They’re said to utter little more than an occasional groan, but zombies — the blood-drenched monsters of Hollywood “B” movies — still have a right to free speech, a US court ruled this week.
An appeals court in the northern US city of Minneapolis, Minnesota on Wednesday allowed a group of zombies — or rather, several protesters costumed as such — to press ahead with their lawsuit against police who arrested them for disorderly conduct.
The appeals court overturned a lower court in finding that the group of seven “zombies” had been wrongfully detained during a 2006 shopping mall protest against consumerism. (link)
*image by “Jenn Mau” used under CC Attr-Noncom-Sharealike license.
The Brothers Bloom is an irreverent oddball character caper movie, not unlike one of my all-time favorites, Rushmore. I’d say Rushmore wins in a head-to-head, but if you like Wes Anderson’s masterpiece, you probably will like The Brothers Bloom too. A few thoughts:
The opening sequence has the delightful summarizing and stylistic flair that makes movies like Rushmore and The Zero Effect so charming. (Note, I’d not put those two movies together in any other context except to highlight a certain kind of opening sequence). At one point, the young brothers find themselves in a “one hat town,” which the narrator (the magician Ricky Jay) also describes as a town with one stoplight, one cafe, one car wash, and one cat, that through a bizarre set of circumstances, had only one leg.
Like many movies about confidence men, you spend much of the time trying to decide how much the brothers are in control of and how much is extra. The movie’s stylistic flair doesn’t help much in that regard, since Steven (the architect and author of their plots) also produces his events with flair.
An interesting element of the film is “bang bang,” a nearly-mute Japanese character who accompanies the brothers as their explosives expert. She reigns over the scenes she’s in like an avenging angel, with motives that exceed anything we can understand.
The movie spends much of its time pondering the nature of the profession the brothers share. Most movies about confidence men focus on the idea that the people being conned deserve it. In the show Hu$tle, it’s through the slogan “you can’t con an honest man,” while in the show Leverage, it’s by conning only villains (ala Robin Hood). The Brother Bloom considers what happens to one’s life when one’s occupation is trickery. In some ways, it reminds me of spy movies as much as anything else.
One element of the aesthetic that stands out for me is the movie’s timelessness. While there are glimpses of modernity (cell phones, wire transfers), the characters travel by train and steamer, they occupy timeless places around Europe, they send telegrams, and they have the fashion sensibility of the Roaring Twenties. It’s delightful.
It makes me sad that I haven’t heard more about this movie. Its flair and style fit the setting (as opposed to some movies that layer style on over nothingness. As I said at the beginning of the review, “why haven’t you seen this yet?”
Avery has an edition of the kids’ game Memory where all the cards are images of characters from Spider-man and friends, a version of the superhero story where all the characters are children, somehow. It’s weird. Anyway, we’re playing and I uncovered the Iron Man character and Avery declared that he was “Michael Jackson.”
Now we don’t generally listen to much MJ around our house, so I’m pretty sure she picked up that name from some of her friends at daycare. I asked if she knows who Michael Jackson is, and she said no. So I told her that the man in the red suit was Iron Man, but she persisted in calling him Michael Jackson.
It’s strange how two icons of popular culture might converge for her. What is it about the attitude of Iron Man on the card that makes her think of one of the most famous performers of all time. His head is tilted up slightly, and I have to admit that I see a certain resemblance that certainly comes from the juxtaposition Avery created. So what if we imagine the two are connected? What can we learn?
Both Iron Man and the tale of MJ revolve around men of fantastic wealth who have moved beyond responsibility to anyone. While Tony Stark pursues his own ends by accelerating toward hypermasculinity by means of death sports and philandering, Michael Jackson regressed into childhood, sequestering himself on an amusement park estate and communing with children. But both seem to have exceeded the bounds of conventional behavior.
