Monday, November 25, 2013

Deus vs. Diablo Ex Machina

"In this episode, I die.  Wait, what?"
Once upon a time, long long ago, the Greeks invented "deus ex machina," or literally "god out of the machine." It was a handy-dandy device: got your hero pinned to a wall by the baddie?  Boom, Zeus comes out of nowhere, strikes down the baddie, and victory is won for the good.

Nowadays, it's looked down upon as a cheap trick, as the heavy hand of the sloppy writer.  Can't kill off your unstoppable Martians in War of the Worlds? Take everyone to the brink of destruction, the boom, microscopic life off the alien invaders.  (I'd argue that it isn't a completely sloppy ending, but hey.)  I wonder what makes someone write a deus ex machina ending.  Lack of talent?  A great story that needs an exit?  The constraints of time/energy/budget?

Take, for example, the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Ethics." Now, to be fair, this is a season five episode--the season where they tackled: the after-effects of rape, metaphor in language, Romulan politics, childbirth, death of both parents, ghettoization, addiction, and abortion.  In the first half of the season.  In "Ethics," they added another warm-and-fuzzy to the pile: Worf, "permanently" paralyzed in an accident, ponders suicide as a sane and rational answer.

To be fair, the show deserves credit for jumping into such a grave topic (ha!), and for doing so in a manner which wholeheartedly fits into the show.  Who else would consider the 24th Century equivalent to robot braces a travesty and non-option if not Worf, the outsider to the Gene Roddenberry enlightenment?  However, the show quickly paints itself into a corner.

In a scene about halfway between the accident and the ending (deus ex machina spoiler: he lives!  and walks!), a guest doctor muses about the fact that Klingon's have redundant systems: extra ribs, extra livers, it's all set up "in line" so that if one goes, the other takes over.  The show quickly covers its deus ex machinan tracks by scoffing at the Klingon body, saying that it's actually more that can go wrong, i.e. double chance for liver cancer (my words, not theirs).

The show then spends a lot of time debating the appropriate nature of suicide; it does a very nice job of looking at it from multiple angles, with different characters acting organically and sharing appropriate and thought-provoking views.  Worf ultimately decides to try a risky thingus-magingus where they [tech tech tech] a spine transplant or something.  A criticism that Ron Moore has had of the Trek universe is that oftentimes they will out-tech the situation.  Here, again to the show's credit, they don't: the spinal laser scan re-make-ify doesn't work, and Worf dies.  That is to say that the new spine is working great, but because a "dramatic countdown until brain death" counts all the way down, Worf dies.  Literally.

Then we get the skies opening (figuratively) and boom, right after the teary-eyed "We did all we could" scene, the "Son, your father is dead" scene and the "I wanna see my Daddy!" scene, Worf comes back to life.  Why?  That redundant system, it must have a redundant neural pathway that lets the brain restart!  I guess he also had a redundant lung, because with his brain down, he hasn't been breathing for a while either.

Clear-cut deus ex machina.  They couldn't not take the surgery all the way; then it would have just been tech to save the day.  So they went one step further: Zeus/nature/genetics/mysteries of alien medicine, that's what saved the day.

Boo hiss.  Don't the writers know that the "god" in the "god in the machine" has become hackneyed and lousy?  That it's turned into the devil of writing?

Hey, at least we had a salient debate about the pros and cons of end-of-life care... right?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Be The Wyld Stallyn

...and party on, dude!
Film, at its greatest, is not merely a series of pictures in motion; no, it is all.  It can capture life, death, love, hate, the highest highs, and the lowest lows.  When the lights of a theater dim, there is an expectant moment in the darkness where anything--everything--is possible.  Thus, it is in film that we can look to a pair of unlikely heroes, whose journey teaches us not only to strive to the best of our virtues, but to be better human beings.

I speak of course of William S. Preston, Esq, and Theodore Logan, two characters of cinema who are synonymous with the well-earned title The Great Ones.  They inhabit a film which acts as a modern-day fairytale through which a new degree of human sympathy and understanding might be achieved.  I speak of course of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

Excellent it is indeed, for in addition to serving as a primer for Western Civilization, it also reminds us of a virtue held in common by Jesus Christ, the Prophet Mohammad, Moses the Teacher, and Gautama Buddha: that of being common.  Bill and Ted do sip from the proverbial cup of a carpenter, being mistaken for drifty misanthropes particular to Cannabis sativa.  This is not the case, as it is revealed to them by the prophetic Rufus that the music of their band, the Wyld Stallyns, will be the core of a transformatiive philosophic shift in humanity towards peace and understanding.

