Sunday, January 24, 2010

The great "Sevens" of film, and the what it means to move slowly

Every so often, while I mentally review the films I've seen, it occurs to me that there are three truly iconic films that all feature the number Seven in their title. I'm proud to say that as of tonight, I've seen all three.

I don't remember when I saw Se7en, the most recent of these films. For years, I'd heard it mentioned, and it seemed that its reputation was growing, because every time somebody mentioned it, it would sound a little more reverent than the last time. When I finally got around to seeing it, it was every bit as harrowing as its reputation suggested. Fincher's bleach bypass colors and uncomfortable intimacy with the killer and his victims -- these were the groundwork for a vicious, merciless film experience. Despite the gruesome imagery and shock tactics, it's still the conclusive conceptual twist that I remember best... perhaps the only payoff that could have lived up to the film's escalation.

To me, this is the essential Fincher movie, and the most successful Brad Pitt has ever been in playing a (deadly) serious role. It's also one of Kevin Spacey's major achievements, as he becomes the case study for soft-spoken introversion as something purposeful and terrifying.

There was an element of expectation involved in my viewing of Se7en, but not nearly so much as there was with the other two Great Sevens, Seven Samurai and The Seventh Seal. These two totally definitive films are burdened with a common weight: the reputation for being impossibly slow and difficult to sit through. Having finally seen both of them, I can say definitively, I find this characterization to be a little unfair.

Now, if you're not used to old movies in general, you need to know: the current pace of filmmaking has changed dramatically in the past forty years, and even more so in the past ten. So honestly, you may find any movie created before 1980 to be rather slow, and as for the ones created back before 1960? Until you've learned a little bit of patience, those might seem totally insufferable.

But I'll tell you straight: Seven Samurai is a heavy undertaking, but it isn't slow. And The Seventh Seal, even more so, is totally misunderstood... for something jam-packed with existentialism, it actually moves along pretty evenly.

Of these three Great Sevens, Seven Samurai is the most epic, the most adventuresome, and the most heroic. It's also reputedly extremely difficult to sit through, possibly because it's almost three and a freaking half hours long, including an intermission in the middle. Make no mistake: it will take up a chunk of a day, and if you want to see it, I'd recommend setting aside a whole afternoon, with some buffer time to take a break or two, stretch, get food, and pee. This is how I got through it in essentially one sitting... I made the space for it, and I made myself comfortable.

However, don't let the bad press fool you... Seven Samurai doesn't have the ponderous slowness of Brown Bunny or 2001, which are replete with atmospheric shots of objects moving through space, people sitting in reflective silence, and other sorts of cinematic images that may as well be still photos. Seven Samurai has a story that always moves.

So it's 207 minutes long, and yet it moves along the whole time? Well, if distance=rate times time, and the movie moves at a good clip for 207 minutes, it must mean it covers a hell of a lot of distance. This is, in fact, the case: this story is extraordinarily elaborate, with copious numbers of important characters, all working out minor relationships and developments. This is the kind of in-depth plot and rising action that we, as modern consumers, are only used to seeing in serial television. It's not too much of a stretch to imagine the film being broken into a nine- or ten-episode series, and each episode being accessible and engaging.

This far-reaching story, revolving around the complex personal politics of the medieval samurai, provides ample space for the central dialectic of the film, a discourse on loyalty and individualism that engages Western sensibilities of heroics, leadership, and subversion with Eastern ideals of commitment and self-sacrifice. Any mention of the film will always immediately evoke its final image... a reflection on an ensemble of warriors, united in duty and divided by fate.

The third "Seven" movie is the one I saw tonight, The Seventh Seal. Like Seven Samurai, The Seventh Seal has the universal reputation for being extremely slow, artsy, and pretentious. In Seventh Samurai, this reputation is partly because of the length and complexity; in Seventh Seal, it's harder to explain. The movie clocks in at a lean 96 minutes, and it's essentially a story of a veteran knight of the crusades, traveling home through the European countryside, and discovering the human spirit within the wasteland of the plague. He only makes it as far as he does because he distracts Death with a game of chess... so yes, there's some "symbolism" here, and some reflection on the nature of good and evil and faith, but this is not a philosophical tract over a game board. This is a movie about some good people and some not-so-good people, and about their adventures.