Iron Man and Michael Jackson also share another trait, a fatal flaw. For Michael, the flaw seems to have been his psychological state, which to most outsiders seemed pretty close to nuts. He also pursued (it seems to this disinterested observer) an ever-more bizarre set of physical procedures to alter his own appearance. Tony Stark, of course, is mortally wounded by shrapnel and can only stay alive as long as he maintains the power source embedded in his chest. One could read this power source as a metaphor for the fame that kept Michael popular despite his ever-more strange behavior.
And despite their strange behaviors, Iron Man and Michael Jackson are both driven geniuses, capable of feats of engineering or music unequaled and unrivaled in their worlds. We often construct genius as a mixed blessing, something that curses one to be strange or lonely or dysfunctional. Both Iron Man and Michael Jackson reinforce this perception.
Of course, Iron Man is a fictional story told over decades while Michael Jackson’s life is slightly less fictional, but was also told over decades.
And I can’t help but mention, of course, the intense rivalry and personal animosity both Iron Man (in his 2008 film) and Michael Jackson held for the villainous and odious Jeff Bridges. (I kid, of course. I don’t know whether MJ hated or just loathed Mr. Bridges.)
Advice and Etiquette for The Living Dead
by David P. Murphy
I got Zombies for Zombies as a Christmas gift and enjoyed it moderately. Best read in short bursts, the book comes from a post-zombie apocalypse future in which some zombies (who make a strong effort early on) are able to keep roughly 30% of their brain function, allowing them to remain civilized. The book focuses on people who have been bitten and are undergoing The Transition. It’s chock full of advice about how to survive with as much brain function as possible.
It’s funny, but only mildly so. As I said above, the book works best in short bursts because its humor is pretty steady–thus a sustained reading of a lot of it gets repetitive.
Murphy replicates the self-help genre perfectly. The book is chock full of product placement and trademarked products for zombies. The world implied by the descriptions (with things like “costs fewer stamps”) is a dark and creepy world. In some ways, it’s a glimpse of what marketing people would do after the apocalypse–pretend that it hadn’t happened.
For the zombies who maintain brain function, the book spends a lot of time explaining their social lives and potential. The chapters on zombie sex are just plain wrong. WRONG.
Worth perusing, but I probably wouldn’t recommend buying it. Zen of Zombie is funnier and probably less expensive.
I arrive earlier than most of my colleagues in the English department because I teach a 9am class and like to prep beforehand. Because of this, I often encounter students looking for instructors or something like that. The other day was a strange one. I came out of my office on the way to the printer and I found a guy, mid-thirties with dark hair and a puffy black jacket, looking for help. Here’s a rough transcription of our conversation:
Guy: Hi. Can you tell me who’s in right now?
Me: Um, pretty much nobody. What do you need?
Guy: I’m looking for some information on a poem by John Dunne. I have a pretty good idea of [bzzt bzzt bztt arcana about what he understands and doesn’t about the poem. He reaches to his bag as though to get out either notes or the poem.]
Me: Hrm, well you’d probably want to email one of the poetry faculty to set up a meeting.
Guy: Do you have a list of people I could contact? Or would someone else have that list? [Looks around at the empty office] Or would there be a better time for me to show up?
Me: If you came back in about an hour, someone working the front desk should be able to help you get that list.
Guy: Okay. I just thought the English department would be the place to go — straight to the experts, you know.
I thought about telling him that his basic question was probably misinformed — that English departments are not like reference desks where you can go to have a conversation about a poem. But I might very well have scheduled an appointment to talk with him for a few minutes if he’d been asking about something I do know. As an educator, I’m generally open to having conversations with people, students or no. It’s why I rarely turn down interview requests. But I might be the rarity in that regard.
But the intent was interesting as well — this man was looking for a person who could shed light on this poem. He didn’t pursue the subject in the library or the internet, but sought out an individual with which he could debate and perhaps hash out his own thoughts. We in the academy too often forget that this service, the individual expert well-versed in pedagogy and able to speak intelligently, is the core of what we offer. Alex said this much better a while ago, but when we consider what the university offers to students, it’s practice in this wrestling with ideas. That’s the thing we do well that can’t be replicated by copying our syllabi or our reading lists.
