Film Club Lockdown / May

Pulse (回路, Kairo) Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

I’d like to second that vote for Kairo (Pulse) as the Ultimate Covid-19 film. It’s been a while since I’ve watched it and even tho I keep promising myself that I’ll get round to giving it a rewatch it’s one of those many things that just hasn’t happened yet. I mean: if you’d told me before it happened that there was going to be a lockdown and everyone was confined to quarters I would have guessed that I’d be watching movie after movie after movie but if anything the reverse has been true. Even tho the internet still does suck me in from time to time mostly I’ve been doing non internet things – mostly reading actual honest-to-god books like I was still living in the 20th Century or something. Maybe it’s got something to do with screen fatigue. I mean the first few weeks I was doing so much internet that my eyes were literally going bloodshot (yuk) which probably means that if I continued on that current course that I’d end up going blind lol 

Which is funny because that’s kinda partly what Kairo is about. Losing yourself in the internet until you become completely lost and alone and not even human anymore (amongst other things). Maybe partly the reason I don’t want to rewatch it is because I know nothing can beat the first time – it was a random selection from the Library and I had no idea what it was about and if it would be any good or not. Our TV wasn’t working and so I watched it alone on my laptop with headphones on which is basically the absolute perfect way to watch it. It’s like watching Jaws while you’re out at sea or 2001 when you’re on the Pan Am flight to the Moon. Also headphones because yes it’s probably the number one film with the best sound design I’ve ever heard in my entire life. It’s like listening to an Autechre album or something – all of these beautiful bits of glitches and static like your computer is slowly succumbing to the most evil virus in the world. 

And on your own with your laptop because well – that’s where the danger this. I mean: I imagine watching Kairo now it probably works more like a museum piece coming as it did before the advent of web 2.0 and the internet becoming corporatized and fluffy. You know – back when it still felt like a dangerous place and looking at the wrong website might actually mess you up. But still the whole thing of screens feeding mental illnesses and worse is probably even more pertinent now than ever before and the whole way the movie is structured where this small thing grows ever larger and more destructive is very much the world we’re living in right now. 

So yeah – I should give it a rewatch. Although part of the other reason why I’m hesitant maybe is that it’s probably one of (if not the) scariest movies I’ve ever seen in my entire life. The most heart-stopping moment being when you watch someone walk from one side of a room to the other and if that seems like nothing scary at all then I envy you because watching it feels like being trapped inside the worst nightmare you’ve ever had. 

The Martian Directed by Ridley Scott

I kinda wish I knew how it works with how Netflix picks which films to show. Like is there a special team that has a look at the zeitgeist and latest trends and and pie charts and all that. Because it feels like The Martian (streaming on Netflix now!) feels like a particularly canny choice. I can imagine Netflix Head of Content or Whatever being all like: “We should get The Martian. It’s perfect. It’s the movie people need right now. Matt Damon socially isolating against his will on an alien planet and the whole world needs to come and save him. It’s got uplift. Jokes. And seemingly every celebrity that ever existed – what could possibly be better?” 

It’s a shame then The Martian is an evil movie. A cancerous growth on the face of our shared culture. In some ways it’s kinda the ultimate 21st Century movie but I’m kinda saying that as the opposite of a compliment. Watching it feels like watching something that was grown in a lab in Silicon Valley and then escaped into the wild and then spread across cinema screens before finally making it’s way to Netflix where it can do the most damage. Where unsuspecting households will be all like: “Well – what should we watch tonight dear?” “Ah I don’t know – maybe we should try the Martian? I heard it was supposed to be good and I’ve always meant to watch it.” 

To be clear tho: I’m not saying The Martian is a bad movie. In fact it might just be one of the best movies that Ridley Scott has ever made. It’s got lots of zip. None of it really lags. Everyone is doing acting. There’s a Lord of the Rings joke with Sean Bean which feels like it should be in an episode of Arrested Development or something. Donald Glover does the nerdy genius thing which is kinda cool. And Matt Damon is… Matt Damon. Everyone who watches it will be entertained. Especially Dads (The Martian feels very much like a Dad film – which I feel should probably actually be it’s own genre at this point). 

