Monthly Archives: August 2007

Sympathy for the Dumb

I’m trying to go to bed but I can’t help rewatching this video of a “Miss Teen USA” contestant trying to answer a question. The fact that it’s a softball question is practically beside the point, though it enriches the humor. The first half of the answer is funny enough just because of the look on her face of either (a) thinking extra hard, or (b) total vacuity (I’m not sure which), but despite how dumb her answer is, at least it’s a grammatically decipherable sentence.

After about second 23 though, she seems to forget what the question is but think she’s on a roll and must add a few de rigeur platitudes before her time runs out. The subsequent series of free association is so funny, yet so pure as an immediate verbalisation of every phrase that pops into her head like a Mad Libs of Miss America phrases, repeatedly aborted mid-statement by uncertainty.

Although she’s admittedly an empty head (an observation so obvious it’s almost gratuitous to state explicity, like saying a mentally handicapped person is, admittedly, retarded) she must have been distracted by something to so completely lose her train of thought. The panic on her face, as if in realisation that she’s out of her depth in a bird bath, makes me unexpectedly sympathise with her.

But ultimately her answer is the purest expression of Beauty Pageant discourse, and revelatory of the thought process behind any such answer. It is a rare moment of truth that deconstructs the soundbite to its basic nature: a series of sub-bite particles that, when strung together, usually come out sounding like a sentence. Ideally a sentence that sounds compassionate and optimistic rather than patronising and naive.

But unfortunately for Miss South Carolina, a few synapses misfired in her freak brainstorm so this time the sub-bite particles didn’t come out sounding like a sentence. It was just bad luck for her because, honestly, it could have happened to any one of her rivals.

THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM

It’s amazing how much expectations affect enjoyment of a film. I was disappointed to hear Paul Greengrass had been retained for the third installment of Bourne’s quest to recall his identity. I think Doug Liman’s camera choices — handheld for Bourne and stable for Treadstone early on, changing to stable for Bourne and handheld for Treadstone later in the film — reflected the characters’ emotional states in The Bourne Identity much better than Greengrass’ fundamentalist devotion to disorientation in the sequel.

In The Bourne Supremacy I considered the shaky camera to be a waste of all the money spent on that spectacular car chase because we were never allowed to see what was happening, and spatial clarity is never more crucial than in a chase scene. Why organise such split-second automobile choreography then waste the celluloid?

The same criticisms are valid again for The Bourne Ultimatum, but having resigned myself to the fact that I would hate the cinematography, I resolved (as I did with 28 Weeks Later) to accept the style passively rather than mentally fight against it and just enjoy the story if I could. And with such low expectations, I certainly did.

In the first movie, Bourne is a perfect audience proxy since we join him just as his experience begins to reflect ours as the audience. We know as little as he does, except for those scenes when suspense is created by letting us in on the plans to capture him. But after two movies of witnessing his superior abilities and knack for escaping any situation, he’s acheived a legendary status that distances him from the audience and lessens the suspense since there’s little doubt the machine-like Bourne will come out on top. This reputation for invulnerability is further reinforced by the CIA’s own reminders to its analysts that Bourne is unlike anyone they’ve ever faced before.

So, given the apotheosis of Bourne, it’s inevitable that Ultimatum’s most exciting sequence is a low-speed pursuit on foot in which the hero has to remotely talk an espionage-naive journalist through a complicated attempt to lose a gaggle of tailling CIA agents. Since the death of his companion early on in Supremacy, he’s had nothing to lose for the last half-movie or so, but with Bourne graduated to guardian angel, Paddy Considine finally provides the audience with a vulnerable character to worry about as his disorientation recalls that of Bourne at the beginning of the series. Unfortunately Ultimatum never again recaptures the excitement of the most non-kinetic sequence in the film.

Nonetheless, the movie continues to surprise by not fulfilling (or rather, delaying) expectations. When Bourne steals a car for the first time in Ultimatum — an Audi just like last time — one expects a long and elaborate chase but it is quickly cut short, which in itself is one of the movie’s two biggest surprises.

The relationship of the second and third Bourne movies is that of two jigsaw puzzle pieces. A self-contained movie followed by two interlocking sequels is an old formula for trilogies, made famous by the original Star Wars series and continued most recently in the Matrix and Pirates franchises. Yet Identity is even more delineated from its sequels by the different visual styles of Liman and Greengrass.

