Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The Truman Show ****

The Truman Show
 predicted the coming of reality television at almost the exact moment the phenomenon hit. Also notable for being Jim Carrey's first foray into a serious role, Carrey would go on to play many dramatic roles and abandoned his Ace Ventura persona, here he's channeling a parodic version of Jimmy Stewart. Upon revisiting The Truman Show I was taken surprised at how fast the movie whizzes by in under two hours. Directed by Australian filmmaker Peter Weir, his focus on the fine line between utopia and dystopia still resonates. 

Jim Carrey plays Truman Burbank, an insurance salesman who lives in an idyllic island community which unbeknownst to him is actually the largest television set in the world. Millions tune in everyday to watch the daily activities of Truman. Adopted by a corporation at the time of his birth, the world has watched him grow into adulthood. Behind the scenes Christof (Ed Harris) is the God like producer manipulating every aspect of Truman's reality. Laura Linney plays Truman's fake wife Meryl and Noah Emmerich is the prototypical best friend Marlon. 

Seahaven is idealized version of a 1950s sitcom universe. A harmonious community of mostly white couples with white collar jobs. Truman works for an insurance company, but it's clear he's restless and starting to question his reality. He cannot point to anything specific, just a feeling. Product placement is everywhere, Truman's been conditioned to be pitchman for all sorts of products. The TV show is a massive commercial enterprise feeding the capitalist system. At the same time the world of Seahaven is set up to keep Truman complacent and content. A few have attempted to tell Truman the truth over the years, but it's a realization he must reach himself. 

The Truman Show invites everyone to put on their cultural critic hat. Today many aspire to be the star of their own reality shows and many have found a way to do it through social media. Facebook, Twitter, youtube instagram and a myriad of other platforms allow anyone to become the star of their own lives, some with substantial audiences. If 20+ years of reality stars and digital stars have taught us anything, it's all fleeting and artificial. The highest aspiration for an ambitious social media user is to become an influencer, they have their own hustle and eventually become unwitting tools of parties with a better hustle, supported by corporate wealth. Digital celebrities in the end become glorified advertisers. Like Truman, their humanity is reduced to a pre-packaged product consumed by the masses and used by corporations. 

Marshall McLuhan wrote all media works us over completely. Few films better illustrate this than The Truman Show. Peter Weir's direction jolts us when we shift to the real world, who in the film are composed of people watching the show in a parody of the Spielberg gaze. Observing the doings of a reality show character cannot compete with spaceships landing or a boy riding a bicycle over the moon. Christof comes across as a villainous version of a Spielberg or Lucas type figure, supremely confident in his ability to manipulate the emotions of millions - most of all Truman. Like all the best visual artists he knows the power of imagery and has a primal sense of narrative, which can also be used for nefarious purposes. Ed Harris is quite effective in his limited screen time as a futuristic master of cinema and narrative/marketing strategies.

Peter Weir maintains a humanistic touch throughout. A modern version of Plato's Cave Allegory, we are all conditioned by our environment but also have the ability to see beyond it. Every dystopian story deals with the human need to pursue a life that's fulfilling, not a life under control by outside parties. The Truman Show never answers the question: What happens when one shatters the confines of their controlled world? There's no need to, from an existential perspective the victory is the realization itself. 

As an afterthought, many have written about the "What is reality?" type movies coming out during the turn of the millennium including Fight Club, eXistenZ, The Thirteenth Floor, Dark City, and most famously The Matrix. The Truman Show eschewed the dark and nihilist tone of those films and rooted itself in a not so bizarro reflection of our own world. Unlike the 1976 classic Network which was a little too on the nose with its satire, The Truman Show is a modern fable and appropriately ends on such a note. 

Saturday, February 6, 2021

The Queen's Gambit (2020) ****


Written and Directed by Scott Frank (based on the novel by Walter Tevis)

Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Bill Camp, Moses Ingram, Marielle Heller, Harry Melling, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Marcin Dorocinski

The Queen's Gambit is long form television at its best. Based on the novel by Walter Tevis* the limited series breezes by over seven episodes, each approximately an hour long. Anya Taylor-Joy is a revelation as chess prodigy Beth Harmon, an intriguing, fictionalized character traversing through the 1960s. Going along with Beth on her journey is a rewarding experience as she perseveres through a myriad of challenges. Like Beth, the plot stumbles at times, but always lands on its feet.

The analogies between Chess and the Cold War go back to the very beginning of the era. Whether it was Herman Kahn or Henry Kissinger writing bestselling tomes on nuclear diplomacy or more literally during the 1972 World Chess Championship matches between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spaasky. Early in the series I was concerned Beth would end up being a female version of Fischer, especially when a Life Magazine reporter quizzes her with questions about chess prodigies being destined to lose their minds. But the story steers away from that direction. The 2014 film Pawn Sacrifice deals with Fischer, which I've also reviewed on this site.

A recurring theme is the tension between solitary life and one of connection. Beth comes of age in an orphanage after losing her mom and discovers chess. The custodian (Bill Camp) appears foreboding at first, but sees Beth's gift and teaches her the game. Jolene, an African American resident at the orphanage, becomes Beth's best friend and plays a key role towards the end. Beth also becomes addicted to tranquilizers, which were apparently administered to orphans during this era, but the drugs seem to clear her mind for chess. After becoming a local sensation after defeating the local High School team, Beth does not return to chess until High School after she's adopted by a middle-aged couple from Kentucky.

