Posts filed under 'Film'

Dances With Lobsters

I first watched the film Real Genius when I was in high school – and it wouldn’t be overstating the case to say that it was formative in determining my expectations for higher education. A young Val Kilmer plays Chris Knight, the charismatic, disaffected leader of a group of undergraduate science majors – all of whom are brilliant and socially maladjusted, but deeply creative. Of course they create their own version of society where misfit is the new normal. Together, they romp through adventures that include growing hydroponic cherries bigger than human heads, freezing the dormitory hallways to better facilitate sledding, developing cutting-edge space-laser technology, then inventing even better technology that hijacks the laser and uses it to fill an evil professor’s house with popcorn.

Chris Knight had a sartorial sense that I still admire: jeans, fluffy bunny slippers, snide t-shirts (“Surf Nicaragua,” “I Love Toxic Waste,” etc.), sunglasses, and an occasional headband sporting twelve-inch antennae on springs. Sometimes, during moments of introspection and clarity, I realize that my own extended educational adventure may have been driven by a search for the Real Genius geek-family. Never mind that I was a rather unfocused humanities major, not a brilliant scientist; I feel certain that they would have taken me in.

(An aside: This clip from the film is a family classic; as my father points out, it’s a perfect representation of the life of a PhD student…)

From time to time, I’ve caught glimpses of the extended Real Genius family. Once, during finals week at my next-to-last university, I was walking down the sidewalk, lost in reverie, when an unlikely rustling in the bushes caught my eye. There, in the narrow strip of grass that separated the sidewalk from the dormitory, was a lobster. Rather far from home. But there it was, moving around in the grass, kind of shuffling along, like it was disoriented. Then I noticed that it was red… so perhaps the disorientation was a result of having just recently escaped from a pot of boiling water? But what kind of undergraduate boils lobster in a dorm room? I watched the lobster more closely, and realized that it had been partially eaten. But that didn’t slow it down – it responded to my attention by standing up on its tail and waving at me with one claw, before moving into a strange, halting little jig. Unwilling to fully believe, I kept walking, and the lobster sank back down in the grass and resumed its general, aimless rustling of the shrubbery. I continued on my way, then stopped and glanced back over my shoulder. For a split second, sunlight revealed several strands of fishing line extending from the lobster’s general area up, up, up four stories until they disappeared into a dorm room window.

A boiled, half-eaten, interactive, lobster marionette. Deployed in order to procrastinate finals-week studying. Brilliant!! The Real Geniuses are still out there…

Add comment September 22nd, 2008

Star-Crossed and Omni-Present: Catching David Lynch

David Lynch is floating fifteen feet above my head, while I am sitting cross-legged between Saturn and the sun, surrounded by people who are three-feet-tall, squealing, and throwing books at me. All that’s missing are a few severed body parts, a red velvet curtain, and someone throatily murmuring “fire walk with me.” Although, with all the squealing, I think a resounding “Silencio!” would be more appropriate.

This is the second time I’ve missed a date with David Lynch. The first time was back at grad school, when Lynch appeared on stage with a neuroscientist for a conversation about quantum mechanics and Lynch’s films – a most unlikely combination of some of my favorite enigmas. Alas, something happened and I wasn’t able to attend – though I remember driving past the church where his talk was held and goggling at the people waiting in line – they stretched out the door and around the block.

Tonight, a few years later and on the other side of the continent, Lynch is appearing at a Borders Bookstore to talk about his new book Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity. Again, an impossibly clever juxtaposition of people and concepts I find fascinating. Though I planned for this lecture well in advance, I forgot that it takes an hour to drive three miles in Los Angeles – if those three miles are anywhere in the vicinity of the 405 at rush hour. And so, I arrived after the talk, but in plenty of time to witness a very strange phenomenon.

The second floor is overflowing with people. They are milling around, eating slices of cherry cheesecake while standing up, doing their homework in the café. But most of them are assembled into five distinct lines which snake all around the store. There’s a line of people in the Computer section, and another in Travel. There’s a line in Fiction and Literature, and a particularly thick cluster of people in the vicinity of JAG and The Golden Girls in the DVD section. There’s even a line by the Musicals.

