Spawn of Mars
Don't worry. If you like your religion, you can keep your religion.
Favor the Heart Over the Tail
Hacksaw Ridge  Is an Amazing 40 Minutes
Tuesday, November 28, 2017 9:14 pm
Beware! Spoilers follow.

For its first hour or so, Hacksaw Ridge is very disappointing. For another half hour it is active, if not exciting. And then there is a scene that is transcendent; and the remainder of the movie is wonderful. 

If you haven't seen the movie yet, still do so. But a little advice: As soon as there is text on the screen noting that Doss died at age 87, stop the movie. What follows the note are snippets of genuine documentary — still shots and actual interviews — that, like all documentary postscripts to "true-story" movies, yank you right out of the wonder. And considering that the wonder of Hacksaw Ridge was great and long in coming, it's a shame to let it be killed at last.

The transcendent scene comes after the "active" half hour, after we've been watching Doss's company assault Hacksaw Ridge.

The combat is decently choreographed. There is a clear plot of advancing on bunkers and being driven back. Yet somehow it wasn't exciting. It was only agitating. Every death is sudden. The deaths accumulate like falling marbles. We're given no time to feel any loss. Even the overnight mid-combat respite in the foxhole was not especially anything. Perhaps I had been numbed by the first hour of the movie, but I kept waiting to be moved by the combat.

I will say this, though. The suddenness of every death made everything relentless. Thus, one could get a proper sense of chaos. And futility.

So when the company has retreated to the cliff's edge, and every able man but Doss has retreated down the ropes, the tiring brutality has been presented. When Doss looks back on the devastation, we at least know what we're supposed to be feeling.

Now, here's an important point about Doss. I'll touch on this again, but even in the disappointing parts of the movie, Doss is a solid and interesting character. It is established well that he is a godly and patriotic medic who refuses to carry a weapon. I believed everything about his courage and conviction. So when he looks back and starts despairing, I believed he was despairing. I despaired only because he did. In the chaos he has not been killing the enemy; he has been scrambling to save his fellows. Some he saved; some he didn't. He is crouched over the corpse of one he didn't.

There were so many he didn't. Though he tried so hard!

And despairing he says, "What is it you want of me?" He is of course speaking to God. He gazes on the field of failure and complains, "I don't understand." Finally he laments, "I can't hear you."

And across the shattered ground, out of the smoke and silence, someone calls, "Medic! Help me!" More voices say the same. There is even a cry of "Help me, Lord!"

The moment is so well constructed, that of course we infer that God has effectively spoken to Doss. And Doss hears. He no longer despairs. He rises and purposefully sets out into the devastation. The scene is simply transcendent.

Then comes a genuinely thrilling quest, as Doss seeks out the wounded and, one by one, brings them back to the cliff and lowers them by rope. The danger is acute, of course, because Doss is unarmed and will not kill. He must evade the scouting enemy. And even as he becomes exhausted, he repeatedly gasps, "Please, Lord, help me get one more."

I did wonder why no one simply joined him up on the ridge to help him. There had been only two sentries at the base of the cliff; but once the wounded men started appearing from above, others came to ferry them back to the base. To be sure, Doss's quest would have been less thrilling if it had not been solo, and I realize that his solo quest is what actually happened; but it did seem odd.

Still, it was thrilling. There was a heroism and excitement that I had missed in the earlier chaos of combat. Again, though that combat was good, there was something rote about it — much like the rest of the movie.

How I wished I could simply remove the rest of the movie! The last forty minutes — even after Doss's quest has ended and he returns with his company to take the ridge (and, not incidentally, heroically save his captain from a grenade) — deserved better than what preceded it.

The particular weakness of the first hour is exemplified by Doss's time in boot camp. It is one cliché after another, right down to the melting-pot-of-America cast of soldiers and the barking from the sergeant about not calling him "sir." The tension with the other soldiers, their bullying and such, reminded me of everything from Pvt. Pyle's troubles in Full Metal Jacket to any nerd's troubles in some 1980s teen comedy. It was flat. Even the scenes of Doss's wooing of his wife, or the scene of his drunkard, abusive father (in Great War dress uniform) soberly interrupting Doss's court martial to save his son, were just checking off Hollywood expectations. I wanted it all gone.

And yet, without the information provided by these scenes, that transcendent moment wouldn't have had any foundation. The quest would not have been credible.

