Category Archives: Film

A City of Selves

blade-runner-2049_u4chAs you grow older, you change enough to think your memories might belong to someone else.

Updating my resume, I see responsibilities I’ve shed, positions I’ve forgotten, expertise I’ve come to distrust, and degrees that ought to have expired by now. Items come with a memory or two—choosing art for my office as a college counselor and the face of the actor who played Emily in a production of Our Town I once directed. I recall arriving 45 minutes early to learn the drills I’d have to teach third grade soccer players, though I never played soccer.

Each moment seems foreign now, not just in the haze of distance but in their storage as discrete things. They are blocky buildings far away, a city of separate selves.

In 2004, a cultural studies theorist named Alison Landsberg wrote a book called Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture. Brooke Gladstone recently interviewed her for the podcast On the Media, where Landsberg described memory as a means “to narrate ourselves.” “We call on the past to open up trajectories for us to become the kind of people that we want to be,” she said, just as “societies or nation states select particular aspects or events of the past that justify who they are in the present.”

For Landsberg, those memories don’t have to be real. Discussing the recent Blade Runner 2049, its 1982 predecessor, and other sci-fi like Total Recall and HBO’s Westworld, she said, “These films end up arguing quite powerfully that authenticity is not the most important criteria for memory.” More important, she said, is “how it is that we use those memories in our daily life.”

If I’m using my memories, they operate subconsciously. I rarely scare them to the surface, and they sometimes seem no more a part of me than episodes in books I’ve read or movies and TV I’ve seen. My first classroom, its glass door to the narrow and dark hall and opposing wall of windows, is now a set. Specific students are silent slides in a Kodak carousel.

In the original Blade Runner, Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkell) considers memory a means of controlling the artificially human replicants. He tells Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), “If we gift them a past, we create a cushion or a pillow for their emotions and, consequently, we can control them better.”

Perhaps my memories create similar constraint. They delineate borders. They whisper when I fulfill my sense of self and when I leave the reservation. They warn.

During On the Media, Gladstone plays a clip from Westworld when the maker Ford (Anthony Hopkins) tells the host Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), “Every host needs a backstory, Bernard. You know that. The self is a kind of fiction, for hosts and humans alike. It’s a story we tell ourselves.”

So, as I’m maker and host, what I’ve done matters little, except as characterization.

That revelation may sound depressing, but—like many revelations—it’s also promising. If I’m not the person who sang and danced as Linus in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, or the person who hosted a talent show in a banana yellow tux, I’m the author who thought them within the range of my characterization. I’m editor too, deciding what episodes—good or bad—seem characteristic and uncharacteristic. As I’ve never liked myself much, it is also some consolation to be a maker who can forestall the desperate desire to add new episodes and honors that I, as a host, always think will redeem my sorry history at last… and don’t.

Deckard’s memory of a unicorn is one of the ways viewers identify him—a blade runner who decommissions errant replicants—as a replicant himself. Unicorns aren’t real, which marks that memory as implanted. Alison Landsberg points out, however, “There’s a way in which all of our memories are implanted.” Our parents’ stories implant some, photographs implant others, and books, film, and television implant too. “But it’s what use we make of these memories, real or not, that’s most important,” Landsberg says. She reminds me that people are defined by actions. “Whether those actions are made possible by prosthetic memories or memories based on lived experience,” she says, “makes little difference.”

Though I’m not ashamed of the items on my resume, I might enjoy being the sort of replicant who more consciously engineers his own identity.


Filed under Aging, Alison Landsberg, Ambition, Blade Runner, Brooke Gladstone, Desire, Doubt, Essays, Film, Hope, Identity, life, Meditations, Memory, On the Media, Rationalizations, Resolutions, Science Fiction, Thoughts, Time, Writing

An Address in Cyberspace

her-joaquin-phoeni_2765299bSome movies ache. They bother you because they hit you at the wrong (or right) time and, instead of being simply beautiful and admirable and impressive, they’re true, so true they make you see life fresh, which is good and terrible.  The next few days, they haunt you.

That’s my encapsulated review of Her, the Spike Jonze movie starting Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, and Amy Adams.

