Archive for September 12, 2009

Do My Job!

Posted in FILM with tags , on September 12, 2009 by dcairns

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This semester at the Place Of Education where I teach — well, one of them — I’m curating eleven screenings of Films Of Interest, which I’m vaguely planning to arrange in chronological order to assemble a bogus history of film. This is of course impossible to do in eleven sessions.

I’m also bearing in mind that the students attending will have had widely differing experiences of cinema, some of them perhaps having seen nothing made before 1977, others being extremely well versed in movies from different cultures and eras. I’m quite keen to hit them with stuff that opens their eyes, stuff that’s not so easy to see, and stuff that demonstrates a wide variety of interesting filmmaking styles and sensibilities. So in a way I want to avoid obvious top ten material that they can easily learn about and locate, and blast them with stuff that’s as good as that, but less well known.

And since I have access to a fantastic group-mind via this blog, I thought I’d ask you all for suggestions. What would YOU show? This can lead anywhere, possibly into an examination of the philistinism of today’s youth and the failure of broadcasters and schools to educate the public about film, but also into an appreciation of some interesting filmic byways. It’s all good.

So, fire away!

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Hard Prawn

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2009 by dcairns

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Most of what you’ve heard about DISTRICT 9 is true. If you haven’t heard much, you perhaps shouldn’t read further because there’s no way to avoid a certain number of spoilers here, and I enjoyed the film knowing practically nothing about its story. You might want to do the same.

Saw the movie with Fiona and regular Shadowplayer “m” (Mary), whose South African origins proved invaluable in decoding the film’s imagery and plot. The movie is produced by Peter Jackson (with FX by WETA, his digital effects house) and directed by Neill Blomkamp, from a screenplay by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, and shot in Blomkamp’s native South Africa.

The plot’s premise, which is all I knew going in, is that 20 years before the story starts, a huge alien mothership descends to Johannesburg and… just hovers there. The malnourished aliens found therein are housed in a refugee camp which quickly becomes a slum, and by the time of the story have become a fully-fledged underclass and a political football.

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Enter Wikus Van Der Merwe, a bureaucrat assigned the job of obtaining signatures from the alien population authorizing their transportation into what is basically a concentration camp. Followed, initially, by documentary cameras, he enters District 9, and a world of pain.

Mary pointed out three major ways in which the film is indebted to its country of origin (I like the idea of other countries producing US-style blockbusters, as long as they don’t lose their local identities).

(1) Any time South Africans tell a story about a stupid white Afrikaaner, he’s always called Van Der Merwe. “So, Mr Van Der Merwe walks into the pub…”

(2) Obviously the idea of an alien underclass is a partial allegory on the whole history of Apartheid, and obviously its one fraught with difficulties. Mary pointed out that the forced mass relocation which this film centres on was a very South African phenomenon in the bad old days.

(3) The aliens are derisively known as “prawns.” (“You can’t say they don’t look like prawns,” says one interviewee, defensively.) This is a reference to the Parktown Prawn, an insect pest that began infesting Jo’burg in the ’60s. Mary thought they were possibly an Antipodean import, but this appears not to be the case. Still, it’s appropriate to a New Zealand-South African coproduction.

The movie is a lot of fun, and quite emotional at times. This must be what they mean by “character arc”: Wikus starts off as a comedy asshole, like David Brent in The Office (n analogy strengthened by the film’s mockumentary style) , then gradually becomes a hateful asshole as we see him strutting his stuff in the ghetto, a government hatchet man who’s really in the pocket of big business (the use of private sector mercenaries is a nod to the present situ in Iraq), then becomes a pitiful victim as things turn against him, and finally, at the very end, he’s a kind of hero worthy of our respect. That kind of movement is rare in a commercial movie, even though all the execs read their Robert McKee and are devoted to the idea of character change.

The first half of the movie is ideas-driven and political, the second is basically a video game. But a really good one. It’s the first movie I’ve seen to feature a gravity gun — a kind of cannon that lets you pick up heavy objects telekinetically and then fire them like rockets: Wikus creams one soldier with a pig carcass.

Of course, the allegorical approach to race via sci-fi is tendentious. Even as a kid I felt uncomfortable with CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES presenting itself as a satiric slant on black power. Blomkamp gets himself into some very deep water by presenting the aliens as drones in an insect race, their leaders somehow M.I.A. When a clever “prawn” with the slave name of Christopher Johnson turns up, it’s not clear if the aliens are smarter than previously assumed, or if he’s part of the missing leader class. The idea of an insect social structure is fair game for sci-fi, but perhaps unwise if you’re intending any kind of comment on human society. Also, considering the film’s aspirations to “say something” about race, its treatment of Nigerians could do with being a bit more nuanced.

Where the movie gets interesting is when Wikus is “infected” by an alien device which causes him to start mutating into a prawn himself. While the outward manifestations — loss of teeth and fingernails — are a direct nod to Cronenberg’s THE FLY, and his pursuit by the authorities as he tries to conceal his heavily malformed arm harks back to THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT (AKA THE CRAWLING TERROR), the plot idea has shades of THE WATERMELON MAN — and FREAKS. The idea of taking a bigot and turning him into the very thing he sees himself as superior to, and then subjecting him to the attendant persecutions, is also explored, in cruder terms, in John Landis’ ill-fated episode of the TWILIGHT ZONE movie.

Some of this is surprisingly moving. As his DNA crosses the human-alien “colour bar,” the authorities seek to “harvest” his organs to help unlock the secrets of alien technology, which so far has failed to function in human hands. Sharlto Copley’s performance, broadly comic at first, becomes chillingly desperate, and there’s also a heart-breaking performance from a CGI alien he’s forced to kill in a weapons test.

Of course Wikus escapes, now able to use alien weaponry, and becomes a one-prawn killing machine, suited up in an ALIENS-style exoskeleton, with self-targeting death rays (Blomkamp rather overuses the “blood-spatter on camera lens” effect) and grav gun. Joining forces with Christopher Johnson, he’s mutating not just into an alien but also into an outsider hero.

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Like I say, enjoyable, emotionally engaging, flawed, interesting. Blomkamp has some of the bad-taste gonzo gusto of early Peter Jackson, without the more crass elements (I recall with a shudder the AIDS jokes in MEET THE FEEBLES), and the epic ham-pomp of late Peter Jackson, without the hideous bloat of LORD OF THE KONG. Lots of giant plot questions unanswered, but they’re so foregrounded I have to welcome this invitation to enjoy a bit of “negative capability.” And there’s always the sequel to sort things out.