The key mistake of Hacksaw Ridge is in making Doss's quest the tail of the movie. Every part is developed too much for its own sake, all equally weighted, as we work through one to another until we reach that tail. Instead the quest should be the heart, the beginning and the end, with everything else attached only enough to explain and illuminate that heart.

There is a great vignette of Doss as a boy, violently harming his brother and then, in his dismay, gazing upon an illustration of the Ten Commandments and coming upon Thou shall not kill. Yes, this vignette is in the disappointing first hour; but it is an exception to the clichés. It is also a clue to a better construction of the movie. Rather than progress conventionally to the combat (checking boxes as we go), decide what is most relevant about, for example, Doss's wooing and present some vignette succinctly. We need only enough information to achieve that coming transcendence. Hack off the rest.

Every vignette could be embedded in the narrative frame of the combat. Or, if that proved cumbersome, the vignettes could still be presented serially, but with each presenting a rather specific facet of Doss's character. Because, in the end, it is Doss's character that matters. One could radically not even name the other characters and still have a complete and powerful movie. Doss is just that interesting.

Even as it is, the movie is good. It succeeds at depicting Doss and his heroism. Ultimately, Hacksaw Ridge is that sort of art that completes it most important act so well, its many other shortcomings should be endured.

That's Where You'll Find Me
Maybe Dorothy Sings About the Wrong Thing
Saturday, August 12, 2017 12:19 pm
There's a misalignment in The Wizard of Oz.

What is its moral? "There's no place like home." Dorothy has found herself in a land over the rainbow, and yet her ultimate desire — the fulfillment of which she asks of the Wizard — is to return to Kansas. Near the end, Glinda prompts Dorothy to articulate the lesson that she, Dorothy, has learned; and Dorothy replies:
If I ever go looking for my heart's desire, I won't look any futher than my own backyard. Because if it's not there I never lost it to begin with.
This lesson, of course, accords with the narrative facts that the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion each already had the thing he sought. The Scarecrow was already brainy; the Tin Man, full of heart; the Lion, courageous. And Dorothy, in Kansas, already had the place most free of trouble: her home with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. 

"There's no place like home" has certainly stuck. The phrase is a commonplace. And yet, in the movie, what is the initial counter-sentiment? That there is a better place "somewhere over the rainbow." And this does not persist as merely a phrase. This sentiment was given a song, a song used in the opening and closing thematic music, a lovely song that has been counted among the most popular and greatest songs of the 20th Century.

Nobody sings, à la Dorothy, "There's no place like home." There's nothing to sing.

In other words, the delusion that grips Dorothy, that there is a place where troubles melt like lemon drops, away above the chimney tops, where skies are blue and dreams really do come true, is given the tremendous, emotional weight that only song can impart. While, on the other hand, the truth she finally discovers is presented in a brief speech — which, while not necessarily platitudinous, is certainly nothing worth humming.

This is a great danger in creating a work: That something tangential — or worse, contrary — to your theme is given a greater prominence, a better presentation, a more memorable form, than the point you are trying to make.

When writing, I have often worried about expending artistry on this or that small scene or second-tier character. I fear my reader will like my villain more than my hero, or find the collapse of my characters more interesting than their restoration. It is a hard thing to make the proper alignment; to best present what should be presented best.

Some contemporary critics of The Brothers Karamazov argued that the devilish points of Ivan Karamazov, as given in "The Grand Inquisitor" section, were more compelling, more substantive, than Alexei's Christ-like response. They argued that Dostoevsky had not really addressed Ivan's points. Dostoevsky replied (perhaps with some exasperation) that the entire novel was the response to Ivan.

One could likewise say that, however compelling may be Somewhere Over the Rainbow, it is countered not merely by some speech at the end of the movie, nor by some brief chant with ruby slippers, but by the movie as a whole. Perhaps. Whether The Wizard of Oz successfully establishes that there's no place like home is a bigger question. I'm not sure it does, beyond somewhat artfully asserting the point. In the end, the writers should have worked a little harder and come up with a compelling tune for There's No Place Like Home.

I know that "there's no place like home" didn't originate with The Wizard of Oz (however much the movie has claimed it). And I know that there is a very old and popular song with that very lyric ("Be it ever so humble..."). And so, yes, the writers, had they written a new song, would have been contending with a standard.

