Thursday, November 29, 2012

JRR Tolkien and a Long-Expected Journey

"'Well, now we're off at last!' said Frodo. They shouldered their packs and took up their sticks, and walked round the corner to the west side of Bag End. 'Good-bye!' said Frodo, looking at the dark blank windows. He waved his hand, and then turned and (following Bilbo, if he had known it) hurried after Peregrin down the garden-path.They jumped over the low place in the hedge at the bottom and took to the fields, passing into the darkness like a rustle in the grasses." 
The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 3: Three Is Company

My mom’s finally moving out of the house where I grew up, from ages 9 to 21, to downsize her life and make her expenses and lifestyle more manageable. She deserves the break, especially now that we, her children, are fully engaged in the process of making our own lives and establishing our own households. Still, the bite of change stings a little when you clean out the attic, or when you walk down the hall and see everything cleaned up and dusted off for the eyes of potential buyers. This is your youth, suddenly repackaged and commodified. This is farewell to that vain hope that someday you might be able to return to this sanctuary, a time and a place that wasn't laden with the demands and frustrations of adulthood.

Cleaning the attic was the foremost item on the agenda over Thanksgiving, and I ran across the traces of many childhood amusements and escapes… decks of tarot cards, old comic books, photographs of best friends and first loves. The whole effort was sustained by our nostalgia, our sense of personal history in watching these things pass before us to go to other storage, or thrift stores or trash cans. Every time you handle an object that you haven’t touched in a decade, you feel the texture and permanence of your past, vibrating up through your fingers.

I was lucky, though. In the silt of farewell, I found the gold dust of rediscovery, a trace of an old interest that I could actually follow back to its source, at least for a moment. That was a small hoard of old maps, books, figurines, and calendars from my years of desperate, hopeless love for the work of JRR Tolkien. On some other recent visit, I had already rescued my whole Tolkien library – The Hobbit, the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and a third-party book called The Tolkien Bestiary. Now, over Thanksgiving, I rediscovered the accessories and artifacts that were pure Middle Earth fetish objects, free of the weight of words and commitment.

I think the calendars are the most personally poignant of these artifacts. There is a great history of wall calendars illustrated with scenes from Tolkien’s works, which I was collecting long before Peter Jackson’s three films came around to infect Tolkienism with the faces of celebrities. There was John Howe’s 2001 calendar, and 2002’s calendar illustrated by Ted Nasmith, both of which were engorged with rich, intense paintings… but these calendars already had a sort of concept-art feeling to them, with theatrically-staged, dramatically-lit images that seemed to gesture toward the films that were coming out around the same time.

The real treasure was a 1994 calendar, illustrated by Michael Kaluta, that was obviously the first Tolkien calendar I had ever owned. Kaluta’s images are wild, expressive drawings, toned with broad spreads of color, not given to dramatic gradients or realistic chiaroscuro. In every scene, some figure seems to be seized with the tremors of an inner demon, from Boromir at the Council of Elrond to the Orc at Helm’s Deep, thrashing in the ecstasy of battle, a sort of tortured non-sequitur who’s burst into the foreground of the layered landscape. Kaluta’s lines are sketchy and complex, and whether he paints mere figures or elaborate three-dimensional spaces, he seems to be working intensely in two dimensions, pressing pandemonium into the confines of the page, though it seems to spill back out at the edges.

Since last weekend, I’ve been struggling with the question: what do I do with them? Do I just scan every page? Do I rip out my favorites and hang them up in our front room? Do I store the ravaged calendars somewhere obscure around my place in Bushwick, so I can discover them again when we move to a new apartment? At any rate, I'd stopped drawing or painting for a while, and these calendars made me suddenly start thinking about it again.

Strange, isn't it, how a little encounter like that, a chance meeting with a few emotionally-charged artifacts, can cause sudden swerves and turbulence in the inertia of everyday life?

