Sunday, July 30, 2006

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut (5/5)
Vonnegut's introduction to Mother Night states that this is the only story of his he knows the moral of: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” For an author whose novels often read like a Jacob’s Ladder toy, amusing in their seeming lack of logic, it seems odd that he would write a novel with a clear and straightforward moral. However, what Vonnegut accomplishes in Mother Night is to rescue post-modernism from its more nihilistic tendencies, and makes it clear that our unreal selves can sometimes have real consequences.

Mother Night is apparently the diary of Howard W. Campbell Jr., written while he was awaiting a war crime trial in Israel. Of course Vonnegut is using the theme of a found text while claiming he only edited the manuscript. Much like the characters in his books, the authenticity of the novel itself is amorphous and unclear.

Through the course of the novel Campbell informs us that he was once a playwright turned Nazi propagandist who transmitted broadcasts espousing the Aryan philosophy across Europe. Similar to Reifenstahl’s claims, Campbell states that his own politics are nonexistent, and that he was merely doing his job. In fact, he purposefully makes these broadcasts so over-the-top that no one could possibly see them as anything but ridiculous, but in a world where people like Hitler and Himmler somehow took over an entire country, Campbell’s melodramatic broadcasts are viewed as genius. Soon he is contacted by an undercover U.S. agent who he affectionately calls his “Blue Fairy Godmother.” This agent forcibly recruit’s Campbell as a double agent, and using Campbell’s broadcasts, the Blue Fairy Godmother is able to transmit secret codes to the allied forces.

Vonnegut states in the book that the reason people are able to commit atrocities and still see themselves as a good person is the modern condition of schizophrenia. This leads to the question of whether or not Campbell is making up the Blue Fairy Godmother. Could the Blue Fairy Godmother be Campbell’s own form of schizophrenia? It's never certain whether the Blue Fairy Godmother is a real U.S. agent or a means Campbell uses to justify helping the Third Reich.

By the end of the book Campbell turns himself into the Israeli authorities so he can stand trial for war crimes. In a sense, it doesn’t really matter whether or not Campbell was a double agent because his actions had very real and harmful consequences regardless. He stoked the coals of the Nazi propaganda machine, and regardless of whether he is guilty under the law, Vonnegut uses Campbell’s own admission of guilt to show that he is morally guilty. Whether or not Campbell was a double agent he is guilty of pretending to be a Nazi sympathizer. For a post-modern novel this is a very hard edged morality tale. Oftentimes post-modernism is criticized for moral relativity (interestingly enough, those who I’ve heard use moral relativity the most are conservative historians who wish to defend historical figures who have done questionable acts, slavery being a prime example). What Vonnegut accomplishes in Mother Night is to make it clear that while the “self” is amorphous and changing, our actual actions have a clear impact on others and cannot be fortified from morality.

Monday, July 17, 2006

A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly (4.5/5)

My favorite Philip K. Dick adaptation is Blade Runner. It’s one of those adaptations that should never have worked. Ridley Scott’s Deckard has little to do with the book’s Deckard, only the skeletal outline of the plot is similar, and many of the assumptions and theories of the book are actually countered by the film. In the book the replicants lack any empathy towards other creatures and are never given a chance at redemption, while in the film the replicants are built without empathy but are given a chance to obtain it. What makes the film work is because it still understands the themes of the book even if it does not agree with them. That and because it’s the most visually unique film…well, perhaps ever.

A Scanner Darkly is the opposite of Blade Runner in that it is the most faithful Philip K. Dick adaptation…well, perhaps ever. This isn’t a film that takes Philip K. Dick’s ideas and dresses them up in some inane thriller, this is a Philip K. Dick book on the screen. The plot is largely absent from much of the film. Instead it focuses on the drugged out characters, and anyone who’s hung out around the perpetually stoned will recognize one or two of these stoner archetypes. Of particular note is Robert Downey Jr. doing another great character since his rehab. What the hell Downey, I thought all creativity was supposed to be used up by the time you go through rehab? It’s only until the second half of the movie that the plot twists start a-flyin’. If, like me, you’ve already read the book, then you’ll want to go for the great character interaction, already on the page, brought to life by the aforementioned Downey, Woody Harrelson, and Rory Cochrane (who I was unfamiliar with, but does a great job at portraying a paranoid, nerve frayed druggie). You’ll also want to check out the great use of rotoscoping. I was surprised to learn a few months back that this was the same technique used in those 1940 Superman cartoon shorts. I guess everything old is new.

