Thursday, February 28, 2013

Holy Motors (review) & Oscar Snubs

So every year the Oscars conveniently ignores some of the best performances and/or movies of the year. This year everyone's talking about Ben Affleck getting snubbed for Directing, and—while I admittedly enjoyed watching the Academy cave into the fact that almost every other important award ceremony gave Argo Best Picture—my favorite Oscar snub this year was Holy Motors.

Holy Motors is the first feature film from director Leos Carax in 13 years, and like Joe Williams claims in his review for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch it plays like a bunch of "vignettes... based on cafe-napkin scraps that the director could neither discard nor expand into something coherent." In a certain sense, the scene with Monsieur Merde lying naked on Eva Mendez lap with a huge erection (sorry, Google wouldn't find me a picture of it, so instead here's one of M. Oscar having sex with an insanely flexible, unnamed woman, both of them in motion-capture suits) is a metaphor for the whole movie: it's like watching Leos Carax masturbate, and if that's your thing then it's incredibly enjoyable, but some will undoubtedly find the movie oddly perverse.

Unlike Joe Williams, however, I don't think the movie is incoherent. Holy Motors is fairly evidently a film about film. M. Oscar is basically an actor who plays eleven different roles during the course of the film and whose faith in the power of cinema seems to be waning. One of the first "appointments" he has is what appears to be a sci-fi action movie where he beats up several (imaginary) bad guys in a motion-capture suit and then participates in the act pictured above. In the middle of the movie M. Oscar confronts a man who appears to be his boss (he is credited as "L'homme à la tache de vin", "the man with the birthmark") who tells him beauty is in the eye of the beholder and asks, "What if there is no more beholder?" There are a lot of weird moments in the movie, especially at the end when the cars talk to each other, but if you're looking for a clean cut explanation this one fits pretty tightly. I don't really think this reading is the reason you want to watch this film, but it does help make it into more than just a series of vignettes.

Another way to look at the film (centering around the same question of "what if there's no more beholder") is as a struggle to make meaning for yourself in a world where the big Other* ("the beholder") doesn't exist. If the big Other doesn't exist (as Lacan argues it doesn't) then there's no external guarantee that our actions have any meaning. Someone who doesn't believe in the big Other (despite its nonexistence, most subjects believe in the big Other at least unconsciously) in psychoanalytic terms is the definition of a psychotic.** In this reading the movie becomes an enjoyably alienating experience of psychosis, and (apart from one other thing which I'll discuss next) was the reason I loved this movie.

Finally, Holy Motors is just beautiful. In the first few minutes we watch a man known only as le dormeur (played by Leos Carax himself) discover a secret door in his wall that leads into a movie theater (more admittedly obvious but still awesome metatheater). The scene with M. Merde (more pictures because of reasons) is absolutely wonderful. If you want to see something original and perhaps thought provoking you should definitely give Holy Motors a chance.

Oh, and did I mention this movie came out in 2012? And the Oscars ignored it? Despite the fact that the main character's name is Oscar? In the past there have been many Oscar snubs that are very hard to understand (Martin Sheen not getting nominated for Apocalypse Now, John Cazale not getting nominated for The Godfather: Part II, Ray Liota not getting nominated for Goodfellas) and this doesn't really rank among those. It is, however, rather disappointing that it wasn't at least nominated for Foreign Film.

TL;DR: Holy Motors is a very strange and at times slow film that may not grab every audience, but it certainly grabbed me for its metatheatrical elements, its alienating depiction of psychosis, and its beauty in general. Four beers because it's not for everyone, but if it is for you then it might be the best time you've had in a while. Four Zizeks because of its accurate depiction of psychosis which is awesome but doesn't really go anywhere.





*For more analysis of the big Other, check out my review of The Cabin in the Woods.

**Zizek, Slavoj, For They Know Not What They Do, Verso, New York, 2008, p. 151

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Oscar Predictions

So here it is, my predictions for the 2013 Academy Awards. Since I had limited time to do this I'm only going to talk about the 9 movies nominated for Best Picture. They're listed here in order of my favorite (not what I think will actually win) at the top to least favorite at the bottom with why I want them to win and what awards I think they might actually win. At the very end I'll put a summary of what I think will actually win for each category I have an opinion about. So, without further ado, here you are.

Number One: Silver Linings Playbook
Directed by David O. Russell
My original review (original score 5&4)

That's right folks. My favorite to win Best Picture is a romantic comedy. There was just so much to like about this movie and so little to dislike (if you read my review of it my biggest gripe is that it had a happy ending which, come to think of it, might be justified). Most romantic comedies are fairly unwatchable for me because of what I call in my review of the film 27 Dresses Syndrome, and I couldn't be more thankful that Silver Linings reversed that trend. Beyond that the acting was phenomenal and all the characters were so unique and, well, actual characters instead of tired stereotypes. Sure the plot progression is nothing new. It pretty much runs exactly like you'd expect a rom-com to. But the details were so impressive I have to give my top spot to this gem of a film. To future romantic comedies: please watch this first. You're doing something wrong and Silver Linings Playbook has the answer.

Potential Awards
This is a real problem for me because there's so much oscar-bait this year that I don't know if Silver Linings will actually win anything despite being the first movie to be nominated in all four acting categories since 1981. Bradley Cooper has to compete with Daniel Day-Lewis and Hugh Jackman. Jennifer Lawrence has to compete with Jessica Chastain and Quvenzhane Wallis. Robert De Niro has to compete with Christoph Waltz, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Tommy Lee Jones. Jacki Weaver has to compete with Sally Field and Anne Hathaway. Directing and Writing are possibilities but the competition there is fierce too. The only thing left is Editing which should probably go to Life of Pi or Argo. So there you go, in order to illustrate my feeling of hopelessness for Silver Linings to actually win any awards I've spoiled my predictions for most of the major categories. I hope you're happy.

Number Two: Les Miserables
Directed by Tom Hooper
My original review (original score 5&5)

This is where these predictions fully reveal my subjective leanings. I absolutely loved Les Miserables the book, so any plot- or tension-related gaps I sort of filled in on my own. But these are my favorites after all and not yours, so there. The acting was great (Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway especially) and from what I could tell so was the singing (I'm no music critic). Despite an apparent love for the crooked angle shot the camera work was phenomenal especially considering the fact that the songs were recorded live. The depiction of revolutionary France (my favorite being the walls of junk) was great even if it wasn't historically accurate. The biggest filmic problems were simply due to trying to make a movie out of a 1000+ page long book. We're not quite sure why Marius is so infatuated with Cosette (to be honest this is a bit of a problem in the book anyway). Perhaps the best reason to see the movie, however, is also a reason to read the book: its depiction of how forgiveness is more traumatic than revenge.