The other Tolkien artifact I found that struck me was a map of Middle Earth I had bought at some point, a big glossy spread folded like a highway map and tucked in a card-stock cover. It certainly wasn't as beautiful as Michael Kaluta's calendar, looking more like standard decorative art assembled to indulge a consumer fan base, but it's full of information -- exactly the thing to hook us fanboys -- and this is what drove me to stick it in my suitcase to take back with me to Brooklyn. This map had an interior, a network of references and entry points, constellations of associations and emotions encoded into place names. It made me want to go back to that world.

I'm very lucky, in this regard, that Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is coming out in fourteen days. I might have picked up the books anyway, but with this film coming into view on the horizon, it's like Middle Earth is beckoning me back, promising a festival in my honor. Jackson did an exceptional job of giving life to that world, better than any of us expected, and when I saw his Fellowship of the Ring back in 2001, I felt like I had already met the characters on the screen and already visited those places he had brought to life.

It's hard to believe it was that long ago. As Frodo left Bag End with the Ring in Jackson's adaptation, so I was leaving that home in Collegeville -- the same home that my mom's finally moving out of -- for my first year in college. Like Frodo, that was the end of my time as a steady resident of that particular household. For the past 11 years, I've been making new homes in new cities, carrying the wisdom of that old house with me into each new community. And mom is finally leaving that house, too, just as Bilbo is leaving The Shire in another Tolkien adaptation. It's uncanny how our lives and our stories echo one another.

So now, suddenly, I'm back to drawing and painting a little bit. More importantly, I'm back to reading Tolkien's stories, for the first time since I was 12... I started The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring simultaneously, intending to get through the first third of the former book before the movie comes out on December 14th (it turned out to be a very easy goal). Every night, before I go to bed, I feel those stirrings again -- the feeling of safety and habitation, as if my apartment was a little Hobbit hole in the Shire, and simultaneously, I feel a sense of displacement, like I'm lost in the great landscape of my own life, separated from the comforts of a childhood home. Both of those feelings resonate through these Tolkien books, alternating and colliding in my sentimental brain.

It's great that I can go back to the world of Middle Earth so easily. That's one of the great comforts of an imaginary universe... you can pick up the book, and you'll go right back there, to whatever degree you can abandon yourself to the story. My real childhood home, that house in Collegeville, won't be so easy to return to once somebody else owns it. As with Bilbo and Frodo when they left the Shire, I'll always hereafter be a stranger there. That home isn't an open door, eternally waiting for me in case I need to go back to being a sheltered 12-year-old fantasy nerd again. Rather, it's the bank of a river that I've had to cross on the way to kingdoms where I've had larger parts to play.

So, instead of counting on that home being there, a site for escape and nostalgia, it's up to me to carry it with me into the new homes that I create... my encampments and conquests in the strange land of adulthood, this new fantasy where I've lost myself once again.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Skyfall, a photographer's Bond, and the theme of obsolescence

There are times during Skyfall when I felt like Sam Mendes was scoffing at Marc Forster, his predecessor in the lineage of James Bond directors. By my reading, the film was thoroughly aware of the recent history of the franchise, not least because it linked the new Bonds to the very old ones in some trivial homages. But also, the film's didactic content -- its message of old and reliable methodology versus whiz-bang novelty and gimmicks -- is also a comment on the way the series has been going so far. Lucky for us, part of Sam Mendes's message required him to prove himself, and he did that by making a damn fine Bond film, on par with the excellent Casino Royale... kind of a rebuke to Quantum of Solace, which is fine by me.

An argument in the background of the film, the ground to the figure of chase scenes and assassinations, was the confrontation between M (Judy Densch) and the Board of Inquiry that was investigating her conduct in running MI6. Given that espionage and terrorism is largely conducted online in our modern age, the board asks M a practical question: does MI6 even need human agents at this point? In response, M argues for the continued human engagement and expertise that her agents (like Bond) can provide. This explicit argument is just a few token lines of dialogue in the film, but its implications resonate through the whole narrative, affecting its characters, its themes, and its progression and resolution.