Perhaps The Seventh Seal has been pigeon-holed as a slow movie because it's also been characterized as an artsy movie... which is probably because the main character, a knight having a crisis of faith, tends to ask his philosophical questions very directly. He likes to talk about God, the devil, and the failure of faith, and he occasionally uses the other characters as sounding boards to make dramatic speeches. As Roger Ebert pointed out, this is historically equated with over-philosophizing, and with the kind of comedic melodrama that invites parody after parody. However, it's worth noting that the film is actually among Bergman's most accessible... for me, it beats out Persona, which is intimidatingly cryptic, but also such meandering dramas as Wild Strawberries and The Hour of the Wolf.

Funny that a brief movie, full of small adventures and entertaining characters, is so widely considered slow and pretentious; or that it's considered cryptic when it addresses its themes out in the open, with no obfuscation.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Daybreakers: A survey of a science fiction world

“Any sufficiently advanced technology something something magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke, apparently

Remember when Vampires were good ol’ reliable devil worshippers and hosts to evil spirits? When Vlad was the last word on Vampirism, even up into the goth Vampire The Masquerade / Anne Rice days, a world with vampires was pretty much a world allowing for supernatural events and inhabitations. Sexy, bloodthirsty vampirism was justified by symbolism and folkloric mysticism, and didn’t really depend on empirical verifiability. Has anyone noticed how this has been changing?

Daybreakers is one of the recent movies that's displaced vampire lore from Victorian superstition to post-apocalyptic science fiction. This is a film that starts with a very interesting premise: the world is populated almost entirely by vampires, and their supply of fresh human blood is dwindling… they’ve tried farming, but it can’t keep up with demand, and they’re consistently failing to produce an acceptable blood substitute. The desperation is causing serious civil unrest. It’s tempting to read it as an environmental/sustainability metaphor, but don’t… it just makes it boring.

However, even resisting this impulse, you won’t be able to help seeing this as a very modern premise, based on the sciences of economics and scarcity, and the logic of technological solutions to chronic biological and ecological limitations. It’s an extension of a folkloric monster, operating within a scientific discourse. I Am Legend and Blade both work this way, as well. Compare this with the original, sourcebook vampire legends, Dracula and Nosferatu: in these, the vampire was a predatory master of a supernatural world, governed by laws of the spirit (I’d argue that the Anne Rice and White Wolf vampires are the modern inheritors of this tradition). Also, for arguments’ sake, compare with the image of the vampire as spirituality-on-the-margins: the vampires that represent an inexplicable supernatural presence, but that coexist with modern society, albiet at arm's reach. This is the vampire lore of Twilight and Let The Right One In: vampires don’t represent some ominous, ever-present “other world” so much as the mysterious exception ("the other") to rational society. Whereas the classical vampire represented a threat to “normalcy,” these new vampires are outcasts, representing a sentimental nostalgia for folklore and mysticism.

Kay, typological tangent over. Back to the vampire world of Daybreakers.

So in Daybreakers, we have a "virulent" vampirism that's infected the entire population, save a few straggling individuals. Way cool. Vlad the Impaler probably had the same disease, which happens to have "immortality" as a fortunate side-effect. And it makes the host vulnerable to sunlight, which causes total immolation. That's cool, too... you might call it "ultraviolet photosensitivity." And also, they have to drink live blood, which has some combination of nutrients that vampire blood doesn't have.

And if the vampires lack this nutrient for too long, they start to degenerate, physically and mentally, which is one of the deliciously awesome twists that Daybreakers brings to Vampire mythology. It might be even better than "torpor," which was Vampire: The Masquerade's state of hibernation for underfed vampires.