Could they argue they were alluding to that standard, which was possibly more well known in the 1930s, and therefore they didn't need to write their own? I suppose. But the allusion, if any, is weak, and still profoundly overshadowed by Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which resides right there in the work and not in some presumed cultural background.

Deckard Is Not a Replicant
No Matter What Ridley Scott Thinks
Saturday, May 24, 2008 6:00 pm
Blade Runner is about memory and mortality: memory as the fountain of genuine life; mortality as the completion of memory. 

A replicant begins full-grown, with not a birth date but an incept date. Rachel's memories of childhood are implants, not lived by her but merely received; her life is not genuine. Leon has his precious photographs — some secondhand, but others of his companions: assertions of Leon's own memory, fragments of a genuine life. Roy recalls the magnificent things that he himself has seen offworld, things never seen by Deckard, things that will be lost when Roy dies (by design) only a few years after his incept date.

Roy's mortality, like that of all replicants, is more a brutal termination than a proper completion. Humans acquire their memories slowly, naturally, almost leisurely. Their lives accumulate. Humans live; whereas replicants only briefly exist and must long for life. Even so, the plight of the replicant is of course a metaphor for our own plight.

Although the humans seem to have the better of things, the point of the film is that we do not. Our lives may be genuine, but they are no less ephemeral. Death, whether after four years or eighty, is still death. What, after all, is the final line of the film? As Gaff says of Rachel: "It's too bad she won't live; but then again, who does?"

Now, imagine how stupid the movie would be if Deckard were a replicant, too. The photos that adorn his piano — those old, sepia-toned photos, presumably of generations of his family — become as pathetic as Leon's. More pathetic, indeed meaningless, for at least Leon's are of his real friends. If Deckard is a replicant, we would have to conclude he is precisely as deluded as Rachel. He, too, is one of the latest models who don't even know they're replicants.

Which means that his entire history as a replicant-killer is false. Which means that all his world-weary despair is false. Which means that the heart of the film — the tension between the tragic replicants who cherish life (yet kill) and the degraded human who takes life for granted (while killing replicants) — is false. Which means that the end of the film — when Deckard chooses not to kill a replicant — ceases to be a moment of redemption for Deckard, and even in the "not-as-happy" director's cut becomes no more than the happy escape of two misbehaving robots.

Gaff's line means nothing if Deckard is a replicant. It should assert the equivalence, really, of replicant and human, at least as regards the brevity of earthly existence. The first part ("she") connects to Rachel, the second ("who") to Deckard. But if Deckard is just another Rachel, Gaff's line is emptied. Its second part becomes a mere aphorism, disconnected from any actual protagonist. If Deckard is a replicant, then he no longer carries the role of human in the film. The themes of memory and mortality become abstracted. Indeed, the themes are undermined, since suddenly what we thought was human actually is not. So what then is real?

What then is the point?

The movie becomes nonsensical if Deckard is a replicant! Either Deckard is as new as Rachel and everything about him is a lie, or he's been around for years, pretending to be human, some sort of stealth replicant deployed by Tyrell for — what? To prove what? You would have to deny everything Tyrell says and does, and go searching for grassy-knoll winks-and-nudges, to believe that Deckard is a deluded replicant. It doesn't matter what half-baked cleverisms Ridley Scott intended; it doesn't matter how many dopey unicorns clutter the film. If you believe that Deckard is a replicant, you are colluding in a cheap twist and have ruined the story.

I am not normally one to dismiss the intentions of the artist; but if we are meant to conclude that Deckard is a replicant, then Scott's intentions are bad, very bad. Say it with me: "Deckard is not a replicant." Nothing in the movie mandates that he is. Say he is not, and you will properly see Blade Runner for the wonder it is.

A Bourne Rumination
On the Last of the Trilogy
Sunday, January 13, 2008 3:52 pm
Beware! Spoilers follow.

I can watch the first two Bourne movies repeatedly and still enjoy them. They really do succeed. In general I am annoyed that they, like too much out of Hollywood, find the greatest criminality among American spies; but hey, they are exciting and they aren't cartoons. Having heard that The Bourne Ultimatum was even more anti-American, I wasn't so sure I wanted to bother with it; yet I had also heard it was very good, and so I got it.

Yes, yes, one could argue that it's not anti-American as such but only anti-CIA; but, in the end, it is Americans who are the bad guys, so it's a bit sour. It also spins its wheels a bit, as far as the action goes; the variations on a theme were sometimes not so variant. Still, I really liked it — and unlike, say, Spider-Man 3, it doesn't crater and ruin its trilogy, but finishes things very well.