The central tenet of this philosophy is, we are told, "be excellent to each other." Is this not the basic idea of all philosophy?  Is it not true that, if we all were to follow but this simple phrase for one day, it would be the greatest day of humanity?

Monday, November 11, 2013

Holli Would... But She Shouldn't

Go on, look closer.  Mee-oww!
It was the early spring of 1992, and on the back of every--and I mean every--comic book that made its was through my house had the exact same back cover advertisement.  "Holli Would If She Could," it read.  The message was clear: something seedy, something dark, something sensual.  The things we heard about in health class. 

That Cool World would unquestionably be the greatest thing EVER was just taken for granted.  That, at 12 years old, I'd unquestionably have to wait until it appeared at Prime Time Video that fall--at the earliest--was also taken for granted.  I mean, look at that poster!  You don't have to be Desmond Morris to decode the innate sexuality of Holli in that poster; nor do you have to be Joseph Campbell to decode the setting (snakes show danger, the door behind her is her "entrance," and so forth). 

Indeed, it was so simply known that the movie was the sort of thing that one watched alone that, when in July of that year my brother shystered my parents into taking him and a friend to the movie, buying tickets, getting them into the theater, then going away, I promptly torpedoed it by grabbing a comic, confronting my parents in the hall, and showing them the tagline.  "Holli would if she could," I said.  "They aren't talking about going to a party."  My brother was crushed.

It was years later when I finally sat down to watch Cool World.  Those of us who have been to even one wedding have likely heard the reading about "setting aside childish things."  Whenever I did see the film, it was with vague interest.  I was then living in the world of the Internet.  The true sense of titillation was gone... but still, I sat down feeling like it was almost forbidden.

The perfect first library!
The first thing that strikes you is that the film is by Ralph Bakshi... of The Hobbit animated film.  I have fond memories of going to see The Hobbit when I was 3 or 4.  I had a front row seat at the Point Pleasant Beach brand of the Ocean County Library.  A converted house, it's a creaky, warm, lovely little building, the perfect place to see literature on film. 

But back to Cool World.  The second thing that strikes you is that it's much more... animated than the poster suggested.  It isn't Jessica Rabbit animation, it's mostly Roger Rabbit goofiness.  At least, until Holli appears. 
I've never liked rotoscoping.  I think there's something unnatural about how natural it looks--animation can extend itself to the little nooks and crannies of its imagined physical world, with stretch and squash being prime examples.  To see Holli appear, bosom a-wobbling, butt a-shaking, it was all wonderfully gelatinous... but also so tethered to earth.  

Think again of Jessica rabbit.  Her figure literally would kill a human.  Add to that an intentional unnatural bounce (her breasts bounce up when they should boune down, and visa versa).  That's the stuff of untethered animation. 

Yet as sultry as Jessica Rabbit is, I think the two clips capture something about subtlety, and certainly sexuality.  Jessica is all about the slow sizzle, the long play before, and ultimately has a sense of girl power.  Let's not forget that she almost kisses Eddie Valliant, before "backing off." Heard at 1:54 in the clip, just before her final sung word, is the quiet grunt of a man off screen.  It isn't the sound of completion--it's the sound of stopping right before.

Holli, on the other hand, is not subtle.  She's clearly a tease to Gabriel Byrne's character (who, ironically, is the most artificial-looking thing in the scene).  She clearly isn't far from screwing or stripping for a reason.  Were she a real person, she would unquestionably have had a long stretch of time in foster homes with men like Kate's father from LOST. (Jessica, on the other hand, was probably did what Kate did more than once in her life.)

Ultimately, Holli is the perfect metaphor for what makes Cool World unwatchable tripe: no sense of of the subtle or sublime.  Every shot of animation is leeringly goofy, when not overwrought with the visual smell of sex-and-candy.  The set production, when not animated, try to cross a visual style between real and animated.  It's like trying to mix a tiger and a lion.  What you get isn't either, and isn't pretty.  As noted, even the acting from real-life, pretty good actors is awful!  

Bizarre character choices.  Wooden acting.  Idiotic story.  And a box office failure.

Holli, it seems, simply shouldn't have tried.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Remember it, Jake. It's "Chinatown."

Roman Polanski is an awful human being.