(To be fair – I’m guessing most Dads in lockdown look a little bit like this right about now). 

So you know – what’s the big deal? And how can something be evil if it’s actually good? That doesn’t make any sense right?

So here’s the point where maybe I start to lose you – so you know hang on because I’m about to get a little metaphysical or whatever. Now I don’t really believe in much – but the one thing that I do believe in (as soppy and stupid as I know it is to say) is stories. The way that stories shape us and change how we see ourselves and the world and other people – they’re powerful things and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. And yeah of course stories can take many forms and do many different things and act in all sorts of crazy ways and I probably shouldn’t be too perspective and all of that stuff – but when I watch a film like The Martian I feel an icy chill start to crawl up each rung of my spine all the way into my skull. Because it feels like The Martian isn’t really telling a story that makes any kind of human sense. Most films (well most of the good ones) are about being human after all. They’re about new perspectives and different points of view – they expand your understanding of yourself and other people (hell: most of the time it’s both at the same time). But The Martian is like – well – an alien space creature that has no humanity at all (although I guess it’s aptly named if nothing else lol). Instead of warm blood pumping in a hot heart there’s only blue frozen liquid floating in a vacuum. I mean I get that you watch it and maybe it looks like a story like a story to you – but it’s like a cyborg copy or something: because where there’s supposed to be humanity – there’s just an empty void. 

The movie actually kinda says it better than I could. There’s a bit towards the start when everyone at NASA realises that Matt Damon is still alive on Mars and the always magnificent Jeff Bridges does this little speech that goes like this:

“Can you imagine what he’s going through up there? He’s 50 million miles away from home. He thinks he’s totally alone. He thinks we gave up on him. What does that do to a man, psychologically? What the hell is he thinking right now?”

SMASH CUT TO: Matt Damon dancing to disco music. 

And yeah ok – it’s a joke and ha ha very funny. But it’s only later that you realise that oh – actually – this is the philosophy of the entire movie. It’s about someone stranded 140 million miles away from any other human being but instead of dealing with anything too heavy like loneliness or depression or anything potentially off-putting like that it’s going to treat the whole thing like a big crazy fun adventure. And instead of having Matt Damon say anything much about the way that he’s scared or desperate or going out of his mind we instead get lots and lots of dialogue like this:

“I’ve been thinking about laws on Mars. There’s an international treaty saying no country can lay claim… to anything that’s not on Earth. And by another treaty, if you’re not in any country’s territory… maritime law applies. So Mars is international waters. Now, NASA is an American non-military organization. It owns the Hab. But the second I walk outside, I’m in international waters. So here’s the cool part. I’m about to leave for the Schiaparelli Crater… where I’m gonna commandeer the Ares 4 lander. Nobody explicitly gave me permission to do this… and they can’t until I’m on board the Ares 4. So that means I’m gonna be taking a craft over… in international waters without permission. Which, by definition, makes me a pirate. Mark Watney, Space Pirate.” 

And yeah ok ok – very interesting and fun and whatever. But that’s about the sum total of things that you end up learning about Mark Watney during the course of a 2 hour film (oh wait – and he’s also a botanist, he thinks his parents did a great job and he hates disco music). I mean – this is all pretty thin gruel you know? Like: I keep saying Matt Damon when I should probably be saying Mark Watney because I think it’s funny but the truth of the matter is that he’s always more Matt Damon than he is the character he’s supposed to be playing because the character he’s supposed to be playing doesn’t really have that much character apart from saying: “fuck yeah science!” a lot (maybe they should have got Jesse Pinkman to play him instead?) 

