Archive for the Politics Category

Digital Blueface

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2022 by dcairns

For any people reading in the distant future, “digital blackface” was a term bandied about to criticise white folks who used gifs of Black people. It was a Twitter craze that blew over quickly because it was silly. Oh, do I have to explain Twitter now?

Slight spoilers ahead, nothing I would think would harm one’s enjoyment of the film, or “spoil” it.

Is it weird that James Cameron’s ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow made a film called THE WEIGHT OF WATER and his new AVATAR film is called THE WAY OF WATER? Is it weird that water now has films about its shape, weight and way, but not its wetness?

Is it weird that this one climaxes on a sinking ship? I don’t want to be the one to say it, but, is it possible that James “King of the World” Cameron is — no, it couldn’t be! — running out of ideas? Of course he has a run-and-gun battle on this sinking ship, which it now becomes clear is what he’d have liked to do in TITANIC, and did, as much as he decently good (and then a little bit beyond decency, turning a heroic victim crewmember into a murderer).

Proof that I’ve been blogging too long: I have now written about two Cameron films on their initial release.

OK, right, the film. It’s long. MAAAAAAAAN I was hungry. Had the Vue Ocean Terminal laid on some snacks within easy distance of the screen they could have scammed even more money out of me that they did. Their website promises that every seat for every film is £6.99 but with 3D all rules are off, so they hit me for nearly twice that, after claiming that all the “cheap” (£11) seats were taken. By the time the film started the cinema was still 9/10ths empty — OK, it was a matinee, but during holiday time. The question for the future of this franchise must now be, how watertight is Cameron’s contract — is 20th Century handcuffed, like a Na’avi child, to a deal to produce further sequels, which have presumably already had a ton of money spent on them?

OK, right, the film. I said it was long, what else? It’s like TITANIC in that it’s quite boring and then there’s a huge action sequence which is exciting. Genuinely so. Cameron is still a good action director. He hasn’t worked out that a good dramatic dialogue scene can be shot like an action scene, or else he’s forgotten it. I can’t work out what’s going on with his dialogue coverage: it’s pretty well all mo-cap, which means you can decide on camera placement AFTERWARDS, you can put the camera anywhere. Cameron seems to have taken that literally, like it doesn’t matter where he puts it. Lots of random cutting from doubles to singles, it’s VERY cutty, it’s the opposite of a good 3D approach.

This, I would guess, is the final death knell for this phase of 3D, which has a certain pleasing symmetry about it, Cameron’s Smurfs bracketing the era. But I like 3D, which still hasn’t been properly tapped, so I’m sad about this. This movie mainly just lets it sit there, except for the underwater stuff to some extent (“More particles!” was my cry) and the fires (he’s seen HUGO, he knows that ash and cinders are WAFTING ENTERTAINMENT). I found myself getting *very excited* whenever we went inside one of the big helicopter gunships. It turns out that being inside a plexiglass chamber with moving scenery outside and moving people and camera inside is one of the best things 3D can do. And those scenes are NEVER more than ten seconds long. It turns out, in fact, that 3D is much better suited to vehicles than it is to exteriors. In a vehicle you have all kinds of movement and perspective and layers, whereas outdoors you often just have figures and a horizon. And this film is 99% outdoors.

Cameron hasn’t seen FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN, apparently, so he hasn’t seen what can be done with trees and tracking shots in 3D. He’d need to have had some smaller trees to pull it off, but he could have justified that.

Mainly he seems to want the 3D to be unnoticeable and just make things more immersive — I was uncomfortable conscious of the few heads in front of me for the first hour, and sort of wondered why I was paying more for something I’m rarely aware of. But there were SOME nice stereographic effects. Some nice colour, too: this one’s less gaudy than its predecessor, going by memory (haven’t seen AVATAR since it came out). The fire scenes are not only distinguished by their floating particles, but by their variations on the old orange-and-teal cliche — they make it seem fresh. We’re not in the Bava or Shamroy zone, but it’s excitingly close.

