…the best backstory yet.  I’ve always been partial to the theory that Robin Hood was an everyman, a metaphor for the multitude’s resistance to King John.  It always struck me as odd that few of the Robin Hood stories ever mentioned that this is the very King John finally forced to sign the Magna Carta.  Finally, we have a movie that attempts to bridge the gap.  But then do we need an actual embodied Robin Hood?  Does that not then seem to run counter to the “cannot long suppress liberty” theme of the movie?

My initial thoughts are similar to how I thought of Artificial Intelligence: A.I. Notice I did not do the usual attributions I give to movies.  That is because IMDB credits Spielberg as the director, when really most of the movie was directed by Kubrik.  Then Kubrik died and Spielberg finished it.  If by finished, I mean ruined.  AI is two movies.  The first part rocks, I will watch it anytime it comes on.  The last 40 minutes are awful, I turn the movie off.

The same with this version of Robin Hood (Ridley Scott: Blade Runner).  The last 40 minutes are horrible.  Leading up to those minutes though and I was really rolling with it.  What’s most disappointing is that most of the awful portion is a big battle, which is where Scott normally excels.  It’s forced though.  Scott loves his large archer actions – mass arrows arcing through the air causing havoc down below.  But in this case it makes zero sense why the archers would fire this way.  Why also would the cavalry move in for the engagement when the enemy is defenseless against the archers.  There are others of such a simple nature in the writing that the movie easily dips from a “go see it” into the “rental” realm.

I am not sure why I decided to read this article to-day.  Procrastination?  Even though the end of the debate season and impending freedom is the growing light at he end of the tunnel?  Regardless of cause, I needed the good laugh.

Mendelsohn’s argument is that Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino: Pulp Fiction)  is a bad film.  Maybe he doesn’t it find it bad in the artistic sense, but he finds it bad in the dangerous sense.

An alternative, and morally superior, form of “revenge” for Jews would be to do precisely what Jews have been doing since World War II ended: that is, to preserve and perpetuate the memory of the destruction that was visited upon them, precisely in order to help prevent the recurrence of such mass horrors in the future.

I have two orders of criticism of this alternative.  First, Mendelsohn is incorrect about his description of the real Jewish act of remembrance and second, this alternative, even if descriptively accurate, is the real danger.

Are Jews merely remembering?  No.  Munich (Steven Spielberg: Saving Private Ryan) was based on a true story.  That is clearly not a case of mere remembrance.  Hunting down former Nazis and having them extradited and prosecuted is not mere remembrance.  Some will argue, correctly I believe, that the Palestinian/Zionist issue is also a manifestation of the Jewish attempt to say ‘never again.’  Even if the Palestinian/Zionist issue is not an active policy for revenge, it clearly demonstrates the inaccuracy of Mendelsohn’s remembrance alternative.

Mendelsohn will probably answer this order of argumentation with a distinction based on revenge and (some other process).  After all, what other possible reason can he have had for drawing the quotation marks around ‘revenge’?  He knew his error and still decided to take the palatable position (it was published in Newsweek, after all); drawing erasure around ‘revenge’ was a way to front load the response, to pre-empt, to my criticism.

Second order, memory vs killing.  It is not odd that Mendelsohn valorizes the current Jewish revenge act of remembering.  What else are they to do?  The Nazis are gone and/or already punished.  The reason may not have anything to do with a choice.  The Jews of that time, the kind in the movie, had a choice.  Mendelsohn, however, equivocates them as having the same options before them.  This is a silly burden to place Tarantino within.

In the Tarantino/Mendelsohn binary, I would put my money on Tarantino as being the one with the most horsepower.  An odd prediction for me as I would almost always bet on the critic.  Maybe Tarantino’s larger argument is one not about revenge but rather about violence.  Mendelsohn resonates with me when he says the Jews in the climax scene are nearly the same as the very Nazis they are exterminating.  Yes.  And that is what I found to be the brilliance of Tarantino’s movie.  Both the Jew and the Nazi were acting a violent revenge fantasy.  Mendelsohn’s insight stops short.  Sadly, this does not prevent Mendelsohn from lodging a criticism based upon morality.  This is what is known as exceptionalism (a topic worthy of a career, let alone a blog post).