I mean yeah you’re right – of course you can tell a story in lots of different ways – and just because you have a movie about someone who’s stranded somewhere and trying to get home that doesn’t mean that it needs to be an in-depth character study (like they could have got Daniel Day-Lewis to play Mark Watney but it wouldn’t have really worked right?) but I can’t help but feel like there’s a kinda narrative chafing going on with this opposition between what the story is about and the way it’s being told. I mean: if you tried to tell a story about the Holocaust with a EDM soundtrack that would be a bit weird right? Or a teen sex comedy with full-blown depictions of sexual intercourse.

And the chaffing here is that the story seems like it would be about loneliness and isolation and strength through adversity and all that stuff but instead it’s telling the whole thing with a Scientism kinda bent. For those of you who don’t know – “Scientism” is the promotion of Science as the best or only objective means by which society should determine normative and epistemological values and it’s a word I keep using more and more nowadays which is kinda scary. And again to be clear here – I don’t have any problem with Science at all (Science is cool) but I do have an issue or two with Scientism.

And The Martian is a very Scientism kinda film.

Of course this is to be expected. The guy who wrote the novel the film is based on (Andy Weir) is apparently a software engineer – which for me is pretty much the problem right there and explains why watching the film feels more like watching a TV show where Matt Damon does real life science experiments – complete with direct to camera explanations (“Let’s do the Math” would actually be a pretty good title lol). My favourite bit of trivia I found out (just because it’s so incredibly telling) is that Andy Weir personally created software to calculate the ship’s arrival times (on Earth and on Mars) down to the exact minute in his novel. Which yeah ok – well done him. But also I feel maybe misses the point slightly in what a story is mostly meant to do? Which is the whole heart of the conflict I’m trying my best to get at. For more a story should move you and excite you and made you feel all sorts of different emotions and hopefully make you think about things that you haven’t thought of before. Which I guess you could call the Humanistic Approach. And then on the opposite side you have the Scientistic Approach which basically says that a story should be Scientifically Accurate. And how good or bad a story is can be judged by how much it matches the Science or not. 

Which is a point of view that personally I find to be a little crazy and almost literally completely misunderstands what a story is and how it works. 

Of course the Scientistic Approach has been around a lot. Mostly with people complaining about “plot holes” which nine times out of ten I don’t really have that much time for. My own feeling being that stories and films are like shared dreams and the effect most of them are going for is not to replicate reality with hundred per cent fidelity (what would be the point of that after all?) but rather to produce a wide range of different emotional and intellectual and artistic effects. I mean yeah ok – maybe the Joker’s plan in the Dark Knight doesn’t make any sense but who cares? It probably wouldn’t be a better film if his plan was more carefully thought out because all the cool bits in the film don’t depend on the Joker having a blueprint where A leads to B or whatever. Like when he gatecrashes the fancy party and throws Maggie Gyllenhaal off the roof – you could say it’s a “plot hole” that you don’t see what the Joker does with all the guests that Batman just leaves behind but that’s not really the point of the scene and after Batman saves Maggie Gyllenhaal it’s not where your emotions are at (and if it did cut back to the Joker then that would be kinda weird – no?). Except a proponent of the Scientistic Approach would disagree because damnit it means the film is flawed and you should see what happens with the Joker and nothing should be left unexplained and everything should make sense and you should know how A connects to be B and etc.

The Scientistic Approach never really concerned me that much before because it seemed like a fringe concern – except with The Martian I guess it kinda broke into the mainstream. The Martian of course (as if it needed to be said) is a film that is very concerned to be as scientifically accurate as possible and to have no plot holes at all. Matt Damon is always doing the math after all. And you just know that all the nerds are nodding their head when they explain about the hydrogen properties of oxygen or whatever. But the obvious result here (which loops back to my basic problem with the film) is that all of this “Fuck Yeah Science” stuff means that you don’t have any time left over to get into the actual human element of what you’d expect the film was going to be about. Because they need to get the science right first. Because that is what’s most important.

