Monthly Archives: August 2009
Great sci-fi isn’t built upon the bluster of battlecrusiers exchanging laser fire while orbiting far-flung planets, nor is it initially constructed with an ornate, complex back-story with confounding names and outlandish technological advancements.
Great sci-fi hinges upon changing just a few major elements in the universe the visionary is creating, and then observing and analyzing natural human responses to these strange and wondrous alterations. All of the robots, lightsabers and ray guns in the world cannot corral a intriguing and compelling story, instead, truly engaging work uses them as garnish atop a story that ultimately hinges upon character interaction, not arbitrary set-pieces and tedious explosions.
Plenty has been said about District 9, and the praise has come in swarms, both from the critics corner and from the box office returns. So I won’t talk about just how fantastic the movie is, how its direction perfectly fluctuates between brutal realism, heartbreak and fantastically captivating action, how its allegorical and simple premise which, although dealing with familiar themes, is nonetheless refreshing.
Instead, I’d like to highlight something that I haven’t seen discussed much in the criticism or discussion of the film (and if it has, do be kind, I can’t be privy the Internet in its entirety).
Many apologies to any and all readers…lengthy vacations tend to put a damper on blogging content. But now we’re back in action!
“If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish, we will eat for a lifetime.”
So goes the oft-repeated proverb, but it unfortunately ignores the matter of whether or not the man is question is the least bit fond of fish. Maybe he’s allergic, trying out a new “anti-healthy diet or just doesn’t want the darn tuna. To lather with cliche for a bit longer, we’re told not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but just as often as not, folks seem to do just that.
Perhaps it comes along with the whole, “decadent western civilization thing” or perhaps it’s a component of the perpetually lusty gaze we Americans turn to things we don’t have. Whatever the reason, just because something is beneficial, whether it be a material object or a skill, doesn’t mean that people will want it, even if their personal sacrifice in obtaining said gift is negligible.
Dan Rather, in an op-ed for The Washington Post, echoed his calls for federal hand in solving the current crisis in the transition from old media (newspapers) to new media (tweets from some girl you hooked up with in sophomore year).
“I want the president to convene a nonpartisan, blue-ribbon commission to assess the state of the news as an institution and an industry and to make recommendations for improving and stabilizing both,” Rather said, obviously equating the quality of his commission to the upstanding quality of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
“Why bring the president into it? Because this is the only way I could think of to generate the sort of attention this subject deserves. Academia and think tanks generate study after study, yet their findings don’t reach the people who need to be reached.”
The problem with Rather’s suggestion, which is actually something I’ve considered advocating, is threefold. First, involving President Obama with anything at the moment is guaranteed to drag said thing into a cesspool of partisan bickering and a subsequent bout of amnesia about what the shouting was about in the first place.
Then, Rather suggests moving the study of the media’s evolution away from the academic sector, which sounds fine and dandy, except by involving the feds, you involve…well…the feds. Not only is the entirety of congress focused on solely on health care (and planes! more planes!), but any sort of government involvement in media at this time could be the most counterproductive way to create a trustworthy relationship between the public and reporters.
“But it worked with the BBC! It’s government-funded and is arguably the most highly-regarded news source in the world!” you may exclaim. While that may be true, the BBC also originates from a radically different time, when the populace was a bit preoccupied with the whole “post WWI fiasco,” along with an approach to free speech that was littered with seditious libel (remember, the monarchy actually mattered back then). To even involve the federal government in something as superficially innocent as a collection of assessments and recommendations on the media raises that damning specter of censorship and further speculation of a liberal bias in the media.
Oh. But that already happened.
Rupert Murdoch did it. He pushed the big, red button. After months, maybe years of holding his trembling, anxious hand over it (the button’s pretty darn big) he shooed his butler out of the room, wiped his furrowed brow of the pooling sweat and pressed downward. Flashing lights popped out of the walls, and the signal was immediately sent to Fox’s Internet Golems to push the giant online switch from “Free” to “Not so much.”
So we now know for sure, that by the end of the fiscal year (aka next June) that all online content coming from Fox subsidiaries will have a handy little price tag attached to it. This makes them the first big player in the post Web 2.0 world to revert back to the limited-access viewpoint, because after all, as Murdoch has made clear, quality journalism doesn’t come cheap (apparently neither does FOXNews’ coverage). The question at hand is whether or not this venture will be successful or blow up in Murdoch’s face, as most Internet fanboys tend to think it will.
Fox ‘n Fans
On one hand, FOXNews has a very different audience and delivery method from the likes of say, CNN or the New York Times. While CNN presents news and then at least markets itself as leaving said news as it is, marketing itself as a presenter of facts and knowledge (though lately they seem to fancy themselves as a televised Twitter advertisement). FOXNews treats its audience differently. With its obvious ideological bend, it presents news and commentary simultaneously, the two contrasting ideas contorted around one another and presented to the viewer.
