Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim and World War Z are the best blockbusters of last summer. Oddly enough, they were also the least well served by their trailers. I was eager to see neither of them, and yet, both were wonderful in unexpected ways.

So some thoughts:

Timelines
This movie musters narrative speed yet feels casual and roomy. The monsters arrive in the opening shots under voice-over. The story then jumps to the present, which is five years later. After a quick introductory fight scene, in which real stakes are established in the blink of an eye, the narrative jumps forward to a new present, again five or six years in the future, in which the action of the rest of the film will unspool. Combined, these leaps, establish multiple arcs: monsters arrive, seem defeated, but comeback; robots are created, kick ass, but soon are overwhelmed and crumble; boy earns glory, disappears after the loss of his brother in combat, but now comes back to save world. These micro-narratives are simple, cliche, but they are established quickly and elegantly. Together they lend scope and weight to the movie’s central events. Just as importantly, they leave the bulk of the film’s runtime for the final climactic days and hours to play out on the screen without feeling cramped or rushed.

Video Game as Narrative Logic
The movie operates as a sequence of boss fights. “Level 3 complete. Level 4 initiates in 3 hours!” There is even a mini-game–“Mortal Kombat!”–where the hero must earn his partner. This game logic provides a frame for the fight scenes that is distinct from the narrative. This allows the story to focus on other questions: Who are these people? How can they work together? What are the stakes they have on the table? Now, this film is no character study and it’s answers to all of these questions are generic and cliche. The movie is also not interested in ethical reflection. But there is a plot and this device keeps it from being derailed by moments of spectacle.

Narrative Modules
The emotions this movie plays with are simple, primal, but its range is quite wide. Discrete chunks of story are are used to create a gallery of  tones: the “fuck ya!” of a robot with a boat as a club; the “Haha, funny!” of a pendulum desk ornament set swinging by the battle; the Raiders of the Lost Ark-glee of watching the oriental fight masters (“they use the three armed style”!) wiped out by the monster equivalent of a gun pulled from a holster; the horror of watching people tied up in metal box and drowning; etc.  These discrete “modular” moments show a movie that wants to play around. This play is post-modern but doesn’t feel po-mo. Incidentally, the modular play with tone is matched by a modular variation on narrative genres. The most interesting of these is the deeply compressed but still satisfying story of the two scientists, a classically structured romance comedy. (I’m thinking of Cavell’s definition: two characters struggling to establish a conversation that we see will be profitable.)

Monster Madness as Narrative Speed
I loved that characters, monsters and robots were thrown away and expendable. People died. Roberts were torn apart. Monsters were vanquished. It kept the stakes real, the narrative overhead low. Even better: as the story proceeds, the number of characters that have to be kept track of decreases steadily. This speeds up the pacing without making things feel rushed.

Sensible Scale
Despite the digital effects, this movie is grounded in a mechanical world. These enormous machines operate in a physical space that translates down to and is comprehensible in relation to the human body. Over and over, the digital manifests in non-digital spaces as movements of or changes in people’s bodies. I’m thinking of the scenes of walking drivers, swinging arms, the sense that it is physically difficult to move the parts of these machines, the bloody noses, the bleeding eyes, the scars and slings. All of these establish a convincing connection between the out-sized robot and the ordinary human scales of the two lines of action. This connection was photographed on sets and not animated on a computer. People were crushed and drowned and it was shocking, the high altitude fall felt dangerous, and all of this because the incongruous narrative spaces cohered.

Legitimate Wastelands
It’s a small point, but this narrative establishes itself as occurring a few hours before the extinction of the human race. In this context, the massive destruction of city landscapes reads as sacrifice and makes sense. Everything can be destroyed, and humanity can still be saved. This is very different from the destruction in Man of Steel.

Final Comment
Most of what I’ve said relates to decisions made before filming even began and boils down to great writing. It’s the secret to a strong movie.

Dawn–William Carlos Williams

Dawn

Ecstatic bird songs pound
the hollow vastness of the sky
with metallic clinkings–
beating color up into it
at a far edge,–beating it, beating it
with rising, triumphant ardor,–
stirring it into warmth,
quickening in it a spreading change,–
bursting wildly against it as
dividing the horizon, a heavy sun
lifts himself–is lifted–
bit by bit above the edge
of things,–runs free at last
out into the open–! lumbering
glorified in full release upward–
songs cease.

                           –William Carlos Williams

Reading. Links.

The commercialized web has turned links into distractions. Advertising links on news sites and Facebook pull your attention away from what’s brought you there. Related content links–in text or off to the side–scatter your attention around to create “click” revenue. In these contexts, links are obstacles to strong, effective reading and are best ignored.

But on personal sites, links are something else. At their least interesting, they point toward things the writer has noticed, wants to remember. They can also gather up, either within or across posts, a set of materials to be worked through and commented on at some point. At their best, links capture knowledge or express insight, developed in a piecemeal but ultimately coherent process of discovery and analysis.