 And here’s the thing that scares me – and why I’ve gone to far as to describe as The Martian as an evil film (LOL). Values are things that we learn from the world around us. And the things that we think are important are the things that we’re taught. And once people get a value inside their mind then there is almost nothing that will make them change their mind. If you think that how good a film is depends on how diverse the cast is then there’s nothing anyone can say that will make you think otherwise. Or how faithful it is to the source material. Or how good the special effects are. Or whatever. If you have a value in your head then that’s your yardstick. And so for people who think that how good a film is depends on how good the Science is then there’s nothing I can say that will make them reconsider. The Martian is good because it gets the Science right. And that’s all there is to it. But the important thing to note is that this isn’t a point of view that they’ve come to understand by themselves. It’s something they’ve been taught to think by the world around them and here’s the scary bit – now that movies are started to be made with this Scientistic Approach the more people are going to be taught that this is the right way to tell a story and the more our humanity will be lost. Which yeah ok is a pretty big claim I know – but living in a world where more and more movies are like the Martian is one that actually makes me feel kinda scared. Because The Martian feels to be like a movie that’s all about limiting the way that a story can be told and teaching people to see a world that can only be understood by Science. 

There’s a speech that Matt Damon makes at the very end of the film which kinda sums up this approach (so much so that they used it in the trailer):

At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you… everything’s going to go south and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem… and you solve the next one… and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home. All right, questions?

I mean yeah sure – it’s a nice idea. And for Fuck Yeah Science people it’s a good life philosophy I’m sure. But – it’s not really true is it? Doing the math isn’t enough. Like the entire premise of the movie is about an unfortunate piece of bad luck that leaves Matt Damon stranded on Mars all by himself and it’s only thanks to lots of lucky breaks that he gets to come home. It’s not a question of solving enough problems and being smart enough. Just being good at Science won’t save you. And it’s super telling that the movie doesn’t even understand itself enough to realise that. 

In conclusion then: fuck you Mars. 

Next time I’ll watch Castaway instead. 

Iron Man (2008)

So the film that locked me into the Marvel Cinematic Universe was Winter Soldier (I feel like I am a Marvel fanboy but this was movie 8 of the MCU!). Prior to that I think I had only seen 2 MCU films in the cinema Avengers (because everyone was very excited about it) and Iron Man because that came out at a time when super hero movies were relatively few and far between. 

After watching Winter Soldier and really enjoying it – I went to my girlfriend’s parents house and as it happens they had a friend staying at their house. This guy explained over a cup of tea that he was a film director who was making a film set in South America about a child who is stolen and becomes attached to their kidnapper over time. He went on to explain the sort of initial horror of seeing this child wrenched away from its parents and then followed by a feeling of betrayal as the child learns to live without them and bond with this imposter. Having explained all this, my girlfriend’s dad said “oh Jonathan’s just come back from the cinema. What did you see Jonathan.” I explained that I had been to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the guy just gave me a sort of sad look as if in response to his Shakespearean soliloquy I had offered up some Kylie Minogue lyrics. I tried to explain that Winter Soldier was a tense paranoid thriller which upends preconceptions about homeland defence, the Cold War and the legitimacy of authority and that also there was a big fight in a lift. But he seemed unconvinced, as if a film which features a former nazi war criminal as an antagonist and a special forces soldier with robotic wings as somehow not a serious subject for a feature length drama. 

It’s not a new subject for the Film Club but it’s my favourite example of the gulf between good films and serious films. Or maybe it’s the difference between “movies” and “cinema” or something. 