This whole debate is, of course, underwritten by the strong presence of Q and Silva in the film. Q is Bond's new Quartermaster, is a young, precocious computer hacker who seems to feel that he can solve most problems from his control room. He regards agents as clumsy but necessary appendages: "Occasionally, a trigger must be pulled." Silva, the arch-villain of the film, is a vengeful ex-agent who turns out to rival Q in the realm of digital espionage. He uses YouTube as a medium to broadcast the identities of the MI6 agents around the world; he masks his own digital signature by hopping around remote servers; and he transforms his laptop into a sort of reconnaissance bomb that, upon being connected to the MI6 computers, takes them over and breaks open the compound's security systems.

Bond villains always have to seem superhuman; in this case, Silva is a dangerous combination of Q's high-level computer skills and Bond's unbelievable physical and social prowess. He is a strong parallel to Q, in that both of them seem to think they can rule the world by dominating it through their computer terminals. Q is fortunate in that for him, as opposed to Silva, being proven wrong by Bond doesn't mean getting killed.

These themes of Old-Busted-versus-New-Hotness are infused into a categorically excellent action movie, which is what a James Bond film really needs to be. What made Casino Royale so brilliant was its ferocious attitude and its groundbreaking action sequences; for Skyfall, the action is smart and serviceable, but not necessarily brilliant. We've all seen fights on top of trains; we've all seen arenas with unlikely creatures in them. We've all seen the Home Alone sequence where a house is rigged with traps. What's fucking fantastic about Skyfall is its visionary cinematography, its insistence that every scene look like a painting, with mesmerizing relationships between light and color and shadow, ballets of figures and silhouettes and backgrounds playing off one another. It's a photographer's Bond film. Were any of the old ones like that? I don't remember them well enough to say.

But how gorgeous was the empty office in Shanghai, surrounded by glass, with the pulsating monitor visible across the gulf outside?

And how perfectly composed was Silva, staggering over layered crests of pasture, barely illuminated by the flames of a burning mansion off in the distance?

How chilling were those shots of Bond suspended in a frozen lake, fighting to get to the surface as a henchman sank into the abyss below him?

Mendes brought his stylistic strengths fully to bear in this Bond film, and that turned out to interface neatly with the film's larger thematic issues. Quantum of Solace, the previous Bond film, was embodied in Skyfall by Silva and Q, who thought that high-tech, high-fidelity solutions were the way of the future. In case you don't remember (or didn't see it), Quantum of Solace was fatally sabotaged by its action sequences, which were totally incoherent, shot in a queasy shaky-cam style, with debris and flames flying by the camera and no respect for space or continuity. This is what you get when you invest a lot of your resources in equipment and post-production... quick effects, crane shots, tons of coverage, but no economy, continuity, or coherence. Marc Forster must have seen the Borne films and thought that style was a great fit for Bond. It turned out to make the film intolerable.

Bond represents Skyfall, the film itself, as a refutation of the Quantum aesthetic. Bond is a human element, running on cunning and judgment and loyalty, whose skill as an agent allows him to defeat Silva's vast resources and technical capabilities. Skyfall is the low-fi rejoinder to Quantum of Solace, showing fans that the way to make an excellent Bond film is through the traditional techniques of writing, pacing, and cinematography. Both Bond and Skyfall go back to fundamentals, and in being so goddamn good, they prove that the new Hotness can't replace the old standard... at best, it can build on top of it.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

On The Road and the romance of American nostalgia

I've had the upcoming film On The Road, directed by Walter Salles, in my peripheral vision. Now, at last, there's a nostalgia-infused preview on the front page of iTunes trailers, and I get to sample the tone of the film. It's hard for me not to be sarcastic about it... in some ways, it's comitragically predictable, peddling an Instagram aesthetic that the world should surely be getting tired of by now. On the other hand, this seems to be a rare case where that Instagram aesthetic is actually appropriate, as opposed to those photos of your take-out sushi dinner from last night. There's something sad about that, and it's not just the disappointed annoyance that comes from seeing a stylistic gimmick repeated ad nauseum. This is more bittersweet than that, because this movie might actually be pretty good.

