Saturday, July 26, 2014

Trailer for The Homesman (2014)

Tommy Lee Jones is affectionately well known to most of us as an actor, but what not everyone knows is that he is also a thinker with a love for reading Flannery O'Connor and Cormac McCarthy.  He has also begun to build a respectable collection of work as a director.  All three of his directorial films so far, The Good Old Boys, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and The Sunset Limited, are disciplined and carefully paced contemplative works that have a demonstrated substantive interest in the humane, the moral sphere and even in the transcendent.  This is all the more reason for us all to chalk up what will be his fourth film as a director, The Homesman, towards the top of our must-see list for the year.



In an interview concerning his work as a director, Jones said:

“What you do is you consider some so-called religious thinking without the didacticism of the classical approach.  You look for the allegorical intentions of what we're taught in the Bible, and then find some way to have it revealed or expressed by common experience.  You'll find this happening over and over again in O'Connor, who was a rather classical Catholic thinker who wrote about nothing but backwoods north Georgia rednecks.”

Sasha Stone writes for The Wrap:
“... In many ways, America is defined by its Westerns. And in American cinema, many of the Westerns we remember and treasure perpetuated the lies of the founding of the west – what Jones called in a Cannes press conference 'the imperialism of the time under the cloak of manifest destiny.' That is perhaps what makes 'The Homesman' such an exciting film to watch – you think you know where it's going until you realize it's going somewhere else entirely.

At some point, you abandon all notions and let the movie take you where it wants to go.

What we don't get much of anymore is complex storytelling in American cinema, where the answers aren't readily given and those who view the film are required to form their own opinions about what they're seeing on screen. But this filmmaker, with this film, is doing what filmmakers did when that kind of ambiguity and complexity was valued over commercial prospects ...”

The Homesman premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May.  It is currently scheduled for release on November 7th.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE - FILM REVIEW (2013 - Directed by Jim Jarmusch)


“For rhythm and harmony penetrate deeply into the mind and have a most powerful effect on it, and if education is good, bring balance and fairness, if it is bad, the reverse.”
- Plato

“It is part of the business of the critic to preserve tradition - where a good tradition exists.  It is part of his business to see literature steadily and to see it whole; and this is eminently to see it not as consecrated by time, but to see it beyond time; to see the best work of our time and the best work of twenty-five hundred years ago with the same eyes.”
- T.S. Eliot

“The cinema ... is - in Jean Cocteau’s famous words - ‘a dream that can be dreamt by many people at the same time’.”
- John Wain
____________________________________________________

It is all but superfluous to point out that movies and TV shows about vampires have recently been, let us say, trendy.  But the sheer quantity of it, produced by popular demand, can still be rather surprising even now.  The Twilight phenomenon alone was incredible to observe.  From a literary point of view, one can’t help feeling at least a tinge of curiosity whenever a book, or series of books, is suddenly being voraciously read by millions of people all at the same time (all of whom do not normally read books).  It was that curiosity (combined with the fact that an attractively engaging person I knew was reading it) that led me, years ago, to open up Stephanie Meyer’s first Twilight book at the bookstore.  Unsurprisingly, upon opening it, the first few pages of the book soundly demonstrated the tragedy that besets all those writers who have yet to develop any ear at all for the natural rhythms of English prose.

Ms. Meyer somehow managed to blend an impoverished and clunky writing style with inane lines of dialogue, and then peppered this concatenation throughout with cut-and-paste story-board clichés.  This whole sordid exhibition of third grade level sentence structure was sold to the public - all in order to tell the story of the transitory mental states of a teenage girl, with the required amounts of low self-esteem necessary in order to be seduced by a one hundred and four year old vampire.  The result?  Why, naturally, a bestseller.

That book was published in 2005.  The first film was released in 2008.  But I would feel both redundant and cheap to go on criticizing the Twilight fad.  By now such criticism is both commonplace and demonstrably futile.  But I have started out with it in order to make a different point.  My point is more generally related to all the vampire films and TV shows we have seen over the last decade.

What is it that is most obviously wrong with today’s vampire stories?  I would submit that it is in the conversation of the vampires.

Both The Vampire Diaries and HBO’s True Blood suffer from the same defect.  (See them uttering lines like “Damon, please, after all these years, can't we just give it a rest?” or “Well, I figure if you’re gonna dump me, you should at least ... um ... know who you’re dumping.” and then compare where vampire Bill sadly delivers lines like “Oh, but you have other very juicy arteries. There is one in the groin that’s a particular favorite of mine.”)  Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the dialogue was often quite clever, still has Angel, the two hundred and forty-one year old vampire, saying things like “Listen, if we date, you and I both know one thing's going to lead to another” or “A hundred years, just hanging out, feeling guilty ... I really honed my brooding skills.”  There were at least sixteen different vampire films from the year 2012 alone.  Among them, indicative examples included: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (“There are two kinds of man, Mr. Lincoln. Those that have the guts to pull the trigger ... and those who do not.”), Byzantium (“We are the pointed nails of justice.”), Underworld: Awakening (“For a brief moment of time, we were safe. But, then, a new Darkness arose!”) and Vamps (“I didn’t put in rollers so I’m gonna have coffin hair tomorrow.”)

So ... why, in all of today’s vampire stories, are these vampires so mentally vacuous?  Why are the lines of dialogue that they are given so stupid and empty-headed?  Why do they never speak as though they had really lived for hundreds of years?  This occurs, mind you, even when the filmmakers are careful enough to explicitly point out to the viewer that the vampire has lived for hundreds, if not for thousands, of years.

Imagine, for just a moment, that you were to actually experience meeting and conversing with a vampire.  If one really were to run across a vampire in real life, what would the most striking thing be that you would notice?  Pale skin?  Too many of us are pale these days.  It comes with all the office cubicles and florescent lighting.  Sharp teeth?  I would venture to guess that all vampires who proceeded to show first acquaintances their sharp teeth would be just those vampires who possessed very short nonlife spans.  A black cape?  Hallucinatory eyes?  Long finger nails?  Please.

Here is where today’s scriptwriters degrade and humiliate their vampires.

It’s so obvious that I’m disappointed in myself that it took my watching Only Lovers Left Alive for me to think of it.  If you were to actually meet a person who had lived even an “undead” life successfully for a historical age or two, the first thing you would notice would be that person’s conversation, intelligence and education.  He or she would make you feel the limitations of your own I.Q.  After all, considering the way modern culture has gone over the years and considering the way that education has been gutted in the last century, most likely a vampire in today’s time would be pretty depressed at the current state of things.  In fact, any person who was educated before the 20th century would most likely struggle with a very great temptation to have contempt for us all and for the ways in which we now live.

How could they not?  Most likely, if you met a vampire who was not new and who had not got himself killed over the last couple centuries, then you would be meeting a person who had not merely mastered street smarts.  Most likely this person (a) has read all of the classics of history and literature, (b) has absorbed all the greatest works of philosophy, Western and Eastern, (c) has at some point pursued all the lines of thought (sometimes as they were contemporaneously developed) by all the greatest minds of science, (d) speaks dozens of different languages and (e) has spent entire decades meditating and reflecting upon the lessons, vagaries, follies, wars, loves, successes and failures of human life - along with plenty of time to make careful observations.

If you were a scriptwriter, how, how, in the name of everything under heaven, could you leave this part of being a vampire out of the story you were writing?  Any half-decent vampire would be bound to have very particular views about our modern mass-media consumerized age.  Why, oh why, would you use a vampire and then tell just another love story or just another action story without there being any difference at all?  What do you think any classically educated vampire would feel upon nonliving in the year of our Lord, 2014?

The decline of culture, the modern obsessions with pop fads, the uglification of architecture, the dumbing down of news and political discourse, the mass-produced and artificially processed foods in the grocery stores, the addictions to television, social media, computer games and iPhones, the apparently willful neglect of art and learning and beauty in our modern age ... all these things would most likely profoundly affect any person who had been living through century after century after century.

Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man, Coffee and Cigarettes, Broken Flowers, The Limits of Control) - director, scriptwriter, producer, editor, music composer - understands the great importance of this necessary consequence of a vampire story.  In an interview, Jarmusch commented on how negative reviews the film has received have criticized his protagonists for being snobs.  He explained: “And someone said, ‘Yeah, but they’re just snobbish characters.’ Well, if you and I were alive for 500, 1,000, 2,000 years, we would certainly appear as snobs to everyone else, because our knowledge and experience would be so much more vast ...”  As a result of this insight, he has just given us one of the most intelligent vampire films ever made.  And not only does Jarmusch give us an intelligent film, but he takes the traditional idea of a vampire and then uses it compellingly to take a look at where we all are right now.

There are many different forms of social commentary, but sometimes, when you have a director like Jarmusch who views film as art rather than as mere entertainment, something very special can happen.  The end result here is not just social commentary; it’s a beautiful, bluesy, slow, meandering, nightmarish, melancholy, contemplative dream.

With Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch is doing what any artist ought to do.  The film reminds me of an excerpt from Gregory Wolfe’s challenging book, Beauty Will Save the World.  Wolfe wrote:
“The artist, like anyone else, is a representative of his time.  His role, to paraphrase Hamlet, is to reveal ‘the form and pressure of the age.’  By ‘pressure,’ Shakespeare means impression or stamp.  While it is true that some art can portray the ideal, the primary burden of art is to grapple with the reality of the present.  Only by engaging the present can art achieve universal meaning.  Modern artists create works that reflect modern conditions; they explore modernity, as it were, from the inside.  The least imaginative of them merely reflect the surface of things.  But the great artists dramatize the conflicts of their time, embedding meaning deep within their works.”
So what are the challenges of modernity today?  What have we done to ourselves over the last few decades that shape the ways in which we live?  Only Lovers Left Alive could be seen as a sort of futuristic, dystopian tale.  But really, once you take a second look, there is nothing in it that would logically lead one to think that it wasn’t set in the present.

The two main protagonists in the film are named Adam and Eve.  Adam, played with dry humor by Tom Hiddleston (Thor, The Deep Blue Sea), is a vampire who is still living with one foot in the Romantic period of the 1800s and the other in the ‘60s & ‘70s world of classic rock & blues guitar.  He’s a composer and an inventor.  His walls are covered with hanging guitars and other instruments.  He recruits a human, Ian, played by Anton Yelchin (Like Crazy, Star Trek), to find old collectible guitars.  Ian has managed to help Adam acquire an early ‘60s Silvertone (played by both Bob Dylan and Jack White), a Chet Atkins 1961, a 1960 Hagstrom (played by Jimi Hendrix) and even a 1905 Gibson (think Roy Oribson, Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton, B.B. King or Jimmy Page).  Adam names his guitars after Renaissance composers but also fondly remembers watching early rock n’ roll artists like Eddie Cochrane perform.  If you look closely, you will also see, hanging on Adam’s walls, portraits of thinkers, writers and composers (including Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain, Johann Sebastian Bach and Christopher Marlowe).

The problem with Adam is that he’s struggling through deep depression.  This is where the film is clever.  As the story progresses, we learn that modern humans (Adam calls us “zombies”), have infected their blood with drug use and unhealthy diets.  The result is that most human beings are so unhealthy and infected, that for a vampire to drink their blood is to risk becoming terribly sick.  Adam is also too much in love with the true and the beautiful to be able to stomach most of modern culture or media.  This is why he stays alone in his house at night, just sitting there in the darkness, dejectedly contemplating what has been wrecked by the modern world.  His rooms are absolutely covered in stacks of old books, stereos, amps, vinyl records, guitars, violins and old photographs.  He still composes blues music and calls it funeral music.  At one point, it is casually revealed that he composed and gave music to Franz Schubert and Franz Liszt to pass off as their own.
________________________________________________________________________________

Eve: “What is it?  You look tired.”
Adam: “Do I?  I guess I am.  Yeah.”
Eve: “... So what is this then? Can’t you tell your wife what your problem is?”
Adam: “It’s the zombies and the way they treat the world.  I just feel like all the sands at the bottom of the hourglass or something.”
Eve: “Time to turn it over then.”
________________________________________________________________________________

Eve is played delightfully by Tilda Swinton.  I don’t think many films quite get her beauty, but this one does.  She is made by Jarmusch and cinematographer, Yorick Le Saux, to look both ageless and as if she were a sort of albino enchantress.  And yes, albinos can be very beautiful.  (Le Saux also filmed Swinton appealingly in Luca Guadagino’s I Am Love.)  There are numerous scenes where Swinton appears almost to glow.  Eve lives in Tangiers, one of the haunts of the writer, William Burroughs.  Her saunters through the streets of the city are like moving through a dreamscape of brown, white and golden light mixed with endless variations of shadow.  She walks (or stalks) with a determined saunter that matches the way that she talks, no nonsense and to the point.  Her walls are also covered in books, even more than Adam’s.  She reads poetry.  In preparation for travel, she fills two suitcases with nothing but books, from Cervantes’s Don Quixote to Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

Best of all, she is a voice of reason and encouragement against Adam’s doubts and depression.  She cautions him that he always has “the convenience of the zombies to blame” whenever he gets low and reminds him of his scientific and literary heroes, who stood for the good things of human life that he believes in.  “How can you live for so long and still not get it?” she asks him, “This self-obsession, it’s a waste of living that could be spent on surviving things, appreciating nature, nurturing kindness and friendship and ... dancing.  You’ve been pretty lucky in love though, if I may say so.”  She regales him with the wonders and mysteries of creation, telling him of a white dwarf up in space which she describes as “a diamond up there the size of planet” that emits music into the ether.  She encourages him to open his eyes to his surroundings and hints that depression is closely tied to spending too much time thinking of nothing but one’s own self.

Putting these two characters together and developing their relationship allows Jarmusch to encourage the viewer to think of the bigger picture.  Whatever problems our own selves may be struggling with at any given moment, there are real things that still make life worth living.  There are great scientific discoveries and works of art that demonstrate the finer things that make us human.  Set in the midst of the modern age, watching an ancient Adam and Eve meditate upon and react to the world around them offers us a different and older point of view about our own lives and how we now live them.

While I won’t give away any spoilers, it will not be a spoiler to point out what is revealed in the opening minutes of the film, namely, that in the universe of Only Lovers Left Alive, William Shakespeare is still alive.  Played as a weary and worldly-wise vampire by John Hurt, he is a friend of Eve in Tangiers.  He still wears his favorite clothing from 1586.  Technically, Shakespeare is here really Christopher Marlowe, but that doesn’t really matter.  In the world of the story, different famous names are often the humans who passed off the works of vampires as their own.  This isn’t meant to be controversial or to decrease the works’ value.  At one point, Eve teases him by saying that they should leak proof that he is the one who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays.  She suggests playfully that “It would cause such thrilling chaos.”  “I think,” he replies, wryly, “the world is in enough chaos to keep it going.”

Marlowe/Shakespeare also knows Adam.  In an early scene, he tells Eve to give his regards “to that suicidal romantic scoundrel.”  Humorously enough and hinting at the sort of person Adam is, he tells her: “I wish I would have met him before I wrote Hamlet.  He would have provided the most perfect role model imaginable.”  Eve responds with a tempered view of Romanticism: “Well let’s hope he’s just romantic.  Even so I mainly blame Shelley and Byron and some of those French assholes who used to hang around him.”  Adam is more sensitive than anyone else.  The problem is that he indulges in his sensitivity by making it flirt with an unhealthy narcissism.