I thoroughly examined each line; they all have a beginning and an end, but none of them are connected. Could it be just one line, segmented to facilitate the flow of traffic? Logical, but I never once saw a person from one line move up to join another. No, these lines are discrete, self-contained entities. And everyone is holding a copy of Lynch’s book. The only conclusion is that David Lynch is omnipresent (is anyone surprised?) and simultaneously signing books in five places at once at the Westwood Borders.

Too excited to wait, I immediately looked for a place to set up my computer so I could live Muse to you all, and share some of the excitement of being in the same place at the same time as five David Lynchs. Of course, the masses of fans who apparently rented helicopters to get over the 405 before me have already filled all vacant seats and benches. And that is how I find myself sitting downstairs, cross-legged on the floor of the children’s section.

I’m getting closer to David Lynch. Last time I missed him by a city block, this time by a storey at Borders. Next time, he’ll probably be talking about chaos theory, anti-materialism, and the pleasures of public Musing – and I think I’m destined to be in the front row. But I’m starting to wonder… will catching David Lynch be as much fun as chasing him?

Add comment January 24th, 2007


I saw Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto in sneak-preview format the other night with a crowd that included Mayanist scholars and university undergrads fresh out of finals week. We were a rowdy, engaged bunch; there was spontaneous cheering whenever one of the protagonists did something admirable – like escape from the bad guys, or give birth while simultaneously holding a toddler, balancing on a rock, and drowning. When it was all over, many applauded. Someone sitting behind me said “I’m glad I didn’t pay ten bucks for that.” One Mayanist left the theater with a wry smile, saying “yes, and that’s exactly how it happened,” while the other pointedly changed the subject to a discussion of the relative merits of Roman concrete and Central American lime.

There are things to be said about Apocalypto from a film-making perspective: it would be interesting to speculate about the strange, shallow look produced by the digital film for example, the thinking behind the jiggling hand-held camera, or the point of the droning soundtrack. But all of these impressions quickly fade under the visual onslaught of graphic violence that is Apocalypto’s ultimate raison d’être.

Apocalypto, much like The Passion, is an exercise in gratuitous violence that can only be described as pornographic. There is neither reason nor justification for most of the violence; instead the story contorts ridiculously – or blithely accepts gaping narrative holes – in order to produce scene after scene of carnage. An almost incomprehensible amount of time and creative energy has gone into imagining new ways to destroy the human body. The film opens with the deployment of an elaborate hunting device: a pig is flung into the air and then impaled by a kind of giant spiked fork that swings horizontally at high velocity. It’s disgusting, and you will not be surprised to learn that this overly-designed device makes another, even more disgusting appearance later in the film. After the pig is disengaged from the torture-fork, we’re treated to several minutes of entrail removal… heart, liver, etc., all of which is merely a set-up for a comedic scene in which one member of the hunting party slowly gnaws and slurps his way through the viscera of the pig’s testicles, only to vomit and be informed by his laughing comrades that no one actually eats pig testicles. And it goes on. Expect to see skin ripped from fascia by jaguar teeth in great and excessive detail, throats slit by unwieldy dull-looking knives in slow motion, blood pouring in sheets over well-muscled torsos, skulls grazed open to the brain revealing the pulsing jet of arterial bleeding, and human hearts cut out and held high – still beating – then tossed into braziers of hot coals while the unfortunate victim looks on, twitching.

The only reason, I think, that Mel Gibson isn’t known by his true occupation – a pornographer of violence – is that he has enough money to buy the trappings of cultural capital for his projects. The dialogue in Apocalypto is delivered entirely in Yucatec – a Mayan language – with English subtitles. While this might seem admirable, it was hardly necessary, as Gibson represents 16th century Mayans through bawdy humor reminiscent of the Lethal Weapon franchise, and storytelling clichés straight out of late 21st century America. The culmination of an unnecessarily long subplot about an impotent young husband who is heckled mercilessly by his family and neighbors reminded me of nothing so much as Danny Glover sitting on a booby-trapped toilet while his house was deconstructed. At one point during Apocalypto my partner looked at me with wide, amused eyes and said “it’s like a Mayan Jackass!”