There are a few tweaks to the story line that make it slightly more relevant in today’s world, but I was surprised how little needed to be changed for Dick’s social commentary to shine through. It’s interesting how time tested political maneuverings remain relevent. The use of an enemy to annex more power is the oldest trick in the book, but people keep on falling for it. Again and again governments will sing the refrain of protection to eat away at the Bill of Rights. In Dick’s time it was protection against communism and the drug war. The drug war has been a good standby for years but it has recently been eclipsed by the war on terror. The drug war, terrorism, communism, Eurasia, Eastasia – governments will always create an enemy to make a power grab. Scanner paints a picture of a world where surveillance is so prevalent that the almost humorous situation of spying on yourself arises. Of course, one can ask the question about how many liberties we can give up to save “America” until we have actually destroyed the great experimental ideal of America our founding fathers hoped to create.

As with most Philip K. Dick, the shifting nature of reality is examined, but in Scanner this reality isn’t necessarily metaphysical as it is perceived (potential spoiler alert). Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) volunteers to go undercover in order to find the higher up drug dealers, but is unaware that his superiors have a second undercover operation in mind. While he did volunteer in a broad sense for undercover anti-drug work, and that is still what his superiors are using him for (albeit not in a way he expected), he did not volunteer specifically for the dehumanizing fate that would accompany this second undercover drug scheme. I am reminded of the soldiers sent to Iraq under the assumption that Saddam was related to 9/11 (as asserted by the President on several occasions and, interesting enough, repeated by commanders at Abu Graib prisons). However, once they arrived in Iraq the reasons for going there were switched around. There were no WMDs or 9/11 connection, and instead they realize they are there for two major reasons: oil and a naïve neo-conservative view of the world that believed toppling Saddam would make democracy flourish and solve the Middle East’s problems. (We can all see how that is turning out). Scanner portrays how easy it is for politicians to switch reality on the public once they have what they want.

Perhaps the next question is whether or not people even recognize that they were sold one war and given another. We live in a world where we're subject to a constant barrage of images everyday, and it means little to our mindset to go from a news anchor’s somber description of an Iraq massacre to a commercial about Depends. If our minds can make these extreme leaps, perhaps it’s not too difficult to think that what we believe one minute does not have to coincide with what we believe the next minute. To push the Iraq analogy, many people have no problem that they shouted WMDs at the top of their lungs before the war and democratization after the war without skipping a beat, and even claiming that democratization was their reason we should invade Iraq to begin with. It’s only a matter of time before people start claiming that the only way to protect civil liberties is to destroy them.

As you can see, A Scanner Darkly is one of those films you go and see late at night with a few of your friends, and then go get some coffee afterwards to talk about it. I guarantee you the conversation will take you places you didn't think it would. It is one of the great conversation films of...well, perhaps ever.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Sufjan Stevens Thinks You're a Ninny

Sufjan Stevens Thinks You're a Ninny

Do you need more of a reason to dislike Sufjan Stevens? Sure you do. Apparently mainstream critics aren't helping you out (Illinois was the best reviewed album of 2005 according to! (in my best William Shatner impression)). Well aside from being overrated, pretentious, and sappy, he also looks down on you if you like a particular song of his. Yes, you, a longtime Sufjan fan, if you like a song of his that isn't up to his standards (but still apparently "good" enough to put on his album and record multiple versions of), then according to him you're an idiot. The song: "Chicago."

According to a interview( Sufjan thinks that "Chicago" is "primitive" and "repetitive" and the reason people like it is "because it appeals to the lowest common denominator." So, if you're a Sufjan Stevens fan and you happen to like the song "Chicago," your taste is patheticly simple minded. Thank God he finally took aim at all those pesky fans buying his albums and tickets to his concerts. Who needs those assholes anyways. It's about time that musicians have finally called out fans for liking their music. I'm sure you're asking yourself, "but if Sufjan insults his fans, then who's going to buy his music?" The answer is simple: masochists. There are more of them than you think, and the more shit Sufjan heaps on his listeners, the more masochists are going to flock to the CD stores and concerts.