In an even more fascinating stylistic twist, the vampires that don't get enough blood tend to follow a reverse evolution, from Stoker-esque white collar vampire studs to Murnau-esque creatures with bald heads and huge, ragged ears. In fact, Daybreakers is the first vampire movie that I've seen combine the two dominant vampire images. Only Vampire: The Masquerade has done this before, using the Nosferatu clan to fudge in the deformed subspecies. The mental degeneration of these Subsider vampires is harrowing, as they revert to deformed scavengers with no instinct but to feed. The fact that this condition is brought on by feeding from other vampires, and feeding from oneself, associates it with sexual perversity, on top of the addiction and devolution implications.

These rules lay the groundwork for a fairly satisfying science fiction world, mostly rationalized, but with a glaze of mysticism. My main critique of the narrative space is that the Spierig brothers tried too hard to reference the older, folklore-based vampires of Victorian gothica. This goth loyalty resulted in a couple useless details: first, that the vampires are apparently invisible in mirrors; second, that they explode in flames when impaled on a stake.

We all know how various wavelengths of light affect the rods and cones of the eye, and it's a far stretch to assume that the same reflected light that reaches our eyes can vanish when it touches a mirror. Furthermore, it's hard to imagine a biological reaction that incites immediate combustion, but only from the heart, and only when it's impaled on something as inert as a crossbow bolt.

First, I admit, these are details. I'm a big supporter of this movie, and if you need confirmation of that, read my review over at BlogCritics. However, that review will also tell you that in my opinion, it's the innovative conceptual treatment of vampires and society that really makes this a good movie. The silly narrative tropes and campy lines are offensive, but they're also easy to write off as a sort of action movie syndrome. But those inconsistencies in the beautifully-rendered universe of Daybreakers... they're cracks in the core merit of the movie. They break up the texture of a well-rendered world, and thus they merit mention.

Still, it was an easy world to get caught up in, and I give the Spierigs credit for that. The future was not only vampire-y... it was frigid and lonely, disconnected, and desperate. For the vampire citizens of Earth 2019, the world is poised on a razor's edge between the empty stasis of immortality and the suffocating catastrophe of implosion and violence. It's a future wasted, partly by greed, but moreso by the same cruel hand of fate that gave mankind so many gifts and so few promises.

Shared Worlds: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

It's been about a week since I saw The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Over the course of this week, I have almost entirely lost my mental grasp on the world of the movie. It was so overloaded with stimuli, so awash in hallucinogenic imagery, and so random and fanciful that I can't call back the feelings that it evoked. Maybe this is the type of thing you just can't hold onto... a world that exists only within the space of the movie, and can't subsist anywhere else. This is a world that vanishes, even from the memories of the viewers who experienced it.

The sheer randomness of the movie actually lost me at times, creating empty enigmas and blasting me with discordant imagery. For a while, I was actually a bit irritated at the total lack of cohesion that I saw as the only unifying element to the narrative. I've chilled out on that, though... a fair number of critics (like Mr. Ebert) were willing to forgive it, and even I was able, almost right from the start, to excuse these narrative excesses and oversights in favor of an uncontrollable directorial vision.

In looking back, though, I've realized that I've seen this world before. Even as it slips from my memory, it's registered something, recalling another movie I only remember in fragments. This is Gilliam's previous phantasmagoric sideshow, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and the more I think about it, the more I'm sure of it: these two films took place in the same universe.

So what happens in this universe? What kind of a bizarre, dwarf-populated, uninhibited place is it? Well, first, it's a place where the Earth and the cosmos are built on non sequitor and whimsy. It's a universe that only exists because its story is being told, as the young Parnassus so kindly informs us, and thus it's a world defined by its storytellers and reenactors. It's a world where powerful ideas manifest, whether they're personifications, like the King of the Moon and Vulcan the Fire God, or the living sparks of confused imaginations, like the inner worlds of Parnassus's mirror. It's a shared world, but at any one time, it issues forth from the voice of its storyteller, like a tree growing from a seed. It's a world that can be saved from war and ruin by the Baron's ability to tell a tale with a happy ending.

