Jeremy Shaw’s ‘Liminals’

jeremyJeremy Shaw’s Liminals can be seen at The Store Studios 180 The Strand, until 10th of December 2017. It is the first off-site exhibition by Berlin based KÖNIG Galerie and forms part of their recent expansion to London.

Liminals, a work of Vancouver-born artist Jeremy Shaw, takes the form of a fictional documentary made not more than a couple of decades into our future. From the narration, we reconstruct some of its historical context, although the focus of the documentary is on ‘periphery altruist cultures’. The Liminals are one such sub-cultural group, who are observed by the posited filmmakers with a detached fascination (and a style) reminiscent of the early 20th century ethnographies.

It is far from clear who is the intended audience, because humanity’s days, the documentary reveals, are numbered. Technology is to blame, specifically, choosing to let computation replace ritual. Kieslowski’s warning in the first episode of Decalogue against elevating computers above faith has clearly gone unheeded, and in 2024 all spiritual experiences are replaced by VR via a technological innovation called ‘The Unit’. ‘The Singularity Disaster’ follows in 2033, and soon after ‘The Announcement’ of ‘the countdown to extinction’ is made.

Amongst the general apathy that ensues, radical groups emerge, as they always do – observes the film’s narrator – during the Millenarian periods of history. The most radical of these groups believe that a possible salvation lies in the ideas of ‘pre-Unit’ science fiction writer Samuel Delany, specifically the paraspace:

a specific paraspace could serve as a transitory zone for humanity – an intermediate area between the physical and the virtual where a generative incubation period towards our next phase in evolution could take place. They refer to this paraspace as The Liminal.

The documentary is an exposition of the methods by which The Liminals are trying to reach that paraspace.

 

Inception

Because what the internet needs, clearly, is another post about this film. At least it should be relatively short, since at this point all I really need to do is stake out my position relative to those of other people. Matt Cheney links to a post arguing that Inception is “not a dreamer’s movie, it’s a clockmaker’s movie” which seems fair enough, allowing for two quibbles: (1) it assumes the conventional fictional representation of dreams as incessantly surreal is the representation of dreams to which all such work should aspire, and I at least found the fragile normality of Nolan’s dreamscapes quite familiar, and refreshing (though I should say I’m not a great one for remembering dreams); and (2) these are entirely neutral descriptions, and we all accept that a “dreamer’s movie” is no more, but no less, valid a choice than a “clockmaker’s movie”. I dislike, for instance, Annalee Newitz’ contention that Inception offers an “intellectual high” but is “emotionally cold”; that intellectual buzz is itself an emotional reaction, and for me Inception is a powerful film.

That said, these are only quibbles, because I would have no trouble substituting “idea-centred” and “character-centred” into Newitz’ piece, and because I don’t really think Christopher Nolan is particularly interested in dreams as dreams. One thing that doesn’t particularly interest me, then, is whether Cobb ends the film in “reality”, because in a trivial sense he doesn’t – he’s still a character in a film – and if the clever tricks with the music mean anything, I think that’s what they’re intended to signal: that Inception is ultimately the dream we are sharing with Nolan. No, where I think Nolan’s interest lies – as in Memento, as in The Prestige — is in the mechanisms of narrative, and in constructing models through which to explore the workings of those mechanisms, which is why the ending, although delicately handled, is never less than expected. The excitement of the film for me, from about half-way through, was simply watching Nolan keep his various plates spinning, and tension came not from whether the characters would achieve their goals, but from whether Nolan would allow the characters to achieve their goals. Another way of putting this is that I think Inception is essentially Nolan showing off.

This, I think, puts me largely in agreement with Brian Francis Slattery, over in the comments of Abigail Nussbaum’s review, and I do take Nolan’s purpose to be the same as that of his characters, to place the seed of an idea within viewers’ minds. As in the film’s plot itself, I think this is done obliquely, not explicitly; so the answer I’d suggest to Abigail’s question, “what is Nolan saying about storytelling?”, is: don’t trust stories. Remember that stories have a storyteller. Realise that our responses to the stories we’re told shape the stories we tell. The ambiguity of the ending, in this view, is necessary not to set up a simple question about whether or not what we’re seeing is “real”, but as an expression of scepticism: we shouldn’t take the catharsis we’re apparently being offered without thinking about it first. For this to work, you do have to find the film well-paced — have to be convinced by the stories being told all the way through — which I know is the stumbling block for many; fortunately, it was all balanced just about right for me, and I enjoyed watching the tumblers of the various dreams click into alignment. Like Martin Lewis, I’d say Inception is lesser Nolan, if only because it doesn’t push as far as it could, but I’d say it’s still very much worth seeing.