It’s not TOTALLY boring until the big battles that liven up the last hour. The teenage battles, out of the REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE playbook, are sort of diverting. I became borderline involved. So, better than TITANIC, which was excruciating until people started being in mild peril. It doesn’t help that the actors aren’t the world’s best and are all hampered by mo-cap, except poor Jack Champion, looking silly in loin cloth, dreads and perspex mask, failing to act in a greenscreen vacuum. I don’t blame him, he was probably great in the audition, but everything around him is conspiring to dehumanize his presence.

I was wondering what effect the addition of Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver to the writing team would have. They wrote RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, which was pretty good, and emotional, and made the human race the baddies (individual humans were allowed to display virtue, so it wasn’t humanracist), which would seem to make them a good fit here. But would Cameron allow them to make any improvements?

The story is largely a retread of the first film, with flourishes. Stephen Lang, who died in Film 1, is back as a Na’avi avatar himself, on a mission of vengeance — heavily funded, it seems, and so important (for no narrative reason) he can be allowed to jeopardize the quest for the new unobtanium, a chemical harvested from big alien whales’ brains.

Unobtanium was an engineering joke — I thought it was just evidence of Cameron being stupid and coming up with a lame name for something, but it’s a reference to a bit of physics humour AND evidence of Cameron being stupid etc. Ken Campbell warned against the perils of engineering jokes — jokes that are only funny to the in-group concerned. Cameron is a kind of two-fisted postmodernist, he may have actually read Eco’s bit on CASABLANCA, or the Wikipedia page on Joseph Campbell — which is more than George Lucas has read — he thinks his job is to bolt together memes (or cliches), compress recognizable moments borrowed from elsewhere into maximum density until he’s created a black hole of references from which nothing, not even the audience’s attention, can escape.

“We’re not in Kansas anymore,” says Stephen Lang, displaying Cameron’s touching faith that a reference to a 1939 movie will work in the far-flung future. It doesn’t work NOW — it will draw groans from those who get it and blank stares from most of the youngsters who don’t.

So the new writers haven’t helped the dialogue. The aliens, in the best Spock tradition, are unable to use contractions, which made me laugh out loud when one of them says “We are here,” meaning, “We’ve arrived” or “This is the spot.” It sounded like she was saying “You and I exist. We are in our relative positions.” My other big laugh was when it suddenly turned out that the big whale guy could talk, but needed subtitles, and his first rumble was subbed as “It’s too painful.” I can’t quite explain why that seemed hilarious.

I think there are some unwritten rules that Sully and his kids can use contractions and swear (It’s a shock when one of them suddenly says “Shit” halfway through the film, the first time that word has been startling in a while) but the pure Na’avi can’t, but I was never entirely sure who was permitted apostrophes. There are quite a few variants in the film: there are the blue Naa’avi, the new green, water-dwelling Na’avi (the Shell People, I call them), Sully’s technically all-Na’avi kids, and the de-aged, blued, alienized Sigourney Weaver, who seems to be the child of the original Sigourney’s comatose avatar and an unnamed human. The idea that humans and Na’avi can interbreed is preposterous and it’s creepily unexplained if she got knocked up while conscious or un. This will all be explained in the next sequel, coming not very soon to a comic store near you — I hope they have something that makes sense and isn’t repellant, but it seems an unpleasant mystery to dangle.

To describe the characters as one-note would be an insult to notes. The actors do their variable best with varying success. Sam Worthington has maybe improved with age, and at least doesn’t have to cry “I don’t know who I am!” this time in order to explain his plight. Zoe Saldana’s hysterical mom is REALLY annoying. Kate Winslet plays a pregnant chieftainess and you wouldn’t know it was her, or anyone good. Lang is the best actor here but his role is so devoid of nuance, he might as well be a cartoon character, and in fact IS. The story evokes American war crimes in Vietnam but doesn’t want to have him do anything TOO awful. Which, in a way, shows taste, but it also shows a reluctance to actually deal with what the film’s about, the destruction of the environment and the extermination of indigenous peoples. It’s tasteful but it’s calculated, and it’s running up against the problem of a light entertainment trying to say something about the environmental holocaust and genocide.