Socially isolated at school, Beth joins the chess club and swiftly decimates all the local competition. In time Beth bonds with her adoptive Mom Alma (Heller) as they pool their resources and become travel companions. Beth takes the chess world by storm. Typically, the only female competing at tournaments, she navigates through the male dominated world and develops relationships along the way with socially awkward Henry (Beltik) and flamboyant U.S. champion Benny (Brodie-Sangster) (with a persona somewhere between Leonardo Di Caprio and D.J. Qualls.) Polish actor Marcin Dorocinski is also memorable as the Soviet champion "Borgov" who's mere presence says wonders in an almost silent performance, who, in the words of Beth, plays chess "like a bureaucrat." All these relationships evolve and payoff by the end.

As the 1960s swing into gear Beth moves along with the changes. Taking style points from a composite of iconic figures ranging from Ann Margaret, Edie Sedgwick, and Nico as she becomes a confident adult. Beth navigates through creative inertia, drinking binges, and eventually achieves a balance (with a little help from her friends.) While the story does build to conventional confrontation with her Soviet rival, every moment of it is earned.

Chess matches, not the most cinematic activity, are always suspenseful and fast paced. Steven Zaillian's underrated 1994 film Searching for Bobby Fisher about a child prodigy was an obvious influence. Yet chess remains in the background, the focus is always on the relationships. The set designs are memorable, a recreation of the 1960s bordering on fantastical. Musically the choices are never overbearing as many films covering this era can be, "Venus" by Shocking Blue is used memorably. Anchored by a charismatic lead performance by Anya Taylor-Joy, The Queen's Gambit is a masterclass of storytelling.

(Tony Macklin's review provides valuable background and insight on the writings of Walter Tevis),

The Phenomenon (2020) ***


Directed by James Fox

Narrated by Peter Coyote

The Phenomenon covers the history of UFO phenomenon as told mostly by former military personnel and other government officials. Produced with a stately tone minus the tin foil hat crowd drawn to this subject like moths to a flame (they've graduated to more (flat) earth based conspiracies for the moment), the documentary backs off from making major assertions about contacts with extraterrestrials, mainly concerned with what governments know and what they are not revealing to the public. At the same time it covers much of the same ground as TV shows like In Search of . . or Unsolved Mysteries. Intriguing questions are raised, but those hoping for smoking guns and mind blowing confessions will be disappointed.

UFO's were back in the headlines last spring when the Pentagon released footage of some strange craft pilots have encountered over the years. With the pandemic commanding everyone's attention, the story did not prove to be a watershed in saga government secrecy on the subject. Interest in UFO has somewhat waned over the past few decades, but has by no means disappeared. The realm of conspiracy theories has more competing narratives than usual these days. In a time of political polarization with people suspicious of their neighbors, teachers, dog catchers, and pizza parlors - conspiracy theories are like rocket fuel. While I joked about UFO believers in the previous paragraph it is a topic that brings together people from different political stripes and diverse professions ranging from academia, the military, law enforcement, the scientific community, and pockets of political circles. Maybe some hope in that regard?

The Phenomenon begins in the 1940s when reports of UFO sightings increased all over the world. Pilots reported encountering strange craft in the sky. There's the requisite recounting of the "Roswell Incident" that was probably a weather balloon crash, as Carl Sagan covered in his final book The Demon Haunted Earth. The so called "UFO Invasion" of Washington DC in July of 1952 also gets covered but with hardly any context. Much attention is given to odd activity around nuclear weapons bases, and reports of UFO craft messing with nuclear missile systems during the Cold War in the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1994 it was reported that ET craft landed near a school in Zimbabwe. Children at the school believe they interacted with "visitors" from the craft and the documentary includes their reunion 20 years later when they recall the incident. These people obviously experienced something, but the "ET" explanation bears no supporting evidence beyond eyewitness reports.

In recent decades politicians have expressed interest in UFOs. President Bill Clinton expressed an interest and asked for a special investigation of Roswell, but admits he learned little from his inquiries. Harry Reid, retired Senator from Nevada, also attempted to investigate the Pentagon for more transparency on the issue. Few have taken it seriously or expressed their concerns to the public. The Phenomenon suggests there's a government within the government deep state that knows all the secrets. Or perhaps some sort of global organization? Oh man, just listen to me.

That's the problem with documentaries of this type. They raise questions, but never raise the right questions. A sociological or psychological explanation would be helpful, since all questions regarding these phenomenon come down to more nuanced and complicated explanations that often involve religion. Carl Jung proposed such an approach to the issue of UFOS, but the public gets sidetracked into the rabbit hole of government conspiracies. For all I know there's a galactic body somewhere in the Andromeda galaxy keeping close tabs on Earth so things don't get too crazy. I'm certain that Brexit, the death of Prince, and election of Trump set off a Five Alarm Fire. But until there's overwhelming evidence, I'll remain a skeptic.