelm replies, “They’re not babies.  Tommy is fourteen.  Pauline is going to be ten.”  In this aspect, Seize the Day has become even more pertinent with age.  50 years ago, a man might have been shamed and frowned upon for suckling off his parents after college, or even after high school; now, under Obamacare, young Americans can continue to reap some of childhood’s perks until they turn 26.

Wilhelm’s objection to Margaret’s babying of his kids reflects his ongoing struggle to reconcile his true age with his emotional need for validation from his father. At least twice in the book he crosses himself for acting like a little kid with respect to Adler, and characters often reinforce that impression in his mind, Adler scolding him for speaking “nonsense and kid’s talk” and Tamkin arguing with him “dryly, as though he were dealing with a child”. Bellow seems to make the case that Wilhelm’s firmest claim upon adulthood is his ability to regulate his emotional vulnerability in public, viz. by suppressing the urge to cry. In his protracted conversation with Wilhelm, he feels tears welling up at one point but does not let them out. Later, in the brokerage office, he fights the temptation even harder.
His need to cry, like someone in a crowd, pushed and jostled and abused him from behind, and Wilhelm did not dare turn. He said to himself, I will not cry in front of these people. I’ll be damned if I’ll break down in front of them like a kid, even though I never expect to see them again. No! No! And yet his unshed tears rose and rose and he looked like a man about to drown.

By the protagonist’s correlation of crying with his own latent childishness, the last scene of Seize of the Day signifies more than just the “consummation of his heart’s ultimate need”. It also shows that Wilhelm has given up on attaining the one thing, his father’s approval, that would make him feel like a mature man, implying also that he’s given up trying to determine his own fate.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Pepperdine Chaplain Sara Barton Writes Poem For Freedom Wall Denouncing the Freedom Wall

Article written by George Stefano Pallas.  School spirit and lingering optimism practiced by the author are his alone and do not necessarily reflect nor should be construed as those of the Author.

On January 25, three print-outs of a poem attributed to Pepperdine University Chaplain Sara Barton were pinned to the Freedom Wall outside the school’s main cafeteria. The poem was written in some kind of free verse and appears to have been addressed to another user of the wall, although the lack of specific details in the text leaves no definite pointers to the context of the poem. In it, Barton voiced disapproval with the way that certain individuals exercised their freedom on the wall, using words and images she deems hurtful, and asserted that freedom of this kind is a form of voluntary slavery or entrapment.


Although it was initially instituted as an open bulletin board for expressing their opinions, most Pepperdine students utilize the so-called “Freedom Wall” as another advertising place for fraternity recruitment, club events, off-campus apartments, and other illicit materials that can be displayed in no shortage of other locations. The Freedom Wall typically goes many weeks without receiving new student-authored content, and when someone does pin something of an unpopular or conservative bent to the Wall, it’s often torn down within a matter of hours.

In the short time preceding the poem, two articles were posted to the Freedom Wall that may have inspired Barton’s response. One was a meme posted on January 20, the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, which depicted Pepperdine’s since-banished Christopher Columbus statue wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “White Lives Matter Too”.

A crude and disgusting meme posted to Pepperdine's Freedom Wall

The other potentially offending target of Barton’s criticism was a set of posters created by the conservative group Turning Point USA that used quotes from TV figures to promote free-market capitalism and freedom of speech. Although the Files’ staff arrived at the scene too late to examine the materials in question, the Pepperdine Graphic newspaper reported afterwards that someone had scrawled obscenities, presumably of the hateful variety, over the posters and removed them within a day of their being posted on January 12.

On the same day that the posters were removed, a sign was taped to the upper-left corner of the Freedom Wall, presumably aimed to address the Turning Points situation. The sign read, “The Freedom Wall is a venue for individual members of the community to express themselves. The wall is governed by the principle that when we speak freely in our participatory democracy, we must do so responsibly. Therefore, personal attacks, profanity or indecency of any kind is prohibited. When posting an item, you are encouraged to sign and date it.”

A positive note of encouragement left on the Pepperdine Friendly Wall

The warning is taken almost verbatim from the Student Activities handbook, excepting the part about the types of speech prohibited, but the print-out doesn’t identify whether a student representative, a staff member, or some other actor posted it.

According to Turning Points USA’s website, the mission of the group is “to identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote the principles of freedom, free markets, and limited government”.  None of the posters distributed on the Freedom Wall expressed animosity towards any group based on non-political attributes.

With this in mind, it remains uncertain to what exactly the Pepperdine chaplain was referring when she wrote, “So to the persons who disgraced / our community freedom wall / with words and images designed / to wound sisters and brothers who are not you, / heed not my words or views, / but that of natural law.” To date Barton has made no other public remarks about the systemic suppression of conservative articles on the Freedom Wall.

