View Single Post
Better Ghost
I wrote a thing about Blade Runner 2049 and another thing about the Oscars and I might as well post them both here. I've seen a lot of films in the past several months, but I haven't written about most of them because after writing as much as I have about Moonlight, writing one or two paragraphs about a film just seems woefully inadequate.

All right, so. I think Blade Runner 2049 may have run up against the same obstacle that its source material did: it took an essentially journalistic approach to depicting its subject matter, and a lot of people expect science fiction to explicitly spell out its message. This sort of subtlety works for drama - I'd point to The Wire and Moonlight as exemplars of this storytelling style, both of which have been some of the most acclaimed works in their respective media in the last couple of decades - but it often leads to misinterpretations in works of science fiction, because I think our culture trains people to expect sci-fi to deliver a sort of Star Trek or Twilight Zone-like summation of the message at the end.

This isn't a knock on Serling or Roddenberry, both of whom were some of the finest storytellers of their generation. It's simply a different approach to writing. But for whatever reason, sci-fi often runs up against readers utterly failing to pick up on an author's subtle messaging.

(Spoiler warning for a few works, I guess. Specifically, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Slaughterhouse-Five - I don't think I discuss anything from either Blade Runner film that really qualifies as a spoiler.)

One of my favourite examples for this is Slaughterhouse-Five. A reader who takes it at face value will read it as a broadside against the existence of free will. This is, in fact, Billy Pilgrim's point of view. Because the novel matter-of-factly reports everything that Pilgrim says happens to him, readers frequently assume quietism is also Vonnegut's point of view. In point of fact, several subtle clues in the novel suggest that his is the exact opposite. The most telling clue for me is a remark in the first chapter, which is, apart from a brief aside in the final chapter, the only part of the novel Vonnegut writes from his own perspective. Vonnegut mentions to a friend that he is writing an antiwar novel, and the friend, endorsing a fatalist perspective, says that he might as well write an anti-glacier novel, because it would do as much to stop glaciers as an antiwar novel would do to fight wars. Despite this, Vonnegut still wrote and published his antiwar novel.

There are several other clues in the novel that suggest that Pilgrim's stance is not to be taken at face value; indeed, an alternative interpretation is that Pilgrim is dealing with PTSD and all the sci-fi elements of the novel are really just coping mechanisms. His time travel back to the war is all PTSD flashbacks, and his glimpses of the future, of aliens, of meeting with porn stars, and so on are all just in his head. There are aspects of his story that aren't internally consistent, and there are aspects that suggest that he's internalising details of things he sees in real life and crafting narratives about them (the narrative mentions that Montana Wildhack went missing, and then he shows up in an alien zoo with her). His account of his supposed death in the future also contradicts his fatalist stance - if he knows what could occur to him, then surely he has every chance to alter his actions and avert it, but he never takes any of these - and perhaps most importantly, Vonnegut describes Tralfamadorians as having blown up the universe at some indeterminate point in the future, which isn't the sort of thing an author sympathetic to their perspective would be likely to do.

This brings us to the source of Blade Runner 2049 (and its predecessor), Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dick himself explicitly stated that he deliberately wrote the novel as an examination of the forms of dehumanisation that led to the Holocaust. It is a story, in many ways, about the banality of evil - about the subtle ways society others people.

But none of this is explicitly spelt out in the novel, and many people, coming at it from Blade Runner without having read any of Dick's previous works, will lack familiarity with his style and assume that the narration of his characters is reliable. In fact, there are several points in the novel that suggest that society's entire belief system about androids - specifically, that they lack and are incapable of learning empathy - is completely false.

One of two key points in the narrative comes with the revelation that androids have four-year lifespans. This is not used as a plot twist in the film (and to be fair, not all replicants in Blade Runner's universe have such lifespans), but it is not revealed until well past the halfway point of the novel. Most people don't even pick up on it, but it casts the androids' behaviour in a wholly different light.

There's a scene where one of the androids (I think it's either Pris or Rachael; I haven't read the whole novel in awhile) casually mentions that she has a habit of seducing men in order to manipulate them. The thing is, though, she mentions this to one of these men, which completely undoes the manipulation - she's made him aware of it. But she's not capable of understanding this.

The seduction, obviously, isn't at all childlike, but the rest of it - that's exactly what a child would do. They don't possess the understanding of human nature to understand that telling someone about your ulterior motives makes them aware of those motives. They're just proud of their actions and want to tell someone, and they don't realise that who they tell makes a difference.

Humanity, throughout the novel, makes a big point of treating androids as soulless, as irreparable dangers to humanity. But the thing is, it's also using androids as slave labour offworld (which is exactly why they want to escape) and humanity's painstaking care for animals (who admittedly are extremely rare thanks to what is referred to as "World War Terminus") is directly contrasted with its treatment of androids.