As a response to both the Lockdown and the vicelike grip of Disney+ on my television my 9yo son and I have been working our way slowly through the MCU. We have seen Thor Ragnarok which he enjoyed largely because it is fairly childish and has the phrase “Devil’s Anus” peppered throughout; and Guardian’s of the Galaxy which is probably the easiest MCU movie to enjoy as a stand alone. But I thought we probably needed to start from the start and so we watched Iron Man. It is interesting to compare the first film with the most recent offerings and maybe it’s because it is coming off the back of Nolan’s Batman Begins which it mirrors in structure but you can see Iron Man caught between serious and comic book. It wants it’s audience to be very aware that is about an alcoholic arms dealer caught up in a war in the Middle East and having to face the fact he is part of the problem in an industry reliant on escalating death. There is a scene halfway through where villagers are rounded up by a terrorist gang/Al Qaeda situation with the implication that the women will be raped while the men are being executed. Fortunately an American tech billionaire is on hand to save the day with an array of weaponry so sophisticated that it can determined the moral value of a human life in less than a second. However rather than execute all of the perps, there is a sort of nod to humanising non-Americans when Iron man decides that rather than kill a man in cold blood (though he literally carried out 50 extrajudicial killings seconds earlier) he leaves the defeated gang leader to the vigilante justice of the villagers. The film also peppers its dialogue with reference to stock prices and media management and military protocols in desperate attempts to seem like its taking itself seriously. 

But this is where we hit the weird divide between movie serious and cinema serious. It doesn’t matter how much human drama you crowbar into Iron Man, ultimately you know how the film is going to pay out. By and large the villain will be stopped, the hero will make some sort of personal growth following some sort of sacrifice, and if there are any deaths they will be largely glossed over and nothing is real. Perhaps if the story was focussed entirely on a little boy living in and Afghan village whose dad was always dodging Al Qaeda and whose life was incredibly difficult and then for one scene Iron Man showed up before flying off again, maybe that would could pass as serious. But it would have to be the most fleeting glimpse or disappear into the terrifying cul-de-sac of magic realism (innit Pans Labyrinth). 

I am actually in favour of more robot super-soldiers briefly appearing in otherwise serious ground level human drama than I am about more sad orphans appearing in Avengers Films. Although in saying that we have established pretty much all Disney characters are orphans and that applies to almost all the Avengers, perhaps helping to prove the point that movies are somehow impervious to consequences.

Which brings me back to my favourite thing about Iron Man. For years the dramatic theme for superhero movies has revolves around the duality of having a secret identity. Whether it was the love triangle between Lois, Clark and Superman, or Spider-Man, Peter and Mary Jane, or Bruce Wayne and whoever, that conflict was the standard basis for our heroes – “Dammit Steve I can stop a nuclear weapon with just my sardonic wit, yet I just can’t tell her how I really feel! [and scene]” Yet all the major characters know who Iron Man is all the time. SHIELD know who he is even before he does, and by the last line of the movie the entire world hears Tony Stark say “I am Iron Man.” Of course there is a price to this he has a target on his back for the next 2 movies and the manufacture some unconvinced post-traumatic stress down the line, but Iron Man at least attempts to make a super hero part of the fabric of every day life. 

By Infinity War 19 films later super heroes are so ingrained in the culture of the Marvel Universe that they have jokes about having ice cream flavours named after them. Yet despite this acknowledgement of in-universe cultural impact they are not able to really change the world. The game-changing technology in Iron Man is the Arc Reactor and even in Avengers Tony Stark claims to be the only name in clean energy, yet it’s never made clear if the MCU climate change has just been dealt with; or whether pollution and corruption are a thing of the past. It certainly doesn’t seem like the societal changes have been that large based on the cars people are driving and the class relations expressed in films like Ant Man. So even on Earth-616 billionaires and celebrities dominate the culture but are either unwilling or unable to change society. Practically every Avenger is a statist reactionary, indeed Black Panther and Thor are hereditary heirs, while Black Widow, Falcon, War Machine, Hawkeye and Cap are all in the US imperial army. So it’s left to Tony Stark and Bruce Banner to be the disruptive tech nerds to set and example for the rest of the world by basically doing whatever they like. 

Which brings us full circle to the message at the very beginning of Iron Man, which is basically that he, like us, hasn’t learned a thing:

Tony Stark: My father helped defeat the Nazis. He worked on the Manhattan Project. A lot of people, including your professors at Brown, would call that being a hero.

Christine Everhart: And a lot of people would also call that war profiteering

Tony Stark: Tell me, do you plan to report on the millions we’ve saved by advancing medical technology or kept from starvation with our Intellicrops? All those breakthroughs: military funding, honey.

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