Read more at Filmwell -

Friday, June 20, 2014

THE IMMIGRANT - FILM REVIEW (2013 - Directed by James Gray)


“The waters of the harbor were translucent and aquamarine; they ran thick with shards of ice and white islands as big as polar bears.  Ellis Island lay in the distance, its Byzantine domes and blood-red roofs glowing the morning sunshine ... Having passed through already, I knew the power of the Island and feared that I would be possessed.  It is a lair of the deepest emotions, where hope has died and flourished, where those who love one another have been separated forever, where anything that can happen to a soul has happened, all in full view of the Battery.  It is like a sinking ship just offshore, watched by those who have landed; a court of the world; a purgatory; the turning place of dreams.  Once I had set foot again on Ellis Island, I knew that I had come to one of God’s places, and that those of us who had been there were tied to it forever.”
- Mark Helprin, “Ellis Island”
____________________________________________________

Writing this review has allowed me a great privilege.  The privilege I speak of is that of attempting, with what limited persuasive powers I may possess, to introduce a very special film that most readers will not yet have seen.  After going to the trouble of seeking out a limited release film that should really be a widely released film, movie critics often find themselves under the responsibility of an imperative:  how to convince the film viewer to go out of his or her way to see something that is exceptionally above standard commercialized popcorn fare?  How to convince the viewer to make the effort to see a film when the film’s own distribution company (or, more specifically, Harvey Weinstein) has intentionally made it difficult to see the film?

This is not a duty to be taken lightly and I have struggled to decide how to begin.  I will beg the reader’s pardon if I may ask two opening questions.  First, have you ever been pleasantly taken by surprise, when watching a film, to discover that it was far more meaningful and deeper than you could have imagined?  Second, have there ever been little moments in front of the theater screen when you were suddenly convinced that you were watching something that helped you to understand, just a little more clearly, a few of the most important decisions you may make in your life?  Whenever viewers can answer these questions in the affirmative, they are referring to films that inevitably turn into classics.  The Immigrant will become one of these films.

It is my belief that James Gray is an underappreciated director who has been quietly making great films for the last two decades.  Of course, he’s only made five of them.  But that’s why every time one of his films is completed, it is an occasion to be rather excited.  That is also why it is incredibly frustrating that, in spite of the enchantments he can place upon the screen, his fifth film, The Immigrant, has only now just been given a limited release after having opened at Cannes in May of last year.  It is my further humble opinion that, decades from now when we are all dead and gone, film critics and historians may very well consider Gray to be one of the most talented American directors of our time.

And yet, today we currently reward the ephemera of directors like James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis, Michael Bay or Gore Verbinski with billions at the box office while virtually ignoring storytellers with imaginative sensibility like Gray.  Since April of this year, the number one top grossing film at the box office has been a comic book movie (five weeks), a brainless comedy (two weeks) a movie about a monster knocking down more buildings (one week), yet another Disney remake (one week) and a Hallmark movie about teenage lovers dying of cancer (one week).  As Gray said in one of his interviews, “Cinema has mostly become the domain of nine-year-old boys, and that’s why you see what you see.”

Being a film lover, I lend films to my friends frequently in order to (a) attempt to expose them to something new or noncommercialized, and (b) attempt to stimulate what very often will turn into jolly, lengthy, provocative and excited conversations about art, ideas and film-making.  Trying to do this is harder than it sounds.  It becomes very easy to appear either elitist or condescending, not an impression that anyone genuinely interested in sharing or persuading should give.  There may not be many things more frustrating that being shocked at how good or beautiful something is, and then realizing that almost no one else is even bothering to see or to know anything about it.  Directors like James Gray are making films that have heart and substance to them.  Heart and substance are also two primary qualities that Hollywood is currently and utterly uninterested in providing us.  Consequently, over the years, I’ve regularly asked friends if they’ve seen any of Gray’s films.  I have yet to ask this to a single one who had.

James Gray does not direct action, horror, romance or comic book blockbusters.  All of his films are reflective, sometimes melancholy, sometimes joyful, penetrating and grand studies into the family, history, nature, experience, heritage and culture of poor and lower-middle class America.  Little Odessa (1994 – with Tim Roth, Edward Furlong, Maximilian Schell, Vanessa Redgrave, Moira Kelly) explores the Jewish-Russian neighborhoods of Brooklyn, asking the viewer to think about how crime can threaten and tear apart close family relationships.  It does this in a way that feels very real, as if it could be happening just down the street.  The Yards (2000 – with Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, Charlize Theron, James Caan, Faye Dunaway) is about a falsely-convicted man being released on parole who then tries to live honestly without getting involved in the all-consuming crime of the poorer sections of New York City.  We Own the Night (2007 – with Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendes, Robert Duvall) is one of the most compelling films about brotherly relationships that I’ve ever seen, telling the story of how family can transcend conflicting personality, ego and self-interest.  Two Lovers (2008 – with Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini) is a meditation upon loneliness, depression, impairment of social skills and healthy vs. unhealthy romantic relationships, set in the Jewish-Russian area of Brighton Beach and loosely based on a short story by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  (Gray has a Russian-Jewish background and his grandfather immigrated to American in 1923.)

In fact, these films all feel like they could have been based on classic works of literature, and merely happened to be set in modern times.  Gray has a way of making slow films that also somehow manage to have intensely personal relationships.  The tension often builds as each of his films continue.  His themes are very old and have Dickensian/Dostoevskian undertones.  I have recently been informed that “melodrama” is itself considered to be, by some critics, a “genre.”  While I have trouble with this idea, I cannot deny that the nineteenth century produced some classic stories with good, innocent and evil characters who were all genuinely and unironically good, innocent or evil.  Framing a story in such an old-fashioned manner means that moral choices will often be portrayed with startling clarity.  But clear moral choices do not have to be unbelievable, at least, not for those of us who still do believe in the existence of things like innocence, good and evil.

The scope of a classic nineteenth century story was full of human hopes and dreams, as yet undebauched by our own smug, cynical and knowingly ironic thinking.  There is something about our modern irony that makes the possibility of plain old damnation, undeserved grace, unrequited selfless love, moral calamity or unexpected redemption seem less true somehow.  As a director and a storyteller, Gray is uninterested in modern irony.  He takes what could even be described as a classical approach to cinema and outright admits that you could fairly compare The Immigrant to an opera (in particular, the “Suor Angelica” of Giacomo Puccini’s Il Trittico). Gray even argues:  “The word ‘operatic’ is often misused to mean over the top, where someone is over-emoting and that does a terrible disservice because ‘operatic’ to me means a commitment and a belief to the emotion of the moment that is sincere.”  Most of us are often are incapable of appreciating operas now, but Gray claims that they are “the last island of sincere emotion that exists in our culture.”  (If you pay attention, you will notice that Enrico Caruso shows up for a few transcendent moments in The Immigrant – a scene that is an island of sincere emotion indeed.  Also, along with the music of Puccini, listen for the music of Richard Wagner and John Taverner.)

In watching The Immigrant, while you can feel the influence of other directors of American epics, like Scorsese, Leone and Coppola, Gray’s influences go even deeper.  Besides being a fan of both Scorsese and Dostoevsky, he acknowledges an aesthetic debt to Federico Fellini’s La Strada in particular and to the Ashcan School of Painters in general (Everett Shinn, William Glackens, George Bellows, John Sloan, who all painted the daily life of poorer neighborhoods in New York City).  In another interview, Gray mentioned that his cinematographer, Darius Khondji, was also influenced by religious paintings.  Other influences he has mentioned more than once include John Cassavetes, Robert Bresson, Carl Theodor Dreyer and Michael Cimmino’s Heaven’s Gate. Unlike almost every other Hollywood director, Gray is interested in creating classics while also being humble about it. “You know it’s so hard to reference these people – it sounds so pretentious, like you think you’re as good as they are or whatever, but my attitude is always ‘steal from the best,’ you know?”