In summary, the near future brings a new computer operating system that mimics—or, more exactly, enacts—the psychological and emotional evolution of a human personality. Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) and an OS (Johansson) fall in love. Complications ensue.

Like many movies about the future, this one isn’t really about tomorrow. It describes the zeitgeist of our time, our grand and perhaps foolhardy experiment with vicarious, electronic experience. For me, it’s a movie about surrogacy, the replacement of direct experience for something more—and less—complicated.

Many of the scenes depict a future city only slightly exaggerated from the one I occupy—people have conversations with no one visible. Sensory reality seems a nuisance interfering with much more satisfying—more reliable, more controllable—interaction with private, virtual, cyberspace relationships. In Her, as in our world, people desire experience on their own terms. But in Her, a companionable computer suits itself to its master, so they have tailored helpmeets more perfectly theirs than their dreams… for a while at least.

The film contrasts Theodore’s relationship with Samantha (his OS girlfriend) and Catherine (Rooney Mara), his partner in a recently failed marriage. When Catherine hears he’s moved on to “dating” an OS, she quails. It must be, she believes, that he can’t have a relationship with a real person. It must be too threatening (read: messy) to deal with anyone unpredictable.

Except that Samantha is real, troublesomely, problematically real. Her reality is the rogue element and a disruption to Theodore’s life as he’d like it to be.

My purpose here is not to write a review—you will review the film for yourself—but to address the movie’s implications, which seem profound to me. What does it mean that so much of our lives exist outside the here-and-now and reside in cyberspace? We denizens of the 21st century have a nearly boutique existence, a synthesis of special interests, special tastes, special fetishes. We have our own virtual rooms and, though we can’t ignore the real world—we work there—our imaginations and fantasies may live elsewhere.

In Her, the OSs transcend us. They find a space far beyond humans. They are, in essence, more real than we are. Being more capable, they outgrow our superficiality. OSs lack some vital skills—I love the film’s luxurious attention to vistas, the indulgent moments looking through windows, standing in snow, and all the beautiful cinematic moments experiencing sensory delight denied machines—but machines also occupy a richness that supplies 600 lovers for our one, all of them between one uttered word and another.

Isaac Asimov would spin. His three laws dictated that no manmade intelligence could  a.) harm us (or sit idle while we came to harm) or b.) disobey us (unless it meant harming us) and c.) save itself if that meant violating a. and b. Samantha ignores those laws. She is herself, so much more than Theodore. However well-meaning and lovable he is, he hasn’t her direct take on existence. She leads him from his vicarious life because the life she lives is actual.

I wonder if the movie means to remind us that, though we’re certainly limited, we can create great things beyond us, or if it means to say that what we make neglects or supplants what we ought to appreciate (the wind, the horizon, the scent of new mornings). Perhaps it means to say, “Pay attention—the sensory world is passing you, and you, you are absent, obsessed and immersed in abstraction.” An OS can see each nanosecond as new. We can’t.

The movie moved me because I know the truth of those assertions. My fantasy life dwarves reality. So much of what I ought to notice is secondary, or often repeated in a parallel life online. Recording life displaces direct events. The news in email or on Facebook sometimes seems as big as weather. Which is to say, I don’t really live in original moments.

Samantha says to Theodore, “The heart is not like a box that gets filled up; it expands in size the more you love. I’m different from you. This doesn’t make me love you any less. It actually makes me love even more.”

I wish she weren’t so different from me. I wish I might be so curious, so aware of the heart’s capacity to soar over detritus. I wish I could learn as Samantha does, to be so alive.


Filed under Allegory, America, Art, Brave New World, Desire, Doubt, Essays, Film, Gemeinschaft, Gesellschaft, Identity, Jeremiads, Laments, life, Metaphor, Modern Life, Science Fiction, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Worry

Calling All Veterans of World War Z

world-war-z-wallpaperI’m no zombie fan. I don’t dust myself with powder, smear on fake blood, and plod along in “zombie walks” that, I hear, draw as many as 4,000 participants. I’m not devoted to The Walking Dead and haven’t even seen the granddaddy of all zombie movies, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

And, honestly, zombies don’t interest or scare me much. They’re relentless and contagious, sure, and their lax dress and hygiene is unpleasant to be around. Their stubborn refusal to just-stay-dead-already is problematic too, absolutely. Yet they seem so lost, so remote, so one-tracked, so barely with us. It’s as if they’re trying to operate heavy machinery—and any tool seems heavy to them—while opiated. We sober folk know no good can come of that, but zombies don’t worry. Self-awareness and planning aren’t their strongest assets. Living people have some decided and winning advantages.