Potential Awards
Hugh Jackman has a chance at winning best actor I guess, but honestly I see Daniel Day-Lewis winning that award. Anne Hathaway definitely has a chance for Supporting Actress (she touched so many hearts that she might have even touched those of the Academy). Costume Design also seems a realistic possibility with the biggest competition being Lincoln. Makeup and Hairstyling should probably go to The Hobbit. Les Miserables better win Music - Original Song or I don't know what's wrong with the world ("Skyfall" was pretty great too though). That leaves Production Design and Sound Mixing, both of which I honestly don't know enough about to guess.

Number Three: Beasts of the Southern Wild
Directed by Benh Zeitlin
My original review (original score 5&4)
And Number Four: Django Unchained
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
My original review (original score 5&4)

This was a really hard decision for me between Beasts of the Southern Wild and Django Unchained. They're both beautiful, they're both fairly original (Beasts is an adapted screenplay but that makes it nonetheless visionary in its cinematography), in short they're both great movies. There were a couple of things it came down to for me. First of all, Beasts is director Benh Zeitlin's feature debut, and with that in mind it's stunning how well he did. Django, on the other hand, is overshadowed by Quentin Tarantino's other amazing pictures. Perhaps more to the point, Django seems slightly confused about whose story it wants to tell. Christoph Waltz is a much more enjoyable character than Jamie Foxx. That said, Tarantino's style is very much to my liking and I will probably watch Django again before I see Beasts for the second time (even if only because I just watched Beasts today).

Potential Awards
Realistic awards include Actress in a Leading Role for Quvenzhane Wallis, Actor in a Supporting Role for Christoph Waltz, and Writing for both movies. I also wouldn't be sad to see Django win Cinematography, but it has some heavy hitters to compete with. Directing would be a wonderful achievement for newcomer Benh Zeitlin, but again lots of heavy hitters.

Number Five: Argo
Directed by Ben Affleck
My original review (original score 5&2)

Plagued with the problem of making the victims into villains, Argo was nevertheless an incredibly enjoyable picture. The metatheater, 70s style, and phenomenal crosscutting really pulled me in. If it were up to me I wouldn't give Argo Best Picture but I would definitely give it Cinematography or Editing.

Potential Awards
I think Argo has a solid chance to win either Editing or Writing (it wasn't nominated for Cinematography), but a slim chance everywhere else (Alan Arkin for Supporting Actor? Really?).

Number Six: Life of Pi
Directed by Ang Lee
My original review (original score 4&3)

An absolutely beautiful film. My biggest problem with it was that it seemed to be trying to pull too much from the book (the first 30 minutes were lackluster and seemingly pointless). For whatever reason, its thematic development was significantly lacking in certain areas. My recommendation: fast-forward through the first act.

Potential Awards
Life of Pi has almost a 100% chance of walking away from the Oscars with something since it was nominated in 11 categories. The most prestigious awards it has a chance of winning are Cinematography, Writing, and maybe Editing. (I don't see it winning Directing against Steven Spielberg and Michael Haneke.) Visual Effects seems an obvious choice but I would really love it if Prometheus took that category since it was one of my favorite movies of the year.

Number Seven: Lincoln
Directed by Steven Spielberg
My original review (original score 5&1)

An incredibly well acted and well put together movie. My dislike for Lincoln comes primarily from my dislike of Steven Spielberg and secondarily from the underlying racism in his depiction of time period. This is basically a remake of Schindler's List replacing Jews with slaves. People accuse Beasts of the Southern Wild of being a "movie to be proud of"; how did more critics miss the fact that Lincoln is doing that to a much more painful degree?

Potential Awards
Pretty much everything. I mean, this movie was nominated in almost every category it could have been nominated for (i.e. it's not an animated short so it obviously wasn't nominated there). Daniel Day-Lewis is I think the strongest contender for Best Actor. Yeah.

Number Eight: Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
My original review (original score 4&2)

For me, Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln are almost the same movie. They're both expertly acted and generally well made but with glaring ideological issues. In this case the ideological issue at hand was an unquestioned love for and fascination with everything military (also the case with Bigelow's Hurt Locker).

Potential Awards
Jessica Chastain is definitely in the running for Leading Actress (and honestly she's competing with a 10 year old kid). Not sure about the other categories.

Number Nine: Amour
Directed by Michael Haneke
My original review (original score 3&3)

An interesting nomination for Best Picture not because it's a bad movie but because it's just plain hard to watch. Honestly feels like a shoe-in since most Hollywood pictures are mindless popcorn flicks and the Academy wants to look like they're intelligent and sophisticated. Not Haneke's best and definitely not best of the year but a heart-wrenching and (I hate using this word in this way but here goes:) honest voyage through the pains of love.

Potential Awards
Foreign Language Film. I mean, it's the only foreign language film nominated for Best Picture. If Amour doesn't win this category then something is wrong. I mean, obviously something is wrong with the Oscars, but that would just be odd. The same people vote for the nominations that vote for who actually wins right?

Actual Predictions
Best Picture: (1) Lincoln, (2) Zero Dark Thirty, (3) Les Miserables
Leading Actor: (1) Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln), (2) Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables)
Leading Actress: (1) Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), (2) Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild)
Supporting Actor: (1) Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained), (2) Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln)
Supporting Actress: (1) Sally Field (Lincoln), (2) Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables)
Animated Feature Film:* (1) ParaNorman, (2) Wreck-It Ralph
Cinematography: (1) Life of Pi, (2) Django Unchained
Costume Design: (1) Lincoln, (2) Les Miserables
Directing: (1) Steven Spielberg (Lincoln), (2) Michael Haneke (Amour)
Film Editing: (1) Life of Pi, (2) Argo
Foreign Language Film: Amour
Makeup and Hairstyling: The Hobbit
Music - Original Score: (1) Skyfall, (2) Argo
Music - Original Song: (1) "Suddenly" (Les Miserables), (2) "Skyfall" (Skyfall)
Sound Editing: (1) Argo, (2) Django Unchained
Sound Mixing: (1) Argo, (2) Skyfall
Visual Effects: (1) Life of Pi, (2) Prometheus
Writing - Adapted Screenplay: (1) Life of Pi, (2) Beasts of the Southern Wild
Writing - Original Screenplay: (1) Moonrise Kingdom, (2) Django Unchained


*Unfortunately I didn't watch any of the animated features this year, so these predictions are based on what my coworker told me he thought would win (he actually watched them all and is a credible source when it comes to animated films). I also didn't watch the documentary features, documentary shorts, live action shorts, or animated shorts (I did actually watch Paperman which I thought was phenomenal), and I have no idea what is involved in production design so those categories are excluded from my predictions

Beasts of the Southern Wild (review) & AT: Criticism

So I'm just going to be totally upfront: I loved Beasts of the Southern Wild, but I don't have a whole lot to say about it (especially after eliminating things that have already been said). I went into it expecting a sort of post-Katrina sob story and that's not at all what this was (unless you're watching it wrong—I'll get to this later). Quvenzhane Wallis's performance was absolutely incredible as was a large portion of the writing for her voice overs. The cinematography and set design for this other worldly Bathtub was gorgeous and creative. These are all things you've already heard about the movie.