I will return to the next two paradoxical concepts later: abnegation (acting out to prevent acting future acting out) and interruption.  Both are reasons why Mendelsohn’s alternative is wrong.  It is interesting that Mendelsohn cites ‘inversion’ at the top of his piece (the description) but then forgets its relevance in the bottom (the criticism) because inversion is the product of the interruption.

One last aside.  Mendelsohn foreshadows his own jumping-the-rails in the second paragraph.

Tarantino, who began his career as a video-store clerk,

That’s an interesting aside.  It is accurate.  But why is it said?  There are two reasons, assuming that a good writer (Mendelsohn usually is) uses every word carefully.  First: it is an act of denigration: most filmmakers begin in school, but Tarantino did not hence his lackluster-ness is understandable and predictable; second, as exemplariness: most filmmakers begin their careers in school, hence Tarantino’s magnificence and brilliance.  I decided to default to the second reading, even if I was not a fan of Tarantino’s prior work.  But, I’m an optimist.

Mendelsohn, however, intended the first reading, the lackluster impression of Tarantino.  Fourth paragraph:

[M]ovies aren’t real life, and this is where Tarantino, with his video-store vision of the world, gets into trouble.

Serve that sentence up with a side of anti-intellectualism and you get Sarah Palin (anti-intellectual and privilege masked as populism).  Maybe that sentence was not quite fair: the Sarah Palin function also requires sentimentality.  But wait, the Mendelsohn “morally superior” alternative is precisely sentimentality: historic revisionism where the people of the past are given to-day’s options.

These may be the only 2010 movies I have seen this year.  Even if that is not true they are easily the best of the year so far.  I am not too sure what else I have to say about Edge of Darkness beyond what I had said in the previous Cagematch. This is an easy fight to adjudicate: Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese: Goodfellas) wins.  Easily.

Based upon the trailers and how it was pushed I was expecting Shutter Island to be a horror film.However, being a Scorsese film made me doubt this was correct.  And sure enough, it is not a horror film.  The moment of the trailer that seemed terror-izing was not in the actual film.  I always have high expectations for a Scorsese film and my expectations would have been higher had I known this was not a horror film.  This movie, however, does not live up to my expectations.  It was gorgeous to watch and the story was engaging.  However, it was not as smart as I thought it would be.

Quai-spoilers below.  I will give away enough that it can change a first viewing of the movie but I will not disclose enough that it ruins it.  I hope.

The first problem I had with Shutter Island was its simplicity.  I knew during the opening scene what the story was, the rest of the film was merely filling in the arc with details.  I may have been alone though, as I heard the audience gasp when the reveal happened.  For anyone that has followed Hitchcock and De Palma this movie was too easy to decode.  This is not a fatal problem, as I doubt a non-cinaphile will decode it as quickly as I did.

The second problem, and a fairly catastrophic error, is that the fantasy of the movie is too close to the reality of the movie.  These fantasies are constructed to keep the subject safe from the reality, so it makes no sense that the fantasy would be close enough to reality that it can unravel.  This distinction is the brilliance that Lynch brings to filmmaking.  It is this distinction that also makes Lynch so difficult to watch as the movies are almost too disjointed to cohere.  This error of Scorsese’s is almost forgivable, except that he acknowledges this error in the movie. There is a second fantasy at work and it never comes close enough to the reality to unravel.  Why aren’t the characters in the movie smart enough to recognize this difference between these fantasies?

There is a sweet twist at the very end of Shutter Island, however.  My favorite character in The Matrix is Tank because of the honest and difficult decision he makes about his subjectivity.  This final wrinkle in Shutter Island was well done, even if it was done with a wink.

Not much of a Cagematch.   I am willing to alter my appraisal of Lost Highway (David Lynch: Twin Peaks) from the last post’s dismal showing.  I recently visited Ursa in upstate New York and he swears by the movie.  Upon reflection some things jump out at me, which is why each entrant is involved in 2 Cagematches, after all.  I purchased the its soundtrack; it is David Lynch (but where was the crazy guy from Mulholland Dr.?) so it deserves more respect than an initial impression grants; and Ursa, whose opnion I trust immensely, loves it.  Each of those are reasons to give it another think.

In the other corner.

Edge of Darkness (Martin Campbell: Casino Royale) was as expected and better in some respects.  The writing was tight, which is really a way of saying the characters were believably smart and aware.  The story is a typical revenge story, but well done.  And there is plenty of room for critical reads, which I will attempt now.