This is a world divided into the common people, a naive and unruly lot, and the heroes, the redeemers of daily life. These commoners are well-meaning, but just tend to get themselves into trouble, whether by falling prey to Tony's empty promises, or by shouting down the Baron himself. It's always a world on its way to ruin, sinking inevitably into normalcy, but generally barely held aloft by the heroic efforts of its heroes and hopefuls, who lift it up by its own bootstraps, even as they fight off their own inner demons.

Interestingly, this is also a world of singular beautiful women, the radiant centers of their universes. Whether they're Roman goddesses or flirty daughters of immortal drunkards, they're inevitably impossible to contain, and they always seem to become the stakes in showdowns between supernatural powers. Venus, played by a noticably naked Uma Thurman, pioneered this role, catalyzing the rivalry between the Baron and Vulcan. However, Valentina, played by Lily Cole, took the archetype to a new level. Her love was not only a point of contention between Anton the rascal and Tony the undead con man, but between her father and the devil himself.

I often wonder about the strange process that results in a half-formed world within the imagination of a culture. These worlds... the world of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, the world of 2046 and In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express, the world of With Honors and Good Will Hunting (I'm convinced that all three of these constitute self-contained worlds)... these are mysterious and robust, and in their incompleteness, they seem almost more complete than our confusing, disorderly everyday universe.

To these we can now add the world of Baron Munchausen and Doctor Parnassus... a harlequin universe of mythical figures engaged in cryptic games of life and death... and it's a universe that will keep growing, because its story is still being told.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Cinephiles and Consumers: a meditation on film and the elitist/populist debate

Cinematical posted a reflection on the difference between "informed" and "uninformed" film-goers.

All these discussions about film snobbery and validity of taste... they tend to gravitate around certain points, and totally miss others. This is true of all sensitive topics... just look at gay marriage, which has bizarrely coagulated around the question of whether homosexuality is "natural," rather than considering the basic question of human rights that's implicit in the issue. The "film snobs versus pop culture apologists" debate has its own gravitational centers, and they're a bit distracting from the key topics that underlie the debate.

One of those gravitational centers is "What exactly is a 'good film'?" This leads to clashes between the relativist position of the pop culture apologists versus the aesthetic and technical purism of the film snobs. Another one is, "_____ are biased against _______ films," which each side fills in to their liking. Pop culture apologists say, "Film snobs are biased against popular films," and film snobs say, "Mass consumers are biased against thought-provoking films." These kinds of claims are false... they're really just a way of converting merit-of-taste arguments into populist ad hominem arguments.

Let me try this from a different direction. Maybe I can avoid these ideological pitfalls altogether.

First, I'm going to reframe the two groups we're talking about into cinephiles and consumers. A consumer is any person who sees movies casually, in equal proportion to other amusements and entertainment. Cinephiles, by contrast, are people who identify one of their primary interests as "film" or "movies," and back it up by meeting at least one of two qualifications: they see a disproportionately large number of movies (like, three or four a month at minimum), or they make an appreciable effort to see movies outside the Hollywood mainstream.

I'm obviously taking some fuzzy factors here and turning them into some really artificial distinctions. Still, it's an important starting point for this kind of discussion, because so much of it rides on the distinction between people "in-the-know" and people who aren't. At times, the pop culture apologists advance the idea that taste can't be universalized, so how "educated" you are (whether formally or informally) shouldn't factor into the discussion... effectively treating all audience members as equally-informed. This approach doesn't hold water in our cultural universe.

Pretty much every discussion of the merits of mass culture, high-brow versus low-brow, the abundance of bad movies in major theaters, etc. is actually about the cultural divide between consumers and cinephiles. Consumers rarely, if ever, make public assertions of their opinions on various films – they generally just talk about them in private conversations, or by recommending or scoffing at movies, or by going to see certain films a second time. There are MANY more consumers than cinephiles, and they exert a much more powerful force on Hollywood, because their money speaks for them. Cinephiles carry out a much more explicit, public debate about film, but they aren't a big enough demographic for Hollywood's investment. Hollywood isn't looking for acclaim... it's looking for a return.

