Exploring the intersections of ecology, technology, and ideology: Marx, machines, Gibson, and Shanghai.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Moon and District 9

SF Cinema Enjoyments and Kritik: Moon and District 9

This kritik opens with enjoyment because some of my strongest responses to Duncan Jones’s Moon and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 were the variety of enjoyment rarely derived from a trip to the cinema these days, much less from films categorized as Science Fiction. And, to differentiate a bit within the category of enjoyment, I experienced Moon through deep absorption, like a smoldering ecstasy in contrast to the always partially self-conscious enjoyment of the overtly allegorical register of District 9. Put another way, while sitting and watching Moon, I was caught up in its rich textures of the visual, the narrative, the character(s), and audio including silences. Watching District 9 I was frequently aware of watching myself watching the film, enjoying myself enjoying it. I do not necessarily favor one of these enjoy-modes over the other, and in a climate of SF cinema seeming increasingly constituted by remakes, reboots, and the exploitation of toy franchises, both of these films recalled for me some of the enthralling first cinema viewing of Blade Runner.

Moving to specifics, I saw both films in the same week, watching Moon several days before District 9, so I begin with the former. The previews attached to any film reveal something about how the picture is embedded in the structures of money and marketing: the industry. Preceding Jones’s feature were previews for (500) Days of Summer and The Cove among others. These created a dialectical atmosphere of enjoyment and earnest political positioning, but with the former making avant-garde film technique part of the romantic comedy genre and perhaps more available to a larger audience (personally I don’t consider this cooptation, though some will) and the latter making the otherwise highly off-putting eco-theme delectable by making it detective/spy thriller genre documentary. Thus, when Moon arrived on the screen, I was already in mind of radical genre work, and Jones’s film achieved a provocative balance of meeting certain generic expectations while reshaping others.

As to the eco-theme, I appreciate the way Moon employs it to establish the world-setting of the film. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the film opens with a question: Where are we now? And where we are is in part described as a world in which ecology is a central social concern, to the point that it is a central corporate concern as well. Not unlike Quantum of Solace, Jones’s film incorporates the eco-theme through criminals who are or who circulate among the corporate world devising new modes of exploitation in the name of “being green,” what Slavoj Zizek claims is becoming the new dogma off limits to questions of our era [see Zizek on this in Astra Taylor’s film, Examined Life]. After that, no more over references to eco in the film. I endorse Jones’s approach in this: sometimes a drop of eco can saturate the rest of the film to make it homeopathic rather than an anti-biotic with harsh side-effects. After all, this opening establishes the world-setting and thus the drama of the film within the context of ecology on Earth, something perhaps all the more potent because it takes place primarily off-world. A fresh reprieve from the blundering eco attempt of a film like the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which every time the humans try to argue with Klaatu for a second chance their total failure at rhetoric and reasoning are the most revealing aspects of the film [though I was pleased to see the future of the human race on Earth negotiated in Chinese at McDonalds!]. That said, I don’t recall how that opening broadcast is situated within the diegetic world of the film, nor the conclusion for that matter. They feel disjointed, and I would endorse even more the situating/framing of the narrative if these were more enmeshed into the narrative itself. Otherwise, they take on a tacked-on quality and hence a distracting effect. Still, these narrative frames are only part of the film, and there’s much more to be remarked upon the gorgeous narrative within.

Switching to District 9, the previews were for Final Destination and I cannot even recall the titles of the other films promoted—not a good sign for those who made the trailers if not the films themselves. While Moon came after a dialectical and intellectual build-up, District 9 seemed to follow an approach of lowering the bar so that the audience might be overawed by the movie in contrast to the other future fare on offer, and this wasn’t my 35-year old response as the college-student aged audience majority scoffed audibly at the previews. However, this is not to disparage Blomkamp’s film so much as to critique the way it was presented, not a director-controlled situation I presume. What I found provocative about D9 was its alternative approach to relating its fictional world to the socio-historical world in which such a film is possible. While there is a CLEAR relationship to South Africa’s history of apartheid, the relationship is not itself clear, or at least not uncomplicated. Neither a mirror nor a simple displacement of races or other categorizations of humans is at work here. Thus, the point is not to approach this film in order to reverse-engineer decode the unity or consistency it “hides” by shifting a historical intra-human matter to a human-alien one. Rather, the film incorporates multi-national capital, family drama, encounters with the alien other—human and non-human, and the weapon industry. In other words, the film is about apartheid but also about the world in which apartheid is possible as well as the world today that can reflect upon apartheid and what it might reveal about our own “post-apartheid” world, whether that be the purportedly “post-racial” America or elsewhere. So, like Blade Runner and a few other exceptional films, District 9 is pushing at the boundaries of what SF allegory might mean and how it might work.