EDIT: And now I’m mulling over Adam Roberts’ take.

EDIT 2: And Abigail has some further thoughts here, including discussion of inception as a model for storytelling.

Tools of the Trade

From Farah Mendlesohn’s review of The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction:

Yet, as we shall see, Csicsery-Ronay succeeds in incorporating movies successfully only in his chapters on the science-fiction sublime and the grotesque, and, within that, in his discussion on the visual forms. While I accept his arguments (and those of other critics) that sf cinema and games, among other forms, are becoming the dominant cultural conception of what sf is, their values are so different, or so skewed in a specific direction that it seems to me ‘accommodation’ is neither enough nor appropriate, that the tools applied to literary forms of science fiction can only leave the impression that the non-literary forms are inadequate, and that it is past time that the academic community withdrew from a theory of everything in this field, and acknowledge instead that there are separate and immensely valuable critical approaches which place cinema and gaming and graphic novels at the centre, and leave the literary beyond the Pale when viewed through their filters

I actually said something related to Richard last week, that part of the reason I don’t write much about films or TV is that I feel I lack the vocabulary to talk about them seriously: that is, to address their specifically filmic or televisual aspects. So I’m sympathetic to the argument here (and to the criticism of Seven Beauties; although it hinges on what you mean by incorporating “successfully”, and I would allow some of the instances excluded in the review as successful), even as I’m also sympathetic to those critics arguing that visual modes of sf are culturally dominant, and feel that I should write more about film and TV. On the other hand, I can’t be so absolutist as to state that a primarily literary understanding of sf will inevitably cast non-literary forms as inadequate, or indeed vice versa. See, for example, Gattaca, Primer, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, films with goals not very different from the types of literary sf I tend to enjoy; and is a generic sf action flick any less “inadequate” as serious sf, or inadequate for radically different reasons, than your average Neal Asher novel? It’s not as though “academics” are out on a limb in placing sf films within essentially the same framework as sf books, either. Not for nothing is the fannish crack about the former being at least a decade behind the latter so familiar. Nor, I think, is it possible to deny that the relationship is a two-way street, and that we have seen an increasing amount of cinema-influenced sf. So I end up thinking that accomodation actually is the correct approach (and that I want to read more film criticism) — that there are enough points of overlap between the two modes to make co-consideration useful, as long as the non-overlapping points are not ignored. Agree? Disagree?

Sci-Fi London 8

A belated report on what I did a couple of weekends ago: a trip to the Sci-Fi London film festival. Currently held in the extremely plush Apollo West End, the programme is a mixture of classic SF, newer independent works, panels, film all-nighters, and short films. The latter is one of my favourites, because there are few opportunities to see short genre films, and there’s always a few brilliant films, plus you get a bonus short in front of every feature. This year the short film programme included not one but two sets of sub-15 minute shorts, a feature on the short films of Israel, and even a programme of “long shorts”, for those films which were a little too long to be in the short film competition.

The “long shorts” were first, and ended up containing some of my favourite films of the weekend. Arcadia is a shining example of how well an ultra-low-budget short can work. The sets are made of cardboard – literally, as every set looks to have been built as a tiny cardboard set, with the actors green-screened in. At first it’s distracting, but I stopped noticing the fuzzy edges and the cardboard props, and enjoying the weird and charming film. The very ending is perhaps a little predictable, but too many shorts lose their way near the end for me to fault this one, and the penultimate scene manages to tie everything together in a couple of well-chosen lines.