So today instead of listening to me talk silly theory for ~750 words we're going to look at critics who didn't like the movie and find out why they're wrong. I'm going to look specifically at two reviews, one by Thomas Hackett for New Republic magazine and one by bell hooks for NewBlackMan (in Exile).

Reading some of this criticism of Beasts can be absolutely infuriating. It made me feel at first that the critics and I watched completely different movies and afterward that perhaps I hadn't even watched the movie myself. However after thinking it though (and discussing with a trusted colleague) I've decided that while I disagree that Beasts is objectively problematic in these ways (being racist, for example), there are definitely subjective positions an audience could occupy that would reveal the ground on which these critiques stand. That's probably too vague to make sense at the moment so let's jump right into these critics' arguments.

Hackett makes three major claims in his article: Beasts "deploys a casual racism, vilifies public health workers, and romanticizes poverty." (He then tackles these in reverse order, so for the sake of continuity I'll do the same.)

His argument that the film "romanticizes poverty" basically hinges on the fact that "the headstrong and scrappy Hushpuppy is just about the most adorable thing to come along since that kid in Webster". While Hushpuppy is admittedly adorable, this claim seems to ignore the rest of the movie. The world of the Bathtub is far from romantic, at least in the sense Hackett is getting at. Bathtub is completely flooded at one point and Hushpuppy and her father Wink get around in the flatbed of a pickup truck supported by floating barrels and propelled by an electric motor. Hushpuppy's father dies and she goes to his funeral. These things are all "sentimental" in the sense that the characters are compelling so we feel sentiment for their plight, but definitely not in the sense of Webster and our "cherished" tradition of "pickaninnies". The problem with Beasts is apparently that "we are given no reason to believe that she won’t end up either an unemployed drunk like her father and his friends or a wistful prostitute like the woman we assume is her absent mother." Setting aside the fact that this claim seems to contradict his argument (poverty is romantic despite the fact that Hushpuppy's father is an unemployed drunk and her mother is an absent prostitute) I feel like the proper response to this is, "So what?" Part of what makes Beasts so enjoyable is that the characters are all human, and maybe that's what worries critics like Hackett. Poor people being human renders the objectifying ideological position of charity problematic and even unsustainable.

But maybe I'm reading into this too much so let's move on. If you've been keeping up with my blog you know that I don't particularly care whether a film adheres closely the its source material. That said, maybe the reasons Beasts "casts social workers and public health officials... as villains" is because that's kind of how it happened. It's not necessarily that the relief workers themselves were bad people, but that the place the residents of Bathtub were brought wasn't exactly an improvement. Or maybe that being forcefully removed from your home is always unpleasant even if your home wasn't the best place to begin with. In any case Hackett's conclusion is ridiculous: "This is the film’s ugly operating assumption: if you are already poor (being black doesn’t hurt either), you are uniquely suited to thrive in squalor." How does he even get to this conclusion? I'm not leaving out any link between relief workers as villains and poor people being built to live in poverty and therefore meant to be left there. I don't even know what to say.

My favorite claim by Hackett is the final one of "casual racism" because it's almost completely unsupported. He says racism there in the thesis statement, again in the concluding paragraph, and even puts it in the title of the article. Other than these instances, however, the word only occurs one other time in the article (coincidentally during his "romanticizes poverty" argument): "Basically, it’s a form of moral and intellectual pornography, an easy way of getting off that, in the case of Beasts, begins and ends in patronizing attitudes of racial superiority." No warrants, no explanation. That's it. Why is Beasts racist? Because a white director made a movie about black people? Because we feel bad for the little black girl when she loses her father? Perhaps, as my trusted colleague summarized, the argument goes "this is a cool neat movie about black people with innovative & gorgeous cinematography therefore it's racist."

The criticism of bell hooks is much more nuanced than this, and begins to hint at the claim I made at the beginning of this article. Her argument hinges in part on the claim that that "all the vibrancy in this film is generated by a crude pornography of violence". However awkward it may sound, I don't think this is actually a problem. The nature of film (as well as books, theater, & entertainment in general) is to grab our attention and tickle our senses. Film functions because it tantalizes us, it toys with our feelings and for this reason all film is a pornography of something (an argument made by Susan Sontag and a logical conclusion of Freud's analysis of libido).

The second hinge on which bell hooks's argument swings seems to be an assumption of the audience's subjective position while watching (specifically one of patronizing racism). For example, she jumps directly from "[Hushpuppy] is also given a lesson in survival, told that she has only her self to count on, that no else will be there for her, that she must be ‘strong.’" to "This is certainly the message black females have received in the culture of imperialist capitalist white supremacist patriarchy from slavery on into the present day." There's literally nothing connecting those two sentences. Can a movie about black people made by a white person not have a message of inner strength? Is that really how this works?

I can see where she's coming from though. It's not hard to imagine Beasts as a sort of "film to be proud of", as evidence that we're not as patronizingly racist as we thought. This is what I meant at the beginning by a subjective position that justifies these critics arguments. Certainly some filmgoers may have occupied these subjective positions. There are undoubtedly ways to watch Beasts that are problematic, I just don't think that this is the movie's fault, that it's the movie that's racist and not the audience. I felt like whereas far too many independent films/directorial debuts fall into the trap of being preachy and bloated with the director's intended message, Beasts on the other hand managed to be beautiful and indeterminate in a really wonderful way.


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Amour (review)

This movie was absolutely brutal.

Talking about the movie and analyzing what's going on, especially after finishing it only minutes ago, seems slightly perverse. It's not that Amour is the best movie of all time—or even Haneke's best—but simply that it's so purely melancholic that my first inclination after watching it was to lie down and go to sleep. I can't imagine what sort of mood I would have to be in to want to watch this movie again. But I've promised myself to do this, and my passion is equal to the task.

A movie like this poses obvious problems to my rating system. My "beers" category, as I originally conceived it, was meant to measure how enjoyable a movie would be to watch with a group of friends while, perhaps, drinking some beer. Recently however it seems to be morphing basically into an answer to the question, "How much would a film major like this movie?" In the former case, Amour would be stuck at one beer, and in the latter, somewhere around four. There are no uniquely brilliant shots or transitions or anything (one of the opening shots, which stares out at an auditorium mimicking the cinematic environment, was enjoyable but executed more effectively in Holy Motors), but Haneke's style is definitely here in full force (painfully long takes and close ups forcing the audience to look at what it doesn't want to see).