I base that hopeful assessment off the shallowest indicators, the cast and the photography in this useless little two-minute snippet. This film brings together two actors -- Sam Riley and Kristen Stewart -- who seem to be pursuing some sort of elusive 20th-century romanticism, and it's exactly the right film for them to come together in this endeavor. I like Sam Riley a lot, purely on account of the one film I've seen him in... the film Control, directed by Anton Corbijn and released in 2007. In case you don't know about this (it's a bit high on the hipster obscurity scale), it's a film about Ian Curtis, the lead singer of the 80's goth punk band Joy Division. Sam Riley digs deep into Curtis's character, and discovers a pretty reprehensible human being, privately self-destructive and publicly poisonous. Anton Corbijn is an excellent photographer, and the film captures something singular about 1980's England and Manchester, about the decadent despondence in the angry counterculture that was active at the time.

Kristen Stewart is another matter, and I know she's the epicenter of a whole cottage industry of hatred. Still, she seems strikingly appropriate in On The Road, which is a fitting extension of her screen career. I'm going to go out on a limb here, and possibly offend a whole community of Kristen-haters, in order to suggest that Kristen Stewart is methodically and shrewdly constructing an acting persona which will give shape and resilience to her acting career. This persona is one of nostalgic American romance, and it links her historical roles (Joan Jett in Runaways) to her timeless youthful roles (Bella in Twilight, Em in Adventureland, and Tracy in Into The Wild). All these roles are sullen outsider teenagers with a baked-in awkwardness, which is also visible in Stewart's TV interviews. It's rapidly becoming clear that she can't break out of this style, and it will require a very dramatic rebirth as a performer for her to do anything much different.

If your criticism is that Stewart always just plays herself, I can't argue, but what of it? First of all, this persona is probably something she can sell... but also, like all things that people create, it's an aesthetic object, a big idea that makes a broad and meaningless career into something worthy of contemplation. I am reminded of James Dean, who cultivated a similar persona: impulsive, moody, emotionally naked, and beautiful. James Dean only really played himself, too, and like Kristen Stewart, he made himself into an idol by putting his "self" on display.

The idea of American romanticism through reckless youth and counterculture, explored in this film by these two actors... that idea poses a bigger question for me, a cultural critic who has an aesthetic interest in the American experience. James Dean and Marilyn Monroe are the original symbols of this American mythology, along with Janice Joplin, Alan Ginsberg, and an ensemble of other cultural icons. Jack Kerouc is right up there with the best of them, and the On The Road trailer is full of all the moods and indulgences that call those times to mind: wide-eyed sentimentality, the suggestion of wild, soaring impulsiveness, and a dubious obsession with freedom and transcendence.

And what's sad about it is that this big idea sort of had a resurgence, and it's already been picked over and played out. Levi's has probably profited the most off it, with campaigns like "Go Forth"... in the last few years, it's also become totally ubiquitous in music videos, which have developed an obsession with the 60's and vintage cameras. Not that this is a complete waste... some of these music videos are admirable aesthetic artifacts (Keane's Silenced By The Night comes to mind), and others are perfectly respectable tributes to a generation's aspirations (Katy Perry's The One That Got Away). But it's been too much, too fast, and it's been reduced to elements that are too simple: dusty roads, yellow filters and lens flares, rope swings, bikini tops. What does all this stuff make you think of? What did the trailer for On The Road make you think of?

That's right. Instagram.

When I was first thinking about this, I thought maybe this is because my own generation is culturally impoverished. Why do we go back to symbols and kitch references to the 60's to capture the idea of freedom and youthful energy, if not to fill a void in our own culture, an empty gap where there should be some kind of joy and subversion and rebellion? Do we look to these vintage symbols because the youth of today have no symbols of their own? I was all ready to pen a rant about how sad that was.