Most bloggers and commentators (including Cinematical, above) want to ask whether the opinions of "film snobs" are somehow "more valid" than the opinions of average movie-goers. In fact, confusion over this question has led cinephiles to be called "elitists" and taste-fascists. When you step back to think about it, though, everyone... cinephiles, consumers, fanboys, etc... we all prioritize our own tastes, and hold those who share those tastes in higher esteem. I don't ever remember a cinephile demanding that an opponent relinquish his or her personal "favorite movie" designation. Cinephiles are more enthusiastic about films, so they may be more likely to assert their own preferences and challenge the preferences of those who disagree with them. This isn't a pretense to superiority, though. It's just a higher level of intensity, both of loves and of hates.

We have to give up this question of whether or not cinephiles have a more valid opinion, and instead look to see where that opinion is coming from. By definition, a cinephile is a person with distinctive experience in film-watching. The opinions of cinephiles will therefore be based on comparisons between films, and on an appreciable background of cinema experience, much more than the opinions of consumers. This will tend to result in a wider range of opinions, whether those opinions tend to be enthusiastic and positive (which tends to be true of cinema-lovers like Roger Ebert) or nit-picky and negative (which tends to be true of graduate-student critics and people who bitch on movie forums). Will cinephiles have a greater tendency to complain about certain movies? Yes, because of the wider range and intensity of their opinions. Are they inherently biased toward "blockbusters"? Absolutely not. Virtually every cinephile has a significant knowledge-base of movies, and they will identify most blockbusters as unexciting, but they will hold a few in very high regard. This doesn't represent a bias, so much as a representative cross-section of their taste in movies as a whole: lots of unimpressive stuff (whether among blockbusters or classics), and a few treasured gems.

So is the reverse true? Are consumers biased against thought-provoking movies? I don't think so... I frankly don't think we have any particular evidence to that conclusion, because thought-provoking film hasn't been promoted on a large public scale for a while now. There are certain cultural forces that dictate what movies get the most funding, the most publicity, etc., and these forces generally favor the most eye-catching, sense-overwhelming movies possible. The opinions of consumers, also more or less by-definition, will be dictated by the general habits and preferences built up from the individual's exposure to all media. Consumers will factor in certain characteristics that cinephiles weigh less heavily: franchise loyalty, ideological agreement with the movie's message, and sensory and sentimental reaction.

To be fair, a certain subset of cinephiles can elevate some things that consumers don't appreciate as much... ambiguity of form, for instance, which I blogged about a month or so ago, and formal experimentation and technical achievement, whether within the scene or in terms of the crafts of editing and cinematography. These criteria are especially important to film students and professors, because in studying the history of film, they become acutely aware of each technical method: its invention sometime in the golden age of cinema, its increased use in a certain country or a certain era, its resurgence in a certain genre or a certain director's work. The fact that consumers tend not to notice these things does indeed demonstrate difference between these ways of looking at the film, but it proves neither the superiority, nor the aloofness, of the cinephile approach.

This editorial piece has turned into an attempt to defend cinephiles without resorting to elitism, so I'll continue in that vein for at least one more paragraph. Before you go and accuse your local film buff of being "snobby" because they throw around harsh criticism, note that there is another type of film person who does this: the genre afficianado. This is the guy who has seen every samurai movie, or the girl who knows the detailed history of the Brat Pack and has seen every romance movie with any of the original members. For my money, these people fall squarely into the "cinephile" category, rather than the "consumer" category, and I think they're an important group to consider... they have strong opinions, based on a comprehensive background, but they're not snobby -- in fact, they often appreciate the lowest of the lowest-brow with intense enthusiasm. If you're a pop culture apologist, and you have the urge to equate strong, unapologetic tastes with elitism, make sure you consider these fanboy types. They are the strongest argument against that corroboration.