In Afterville, the countdown which started when spaceships which landed in Italy fifty-one years ago is about to hit zero, and no one knows what will happen when it gets there. It’s reminiscent of Last Night, the Canadian film about how people face the end of the world, except they’re facing uncertainty and not certain death (and consequently it’s less depressing). Clearly made on a much higher budget than Arcadia, they’ve put the effort into some excellent effects shots of both the spaceships and the near-future tech, and it’s shot well enough to pull off a long, dialogue-free walkthrough of a half-deserted Turin. Once again the ending doesn’t quite hold up, with the focus on two young Italians reconnecting rather than on the exciting spaceships, but it just about pulls it off. It’s also notable for featuring Bruce Sterling as a scientist/futurist, who appears to be playing himself. In Italian.

Do It, by contrast, is not only not science fiction it’s not very good. Bernie is a lowly store clerk in Los Angeles, who often fantasizes about cleaning up the streets but never acts out his fantasies. When he learns the Mayor is visiting his store, he decides that killing him will solve all the problems, and he has three days to get the courage to act. It’s another well-made film, with a washed-out and industrial vision of LA, but not SF unless you think that Bernie’s visions make it fantastical. The main problem is that Bernie is a pretty unpleasant character to spend a half-hour with – he fantasizes about cleaning up the neighbourhood, but that equates to befriending prostitutes, imagining himself beating up black guys, and judging the customers of the pharmacy where he works, and he blames all of his personal problems on the Mayor as well. The film doesn’t take sides on whether Bernie is a violent and dangerous figure or someone to be applauded, but the plot is very slim, and as a character piece it has a central character I don’t want to spend any time with.

Soulmates is much more lightweight – a terrible couples counsellor must use his skills to avoid being possessed by an old woman’s ghostly lover. It’s quite funny, but not really funny enough, and it’s the only one of the four I felt could have been done at shorter length without losing anything.

I only saw half of the short short films, and there were no real standouts as there have been in previous years. Too many films don’t seem to have an ending, or a plot – I can see that if you’re making a short film to showcase your skills, the focus may not be on the writing, but too many of the films were let down by stopping rather than finishing – Jerome’s Weakness, an atmospheric and creepy film about the resurrection of a dead child, was technically good but seemed to stop about a minute before I expected it to end. The Day the Robots Woke Up is a cute animation with 50s-style robots roaming around abandoned London and a slightly forced narration all in rhyming couplets, which won the audience award; Marooned? is an entertaining take on live-action roleplay and 50s SF, which no one liked but me; and Die Schneider Krankheit is a bonkers fake newsreel film about a space chimp who brings a deadly virus back to Germany, which can only be treated using a huge turtle-leech-lizard creature which sucks your blood.

Focus On: Israel is intended to be the first in a series highlighting the short films of different countries (next year is Poland): there was an introduction from Uri Aviv, director of the Icon Festival, followed a series of ultra-low budget, incredibly depressing films, of which the least depressing was about the Grim Reaper wanting to give it up. (Aviv assured us that not all Israeli film is this depressing.) My favourite was Circuit, a short animation about a bomb-disposal robot, but the two entries made for the 48-hour film challenge did good things on a very low budget, and were better and more coherently plotted than the bigger-budget War of Salvation.

The only feature film I saw was Cryptic, another low-budget time travel film which gets compared to Primer and is inevitably not as good. Interestingly this one was originally scripted as a much higher budget special effects heavy film and they removed a lot of the flashy effects. It’s focused on a teenage girl who changes her timeline by communicating with her younger self on a mobile phone, and spends a lot of time dealing with teenage drama, while the time-travel is a magical MacGuffin. I did like that the protagonist was a young woman who didn’t get rescued by someone else, but in fact rescued her younger self and changed her life for the better.

There was also the pub quiz, in which our team Ultimate Awesome Fist Explosion came third, avoiding the tie-breaking dance-off which is probably a good thing. They got an Xbox and a crate of beer; we got a Star Trek: Enterprise promotional kite. Maybe next year we will triumph.

2-for-1 on Unpopular Fannish Opinions

1. Star Trek is not that good. It has its virtues, certainly: a certain amount of verbal and visual pizzazz (the closing credits look like a series of John Picacio paintings); decent performances, if not really ones that I feel able to hold close to my heart (Karl Urban probably the best, for my money); headlong, yet not quite hectic velocity, even if sometimes sustained by utterly extraneous set-pieces (Kirk being chased by ice-planet monsters, say). I laughed, I enjoyed, and I haven’t felt as strongly that I was watching a culturally significant piece of science fiction since Doctor Who’s “Rose”. And yet. It is really, epically, heroically stupid, and I’m not even talking about the science (though the disregard for scientific plausibility felt distastefully wilful at points, in contrast to the disregard-for-sake-of-plot that defines the archetypal moment of Treknobabble), but about the plot, which rests on convenience and coincidence upon convenience and coincidence. Think about it for more than thirty seconds and the whole house of cards fall down.