It took me about ten minutes to realize that if I wrote that, I would just be imitating the cynical carping of people like the Frankfurt School, who I find kind of intolerable. The truth is, the rising energies of today's youth don't have that nostalgic glow because they're still happening, they haven't been appropriated and repackaged yet, and the ad hoc nature of improvised political and cultural activism isn't so easily summarized in winking photo filters and anachronistic fashion. It will be a few years -- or maybe a few decades -- before we have Occupy, hip hop, Silicon Valley, and the blogosphere boiled down to a set of convenient symbols for investing with nostalgia.

So that's a good thing, I guess. And yeah, it's still sad that those 60's frequencies are so commodified and played out, but as long as they're now available as part of our cultural vocabulary, I'm ready to see what directors like Walter Salles can do with them.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

The Mechanics of Time Travel and Humanity in Looper

Looper was excellent, I have to say. It deserves a place alongside the best dystopian time-travel films, 12 Monkeys and Primer, and in many ways, it compares favorably to them. It was stylish and earnest in equal measure, which is hard to pull off in our post-Tarantino era, and it was crafty and precise in its construction of an anachronistic gunmetal future.

It's hard to maintain, with any seriousness, that any film -- Looper included -- could challenge the merits of 12 Monkeys and Primer, which are both justifiably held up as the best, sharpest, most uncompromising films in the time-travel genre. Still, I think there's a case to be made that Looper is more subtle than either of these leaving more room for a larger view of humanity. To talk about that, though, I'll probably spend most of my time talking about those other two movies. As a bonus, at the end of this entry, there's a thorough explanation of how I think the time-travel rules work in Looper, accounting for all the "paradoxes" that some armchair critics get so hung up on.

Here's the thing about 12 Monkeys... in this film, there is a sense of complete helplessness on the parts of the main characters, as if fate is a storm they're caught up in (maybe I just have Sandy on my mind). For most of the film, James Cole is a confused, twitchy nutcase who can't seem to navigate basic social situations, much less act as an elite agent from the future. This mirrors the state of all the characters in the film, who don't really have much of a hold on their present or their future, and are at the mercy of the winds and waves of circumstance. After all, this is a strictly deterministic framework... everything that's happened must happen, even given the possibility of time travel. This kind of determinism leaves little room for humanity, except as an anxious, hopeless, and powerless little cloud of particles. For a science fiction movie with an impossible premise, this creates quite a harsh and inhospitable film.

Primer is very different, but frankly, not much better. These characters DO have agency... in fact, they're flush with it. Whenever they use their time-travel machine, they spawn a new universe, where things can go differently from their source timeline. This allows them to treat their world as a simulation, or a specimen under glass... going back in time, they're essentially hitting a reset button, or opening up the glass case, tweaking some conditions, and letting the whole thing play out again, now differently. By building larger time-travel chambers, they can go back further, and their simulation enlarges to include their previous selves. It's a baroque, cynical story of what would happen if humans were able to operate the universe like a computer, or a massive complex machine.

This is, in a sense, a perfectly INDETERMINIST universe, the opposite of 12 Monkeys. If a pair of humans can simply step outside the world, tweak a few switches (i.e. decide to place bets on certain stocks) and see how everything plays out, it suggests that there are no larger reasons, no absolute consequences, and no patterns that really hold, except by happenstance, meaningless collision, and mindless interaction. Whatever purpose or pathway the universe seems to have, people like Aaron and Abe can just step outside it. This is what gives the film its mechanical coldness... it's a drama of absolute agency, where the characters lose any of the resistance that allows them to assert their humanity.

(note: spoilers ahead, which gradually accumulate, until the whole movie will be ruined)

Looper manages to find a middle-path between these two options, which is why it can be cynical and sad and frightening, and also hopeful, with space for agency and heroism within the conditions created by fate and time-travel. In Looper, "fate" isn't deterministic... it's more like an attractor, or a gravitational force, pulling every iteration toward a certain path but still allowing divergence. Clearly, most versions of Joe outgrow Looperhood and travel the world, meet a certain woman, and then travel back in time. Most versions of Cid, unfortunately, become the Rainmaker. But at least one instance of Joe takes a different path, and at least one instance of Cid is saved from his fate.