But androids do frequently come across as cruel. There is a passage near the end of the novel where three androids are tormenting a spider in order to mess with J. R. Isidore, a human who is brain damaged from World War Terminus. (The humans who remain on Earth, it may be noted, are implied to suffer some brain damage from the fallout, which is another reason we can't simply rely on what the human characters tell us, or even on what they observe. Again, the unreliable narrator is a favourite technique of PKD, almost as much as it is of Christie.) But then Isidore has a major emotional freakout, and the android Irmgard Baty explicitly says that this makes her "terribly upset", and says by means of reassurance, "Don't look like that". If that isn't actually empathy, it's certainly a really solid impression of it.

But all of this is beneath the surface, so a lot of readers don't pick up on it. Some readers have argued that it's an anti-AI tract. It's not. Society in the novel is anti-AI, but Dick's perspective is not society's. The novel is, at its core, an examination of the processes that lead to dehumanisation - even when those being dehumanised aren't technically human.

Blade Runner 2049 takes the same approach: it is not necessarily endorsing what it depicts. Director Denis Villeneuve explicitly spelt out his intentions with the movie's gender politics in an interview: "Blade Runner is not about tomorrow; it's about today. And I'm sorry, but the world is not kind on women." The novel's depiction of women has been strongly criticised from some quarters, but I feel Rachael Kaines of Moviepilot has the right of it: "The movie is about secondary citizens. Replicants. Orphans. Women. Slaves. Just by depicting these secondary citizens in subjugation doesn't mean that it is supportive of these depictions – they are a condemnation." Helen Lewis' review in the New Statesman also touches on another of the film's major themes: a man's rage that women can do something that he cannot (childbirth).

In short, I see Villeneuve as essentially taking the same approach with his film that Dick did with his novel (and, for that matter, as Ridley Scott did in the original film): clinically looking at an oppressive society and subtly examining the factors that cause its oppression. This isn't to say that every aspect of it works (in particular, the sex scene comes across as bizarrely awkward and unsexual, though that may have been the point), but I think it's a superb film and I can't wait to re-watch it.

I wasn't really surprised by any of the winners in any of the categories most people care about, nor was I particularly disappointed on the whole, though a few of the choices felt rather safe. But the Academy could've done way worse.

I'll say right out the bat that the fact that people tried to make Del Toro versus Peele for Best Director etc. an issue of racism is one of the most ludicrous hot takes I've seen this year; you're literally talking about a Mexican immigrant and an African-American. (Del Toro commendably defended immigrants in his Best Director acceptance speech.) The outcome (Peele getting Best Original Screenplay and Del Toro getting Best Director and Best Picture) was exactly what I expected; Best Original Screenplay is often used by the Academy to honour great up-and-coming directors, and Best Picture/Best Director are often almost as much lifetime achievement awards as they are honours of one film in and of itself. Which is fine. In some cases there isn't a clear standout, which I kind of felt was the case for the Best Picture category this year (admittedly there are still several I haven't seen), and in that case honouring the biggest and best overall body of work that hasn't yet received a Best Picture/Director nod is fine to me.

Best Director was perhaps the least surprising outcome in that category since I really started paying attention to the awards - the Academy loves honouring auteurish films with Best Director, and if there was a more auteurish film last year than The Shape of Water, I haven't seen it, and it really was a gorgeously directed film in every aspect. In fact, I called "Del Toro is getting Best Director next year" basically as soon as I left the cinema, and I had a pretty strong hunch that it would get Best Picture as well. (Disclaimer: I still haven't seen Get Out, though I plan to. I tend not to enjoy horror on the whole, but I'm pretty sure this film would be an exception, particularly since I've greatly enjoyed Jordan Peele's overall body of work. Also, my objection to the genre tends to be more than anything to its frequent gratuitous gore and employment of cheap tricks like jump scares, and I get the impression Get Out doesn't rely heavily/at all on these. As for films I have seen, Blade Runner 2049 may have been as auteurish, but the sci-fi ghetto is still a thing. And yes, a romance featuring a fish-man is fantasy, but the Academy has historically been more willing to honour fantasy.) I do find it kind of unusual that two years in a row the Best Picture winner has been a romantic drama (SPOILER) with a mostly happy ending - such films are rare in Hollywood, much less as Best Picture winners. (I remarked on that possibility after leaving the cinema as well.)

Oldman getting Best Actor and the makeup crew winning that category were two more I called right after leaving the cinema. Again, probably a lifetime achievement award for Oldman as much as anything, but I frequently had a difficult time believing I wasn't actually watching Churchill.

I haven't seen I, Tonya yet, but I called Janney winning long before I even knew who the nominees were. The woman is a fucking force of nature.