Of course, under that umbrella my poetry colleagues ought to check that he’s a tuition-paying member of the Columbia campus before chatting with him. Our scintillating conversations don’t come free.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief
We saw The Lightning Thief at a local dinner movie theatre, which the waiter described as a “full service restaurant and bar where we happen to show a movie.” It was a fun experience, and probably something we’ll do again. Alas, the movie itself was okay but not great.
PJ&tO:tLT follows its eponymous hero as he endeavors to discover who stole Zeus’ lightning bolt. Or to go to Hades to find his mom. Or to find these mystical pearls that he’ll need to get out of Hades. Or something. Apparently the story follows the book pretty closely except that they changed a bunch of stuff for no good reason. I didn’t read the book, but it took Jenny roughly 20 minutes to explain all the changes they made. Anyway, there was a bunch of sword fighting and other derring-do. Some thoughts:
I complain about Christopher Columbus a lot. I thought the first two Harry Potter movies were lifeless, and I’m afraid the same goes here. While there’s plenty of action and excitement, it’s all just … I don’t know. Artless, maybe. Take a look at Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, say the first 30 minutes. Then watch the first 30 minutes of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I’m sad to say The Lightning Thief feels much more like Chamber of Secrets than Prisoner. I can’t put my finger on it, but would like to urge CC to stick to producing from here on out. Give up the helm, man. It’s not your strong suit.
Apparently the book explains that mythical creatures like Medusa and the Hydra can’t be killed; they can only be banished for a while. That would have helped explain why these creatures are all available to menace Percy on his trip across the country.
It’s amazing how many big stars are in this movie. Pierce Brosnan, Uma Thurman, Sean Bean, Melina Kanakaredis, and the grossly under-used Steve Coogan rocking the soul patch and wavy hair. One wonders if CC played the Harry Potter card to anyone considering passing on the movie. “Are you sure you want to pass on this? Do you know how many books are in this series?”
I have a couple more things, but they’re nitpicky and a little spoilery, so stop reading if that bothers you.
It always bugs me when people are impractical in movies. There are two terrible examples of such impracticality in this film. First, Athena’s daughter, a master strategist, plants her team’s flag right by a stream, where Poseidon’s son can draw on the water. It’s not entirely clear whether she knows that he’s Poseidon’s son or not, but you get the impression she does.
Second, at the end the lightning thief (I’ll maintain that little bit of suspense) has the drop on Percy. He’s about to blast Percy when Percy summons his magical water powers to burst open several water towers and swirl them around menacingly. Then he brings the water down on the thief and wins the battle. The problem? The thief stands there for ten or fifteen seconds while Percy gathers up the water and swirls it around and so on and so on. Why didn’t he just blast Percy while he was doing all that?
It’s a good thing Annabelle and Grover wanted to go with Percy on his quest, or he would have stormed out of the camp and then had no idea where to go.
If you’re training somebody for a journey in the Greek magical world, don’t you think you should do a bit of quizzing to see how much they know about, um, Greek myths? Seems like it would have been a good idea. Just sayin.
On Community, the group gathers in Abed’s room to watch terrible movies, including Kick Puncher, the Robocop ripoff whose punch is as hard as a fist. At one point, in the background, we hear Kick Puncher hit someone. The sound they make when they fly through the wall? The Wilhelm Scream.
Second half of my ABC list about James Cameron’s movie. This time, it’s the fun ruminations. While I will try not to spoil anything, I’m not guaranteeing there aren’t spoilers below, so be warned.
Nerds: Once again, in the story of the Man of Action vs. the Man of Knowledge, the man of action shows himself to be superior. Dumb jock can learn to be a science-y guy, but vice versa, not so much. David Anderegg’s book, Nerds, argues that by perpetuating this dichotomy and reinforcing it, we damage young peoples’ interest in science.