There are spoilers below.  You have been warned.

The story points to a corrupt collusion between the government (or, at the least, a rogue faction within) and an immoral business.  Typical Hollywood though, this is the wrong culprit.  In the recent issue of The New Yorker Megan O’Rourke has a really nice piece about grieving and the Fear of Death; this is the same phenomenon driving the movie.  The catastrophic preoccupation of the government has created the evil plot where nuclear weapons made from foreign materials has been commissioned by the US.  The plan is detonate these devices thus framing an-other, allowing military interventions.  The evil company has an employee that finds out and covertly admits activists in an attempt to expose the act.  Of course all of the acitivsts die.  And there is a cover-up.

At no point does the movie attempt to transverse the Fear of Death that grips Us.  Except once.  By the villain.  The villain is Bennet (head of the company) and he has the audacity to ask the deceased’s father, “What does it feel like?”  The whole audience, myself included, laughed at the discomfort.  But, this is the exact same reaction Kubler-Ross encountered as she interviewed terminal hospital patients about their impending deaths. Of course Thomas Craven (Mel Gibson: Braveheart) becomes terminally ill (poisoned by the same evil company, natch) and then does exactly what the fear of death tells us to do: honor the hero that can combat death by acting memorably.  However, this is not transgression but instead reification.

I am not a Mel Gibson fan, as I had fallen off that horse well after his nationalist trilogy (Braveheart, The Patriot, and We Were Soldiers).  His Sugar Tits incident did not come to me as a surprise.  But he works in this movie, if for no other reason than his character is unlikeable. It is not a stretch of the imagination that a Sugar Tits incident could have been part of the backstory.  In fact, his dislikability is even part of the story and the motivation for another character’s actions.

An interesting part of this movie is its misogyny.  Throughout the movie there are five women.  Three of them are minor lineless characters, all shown in laboring positions.  All three of them are treated as objects of scorn.  The other two women hold more important positions in the story and also suffer great amounts of pain, one even fatally, but in both cases the movie could have easily gone without their involvement.  The one woman that does die (the other might as well but her trauma is beyond the concern of the film), Craven’s daughter, has her most important appearance not as herself but rather as Death itself.  She whispers sweet nothings into Mel’s ear, convincing him that happiness lies on the other side.  Not that he is given a choice.  He is Jason drawn in by the siren’s call, but the siren is irrelevant as he has already been killed.  By a man.  The women of this movie are all Sugar Tits, irrelevant figures to be exposed as irrelevant despite the authority of their uniforms.

The O’Rourke article makes me wonder about some other things about the movie.  We never see Craven become poisoned.  We are supposed to infer that he has been since he behaves suicidly as he combats the enmy.  We do see him ill, symptoms reminiscent of his daughter’s illness before her brutal slaying.  However, O’Rourke identifies these same symptoms as fairly normal for the recently grief-stricken.  “Levels of stress hormones like cortisol increase.  Sleep patterns are disrupted.  The immune system is weakened.  Mourners may even experience loss of apetitie, palpitations, even hallucinations.” (68).  Maybe the father is so grief stricken that he is not being a hero to (supposedly) combat the Fear of Death but rather merely mourning in the way a macho asshole cop does.  O’Rourke again:

This model represents an American fantasy of muscling through pain by throwing ourselves into work” (70)

This grief lens also applies to Lost Highway as the key moment in the movie is a husband’s murder of his wife.  That reading is beyond the scope of this note, but it does make for an interesting future project.

Final verdict:  Lost Highway beats Edge of Darkness.  Unlike Book of Eli, however, Darkness was entertaining.  Like Avatar its production value was high, even if the rest of it was lacking.  There is, however, one memorable line: “sometimes you need to decide if you are the one hanging on the cross or the one nailing in the nails.”  I suspect the movie’s principals are confused, thinking they are the ones on the cross.  The real value for Darkness, though, is that opened up new paths to read Lost Highway.  When one is instrumental to the other how can it not be easy to determine the winner?

O’Rourke, Meghan.  (2010, February 1).  Good grief.  The New Yorker, 66-72.

Not too sure what I was thinking by making this the resumption of the Cagematch series.  I did not care for either movie.  Can I award a double loss?  Of course I can.  I will use another movie as a reference.  In Step Brothers (2008, Adam McKay: Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy) there is terrific fight scene between the brothers that is finally resolved when they strike each other simultaneously in the head with a baseball bat and a golf club.  That’s what this cagematch is.  Wham-Thump.  And they both go down!