According to the article his insipid fans aren't the only problem with the world because there's been a recent "lowering of standards overall in art and music" which is possibly caused by "television, advertising, [and] pop culture." Wow, way to sound like you're ninety years old. Please, tell me another story of the good old days where you danced at the sock hop, gave the prom queen your letter jacket, and those pesky blacks weren't allowed to drink from the same fountain as you. (Hey, Sufjan, I have a book for you: I don't agree with everything this guy has to say, but he made an interesting remark once, that fifty years ago people weren't sitting around reading Middlemarch, they were still just watching crappy sitcoms). And what is this debased culture leading to? Well, "a decrease in literacy rates and languages and endangered species lists" that are "going up." Can you say "mutually exclusive."

Now tell us, oh great Sufjan, what the answer to our predicament is. A throwback to the Renaissance of course. Sufjan states that he wants to "go back to an era, the Renaissance era, where people had the freedom to develop big ideas." Of course everyone knows that during the Renaissance everyone had the freedom to develop big ideas so long as you were rich enough to afford an education, didn't disagree with the Church, didn't happen to have a vagina, or were not a slave or indigenous person holding land Europeans might someday want. Those were the days. I say we help Sufjan out and get rid of public schools and bring back the patronage system. Democracy in this country is a farce anyways, we might as well have our elites making artistic choices for us. Where are the Midicis when you need them?

All hyperbole aside, I hope that this blatant bitch slapping of Sufjan's fans doesn't only anger me (wait, I think that bitch slapping comment was hyperbolic). Hell, I don't even like his music and it makes me unreasonably angry. What upsets me the most is that this is an indie rocker who made it to the top because of his fans. There's no other way to be successful in indie rock. So, when he makes it to the critical summit what does he do, spits on all those who helped him make it up there. This guy does not deserve the adoring fanbase he's made no attempt to build. The whole indie-prog thing is in vogue, and the moment it goes out of style the only thing that will keep these guys afloat is a great fanbase.

Apparently there are more Sufjan haters crawling out of the woodwork (check out and the article "A Case Against Sufjan Stevens" by Stephen Thomas Erlewine), and if he keeps on dismissing his fans the way he does there will be a lot more. Although I wouldn't trust Erlewine or my opinion, because we obviously don't understand the Renaissance man that is Sufjan Stevens.

The interviewer of the article, Thomas Bartlett, said it best when he asked Sufjan Stevens the question "Are you being serious?"

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The New World

The New World (5/5)

Back in high school I asked a girl who had seen The Thin Red Line whether it was any good. She responded dubiously, saying there were a lot of “shots of birds and stuff.” Then, she turned to me and contemptuously stated, “you’d probably like it.” Despite this fine recommendation I still hadn’t seen a Terrence Malick film until The New World. This was a mistake because I cannot recommend this film enough. I try to review films that are either recently released or old enough that a reader might not have heard of the film or might want to be reminded of the film. However, I review this film because the movie made a really strong impression on me.

Film is a visual medium. A surprisingly few number of directors understand this. Television and stage should be based around dialogue, but film should be visuals first. Film is much closer to painting and photography than it is theater (which is one of the reasons most plays translate poorly into film). Malick understands films are visual, and the film is noticeably dialogue light. In fact, it’s a movie that could have been shot without dialogue, and while that would have been confusing, the fact the cinematography is so perfect I still would not have cared. Watching the film I am constantly reminded of how picturesque our country really is.

The film eschews what many believe were the historical events at Jamestown for the myth that has been handed down. Most historians now believe that John Smith wasn’t going to be executed, but was actually being initiated into the tribe in what would be now viewed as a kind of hazing ritual. This was supposed to have helped relations between the settlers and the Native Americans. John Smith was also a well known braggart and liar, and had told many stories where his life was spared by a gorgeous woman who had fallen in love with him. In fact, it is likely Pocahontas was sent to the colony as an ambassador between the two people in hopes of keeping the peace.

However, it does not bother me that Malick chose the myth over history because he perfectly captures the lives of early settlers. In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn describes one failed settlement after another, many Europeans finding that survival meant leaving their settlement and joining the local native tribes (which was sometimes punished by death). The winters were harsh in this new world and the English did not have the skills the Native Americans had, such as growing corn, squash, and other American foods in soil that was far less hospitable than Europe’s. Malick presents this desperation perfectly, and even alludes to possible cannibalism that may have taken place. Even when well meaning, the English are a people who rule through a strict hierarchy and are not hesitant to use the harshest means to insure order (shooting, hanging, and whipping to name a few).