To some, this approach is entirely off-putting (though not to the brass at MSNBC…) but to those viewers who do enjoy FOXNews’ opinions, the coverage becomes conversational and personal. I personally think that no one tunes into FOXNews for the very latest, most indepth coverage, but instead to hear the opinions of their personalities, to see the anchors tear the left a new one.
Because of this, FOXNews fosters a community to a much greater degree than its competition. When was the last time you talked to someone who was passionate about CNN, who acted encouraged if you praised it or who reeled back and hissed if you sought to discredit it? FOXNews fans have these reactions, because it’s okay to be a fan of the network’s coverage, it’s built and marketed as such. While CNN advertises itself as “the number one name in news,” FOXNews lets communities build around its personalities.
This sort of loyalty might work in Murdoch’s favor in regard to this online plan. Since the network’s viewers already perceive the coverage to be a premium product, logic says that they would also have less of a problem paying extra for said product. Of course, this begs the question as to why anyone who loves FOXNews wouldn’t just watch it on the television, or pick through The New York Posts’ 10 pages of legitimate content at the newsstand and save themselves from online fees.
Those against the plan argue that it will limit the audience of Fox’s online content, thereby limiting both advertising and search engine access, which will then, in turn, further limit ad revenue. On an Internet landscape that’s becoming increasingly connected, Murdoch’s plan essentially creates a digitally gated community (now isn’t that appropriate?), but given the loyalty of his viewers, and his recent success in broadening the readership of The Wall Street Journal, this could work in his favor.
A profitable, vibrant, stagnant media
But, from a ideological standpoint, if the entire news media switches to this model, then you will not only have deep divides between party lines and political philosophies, but further divisions will emerge between news sources, which will only serve to further polarize the nation. I already have a subscription to The New York Times, and with that I receive unlimited access to their online content. Now let’s say the Times made that package marginally more expense, while the rest of the media instituted similar subscription plans. Of course I’m going to either stick with the Times, or with the news source that represents the best relationship between cost and quality. Remember that whole marketplace of ideas? Yeah, that gets tossed by the wayside.
That is, unless, you had brilliant individuals who had subscriptions and then used said subscriptions to draw news out of the gated communities and then report on it through independent websites, which everyone who is used to paying nothing for online news would then turn to for information. This would, inevitably, lead to the old-school media magnates receiving even fewer ad dollars, and then perhaps being forced to open up to free models, which leaves us in this whole stinking mess all over again, just with a few more wrinkles and a heightened sense of cynicism.
Those who repeat the past repeat the past repeat the past repeat the past repeat the past repeat the past repeat the past
Everyone complains about Hollywood’s reticence to create something new. The film industry has essential been a broken record for the past five years, with nearly every blockbuster having been based in intellectual properties that have already been established for decades. Superheroes, I’ve heard, originated in these things known as “comic books” that people would read on “paper.”
And before making “The Dark Knight,” director Christopher Nolan’s previous three films were all adaptations of previously established films or books. Just look at Tim Burton to see just how ridiculous the latest round of creative regurgitation has become. Did anyone want another “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Planet of the Apes,” or “Alice in Wonderland?” Adding some cliche Gothic-teenager-pandering art style and Johnny Depp doesn’t exactly warrant the pillaging of established and perfected properties.
Besides, those kids whose rooms were filled with “Nightmare Before Christmas” merchandise are all probably too busy sleeping on top of life-sized pillows of that Edward vampire guy to care all that much.
But at least those films are remakes of things that came out more than a decade prior. The new trend is to remake films that came out oh, say last year. First, the director behind “Cloverfield,” Matt Reeves, signed on to do an American version of the Swedish vampire flick “Let the Right One In.” That’s all well and good…except “Let the Right One In,” came out LAST YEAR. And the idea itself is already based off of a book to begin with!
And now, 2007’s splendid horror movie “The Orphanage” is being remade for U.S. audiences. Sure, the film peaked at 702 theaters in the U.S., but can’t we at least give people a chance to discover the original before we stuff a remake down their throats? It’s interesting to note that both films were foreign flicks, indicating that Hollywood, in all of its creative glory, is outsourcing any sort of original thought, testing the waters to see if it works, and then buying out the rights so that they can water it down and add breasts to the movie’s climax. I mean, c’mon. Even “Avatar,” which I assume will be released alongside Christ’s resurrection, is just “Dances with Wolves in Space.”
Has the national attention span really shriveled to such a small size? This deficit doesn’t just pertain to pop culture, just look at the political landscape, a bizarrely inept and fast-paced zone where Obama is already being written off as a lame duck despite not even having a year under his presidential belt, where the debate on both sides depends on hammering in a single talking point, remaking the same sentence over and over again until it just turns into two idiots blaring a watered-down, pointless message at one another, and then their audiences spit out the same drivel, at which point these placated pundits report their own vomit as news. Weekly polls on every issue determine public opinion, creating our predilections for policies anew each time anything’s approval dips toward 50 percent, ignoring the fact that if you tell everybody that everyone thinks a certain way, as opposed to letting them figure it out for themselves, you’re helping yourself to a predisposed national opinion.