Sidebar: my problem with THE MISSION. I think Roland Joffe and Robert Bolt’s film is part of AVATAR’s DNA alongside DANCES WITH WOLVES and Ursula LeGuin’s xenoanthropological scifi classic The Word for World is Forest (she could have sued over the first film, as Harlan Ellison successfully did over THE TERMINATOR). THE MISSION’s best quality, its gorgeous Ennio Morricone score, is also its biggest problem (discounting Joffe’s lame script additions — “None of us wants to do this,” protests a guilt-stricken exterminator of natives). The movie deals with a conflict between pacifism and activism, and shows Jeremy Irons martyring himself and Robert DeNiro going down fighting. Irons makes it very clear in his dialogue that you can’t have it both ways, you have to choose. But the movie tries to have it both ways: solemn religious music for Irons’ sacrifice, upbeat native-inflected music for DeNiro’s guerrilla warfare. As if this was Errol Flynn swinging into action. Totally unacceptable.

Anyway, I’m glad I finally got that off my chest. My more relevant point being, this doesn’t matter at all to Cameron’s movie. There’s some guff about the green guys never taking life (except for fish, you can eat those) but that’s soon abandoned and nobody has any irritating pangs of conscience once battle is joined. Human beings are used as projectiles: now, EVERYONE is Propeller Guy. It’s insanely gleeful, conscienceless and unconsciable. I was chortling over the mayhem. It’s cartoon stuff. The earthlings have had years to build arrow-proof cockpits, but they’ve chosen not to.

The technological achievement here is incredible: everything looks convincing, or convincing enough. I think the smooth crash zooms on aircraft and spacecraft, pioneered by the Battlestar Galactica reboot, here tend to make the vehicles look like models, somehow, but that’s quibbling. Considering that even TITANIC with its hundreds of millions didn’t have enough quality control to make everything look believable, vast progress has been made. But I find myself not really caring about all that. Cameron does. He’s become, like Zemeckis was for a while, a tech-led filmmaker, more interested in what he can do that hasn’t been done before than in why it should be worth doing. (Zemeckis is now just merely a maker of bad films.)

But — see it: it’s entertaining in stretches and it may be the last worthwhile in any sense 3D movie you’ll be offered on a big screen for some time. The ANT-MAN sequel and the other thing, whatever it was, that they had trailers for looked even further from having a useful aesthetic for the third dimension (characters greenscreened against horizons) than this one.

I think I should write NOTES TOWARDS A 3D AESTHETIC. It’s too late for it to be useful — I always like to be behind the curve.


Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 14, 2022 by dcairns

We’re finally there!

The visuals can be disposed of quickly. Chaplin, the Jewish barber, stands cap in hand before the microphones. But once the speech starts, Chaplin the director cuts to a tight head-and shoulders, and mainly stays on it.

A cutaway to Hannah allows him to break the shot and we return to a wider one, but a dramatic push-in as he ramps up his fervour once more takes us close. Crowd shot, dissolve to Hannah, then a series of closeups of the two, separated by distance but united by some psychic connection, perhaps — yes, love.

As Costa-Gavras points out, the simplicity is deceptive. They key thing Chaplin does with his framing, apart from creating intimacy with his audience (that of a talking actor, not a silent comic) is to exclude all the apparatus of Tomainian Nazism. The double cross armband is framed out. To Cost-Gavras, far from being uncinematic (a big talking scene) this is the essence of cinema. As Scorsese puts it, cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s not.

Chaplin was at continual war with his assistants about the speech. These conflicts were often productive — Chaplin only gave in when he was genuinely convinced, and have you ever noticed how impossible it is to convince anyone of anything? And yet, he did occasionally make chances. The crew was his first audience, after all.

Chaplin’s argument was that the speech was what the Jewish barber WOULD say, if he were given such a chance. Which is odd, because Chaplin doesn’t even bother to use the barber’s voice, that rather high-pitched, quick style of delivery. And there’s been no indication that the barber is a political thinker: he did, after all, describe Hynkel as “Most amusing,” when the raids on the ghetto were paused.