As a final critical consideration, these films can be juxtaposed for their narrative use of the individual and the collective or the social. An initial response to Moon might be to chastise its emphasis on the individual drama, as if apart from social concerns. That might be valid if the film were a mere psychological exploration of the individual in prolonged space isolation, but that’s not what the film is or does. It only gestures that way in order to punctuate the surprising discovery. Thus, in yet another way, Jones thwarts an expectation based on a familiar genre, and in a way that is closely tied to the film’s complication of what it means to be human, including what it might mean to be human in an era of cloning: one of my favorite aspects of the film is the hospitality displayed by Sam—an openness to the most frightening other of all, an other who is you. And in this sense, I feel D9 is the more reactionary of the two films since it seems to call up the individual and his love relationship as the final transcendent image. This does not undo all the provocative and progressive work of the human-alien cooperation, but it does hint that the “hospitality” Wikus shows to the “prawns” is based very much in the desire for a return to status quo.

Friday, October 5, 2007

I Wanna Be Like Magda--word of antenna mkting!

The Boston-based marketing company Bzz Agent is making mainstream national news this week, rendering present the style of decentered marketing Wm Gibson outlined in Pattern Recognition through the character Magda, chosen for her overt hipness as an undercover spokesperson for the products/services/ideas Blue Ant contracts with.

Interestingly, Bzz Agent, despite its intensely stern-visaged bee logo, appears less style-conscious, soliciting agents over the web in a grass-roots manner. Moreover, the company appears to require its agents to practice transparency when talking up the product samples they've received.

To check out the company and/or check into becoming an agent (best marketing choice of term?):


Saturday, September 22, 2007

Eastern Promises (Warning: Spoilers ahead!)

One of my initial responses to David Cronenberg’s latest film, Eastern Promises, originated before the film had even made its limited release debut on September 14th: this response was the noteworthy parallel running between Cronenberg and Wm. Gibson as two of the highest significance figures in cyberpunk fiction and technoculture both having taken lateral shifts in the last 2 texts each has produced. Furthermore, within these lateral movements into new realms that depart from conventional notions of cyberpunk genre, both Canadians have figured Russian mafia as a vital component in the movements of their contemporary world imaginings. As a Gen-X child of the Cold War late years—I was 16 when the Berlin Wall fell and the tanks drove into Tian An Men Square—I am provoked to wonder at this reinsertion of Russia by two of the most celebrated sniffers of pre-emergent zeitgeists, especially at a time when mainstream mass-media cannot stop thinking Middle East.
Perhaps a key to this resides in Cronenberg’s referral to a book he read while prepping the film: Violent Entrepreneurs by Vadim Volkov, a text that simultaneously investigates the specific context of violence and the Russian mafia in the construction of Russian capitalism that emerged after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and which uses this specific context to draw provocative speculations about the nature of 21st century late capitalism and violence in general. It is possible that by looking awry from the current ‘Endless War’ in which we feel hopelessly enmeshed anyhow, Gibson and Cronenberg offer insights into the structural realities that enabled this war and continue to profit from it. They show us a reality similar to Pynchon’s ‘Endless War’ in Gravity’s Rainbow: a world which is never not at war—violence is a chronic state of being within increasingly globalized capital—and the perception of war only as the discrete events punctuated by state-based declarations and surrenders/treaties are disdainful illusions.

Regarding the film as such, it fulfills the Cronenberg Promises of brutality that evokes visceral audience response, and because of this I am thoroughly pleased with the decision not to cheapskate a matinee, but shell out for opening night prime time showing: being in a packed cinema for the bathhouse attack scene was an unforgettable experience. Cronenberg has lured all of us in (and it was a surprisingly older crowd) with a certain seductiveness that is attached to mafia intrigue, but, as in Videodrome, when the audience gets all of what it bargained for, we cannot help but squirm in our seats, feel sweat on our foreheads, empathize with those who groan out load, and we all end up uttering a mixed groan/laugh as the absurdity of the violence and our fulfilled desire of it ending up in that confusingly complex and paradoxical emotional response of enjoyment at the promise being fulfilled and disgust at what fulfills it!!

In addition to violence—not a new issue for Cronenberg even though there seems to be a proliferation of chatter that includes Eastern Promises in discussions of a surge in Hollywood violence, masculinity is one of the most interesting issues the film raises in subtly crafted ways. The relationship between Kirill and Nikolai is represented as potentially homosexual, yet with Nikolai’s multiple motives of manipulation in every action, we are left very unsure as to their feelings for each other and their history of prospective intimacies. This mystery is counterpoint to the Father, frustrated at the queerness the London weather has induced in his son and who provides the example of being a man by raping the 14-year old prostitute his son will not (again, whether out of a moral character he at moments seems to display, out of homosexual orientations, or a combination is unclear).

Also, the “Eastern Promises.” The false promises of a better life in London that inspired Tatiana to leave her village in the first place, only to end up a mafia-property child sex worker. The multiple betrayals throughout the plot trajectory within the mafia members and associates. But especially the revelation that Nikolai is a mole working for the Russia Desk at Scotland Yard. The final scene of the film is a voice-over narration of the deceased Tatiana’s voice reading the words of her diary that refer to that promise of a better life in the West with the visual of Nikolai sitting in the restaurant, playing with his watch, thinking deeply, but on what. Now that Nikolai has the tattoos and is in a power position to be mafia king, but has spared Anna’s uncle Stipan and Tatiana’s baby (the latter for more pragmatic reasons), the last scene seems to leave open the future. To whom will Nikolai have made an Eastern Promise: the mafia that he will proceed to sabotage from not only the inside but the very top echelon; or, Scotland Yard, now that he has an opening to virtually unlimited power???