Obvious: I haven’t worried too much about giving away plot points in this post or others about Avatar, because it’s about as obvious a plot as one can have. Of course things will turn out just as they do. You know they will turn out that way from the minute he’s given the assignment to infiltrate and spy.
Papyrus: To be honest, the title characters were in Papyrus and I didn’t notice. But when the first lines of dialog in Na’vi came onscreen (as part of a show-off from Nerdy McSuckup there), I helvetica’d my brownie all over the dude in front of me. As one grouchy commenter put it: “C’mon James Cameron, you can afford to splurge on a font.”
Queen: How come whenever an outsider joins up with the natives, he always hooks up with the queen’s daughter? I wonder if the village night-soil man’s daughter would be able to bring a dream-walker into the sacred tree.
Ripley: Of course, Signourney Weaver returns to the James Cameron cinema world in another tale that turns on corporations, villainy, and the like. She gets to rail on the corporate stooge (Giovanni Ribisi instead of Paul Reiser) and be all science-y. It’s a delight to see her on screen again
Skynet: Pandora isn’t really that different than Skynet. Imagine 10,000 years in the future of the Terminator world; who’s to say the thoroughly integrated digital network world wouldn’t be what Skynet might become. I bet if you look in the ruins under that big tree, you’ll find old cities where the creatures wiped out by Skynet/Na’vi built the organic computers that would one day destroy them. Just sayin.’
Titanic: I read some accounts of the falling tree as being reminiscent of 9/11, but I flashed back to that moment in Titanic when the ship shears in two and the stern crashes into the sea, killing all these people padding in the wrong bit of sea. Substitute people and sea with na’vi and jungle and see if you don’t notice the similarity.
Unobtanium: In my mind, I cried foul at this lame name for the metal being mined. But then, thanks to the endless resources of Wikipedia, I discovered that the name comes from a placeholder in a physics problem. As in, ” I need an object made of unobtainium, which has these impossible properties.”
Viperwolf: These are the little doggy jackal things that attack Jake early on in the story. Really, viperwolf?
White guys: Why are white guys always better at being native warrior/ leader dudes than the natives are? David Brooks puts it much better when he writes:
Still, would it be totally annoying to point out that the whole White Messiah fable, especially as Cameron applies it, is kind of offensive?
It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.
Xenophobia: I couldn’t help but think about a moment from HIMYM, season 4, when we learn that Barney roots for the villains in most movies. The principle in The Breakfast Club, and so on. I was wondering what the lesson of the story here would be: that non-humans aren’t worth our consideration. Our way or the highway, you blue bastards.
You bitch!: The other thing Cameron brought back from Aliens? The climactic battle involving robot-enhanced fighting equipment and cool aliens who bite. Only this time, it’s the villain in the walker suit.
Z-axis: I saw Avatar in 3D and was surprised to find it blending much more smoothly than previous experiences have. Unlike Beowulf, which made weird use of the 3D effects, Avatar did a great job using them, especially by showing them off at the beginning to get it out of the way. It will be interesting to see what happens as 3D trickles down to less obvious films, like say My Dinner with Andre.
Last time I wrote about Avatar, I was thinking about the politics and stuff. This time, it’s the fun ruminations. While I will try not to spoil anything, I’m not guaranteeing there aren’t spoilers below, so be warned.
Blue: why is there so much blue on this planet? I learned on Radio Lab‘s “Placebo Effect” episode that for most of the world, blue sleeping pills are more effective than red ones. The exception: Italian men are not calmed more effectively by blue pills than by other ones. The Italian national soccer team colors include blue, so blue is not a calming color for Italians.
Corporations: James Cameron has always thought very little of corporations in his films. C.F. – Aliens, in which an evil corporation sends settlers to discover the location of the alien egg thingies. And then they try to use the eggs to create evil weapons. Also, the Terminator series features an evil corporation whose greed leads to the death of us all.
Dances with Wolves: Avatar re-tells the story of Dances with Wolves, clearly.
