rationalizing

Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s not-a-prequel to the Alien stories (but, c’mon, it’s totally a prequel) left me cranky and exasperated. Writer Damon Lindelof sets up an artificial opposition, just as he did in “Lost,” of science vs. faith, but it seems clear that he doesn’t understand, y’know, how science actually works: by wedding strict protocols and routines (to foster reproducibility and objectivity while protecting both personnel and irreplaceable samples) to unfettered creativity of intellect and appetite for knowledge.

That’s hard to reconcile that with the scientists of Prometheus, who fluctuate wildly between dull-eyed incuriosity and appalling recklessness, who seem to have little sense of the magnitude of the work they’re undertaking, and who are colleagues and equals only in the sense that they are all equally incompetent.

As we watched, I came up with several geeky [non-spoiler-y] ways to rationalize the stupidity and endless bungling of Prometheus’ entire scientific task force:

1. Realize that these people are scientists the way that Giorgio Tsoukalos of “Ancient Aliens” fame is a “scientist.” (“I’m not saying it was aliens, buuuuuut…. it was aliens!”)

2. Remember the B-Ark from Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, the massive spaceship full of incompetent, inane, unnecessary, and otherwise ineffectual bumblers who were packed up together and shipped off to a distant wasteland, all the while believing themselves to be boldly striking out as the vanguard of a whole planet’s survival? Yeeeeeah, the “scientists” of the Prometheus might as well be so many telephone sanitizers.

3. Peter Weyland, the posthumous underwriter of this bajillion-dollar expedition, was the Howard Hughes of his generation: brilliant and driver, but also tragically unbalanced and fantastically wealthy enough to do anything he wishes. His obsessions were fed by the poorly researched, blinkered speculations of the archaeologists who shape the mission, and the entire scientific team is selected with the same slapdash passion-above-protocol agenda. Any scientist likely to interfere with the mission by insisting upon, I dunno, following established procedure or maintaining rigorous standards during this monumentally historic event is summarily rejected in favor of a bunch of bungling pushovers.

4. Maybe arising from those cryo-suspension pods is like rousing from an long midday nap: you wake up all muzzy-headed and disoriented, and as often as not, the rest of the day is shot to hell. (Though that doesn’t explain why the flight crew, who also underwent cryo-suspension, appear to be thinking clearly and sensibly.)

5. They have developed SPAAAAAAACE MADNESS. Or maybe just a really bad (and highly transmittable) case of space-dumb.

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The Warriors: come out to plaaaa-aaaay

So, um, I finally watched 1979′s The Warriors, a touchstone flick referenced endlessly in MST3K, “The Simpsons,” and other pop-culture strip miners. From what little I knew about it (an eerily empty and blighted New York City subway populated only by roving gangs of, y’know, warriors; a seemingly eternal night of guerrilla warfare; a half-shirtless cast clad in leather vests), I assumed The Warriors was a post-apocalyptic gangland epic, a Mad Max set in the NYC subway.

But it ain’t. The Warriors takes place in then-contemporary New York… which accounts for the squalid atmosphere. (Yeah, the 1990s clean-up campaign was overly aggressive and rife with systemic abuse of authority, but, y’all, 1970s New York was a sewer.) In the film’s opening, every street gang in the city is called to the Bronx for an uneasy summit meeting. The staggering proposal: since gang members vastly outnumber police, an intergang truce would allow them to rule the city unchallenged.

Unfortunately, the movie drops the intriguing idea of class warfare and kleptocracy (and the social and philosophical questions it raises). Instead, the Warriors are wrongly implicated in a gang slaying and have to hustle their way home to Coney without getting jumped by rival gangs. That’s right: the film offers the possibility of total social upheaval, then bait-and-switches to the epic adventure of some guys getting lost on the the subway.