More fundamentally, I find myself uneasy about what that nagging feeling of cultural significance might mean: something in the cross-breeding of shameless, box-ticking nostalgia and gung-ho shininess doesn’t sit well with me.. This is something of a surprise. I’ve never thought of Trek as being particularly important to me; I’ve seen a lot of it, of course, but with the exception of Deep Space Nine much of it was watched just because it was there, not because I was actively seeking it out. And yet. Much has been made of Star Trek as a return to a bright, colourful, boundless universe, a celebration of an optimistic vision of the future, in contrast to the miserabilism of (say) Battlestar Galactica. But the brightness and colour of Abrams’ Star Trek indicate a fun film, no terrible thing in itself except that it feels like a hollowed-out version of the vision that made Trek first appealing, which was – and I can feel myself turning into one of the Onion News Network’s outraged Trekkies as I type this – that it was inspirational, aspirational, a vision of a better world. This Trek doesn’t feel like it’s set in a better world, particularly; as has been widely observed, diversity is somewhat noticeable by its absence. I find myself missing that nerdy, unfashionable (and, let’s be realistic, often terrible) aspect of Trek much more than I would have expected. I cannot see this incarnation of the franchise, for instance, centering one of its instalments around diplomatic shenanigans and a peace process, as The Undiscovered Country did – indeed, I expect Star Trek 2 to be KLINGONS RARR (with a side-order of Uhura coming between Kirk and Spock). And that feels like a shame.

2. Dollhouse is not that bad. It has multiple and serious flaws, certainly; even allowing for everything positive I’m about to say, there is a hesitancy to the show’s development of its argument, a caution that often looks like damaging reticence. I would go so far as to say that the first season is, taken in the round, a failure, with only two episodes – Joss Whedon’s own “Man on the Street” and “Spy in the House of Love”, written by Andrew Chambliss – that really work, a second tier — “Needs”, “Briar Rose”, “Omega” — that have some things to recommend them, and a majority that range between half-hearted and shockingly inept. But my feeling is that it’s an interesting, worthwhile failure, not a worthless one.

Three reasons. First, the premise – what happens when identity becomes a commodity? – is simple to grasp, and strong; fertile angles of attack fairly spring out of the ground, and you can see where the writers were going with episodes like “Stage Fright” and “True Believer”, even if they singularly failed to make anything of them. Second, it is more ambitious than anything else Whedon has done in what is, I think, a key area – a structural critique is built into the bones of the show, whereas both in Buffy (with the Watcher’s Council) and Angel (with Wolfram & Hart) such elements were grafted on later, never entirely successfully. My knowledge of Marxist theory could kindly be described as rudimentary, but consider: Dollhouse concerns the exploitation of one class of people by another; the exploited class is literally alienated from their work, with no sense of the overall nature or purpose of the system within which they reside; the individuals in this class are literally treated as things, as dolls, and are made to believe they are freely choosing what is in fact being forced upon them; and through this make-believe, the dollhouse itself provides a frame story that alienates us, as viewers, and makes us aware of much of what happens in each episode as a constructed text. (The clearest example of this being Mellie’s parody of empowerment in “Man on the Street”, but I think it’s there in every episode; it’s always clear that the clients’ fantasies – the stories the show tells – arise out of a basic power imbalance. I even think there is a strand of self-critique on Whedon’s part running through Dollhouse, having to do with the value and authenticity, or lack thereof, of the fantasies of empowerment he has previously created.) So I think it functions productively as a particular critique of the society we live in, which is why I was so pleased that the finale showed an imprinted doll claiming the identity that had been imposed upon them: for the metaphor to work fully, we have to understand the subjective experiences of the imprints as valid, they have to be like us (hence, perhaps, Boyd’s comments that the dollhouse are murderers as well as pimps). Third, although there is much in Charlie Anders’ analysis of the show at io9 that I disagree with – particularly with regard to the characters, where I think what’s interesting is not that the dollhouse employees are morally ambiguous, but that they have good, even likeable qualities despite their decisions not being in the slightest ambiguous, being entirely reprehensible – I think she puts her finger on something important when she notes that the focus of Dollhouse is not going to be Echo/Caroline’s journey to regain her individuality, but an exploration of the corrupting effects of doll technology. I don’t believe it’s intended to end with liberation; I don’t think it could do so, not without dishonestly stuffing a genie back into its bottle. I think it’s about an inexorable slide towards the dystopic future we’ve had signalled a couple of times now, in which individuality is extinguished, and everyone is interchangeable; a pure science fiction horror story, about the absence of political agency.