It seems to me that within this context, we get a new picture of the role of movie critics, as well. Movie critics are basically socially-empowered cinephiles... the outreach program for people who consider movie-watching a primary interest. Their opinions aren't necessarily privileged, or accurate, and you may find that you consistently disagree with critics (a sign that you may be a subversive cinephile, bravely swimming upstream against your own group's tendencies). Nonetheless, a good critic is a public representative of cinephilia -- (s)he evaluates movies based on what other movies are doing, and what other movies have done before, and (s)he forms strong opinions in accordance with her/his role as an enthusiast.

Should consumers be more like cinephiles? Should cinephiles just relax? Honestly, these questions are unnecessary. This is a social difference that we can discuss without making some sort of moral or prescriptive claim. I think this can potentially bring some clarity to the elitist-versus-populist flame wars... although admittedly, clarity may make those shouting matches a lot less amusing.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Wolf's Rain: Benefit of the Doubt reviews an anime series

It's striking how a well-handled end note can change the tone of a whole narrative work. I watched the anime series Wolf's Rain this weekend, and I think my opinion of the whole piece hinges on the developments that happened on the final disc, in episodes 27 to 30.

To be clear, I'm not a serious anime/manga buff. I've seen my fair share -- I usually go for essential film-length anime, like Studio Ghibli, Perfect Blue, Ghost in the Shell, Vampire Hunter D, etc. As far as series go, my only full-length viewing experiences have been Neon Genesis Evangelion and Trigun, although I've seen a lot of standalone episodes of other anime. This means Wolf's Rain is my third full anime series experience.

I need to structure this review carefully, because it's largely a spoiler-laden discussion; however, I think my spoilers would actually spoil the whole series for any potential viewers, and I want people to watch this anime and have a full experience of it.

So this is the basic review, for people who are considering watching Wolf's Rain: go for it. I muchly enjoyed it, and though I had to stifle some laughter during some of the more ham-fisted segments, I was able to buy into the characters and the setting. Skip episodes 15 to 18 - they're pure, boring recap. Be prepared to suffer some anime tropes and stereotypes, but allow the series to take you along on the ride, which is mostly moody, escapist action.

If you're halfway through the series and you're on the fence about it, I strongly suggest you watch to the end, and then come back and tell me what you think.

For both of the groups cited above, please stop reading. Watch the series, finish it, and then come back to this review and discuss your opinions. The following paragraphs will definitely contain spoilers, and they're spoilers that will probably make the experience of Wolf's Rain less profound and less interesting.

For those of you who have finished it, I have to ask a question: how often do we see an anime close on such an unrelenting, apocalyptic note as Wolf's Rain's final disc? How often do we see such a change in tone? How often do we sit through the honest, unflinching demise of each of the characters we've come to see as our protagonists? Is this common? The darkest anime I've seen -- series like Trigun and Eva, or movies like Perfect Blue -- seemed to end with some sort of confrontation, cessation, and redemption. Wolf's Rain's last disc took me completely by surprise.

In general, the series isn't too shy about its traditional anime trappings. The cohort was a predictable clash of personalities, from the streetwise bad boy with a heart of gold to the idealistic child character who discovers his inner strength. The journey to Jaguara's palace and the second-to-last disc's plot-twisting revelations and personal triumphs ... these things are common anime fare, familiar from Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, and Trigun, and various other similar experiences I've had.

However, the final disc of Wolf's Rain took a turn into the wasteland. The journey of adventure and discovery seemed to become, in the space of a single episode, a futile trek across a ravaged landscape, empty of purpose and emotionally unstable. The characters sacrificed themselves for their causes, but against the backdrop of extinction, these idealistic deaths seemed strangely empty and insignificant, even as each revealed the tragic beauty of the individual's life.

In the last disc, the series became strangely remote and melancholy.

Paradoxically, it was in these final bleak episodes that the whole series seemed to take on an unexpected glow. Until the characters started to die on the final trek across the snow, I hadn't realized how attached I'd gotten to them. By and large, I'd written them off as stereotypes... but their unexpected mortality brought an extra sentimentality to my relationship with each of them. I'd found Tsume and Toboe rather annoying during the meat of the series... why was I so sad when I saw them die ascending the mountain?

