Tuesday, February 28, 2017

HyperNormalisation ***1/2 (2016)

HyperNormalisation, a 2016 BBC documentary directed by Adam Curtis, takes an insightful look at the past 40 years of history to comprehend the existential cul-de-sac of the current moment.  The film examines international politics, technological developments, the media, pop culture, and corporate power.  Nearly three hours long, HyperNormalisation may not be the definitive statement of modern history, but a place to begin the conversation.

The film begins in 1975 when New York City faced bankruptcy and urban decay, in a desperate move the city turned over its finances to private bankers. Young real estate developer Donald Trump saw an opportunity and secured loans from the banks to build luxurious hotels, rising him to celebrity status. He came to personify Reagan era capitalism and excess.

As the counterculture went into terminal decline in the 1970s, artists turned inward in the hope of inspiring change through self expression, in an archival interview with Patti Smith she reflected on the loss of hope among artists to effect any political change through mass movements. Pop Culture began to neutralize radical art, Nike once used the Beatles song "Revolution" in a TV ad. Madison Avenue made radical the new cool, but a toothless one.

Meanwhile Secretary of State Henry Kissinger attempted to build a balance of power in the Middle East, which entailed playing Arab countries against each other. The Syrian leader Hafez Al-Assad felt betrayed at Kissinger's duplicity, warning him it would have unthinkable consequences for the West and the region. I remember a history professor beginning a lecture on Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy with the caveat, "he's not welcome over there anymore."

Cyberspace brought hope for some, prophets from the 1960s envisioned an online world of people communicating and acting without government or corporate interference, a realization of the 1960s dream of a participatory democracy. But as the early hackers demonstrated, corporations were already using the cyber world to gain ever more control over citizens by mining their financial data.  

After the Vietnam debacle Western governments increasingly used the media to blur reality, utilizing "perception management" to mislead people. Libyan leader Gaddafi was made into a villain by the Reagan Administration only to become an unlikely ally in the 2000s for agreeing to halt his already defunct "weapons of mass destruction" program, moving from "fake villain" to "fake hero." 

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe in 1991 prompted euphoric declarations of "the end of history," a new golden age for liberal democracy. Yet anxieties of the future persisted. Conspiracy theories proliferated and became part of pop culture on TV shows like The X-Files. HyperNormalisation notes how movies were seemingly preparing people for a major catastrophe with recurring images of New York City and Washington D.C. being attacked. The future landscape looked like a scary place and politicians adjusted their rhetoric accordingly, reaching apotheosis with the 2016 Trump campaign.

When the catastrophe did arrive on 9/11/01 politicians spoke of more security to prevent future attacks to a jittery populace, while destabilizing the world with aggressive foreign policies in the name of security and protection from "weapons of mass destruction." The movies had prepared us. 

Yet there were encouraging signs. In 2008 Americans elected Barack Obama President, a watershed (and sadly divisive) moment in American history.  The Arab Spring portended a new wave of democracy in the Middle East. The Occupy Wall Street Movement fired a salvo at the exploitative financial establishment.  Yet Obama's presidency ended with America more divided than ever, while the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street quietly dissipated.

In Russia Vladimir Putin built an autocracy out of the old Soviet Union, emphasizing national pride and militarism as an alternative to Obama's globalism.  Putin kept his opponents confused, a shape shifter with ambiguous motives and talent for leaving a trail of bodies in his wake.  Others took notice (and delight) at Putin's methods. 

The year 2016 brought about a perfect storm of "reality distortion." The Trump campaign launched a movement spearheaded by the nationalistic alt-right who found true love in their own American Putin. After years of repressed rage at politicians and the establishment, Americans between the coasts were ready for an outsider to disrupt Washington. As Trump broke the rules of campaign etiquette and horrified his critics, Red State America went into happy dance mode. In melodramatic stump speeches, influenced by WWE wrestlers, Trump promised to bring back jobs, crack down on illegal immigration, get the terrorists, and negotiate fantastic trade deals. He had them at hello.  

Trump's Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, albeit the winner of the popular vote, epitomized establishment politics and failed to win pivotal swing states in the Rustblet. Trump used social media to control the narrative, always a few steps ahead of the competition. Social media mutated into an echo chamber and the terrain of trolls free to express their retrograde politics in the relative comfort of cyberspace. Social media, heralded as a decisive factor in enlarging democracy, took a macabre turn foreseen in the Netflix series Black Mirror.

One may not walk away feeling better about the current situation after watching Normalisation, but it will provide context and knowledge.  In an interview Curtis talked about change being possible if enough people can come together want it. If you sensed things were not quite right before the election, now things really feel disjointed. And that could result in more collective action for the future. Hopefully. The early signs are encouraging. 

So society has arrived definitive moment with a stark choice: retreat into further alternative realities of empty pleasures or work towards alternatives through community and real world action. HyperNormalisation features many competing narratives that do not add up to any definitive answers - that's the point. 

Also dig the eclectic soundtrack, a free association of pop culture references. 

(HyperNormalisation is available for free on Youtube)

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Alien **** (1979)

Alien still stands as one of the most terrifying films ever made. Ridley Scott's film attacks the unconscious, the subterranean stratum of the mind. Alien reminded me of the Wilco song "Company in my Back"  that opens with the lyrics "I attack with love, pure bug beauty/curl my lips and crawl up to you."  The creepy verse encapsulates Alien to perfection. 