(That said, of course, if someone at Fox happens to be reading, and is dithering between renewing this for a second season, or The Sarah Connor Chronicles for a third, then go with Sarah Connor, and don’t look back.)

Wanted

James MacAvoy is Wesley Gibson, total loser, whose life is changed when he meets Angelina Jolie (Fox) in a drugstore. She tells him that a) his dad was a famous assassin b) his dad is dead and c) the man who killed him is standing over there in the cereal aisle with a gun. Then there is a big shootout with guns and explosions, and a car chase where Angelina drives a fast and sexy car with her feet while shooting out of the sunroof.

That’s pretty much the tone of the film. Director Timur Bekmambetov’s previous films were the Russian blockbusters Night Watch and Day Watch, and now Hollywood has let him loose with a larger budget and an R-rating to see what he can do. The result is a film which, while I am dubious about some of the morality and misogynistic overtones, can’t help but sweep me along with overblown stunts and serious violence.

Wesley’s life is changed by his meeting with the Fraternity of Assassins, where he discovers his panic attacks, which he takes as yet another sign of his loserdom, are actually an indication of his incredible reflexes and shooting ability. Guns as martial arts is not a new idea, but here it’s taken to extremes, with the assassins able to bend bullets, shoot other bullets out of the air, and generally ignore the laws of physics.

Once he’s over the initial shock of meeting a society of trained killers, Wesley tells his boss to fuck off, smacks his friend in the face with a keyboard, and takes this opportunity to become a man and learn how to kill people. This undercurrent of machismo runs through the whole film. Wesley isn’t just taking control of his life, he’s becoming a man, a lone wolf, fulfilling his destiny. To become an assassin first involves getting punched in the face a lot by Marc Warren until he admits he doesn’t know who he really is, then realising that what he wants is to follow in his father’s footsteps. (Not that this method of training is portrayed as a universal good, as it’s implied that it sent at least one of the Fraternity insane.)

Now we need a rationale so that we can have the main character go around shooting people in the head and not think he’s an amoral murderous dick, and it comes in the form of the Loom of Fate, which spits out the names of people who need to die. Yes, they may murder people in cold blood, but they do it because the loom tells them we’ll be better off for it. It’s taking one life to save one thousand, a message hammered home by the story Fox tells of a child who watched her father die when the Fraternity failed to kill the murderer in time, and in case you weren’t paying attention they spell it out to you that she’s talking about herself. All the targets of assassination are businessmen in suits and limos, often smoking cigars, and it’s a surprise when they don’t start cackling and stroking their cats.

Criticising Wanted for lacking in subtlety is probably missing the point. Shortly after that scene, we have a stunt where Wesley performs an assassination by getting his car to fly through the air and shooting his target through the sunroof, and there’s a certain joy in watching them stage preposterous stunts with the only possible reasoning being “because it will look cool”. Bekmambetov has a familiar style from his earlier work, filled with slow-motion and quick cutting, and there are some really spectacular scenes in Wanted – a train derailment, Wesley on a roaring rampage of revenge, the car chase early on. On the level of brainless gosh-wow action, it’s a good film.

And yet I can’t help but poke at the problems with it. There are parallels between the character of Anton from Night Watch and Wesley Gibson – both are nerdy loser-types and not your typical action leading man despite MacAvoy’s newfound six-pack, who discover they have supernatural skills and get involved with a mysterious organisation with shadowy leadership. But while Anton is sympathetic when caught up in the plans of others, it’s hard to feel any real sympathy for Wesley and what little there is comes from James MacAvoy’s convincing fear as he gets brought into the Fraternity. It’s all so very masculine, and out of the three female characters, one is Wesley’s fat tyrant of a boss, and one is his cheating harridan of a girlfriend, with Jolie’s Fox as the only female assassin we ever seen, sharing a curiously sexless kiss with Wesley only to piss off his ex.