Now, two observations. 

First: The black-ops program of which Bourne is a part has the power to kill enemies of America without any red tape or real oversight. The movie is particularly outraged that even U.S. citizens have been terminated. Now, I am one who draws a distinction between citizen and non-citizen. It does make a difference whether the target of a black-ops assassination is a citizen or not. But I find it interesting that a Hollywood movie should try to raise our outrage by dealing in a distinction that, in most other contexts, it would sneer at. Asserting that we should especially not kill U.S. citizens is asserting that there is something special about U.S. citizens. A "citizen," in other words, is a real category, with real rights above the rights of non-citizens. How wonderfully true! Yet The Bourne Ultimatum is essentially championing nationalism, even — if you want to be crude — tribalism. Are we finally allowed, dear Hollywood, to favor our own people over others?

Second: The Bourne trilogy is, action aside, about Bourne's journey towards his origins as an assassin; more to the point, towards knowledge of his true identity. And here the movie does something that I so hope I am not misinterpreting.

In all three movies, we have been led to think that Bourne was programmed to be a killer, brainwashed simply; and the final movie emphasizes this idea, showing flashbacks of Bourne being broken down so that his old identity would be lost. Yet his true origin as an assassin comes in a single moment. He is calmly sitting in a room with the man in charge, who is essentially saying to him: "Now's the time; you can leave or stay;" and Bourne is hesitating, perhaps agonizing; and then Bourne stands up and shoots and kills a hooded prisoner, about whom Bourne knows nothing. That is when he becomes an assassin: When he chooses to kill.

In other words, he can't escape responsibility by saying he was brainwashed or tortured. He made the choice. It wasn't the evil CIA that corrupted him; it was he himself. Bourne misused his free will. And of course, in the present day, he chooses not to kill; notably he does not "take the shot" when he has another assassin in his sights. Bourne doesn't overcome the nasty CIA; he rejects the choice he made in the beginning, and restores himself. He has repented. Is it an accident that, in a movie indifferent to explicit religion, Bourne is identified (via his old dog tags) as Catholic? Is this a clue? Am I encouraged to give a Catholic interpretation to Bourne's original sin? Encouraged or not, I do; and it is a very satisfying resolution of the trilogy.

"Unholy and Evil"
When the Culture Could Be Honest
Monday, May 16, 2005 2:16 am
Beware! Spoilers follow.

I was watching The Godfather: Part II the other day. I had not seen it in many years. I knew how the story would go; I was prepared for the powerful scenes. I had not, however, remembered the dialogue as such — and I was struck by what Kay says  about her abortion.

Recall she has come to tell Michael she is leaving with the children. She no longer loves him and can no longer bear being the wife of the Godfather. He thinks that she is unhappy about recently losing a baby; he has been told it was a miscarriage. He says to her, "I know you blame me for losing the baby." And she replies:
Oh, Michael, you are blind. It wasn't a miscarriage — it was an abortion. An abortion, Michael. Just like our marriage is an abortion. Something that's unholy — and evil. I didn't want your son, Michael. I wouldn't bring another one of your sons into this world. It was an abortion, Michael. It was a son — a son — and I had it killed because this must all end.
Wow. "Unholy." "Evil." "Killed." Seriously, could you expect such honesty out of Hollywood today? There are no qualifications in Kay's words; no seeking of "common ground;" no tortured philosophical rationalizations about the beginnings of life or of personhood or of humanity. She doesn't say that it was an agonizing decision for her; she calls the act unholy and evil. She says not that she had a fetus removed but that she had her son killed.

The modern screenwriter could never write such words, not unless he was ironically placing them in the mouth of some twisted religious right-winger. There is too much at stake in the culture of death to allow the truth to be spoken so clearly. The worst part, actually, is that the modern screenwriter wouldn't even think of abortion as "unholy" and "evil." Unholy? Evil? Such regressive concepts! Few pro-aborts even admit that an abortion is a killing. How enlightened we are! Abortion, however unpleasant, is just a procedure, now. You know what? This scene would have been a wee bit less dramatic if Kay had just been exercising her inalienable woman's right to control her own reproduction. Gosh, Michael wouldn't even have had much cause to get angry with her.

How wonderfully far we have come.

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