This is Chaplin speaking, as impressively as he can. Having played two roles throughout the film, then effectively merging them as the barber is mistaken for the dictator, he now drops both masks and makes the speech HE would make if given the chance. You can see him making speeches to raise money for war bonds in WWI and he’s similarly impassioned. And presumably didn’t believe a word he was saying.

Chaplin/the barber begins by suicidally dropping his Hynkel guise, or almost. He doesn’t want to be an emperor. He’d like to help everyone if possible. “We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that.” Says the man standing before the lightly fictionalized Nazi army. The thing is, he’s not wrong, which is why his words are touching. But whatever you can say about humanity, the opposite also seems to be true. It’s why the Chaplin-Hitler dichotomy is so effective here.

“Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want.” Chaplin returns to the themes of MODERN TIMES — he sees that the form of modern society that turns people into cogs in a machine is slavery, inhuman. He may not have recognized the similarity between communism and capitalism — whether you’re being oppressed by the state or by business may not make much difference — but he’s instinctively an anarchist anyway.

“We think too much and feel too little.” I never liked this line, in this context. One thing you can’t say about Nazism, it seems to me, is that it’s overly intellectual and lacks emotion. Rather, the appeal is to the gut. What Chaplin means by “feel, ” I think, is “show empathy,” at which point the line starts to work. And the kind of empathy that’s needed is true, universal empathy. No doubt the Nazis considered themselves empathetic, loved their children. But they closed off fellow-feeling, limited who could be considered their fellow.

“Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world -” a useful reminder which cues the first shot of Hannah.

“To those who can hear me, I say – do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed – the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress.” All this harping on greed. Hynkel is greedy, I suppose — he lusts for the world. But a lot of this speech is anti-capitalist more than anti-Nazi. And J. Edgar Hoover is in the audience, furiously taking notes. Chaplin will be allowed to make two more films on American soil.

“Soldiers! don’t give yourselves to brutes – men who despise you – enslave you – who regiment your lives – tell you what to do – what to think and what to feel!” Ah yes. Necessary to address the actual, physical audience. Chaplin actually filmed shots of Tomainian soldiers putting down their rifles and dancing together. Maybe his assistants’ objections were sufficiently strong on that occasion, or maybe Chaplin didn’t want to cut away from himself. I think it’s important we don’t see too much how the speech is received. Chaplin has done what he has so often done — he did it in THE KID and CITY LIGHTS particularly — he has taken the story to an impasse, where it can end on a note of high, positive emotion, but it is impossible to convincingly or dramatically imagine what comes next. The film is forced to stop.

“Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men!” Again with the machines. If we think back to the WWI stuff, Chaplin dwarfed himself with big guns and put himself in a plane — war was the work of machinery, just as industry was in MODERN TIMES. It makes the spot gags with Hynkel’s inventors more relevant than we might have thought: the dictator is a modern man, keen to enlist all the latest scientific developments in his brutal advance. “We’ve just discovered the most wonderful poison gas,” gushed Herring. “It will kill EVERYONE!”

“Only the unloved hate – the unloved and the unnatural!” I don’t know if CC read Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism, but it’s perfectly possible. “In brief, the goal of sexual suppression is that of producing an individual who is adjusted to the authoritarian order and who will submit to it in spite of all misery and degradation.” The book was published in Germany in 1933, and immediately burned. Not sure about English translation, though.

“In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” – not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you!” OK, he mentioned the deity. And pushes in dramatically, a very rare thing for Chaplin, as he does so. “Pour religion on everything, like catsup,” is Lee Tracy’s advice in THE BEST MAN. It always truck me as weird, as my school attempted to indoctrinate me (no separation of church and state here) that the one true universal religion was followed only by a small minority of human beings. Saying that God is inside all humans is, sort of, nice and inclusive. Or maybe colonialist? Perhaps the Hindus, Buddhists, Shintoists, don’t WANT that foreign God inside them? But Chaplin’s use of the idea is as benign as it can be made to be — if there’s any truth in this stuff, it should unite rather than divide us.

“You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.” Yes, and what do we choose to do with this power instead?