Thus, one of The Immigrant’s greatest strengths is in its simplicity.  There are three main characters upon whom the film relies.  Their personalities, individual stories and relationships to each other drive the film.
First, Marion Cotillard stars as Ewa, a Polish Catholic nurse who immigrates to the United States while forced to watch her sister locked away on Ellis Island for tuberculosis.  Ewa is lost and alone.  Her aunt and uncle, who should have met her on Ellis Island, have not appeared like they promised and have apparently given her a false address.  She is vulnerable and needs someone to help her.  Cotillard (La Vie en Rose, Public Enemies, Rust and Bone) is brilliant in this role and she has been suddenly establishing herself as a star who can burn up the movie screen with a single glance.  (Look for her to continue to grow into one of today’s most powerful leading ladies in Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night and as Lady Macbeth opposite Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth in 2015’s most exciting Shakespeare adaptation.)

Gray has compared Cotillard, in his estimation, to the actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.  “It’s like a silent movie actress – she doesn’t have to say anything.  There’s so much compassion for her just by the way that she is, her soul.  She radiates intelligence as well as physical beauty and, god, that’s the rarest quality.” (The Playlist.)  Those film critics who have seen the film cannot praise her enough, and I can happily agree with them:  “Marion Cotillard is now the best leading film actress in the world and she’s close to her peak in James Gray’s ‘The Immigrant.’” (David Edelstein, NPR.)  “Cotillard can say more with her expressive eyes than others can with their entire bodies, and she gives more depth to Ewa than the screenplay provides.” (Travis Hopson, DC Film Examiner.)

Second, Joaquin Phoenix plays Bruno, a nineteenth century purveyor of burlesque entertainment who also arranges for the women who work for him to be prostitutes.  It is my belief that Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in The Immigrant may eventually be considered one of the most powerful performances of his career.  To suggest this is not to make light of his Oscar caliber acting to date.  Besides in Gray’s films, his performances in Walk the Line (2005), The Master (2012) and Her (2013), among others, have proven both his versatility and his rather intense absorption into each of his different character’s beings.  (We can also look forward to another special performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s upcoming Thomas Pynchon adaptation, Inherent Vice.)

In this case, Phoenix’s Bruno is, when it comes down to it, a pimp.  And yet, there is little to distinguish him from many a self-indulgent 21st century man of today.  The picture that he gives us of the ways in which a man is capable of manipulating the will, the hopes and feelings of a woman is scary.  Then again, Harvey Keitel’s ‘Sport’ in Taxi Driver was also scary, whispering promises of love into a 13-year-old Jodi Foster’s ear.  But here Bruno seems even more dangerous.  His outer persona is that of a gentle and kind fellow who is only trying to help women in difficult circumstances.  “We understand.  You’re desperate.  We’ve all been desperate,” he explains to Ewa.  It is disturbingly creepy how he literally goes about convincing Ewa to prostitute herself, appealing to her moral sense and love for her family:  “I don’t want you to do this either.  But it’s not my decision.  The truth is, we both know you’re going to see this boy because for you, your sister’s well-being is more important than your own.”   Moreover, Bruno’s ability to manipulate grows more and more manifest when you think of the very language in which he frames his arguments as the tempter.  At the very point where the drugged Ewa is unlikely to respond to him, his “Tell me now if you do not want to see this boy” is tantamount to forcing her.

Then, for all his smoothness, Bruno’s fears, anxieties and paranoia are also just below the surface, and they regularly rise unexpectedly into bouts of rage where he transforms from a soft spoken man who has a way of looking down at his shoes whenever being personal, unable to make eye contact, into a violently lethal assailant.  His kindness and gentleness towards Ewa can suddenly turn into condemning her for rejecting his advances.  And then … if you think this delicate, slightly unhinged, balance can describe Bruno, you’d be wrong.  That is only his character at the beginning of the film.  While he’s this threat, the story seems to be mostly about Ewa and her response to him.  Bruno is part of the background of shame, desperation and hopelessness in which Ewa finds herself.  Part of genius of the film is how Bruno suddenly emerges from this background into a fully embodied person – and he turns out to be a person that you didn’t see coming.

Both Ewa and Bruno each have their own different and individual character arcs.  Both of them choose to do things that do not fit into how Hollywood would usually stereotype similar characters.

Finally, Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker, American Hustle) plays Emil, a rather enigmatic magician who performs illusions and magic tricks at Ellis Island to entertain the immigrants.  It is interesting that Gray makes the most direct expressions of the American Dream explicit in the voice of Emil.  “Don’t give up the dream. Don’t give up the hope,” he tells the immigrants.  Emil is the one who offers Ewa a different kind of hope than Bruno.  He offers her another way of looking at her circumstances and an alternative to her vulnerable and compromising position.  There is something impulsive and happy-go-lucky about him, and, as a result, he seems much lighter and safer than Bruno.

Renner, who has already proven with The Hurt Locker’s Sergeant James that he can invest psychological depths in a character, shows less depth here than either Cotillard or Phoenix.  But, in this case, it is what the role requires.  It keeps his motivations, whims and promises mysterious.  He alternates between proving then disproving and then proving again his good intentions.  He is a performer and, in contrast to Bruno who regularly loses control of himself, Emil seems to exist behind something of a mask, always sure of himself and always in control.

There is another thought that can help frame how we think of this film.  In the West, we pride ourselves today on our “progress.”  How easy is it for us to compare ourselves with those from the past for how they viewed and treated women?  Our prejudiced ancestors, you see, viewed women as property, as objects, as things to be used, consumed and exploited.  But now women can own their own property.  Now they can vote.  They have equal rights under the law.  They can go to any university.  Today, if they want to, women can become doctors, lawyers, judges, senators, prime ministers, corporate managers, CEOs, engineers or even soldiers, auto mechanics, truckers, carpenters or electricians.  Today, their marriages are not arranged by their fathers or guardians.  They have equal rights to no-fault divorce.  They can even live socially and professionally successful lives without being married.

So aren’t we so much better than the past?

Of course, this self-satisfaction can arguably be understood as the hypocrisy that it really is.  Even a rudimentary introduction to the extent of the sex trafficking and different forms of prostitution that still exist, even in the United States, should be enough to wipe out any ideas we might have about our modern success in rightfully valuing women.  In fact, you don’t even have to look at anything currently illegal.  A brief investigation into the great power and pervasiveness of the pornography industry is also a easy summary of our contemporary views of women.  Another brief investigation into the current standards of the high fashion industry would do the same.  “Of course,” a friendly co-worker tells a scared, lonely and increasingly desperate Ewa, “you could always wait for some white knight to come along.”  In the world of Gray’s The Immigrant, “white knights” to the rescue are not to be found.  How hard are they to find today?  How many apparent “white knights” offer modern immigrant women lucrative careers in today’s pornography industry?

And yet another reason The Immigrant can be considered a gem is the nature of Ewa’s strong character.  Today’s films have often been criticized for a lack of strong female protagonists.  (Scantily clad women as comic book/superheroines do not count.  Such roles usually do not require acting or depth of character and, instead, the camera often seems most interested in showing them perform lethal gymnastics in costumes made out of leather or lingerie.)  Now, when a high quality film has actually given us a strong female protagonist in Ewa, it is being virtually ignored.  In fact, not only does this film give us a strong female character (which, although I have my own doubts about the logic of “Bechdel test,” Ewa passes it with flying colors), but it does so in a way that shows just how powerful a woman can be.  Cotillard’s Ewa is above-average beautiful in the sense that she attracts the eye of everyone around her.  But, as a character, her power does not consist in merely her appeal to the male eye.  Her ability to attract and influence comes from her own strength, integrity and determination ...