I have some issues with Three Billboards overall, but I can't argue too much with either of its cast members winning. Perhaps my only moderate surprise for either category was that Harrelson and Rockwell didn't cancel out each other's votes. That's happened several times. I get the impression that the Academy may use a different voting system now than it used to, partially with the aim of preventing this, but I haven't actually researched it. (My overall issue with the film was its ambiguous redemption arc for Rockwell's character - I suspect McDonagh may not have thought through all its implications. The overall message of the film - "Violence begets more violence" - is one I have difficulty taking issue with on the whole; my only other concern is that less perceptive viewers may not get that this is what the film is trying to say, even though the script explicitly spells it out towards the end of the film, and in exactly those words.)

I do think The Shape of Water was snubbed in these categories, though, especially Doug Jones, who wasn't even fucking nominated. The fact that Jones and Sally Hawkins manage to make a romance between a woman and a fish-creature seem plausible without either of them ever saying a fucking word is an astonishing achievement in dramatic performance, particularly since Jones had to act beneath all the practical effects. Both of them say more with their eyes than many actors say using their entire bodies.

Haven't seen any of the documentaries, short films, foreign-language films, or animated films, but I understand Coco was odds-on favourite to win and considered by some measure the best. This shouldn't surprise anyone; Pixar doesn't have many duds.

I haven't seen Phantom Thread, but I felt The Shape of Water was the best score of last year by some margin. Desplat is certainly one of the finest composers in Hollywood right now.

The sound categories were the only ones where I strenuously disagreed with the Academy. Dunkirk was just too fucking loud when I saw it in cinemas (which was one of two major complaints I had with the film - its downplaying/erasure of women/minorities' contributions to the evacuation was the other). I'm not how much of this was the sound crew's fault and how much was the theatre's, though my understanding is that the film crew wanted it to be loud. And I get what they were going for - war is loud - but there's such a thing as too much. I would've given (at least one of) the nods to Baby Driver - the way the action was synchronised with the music was a minor miracle. I'm not particularly surprised at the Academy's choice, though; I'd figured one or the other would win going in, but I had no idea which. (I actually half-expected the Academy to split the categories between the two films, which I think I'd have been happy with.)

Best Cinematography for Deakins was long overdue, and Blade Runner was by some margin the most beautiful film made last year - even against The Shape of Water. I can't really argue with the latter getting Best Production Design though; its sets were absolutely phenomenal. Blade Runner also deserved the visual effects award. And I can't really argue with the film editing award for Dunkirk; the vast number of scene transitions in that film were deftly handled. Finally, Phantom Thread winning for costume design may be the least surprising result of the entire evening - is anyone really surprised that a film about clothes design wins the costume design category? I could tell just from the trailer that the clothes were gorgeous.

Maybe I'll write some more detailed reactions to a few of these films later. I'll admit to having a bias towards Del Toro overall because Pan's Labyrinth is my second favourite film ever (only last year's Best Picture winner has supplanted it), but The Shape of Water is probably the second best thing he's made ("probably" because there are still a few works in his oeuvre that I haven't seen yet) and I have little issue with it getting recognised.
I should note that I don't actually personally know any of this year's winners, so I'm not as awed by them. It occurred to me the other day that if amateur plays and crew credits count, then I have a Kevin Bacon number of 3.

ff · tmv · reds · lj · · soundcloud · pm for facebook (which I never check)

“The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain. If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold; we can no longer describe happy man, nor make any celebration of joy.”
-Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

“I never knew a man could tell so many lies
He had a different story for every set of eyes
How can he remember who he’s talking to?
’Cause I know it ain’t me, and I hope it isn’t you”
-Neil Young, “Ambulance Blues”
I’m armed to the teeth
Like a fucking animal
I ruin everything
I get my bony hands on

And here we go now over the bridge of sighs
We will get a cross like Christ, crucified
It’s like a birth but it is in reverse
Never gets better, always gets worse
Voilà! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a bygone vexation stands vivified, and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition. The only verdict is vengeance; a vendetta held as a votive, not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous. Verily, this vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose vis-à-vis an introduction, so let me simply add that it’s my very good honor to meet you and you may call me V.
Vaulting, veering, vomiting up the values that victimized me, feeling vast,
feeling virginal... was this how he felt? This verve, this vitality... this vision...

La voie... la vérité... la vie.
The Dead Flag Blues
The car is on fire, and there’s no driver at the wheel, and the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides, and a dark wind blows. The government is corrupt, and we’re on so many drugs with the radio on and the curtains drawn. We are trapped in the belly of this horrible machine, and the machine is bleeding to death. The sun has fallen down, and the billboards are all leering, and the flags are all dead at the top of their poles.

It went like this: The buildings tumbled in on themselves; mothers clutching babies picked through the rubble and pulled out their hair. The skyline was beautiful on fire, all twisted metal stretching upwards, everything washed in a thin orange haze. I said, “Kiss me, you are beautiful; these are truly the last days.” You grabbed my hand, and we fell into it like a daydream or a fever.