The other problem is that the plot twists are not so much twists as gentle turns you can see coming from quite a long way off, and that includes the ending. Again, though, you don’t go and see Wanted for the plot, and you don’t watch it for the characterization or the acting. You watch this film if you want to see exploding rats, cars driven into trains, and a man shooting people while his gun is embedded in someone else’s brains, and it turns out that sometimes that is what I want to watch even if it leaves a faintly nasty taste in the mouth.

The Happening

If I see one more review that lambasts an M. Night Shyamalan film for not having a twist, I’m going to scream. It happens every time they’re released: a certain proportion of reviewers are apparently so unable to evaluate a film on its own that they reinterpret Shyamalan’s effort through a filter of expectation that, inevitably, does it no favours. This is by no means to say that Shyamalan is some maligned genius: Lady in the Water, for instance, was a mess. But while The Happening is by no means perfect, it is an idiosyncratic, interesting experiment that succeeds more than it fails. It’s unsettling at points, and scary twice; expect a twist, though, and you’ll be disappointed.

What you get, as many reviews have noted, is a B-movie disaster by way of Alfred Hitchcock. The film lives up to both halves of that comparison in multiple ways. For the first half, there’s the basic premise behind the happening itself — which, if you haven’t seen a trailer, is that people suddenly start committing mass suicide for no apparent reason. Given that the first tentative explanations are proposed just as the characters are approaching a small town called Hokum, I think it’s fairly clear that we’re not meant to take it entirely seriously (if I did, I would have to conclude that it’s based on an understanding of plant biology that is either much deeper than my own or much, much worse; but this is a film in which all science is Science, with a capital S). Moreover, both the acting and the dialogue are heavily stylised — but in a broad monster movie way, rather than the low-key, heavily naturalistic way of Shyamalan’s earlier films, with lots of heavily telegraphed reaction shots, and clunky observations. And the couple at the heart of the film (Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel) are almost unnaturally wholesome, in a way that recalls caricatures of ’50s America. Wahlberg’s character seems lost and bewildered, while Deschanel’s secret shame, endearingly, is that she went out for dessert with another man. Both frequently make big eyes at the screen, and each other.

But Shyamalan must know he’s set himself a near-impossible task in his choice of story, because at first glance it requires him to make inanimate objects scary. (It actually requires him to make an invisible force scary, a much easier sell because it can be made visible through its effect on people, but there’s still an initial hurdle to jump.) Which is where the second half of my earlier comparison comes in, because to a large extent he gets away with it. The Happening has a lot more laughs than you’d expect, almost all of which come from character interaction, or from moments when characters acknowledge that what’s happening is simply bizarre; and then something horrible will happen. Which is to say that although the film acknowledges, in various ways, its hokeyness, Shyamalan follows its implications through with conviction, often playing on the tension between terror and laughter. It helps that he’s admirably callous about killing off supporting characters (a lot of whom are very deftly drawn; I particularly liked the jittery private who’s seen most of his base kill themselves), and it helps that he excels at set-pieces and disturbing images. People walking off a building, as seen from the street; or a shot of a gun being successively picked up and then dropped by people shooting themselves in the head; or a car that starts accelerating towards something off-screen, such that you only get a second to realise that the driver’s lost it and is heading for a tree; or a mass hanging. Sometimes he shows you something traditionally gruesome, but more often he manages to make you think he’s going to show you something gruesome, and then pulls away at the last second.

Moreover, there’s much less of a sense of hubris about this film than there was about Shyamalan’s recent efforts. There’s no architect-figure cameo, for instance — indeed, unless I blinked and missed it, no cameo at all. There’s an ecological message, but it’s not thumped home, largely because the most portentious dialogue is placed in the mouths of characters whose grasp on reality may be a bit more fragile than the average; the film is pacy, and over quicker than you expect, if sometimes shamelessly contrived in its plotting; and in general, it feels like a film that sets out to please its audience, rather than its director. It may or may not succeed in that — reviews suggest that I’m in a minority, although the audience I saw it with seemed to get into the spirit of things — but for its distinctively personal approach, I’m bound to admire it. Perhaps I can pay The Happening no higher compliment than this: I can’t wait to see what Nick Lowe makes of it.