In another gesture towards cultural awareness, the film was cast with indigenous individuals – many of whom were not actors prior to this film. Again, I have to wonder why Gibson bothered, as he uses indigenous actors to ventriloquize an array of disturbing and well-established stereotypes. For example, viewer sympathies are quickly elicited and manipulated by representing Mayans as coming in one of two un-nuanced varieties. There are benevolent, peaceful, child and family-loving, nature-dwelling, tradition-respecting Mayans. And then there are cruel, vindictive, amoral, sickly, human-sacrificing city-dwelling Mayans. Neither group merits explanation, development, or contextualization – we’re meant to accept that one group is inherently Good and the other inherently Evil. Good Mayans live in tidy, hygienic villages; their bodies are beautiful, healthy, and well-formed. Evil Mayans live in filth, and count midgets, the deformed, the handicapped, and the mentally ill amongst their numbers. Gibson’s storytelling strategy is as old and as dangerous as the 19th century pseudo-science of phrenology – which posited that individual character could be inferred by physical appearance. The casting of indigenous actors seems less politically progressive and more like an attempt to disguise age-old discriminatory yet comfortably familiar storytelling strategy.

In another example, random Mayan characters are endowed with unexplained psychic powers; they can see the future, they utter prophecy. And there is no attempt to explain such abilities. Here, again, Gibson takes advantage of established racist storytelling shortcuts. Hollywood films about Native Americans delight in imbuing indigenous characters with intuitive, psychic, otherworldly powers – but rarely feel the need to explain where the powers come from, why, to whom they are granted, and under what circumstances. The audience is meant to assume that if the characters are indigenous, then of course they can talk to the dead, see the future, channel spirits, manufacture tangible good or evil out of thin air, etc. So the question becomes, why did Gibson bother to cast indigenous actors, if he was also going to recycle the same racist stereotypes that movie-makers have used since the days of black and brown-face acting?

It is interesting to note that in Apocalypto only the Evil Mayans are overtly psychic and pagan, while the Good Mayans have more understated psychic powers, rely mostly on reason, and are conveniently represented without any overt religion. This makes the arrival of the Spanish colonizers rather troubling. The film suggests that the Evil Mayans deserved to be slaughtered (and the film’s protagonist gets started on the work ahead of time), and that the Good Mayans welcomed “a new beginning.” Are we meant to believe that the only Good Mayans are dead and Catholic Mayans?

Finally, there are the sets – elaborate temples, paintings, sculpture come to life in the form of masks, and exquisite bodily ornamentation. It is surely the urban costumes and sets that have provoked many reviewers to decide that in spite of its overwhelming violence the film is quite beautiful. Unfortunately, I can only see this as another ruse on Gibson’s part – another wave of the “authenticity” wand in an attempt to convince the audience that there’s something more to his method than an obsession with visual sadism. But beauty and pornography have never been mutually exclusive. And, given the wildly ahistorical use of 19th, 20th, and 21st century stereotypes to describe the 16th century Mayan world, the historical accuracy of the Evil Mayan city felt like so much ambiance manufactured in the service of fantasy.

Ultimately, the language, actors, and settings in Apocalypto are meant to convince us that the film is historically accurate. Gibson has amassed tremendous personal wealth and built a cinematic franchise out of disguising his personal fantasies in historical drag. In Apocalypto he goes a step further and projects them onto real, living, disenfranchised people. At a time when politically-conservative Christian Americans are steering a violent, bloody, catastrophic war that many have linked with US imperialism… it must be asked what kind of cultural work Apocalypto is doing. What lessons are imparted when the ancient Maya are represented as modern-day indigenous Jackasses, who are – in addition – in desperate need of being killed or converted? And will those lessons stay anchored in the past, or will they – like Gibson’s storytelling strategies – find their way back to the 21st century?

Add comment December 13th, 2006