If I had to choose one it would be Lost Highway (1997, David Lynch: Twin Peaks) for two reasons.  First, this movie carries some pretention value.  I could drop it at a cocktail party and people might find me all neat-o mosquito because I can watch and digest Lynch films.  Second, reviewing the film may expose something.

Book of Eli (2010, Hughes Brothers: Menace II Society) offers none of that.  I do not believe this movie is even made green-lighted by a studio if it was not now.  ‘Now’ meaning in the wake of The Road (post-apocalyptic) and Avatar (pantheistic embracing).  I am so sad about it too, because while I appreciate Denzel Washington (American Gangster) I am a huge Gary Oldman (Immortal Beloved) fan.  This is the only 2010 release I have seen (still catching up on 2009 releases) this year and I refuse to place it on my working list of Best of 2010.

I was going to revive the cagematch series with Surrogates (Jonathan Mostow: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) but then I made a mistake on the bus yesterday and read Howard Hampton’s essay “Metal-liad” and am now thoroughly embarrassed to have even tried the genre.  In that essay Hampton reads 1991 music as Nirvana’s Nevermind against Guns N Roses’ Use Your Illusion I & II. It is a cagematch par excellence and I would recomment everyone check it out.  Nick Hornby has nothing on this guy.  Neither do I.  Instead I offer a review of Surrogates.

The summary portion of the review is best handled by Jenna Busch over at

Fourteen years from now, the technology that allows people to move inanimate prosthetics with their minds has advanced by leaps and bounds. In this brave new world, people sit in “stim chairs” for most of the day, while living through an idealized, robotic version of themselves. The son of the man who created this fantastically creepy technology and his one night stand (a fat guy in a girl-bot) has been zapped to death by a mysterious man. And the users themselves have had their brains liquefied in their chairs. FBI agents Greer (Bruce Willis) and Peters (Radha Mitchell) are sent to investigate, uncovering a plot that threatens the very idea of surrogacy.

This movie is not good.  I think it has potential but the way they executed it was not enjoyable.  A few problems with the backstory.  First, everyone in the world has a surrogate.  Everyone?  Even the poor?  Capitalism changes and allows universal access?   This is just glossed over, posited as if true, AND it is not even necessary to the story.  Why not just say a lot of people have them a la television or computers?  Because then the movie would become too polemical.  Although I suspect that would have raised the production standards and its hidden jeramiad would have needed tightening up.  Not even a resource crunch based on all the added energy needed to power the near doubling of the world’s overpopulation?

The second issue is that all crime disappears.  Supposedly crime is a personal afront and since people are now sheltered away there is no point to breaking the law.  Anyone who thinks that is plausible was probably confused at “StoopidNoodle”.  And if there is no/little crime why then is there even an FBI for Greer to work at?

Third, each major city has a section called a reservation where Luddites have retreated to escape technology.  Again I have to wonder what other monumental change occurred, because surely our government would need more than a surrogate development to allow this to happen.  Sci Fi is nice when they posit one difference and then see how the world would be different, a type of counterfactual.  This backstory, however, is replete with unfounded changes based upon the movie’s fiat.  Needless to say, the initial backstory montage had my hackles up.

Spoiler, well sort of, the trailer shows all the surrogates deactivating and collapsing so it’s not much of a spoiler (and there are scenes in the movie where an operative disconnects from the surrogate and the surrogate remains standing, but in the the movie’s resolution all of them fall down): Greer unplugs them so people are forced to act as ‘humans’ again.  That’s a silly ending.  The technology is obviously deemed desireable.  Today’s world is so competitive with electronics that undesired technology is quickly discarded.  All Greer does is momentarily suspend the tech.  He also probably kills people as some people are dependent on the tech for sustenance and, most all, people have grown physically dependent upon the surrogates.  Good job.

Greer was faced with a choice and he instead chose ‘humane’ one.  Instead of dropping all the operator/surrogate links he could have allowed a virus to kill all surrogates and operators; his other choice was to stop any change and allow the status quo to continue.  I contend that either of the other options would have been preferable.  I have already laid out how disconnecting them was already a violent act, abruptly denying people something they are used to and have every reason to believe will continue to be available.