One needs to say that ahead of any other reference to Roman Polanski, if only to establish a) knowledge of his insidious crime, and b) that we all agree his crime was unquestionably vile.  (I will add that the HBO documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired does reveal that his trial was a literally scripted at times by the headline-seeking judge.  This does not discount that Roman Polanski is an awful human being.)

At any rate, now that I've established that we all agree that Polanski's personal decisions were horrendous, I'll mention another name.

Jack Nicholson.

I'll just repeat at this point that Roman Polanski is an awful human being, because when one mentions Polanski and Nicholson together, it tends to be a reminder that Polanski's wretched crime was perpetrated at Nicholson's house, with the latter not being anywhere near there.

Now that we've really established the awfulness, let's focus on a cinematic masterpiece that resulted in a collaboration of Polanski directing and Nicholson acting.

J. J. Gittes after the knife scene
1974's Chinatown is a movie that I've loved since I first saw it, which was probably around 1999.  Inspired to learn more about the then-new-to-me genre of film noir by Dark City and its amazing commentary track by Roger Ebert (who called it one of the year's top ten films), I scoured the library and local rental establishments (all of the latter being gone now) for more examples of this most-wonderful slice of film.

Chinatown has all that makes film noir great: a murky world, half-known motivations, a damsel in distress... or is she a femme fatale?  As the film opens, Nicholson's Jake Gittes is wrapping up another private eye case of... snapping pictures of a cheating wife.  (The husband is played by Rocky's Paulie.) His next case is more of the same: Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray hires him to take dirty pictures of her naughty husband.  Gittes does, and Mr. Mulwray, who works for the LA Department of Water and Power, is caught and humiliated in the papers.

Then the real Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray confronts Gittes, and we see through his eyes the slow descent into the relatively real-life murky world of politics and power in 1937 Los Angeles.  To be a bit more specific, it's the world of water rights--a drought is on, but it seems the water department is part of a conspiracy.  I'm sure you're reading this saying, "Wow, water rights?  Yeeehaw!" The investigation into the water department, while largely reflecting the real LA of the first part of the 20th Century, is merely a backbone for Gittes to investigate those who are behind it.  As an example, a proposal for a sequel to the film would have had Gittes investigating the conspiracy to end public transportation in LA--a story precisely recycled in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  The analogy is that Roger Rabbit isn't "about" the Cloverleaf conspiracy, but rather the world that the conspiracy takes place in... just like Chinatown.

What makes this film so compelling is the film noir framework in which Polanski so masterfully operates.  Gittes, the quasi-stereotypical film noir gumshoe detective is unphased by the violence around him, as well as the increasing threat to him as he probes deeper and deeper into the powerful people of the city.  When Polanski isn't filming in perfect 1930s locations--every car, every prop, every costume as we imagine it should be--then he is taking us into nighttime shadows, unanswered questions, little clues which gnaw at us only when they need to.  Polanski wisely tells the story from the point of view of Gittes--we learn every clue just as he does, and when Gittes is knocked unconscious at the end of a rather remarkable chase scene in an orange grove (Nicholson appears to actually be driving with the camera in the back seat, speeding between lines of trees, throwing the car into reverse, and gunning it), the camera fades to black.

Polanski, ironically, doesn't play a nice guy.
Chinatown also has a moment that I usually fast-forward through: Gittes, confronted by thugs who are on to him, has a switchblade stuck up his nose.  Polanski plays the thug with a knife--and slices.  Gittes spends the next chunk of the film with slowly diminishing bandages on his face, until it's just stitches.  At any rate, it's horrifying.

For the uninitiated, the title refers to Gittes' time as a cop in LA's Chinatown where, it is said, one tried to do very little.  This is because language and cultural barriers oftentimes meant that the "normal rules" didn't apply.

I won't spoil the ending for you, other than to say that the happy ending was rejected soundly.  It ends like a punch to the gut: hard, harsh, complete.  Suffice it to say that the final appearance of the character of Noah Cross (you'll thank me that I haven't explained more about him) is cringe-worthy, and for all the wrong reasons.

We also learn that it isn't just among lowly Chinese immigrants in 1930s LA that the "normal rules" don't apply.  Sometimes it's for those at the other end of the spectrum--sometimes the ones at the very top win.  Sometimes they win easily, and with little fuss... despite some private eye nosing around.

"Forget it, Jake.  It's Chinatown."