Noticing things is, after all, the first step in close reading. Good readers mark things, and when they’re done, they look back and see what patterns have emerged. In paying attention to what they noticed, they discover the thing they need to think more about. Links serve a similar purpose on personal sites, and over time, their slow accumulation, organization, and development emerges as the real content of a blog or wiki. Links are what a blog knows.

Site designs that sacrifice or hide this emergent complexity for the sake of mobile access cast aside wheat and bake the chaff.

Now You See Me

Somewhere in the world someone–some adult person, eligible to parent children or serve you a meal or drive your bus, maybe even someone responsible for running your government–liked this movie, loved it even and that person is a total fucking idiot because this movie is a big steaming pile of stupid.

It’s just dumb. Really really dumb.

ps–why did all of these big-name actors sign up for this? Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo. I’m mystified.

Wine Log: Chateau Moncontour Vouvray

An intensely yellow wine, tasty but clear finish. Not “fat” like a Grave or a Bourgogne. Very good and definitely a region to explore some more. (How is it we’ve never drunk whites from the Loire really?)

We drank this with oysters and lobster as part of Thanksgiving dinner. It was good with the oysters, but didn’t play nicely with the lemon and definitely not with the Tabasco sauce. It was great with the lobster and the butter though. Would be good with fruit, salad, creams or chicken

Front Label

Back Label

Damages Damaged

Last year I watched the first season of Damages after a friend recommended it. I loved the first half of the show. Patty Hewes is a strong, complex and ambiguous character, and a fan of Glenn Close, I was happy to see what she did with the role. I also thought the double temporality created by the opening clips was very effective at introducing and developing tension in a show that suffered from regular, necessary lulls. The opening and closing segments offered a tool for offsetting and giving room for these lulls to develop into something more than exposition.

But then midseason, these two features began to appear like a trap, a gimmick to sell the show that the writers were now trying to write their way out off. Yes, its certainly raises the stakes to have your plot rumbling forward to the moment when your second lead, covered in blood and wandering the streets, will be arrested and charged with murder, but eventually, you have to account for what’s going on. And if you want to have her come back, you have to get her out of the situation.

The writers pulled some twists out of their hat, none very convincing but they made it to the last episode alive, well and ready for another season.

Well, now, nearly a year later, I’ve started the second season, and after watching the first episode I just want to make a note before moving on: the writers are still stuck and have made their situation worse with some very bad choices. They have maintained the opening segments but have chosen to put the same character at their centre: the gimmick now feels more gimmicky, we know it’s a trick. The second lead is not going to go wack-o rogue and kill someone assassin style in her apartment. The villain from the first season, shot and “dead” at its end, is also back working through boring “why don’t people like me issues.” Patty and Ellen are both dealing with last season’s “issues” too: but who cares? These could have–and should have–been dropped between seasons.

But the worst set up is the whole Ellen working as a mole for the FBI angle. It’s a poor source of conflict between her and Patty, because again, it’s just not possible that Patty will not last out the season, and the segment makes it clear that Ellen will survive it too. So the stakes are simply not there. The only question is How is this not what it appears?

It’s frustrating to see such bad conceptual work built into the foundations of the narrative. But I’m still watching because of Glenn Close. I’m worried they are going to reduce her character to a simple villain (the writers don’t trust power), but we’ll see.

To be continued…

Defoe on Journaling

I now began to consider seriously my condition, and the circumstances I was reduced to; and I drew up the state of my affairs in writing, not so much to leave them to any that were to come after me—for I was likely to have but few heirs—as to deliver my thoughts from daily poring over them, and afflicting my mind; and as my reason began now to master my despondency, I began to comfort myself as well as I could, and to set the good against the evil, that I might have something to distinguish my case from worse; and I stated very impartially, like debtor and creditor, the comforts I enjoyed against the miseries I suffered,…

–Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

Defoe on Shame

I have since often observed, how incongruous and irrational the common temper of mankind is, especially of youth, to that reason which ought to guide them in such cases—viz. that they are not ashamed to sin, and yet are ashamed to repent; not ashamed of the action for which they ought justly to be esteemed fools, but are ashamed of the returning, which only can make them be esteemed wise men.

–Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

Wine Log: Orestiadi Grillo, Sicily

At the end of the afternoon, Thanksgiving weekend, the Beav and I wanted to have a drink somewhere outside on a terrace to take advantage of one of the most beautiful Indian summers in years. But no had tables out anywhere, and so we went home, pulled this bottle off the rack and popped it in the freezer to chill.

It was one of the cheapest whites we’d bought on our last trip to Ottawa, so expectations were low. We also left it in the freezer too long so the first glasses were too cold. But once it warmed up, this was a completely nice wine to have on its own or before a meal. Tasty without being crazy–no litchi or passion fruit here–and easy to enjoy.

Front Label

Back Label

Brad DeLong Speaks a Brutally Truthful Truth.