Setting aside the merits of anime, and the more general aesthetic question of whether a whole series can be redeemed by the final 10% of the narrative, it's worth noting: Wolf's Rain is a series that found its themes and treated them remorselessly. If you want to see it as a 22-episode introduction and a one-disc climax, go ahead, but in its closing notes, the writing was gutsy, and it finally earned its stripes as an epic tale.

Vanity Fair is scared of Cuteness

Jim Windolf of Vanity Fair apparently thinks we're all becoming addicted to cuteness. At least one blogger saw the recent trailer for the movie Babies and wondered if he was right about that.

The Vanity Fair article is probably great press, but only because it's contentious, not because it's convincing. Making a sweeping claim... like the claim that the "cute" aesthetic is taking over all of Americana... may be provocative, but you can't back it up simply by citing a catalog of examples of the phenomenon. Windolf undermines his own argument by packing his article full of offhanded derision and snarky asides, and by including examples that only loosely support his point... the Geico Gecko, the shape of Smart Cars, and company names like "Google" and "Twitter" are barely relevant to any of this.

A stylistic trend doesn't automatically translate into a zeitgeist. "Cuteness" has a long history in culture and genetics, and there's not much chance that it'll suddenly take over modern culture and destroy it. There's also not much chance that it'll go away, since it's rooted so deeply in our reactions to our surroundings... really, what Windolf is ranting against is a certain segment of the culture industry that's gotten very good at tapping the maternal instinct. It's not so much a cultural takeover as a newly-minted aesthetic gimmick that's gained a lot of traction in post-postmodernism. I'd argue that the "sincerity purges" of the postmodern years, exemplified by irony and detachment and nihilism, have caused a blowback of childlike over-sincerity, an assertion of our basic right to have biologically-motivated chemical reactions to empty, escapist pleasures.

Of course, pomo hasn't been left completely in the dust. Cuteness is an extension of kitsch, the great stylistic advancement of the 90's... or, to be more precise, it's vindicated by kitsch, which allowed us to celebrate the cheapness and shallowness of throwaway culture. Cuteness is arguably an advancement, though... kitsch was supported largely by irony, and by taking up the token cause of things that were genuinely ugly. At the very least, cute culture makes the assertion that we should like it and feel authentically edified by it, even if it's childish.

In a certain way, it seems like an antidote to the worship of dominance that plagues American (and human) culture... in turning toward vulnerability and innocence, we're turning away from images of power, control, and competition. This may be refreshing. However, as Windolf points out (and I give him credit for this), it may indicate its opposite: the focus on the small and cute may actually be a way of belittling the object, and subconsciously reinforcing our own sense of superiority. Or, as he argues in a bit of a self-contradiction, the attention to cuteness may indicate that we're identifying with the object and developing a victim complex, attempting to repackage ourselves as a country that needs to be protected. He cites Japan as an example of this behavior. These points are valid, and should prompt some reflection.

However, I would say that the maternal instinct enacts the best of each of these tendencies, rather than the worst. It makes us protective, rather than asserting some sort of tyrannical dominance; it allows us to appreciate and identify with the innocence and immediacy of infancy, rather than indulging fantasies of belittlement.

Now, with regards to Babies... there is such a thing as a movie that relies too much on a style and excuses itself from having any of the other strengths of a good movie (concept, writing, narrative form, etc). When I saw the poster for Smokin' Aces, I was pretty sure I knew what it was offering – a heavy-duty stylistic commitment, draped over a lot of propulsive inanity. Babies looks like an analogous movie for the nurturing crowd, although without having seen it, I can't rule out the possibility that it will manage a complex and unexpected execution of its core stylistic concept.

So I'm not here to justify cuteness as substance. I'm just here to caution against what Windolf is tending to do: to equate a stylistic trend with a cultural groundswell, and to confuse his own taste with some kind of genuine standard of merit.