Barton’s poem advances an interpretation of freedom as a zero-sum economy in which claiming more freedom for oneself necessarily involves seizing freedom from some other person, unless one “exhale[es] compassion for another”. At the same time, Barton argues that the amount of freedom one wields in self-interest directly relates to how socially isolated and enslaved one is.

Freedom, in a sense, only threatens to put us all back in chains, a word Barton herself employs to describe the plight of the unnamed person who utilized the Wall. “This is neither sentiment nor drivel,” she says, preemptively implying that someone would find the poetry to be sentimental and also drivel.

Barton began working as the university chaplain in July of 2014. Before rising to her stewardship over the spiritual development and faith of Pepperdine’s youth, she was a vocal proponent of women in church ministry, authoring a book on the subject. Barton’s tweets reflect her ongoing interest in this and other Feminist causes.








In addition to endorsing the much-reported “Women’s March”, the Black Lives Matter movement, egalitarian T-shirts, and husbands submitting to their wives, Barton has been especially active on the social media platform since the election of President Donald Trump. The chaplain’s preferred method of Resistance has entailed issuing a series of #mypresident pound signs in support of President Barack Obama, defending migrant rights on the basis of Jesus being a refugee of King Herod, and retweeting a profile posing as a character invented by J.K. Rowling, who subsequently clarified that the oldest, wisest character in the popular children’s series was a closeted homosexual.












Over the last year, Pepperdine swapped DirecTV service for Rokus in all living areas, destroyed a parking lot and stripped out 84 beds, got rid of a Bank of America ATM in the main plaza, shipped the aforementioned Columbus statue to Europe, and removed both a frozen yogurt machine and mural artwork from the main cafeteria so as to free up more white space on the wall. Pepperdine also fired resident directors Michael Harri and Brittney Patag for setting off a fire alarm in an unoccupied building that the school had already planned to demolish before anyone would enter it again.  None of the student advisors under the authority of the directors were alerted to the firing until well after the decision had been made.

The base tuition rate set by Pepperdine for the last academic year was $49,770 and will rise by 3.96% to $51,740 for 2017-2018. Dean of Seaver College Michael Feltner said, “In determining the tuition rate, Pepperdine considers numerous factors including the external economic environment, the tuition rates at peer institutions, and the needs of the university.”

With all that said, as the needs of the university continue to rise by a paltry 4% each year, here is a joyous and fast-paced video documenting a year in the life at Pepperdine that the Author unconsciously edited to LCD Soundsystem’s resounding and beautiful Someone Great, a seemingly cheery, dance-inducing single which, much like Pepperdine, is actually really sad when examined and pondered more deeply.

Monday, March 27, 2017

100-Something Movies: The First Update (M-Z)

Continued from the first part of the update.

May –

I got a little carried away working my night shift and accidentally wrote about a page of commentary on May in coincidental enthusiasm and boredom.  Suffice it to say that May is a delightfully oddball yet also reflective horror film about isolation, female sexual desire, and obsession with aesthetics.  It’s probably not for everybody, but those for whom it is are certain to love it.

Please don’t go look up the trailer.

Memories of Murder –

Memories of Murder is unlike any movie you’ve ever seen, unless you have seen Mother.  This may be the best entry point to Korean New Wave cinema, intermittently hilarious, suspenseful, and dizzying in its presentation.

Moana –

I will admit that Moana is far from a perfect movie.  In fact, I could probably fill a page or two with things I would change in it – some irritating lines of dialogue, a lame song in the middle act, the way her hair never stays wet very long.  It’s also the first Disney movie in a really long time I can envision myself watching over and over again without getting bored, like Shrek or How To Train Your Dragon (both of which it resembles a lot), as well as the first Disney movie in a while that didn’t have some severely dating social agenda to grind and just contented itself with telling a good story about two people learning to respect each other.  I’m still in shock at just how great it was.  I. Am. Moanaaaaa.

Mother –

Mother is unlike any movie you’ve ever seen, unless you have seen Memories of Murder.  Of the two, this one packs more of an emotional punch and may linger longer for that reason.  Bong Joon-ho cleverly builds the end into the opening credits, but one can’t understand the significance of it until the story has run its breathtaking course.