Evolution: Pandora’s ecosystem shows a shockingly narrow evolutionary window, compared with Earth’s. Very few systems are so interchangeable and interdependent as the Na’vi’s system are. It’s interesting to ponder how and why some evolutionary adaptations would have occurred, such as the network jacks on everything.
Flying mountains: I like the balls it takes to just step out and say “Screw it, I’m not even going to try to explain why these mountains are flying. They just are.” BTW – those mountains didn’t seem big enough to have water reserves large enough to have a constant waterfall like the ones we saw.
Goose: This film has no Goose. The science nerds certainly aren’t Jake’s wingman. Perhaps the closest is the pilot, who has the Goose-like characteristic of dying, but plays not one lick on the piano and, as far as I can see, is not married to Meg Ryan.
Horses: In case you weren’t sure the Na’vi were allegories for Native Americans, the first scene where we see the horse-riding warriors cements it. Fun fact: horses came over from Europe. As much as we think of horses as part of the Native American tradition, they’re a late part of it.
Ikran: The Mountain Banshees are the Na’vi’s flying pets that, unlike the horses, each bond with a single rider. I’m curious what happens to the Ikran when his rider dies. Does it just go back up to the mountains and get lonely? What happens if another Na’vi tries to link with it? Is there a “No Driver Available” error or something?
Jarheads: James Cameron likes his marines. Hooyah.
Killed: The strategy the Na’vi use at the end is pretty poor, actually. Jake and the leader guy seem to be pretty much the only one who can take out anybody. That said, how come the Na’vi suddenly are able to shoot arrows through the windows in the last scene?
Last Shadow: So early on we learn that “only 5 times in the history of the Na’vi has someone been a Toruk Makto.” Gee, do you think perhaps, um, JAKE will become one too? Sigh.
Made for us: The Christian right has been caterwauling about Avatar as being anti-American or something. They suggest that its pan-theism is anti-Christian (which I guess it must be), and basically that it’s for pantywaists. But I think a deeper cut is at stake here. Adherents to the Bible often use the early Genesis commands that Adam work the soil and so on as indications that the Earth waits for our pleasure and, thus, that we need not respect it. I’d say Pandora suggests an alternate depiction: the Earth clearly isn’t made for us, because if it were we’d have something more like what the Na’vi have, like direct plug-ins for the planet’s creatures. When we want to tame a horse, we have to use behaviorism; the Na’vi just plug-n-ride. Same for the banshees and the Toruk. Not to mention the planet’s inner network that has wireless access to the hammerhead rhinos and snaggletooth jackals.
I usually suggest books to my mystery book club that make them grumble. I’ve asked them to read City of Glass and Gun with Occasional Music and Storm Front, none of them a conventional mystery. This time around, I picked The Thin Man, which a few people in the group had read, but many had not. I liked the idea of mixing in classics with these newfangled weird mysteries. Plus, I wanted an excuse to read it myself. Some thoughts (spoilers ahead!):
The movie (one of my favorites) is a pretty close adaptation of the book. I’d say the film brings the humor of the story to light a bit more than does the book. The repartee between Nick and Nora still appears in this book, but it doesn’t seem as silly as the film does.
I was able to follow the actual plot of the mystery better than I can when I watch the film. It’s pretty convoluted, with the side characters twisting things up into a big ol’ knot.
As a mystery, it turns a lot on what the witnesses say. The detective has to assume they’re all lying (often because they ARE) and keep returning to them as new evidence shakes up their stories. It helps that he’s a wealthy drunk.
Best line: One morning they get up and Nick asks Nora to prepare him a drink
Nora: How about staying sober today?
Nick: We didn’t come to New York to stay sober.
The writing, as always with Hammett, is crisp and witty. It zips along very quickly and pushes the story almost too fast to follow.
A delight to read, but not as enjoyable as the film, IMO.
So I saw Avatar in 3D last Saturday, and there’s lots to say.
The obvious allegory for the European settlement of North America and for the current environmental approach to the world and its resources.