Return of the Hat

It’s hard for me to judge the new Indiana Jones film on its own – having watching the original trilogy over and over again on wet Bank Holidays, it’s inevitable that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull will never quite live up to the rosy-tinted memories of my youth. So really, my criteria was this: has George Lucas stamped all over my childhood for the fourth time?

Luckily, the answer is no. Maybe it’s my downplayed expectations, after the Star Wars prequels were so very very bad, but I was pleasantly surprised with the film – it’s not Raiders of the Lost Ark, no, but it’s a reasonable return (and end?) to the franchise.
Continue reading “Return of the Hat”

11 Minutes Ago

Hello everyone – Niall introduced me in his post below, but for anyone who doesn’t know me already, I’m Vector production editor and usually found in the Torque Control comments section, and now he’s given me the keys to the blog. You can expect more posts from me on media SF and other fannish topics, while I leave the serious book blogging to Niall. I’ll try not to lower the tone too much.


The seventh annual Sci Fi London film festival took place over the bank holiday weekend. As mentioned previously, it hosts the presentation of the Arthur C Clarke award as part of the opening night, but over the next five days they showed over twenty science fiction films. I think this was the fourth year I’ve attended the festival, and while the films are sometimes hit and miss as to quality, but for every Subject Two or Recon 2022 there’s a Primer to restore your faith in intelligent film-making.

11 Minutes Ago isn’t this year’s Primer, but it’s the obvious comparison to make to this ultra-low-budget time travel romance. Pack is our protagonist, a time-traveller from fifty years in the future, who can only travel back in time for eleven minutes before he has to return to the future. The film consists of eight of these eleven minute jumps, covering two hours of a wedding reception in our time, but two years of Pack’s life. The twist is that we’re following Pack’s visits chronologically for him, but they jump about in almost reverse order between 7 and 9pm on the day of the California Presidential Primary wedding reception.

If Pack can travel through time, why does he keep coming back to the same two hours? We see early on (for Pack and the viewers, that is, at the wedding it’s nearly 9pm) that the answer is Cynthia, a bridesmaid who seems to have fallen for Pack’s charms, and gives an enthusiastic yes to a question he hasn’t even asked yet.

The introduction to the film told us that it was shot in 24 hours. Even without knowing this, it’s clear that the film was made on a shoestring, which they try and turn into a virtue. The angle they take is that the time-travelling Pack is more interesting to the wedding videographers than the actual wedding, and we’re seeing their film, which not only gives Pack someone to explain everything to but means that any dodgy camerawork can be explained away as well. Setting it all during two hours in one location means only one set, but they shoot it well enough and from enough angles that it doesn’t get boring. What doesn’t fare so well is the sound – some lines are inaudible, and the music (which I suspect was being played in the background of the shoot) is overwhelming and almost continuous for the first half of the film.

What works really well are the interweaving plots of the people at the wedding reception, and the way they can set up mysteries for which the answers come from the beginning of the evening – explaining why the groom finishes the evening pissed as a newt when he starts off a tee-totaller, why the bride’s mother is continually making balloon animals, which of Nancy the bridesmaid’s many lovers bought her earrings. Only once do they take it too far, with a card trick from Pack which serves no purpose and feels like padding, even in an 84-minute film.

What doesn’t work as well is the actual science fiction. It seems that the time-travel is just an excuse to do an interesting and unconventional timeline, but while Memento managed to come up with a good rationale for this, 11 Minutes Ago has Pack coming back to our time to collect a sample of clean air so it can be replicated in the future and reverse the crippling lack of libido which is killing the birth rate, an idea which vies with the Doctor setting the poison gas on fire in this week’s Doctor Who for stupidest way to save the Earth.