Unlike the Matrix and Pirates sequels, however, Supremacy and Ultimatum were not filmed simultaneously and therefore Supmremacy does not end with as dramatic a cliffhanger. Though a third installment was no doubt discussed during the making of Supremacy, the audience could not be left with a cliffhanger not to be resolved six months or a year later.

SEMI-SPOILER: But three years later, Ultimatum manages to achieve a comparable effect retroactively with a revelation halfway through that reinterprets the second movie’s conclusion. But before you have a chance to catch yourself from falling off the newly hewn cliff (and without giving you a chance to demand a refund for the last hour) it’s already on the way to providing immediate satisfaction.

Ultimately, I’m glad Greengrass returned for the third film if for no other reason than preserving the continuity between the two screenplays that are completely co-dependent and deftly incorporate the issues of memory, recollection, and discovery into the narrative structure.

ENDING SPOILERS:

Lenny Moore and Dennis Cozzalio claim that the movie’s resolution betrays its paranoid consipracy theory premise by allowing a Senate subcommittee hearing to represent the truth of an evil government program finally being aired out. Indeed, it is similar to the penultimate scene of Identity, in which Brian Cox announces the closing of Treadstone immediately followed by an easily ignored announcement of a new project called Blackbriar, which we can now see was nothing more than a nomenclature shellgame.

The idea that Ultimatum’s conclusion rings false because Congress would presumably continue the cover-up of Treadstone/Blackbriar implies that the average congressman is both knowledgeable and savvy about black ops, but I think it more likely that most if not all congressmen are little more than buffoons. The first movie reinforces this notion by the ease with which Cox slides Treadstone under their noses, and it’s implied that their evident approval of Blackbriar is due to the opaqueness of the programme’s aims, not its transparency. Futhermore, in today’s polarized political climate I think congressmen would be eager to expose any clandestine goverment activity for the chance of scoring political points against the opposing party.

Nonetheless, I did find the very last shot to be depressingly optimistic. Bourne’s survival militated against the themes of all three movies, in particular the last ten minutes of Ultimatum. Especially given the revelation of David Webb’s voluntary acceptance of the assassin program, in terms of movie morality a character who’s done the things he has done should not be spared, no matter how likeable the protagonist. Did the few people he decided not to shoot in Ultimatum atone for the many assassinations of which we were constantly reminded?

Admittedly, floating in the water was a metaphorical death for the character, but by restricting it to a metaphorical-only death with his swimming away, they let the audience have their cake and eat it too. But in terms of the literal narrative the “happy ending” is actually an upsetting one which perpetuates the absence of justice that characterizes the trilogy’s critique of the world. In that sense, at least, the film affirms its paranoid conspiracy theory foundation.

What do Mount Rushmore, Tony Danza, and the Anglo-Saxon alliance have in common?

They’re all menaces to society! I guess.

And here I thought my miscellaneous ramblings were amusing. This fellow sees my demented screed and raises me 57 pages of stream-of-consciousness defendant-naming.

Most are obvious blame-throwing targets (NBA commissioner David Stern, Bono). Others, not so much (the architecture of Free Masonry, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children). But one thing’s for sure: if you’re not on this list, you’re nobody!

I’ve read it twice now and am still laughing out loud at entries.

Niccolo Machiavelli.

Steven Spielberg.

The Folger Shakespeare Library.

“Kim Jong 11.”

The Hegelian Principle.

Maddox Pitt-Jolie.

The Planet of Pluto. (That one obviously dates the document to pre-August 2006.)

Chubby Checker.

The Colossus of Rhodes.

I could endlessly list my favorites until I’ve just reproduced the PDF itself.

My Head Will Explode

I haven’t seen any of the Jurrasic Park movies. Just haven’t been interested in them. Until now.

Call it news or call it rumour, but if the following information is correct, I’ll definitely be seeing my first Jurrasic Park movie next summer:

We’re told that the film is about the government who has trained dinosaurs to carry weapons and use them for battle purposes.

Dinosaurs are pretty cool on their own. But missle-launching dinosaurs are one of the Top Three Best Ideas according to a survey of 7-year-olds everywhere.