But there's something about Amour that escapes both of these categories. Maybe I'm just tired after watching so many generic rehashes of predictable character arcs and storylines, but it was almost refreshing to see something so unafraid to alienate its audience. In any case, if you also find yourself bored of the Hollywood machine then Amour might provide exactly the kick in the pants you need to reignite your faith in film. Then again, getting kicked in the pants isn't exactly fun. Needless to say, if you don't find yourself turned off by remakes, reboots, and happy endings then stay away from this movie.

Amour is much easier to fit into my second category. The topic of conversation from a Zizekian standpoint seems to be fantasy and how it structures love. As Lacan had it, "There is no sexual relationship" ("Il n'y a pas de rapport sexuel"). This is the case for several reasons (at least four by my count), one of which Amour has at its heart: there is no (real) sexual relationship because sexual relationships are precisely imaginary, precisely fantasmatic.

In this light it looks like Amour provides us with the real(ity) of all sexual relationships. There is no fantasy, and for that reason there is no sex (and you thought it was just because they're old!). This theory seems to fit most of the film: we're presented with two people whose bodily fragility is almost oppressive with its suffocating over-presence. We appear to be in the realm of the Lacanian real.

As Anne's body degenerates after having two strokes, however, we watch as Georges's fantasy emerges only to be brought to the brink of destruction. In one of my favorite scenes, the camera opens on Anne playing piano (she used to be a piano teacher and is rather proficient). We pan over to Georges, sitting and listening to her music, to see him press a button on the CD player and stop the music. It was in his imagination: Anne is still stuck in bed unable to perform the simplest of tasks. This provides Georges's fantasy frame for Anne. As the movie progresses we see him having an increasingly hard time coping with Anne's vegetative state until, unable to take it anymore, he takes Anne's life.

This sent me reeling, but not for the obvious reason (that he just killed his wife). For a movie as adamantly anti-fantasy as Amour was until this point I was astonished that, in the end, Georges killed Anne to save his fantasy of her. Shortly afterward we see Georges get out of bed to find Anne in the kitchen washing dishes (how's that for a male fantasy of women?). She tells him to put on his shoes and jacket and they walk out of the house together. The message the movie is trying to send is clear—Georges just killed himself—but the way it's sent is far more important. The fact that he happily leaves the house with Anne at his side tells us that he killed himself not because he was overwhelmed with regret, but because he now belongs to the order of the imaginary, to the realm of fantasy.

This is of course not what we're supposed to do with fantasy. For Lacan, fantasy exists only in order to be traversed, to be left behind,* so for me this was a seriously disappointing turn of events. I appreciate that Amour is still an excellent movie about struggling with the way fantasy structures love, and far be it from me to tell Michel Haneke to make a movie with a happy ending, but from a Zizekian standpoint the ending has to be different.




*In my review of Les Miserables I argue that fantasy does have a place in the realm of politics.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Argo (review)

What is Argo (what gives Argo its name)? If you didn't figure it out from the trailers (or managed not to see one, or aren't a history buff) Argo is a fake movie staged by the CIA in order to get six Americans out of revolutionary Iran under the pretense of their being Canadian filmmakers only in the country to do location scouting. That's right. A fake movie.

The setup is ripe for some metatheatrical commentary which it pulls off with true style. The opening scene is one of the most impressive I've seen come out of the Hollywood machine in years: cartoon storyboards come to life depicting (accurately, I might add) a brief history of Iran. Another brilliant moment comes when the fake movie producers host a real reading of the fake script with real actors in wonderfully campy costumes crosscut over depictions of the Iranian revolution which caused the problems they're dealing with. My personal favorite involves the two producers being held up from saving the American crew from the Iranian airport security by a director shooting an inane action sequence.

Add to this some incredible classic crosscutting (in the style of The Birth of A Nation) to build and maintain tension. The final escape scene perfectly crosscuts between the Americans escaping and the Iranian police catching up with them.

The problem is that the Birth of A Nation parallels don't end there. While Argo isn't nearly as brutally and openly racist as Birth was, it turns the actual historical victims, the Iranians, into the oppressors of the poor, helpless Americans. I'm no history major, so I'm going to turn it over to Kevin B. Lee of Slate Magazine:

Instead of keeping its eye on the big picture of revolutionary Iran, the film settles into a retrograde “white Americans in peril” storyline. It recasts those oppressed Iranians as a raging, zombie-like horde, the same dark-faced demons from countless other movies—still a surefire dramatic device for instilling fear in an American audience. After the opening makes a big fuss about how Iranians were victimized for decades, the film marginalizes them from their own story, shunting them into the role of villains. Yet this irony is overshadowed by a larger one: The heroes of the film, the CIA, helped create this mess in the first place. And their triumph is executed through one more ruse at the expense of the ever-dupable Iranians to cap off three decades of deception and manipulation.*


The issue isn't that the film is pro-American. The issue is that it's pro-American at the expense of the truth in recasting the villains as the victims. Is it too much to ask for another Apocalypse Now? Okay, that probably is too much to ask (after all, where would we get a 37 year old Harrison Ford?), but can we at least make sure anyone who wants to make a war movie has seen it? Is it wrong for me to be frustrated when we have two Best Picture nominees about US foreign policy with no perspective from the foreign side of the equation?

To be fair, Argo presents a much more balanced historical portrait than Best Picture competitor Zero Dark Thirty did. In Zero Dark Thirty we get exactly one shot from the perspective of the Pakistanis: a single protest with a single poster saying, "Stop American Terrorism". Argo on the other hand gives us multiple depictions of the Iranian protesters and revolutionaries including televised human rights-based protests. The problem is that after this the Iranians remain the antagonists out to get the poor Americans.

Tony Mendez's personal life also seems somewhat pointlessly tacked on. We learn that he's somewhat estranged from his wife (they're "taking time off") and that he has a 10 year old son. His nightly chat with his son provides the inspiration for the fake Argo movie (they watch Planet of the Apes) which could feasibly have come from anywhere, and his own love of classic sci-fi might have been more appropriate. His relationship with his family also helps to convince one of the six escapees that he means business when just about anything else could have worked. Affleck's reunion with his wife at the end is also unconvincing and pointless (the return of the six escapees is resolution enough). Fortunately this takes up very little of the movie.

Some other interesting missteps include the Hispanic protagonist Tony Mendez being played by Ben Affleck and a curious lack of any independent women (there are three wives, a housekeeper and some hostages). All that said, Argo was incredibly enjoyable and well put together despite its ideological problems.




*Full article here.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Life of Pi (review) & Adaptation

WARNING: spoilers ahead.