Aaaand then it plunges from the merely tedious into the absurd. Among the gangs The Warriors have to evade:
– The Turnbulls, a reasonably realistic gang in reasonably realistic garb (jeans, bandanas) bearing a reasonably realistic range of weapons (chains, knives, two-by-fours, and — a little outlandishly — a great big school bus that they cling to);
– The Orphans, a weedy-looking bunch in monogrammed drab-green t-shirts;
– The Baseball Furies, a band of bat-wielding soldiers in full face paint and old-timey baseball uniforms;
– The Hi-Hats, suspendered tights-wearing mimes in top hats and, again, full face paint (why doesn’t it get smudged in combat?);
– The Lizzies, a tough all-girl gang who (OH MY GOODNESS) might not be as beguiled by The Warriors’ sexual magnetism as they let on;
– The Riffs, who habitually perform some sort of martial-art/standing yoga en masse in shortie bathrobes;
– The Hurricanes, who all sport porkpie hats;
– The Punks, strapping guys in overalls and rollerskates who all dress like oversized Chucky dolls, which is not nearly as scary as it might sound.

And about ten other gangs too ridiculous to describe or keep track of, though The Fella and I have tentatively identified a few, whom we’ve named:
– The Referees (in vertical-striped black-and-yellow shirts);
– The Benatars (in horizontal-striped jerseys, snap-brim fedoras, and sassy-short feathery haircuts; c’mon and hit them with your best shot);
– The Traffic Cones (in blaze yellow satin jackets, not super for evading your enemies in the dark streets),
– and The Buffetts (in Hawaiian shirts).

I don’t know what’s more bananas: seeing the gangs get more and more hilarious, or trying to suspend my disbelief when it turns out that these world-weary rakes and streetwise criminals can’t read a damn subway map, or watching Dexter’s dad (James Remar) strut around shirtless, threatening to rape women and unleashing homophobic taunts on his fellow gang members, or both of us saying at the same moment, “Hey, is that the less memorable sister from ‘Too Close for Comfort’?” (It is.)

[This review is cross-posted to The Video RePort.]

Les Diaboliques: a review

In the first shot of Les Diaboliques, a rattletrap truck putt-putts its way through wet streets. As it enters the shabby grounds of L’Institution Delassalle, the truck runs through a deep mud puddle, crushing a small paper boat left drifting there. In that moment, master director Henri-Georges Clouzot (Le Corbeau, Wages of Fear) presents the two themes at the film’s core: that we should watch the waters, and that we will see the fragile and the frivolous crushed underfoot.

M. Delassalle (Paul Meurisse), the headmaster of this rundown boarding school, treats his students and staff with equal (and crushing) disdain, but he saves his true sadism for his women. His brassy mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret) first appears wearing sunglasses to hide a bruised eye. After his delicate wife Christina (Véra Clouzot) cannot force herself to choke down the spoiled fish served in the dining hall (as “an example” for the students), we hear her pained squeals as Delassalle administers her punishment.

The early minutes of the film show us that Delassalle is loathed by all, from the tippling teacher he humiliates at the dinner table to the dawdling student he confines to school for the weekend vacation, so when the two women who’ve suffered at his hands for years team up and hatch a scheme to rid themselves of the brute, it’s no surprise. But trust me: Les Diaboliques does have plenty of surprises for its audience.

At its release in 1955, the film caused a sensation, and it remains a spine-chilling classic of suspense cinema. Les Diaboliques‘ pervasive influence on generations of thrillers to follow may make its twists and turns feel familiar, but it is just as haunting on the 20th viewing as on the first; the film stands as a masterpiece of mood and tension.

The pervasive corruption of the story is evident in every aspect: the muddied splash of the truck, the untended and grassless school grounds, the stagnant swimming pool, the spoiled fish, the slightly grubby hotel room to which our heroines repair, the broken-down laundry basket upon which an early suspense scene turns. The dirty waters of the first scene hint at the insinuating, encroaching quality of creeping evil. Water seeps into the film at every turn: stale in the streets, spitting from the sky, banging through pipes, trickling down drains, and spilling every which way.