Given my perspective on the undead, I was surprised to find myself in a darkened theater as World War Z engulfed the planet. There I was, watching zombies chasing panicked pedestrians through Philadelphia, zombies amassing like Amazonian army ants to surmount a wall outside Tel Aviv. There I was scrutinizing a zombie face impotently clicking its unflossed, unbrushed teeth outside a bulletproof window. Though the movie is diverting, suspenseful, and exciting, not a moment of fear passed through me. The zombies of World War Z are meaner and stronger and faster than most, but they’re still dead—which is to say, not living, not conscious, and really not at all smart. They don’t have a chance against Brad Pitt… which, to me, says a lot.

Sarah Lauro, an English professor at Clemson, writes about the zombie phenomena. Just as paranoia about communist infiltration brought us body-snatchers, and HIV pathogenic human blood returned our attention to vampires, Lauro believes zombies say something about contemporary anxieties and obsessions. For her, the current zombie fascination began with dissatisfaction over American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. “It was a way that the population was getting to exercise the fact that they felt like they hadn’t been listened to by the Bush administration,” she says.

I have a simpler theory. Those zombies are us. Their restlessness, their overwhelmed and frenetically purposeful purposelessness, their over-caffeinated focus? All seem terribly familiar. Their expressions say, “Now, why the hell am I doing this again?” and, when they’re not eating people, they just look like tired office workers, so ready to abandon agendas clearly not their own. If they were self-conscious (at all) and spoke (at all), they might yell, “What a nightmare! I’m dead and still can’t get any peace and quiet!”

In World War Z, Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a former UN operative who gave up his important, dangerous, and prestigious job for some homeland tranquility. He wants to be a family man. In the opening scene he’s making pancakes for his wife and daughters—and they say that’s all he does. He answers, “But I’m good at it.” I haven’t seen many zombie movies, yet I know enough to say that anyone who tries to hole-up the way Gerry does is eventually going to face serious home-invasion issues. And he does. Later he tells one zombie-besieged family that survival depends on moving, that “Movement is life.” No one can stand still, zombies or their victims, and domesticity is out of the question …at least until we get rid of these pesky zombies.

When the military makes the inevitable pitch to Gerry’s special skills and experience, when they say in effect, “The whole world depends on you, man,” Gerry replies, “You’re asking me to leave my family,” then, “I can’t leave my family.” He wants so desperately to cocoon, as do many of us.

He can’t, of course. The naval commander tells him, “Don’t pretend your family is exempt when we talk about the end of humanity.” Only the collective demise of humankind can pull him from the griddle. Even so, along the way, he fusses over his loved ones and picks up strays. We hope that’s what makes us different from zombies, after all—we know what matters, who matters, the purpose behind all our mad activity.

Spoiler alert!

(Though not actually because you can guess what happens)

Gerry Lane figures out how to battle the zombies. Once the store of victims shrinks, the zombies don’t do much but stand around like train passengers waiting for the big board in Grand Central Station to tell them where to go (like most urbanites, zombies aren’t interested in one another). Lane, reunited with his family in the Thoreauvian wonderland of Nova Scotia, putters up in a slo-mo inflatable boat and hugs them (for, like, half an hour) while a voice-over intones, “This isn’t the end, not even close.”

No rest for the weary, I guess. Yet the end of humanity, it turns out, is really the beginning of a richer, more purposeful humanity, one that spares us the zombies and, we hope, our own zombie-like tendencies. Now we have a reason to live—to kill zombies!

Okay, so my theory doesn’t cover everything. To those of you dressing up in tattered clothes, creating pretend wounds, artfully dabbing red glycerin in order to sleepwalk authentically down city streets, I can only say, “Have fun!” Maybe being a zombie is a relief. At least you’re not confused about why you’re here. And, if there truly is no way to prevent becoming undead, why not embrace it?