“Then – in the name of democracy – let us use that power – let us all unite. “Let us fight for a new world – a decent world that will give men a chance to work – that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfil that promise. They never will!” This is part of the trouble. Chaplin is saying all the right things, but he recognizes that others have made these promises, without any intention of even trying to achieve them.

“Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers – to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance.” “How the world dearly loves a cage,” as Maude says in HAROLD AND MAUDE. Freedom of movement has always seemed crucial to me. Now it’s the big thing UK political leaders can win support by promising to abolish. When I was a kid I proposed to my socialist big brother that the nations of the earth should be free to run any forms of government they wanted, so long as their people were free to travel to pick the one they wanted to live under. He was appalled by my naivety. “That wouldn’t solve anything!” I still slightly suspect he was the one being naive, in believing that things get solved.

“Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers! in the name of democracy, let us all unite!” Chaplin’s treatment of the speech’s reception is very clever. We need to see SOMETHING, I guess, so when he finishes his speech on a grand climax followed by an uncertain look, he fades up the sound of mass cheering — Chaplin looks VERY uncertain as to how he feels about this popular adulation, as well he should — and cuts to a stock shot panning across a vast, undifferentiated throng. Doesn’t look like a crowd in uniform. It’s just a sea of humanity. So that the Tomainian troops have been stripped of their military costumes and turned back into human beings. We can certainly agree that avoiding using recognizable TRIUMPH OF THE WILL footage was a good call. But using stock footage per se was also smart — it enhances the feeling of cardboard flimsiness, it separates the fictional world from our own, because this is a kind of dream ending.

Chaplin did consider dissolving from here to the barber waking up in his concentration camp, which would have been very strong. NOBODY wanted to see that. It would have been, in a way, more true and tasteful, but in 1940 Britain, having urged Chaplin not to make the year before, was now clamouring for a propaganda feature, and Chaplin gave it to them — in his own manner.

“Look up, Hannah!” The bit of the speech which is mysteriously chopped off so often.

“Listen,” says Hannah, looking up and listening after the speech has ended, and only Chaplin’s music is playing.

Nobody talks about that. Everybody says the film ends with a big long speech. “It needed to be said,” said Sidney Lumet, dismissing the carping that it was too on the nose. “Everything doesn’t have to be perfect.” Which is true, but the film doesn’t exactly end on a big speech. It ends on a woman listening, to silence, or to non-diegetic music somehow only she can hear, or to something else that we can’t hear. Not yet, anyway.

Food Fighters

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2022 by dcairns

Maybe, just maybe, the food fight in THE GREAT DICTATOR was an influence on the deleted pie fight from DR STRANGELOVE? Is it even possible that the fruit-slinging that concludes the Marx Bros’ DUCK SOUP lies behind both? Maybe that’s a stretch. But reducing the horrors of war to the absurdity of food-flinging evidently has an honourable tradition. Maybe Laurel & Hardy suggested the theme by naming their great custard pie fight film THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY?

Chaplin is no slouch when it comes to foodstuffs as ammunition. A childhood of near-starvation left him with a complicated relationship with food — nearly every Chaplin film seems to have a gag about the absence of food, the smelliness of food, the noisiness of digestion, the perils of ingestion, or the use of various platters as ballistic weapons. BEHIND THE SCREEN featured one of comparatively few pitched pie fights in the silent screen’s history.

“To the buffet!” proclaims Billy Gilbert as Garbitsch, and audiences who like anticipating things may already be imagining some sploshy chaos. The swank dinners in Chaplin films always feature bizarre menus, selected not for compatibility but for slapstick possibilities. Here, the presence of the dictator of Bacteria, which stands for Italy, excuses the ever-present spaghetti. Surprisingly, mustard will prove more significant in the battle of the buffet.

Great reaction from Gilbert after he clears the buffet of undesirables, and then finds he’s to be included in their number. The actor has a unique ability to make his eyes stand out like horrified plums, loosely embedded in a slack pudding of a face — only the affronted orbs display emotion, but they compensate by sheer intensity for the limpness of the surrounding flesh.