Read more at Filmwell -

Saturday, May 24, 2014

TROY (2004) - Directed by Wolfgang Petersen - A 10-Year Retrospective Review


So I have been privileged to write a ten year retrospective review of Troy (2004) for Kenneth R. Morefield's film review website, 1morefilmblog.com.  The review ended up running into three parts.  I'll post the links to all three parts here as they go up.
_______________________________________________

It has now been ten years since Wolfgang Petersen’s old-fashionedly classic film on the Trojan War was released. In hindsight, some of the controversy that roiled round the film at the time now seems rather silly. But then much of the criticism the film took was much worse than silly. Much of it consisted of a sort of “chronological snobbery” in which critics produced excoriations upon the story’s outdated ideas. Often a film will inevitably include a certain amount of modern sensibility adapted to the telling of an ancient story. But no serious film critic should ever criticize a film for those cases when, against the odds, it successfully avoids doing so. Complaining that the filming of a story, thousands of years old, is not anachronistic enough is just plain absurd.

I’ll  make two admissions up front. First, I enjoyed Troy very much. In spite of its changes to the narrative, it kept the spirit of the story as much as a film could be expected to do so. Second, I felt it was rather embarrassing to read many of the reviews that were written about it back in 2004.

“The main problem with this film, wrote Adrian MacKinder (for Future Movies) tendentiously, “is that the central story itself doesn’t really lend itself to a modern audience.” If, like me, you are rather hoping that MacKinder was intending this strange statement as a criticism of the modern audience, he quickly lays any such hopes to waste and continues: “Trouble is, the character of Achilles isn’t really very nice and while that needn’t be an issue in itself, the developments of the narrative elements that the script has drawn from the original source make it very difficult to find sympathy for his cause.” ...

Click here to read the rest of Part I.
_______________________________________________

Last among the major criticisms of Troy was that it subtracted the gods from the Iliad. This is probably the most noticeable difference between the film’s story and that of the original source. Ken Hanke (Mountain Xpress) quipped that “[m]aybe they thought gods were passé and might make people laugh at their oh-so-serious film.” James Keast (Exclaim Magazine) complained that “the thrust of the Trojan war is that it’s a squabble between the gods over a beauty contest [....] But clearly Wolfgang Petersen has no interest in making a bigger budget Clash of the Titans, and thus replaces all the god talk with more mundane political motivations. He turns Achilles from an immortal warrior into a mercenary; [and] it makes Agamemnon a more powerful figure than he actually was …”

Now, to reduce one’s estimation of the Iliad into nothing more than “a squabble between the gods over a beauty contest” is one thing, even if rather flippant. We can dismiss depreciatory remarks of that nature as the sort of thing said by those souls who possess sad memories of incompetent classical literature professors in the past. But to insist that it would have been a better film with the gods and goddesses constantly intervening as they played the human characters like instruments, is another thing altogether. Such a criticism neglects the natural problems of including the gods in the film to begin with ...

Click here to read the rest of Part II.
_______________________________________________

Think for a moment. How interesting is it that the Iliad is one of the most famous and inspiring stories in the history of the world? (As legend has it, Alexander the Great always kept copy of the Iliad under his pillow.) I bet this seems strange to many of us now, living with our modern ideas of morality, with our culture’s sensitivity to individual “natural rights,” with our entertainment’s cardboard cutout characters who are designed to be identified with, sympathized with, copied, emulated, worshipped, cheered for, etc. It is quite true that the Iliad does not possess our modern sensibilities, whether in politics or in entertainment. Instead, I would suggest that it possesses a number of classical themes that our modern views of the world could profit by. In their masterful book, Who Killed Homer:? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom, Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath defend the value of classical literature and discuss the main classical themes of the Iliad and the Odyssey. In chapter four, they go to the trouble to list and explain these themes. Let’s consider how the film Troy invokes a few of these themes ...

Click here to read the rest of Part III.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Trailer for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

This film did not attract as much attention as it deserved.  The performances here, from both Idris Elba and Naomie Harris, are of a very high caliber.  It will be released on DVD tomorrow.  The story successfully told in this film could be a study on the question of when to, and when not to, compromise.  Mandela set a moral example for those that he tried to lead, and by doing so he set one for us all.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Eulogy to Brain Cells That Were Killed in Socialization


“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess, said Darcy, of conversing easily with those I have never seen before.  I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.
- Mr. Darcy, in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen 

“[S]mall talk [is] to the soul what acid is to metal ...”
- Mark Helprin
______________________________________________________________________

I can’t understand why,
when they look in my eye,
of the anguish they will never take stock.
Instead, they will blather
whenever we gather
to all engage in this thing called “small talk.”

When I try not to bore,
they will smile back for more,
and continue to talk and to chatter.
Now you see, it is rude,
on such talk to intrude,
to point out that some things just don’t matter.

Yes, no really, please do,
tell me all about you,
since the subject so interests the speaker.
I would like nothing else
(as my mind slowly melts);
all our “topics” could not be the weaker.

“How are you?” “I am fine.”
“Is that yours?” “It is mine.”
Pray, please, do tell me how “things are going?”
Let’s say work is “busy.”
(Lack of “talk” makes us dizzy).
Look at that.  Conversation is slowing.

That’s ok.  Just move on.
Don’t let thought start to dawn.
There’s more small talk to exchange like a drone.
“How are you?” “I am fine”
“A new phone?” “About time.”
Repeating again causes no one to groan.

Let’s talk about weather,
without asking whether
we’re avoiding a substance that’s real.
If there are things which count,
some ideas we could mount,
why, they might slow our incessant peal.

Do we care just to know,
if we were to go slow,
what kind of truths might be hidden from speed?
What if you and if I
were to just, perhaps, try ...
to have our talk, from self-focusing, freed?

Of my work, do not ask!
I’ve had eight hours to bask
in that drudgery already today.
Am I a one-track mind,
that I only can find
of the same ole thing only to bray?

See, our time here is short;
we soon cast off life’s port.
There is more than we have time to explore.
My time with you is brief,
just like an autumn leaf;
So let’s discuss some meaning, I implore.

Maybe some get to know
each other even though
they talk of nothing but ego and trifle.
But I can’t, no, no more,
be such a worthless bore
that I blab so that your feelings I stifle.

Some day I will find her,
and I’ll sit beside her,
and we’ll talk about something that’s true.
I’ll rescue the topic
from being myopic,
and from prattle of brain cells too few.

Let’s whisper of flashing
moments that come dashing
with brightness that points us to see.
Beneath, there’s a meaning
that leads to a greening
and grows past the small talk devotee.

So next when you see me,
please forgive if I be
distant from small talk’s shreds and tatters.
But, when we’re face to face,
I’ll believe it’s the case,
that you can converse on what matters.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Trailer for 300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

 “... After this conversation Xerxes went over the battlefield to see the bodies, and having been told that Leonidas was king of Sparta and commander of the Spartan force, ordered his head to be cut off and fixed on a stake. This is in my opinion the strongest evidence - though there is plenty more - that King Xerxes, while Leonidas was still alive, felt fiercer anger against him than against any other man; had that not been so, he would never have committed this outrage upon his body; for normally the Persians, more than any other nation I know of, honour men who distinguish themselves in war. However, Xerxes’ order was carried out ...”
- Herodotus, The Histories , Book Seven, 238
______________________________________________________


______________________________________________________

“... Each [Persian] satrapy was called upon to provide its quota of fighting men. ‘For was there a nation in all Asia,’ writes Herodotus, ‘which Xerxes did not bring against Greece?’ Sir Frederic Maurice estimates the strength of the levy at 150,500 and Munro at 180,000 ... In the spring the advance began and the army set out for Abydus, where, 1,207 warships and 3,000 transports were assembled already ... So it came about that the [Greek] Congress sent the allied fleet to Artemisium [consisting] of 324 triremes and nine penteconters, of which the Athenian contingent was 180 ships under Themistocles, and though the Spartan contingent, commanded by Eurybiades, numbered only ten ships, because he represented the leading member of the League he was given supreme command.