Perfect Blue –

I will admit up front that I don’t admire Perfect Blue as much as some other movies on the list; in fact, one might view its inclusion as a kind of affirmative-action for alternative animations.  But here we have to ask if affirmative-action is even inherently bad when it comes to cinema.  If it’s good enough for the Oscars (and we all know the Oscars have never, ever honored crappy movies), then it’s good enough for us. Regardless of politics, Perfect Blue is still an entrancing thriller by all measures, whisked along by jarring transitions, freakish animated imagery, desperate violence, and a perspective that keeps getting more and more unmoored from reality as we know it.  If you’ve already seen Black Swan, you should feel obligated to watch the crazier, more visionary original that inspired it.  I should also note that this isn’t a movie to watch in public or with judgmental people, unless you don’t mind people thinking you’re weird.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer –

Perfume can aptly be described as the anti-Les Miserables, employing much of the same apparel and décor but designed to polarize, repel, and offend.  The sensualist movie manages to be at once massive in scope and incredibly tactile, and like Les Mis it’s highly musical, though it aims to be more eerie and haunting than anything else.  For a great (and funny) video further extolling Perfume, albeit by sampling scenes taken from very late in the film, check out Twin Perfect’s video on it here.

Punch-Drunk Love –

Does choosing the Adam Sandler-starring Punch-Drunk Love as my only essential P.T. Anderson flick over The Master or Magnolia or any of his more serious movies make me a simpleton?  Maybe it does, but The Master and Magnolia only really succeeded in making me bored or angry, and there are lots of other movies that induce me to anger or boredom.  On the contrary, there aren’t a lot of movies that made me feel quite the same as this, thanks to Jon Brion’s incomparable score, the unhinged soundscape in general, and Sandler’s surprisingly convincing performance as a toilet plunger salesman with lots of unspecified issues.  Punch-Drunk Love thrives upon the kind of cringeworthy situations and crippling anxiety that permeate a lot of the Youtube videos I consume, but does so in a commendably entertaining way.  I would urge anybody who doesn’t appreciate its brilliance to watch the first thirty minutes or so of the movie Krisha, which aspires to do pretty much the same thing and ends up being the most excruciating thing I’ve ever heard.

Robocop –

There’s a sizeable group of people out there who seem to think that Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop is a sage and wickedly satirical attack on capitalism, police militarization, or something else, but if we’re being honest, nobody watches Robocop to this day for any of those reasons.  They watch it because it’s fun to see Robocop stop criminals and say one-liners like, “Come quietly or there will be trouble.”  Because Murphy is a character one can easily root for, and the bad guys get their just deserts in ridiculously violent ways.  Because the world depicted still looks believable and there’s a certain undying charm in the stop-motion ED-209 effects.  I’m also inclined to agree with Red Letter Media that Robocop 2 is underrated, if lacking the heft of the original, and I will never watch Robocop 3.

Rosemary’s Baby –

Possibly the best horror movie ever made in its time still holds up remarkably well today.

Secret Sunshine –

Criterion has a fine essay on the spiritual themes of Secret Sunshine that probably does a better job summarizing its merits than I have time to do.  One thing I got out of it as a mere Christian raised in evangelical circles that the Criterion writer probably didn’t is the importance of meeting people where they’re at in their suffering instead of ministering to unreceptive ears.  While told from a secular point of view, the movie doesn’t indiscriminately mock religion or those who seek peace in God, only those most fervent and presumptive proselytizers who think they know exactly why someone thinks the way they do (“Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t real…”) and dish up overused evangelical catchphrases to people who are mired in grief.  I believe it’s an intentional irony that the most Christ-like, loving character in the film is a nonbeliever who starts going to church just for the sake of cozying up to the woman he likes.

A Separation –

The guy who made this movie is a political stuntman and sellout to his countrymen in Iran, but he does make damn fine movies every now and then.  A Separation is totally humorless and depressing but extremely well acted with culturally universal themes of justice, subjectivity of memory, and spirit vs. the letter of the law.

A Serious Man –

A Serious Man may not be the funniest or most technically impressive film in the Coen Brothers’ filmography, but it might just be my favorite, no thanks to Sy Ableman.  Some people have viewed it (and praised it) as a bleak and atheistic movie denying the existence of any grander meaning behind humanity’s suffering, but I think the message of the movie is a whole lot simpler and on the nose: no one is entitled to an explanation from God – after all, He’s God –, and the order behind the universe is like the mathematics behind Schrodinger’s Cat, a perplexing mystery we all have to accept on faith.  Longer review here.

Seven –

Was there a mainstream movie in the 90s that exuded a more filthy atmosphere and sense of foreboding than Se7en?  “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.”