I am swinging around to thinking that the polarization comes from the fact that a great many Republican officeholders believe that their base thinks it elected them to demonstrate that not the Black Man but rather real Americans were still the boss–and that not a small number of Republican officeholders believe that that is their job: to demonstrate that not the Black Man but rather real Americans were still the boss, and thus that anything the press will not cover as a catastrophic defeat for Obama is, instead, a loss for them.

Given the rest of the post, I suppose it’s possible that he’s summarizing and endorsing Alice Rivlin’s comments. Not that that changes anything at all.

Introducing the Wine Log

In the next few days, the first entries in my wine log are going to appear. Like my other logs, these posts are ways for me to take note of and remember things that interest me.

The wine log is different from the others though. With books, films, TV, even theatre, I have training and can speak, when I want to, with a fair amount of precision and sophistication. I also have enough experience with the materials to make judgments with a fair amount of confidence. What I say may seem silly or offhand, you might disagree, but I know my reactions are informed. However, odd or off-kilter, they are the raw materials of my developing thoughts about literature and film. The logs are a way to notice and keep track of them

With wine, I know nothing and even lack a vocabulary for speaking. But I have tried to pay attention over the years and have begun to develop some raw, unexamined experience. The log is the place where I’m going to try to begin capturing this experience in broad strokes and discover how to talk about what I’m figuring out.

(A few years ago, I’d considered doing this in a notebook. My plan was to avoid all the typical metaphors used to discuss wines (flowers, foods, etc.) and to talk about each bottle as if it were a man. I still like this idea.)

The main goal initially is just be to keep keep track of bottles I could buy again so that I’m less often caught making random purchases or trusting random clerks’ suggestions blindly.

It will be what it will be.

 

Update

Behind the Candelabra

A movie night with friends at the Cinéma du Parc to see Michael Douglas kiss Matt Damon. It was worth it. Douglas was great, Damon too, and the over and over near-monty during the long episode of pillow talk early on was hilarious. So many knees, so little penis.

And Rob Lowe was just super great as a stretch-faced, drug-addled plastic surgeon.

That said, the movie felt made-for-TV, and it’s treatment of the subject matter was awkward. After awhile it just became obvious that this was a straight man’s idea of a gay film. Normally this would have been a fatal flaw, but this movie managed to stumble into an authenticity it hadn’t created. Liberace was a gay man living as a straight man. Despite–or perhaps because of–all their stumbling, the straight men making this movie awkwardly but accurately hit the tone of his life spot on.

It was a fun evening.

The Responsive Web

The face of the web is changing. All kinds of blogs are updating their themes with some variation of wordpress’s new default. The point seems to be to make everything play nice with your phone but these “responsive” designs mostly just make full sites feel like mobile sites writ large. Everything looks pretty–big pictures, plenty of white space and the font is a wide round san serif that looks good the first time you see it–but everything also looks padded and puffed up. Rich sites are suddenly empty. Info is strung out across chains of links with little spatial density or complexity. It’s like reading through a straw.

I’m sure this kind of wide-spread coordinated change has happened before, but I’ve never noticed it so clearly or disliked it so much. I’m ready for the web designers to cash in already and move on so useful complexity can come back into style.

***

I’ve been thinking about this issue some more.

Blue Jasmine

The Beav hated this movie, and I get it. There is darkness here. And yet, I really liked it.

Like To Rome with Love, this movie has more going on than appears on its surface: in this case, a running allusion and update of A Streetcar Named Desire by way of Cate Blanchett’s recent turn as Blanche on Broadway. There is also the final revelation that remakes what had come before in interesting ways.

Is it high art? No. Is it among the best movies I’ve seen this year? No. But Blanchett is incredible as Jasmine and the script is generally strong. So I enjoyed it.

North Sea, Texas

Another Belgian film. Two boys growing up together, one now 18, then 20, the other a few years younger. The younger boy is outed as queer early on and he’s our narrative focus. Yet, it is the older boy who initiates the sex in their youth and later calls it off when he leaves the small coastal village for the big city and a new girlfriend.

Like the other Flemish films I’ve seen with the Beav, this movie is quirky and odd in ways that resonate initially with American indie cinema à la Wes Anderson, but the point of view is off and the plot, characters, cinematography, and editing all have strong links to European art cinema. The peculiarity of protagonist–he does not talk, he does not display emotion, he is an outsider–seem of a piece with these two traditions simultaneously. It also annoyed me for most of the film: why, I thought, must queer kids always be so fucked up?

But by the end, I realized that this film was much more interesting than I had realized. This movie is a coming out tale. But the point of view is completely atypical. In this case, it is the older boy–off-screen, pursuing a straight romance–who will come out. And we watch him doing this not from the point of view of a concerned parent or a supportive straight friend but from a queer kid who simply waits for him to get it together. It’s a subtle shift but makes a big difference.

On a separate note, the soundtrack songs were written specifically for the film and they are extraordinary.