“... Eurybiades assembled a council of war to discuss the disaster, during which - following Diodorus - all the commanders except Themistocles favoured the defensive; nevertheless he persuaded them to take a contrary course, pointing out that that party ever had the advantage who, in good order, made the first onset upon an enemy in disorder. An obstinate and indecisive fight followed, and the day afterwards news from Chalcis was received at Artemisium that the Phoenician squadron had been caught in the gale and for the greater part wrecked, and that the fifty-three Attic ships were returning. Probably they were back at Artemisium on the evening of the day of the battle.

“The next day it was the Persian fleet which assumed the offensive. The Greeks ranged their ships in a crescent, with the cusps pointing to the land to prevent their flanks being turned, and at a signal charged the oncoming Persians. The battle at once developed into a close quarter melee; but again no decision was reached. A council of Greek admirals met after the engagement to consider a retreat. As they were arguing, a triaconter (thirty-oar galley) arrived from Thermopylae with the portentous news that the pass had been lost, that Leonidas had fallen, and that the Persians were marching towards Athens. This left no choice but to retire, and under cover of darkness the Greeks sailed south for Salamis.”
- J.F.C. Fuller, A Military History of the Western World, Volume I , 1954, pgs. 26-33
______________________________________________________

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

FRANCES HA - FILM REVIEW (2012 - Directed by Noah Baumbach)


“As individuals, we find that our development depends upon the people whom we meet in the course of our lives.  (These people include the authors whose books we read, and characters in works of fiction and history.)  The benefit of these meetings is due as much to the differences as to the resemblances; to the conflict, as well as the sympathy, between persons.”
- T.S. Eliot
_______________________________________________________________________________

This film is still growing on me.  But I certainly cannot understand all the comparisons that have been made between it and HBO’s Girls.  Beyond mere trivial similarities – both have single women protagonists struggling through the transition into responsible adult life – the two are entirely unlike each other in atmosphere, aesthetic and philosophical themes, acting ability, script writing and … heart.  You might as well compare the “similarities” between Portlandia and Another Year (both are concerning middle-class lives within distinctive suburban communities) or between Entourage and Rumble Fish (both are about groups of single young men learning or not learning to grow up).

HBO’s Girls is too clever for it’s own good.  It’s typically cynical, disillusioned, narcissistic, self-focused, self-consciously ironic and what is now called “meta.” Frances Ha is joyful, thoughtful, at times objectively disinterested and interested in real ideas rather than in being relevant or millennially clever.

There is a seriousness that is lacking in the lighter fare of Girls, Portlandia or Entourage, but the inclusion of this missing seriousness would not necessarily prevent any of those shows from still being comic.  If anything, the earnestness of Frances Ha just proved this.  Instead, it is as if the makers of those shows just don’t care.  There are important cultural ideas obvious in their subject matter that are begging to be really explored, but they don’t seem to want to explore them.  By contrast, the makers of Frances Ha do.

Far too many moments in this film hit close to home.  I have friends who are the equivalents for many of the film’s characters.  And, even more unsettling, there is more than one character in Frances Ha who is dangerously similar to that person I have been or could still be.  I have seen, experienced or gone through too many of the sorts of things that happen in this film.  It is really terribly funny.  But I don’t know if I’ve seen a film that has produced as many laughs of, shall we say, self-recognition, as this one.

The film is critiquing my generation and that is one of the reasons why it is so good.  We need to be critiqued.  We are not honestly and compassionately critiqued like this enough.  This is also what makes so many of the film’s moments enjoyable in the sense of ‘uncomfortably funny.’

Greta Gerwig, who stars as Frances, has also recently given a splendid and comic performance in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress.  Comparing that film with this one allows us to consider what Frances Ha does at another angle.  Much of the social interaction that you would find in the films of Stillman is of that sort that one could happily desire.  In contrast, much of the social interaction in Frances Ha is of that less desired sort that one experiences instead.

How many things does Frances Ha get right?

Let’s count the ways:

- That wandering sense of rootlessness, years after college, when you see others of your friends who appear to have their acts together, when you still haven’t found satisfying answers for either love or for a career …

- That self-centered focus that revolves around my own search for the things I want to do with my own life that, intentionally or unintentionally, ignores anything greater or more important …

- That 21st century separation of sex from romance where sex is a matter of convenience between mere agreeable playmates …

- That dessication of the relatively new 20th Century idea of “dating” into the 21st Century version of just “hanging out” in which many young men will never actually say they are interested in specific young women …

- That trivializing of gender differences to the point of absolute casualness where men and women “hanging out” in each others’ bedrooms (or even lying in each other’s beds) means, well, it supposedly means nothing, nothing at all …

- Those instances of isolated conversation, becoming more and more frequent, where one individual can suddenly talk about himself or herself with absolutely no awareness of how all those listening are reacting or feeling …

- That constant and repeated separation from, and loss of, very dear friends …

- That dawning realization that one’s own rootlessness and lack of focus does not slow the passing of years, or even the passing of decades …

- Those ways in which life can be so easily lost over time without the conscious willing act to really do something worth doing …

Read more at Filmwell -

Friday, December 6, 2013

Girls Who Read - A Poem

I have learned, over the years, that men and woman who read, who really read, are quite rare.  This is why Mr. Grist believes that a woman who reads is so powerfully attractive.  And I concur.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

BLACK MIRROR - Review of Season One (2011) - Channel 4 - Created by Charlie Brooker


“As we contemplate the world converted into a huge machine and managed by engineers, we gradually grow aware of its lack of meaning, and of its emptiness of human value; the soul is stifled in this glorification of mechanical efficiency.  And then we begin to feel the weakness of such a creed when confronted by the real problems of life; we discover its inability to impose any restraint on the passions of men, or to supply any government which can appeal to the loyalty of the spirit.  And seeing these things we understand the fear that is gnawing at the vitals of society.”
- Paul Elmer More

“Yet to establish the fact of decadence is the most pressing duty of our time because, until we have demonstrated that cultural decline is a historical fact - which can be established - and that modern man has about squandered his estate, we cannot combat those who have fallen prey to hysterical optimism.”
- Richard M. Weaver
_______________________________________________________________________________

It’s uncanny.  There are different ways in which one can discover kinship with other people.  As a rule, I’ve always found it pleasant whenever I have found like-mindedness in another.  Sometimes it’s a shared taste in literature, film, art or music.  Other times it’s common sports fandom.  And occasionally it’s even a shared understanding of deeper things.  But, now I’ve found that sharing some things in common can also be disconcerting.  I just discovered that director, critic, journalist, and producer Charlie Brooker is a kindred spirit.  And I identify with him because of this one thing that we share.

We share the same nightmares.

I’m a little afraid.  I’ve also just discovered a couple other new facts and I don’t know what to do with them.  (How do we make sense of new factual information?  We certainly have plenty of it.  We increasingly have more information than we could ever possibly absorb in one lifetime.  But sometimes I wonder if we forget that increased information does not necessarily bring increased meaning.  Obtaining information is now easy.  Understanding what it means ... that can’t always just be googled.)

Fact #1: There is a three-year old television show from Britain.  It is entitled Black Mirror .  It’s dark and bleak and brilliant.  The creator of the show, Mr. Brooker, is something of a cultural satirist.  He’s also a self-admitted fan of the Twilight Zone.  As I was watching the first series, which was originally aired on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom in December of 2011, my friend turned to me and declared, “Now this is real science fiction.  This is what science fiction is meant to do!”  What he said didn’t hit me at the time because I was riveted, watching with increasing horror as the plot of the first episode of Black Mirror grew closer and closer to the end.