I guess it’s just easier to rely on the thoughts of our forefathers, PR goons and easily-plundered intellectual property than create something new.
He holds a counter productively-large gun, eyes in a wrinkled, taut squint with a mouth distracted by a cigarette, a toothpick or just the undeniable urge to contort into an ever-shrinking sneer. The criminals, those entitled, slimy scumbags with leering, sprinting eyes running suicides atop their sunglasses, stumble down alleyways opposite the man with the scrunched face. But he’s no longer a man, he’s the law, the living embodiment of the boiling revenge that sits on society’s stove until someone’s brave enough to put on the oven mitts of justice, grab hold of the scalding kettle and drain a culture’s repressed vengeful and just desires with a single minded righteous fury that few can summon.
The vigilante, that time-honored, hard-broiled, overly-narrated icon of American iconography. Just think about how dominant the idea of not just a tough guy, but a tough guy who isn’t bound by rules or societal norms, whose actions are determined by pure emotion and driven by instinct. The cowboy epitomizes the lone, lawless figure. The 20th century in particular has been inundated with vigilantes, or at least characters who live by the same code of conduct. Nearly every character Clint Eastwood has played, almost every superhero, a good number of John Wayne’s roles and of course, the ever-present anti-hero of the past few decades, contains the same personification of lawlessness and inherent disapproval of authority, regardless of their role within or outside of the system. Even before then, the glamorization of Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok and other lawless gunmen held their own.
I bring this topic forward because I recently saw “Taxi Driver” for the first time, and while the film is a powerful piece of work, the following it has received is even more interesting than the movie. There are plenty of people who like Taxi Driver, and many folks who have recommended the film to me have this amped-up, excited attitude toward it, a sentiment that is bizarre given the proceedings of the film. It’s not a movie that brought me excitement, there was no adrenaline rush, only a lingering and compounding sense of dread.
The catchphrase from the film, the oft-repeated, “Are you talkin’ to me” routine has been turned into a celebration of masculinity, because the reaction of many is that they want to be Travis Bickle, they want to be completely unrestrained, to be so lost that they’ve found a clear-cut idea free of the haze of societal morality. Bickle isn’t necessarily someone to be admired, it’s open to interpretation as to whether or not his actions, as fueled by delusion and madness as they were, were ultimately worthy of condemnation or praise. But more often than not, people decide that the ends justify the means, even if the means involve a severe detachment from reality.
Just think of the hooplah over “The Dark Knight” (and we’re talking thematically, not the initial outpouring of interest due to Heath Ledger’s tragedy). It wasn’t because everyone was captivated by Batman, it was because his vigilante spirit was completely overshadowed by that of the Joker’s. In the villain, audiences found someone who took the attitude of the likes of Dirty Harry, “Death Wish’s” Paul Kersey and Bickle to its ultimate conclusion. The complete sovereignty of the individual over society, a complete removal from social constructs and the demotion of humanity to the status of animals. Vigilantes are driven by their individual senses of justice, this is what limits them from going completely off the wall, because fundamentally, their justice is dictated by the purest form of justice that their society tends to stray from. Push a vigilante to his breaking point, and that moralistic sense of justice will disappear.
If anything, the vigilante’s admiration has made a comeback in recent years, with the ongoing resurgence of the superhero as a prominent archetype. Just look at the way in which the vigilante activity was handled in the “Watchmen” film compared to its literary counterpart. In the comic book, the actual violence is far from the focus of the narrative, it’s handled as a revoltingly brutal activity that is always handled without any sense of glorification. The film, on the other hand, bathes itself in the gore, the degree of violence was featured heavily in the promotional activities and fight scenes were edited, emphasized and even created out of thin air. The viewer is left with the impulse to think, “Oh, this is so bada**,” instead of the, “Ugh, do they have to?” in the book. The film treats vigilantism as awesome, while the book treats it with moral ambiguity. And it should come as no surprise that the comic was written by an Englishman, while the film was directed by an American.
It’s interesting to see that, during the reemergence of the “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” syndrome, especially in reaction to Obama (who is apprently a clone of some Egyptian dude now…) that Clint Eastwood’s “final” film, “Gran Torino” features a conclusion that forgoes the typical vigilante bloodbath between the hero and criminal scum, but instead revolves around utilizing the civic spirit from which vigilantism stems to use law enforcement against scum. If Dirty Harry renounces violence and its glorification, what does that say about the legitimacy of those who look at Taxi Driver and think, “Awesome!”