This, I think, is where Looper is better than either of those other time-travel films. It creates a space for humanity, somewhere between fate and free will, and it does this without being too sappy or soft around the edges. That creates the space for a few incredible moments -- Cid's rage, Seth's torture and murder, Abe's weathered, blithe melancholy -- that really gave definition to Looper, really set it apart from its colder, more nihilistic cousins. It also manifests a much more palatable pop sensibility as a result.

As a bonus, I think Looper accomplishes this feat in a fluid, self-consistent way. This isn't obvious to everybody... lots of people got hung up on what they felt were "plot holes." As for me, on the contrary, I think, among all recent time travel movies, this is probably the most fun film to explain. I take it on faith that deep under all this convoluted plotting, there's some obscure set of rules that's self-consistent... that's the whole puzzle-game appeal of time travel movies, and at least for me, it's sufficient fuel for suspension of disbelief.

Now on to the explanation, for those who want a way to understand this film so that there are neat patches and bridges over its internal contradictions. If you were inclined to dislike the film because of its time-travel paradoxes, you probably won't buy this, because why should you be any more sympathetic to my suspension of disbelief than to your own? But if you want to like the film, but are hung up on the time travel paradoxes -- like, How does Seth come back in time as a capable middle-aged man, when his young self has been mutilated and possibly murdered? -- I think this way of understanding the rules of the world will do the job.


We start with the givens. Clearly time is not a deterministic, closed system, like 12 Monkeys... the whole action and resolution of the film belies this. So various parallel versions of the same timeline can be different. Also, there is a "first" timeline, where the Rainmaker is first traumatized, and a "final" timeline, where he's finally freed from his trauma. Those are just the initial premises.

So how can this all fit together? In this system, time runs more like an endless spiral than an actual straight line or closed circle. In the very first loop, Cid was traumatized by something else... his mother was killed by a vagrant, maybe. So he becomes the Rainmaker, and takes over the Looper system, and just closes loops whenever they're scheduled to close, not because of some vendetta. In THAT loop, Joe's wife is killed, and Joe goes back to try to prevent The Rainmaker's rise. That starts an infinite cycle of loops, like a spring, with each coil (i.e. loop) being basically identical, save for a few minor differences. Every time, by trying to save his wife, Old Joe kick-starts the Rainmaker's reign of terror, and each time, the Rainmaker tries to close all of the Loops... maybe to prevent his mother from dying, or maybe just out of vindictiveness toward the Loopers who took her.

This results in a psuedo-infinite, indeterminate number of loops, until eventually, one of the Young Joes realizes that the only way for him to end the cycle is to kill himself before he can create another Rainmaker.

In this schema, it's important to note: a change in one timeline can cause sudden, drastic effects in the neighboring timelines, like an Old Joe from a previous timeline suddenly disappearing when the new Young Joe commits suicide. But they don't retroactively negate every coil in the spring... they just cause a kink in a couple loops. That's why you can have an Old Seth, who lived his whole life as an able-bodied man, but who is suddenly, drastically affected by amputations carried out upon his Young Self in an adjacent timeline.

Working from this schema, the movie basically shows us three "coils" (loops). It shows us the very first loop, where Young Joe closes his own loop, then sails off to see the world and meet his wife. This loop ends with the rise of the Rainmaker, through some unexplained psychological trauma. The film also shows us the middle loop, which is repeated ad nauseam: when Old Joe appears, hoodless, Young Joe fails to close the loop. Young Joe then allows Old Joe to kill Sara. From there, Young Joe runs away, travels the world, and meets his wife; this is the loop that most of the film dwells in, and it's the loop we see concluded in Young Joe's imagination, with the murder of Sara. The film also shows us the final loop, which looks like the middle loop, except that Young Joe commits suicide before he can become Old Joe. All the timelines after that have no Rainmaker, and Cid grows up to become something more benevolent.

That's how I make everything fit together. Now that I'm through with that, I can get back to thinking about the moral and metaphysical philosophy that's on display here. Lucretius, anyone?!?