When people confront facts and stories that make them feel uncomfortable, there are many ways to resolve them. Some people face them and own them (Germans re: the Holocaust, for instance), some people deny them (Holocaust deniers), some attempt to come to terms with them (slave history movements) and some attempt to whitewash them (plantations where slaves are referred to as “workers”). I’ve always felt it a mark of real emotional and intellectual development to face up to and acknowledge the difficult circumstances embroiled in one’s own history. I’m also disdainful of people who would take the other approach.
When people complain that Avatar embodies some kind of anti-American approach, I’d suggest that they’re reacting to the discomfort it prods (quite heavy-handedly, for sure). The environmental position of the corporation in the film is reprehensible and lame, and the cartoonish Giovanni Ribisi (who does don a sad face for the second half of the movie) represents the worst that the American approach to the world yields. Similarly, the treatment of the Na’Vi clearly echoes the European treatment of Native Americans in ways that are somewhat cartoonish, but are also generally true. Thus, they’re complaining about the view of history that says we aren’t noble, righteous winners but flawed descendants of flawed people who did things we aren’t proud of and from which we still benefit.
Clearly, James Cameron used a heavy hand crafting his allegory, and brings a Sorkonian justice to the resolution of the film, in which the planet itself rises up to defend the Na’Vi against the invading humans. And while that’s all well and good, it foils the ultimate value of the allegory. If those of us guided by principles that demand respect for the environment and for all people (rather than those with the most might) are to learn anything from this film, we need a solution that works in a real way (futuristic hooby jooby aside). But the invocation of the wild animals to aid the struggling (and losing) smurfs becomes fantasy wish fulfillment that might be satisfying on some level, but doesn’t really help us move forward in thinking progressively.
So I’ve been a regular listener of the Escape Pod podcast for a while now, and I really enjoyed the rotation they did last year when Steve Eley took a break. They brought in two other hosts, one of whom had a smooth and kind of creepy persona with a wicked sense of humor. When Eley came back as the regular host, I found myself missing that slightly shady fella, so I’ve now started listening to Norm Sherman at his regular home, The Drabblecast. From my first visit, I was hooked.
The story was called “The Last Great Clown Hunt,” and tells the story of an alternate future in which Clowns stand in for Native Americans. It’s both wrong and right and shockingly funny. Check it out, if you dare.
and Other Tales of New York
by Mark Jacobson; narrated by Malcolm Hillgartner
Jacobson specialized in “slice of life” features for New York periodicals. His stories have won numerous awards and spawned a number of other texts, including the television show Taxi and the feature film based on the title article mentioned above. Jacobson brings an eye for detail and description to his interactions with the characters populating the city, informing his writing with crisp histories and choice quotes. It’s a good read. A few extra thoughts:
“American Gangster” – Jacobson does a great job with the title story, balancing the line between describing the man, Frank Lucas, who went from a rural Virginia (?) upbringing to a lavish New York drug kingpin’s lifestyle. Lucas comes off as a very likeable man who also happens to be extremely vicious. Most telling is the scene in which Lucas tries to get Jacobson to sign over all the rights to the American Gangster story–it’s intense and Jacobson doesn’t pull punches in describing the fear he felt.
My favorite piece is Jacobson’s long dissection of 9/11 Truthers, which he does with a wary but even-handed eye, giving voice to the doubts they harbor without giving way to the general craziness many of the conspiracy theorists end up displaying. It’s a narrow balance to weave, but he does it with aplomb.
He also has a number of pieces that focus on the old New York, that try to capture the seedy, down-in-the-dumps glory of the city in its 1970s worst. It’s the New York I saw on television as a kid watching Night Court; it’s a grim place that Jacobson describes with both nostalgia and frank acknowledgment of its flaws. Among the best of these are the one about the cigar shop and the one documenting the seediest street corner in New York.
Hillgartner does a great job, giving some of the characters distinctive accents to highlight their ethnicity (in a polyglot city like New York, where accents are as much a part of the landscape as the smells) without descending into cartoonish parody.