Chaplin immediately recoils from an odorous Camemberg, a callback to countless cheese jokes in his past, most relevantly SHOULDER ARMS, where a similarly noisome cheese becomes a chemical weapon of devastating power.

Considering this kind of thing is new to him — dialogue played over the silent set-up for a gag where cream and mustard will be confused — he manages it very well. I can’t say that he’s as great a talking comic as he is a silent one, but he shows skill at combining the two forms — only Harold Lloyd and Laurel & Hardy really got to try the same thing.

The dispute as to whether the treaty will be signed before or after Napaloni’s troops are removed from the Osterlich border is classic vaudeville/music hall crosstalk. Anticipating the negotiation scenes in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and A DAY AT THE RACES. Fiona points out that Chaplin told Groucho he envied his facility with dialogue, adding weight to my hypothesis that Napaloni is a straight steal of Chico’s mangling of English. Here, however, Heinkel is the one playing it deliberately dense, attempting to wear the Bacterian dictator down by sheer refusal to recognize the basis of their argument.

Heinkel makes an angry gesture and spatters cream on the head of a flunky who’s tossing the spaghetti. Napaloni, in a rage, accidentally bites into the treaty, having incorporated it into his sandwich the way he intends to incorporate Osterlich into his empire.

The battle then becomes a matter of demonstrating with the buffet what the military forces of each dictator will do to the other’s. Napaloni stabs a huge sausage into a Devil’s Tower Wyoming heap of mashed potato, then swats it sideways. Heinkel bombards the punch bowl with an orange (I think it’s an orange. We’re in black and white so it’s more of a grey.)

The blocking of the scene is very simple but very, very effective. The two bosses and their two underlings are lines up along the table. Sometimes the leaders face off, sometimes they turn and complain to their seconds, a babel of Tomainian and Bacterian tirades. Dialogue as sheer noise. Overlapping a year before CITIZEN KANE, but to rather different effect.

Heinkel slathers mustard on his fresh plate of strawberries, and —

Then Napaloni bites into a too-mustardy sandwich. Well, he asked for the extra-hot English mustard, and it seems he can’t take it. Notably, perhaps, Chaplin denies Jack Oakie his own close-up, but the two men writhing on the divan as their throats combust is quite amusing.

Mustard was, of course, fully weaponized in the First World War, with far from hilarious consequences.

“Aiuta!” screams Il Duce. Either Chaplin couldn’t be bothered coming up with cod-Italian and resorted to the real thing, or Oakie is improvising.

This is all to get the characters into a furious political discussion in which neither can actually speak — they just mouth at each other in scorching muteness in between stuffing their gobs with hankies.

Recovering a bit, Heinkel attempts to demonstrate on a fistful of spaghetti how he will tear the Bacterians apart. Unfortunately for him, the many strands of pasta exhibit the same unbreakable qualities of the stacks of sticks or fasces used by the ancient Romans to signify group strength — E pluribus unum –– and which give the Fascist movement its name. Heinkel is left huffing as he stretches the spaghetti like a minute Charles Atlas demonstrating dynamic tension.

At an opportune moment he releases one end and twangs Napaloni in the kisser. So it’s war! Chaplin wields a sausage like a short sword, while Oakie grabs a pie. As Chekov says, you can’t introduce a custard pie in act two without going splurch in the kisser almost immediately, so a hack from the international press is introduced, peeping into the buffet room, his snooping features plastered in pie at once.

By the time Henry Daniell reenters, Heinkel and Napaloni are threatening one another with huge platters of mashed potato and something unidentifiable. Mutually assured destruction. Herring defuses the crisis and the stage is set for Tomainia’s invasion of Osterlich.

Very nice closing gag where Napaloni hands his mash to the Bacterian ambassador (Carter DeHaven? Really?), a much (even) smaller man, who totters under the unexpected weight of the potatoes, before crashing to the floor, offscreen. We don’t get to enjoy the sight of him buried in spud, but again Chaplin is enjoying the use of the audience’s imagination, which has the added advantage that he doesn’t have to cut away from HIMSELF.