It was like watching a train wreck.  You want to look away.  You can’t look away.  And, even worse, Mr. Brooker has designed each story in this show to explicitly point out to you the very fact that you can’t look away.  Then, as you’re watching it, his point registers in your mind.  You get it.  He’s critiquing the very fact that you are absorbed with this TV screen in front of you ... and then you just keep watching.



But my friend’s point was a good one.  What is real science fiction meant to do?  Of course, science fiction can be used to accomplish a number of different objectives.  In his essay, “On Science Fiction,” C.S. Lewis mentions what he considered to be different kinds of science fiction.  One popular kind that he argued to be of poor quality was when “the author leaps forward into an imagined future when planetary, sidereal, or even galactic travel has become common.  Against this huge backcloth he then proceeds to develop an ordinary love-story, spy-story, wreck-story, or crime-story.”  In other words, there are a large number of science fiction stories which the creators didn’t need to set in futuristic settings.  There seems to be little purpose for the setting in these stories other than merely to profit off the genre’s popularity.  “This seems to me tasteless,” Lewis wrote.  “Whatever in a work of art is not used is doing harm.”

But popularity is not the ends for which the good science fiction storyteller aims.  It is true that a very large amount of science fiction today, in both books and film, consists of merely derivative copy-cat work.  “But we must distinguish.  A leap into the future, a rapid assumption of all the changes which are feigned to have occurred, is a legitimate ‘machine’ if it enables the author to develop a story of real value which could not have been told ... in any other way.”

Lewis explained that he was personally interested in the kind of science fiction that could be called “mythopoeic.”  This kind of science fiction is a sort of myth-making derived from “an imaginative impulse as old as the human race” but “working under the special conditions of our time.”  The end result of such stories is that they will inevitably become rather haunting.  They will concern themselves with universal problems that we wrestle with every day as the self-conscious creatures that we are.  And, Lewis adds, because fundamental to who we are is the fact that we have moral natures, a good and truly haunting science fiction story “will usually point to a moral: of itself, without any didactic manipulation by the author on a conscious level.  Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde would be an example.  Another is Marc Brandel’s Cast the First Shadow, where a man, long solitary, despised, and oppressed, because he has no shadow, at last meets a woman who shares his innocent defect, but later turns from her in disgust and indignation on finding that she has, in addition, the loathsome and unnatural property of having no reflection.”

Such stories are haunting because they create a myth that leaves a lasting impression upon us.  These stories are impossible, but the way that the persons in them will and act is entirely believable.  In fact, we may often wince at how similar, in this other world, human wickedness, folly, evil, ignorance and despair all turn out to be just the same as that in our own world.  But, by placing the story in another world, the author can surprise us with good and evil.  What would seem commonplace, stands out in a clearer and possesses the quality of appearing in a new light.

I can heartily declare that all three of the episodes of the first series of Black Mirror are these kinds of stories.  Each episode is a stand-alone episode similar to The Twilight Zone.  “But,” Brooker explained in an interview, “they’re all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in ten minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.”

Fact #2: This show, Black Mirror, which has been around now for two years, was only made available to the United States for the first time this November (and only for DirectTV subscribers.)  It did not air in the U.S. (on either networks or cable) and no one has even bothered to distribute it on DVD for North America.  It is not available for online streaming on websites like Netflix or Hulu.

Why?  According to the laws of economics, this is because where was no demand for it.  It’s paradoxical because this is the age in which some very intelligent TV shows on HBO and AMC have been gaining in popularity over the last couple decades.  But Black Mirror does something that Breaking Bad, Mad Men or The Wire don’t do.  It’s not critiquing a past historical age.  It’s not critiquing any as abstract as “the system,” drug culture, law enforcement or politics.  Instead, Brooker’s show is critiquing us – the viewers.

I fear that if it were to come to the states, it would probably come in the diluted form of so many other Americanized versions of good British TV shows.  Copycat directors and screenwriters would take it, add things to it that are considered more popular in American entertainment with a combination of better hype, better advertising, worse directing, worse writing and worse acting.  Things that in Brooker’s version are quite serious could so very easily, in America, be played only for laughs.  It bothers me to think upon what this says about us.

Are we so far gone as that?  When Neil Postman wrote that our “culture’s adjustment to the epistemology of television is now all but complete; we have so thoroughly accepted its definitions of truth, knowledge, and reality that irrelevance seems to us to be filled with import, and incoherence seems eminently sane,” was he right?

If so, then we are in deep trouble.

Another kind of science fiction that C.S. Lewis described was when the story “is satiric or prophetic: the author criticises tendencies in the present by imagining them carried out (‘produced’, as Euclid would say) to their logical limit.  Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four leap to our minds” as examples.  I would suggest that Brooker has also made this kind of science fiction with Black Mirror, except he’s mixed hints of the “mythopoeic” in it too.  There is a glimpse of the sort of story here that you find in Cast the First Shadow.  Some of the “myths” in Brooker’s stories aren’t far away from the myths of Narcissus or Orpheus.

Now, this review is going to be unlike most TV show reviews.  When you look for writing on a TV show, most of what you find will be a Cliff-Notes recap of each episode’s plot.  I can’t do that here.  Half of the power of Black Mirror is all in the surprises.  So instead of doing that, I’m only going to generally summarize the ideas of each episode and discuss some of the philosophy that necessarily intertwines with each story.

The first episode of Series 1, entitled The National Anthem, is rather offensive.  It makes it difficult for me to even be able to recommend the show to many of my friends and family.  Suffice it to say that it explores the effect that mass entertainment media and internet websites like YouTube have upon our politics and upon how we think.  It won’t be easy to watch.  I seriously doubt whether I’ll watch it again.  But it does leave an unfortunately strong impression.

The disturbing nature of the episode is quickly revealed in the first five minutes.  Rory Kinnear does an outstanding job playing the kind and decent British Prime Minister Michael Callow.  He is woken early one morning and informed that the English princess (played straight by Lydia Wilson) has been kidnaped and that she has been forced to read the kidnapper’s demands to prevent her from being executed on a video released to the world on YouTube.

It’s almost too easy of a plot.  If you were to read more about it, you might just think that it’s a stupid joke of an episode.  But Brooker doesn’t mean it to be joke.  The actors play the whole thing straight (something that I suspect wouldn’t happen if it had been produced in the states).  They take it deadly seriously.  The consequences, and the alternative prospects of how the story might end, turn out to be both rather disgusting and profound at the same time.

What have mass media and internet videos done to us?  Do we even bother to think about what is now possible - about what this is already used for now in some corners of the web every single day?

“It is a commonplace,” wrote T.S. Eliot, “that what shocks one generation is accepted quite calmly by the next.  This adaptability to change of moral standards is sometimes greeted with satisfaction as an evidence of human perfectability: whereas it is only evidence of what unsubstantial foundations people’s moral judgments have.”

I often forget how our culture shapes even my own sensibility.  More than once, I’ve stopped to find myself taking pride in my “knowingness” and my ability not to be shocked.  To be innocent of things that are out there, to not know about them, to not have seen them - is looked down upon in our culture as sheltered and naive.  But what if shame were a good thing?  What if the ability to be shocked was a sign of moral character?  In this episode, Brooker asks us to consider whether shame might still have moral value and that is something I don’t think I’ve seen on TV for a long time.

If innocence, dignity and honor still have value, how often are they scoffed at and desecrated in the mass entertainment culture that we have today?  Does it really please us to see dignity laid low?  Is it really entertaining to see goodness stomped on, laughed at, humiliated and violated?

Neil Postman is famous for his critiques of how we use technology and has consequently built something of a reputation for being anti-technology.  Yet I’ve always thought that he had some very important things to say.  For example, he is one of the best thinkers I know on the subject of what viewing everything as entertainment can do to us.