Even the sweetly timorous Christina, whose long shiny plaits, gingham dress, and winsome half-smile make her look like a barely-grown Dorothy Gale still in a daze from her trip to Oz — even she is blemished; her weak heart is a metaphor for her moral weakness. If Christina can sink to the depths she does, the film seems to ask, who in this world can stand against moral corruption?

“The Wire,” again and again

For this week’s VideoReport, I’m suggesting “The Wire,” even if you’ve seen it before… and especially if you’ve seen it twice through.

Watching David Simon’s deservedly legendary HBO series “The Wire” for the first time is a bit like learning to swim: you’re thrown into the complicated worlds of Baltimore’s overtaxed Homicide division, a special unit developed to study drug kingpin Avon Barksdale’s syndicate, and the many members of the syndicate itself. It’s a sprawling cast of characters with dozens of interweaving story lines and realistically complicated relationships, spread out through several separate but intersecting subcultures. The closest we get to a traditional first-episode dramatis personae is a police photo board putting names to faces — but only of a handful of the gang’s street-level soldiers.

Rewatching the first episode last night, I suddenly looked at the elapsed time and thought “We’re more than eight minutes in and we’ve learned one person’s name — the corpse lying in the street” — who never comes up again in the entire series.

After the spoon-feeding that most dramas do to keep viewers up to speed, this reserve is a bit jolting, but “The Wire” demands your attention and then utterly, completely rewards you for it.

That’s the first time through. The second time through, you know the characters and the story arcs. The second viewing, like the second reading of a great novel, allows you to fully immerse yourself in the characters’ arcs. This time, you know who they are, where they came from, and — devastatingly, in many cases — where they’re going.

Now that you’re not struggling to follow the complex stories, the show’s greater theme of institutional decay becomes strikingly clear at every turn, even in the first few episodes. The D.A.’s office with its staggering stacks of paperwork on every desk, lining the walls, and precariously propped on office chairs: that’s not just set-dressing for an overworked office but a symbol of a legal system smothering under its own weight.

The parallels between cops and robbers become strikingly clear. When a hand-to-hand drug dealer commands a crowd of waiting junkies “You all know what this is! Up against the wall!,” it’s not hard to imagine why he chose those precise words. When a surveillance van drives off having given up on finding the dealers’ stash, the camera shifts to the van of the rival criminal crew (as yet unnamed, of course) who watched longer and smarter than the cops.

Again, like a great novel, the third time through, even greater resonances and symbols emerge. To pick just one example, let’s look at Detective Thomas “Herc” Hauk. At first, Herc seems as dumb and as dangerous as an untrained and neglected dog, but as the series develops, he is the very embodiment of the institutional decay and socio-political resentment that obstructs true and meaningful changes.

Lazy, abusive, shiftless, untrustworthy, and almost hopelessly naive, Herc nonetheless believes his initial stagnation in the ranks is the consequence of affirmative action or favoritism, not of his own woefully poor police work. Herc routinely and offhandedly refers to his whiteness as a mark of some obscure authority: with his (black) partner in a pointless argument about which of them is Batman and which is Robin; with a citizen while phonebanking for a (black) mayoral candidate; when griping about instructions given to him by more adept and experienced (black) fellow detective Kima Greggs. His simmering racial resentment only fuels his apathy for police work; Herc cuts more and more corners as the show proceeds.

But, dumb and destructive as he is, Herc is a constant unwitting catalyst, both for his colleagues and for those outside the police force. [SPOILERS] It’s astounding how many major events in the universe of “The Wire” are precipitated by some fool thing Herc says or does*. To list just a few: Prez beating a teenager, the identification of the elusive Avon Barksdale, linking the dock workers to the drug trade, Carver’s life-altering introduction to Major Colvin, the dissolution of Hamsterdam (and the end of Bunny Colvin’s largely productive police career), the release of Marlo Stansfield, and — most heartbreakingly — innocent Randy Wagstaff loosing his stable home and enduring daily beatings as a snitch. Herc is like a force of nature, a tornado, moving heedlessly through the landscape with destruction trailing behind him, blissfully unaware of the miseries he visits upon those in his wake.