We woke up one morning and fell a little further down; for sure it’s the valley of death. I open up my wallet, and it’s full of blood.
Gravity’s Rainbow
The Smashing Pumpkins
we can watch the world devoured in its hate.
The late prophet Bill Hicks
I’m so sick of arming the world and then sending troops over to destroy the fucking arms, you know what I mean? We keep arming these little countries then we go and blow the shit out of ’em. We’re like the bullies of the world, you know. We’re like Jack Palance in the movie Shane, throwing the pistol at the sheep herder’s feet: “Pick it up.” “I don’t wanna pick it up, mister; you’ll shoot me.” “Pick up the gun.” “Mister, I don’t want no trouble, huh. I just came downtown here to get some hard rock candy for my kids, some gingham for my wife. I don’t even know what gingham is, but she goes through about ten rolls a week of that stuff. I ain’t looking for no trouble, mister.” “Pick up the gun.” Boom, boom. “You all saw him. He had a gun.”

moar I’ll show you politics in America. Here it is, right here. “I think the puppet on the right shares my beliefs.” “I think the puppet on the left is more to my liking.” “Hey, wait a minute, there’s one guy holding out both puppets!” “Shut up! Go back to bed, America! Your government is in control. Here's Love Connection. Watch this and get fat and stupid. By the way, keep drinking beer, you fucking morons.”

All governments are liars and murderers. Go back to bed, America! Your government has figured out how it all transpired. Go back to bed, America! Your government is in control again. Here, here’s American Gladiators. Watch this, shut up! Go back to bed, America! Here is American Gladiators; here is 56 channels of it! Watch these pituitary retards bang their fucking skulls together and congratulate you on living in the land of freedom! Here you go, America: You are free to do what we tell you! You are free to do what we tell you!

The Supreme Court says pornography is anything without artistic merit that causes sexual thoughts, that’s their definition, essentially. No artistic merit, causes sexual thoughts. Hmm… Sounds like… every commercial on television, doesn’t it? You know, when I see those two twins on that Doublemint commercial? I’m not thinking of gum. I am thinking of chewing, so maybe that’s the connection they’re trying to make.

I have this feeling man, ’cause you know, it’s just a handful of people who run everything, you know… that’s true, it’s provable. It’s not… I’m not a fucking conspiracy nut; it’s provable. A handful, a very small elite, run and own these corporations, which include the mainstream media. I have this feeling that whoever is elected president, like Clinton was, no matter what you promise on the campaign trail – blah, blah, blah – when you win, you go into this smoke-filled room with the twelve industrialist capitalist scumfucks who got you in there. And you’re in this smoky room, and this little film screen comes down, and a big guy with a cigar goes, “Roll the film.” And it’s a shot of the Kennedy assassination from an angle you’ve never seen before that looks suspiciously like it’s from the grassy knoll. And then the screen goes up and the lights come up, and they go to the new president, “Any questions?” “Er, just what my agenda is.” “First we bomb Baghdad.” “You got it…”

They don’t want the voice of reason spoken, folks, ’cause otherwise, we’d be free. Otherwise, we wouldn’t believe their fucking horseshit lies, nor the fucking propaganda machine of the mainstream media and buy their horseshit products that we don’t fucking need and become a third world consumer fucking plantation, which is what we’re becoming. Fuck them! They are liars and murderers. All governments are liars and murderers, and I am now Jesus, and this is MY compound.

The world is like a ride at an amusement park. It goes up and down and round and round. It has thrills and chills and it’s very brightly coloured and it’s very loud and it’s fun for awhile. Some people have been on the ride for a long time and they begin to question, is this real, or is this just a ride? And other people have remembered, and they come back to us, they say, “hey – don't worry, don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride…” And we… kill those people. Haha. “Shut him up. We have a lot invested in this ride. Shut him up. Look at my furrows of worry. Look at my big bank account and my family. This just has to be real.” It’s just a ride. But we always kill those good guys who try and tell us that, you ever notice that? And let the demons run amok. Jesus murdered; Martin Luther King mudered; Malcolm X murdered; Gandhi murdered; John Lennon murdered; Reagan… wounded. But it doesn’t matter because it’s just a ride. And we can change it anytime we want. It’s only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings and money. A choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love, instead, see all of us as one. Here’s what we can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride. Take all that money that we spend on weapons and defences each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace. Thank you; you’ve been great.

ACF awards an' shit Best Member Rep · Best Signature · Most Respected · Best Poster · Best Debater · Most Intelligent · Most Political Knowledge · Second Most Literary Knowledge · Third Best Male Member (Tie) · Third Most Likely to Get Modded (Tie) · Third Most Likely to Become the Next Admin