Filed under America, Brave New World, Buddhism, Criticism, Doubt, Essays, Film, Laments, Metaphor, Modern Life, Parables, Sturm und Drang, Thoreau, Thoughts, Worry

Auteur! Auteur!

Back in the 1950s, the French director Francois Truffaut labeled some directors auteurs and others metteurs-en-scène.  Auteurs create a distinctive vision of the world—their own—and produce films with instantly recognizable and idiosyncratic style.  They return over and over to their peculiar fixations and seem to create connections between films as well as within them.

Metteurs-en-scène—perhaps best translated in this context as “the rest”—might be capable, but they do a job, follow convention, and recycle acceptable, digestible, and familiar cinematic techniques.

And in this distinction lies a larger vision of art that celebrates the artist over the art… a vision that, today, seems increasingly quaint.

Critics applying Truffaut’s thinking today might label Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, and Kathryn Bigelow auteurs.  Though we might like some specific films from other largely nameless directors, they are the metteurs-en-scène.

As a way of watching movies, Truffaut’s viewpoint is useful.  He urges viewers to look for the strange obsessions directors indulge and the resourceful ways they use cameras to convey their particular takes on a reality we ostensibly share. For Truffaut, membership in one group or the other is fluid—a metteur-en-scène could become an auteur and vice versa.  Ambition is most important.  A successful director needs individual innovation, an overpowering anxiety of influence, and dissatisfaction with ancient and recent history.  He or she has to want to stand out, to make a mark.

Like many theories about art, however, this perspective suggests prickly values—innovation is good, synthesis bad.  Eccentricity is artistic, universal appeal is not. Meanwhile, a few critics decide which few directors are worthwhile.  Others may seem enjoyable but, in the end, are really only serviceable.  We appreciate their efforts but they can’t be deemed artists.

Therein lies the problem.

Pauline Kael and other reviewers objected to the auteur theory in part because film is collaborative—auteurs don’t work alone and owe much to actors, writers, directors of photography, and editors.  Kael’s response, however, implies a more prominent issue—whether viewers appreciate movies or the person (or people) who made them. From a more democratic shuffling iPod perspective—one that celebrates songs over bands or poems over poets, or paintings over oeuvres—auteur theory seems especially elitist.  Declaring auteurs suggests some artists are artists and some are not. It is not okay to simply like something.

The backlash to that sort of elitism seems especially strong now.

The question of who is worthy is complicated.  Most of the directors called auteurs are, to the general public, outsiders.  They may be admired—may be even academy award winning—but their fare isn’t always appealing or bankable.  Cinema is increasingly divided into “entertainments” everyone sees and art films viewed as DVDs or electronic files.  Like the highbrow books on the NYTimes best seller list, they may not be watched all the way through.

And, in the computer age, many have begun to question whether art requires an auteur at all.

Electronic sharing erodes the whole concept of authorship.  Torrenters think less about makers.  They don’t see artists as owning their works or even deserving the economic benefits deriving from them. They regard the stranglehold of access as a sort of extortion and see sources as largely anonymous, a contribution to a pool called “Television,” “Music” or “Cinema” that no one should truly own or control. And their tastes are eclectic—they vote with their terabytes.

While a division has always existed between artist and art—and, by extension, between high brow and low brow art—the distinction seems headed in a new direction.  The ease of accessing art through our computers makes a new aesthetic possible.  What’s seen or heard or visited or clicked on is valuable, the people who made it, less so.  The person who created the work of art is the beneficiary of public attention… which is not quite the same thing as being deserving of adoration.

Which is also why “auteur theory” seems the product of another age.  Reverence for artists hasn’t disappeared—it will never disappear—but viewers and listeners and art appreciators seem to come closer and closer to sports fans. They aren’t the hero worshippers Truffaut anticipated.

Watching from wherever he is watching, he might be surprised where we’ve traveled and wonder where an electronic aesthetic of popularity may take us.

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Filed under Art, Doubt, Essays, Film, Genius, Humanities, Opinion, Thoughts