Postman wrote:

“To say it still another way: Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television.  No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure.  That is why even on news shows which provide us daily with fragments of tragedy and barbarism, we are urged by the newscasters to ‘join them tomorrow.’  What for?  One would think that several minutes of murder and mayhem would suffice as material for a month of sleepless nights.  We accept the newscasters’ invitation because we know that the ‘news’ is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say.  Everything about a news show tells us this - the good looks and amiability of the cast, their pleasant banter, the exciting music that opens and closes the show, the vivid film footage, the attractive commercials - all these and more suggest that what we have just seen is no cause for weeping.  A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis.”

It could be that men and women from other past ages would be horrified at how callous, desensitized and cynical we all have become in the 21st Century.  It could be that how we view our political news now - in itself another form of entertainment - has a moral and spiritual dimension.  It could even be that we have a trivial attitude towards real goodness and real evil.  As you watch Prime Minister Callow slowly tread through this nightmare of an episode, and as you picture yourself in his or in his wife’s shoes, I would bet that you’ll think of these questions slightly differently than you ever have before.

And that is good science fiction.

The second episode, entitled Fifteen Million Merits, is arguably the best episode of Black Mirror.  It brilliantly takes another look at our media saturated culture, but from a different dystopian angle.  It’s set farther into the future than the first one.  In fact, I will never be able to think of Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four quite the same again without also thinking of this episode.  At the same time, it also doesn’t feel as if it were that far into the future.

Imagine a world where everyone stares at TV and computer screens all day (in the morning before they go to work, all day while they are at work, and all night while they are relaxing after their day at work).  Imagine a world where all the food you eat is artificially processed with chemically induced flavor and vitamins.  Imagine a world so full of advertisements that you can’t help but absorb them so deeply into your thinking that quoting advertisements and referring to advertisements in your daily thoughts and conversation is a normal part of who you are.  Imagine a world where physical health and body image determines social classes.  Imagine a world where it is possible to make enough money to support yourself and then spend eight to ten hours every day watching television, playing video games or watching pornography.

Fifteen Million Merits has all these things.  The people in this other world live in what are essentially prison cells covered floor to ceiling with video screens.  Commercials play on their bathroom mirrors.  Pornography plays at their work.  Reality TV shows are what they all live for.  They get meaning for their lives by hoping and dreaming and wishing and working to be ... TV stars.

Imagine a world where almost everything natural has been replaced by technology to make it work better and to make it be safer.  Imagine a world where a human being’s value can be measured in how he or she interacts with virtual media.  Imagine a world where technological pleasure and instant gratification is always at your fingertips, always there to temporary satisfy insatiable appetites as many times as you could ever ask for.

The world of this episode also has all these things.  It’s a satirical look at Reality TV and objectification of other people.  But all these latest technological improvements are what everyone likes and wants.  Pleasures are given and given and given as long as the consumer keeps paying for it.  It is a world that has lost any connection between gratification and the existence of a moral sphere.

British philosopher Roger Scruton wrote, “The idea of ‘evil pleasures’ has slipped from our grasp.  But it is through pleasure, power and glory that Mephistopheles tempts the soul of Faust.  And perhaps our most vivid experiences of personal evil are granted to us in the context of sexual pleasure, when desire overrides, disregards or violates the freedom of its object.”

Cultural commentator, Chris Hedges, wrote: “In The Republic, Plato imagines human beings chained for the duration of their lives in an underground cave, knowing nothing but darkness.  Their gaze is confined to the cave wall, upon which shadows of the world above are thrown.  They believe these flickering shadows are reality.  If, Plato writes, one of these prisoners is freed and brought into the sunlight, he will suffer great pain.  Blinded by the glare, he is unable to see anything and longs for the familiar darkness.  But eventually his eyes adjust to the light.  The illusion of the tiny shadows is obliterated.  He confronts the immensity, chaos, and confusion of reality.  The world is no longer drawn in simple silhouettes.  But he is despised when he returns to the cave.  He is unable to see in the dark as he used to.  Those who never left the cave ridicule him and swear never to go into the light lest they be blinded as well.  Plato feared the power of entertainment, the power of the senses to overthrow the mind, the power of emotion to obliterate reason.”

The sinister potential of these powers that Plato feared is precisely what Brooker explores in this episode.  Everyone seems satisfied with them except one character, Bingham Madsen (played first with irony and then with passion by Daniel Kaluuya).  Bingham is confronted with a sanitized, processed, prepackaged, artificial, media saturated world, and yet he is hungry for something more.  Like most dystopian stories, he gets a hint that there could be something more when he meets a pretty girl, Abi (played with considerable charm by Jessica Brown Findlay).  And then he hears her sing.

She is somehow untouched by the sordidness all around her.  Her innocence and naivety are attractive to Bingham, but her singing hints at something even deeper.  Her favorite song is old.  It was passed down to her from her mother who learned the song from her grandmother.  Abi becomes the first person to show Bingham beauty.  In his eyes, she is beauty incarnated.  Her very existence and personality is a light for him in a world covered with dark multimedia screens.

It is mesmerizing how, in a sterile inhuman setting, Brooker directs Kaluuya and Findlay to create something that seems a little magical.  In a sense, Bingham understands something about truth.  Abi understands something about beauty.  When the two of them meet, you get the impression that real goodness is possible.  Their relation to each other is morally good.  But, that’s just the beginning of the story.  In a world devoted to spectacles, false images and appetites, what would such a world so dominated by entertainment do to innocence, truth or beauty?

The nightmare of the second episode lies in how unnatural and abnormal it all feels (at least I hope it would seem that way to any viewer).  Bingham and Abi bring back something normal again, and thus appear to be human beings.  But there are many ways in which normal human relationships can be placed in great danger.

“An abnormity,” explained Russell Kirk, “in its Latin root, means a monstrosity, defying the norm, the nature of things ... An abnormal generation is a generation of monsters, enslaved by will and appetite.  To recover an apprehension of normality, then, is to acquire an understanding of one’s real nature.  The alternative to such recovery is not a piquant pose of ‘noncomformity,’ but monstrosity in the soul and in society.”

Remember that when you watch the second episode.  In a world where everything can be a spectacle, where everything can be objectified, repackaged and sold back to an always hungry unsated viewership, what happens to the human soul?  The entertainment we choose to use for our “relaxing,” or whatever else it is we choose to call it, affects our being.  Very often it can and will desensitize us.  You have to be pretty far gone not to notice it, but how far gone are we really?  Isn’t this something we ought to pay attention to?  Weaver writes that “our most serious obstacle is that people traveling this downward path develop an insensibility which increases their degradation.  Loss is perceived most clearly at the beginning; after habit becomes implanted, one beholds the anomalous situation of apathy mounting as the moral crisis deepens.”

Honestly, one of the reasons why Black Mirror may not have yet aired in the United States is how it takes down the Reality TV show, American Idol, and its other hundred derivatives.  Ranked the number one television show in United States in ratings for eight years, American Idol is watched every week by tens of millions of viewers at a time.  Stopping to think about this for moment, what exactly are they watching?  American Idol is a show where countless celebrity worshipers take turns subjecting themselves to an public exhibition so that they can be judged based on their looks, personality, charisma or popularity.  They will either be praised or shamed.  This exhibition is entertaining enough to become the top-rated show in the United States.

No one that I have ever talked to who watches American Idol has stopped to ask if this kind of entertainment has any kind of moral affect.  What does it mean to value populist praise - or even to care about the popular spotlight?  Chris Hedges writes: “The moral nihilism of celebrity culture is played out on reality television shows, most of which encourage a dark voyeurism into other people’s humiliation, pain, weakness, and betrayal.  Education, building community, honesty, transparency, and sharing are qualities that will see you, in a gross perversion of democracy and morality, voted off a reality show.”

Read more at Filmwell -