Perhaps the answer to the riddle of both Herc’s destructive nature and his personal success lies in his utter lack of integrity. Most of the characters on the series, cops and criminals both, struggle to align their personal morality with the strictures of their institutions. As Omar points out so poignantly, “A man got to have a code.” All the players recognize that their wins and losses occur within those strictures, that they are, in some greater sense, a consequence of the system. “The game is the game.” Even when Bodie concedes that “the game is rigged, man” that he’ll do “what I have to,” he adds a principled caveat: “just don’t ask me to live on my knees.”

But Herc has no code, no guiding principle, no sense of a greater system, no passion or ambition other than bettering his own circumstances. Herc will live on his knees if it means living comfortably. We see him switch alliances, insincerely fawning over different leaders, over and over: from unit to unit, commander to commander, candidate to candidate, even switching from cops to robbers by taking a job with Levy (the lawyer representing Barksdale, thus working against his former units’ interests), and finally (though briefly) betraying Levy to his former partner only to accept Levy’s fraternal embrace at the end. Levy’s no fool; despite his words, he probably knows that Herc is no one’s mishpocha. Herc’s only loyalty is to Herc.

*For more on Herc’s centrality to the events of the series, read The Life and Times of Fuzzy Dunlop.

Velvet Goldmine: a movie review

Writer-director Todd Haynes (I’m Not There, Safe) intended Velvet Goldmine to tell the story of David Bowie’s rise to fame, but Bowie refused his approval — and songs — when he realized the script focused on a largely-fictionalized account of his sexual exploits and public persona rather than his musical career.

Haynes made a virtue of necessity, rewriting and reframing the narrative. What could have been a mere bio-pic became instead a wider statement about the consuming nature of fame and power. Fittingly, the rewritten story follows the structure of Orson Welles’ notoriously not-a-bio-pic Citizen Kane: reporter Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) is tapped to investigate the disappearing act of former rock idol Brian Slade, the glammest of the glam, whose most outrageous stage act drove him into obscurity.

As in Kane, the reporter tries to divine the icon’s history at second-hand, struggling to assemble the glib or sorrowful gossip of Slade’s scattered coterie into a coherent history. Unlike Kane, Velvet Goldmine ties the reporter’s personal narrative to the subject’s, expressing the slippery way we can incorporate a celebrity’s persona into our own histories, consuming the energy of those we admire or emulate, eroding their identities in favor of our own projections.

It could have been dreary or didactic, but instead the film is a giddy tissue of visual tales, richly laced with a soundtrack of glam-rock’s greatest hits, original and reworked (and notably minus any David Bowie). Velvet Goldmine shows us the grime under a layer of glitter, the sordid soul-drain that fame can become.

Chicken Run: a movie review

Big doings are afoot (and afeather) at the Tweedy chicken farm. Ginger, a flighty hen who’s escaped and been recaptured several times, hopes to persuade the other chickens to fly the coop en masse. Meanwhile, the sinister Mrs. Tweedy has hatched a scheme to shift their production from eggs to — duh duh DUH — chicken pies.

Mind you, I’m not intentionally recommending Chicken Run as a secret plot to turn your kids abruptly vegetarian just in time for a big poultry-consuming (and big-poultry consuming) holiday — but, uh, there is that possibility. The characters and story of Chicken Run are as compelling as the classic films it alludes to so fluently (including such greats as Stalag 17, The Great Escape, and Raiders of the Lost Ark). As Roger Ebert remarks, “This movie about chickens is more human than many formula comedies.”

[This review is cross-posted to The VideoReport.]