Life of Pi really throws a wrench in this whole quantitative analysis thing. On the one hand, parts of it are unnecessary, boring, and/or preachy. On the other, some of the visual effects, as well as the Shyamalan-style twist at the end, greatly exceeded my expectations and made the movie worth watching. So good news or bad news first?

The bad news: the first half hour almost made me turn the movie off. Of course I couldn't actually turn it off (or better yet fast-forward) since I needed to write this review, but some of you less indentured moviegoers may find yourself doing just that. The movie opens with (supposed) character development, which would be fine if it weren't for the undeveloped religious overtones. We meet Piscine (he's named after a pool) who goes by Pi since his name sounds like Pissing, and the introduction is enjoyable enough until Pi starts looking for meaning. We're treated to a crash course in Hinduism and Catholicism and Islam and I don't necessarily have a problem with religious movies but this setup doesn't go anywhere after the thirty minute mark. The only thing remotely similar comes in the form of a rather beautiful but pointless CGI sequence with no explanation or attempt at meaning. Then Pi reads some Dostoevsky and some Camus, then he finds love and has to leave her, and this all happens in less than 7 minutes.

The only explanation I can think of is that the movie is trying to pull more from the book than it can handle. Here we come face to face once again with one of my many filmic nemeses: adaptation. A common problem with adaptations of literature is that the different media can't provide the same amount of depth. This is inevitable. Books are longer than movies. So it should be obvious that movies shouldn't be penalized for simply being less deep than their literary counterparts. Problems arise when (as in this case) the movie presents a theme from the book and doesn't take it anywhere. The problem isn't that the movie doesn't develop Pi's religiousness as much as the book does, the problem is that it doesn't develop it at all. We learn that Pi practices three religions and then we're sent on our merry way to make of it what we will. More filmmakers (that's right, I liked Dune) need to be unafraid to make the admittedly dangerous move of cutting things entirely from the source material instead of trying to slim everything down to fit into two hours.

Okay, calm down, talk about the good news. First, the visual effects. Apparently the hummingbird in the credits sequence is supposed to be one of the amazing aesthetic feats the movie achieves, and maybe it took a lot of CPU to animate or something, but it is vastly outshone by some surreal sequences later on. Definitely brought my attention back after fading in the first act. A slight problem with so much of the movie being computer generated is that it becomes not only hard to care about the tiger with which Pi spends much of the movie, but also hard to invest yourself in the narrative generally. That said, the pros outweighed the cons for me here since I can suspend my disbelief in the most unbelievable of situations.

Second: as the movie progressed I found myself wondering, "Is there really a tiger on the boat with Pi, or is it supposed to be some sort of metaphor, like taming your inner tiger?" Of course there's no tiger silly, but that's not the only twist we get. When Pi first escapes the sinking ship he is joined by a zebra, a hyena, and an orangutan as well as the tiger (Pi's family owned a zoo), but at the end we learn these are actually members of the ship and Pi visualized them as animals (most likely to deal with the trauma of the cannibalism thing*). Easy to understand why M. Night was one of the potential directors for the film. Admittedly I was sucked in by this twist, but I wish it had been executed differently. We learn this through Pi talking to the camera. Some flashes of the survivors as humans on the boat would not only have helped us understand the twist (instead we literally get the dude Pi is telling his story to saying "so the hyena was this and the tiger was that etc."), but also add an element of excitement and surprise (kind of like this scene - sorry if there's an ad).

In short, the first act needs to be cut for more thematic development, but the movie is largely enjoyable and the idea of taming your tiger should be fun for theory-minded audiences.




*This was an interesting displacement for me since for the entirety of the movie up to this point it was instead animals that had been heavily anthropomorphized. I originally thought this was to fit some sort of vegetarian agenda, but after seeing the twist I prefer to see it as foreshadowing.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook (review)

This was the most enjoyable romantic comedy I've seen in a very long time. Let's find out why.

Many many romantic comedies are plagued by what I like to refer to as 27 Dresses Syndrome. This is when we are presented with a flawed female protagonist (not a problem in itself) who often has problems in the workplace (slightly more problematic), but who generally has no access to enjoyment (there's the problem). She then meets a man who is either significantly less flawed or not flawed at all. She can't have him right away, of course. He has to be: A. already in a relationship, B. uninterested, or C. generally unavailable. The obstacle is eventually overcome and the female protagonist's flaw is cured and her access to enjoyment is regained (because of the love stuff).

This should be an obviously problematic formula for feminist reasons (i.e. the movie is saying women need men to succeed, to enjoy, to survive at all), but, as always, I prefer the unintuitive Lacanian explanation.

What is happening in 27 Dresses Syndrome is not actually two people meeting and falling in love. The flawed protagonist is the only one of the pair who actually constitutes a person. As subjects within the Symbolic order (adult humans), our subjectivity is constitutively split and (except in a state of fantasy) we feel our lack, feel that something is missing. That something missing is objet petit a, or the object-cause of our desire (not something we can actually get, of course, but a fantasy object). In 27 Dresses Syndrome, the protagonist is lacking (because she can't enjoy her job or her life as the case may be) and the object-cause of her desire, that thing which she thinks will make her complete, is the man. In this scenario, the man is not a person, but a fantasy object (Lacan's matheme for this scenario is $<>a, split subject encountering the fantasy object). Thus what is presented as reality in the movie is not something that can ever actually happen.

Films like this are therefore by nature masturbatory (audiences who identify with the protagonist can enjoy them as long as they ignore that they're enjoying an object instead of a person). Perhaps more problematic is that they also offer an incredibly appealing and yet constitutively impossible fantasy scenario for impressionable audiences to identify with/look forward to.

But enough of negativity. Excelsior! (It's a line from the movie.) Let's turn this negative energy into something positive. One of the main reasons I liked Silver Linings Playbook (aside from the excellent acting from everyone involved—probably the best Jennifer Lawrence I've seen, but I missed out on Winter's Bone) is that it does not participate in this trend.

First of all, the film begins with Pat (Bradley Cooper), turning the female fantasy scenario initially into a male one. As any good protagonist, he definitely lacks a whole subjectivity: he struggles with "undiagnosed bipolar" disorder. Whether the film accurately represents bipolar disorder doesn't particularly interest me, so suffice it to say that Pat is lacking when the film begins. So far we have basically the same setup as 27 Dresses except from the male point of view (not a problem—my issue with the trend is where it goes, not where it starts).

The brilliance of Silver Linings with regard to this trend comes in the character of Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). By the end of the film she occupies the position which in 27 Dresses Syndrome is problematic for being unrealistic/inhuman. Tiffany, on the other hand, is just as messed up as Pat. While she doesn't have any scenes with a psychiatrist to give her problems a tidy definition, it's pretty clear that she's suffering from some sort of depression as a result of the death of her husband. In any case, she's constituted as lacking just as much as Pat is.