Sleeper –

Woody Allen envisions an intellectually degraded, hedonistic future wherein people don’t even have the patience for sexual flings unless it’s a group activity, getting into mechanical cylinders that simulate intercourse quickly and efficiently.  Of all the collaborations between the two actors, Diane Keaton was most attractive in Sleeper, which seems like an odd thing to mention regarding a 44-year-old movie, but so it goes.  It’s a mix of Brave New World, slapstick comedy, and general zaniness that should be recognized more as the weird departure from his formula that Allen actually pulled off to great success.

The Social Network –

The Social Network is an exhilarating, cynical tour guide through all of Generation Y’s newfound ways of flexing their human depravity, corruption, dishonesty, arrogance, gluttony, lust, and betrayal.  It’s basically the story of mankind crunched into a raging 2-hour firestorm of filmic, Fincherian drama, and while some of the figures depicted therein have denounced the story’s theatrics, it undoubtedly stands with the most captivating film stories of our time.  It’s also a compelling psychoanalysis of one of the most powerful corporate machines alive today, why young people latched onto it in droves (SPOILER: It was all about Sex), and how its founder shrewdly nurtured it into a powerhouse of explicit and surreptitious advertising. Fake, but accurate.  On top of that it’s simply brilliant filmmaking, as you can see in this underrated video essay on how Fincher shoots phone conversations.

Splice –

A lot of people seem to hate this movie because the creature (cruelly named Dren by its creators) performs rather graphic coitus with one of the humans in a later stage of her development, and this is understandable.  Of all the sins that should repel us in enlightened society, making love to non-existent, genetically engineered bipeds definitely ranks near the top, certainly on par with or worse than abortion, terrorism, corruption, coercion, and bald-faced lying.  Within the context of Splice, I found this part one of the more imaginative and warranted love scenes I’ve come across, yet that’s not mainly why I enjoyed Vincenzo Natali’s film.  Even if for nothing else, Splice deserves a spot on this list just for better utilizing computer animation than pretty much any mainstream sci-fi to date; much like Ex Machina, it blends makeup, the actor’s physicality, and strategic CG elements to create a more believable and empathetic character than could be achieved solely through one of those tools.  Also clever is the way the priorities and ethics of the two scientists’ unfold over time, the one who seemed more caring and maternal at first being exposed as the more clinical and selfish person all along.  Unfortunately, the ending confrontation takes a needlessly icky and exploitative turn, relegating Splice to the unenviable Abyss Society of movies I love until the director just gave up and scrambled to finish the damn thing.

Spring –

The DVD cover of Spring sells it as a monster movie disguised as a love story.  This is false advertising. It’s actually a love story disguised as a monster movie, one that uses wacky rules of immortality, rebirth, and oxytocin-generation to ponder about living out life to the fullest.  The cinematography is pretty but indie-movie cheap, which adds to its charm for me, and the dialogue feels natural as in the “Before” movies without being utterly boring.  The first 18 minutes are foul and unrepresentative of the movie and you should skip them.

The Squid and the Whale –

Perhaps the most unsentimental and uncomfortably riotous movie ever to deal with divorce, The Squid and the Whale finds self-reflective comedy in the miseries of wretched and despicable people.  Each family member exhibits uniquely loathsome tendencies and bears legitimate grudges against the rest, but Noah Baumbach remarkably prevents any of them from emerging as moral champion, a tact he kind of abandoned in While We’re Young, where Ben Stiller clearly espouses the director’s own beliefs and Adam Driver evolves into an antagonist.  Squid being based in some part on his own childhood, I imagine Baumbach purposely projected more ignoble aspects of himself, his colleagues, and his kin onto all the characters, resulting in an extraordinarily balanced, if not conclusive or typically satisfying script.  I also must give props to any film that references Risky Business, Pink Floyd, and other 80s artifacts as vigorously as this one.  A snobbish and elitist movie that isn’t above ridiculing intellectual snobbery, The Squid and the Whale shrewdly depicts humans’ arrogant propensity to blame everything that’s going wrong in their own lives on individuals other than themselves.

Starship Troopers –

Starship Troopers is a movie about bloodthirsty, indoctrinated young skulls full of mush killing giant bugs to gain their citizenship that makes one want to think twice about going to war, which is quite an achievement for what it is.  I watched this with several college students, one of whom said that it was “basically the cheesiest sci-fi movie ever made” and another of whom had difficulty accepting it was a “real movie, like released in theaters”.  Contrary to their disdain, Starship Troopers is played almost completely straight except for some scattered propaganda videos, and its seamless CGI still tramples a lot of movies made today.

Straw Dogs –

Straw Dogs blew me away, and in the interest of letting it blow you away too, I refrain from giving away anything about the plot except to say I wouldn’t recommend it to the sensitive or to most women.  Dustin Hoffman is incredibly layered, the editing perfect but for a couple fast sequences at the end, and almost no prop or character is set up that isn’t put to some very memorable use.  You also shouldn’t watch Straw Dogs alone, since it begs to be discussed afterwards.