In the near future the crew of the Nostromo are awakened from hyper sleep to explore a planet hiding deadly secrets.  When a crew member gets attacked by "face hugger" it's revealed they use human bodies as hosts. Grisly details aside, Alien's realistic tone also made it unique.  The cast did not look like a typical Sci-Fi cast. The script's free of the goofy techno dialogue in Star Wars and Star Trek, the actors delivered their lines with a gritty self-assurance.

Alien is all about exploitation.  The "Company" that owns the Nostromo sends the beleaguered crew to a planet to respond to a distress call. The life forms they discover manage to exploit the crew in every way imaginable.  Many have written on the sexual nature of the attacks. Film critic John Kenneth Muir explains the sexual symbolism in his detailed analysis (also check out the insightful podcast Faculty of Horror).

Ridley Scott wisely allowed the audience to learn about the characters in the first 45 minutes, so when we lose them, we feel it. 

John Hurt as "chest burster" Kane seemed like a nice guy, but we hardly get to know him. Harry Dean Stanton as working class schlub Brent brings some humanity to the movie. Tom Skerrit as the intrepid commander fails miserably and meets a particularly gruesome fate (see the DVD extras). British villain/android Ian Holm personifies the dour corporate stooge.  Yaphet Kotto, another great screen presence, is the macho man Parker. Veronica Cartwright really looks terrified, a stand in for the audience.  And Sigourney Weaver's Ripley emerges as the unlikely heroine, a revolutionary moment for a Sci-Fi film.

If the history of modern Sci-Fi film begins with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars: A New Hope, Alien kicked open the door to another era, building upon those two films. John Carpenter's Dark Star, written by Alien screenwriter Dan O'Bannon, works as a goofy rough draft to the events on the Nostromo

A multi-layered film with compelling themes, Alien still challenges and unsettles audiences. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Casablanca **** (1942)

Watching Casablanca in 2017 makes for a harrowing and almost spiritual viewing experience. Set in Morocco during the Vichy/Nazi Occupation, most of the film centers around the goings on at Rick's, a night club run by a mysterious American played by Humphrey Bogart who will find himself at the center of international intrigue.

Rick's known to be apolitical and unsentimental towards the political situation, he simply wants to manage his club and turn a profit.  He maintains an uneasy working relationship with Vichy officer Captain Renault (Claude Rains), a corrupt official also in it for the money.  Despite Rick's "isolationist" politics we learn he once fought the Fascists in Ethiopia and Spain.  When his former fiancee Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) walks into his place one night his life will be forever changed.

For Ilsa is now married to a leader in the French Resistance Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). In a flashback we learn Rick and Ilsa had a brief romance before the fall of Paris and were considering marriage.  Rick is clearly still in love with Ilsa, but also finds himself in a position to aid the Resistance. Laszlo is an honorable man as well. All realize they are caught up in a cause greater than themselves.

Few films have better blended international intrigue and romance better than Casablanca. The pacing and editing are flawless, way ahead of their time in narrative drive.  And unlike a James Bond film, Rick's not a cold blooded killer but one who quietly helps people who have no where to go. In a moving scene he secretly helps two Bulgarian refugees fleeing Nazi Europe.

What are some of my favorite moments?  My favorite exchange happens when Rick defies a couple of Nazis. He suggests the Germans stay away from certain sections of New York City. Quiet confidence defeats blustering arrogance.

Perhaps the most memorable part is when the band plays the "Le Marseilles" to defy the Nazi occupiers - an inspiring moment that encapsulates the 1940s struggle against Fascism. Many of the extras were actual refugees from Europe.

Rick and Ilsa must decide whether to get back together or to do what's best for the cause. Like Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, Rick decides to sacrifice himself for something greater.

As movie critic Leonard Maltin once observed, Casablanca proves the old Hollywood studio system could produce great art.  Although not as innovative as Citizen Kane that came out the year before, Casablanca exemplifies superior storytelling told with punch and verve.

As the world once again faces a refugee crisis and a resurgence of coarse nationalism, we realize how fragile democracy can be and how it must be defended at all costs. Casablanca reminds us people have faced these challenges before.

And last but not least, the Bogart persona remains ever more relevant. Rick meets the chaos of the world with a wry shrug of the shoulder. In the face of stupidity and outright villainy he quietly takes action on the side of good.  That's the resonance for 2017.  

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

La La Land **** (2016)

By sheer force of will alone, Damien Chazelle's La La Land charms and entertains. Shot in beautiful technicolor that includes a quiver of cinematic flourishes, and two passionate performances from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, La La Land reminds us movies can still be magical.  Unashamedly retro without being derivative, it's nostalgia in the best sense of the word.  

The opening sequence recalls old Hollywood magic as a traffic jam on the L.A. freeway morphs into a grand song and dance sequence.  Jazz music figures into the story as well, a reminder of what culture can be and what is lost if we don't cherish it. Gosling plays a struggling jazz piano player Sebastian enamored with the history of jazz, a romantic who wants to keep the art form alive.  When a rival musician played by John Legend, chides him for being a traditionalist and not a revolutionary, Sebastian reluctantly agrees.

Meanwhile Mia (Emma Stone) is a struggling actress looking for her big break. She meets Sebastian and they get together in what may be a star crossed romance.  As his career takes off and Mia's slows down their relationship gets tested.  The story might sound thin, but La La Land is anything but that.  Each sequence after another brightens the screen with sound and color.

The title La La Land seems subversive in itself, daring audiences to take it seriously. Don't be fooled, bittersweet themes roam beneath the surface as well, for the story deals with a fading musical genre in the form of a fading film genre.  But La La Land banishes cynicism with a mere wave of the hand, like The Wizard of Oz, it dwells in the possibilities of dreams.