What plays out after their initial meeting is a give and take between the two trying to deal with each other's issues instead of the tired bait and chase of 27 Dresses Syndrome. The point is not that you have to wait for the perfect man to come along to fix your broken life, but instead that everyone has issues (albeit perhaps less severe than Pat and Tiffany's) and the path to happiness isn't patience (well, isn't only patience), but temperance and fortitude. The point is not that your subjectivity is split and you just need the right person to fix it, but that everyone is lacking and love involves taking the other's lack in exchange for your own even though you don't want theirs and they don't want yours.


Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Cabin in the Woods & The Big Other


First things first: The Cabin in the Woods (2011) has an excellent twist (sort of—they tell you it's coming but it's nonetheless awesome) in its final moments which I think is actually worth not ruining. Unfortunately it is one of the focuses of this here essay-thing. So before you continue on, just take that into consideration. I am about to ruin the movie (probably in more ways than one). Also, I made this awesome article where I talk about all the different monsters in the film, so definitely check that out.

The Biggest of Big Others

I want to talk about The Cabin in the Woods's relation to/depiction of the Big Other (which I think it has quite a unique take on), but first I'll isolate the bits of the movie I want to analyze.

There are four groups of people in the movie to isolate: first, what I want to call the "Subjects" (maybe the "Objects" would be more appropriate but there you go), or the people who go to the cabin and are attacked by monsters; second, the "Horror Crew", the monsters themselves; third, the "Sci-Fi Crew", the people organizing the whole thing (including the amazing Richard Jenkins); and finally, the "Biggest Other", the angry god figure who only appears for about 2 seconds at the end of the film.

Basically what's going on in the movie is there's a cabin (in the woods) which is bugged and controlled by the Sci-Fi Crew. When the Subjects enter the cabin and go into the basement they pick (unknowingly) which Horror Crew to be haunted/terrorized/killed by. The result is recorded and distributed as a sort of horror-themed reality TV show (as far as I'm aware; this is never really clarified in the film—the closest we get is Richard Jenkins saying "Gotta keep the customer satisfied."). The actual purpose of killing the Subjects, however, is to appease the Biggest Other (blood for the Blood God style), and these sacrificial Subjects each fall into a specific archetype (athlete, whore, scholar, fool, and virgin).

So despite my simplification there's a lot going on here, and most of what I want to look at has to do with the Big Other, so to start here's a bit of a crash course in what (Zizek thinks) Lacan means by the Big Other. In How to Read Lacan (2006), Zizek spends about three pages defining the Big Other (with his typical tangents) and here I've attempted to pull out the two best parts. First:

The symbolic order, society's unwritten constitution, is the second nature of every speaking being: it is here, directing and controlling my acts; it is the sea I swim in, yes it remains ultimately impenetrable - I can never put it in front of me and grasp it. It is as if we, subjects of language, talk and interact like puppets, our speech and gestures dictated by some nameless all-pervasive agency. (8)

This initial definition (which Zizek subsequently clarifies/expands) actually seems to fit the Sci-Fi Crew. They created the "unwritten constitution" for the Subjects, the rules of the cabin in the woods; through direct (invisible walls/demolition) and indirect (drugs) means, they "control their acts"; through surveillance they are an "all-pervasive agency". And yet for the Subjects, "it remains ultimately impenetrable", they can never "put it in front of them" (until the end of the film - I'm getting there).

Interestingly, this definition also seems to fit the Biggest Other, but in a slightly different way: it created the "unwritten constitution" for the Sci-Fi Crew; through unclear means it surveys and "controls" the Sci-Fi Crew. What's going on here? Let's go back to Zizek:

In spite of all its grounding power, the Big Other is fragile, insubstantial, properly virtual, in the sense that its status is that of a subjective presupposition. It exists only in so far as subjects act as if it exists. Its status is similar to that of an ideological cause like Communism or Nation: it is the substance of the individuals who recognize themselves in it, the point of reference that provides the ultimate horizon of meaning, something for which these individuals are ready to give their lives, yet the only thing that really exists is these individuals and their activity, so this substance is actual only in so far as individuals believe in it and act accordingly. (10)

Here we can see that the Big Other overseeing the Subjects (the Sci-Fi Crew) is definitively displaced onto the Big Other of the Sci-Fi Crew (the Biggest Other). The Biggest Other, as opposed to the Sci-Fi Crew (who we start the film with), is "properly virtual", has the status of a "subjective presupposition" (presupposed by the Sci-Fi Crew, who are not presupposed by the Subjects until too late). The Biggest Other is the "ideological cause" for which the Sci-Fi Crew is "ready to give their lives". While the Subjects' actions are controlled by the Sci-Fi Crew, they are not ideologically invested in the Sci-Fi Crew; they would not sacrifice their lives for them; they are in fact fighting against them. So even though they don't know it (perhaps because they don't know it) the Biggest Other is the Subjects' Big Other.

Another interesting connection to the Big Other is Marty, the outsider of the party. He's perpetually stoned (unlike the rest of the party or anyone else in the movie) and comes up with strange ideas about "puppeteers". While this may seem at first like true belief in the Big Other, what is actually happening is that Marty is reducing the Big Other to a regular small other, to one of us. His paranoia allows him to see through the ruse created by the Sci-Fi Crew. In short, Marty does not believe in the Big Other. Zizek explains the implications of this in For They Know Not What They Do (1991)

The Lacanian "big Other": the field of a symbolic pact which is "always-already" here, which we "always-already" accept and recognize. The one who does not recognize it, the one whose attitude is that of disbelief in the big Other, has a precise name in psychoanalysis: a psychotic. A psychotic is "mad" precisely in so far as he holds to attitudes and beliefs excluded from the existing "life-form"... (151)*

At the end of the movie, when Sigourney Weaver is explaining the situation with the Biggest Other, Marty exemplifies this position of holding "beliefs excluded from the existing 'life-form'": when confronted with the possibility of the end of the world, he says, "If you gotta kill all my friends to survive, maybe it's time for a change." If nothing else, the one belief that cannot be justified within the existing "life-form" (Symbolic order) is that the existing "life-form" ought to be destroyed. This makes Marty not only a "burnout" (in his words), but more importantly, a psychotic.

This is problematic because Big Others don't take too kindly to people not believing in them. After Marty speaks this (and this for me is one of the many reason to watch this film if you haven't), the Biggest Other reaches up from the ground and, presumably, destroys the world. This is one of a very few filmic representations of Walter Benjamin's "divine violence" (violence which interrupts the progress of history).** Zizek explains in his excellent book Violence (2008):

The ultimate distinction between divine violence and the impotent/violent passages à l'acte of us, humans, is that, far from expressing divine omnipotence, divine violence is a sign of God's (the big Other's) own impotence. All that changes between divine violence and blind passages à l'acte is the site of impotence.