My only reservation about full laurels for the film: Cronenberg simply did not take advantage of Naomi Watts’s astonishing acting range—she was underutilized by a lack of dramatic opportunities to perform anything close to her hospital scene in 21 Grams.

Otherwise, my vote thus far for Best Picture 2007.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Nostalgia for Nihilism

Perhaps under the subtle influence of the use of grunge music in the promotion for upcoming network television series premieres, I netflikt Cameron Crowe’s Singles last week. It’s no surprise the soundtrack is and has always been the chief element of praise for this film; after all, if one is to remark on the acting it would have to laud Matt Dillon’s performance for carrying the rest. Eddie Vedder’s rigor-mortis cameo outshined (nice Soundgarden reference!) the leads.

Watching the celebration of contentless meaning, however, gave this Gen-X’er a burst of speculative optimism. Perhaps the resurgent presence of and interest in Nirvana, Mudhoney, and the like reveals a desire circulating today amongst those infused with popular culture for the good old near-past when things could mean nothing. The heyday created by and creating the space for deconstruction—taking the time to take time to enjoy the blur without checking out or buying in. The truly Sub-Pop days—the not-so-subtle product placement in Singles.

Grunge & the 90s scene stands as a historical span of the enjoyment of consumption infused with the Dadaistic embrace of absurd juxtaposition that carried over from 80s American culture, music, and literature. From Talking Heads videos and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet to Smells Like Teen Spirit, Cobain and River Phoenix oding, Lynch’s Lost Highway, the Circle Jerks screening footage of oral surgery on dogs on massive screens behind them as they play in downtown Seattle.

Constructing yet a New China: Survivor China

Last year the CBS series Survivor reasserted its position of prominence in popular culture conversation with its Racial framework for initial tribal assignments. For all the criticism it faced, labeling it a crude approach to a complex and serious issue, the program did raise important questions for a massive public in an accessible way. Moreover, competitor discussion over the use of minority representation in media played an important role in informing the jury’s decision for Yul to win.

Last night CBS launched the new campaign, setting history as the network put it by filming an entire US tv series in Mainland China. Behind this premise of Jeff Probst as the new Richard Nixon, however, is the fast-approaching Beijing 08 Olympics. Clearly this Survivor series is produced as a cultural advert for China, especially China as an exotic site appropriate to global competition. And the construction of this New/Old China is fascinating, with the actual geographical place of the competition being neither so remote as described verbally and through visual projection. The Zhelin Reservoir is not all that far from major cities in Jiangxi, not so deeply remote as is suggested from modern Chinese metropolis-life even though they are shown traveling into increasing technological and landscapalogical primitivities once setting out from Shanghai—featured in the footage of the new cast(aways) arriving in China. Most of the mountain footage appears to come from the Guangxi Province, near Guilin/Yangshou, and the wilderness footage interspersed between the human dramatics/competitions features pandas from Sichuan. Not to mention the opening welcome ceremony held in a Buddhist Temple—meticulously explained by Probst as a cultural and not religious welcome, yet cleverly presented to counter any narratives about China’s official attitudes toward religious institutions within its borders.

More on this as the series develops…

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

JG Ballard reinvented on Chinese freeway

Check out these links to text and visual recollections of a Chinese Mazda-gang harrassing a Hummer (the official car of coal-mine owners--and therefore of or not of the 08 Beijing Olympics?) on the open road.

Perhaps a new avatar of the technology infused sadism that was arising as a structure of feeling in 1973 UK/US via Ballard's Crash and Pynchon's Gravity' Rainbow??

If so, an inversion of conventional cyberorientalism...



Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Kerouac's On the Road: 50 Yrs Later

The "American classic" was published 50 years ago today: September 5th, 1957, and Kerouac's novel holds a fascinating place in American literary history, celebrated by some as a signpost of his deeply spiritual (Catholic-Buddhist cyborg) relationship to words and silence, by others as a reinvisioning of the American landscape and the Western frontier, as well as one primary text that defined the Beat Generation.

But among all the blogposts and feelgood remembrances composed around this anniversary, I have yet to find mention of some of the novel's strangest moments:

p.117: Shortly into Part Two: Dean and Sal are driving Sal's brother's furniture north from Testament:

"Dean had a sweater wrapped around his ears to keep warm. He said we were a band of Arabs coming in to blow up New York."


"I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a 'white man' disillusioned."

What has remained unexplored in recent media coverage is the disturbing and disturbingly sadistic gaze of Sal as the reader's figure of identification in the narrative: one need only think of Sal's convenient relationship with Terry in the Grapes of Wrath intertextual interlude and how readily he leaves her, her child, and her poverty behind as aesthetic objects that have been enjoyed and now live on not in-themselves but only as objects for his reminiscence in moments of loneliness.