The other option of killing the operators would have also been more humane.  It all comes down to the anxiety informing the movie.  Some see the movie as anti-technological.  But there is no reason to think the criticism is about ALL technology.  Rather it is about technologies of representation.  The movie is informed by a crisis of authenticity.  There are a couple of things in the movie pointing to this read: 1. the initiating event is a double murder, and one of the murdered is not an attractive young woman but instead an old guy (a la the chat room predator fear)  2. Greer at one points says, “I don’t even know who you are!”  But it is said as though it makes a difference.  3.  The constant romantic tensions between Greer and his wife is about her continued use of a surrogate and whether or not “they” are still married.  There are many other moments where this reading is clear.  So, the movie is about authenticity, which is supposedly why Greer makes the choice he does.

Won’t everyone be sad to realize that being face to face with someone does not restore authenticity?  Authenticity is not about identity, which is the conflation made in the film.  This movie is a perfect demonstration of Badiou’s criticism of authenticity:

Any attempt to achieve the real as identified authenticity, to bypass the inevitably tendential mediation of representation… will result in infinite violence…  Since any such attempt ‘a formal criterion is lacking to distinguish the real from semblance,’ there is no way for militants to confirm authenticity of commitment – neither that of colleagues and leaders nor their own.  All that can ensue is constant suspicion and purge.  Stalin’s regime is emblematic. (Jenkins 2008)

Greer has not saved anyone from violence.  He has merely delayed it and cast their lives in the interim into an uncomfortable and potentially horrifying place.  The technology still exists and can be rebuilt, so there will always be doubt about whom a person is.  The more humane – humane as “more than human”, a humanity-surpassing move (H+) – move might have been to wipe it all clean and let the anti-Surrogates rebuild.

Hampton, Howard.  (1992) in Howard Hampton, ed.  (2007).  Born in flames (75-80).  Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Jenkins, Joseph.  (2008, April).  Symposium law and event: Violence in Badiou’s recent work.  Cardozo Law Review, 29, online.

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Ripping Through the City Streets of Tokyo
Image by Stuck in Customs via Flickr

It has been a long time since the last cage match.  So much so that I am unsure how to resuscitate the theme.  The main reason is the complete dearth of fiction in my life lately.  Few movies.  Few books.  Not for a lack of trying though.  Work, friends and my body are all conspiring against me to not actually complete anything.  I wish I knew what the problem was, but my attention span is almost nonexistent these days.  Failing to complete a project then makes it harder to complete another one.  I have tried to kick up my readings about neuro-science, but again the lack of attention.

Anywho.  I saw Zombieland (direced by Ruben Fleischer) last week when I should have been working on some arguments for my teams.  This cage match is more of an introduction.  Out of the tunnel comes Zombieland.  The next Cage Match will then resume against ?.

Overall, I enjoyed it.  It was a fun take on the genre.  There were moments where I laughed out loud (Bill Murray‘s cameo) and there were genuine moments of fright like the best of the horror films.  What I enjoyed most about the movie was that it was not pure entertainment.  Fleischer understands the genre inside and out and took many opportunities to play off the genre and explain it to us.  The best contribution of this film, however, was the presentation of a psychoanalytic analysis of the zombie genre.  The characters reveal the anxieties for which the zombie is a metaphor.  It was a well done reading of a zombie film presented as a telling.

The movie began to drag at the end, as every critical impersonation inevitably does.  Two of the main characters turn stupid.  And it just so happens that the two are women.  If ever there was a trope to be broken that would seem to be it.  I was always impressed with how westerns dealt with the genre post-Unforgiven (dir. Clint Eastwood), but it seems that horror has failed to adequately deal with their genre post-Scream (dir. Wes Craven).  Zombieland might be a horror film that reflects this sensitivity, but I suspect instead that it serves best as a comedy standing outside of the genre.  It is not scary enough to satisfy people looking for a fright.

I paid a matinee price for it and was pleased for the return on my money.  I might not feel the same way if I had paid the full fare and had to deal with a full crowd of obnoxious teenagers.  That hesitation to share the movie probably means the movie is not a horror (more about my theory of audience interaction and horror later.)

Go see it.

Oh yeah.  They’re remaking A Nightmare on Elm Street.  Why?  That seems to be the biggest horror in this story.

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