When Marty says that "it's time for a change" he (inadvertently) reveals the impotence of the Big(gest) Other. He expresses a lack of faith in the Big(gest) Other's ability to create a "life-form" worth living in. The only thing the Biggest Other can do at this point is carry out a blind passage à l'acte*** and destroy the world (Big Others aren't known for their temperance). Of course since the the Big Other actually doesn't exist, this scene is to be taken metaphorically instead of realistically. What is happening is not that the world is actually being destroyed, but rather that the "life-form", the Symbolic order, is being destroyed to make room for the "change" Marty calls for.

So how does this all tie together? I started out this thought process with the question of why, if the Biggest Other needs blood to survive, it doesn't just get it itself. Why does it need the Sci-Fi Crew? The problem is that we need to invert the scenario: it's not the Biggest Other that needs the Sci-Fi Crew, it's the Sci-Fi Crew that needs the Biggest Other. The Sci-Fi Crew needs the fantasy of the Big(gest) Other to sustain their ideological investments. Without (the fantasy of) the Big(gest) Other, the Symbolic—the entire system on which the Sci-Fi Crew relies—would fall apart. Unfortunately for the Big(gest) Other, the Sci-Fi Crew included a psychotic in its Subjects, and as a result the Big(gest) Other was made to feel its impotence and enacted divine violence.

Finally, for some reason I feel like saying that this is just one of many possible readings of the film. The Biggest Other isn't necessarily metaphorical and there are completely legitimate readings of the film where the Biggest Other is real.


*According to Zizek, "life-form" is basically Wittgenstein's term for Lacan's Symbolic order. Not sure if that clarifies or mystifies this quote but there you go.

**For more on divine and other categories of violence, check out my essay analyzing them in the context of contemporary film.

***For those of you who don't know what a passage à l'acte entails, Zizek explains it with reference to Taxi Driver (1976):

What is a passage a l'acte? Perhaps, its ultimate cinematic expression is found in Paul Schrader's and Martin Scorcese's Taxi Driver, in the final outburst of Travis (Robert de Niro) against the pimps who control the young girl he wants to save (Jodie Foster). Crucial is the implicit suicidal dimension of this passage à l'acte: when Travis prepares for his attack he practices in front of the mirror the drawing of the gun; in what is the best-known scene of the film, he addresses his own image in the mirror with the aggressive-condescending "You talkin' to me?" In a textbook illustration of Lacan's notion of the "mirror stage," aggressivity is here clearly aimed at oneself, at one's own mirror-image. This suicidal dimension reemerges at the end of the slaughter scene when Travis, heavily wounded and leaning at the wall, mimics with the fore-finger of his right hand a gun aimed at his blood-stained forehead and mockingly triggers it, as if saying "The true aim of my outburst was myself." The paradox of Travis is that he perceives HIMSELF as part of the degenerate dirt of the city life he wants to eradicate, so that, as Brecht put it apropos of revolutionary violence in his The Measure Taken, he wants to be the last piece of dirt with whose removal the room will be clean.


The Biggest Other wants to destroy the world so that it will be "the last piece of dirt with whose removal the room will be clean" - when faced with its own impotence it realizes it must destroy the world and then itself.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Cabin In The Woods Bestiary


So my analysis of The Cabin in the Woods is taking longer than I expected, mostly because I keep getting distracted by how awesome the movie is. One thing I couldn't help making was this, a list of all the possible monsters which could have terrorized the poor occupants of the cabin (in the woods). So while you wait for me to stop being distracted, enjoy this compilation. (Also please note if you're using Google Chrome then adding Hover Zoom will help you fully enjoy this article - don't worry it's free.)

EDIT: My analysis of the movie is finished and can be found here.

EDIT2: Someone put some of the images on imgur here, so check it that out if you like.

          The Cabin In The Woods Bestiary          

These are in the order seen on the betting board behind Richard Jenkins

Werewolf, bet on by Finance. Pretty generic monster.

Alien Beast, bet on by Bio Med. Some sources claim a much more direct reference to the Alien movies than this picture indicates, but it's rather difficult to find a good picture of this thing. EDIT: Nevermind here are some great pictures.

Mutants, bet on by Demolition. First of many zombie-related monsters. Not quite sure if there's an exact referent here but 28 Days Later & 28 Weeks Later feature zombies vomiting blood.

Wraiths, not bet on by anyone. Pretty cool looking but not the scariest of the monsters so I understand the lack of confidence.

Zombies, bet on by Chem Dept. As Richard Jenkins informs us, similar to but technically different from Zombie Redneck Torture Family. There are a lot of zombie-related categories which makes me think Joss Whedon really likes his zombie movies.

Reptilius, not bet on by anyone. Which is strange because this is a pretty awesome and unique (more so than zombies at least) monster. Sorry the picture's not very good.

Clowns, bet on by Electric. Obvious but tasteful reference to It.

Witches, bet on by Operations. Pretty generic witches except that they seem to be able to fly without broomsticks. Much more interesting is the fact that a Left 4 Dead witch makes a cameo in the movie.

Sexy Witches, bet on by Archives. I can't find a picture (and neither can IMDb, so I think I'm safe), so my guess is that this is just on the board as a joke. Poor people over at Archives didn't get the memo.

Demons, not bet on by anyone. That picture is what The Cabin in the Woods wiki credits as the demons, but they look a whole lot like the Mutants to me. Somewhat more convincingly, Michael Tresca of examiner.com argues that this is closer to what the crew likely had in mind.

Hell Lord, bet on by Sitterson (aka Richard Jenkins). Fairly obvious reference to Pinhead of Hellraiser fame.

Angry Molesting Tree (or this awesome gif), bet on by Wranglers. First of two probable references to Evil Dead, and a likely suspect for my money were I to bet (second choice after Twins).

Giant Snake (rear view for size), bet on by Internal Logistics. Possibly a reference to this snake also created by Joss Whedon. That's two hints, now you get 10 points if you know what it's from.

Deadites, bet on by Story Dept. Can't find a picture, so maybe necessary for the nod to Evil Dead but impossible to really do justice. Love that Story Dept put their money here since the story (of Cabin in the Woods itself) is heavily indebted to the film.

Kevin, not bet on by anyone. Easily the most mysterious of the monsters (director Drew Goddard refuses to talk about him), my favorite theory is that it's a reference to Sin City.

Mummy, bet on by Psychology. Necessary but generic inclusion. Perhaps interesting to consider why the Psychology department put their money here.

The Bride, bet on by Digital Analysis. IMDb pointed me to an urban legend about the phantom bride of 13 Curves Road, but could also simply be a reference to the popular Halloween costume.

The Scarecrow Folk (also, their masks), bet on by Data Archives. Not a lot of screen time but pretty cool looking.