My female readers may not quite comprehend how it works, but according to Boy Math:

Dinos = 8/10 on the cool scale

Guns = 9/10 on the cool scale

Dinos x Guns = 72/10 on the cool scale

In fact, I’ve got the blueprints for Jurrasic Park IV right here:

t-rex-blueprint.gif

“It was not how to get into the Joker but how to get him out of my head”

At Wizard World Chicago there was a Dark Knight panel on Saturday composed of Christopher and Jonah Nolan, David Goyer, Christian Bale, Aaron Eckhart, and Gary Oldman (but not Heath Ledger). They showed a teaser with actual visual footage this time, which I haven’t been able to find online — check out how tight (and sartorially clever) the security was here — but there is a description of the footage contents here (minor but highly gratifying spoilers).

The most interesting comment from the director was this one:

What are the most important aspects of the Joker that you needed to incorporate in this film?

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN: We looked at it the other way around. We found a way of looking at the character and saw what role he would play in the film. The Joker card at the end of the first film created the right kind of feeling. That was the hook that got us thinking about the next one. We were looking through comics and Joker stories and we started writing the treatment before we even wrote “The Prestige.”

Jonah [his brother and screenwriter] called me and said, “Have you read the first two Joker appearances?” I had but not in a really long time. We’ve come around to something that’s eerily close to those first two appearances.

I’ve never read them but now I’m really curious to read the first two issues with the Joker. All I know is that he was based on Conrad Veidt’s character in The Man Who Laughs, the Victor Hugo adaptation of ten years before which was recently featured in The Black Dahlia (another Eckhart film).

themanwholaughs.png

I’m also impressed by just how clever and shrewd Christian Bale is. After the filmmakers expressed a lack of interest in a World’s Finest film, Bale threw the fans some red meat without actually making a verbal statement that could be quoted:

On a scale of 1 to 10, is there any interest in a Batman/Superman World’s Finest movie?

DAVID GOYER: For me, after working on this project, it’s zero.

JONAH NOLAN: When I was a teenager, my brother gave me a copy of The Dark Knight Returns, which has a very similar scene in it. I couldn’t put a number on it.

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN: Creatively, I’m burned out so I have no interest.

PAUL LEVITZ: What do you say, Christian? Do you want to wrestle Superman? [Audience roars]

CHRISTIAN BALE: [Nods confirming he’d like to as the audience screams in excitement]

The rest of the panel comments are available here.

Cheers for that!

Every week Heroes is followed by a little 20-minute bit that feels like a DVD featurette. The usual pedestrian interviews with actors, producers, and writers all saying the same thing with slightly different words. I was kind of worried that they might have spoilers in them but last week’s was about special effects and creating the fire that the cheerleader ran into two episodes before, so I figured they were making sure not to spoil anything.

Last night’s bit focused on the character Peter Parker Petrelli, which was reassuringly bland and boring until the last five minutes when they started talking about why he’s the most important character and they gave away his real power! This is after episode 4! I can see in retrospect that there have been a couple of hints but so far it was definitely not clear yet that this was his true ability.

I would have thought that for a show that made such a big deal out of cliffhangers they would have taken care not to do that, but maybe it’s just BBC’s bad programming decision. For all I know they ripped them right off the Season 1 DVD.

The Joker and Chaos Theory

Matthew Rossi has an ingenious story concept for the Joker, moving him away from homicidal monomania towards someone who better perpetuates the randomness and chaos he supposedly personifies:

Why did the Joker steal the costume from a local college team’s mascot and wear it while robbing the Gotham Stock Exchange, and for that matter, why did the Joker break into the Gotham Stock Exchange just to steal three stockbroker’s wallets at gunpoint? Why is he paying street gangs to slash the tires of every Audi 5000 in the city?

buddyaces.jpgThe Joker as a practitioner of Chaos Theory would completely confound the Detective who relies on following clues to solve crimes and looks for meaning in details. Villains like the Riddler who deliberately leave clues play to Batman’s strengths, but Batman’s attempt to impose order on an intentionally random series of crimes would necessarily fail if not drive him insane.

I love the thought of Batman insisting on drawing meaning out of clues that turn out to be dead ends. He would inevitably become a pathetic conspiracy theorist, like a Tom Hanks who can find something in anything but discovers at the end of the story that there is no Da Vinci Code after all. Sure, it might be a pessimistic conclusion implying that there is no continuity in the world, but it would at least be an authentically Noir ending for that darkest of private dicks.

The built-in metaphor of randomly shuffled playing cards would also make better use of the Joker’s name than merely his being a clown whose special pathology is telling jokes that aren’t funny.