The Natives are presented as a people conflicted. They don’t want to start a war, but are weary that the newcomers will soon want more land than the swamps they’ve settled. Unlike the Europeans, who have one leader whose commands filter to the rest of the people unquestioned, the Native Chief accepts input from his advisors, and ultimately acquiesces to his daughter and spares John Smith’s life. They are presented as a people who live naturally with the world around them, and do not have to put nature under their dominion, but rather symbiotically live within nature.

Ultimately, The New World is a tragedy about love and imperialism. I would have to watch it several more times to find something more interesting to say. It’s hard to watch the film without knowing that the disease that took Pocahontas’s life would similarly wipe out whole Native villages along with a vicious military campaign. The New World takes place at a time when reconciliation seemed fragile, but not impossible, and before genocide destroyed Eden forever.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Superman Returns

Superman Returns (4.5/5)

At long last it's here (I believe this was a part of an earlier script: After a decade of studio development through flightless incarnations, Superman wrasslin' polar bears, and a black suit, the Last Son of Krypton has finally made it into theaters. Of course, nothing could have stopped The Man of Steel. I'm sure that after this long of a wait most people expect nothing less than the second coming from Superman Returns. With all of the Christ imagery in the new film, it seems that the filmmakers were more than happy to oblige.

However, while there are more than a few allusions to Christ in Superman Returns, I believe the film is actually dealing with the broader theme of Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces. Much of Campbell’s book deals with what he calls the “monomyth,” which is a single mythic structure that can be juxtaposed on just about any myth from any culture. This monomyth is supposed to be hardwired into us through Jungian psychology.

Campbell then goes on to analyze the themes found in the monomyth. One of the reoccurring themes of the monomyth is the return home. A hero must venture into an outer mystical world (ex: Luke Skywalker leaving Tatooine and Frodo leaving The Shire) on some kind of journey. However, eventually the hero will return to his home with the skills he has learned abroad and give his homeland a “boon” (ex: Luke Skywalker returning to Tatooine and destroying Jabba the Hut and Frodo and his friends saving The Shire during the Battle of Bywater [not shown in the movie]). This boon is supposed to reinvigorate the once decaying society.

Predictably, Superman Returns deals heavily with the idea of Campbell’s return. One of the revelations of A Hero with a Thousand Faces is that although the mythic hero is spoken of in terms of the ideal man, the mythic hero is really just a representation of each person’s true potential. The hero is really just a stand in for all of us at our greatest. This is what Superman Returns understands. There’s a great bit of dialogue from Marlon Brando where he says something to the affect: “They can be a great people Jor-El. They wish to be. They only need someone to show them the way.” (Warning: superspoilers below). Furthermore, Superman is not the only hero in this film. Lois Lane’s fiancé, Richard White, rushes to the aid of his love interest and their son (?). (Okay, so everyone knows by now that the kid is supe's, but I don't think he'd make that great of a father (On a side note, it’s nice to have a film that makes the other guy a decent human being. It seems like every film makes the “other guy” out to be some asshole. This puzzles me, because who has sympathy for a girl who’s going to marry a jerk?) Superman himself needs heroes to come to his own rescue. They come in the form of Lois herself and, later, the police officers and doctors who bring him to the hospital and help him recover. The hospital part in the movie is genius because it expands the idea of a hero beyond the guy in tights to every one of us. The “boon” in Superman Returns ends up being an example that’s not beyond the stars, but firmly within our reach.

There are other themes in the film that bear discussion (the new family dynamics for example). There are also little ways I could nitpick the film (the Christ imagery is a little heavy handed, and weren’t Siegel and Shuster Jewish anyways?), but that’s not a whole lot of fun. While not perfect, Superman Returns delivers some great action, drama, and a pinch of intellectual ideas, but, most importantly, it also leaves the viewer anticipating a sequel. My vote for the next title: Superman Again: Lois Lane’s Quest for Child Support. Picture Brandon Routh out on his dilapidated porch sporting a wife beater with a beer in his hand, and Lois Lane with their kid resting on her hip yelling at his deadbeat ass. (Although, Lois might have to get in line: Now that’s a movie America can get behind.