Snowman, bet on by Communications. Not seen in the movie, but probably a reference to Jack Frost.

Dragonbat, not bet on by anyone. Yep, you read that right. Nobody bet on the freaking Dragonbat. It better be nearly impossible for the cabin occupants to activate this monster or a whole lot of people need to reconsider their bets/be fired.

Vampires (also), bet on by Distribution. The Nosferatu (as opposed to Robert Pattinson) variety for obvious reasons.

Dismemberment Goblins (they're only seen in the background so that's the best I can do), not bet on by anyone. A fan favorite resulting is some sweet fan-made art. Also, concept art.

Sugarplum Fairy (aka Ballerina Dentata), not bet on by anyone. Another surprising betless monster. Awesome original creation.

Merman, bet on, of course, by Hadley. Quite a unique take on merfolk, creatures who are normally beautiful, elegant or graceful. Poor Hadley.

The Reanimated, bet on by Administration. Yup, more zombies. Pretty awesome ones though.

Unicorn, bet on by Engineering. Coincidentally one of the many reasons to see the movie.

The Huron, bet on by R + D. Apparently a reference to myths created by colonists about Native American scalpers. Pretty cool inclusion.

Sasquatch/Wendingo/Yeti, not bet on by anyone. Insert some joke about finally seeing him or fuzzy photography or something.

Dolls, bet on by Kitchen Staff. Not this kind but this kind.

The Doctors (also), bet on by Accounting. Creepy idea and apparently a reference to House on Haunted Hill.

Zombie Redneck Torture Family (before & after), bet on by Maintenance & Ronald the Intern. If you've seen the movie then you've seen enough of this particular monster, as they are the ones actually chosen. Lucky Ron the Intern.

Jack O' Lantern, bet on by Security. Barely makes an appearance in the movie, which is a missed opportunity if you ask me.

Giant, bet on by Zoology. Brief appearance; generic monster.

Twins, not bet on by anyone. My first choice for betting on right above the Angry Molesting Tree. If you don't get what movie this is referencing we probably can't be friends.

So, there you go. A complete list of the monsters on Richard Jenkins's board. Wish there had been some sort of reference to Freddie of A Nightmare on Elm Street, but you can't win 'em all. There are more monsters in the film than just this list (like the Left 4 Dead monsters), so check out IMDb's FAQ for more info.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty (review)


This movie is not a documentary.

This issue is something Zero Dark Thirty struggles with. Kathryn Bigelow stated in her defense against attacks that the film legitimized or endorsed torture* that this was not her intent and that she just wanted to portray events as they happened. The obvious first problem is that we don't know what happened or what exactly led to the capture of UBL (Usama bin Laden). That information is classified (making Bigelow's claim that these attacks "might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen" all the more problematic—this is not a documentary). The second problem is that Bigelow didn't simply depict torture as something that happened. The information that eventually leads the CIA to UBL's location is acquired through torture. Whether this is actually what happened or not (this is not a documentary), the movie's position is clear: torture lead to the capture of UBL.

We can easily imagine a movie where this is not the case. Maya (the protagonist) perhaps tortures detainees for a portion of the film while following leads she suspects to be more fruitful. Or she becomes frustrated with the unreliability of the information obtained through torture and pursues other methods of intelligence gathering. Or she plain gets sick of torturing detainees. But this is not what happened (in the film—this is not a documentary).

One thing I did like about the torture in Zero Dark Thirty was the brutality of its depiction. This is probably enough to turn the casual moviegoer away, but for me it was a more than welcome break in the film's otherwise problematically ideological portrayal of the military. This is of course nothing new for Bigelow: The Hurt Locker (2008) was also an amazing movie hindered from excellence mainly by its ideological underpinnings. The problem for me was that after we see how terrible the torture is, we also see that it works (this is not a documentary). If anything, the fact that information obtained through torture leads to the capture of UBL after the film attempts to disavow the strength of torture as a means of intelligence gathering makes the film even more ideological. The point of ideology is to not witness its functioning, so portraying the military negatively (through the brutality of torture) helps you to ignore the rest of the movie where the military is unconditionally celebrated.**

What also interests me on this point is a similar contradiction between Bigelow's stated intention and the actual filmic diegesis. In her response to the attacks on the film's position on torture, Bigelow responded that the film shows that UBL was found through "ingenious detective work". In the movie, however, Maya seemed to me oddly confident in the intelligence she gathered at the beginning of the film (via torture). I argued in my analysis of BBC's Sherlock that the key to a good detective is paranoia, not conviction. Paranoia leads you to weigh all options evenly, while conviction leads you to eliminate certain possibilities outright. Don't get me wrong, Maya is one of my favorite characters from recent movies for being a strong female protagonist who can get what she wants in a man's world. Her confidence in the information she gathers very early on in the film as well as her perseverance leads to the capture of UBL (this is not a documentary). She's amazing, but she's not a detective.

As for the film's mise-en-scène, it was incredible. Bearing a striking resemblance to The Hurt Locker, the film was beautifully shot & staged (I'm not sure how much if any of it was shot on location, but there are few moments where you're obviously on a set), and the acting was all top notch (except for maybe Kyle Chandler*** shouting "PROTECT THE HOMELAND" at Jessica Chastain). The pacing was pretty well done and I found myself engaged with the movie for all of it except portions of the second act where time probably could have been telescoped a bit more to focus on the juicy bits. I especially loved the final 30-45 minute action sequence at the end of the movie where the strike team finally goes in to capture UBL. The camera cross cuts between the forward team and the backup so as to maintain the tension without drawing the scene out.

I have some final things here in my screening notes that I don't feel need to be elaborated on but which were nonetheless interesting in one way or another. Maya's vengefulness towards Al Qaeda silently mirrored Al Qaeda's (mostly undepicted) vengefulness towards the US. This is something the movie never talks about, and the closest we get to seeing things from the Pakistani side of things is a brief drive through a crowd with protesters holding up signs reading "Stop American Terrorism". I liked the potential of these protesters very much but they are passed by without a word or second glance.

I also have repeated in my notes the line "It is so not okay". US soldiers kill some Pakistani children's parents and in order to get the children to remain calm they repeat "it's okay" to them. It is very much not okay what you just did. So there's that.

Four beers for being mostly enjoyable with a little lag in the middle, and two Zizeks for having a strong female protagonist but being otherwise ruthlessly ideological.




*Full article here.

**The fact of the film's ideological endorsement of the military also makes the one moment in the movie where characters happen to mention the word ideology (of course in reference to the Muslim other; we're not ideological, it's them) painfully ironic and cringe-inducing.

***Coincidentally Kyle Chandler is also the victim of bad dialogue at the end of Super 8 (2011). No significance here just... I dunno maybe get some better writers or something.