Submarine –

This is the coming-of-age teen movie for those who can’t stand teen movies.  Submarine frequently breaks from conventions but not in a way that narcissistically calls attention to its breaking from conventions, which is itself a convention (see The Spectacular Now or Me and Earl and the Dying Girl). For example, the token school bully of the film is not an obstacle to the protagonist pursuing his love interest because the bully character actually is the love interest, nor does writer/director Richard Aoyade ever condescend his audience by sermonizing about how bullying is wrong.  The lovely cinematography makes strong use of yellows and reds, Alex Turner contributes several wistful songs to an all-original soundtrack, and film generally does a good job not spelling out the moral of the story that stupid kids should apply to their own lives.  It’s sweet and sad and funny and possibly better the second time around.

Sunshine –

Thrilling space-fiction that doesn’t rely on too many twists or frills, features a fantastic score, and incorporates some cool themes about God or immortality or something.  The DVD I have access to is broken and it’s been a while since I’ve seen it, so I can’t really say much more.  Maybe this annotation will be replaced somewhere down the line, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Synecdoche, New York –

At the point of writing this, I have only seen Synecdoche, New York once and do not have a very firm idea of what its plot signifies, other than that Charlie Kaufmann is a screenwriting genius.  The movie only runs two hours long but by the end you feel as though it has lasted a lifetime, which was probably the point.  An exhausting film, mentally and emotionally, that I hope to revisit sometime down the line after I’ve watched Your Movie Sucks’ feature-length analysis of the feature.

Thirst –

A few words I would use to describe Thirst: humorous, violent, playful, seductive, erotic, extravagant, elegant, mesmerizing, gonzo.  A tale about a struggling religious man that never fully commits to its religious underbelly (Park Chan-Wook is not, as far as anyone knows, a Christian), it nonetheless draws upon the legend of the vampire as a metaphor for the baser primal instincts latent in all men, the id which wages a savage war for dominance with the hero’s waning Catholicism.  It employs special effects rarely but effectively, has the best, most justified sex scene ever for what that’s worth, and couldn’t possibly close in more spectacular fashion.

The Vengeance Trilogy –

Taken collectively, these are the best films I’ve ever seen in terms of film form.  Orson Welles is always credited with inventing the cinematic toolbox, but Park Chan-Wook has built much greater wonders using the same tools.  Like Welles, Park underwent no formal film schooling, studying philosophy in college, and actually busied himself outside of directing with writing essays and film critiques.  Knowing nothing of his personal background while watching the trilogy, it didn’t surprise me to learn afterwards that he counts Shakespeare, Sophocles, and Vonnegut among his major influences, as all three movies deal in the kind of high drama, dark comedy, and flexible narration those older writers mastered.  To say a brief word about each film, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a tightly scripted, starkly photographed thriller wherein every character action is justified, makes perfect sense, and contributes to an escalating trail of violence. Oldboy is the comic-book movie to end all lazy comic-book movies, running circles around American action flicks with parallel imagery, in-camera transitions, stunning long takes, and almost every other trick in the book.  Lady Vengeance falls somewhere between them both, starting out as perhaps the most confusing and stylized of the bunch before transfiguring into the most contemplative, harrowing film of the series.  I could write pages upon pages about every aspect I loved in each one’s framing, editing, scoring, cinematography, and writing, but for now I’ll simply exhort you to order the Blu-ray or pull Oldboy up on Netflix, which looks about the same.  Since they’re not a trilogy proper but an accidental sequence of thematically related dramas, you can really watch them in whatever order pleases you – alone, without your kids or friends, because they’re rated R for many, many reasons.

Victoria –

Would Victoria be as impressive a film if it wasn’t captured in an unbroken two-hour take and just shot traditionally?  As to this we can only speculate, but it is marvelously structured as a thriller and I wouldn’t expect it to weaken on repeat viewings, unlike Birdman, which uses its faux-one-shot grandstanding as a smokescreen for an insufferably masturbatory script.  The flashing lights and drowning bass of a transportive nightclub beckon viewer and young heroine alike into a sensual underworld, demanding to be seen and heard in the same darkness that engulfs the characters.

We Need To Talk About Kevin –

Beautiful, tragic, grim, and more disturbing in a real-world sense than most anything since Silence of the Lambs, Kevin delivers a powerful meditation on pure evil, whether it exists as an entity in itself or is merely inculcated by external causes.  Lynne Ramsay doesn’t make films often, but when she does they are astounding.

The rest of the list:
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