Assuming you can get past this lack of science in your science fiction, there’s another problem, in that having set up the ending of Pack and Cynthia’s romance at the start of the film, they have to convince me that they would get so far in such a short space of time. Setting Cynthia up as extremely selective in her choice of boyfriends, and someone who is reticent to move too fast, makes their task even more difficult. Pack’s chat-up technique alternates between wannabe profound statements about the nature of time and the fleetingness of their moments together and cheesy lines about her beautiful eyes and soft skin, and if it were me I’d have run a mile after the first half-hour. Further complicating matters is that in a film filled with surprisingly fine actors, Christina Mauro can’t persuade me that Cynthia is a woman so instantly mesmerising that Pack will spend months and years of his life preparing for eleven minute visits to her when she seems like a fairly boring doormat,and that feeds back to make Pack even more of an obsessive stalker than he already is.

Even if the central romance falls short, there’s still enough interest in the supporting characters to make the film worth watching. You’ll need to pay attention, but if it’s not quite the mind-bending experience of Primer you will at least be able to follow it without resorting to diagrams, and the ending, while not unexpected, is neatly done. I don’t know if it has any chance of a release outside the festival circuit, but it’s worth catching if you get the chance.

Cloverfield

I didn’t enjoy Cloverfield in most of the ways I think the writer and director expected me to enjoy it. The characters, though not quite as two-dimensional as advertised, were bland enough that their deaths didn’t mean a whole lot — although that said, I didn’t find myself as irritated as Roz Kaveney, since yes, the characters are mostly dumb, but (a) they’re disaster-movie dumb, (b) they’re clearly meant to be completely unprepared, practically and emotionally, for what’s happening to them, and (c) the whole film moves along at such a clip that you don’t notice most of the dumbness while it’s happening.

I wasn’t particularly gripped by the story per se, and I especially wasn’t gripped when it was being a New York Story. Although it’s impossible to watch Cloverfield without thinking of 9/11, as Richard Larson points out it’s actually handled with a remarkably light touch; where I disagree with Richard, probably because I don’t live in New York (but bear in mind that’s going to be true for the majority of the film’s audience) is that I think the most effective sequences in the film are those that don’t use the New York setting in any way. I’m thinking of the generic horror/disaster-movie sequences, like the journey through the subway tunnels or the rescue from the collapsing skyscraper, that could be happening in any modern metropolis. Aside from that shot of the Statue of Liberty’s head, I don’t think any of the glimpses that Cloverfield offers will stay with me as New York Images — for comparison, I found the empty vistas of I Am Legend rather more powerful.

I didn’t even get the “hey, that was awesome” buzz that I expected to get from watching a rampaging monster. At least not much. It turns out that not-quite seeing a monster stomping buildings and military vehicles to junk is, for me, much less viscerally satisfying than seeing the carnage full-on. I think Howard Waldrop alludes to the reason in his comments for Locus Online: for a dumb movie, Cloverfield makes you use your brain too much. It’s a bit too artfully casual, for instance; I never really believed that this was found footage, as opposed to a director trying to imitate found footage. All the odd angles and fleeting shots of shoes and legs in the world couldn’t save it from seeming staged.

Which, you would think, doesn’t leave much for me to like, yet I do find myself turning the film over in my mind. I think what interests me is not so much the effect of it being presented as found footage as the logic behind Matt Reeves and Drew Goddard’s choice to do so. As Mark Kermode quite reasonably pointed out in his review on Radio Five, this is hardly a new technique, but the combination of subject matter (by which I mean “New York disaster”, not “monster movie”) and style and timing amount to an argument that more than ever, this is how the world is reported to us. One of the things I liked about the pilot of The Sarah Connor Chronicles was that the first way it signalled its protagonists had time-travelled ten years into their future, to our present — not a huge distance, on the face of it — was to have someone immediately start filming them with a cameraphone. Cloverfield takes this to the nth degree — it’s not just the protagonists who are running around with a camera, seemingly half the people caught up in the attack are using their phone or their camera to capture the event as it happens, giving us not so much user-generated content as victim-generated content. And the film never breaks this reality. Nobody ever explains what really happened, or indeed what happened next, and though there are some obvious concessions to disaster-movie plotting, there’s also a satisfying sense of arbitrariness to some of the deaths. Once again, there’s nothing about this that succeeds in drawing me in and making me feel; but it tickles my brain. So despite the fact that Cloverfield largely fails as a film, I think it succeeds as an artifact.