Thursday, December 17, 2015

800 Words: The Testament of George Lucas Part 1

Skywalker Ranch: 2006

It was Babylon. The world of the 70’s was Babylon. We’d lost our way, and all we had left was nihilism. Francis, Marty, Stanley, they all grew up in New York, and by the time they were old enough to make movies, the best days of New York were behind them. All they knew how to show us was despair.

Steve and I were Californians, Millius and Barwood and Murch were here by college. We believed in the future. We believed in ourselves. We knew we were good guys and we were ready to fight bad guys. We believed in moral triumphs. We believed in America. Everybody else was rioting and getting laid and doing drugs, but we were monks in film school. Sure, I’d make out and pet in my truck like every other kid and we’d smoke grass at parties, but we had our sights set on bigger things. We were Jedis, it never occurred to us to lose hope.

Marty and Francis, they’re not bad guys, but they make things too complicated. They’re too Catholic. All that time in the Big Apple surrounded by millions of people makes them worry too much - they should have come out west earlier when it could have done them some good. By the time Francis came out here, he was too New York already. If they ever spent time working on a farm or camping in a forest or looking up at the night sky a field, they would understand that the world is much more magical than they’ve ever imagined.

They believe in ambiguity. but any common sense would see that those ambiguities are resolved. If you chase your own tale like that, you can never cope with what life is. People don’t need to reflect, they need to keep going. That’s why we have religion, that’s why we have myths, that’s why we have stories. We need things that excite us. All those critics like John Simon and Pauline Kael wrote it off as kid stuff, but what the hell is Moses parting the Red Sea and frogs jumping around Egypt? Kid stuff. Achilles might as well duel Hector with a light sabre.  I wanted to make an exciting story, because that’s what myths are. That’s what religion is. They give us hope that we can through dangers. Why do talented people like Francis want to grind our noses into despair? Don’t we have enough of that already?

They’re so New York that they never understood what movies were. They went to too many Broadway shows, met too many people, their schedules were too full. Movies for them are just a play in the theater with a camera. Marty can do a film a year because the design in all of his movies are the same. All you have to do is point a camera at a New York street and do something arty and you have a Martin Scorsese Picture.

They never understood that the most important thing about movies was never the people. We’re not Shakespeare. The camera is a machine, machines are the most important part of modern life, and the camera’s the tool we have to capture how we relate to machines. There isn’t any scene in Marty or Francis’s work that can be as powerful as those monkeys looking at the monolith or Chaplin dancing around the factory.

I believe in God, but nobody else does these days. The only mystery they have is when they think about what these machines are and how they work. People need that mystery. They need the lessons religion teaches us. But stories about beating the ploughshares don’t do anything. They need myths about what our machines are, what they can do for us, where they can take us. That’s what’ll get them out of bed in the morning. We don’t have heaven and hell anymore, so we need new places to go that a simple soundstage just doesn’t do for us. We need images like Yoda floating the spaceship out of the river - when people see that, they see a miracle. And once they see it, they’ll hear Yoda’s speech about the force beforehand as the Sermon on the Mount.

The Force is God for America. It doesn’t matter which God you believe in as long as you believe in God. I put The Force into the movie as a way of showing young people that they should believe in God. Young people need to believe that there’s something out there with the power to change things, because young people are the powerless. If they believe that the world won’t change, then the world won’t change. The worst thing that can happen to them is to struggle with these questions, once they start doubting the goodness in universe, they start doubting the goodness in themselves. The universe is just too big, we have to believe in something bigger. If we believe, then eventually we’re gonna find that bigger thing. It’ll probably take another million years, but we just need to be patient and believe we will.

I just wanted to create a small personal statement about faith that ran against all those pessimistic things you heard from Hollywood. Every culture has faith, every culture has ways of seeing the world that are in common with each other and pass through the generations. It binds them together, helps them deal with the pain of living, and makes them human. But our society doesn’t have that. We think we’ve evolved past that. But past all the machines and all the cool cars, we haven’t gotten any more complicated than anyone anywhere else.  

Even after everybody told me that it was going to be the bigger than Jesus Christ, I didn’t believe them. I just had no idea just how badly America needed this movie. I was happy when it began to seem that Star Wars would do some good in the world. Nothing made me happier than hearing that just about every single religion in America was using Star Wars as a tool to teach young people about faith, but by the time I made Star Wars, America was so secular that entertainment would pass for a religious experience.

I’d rather there be a religion out there, but if Star Wars turns out to be our religion, then at least I’ll have done something good. Maybe the Mormons’ll find a way to work it into their books. I created the American Myth. The American Bible, the Bhagavad Gita. I bet that when Homer finally came out with The Odyssey, everybody said that sucked too and the Iliad was a hundred times better. But history’s going to show that it’s the better of the two. Long after The Godfather and Taxi Driver disappear, Star Wars will still be here.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

800 Words: South Park's Last Stand: Part 1

Critical accolades aside, it was a sad day when Trey Parker and Matt Stone started getting treated as public intellectuals. It’s bad enough that my generation trusts comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as our most reliable news sources, but when South Park’s creators decided that lifetime presidency of the dick-and-fart brigade wasn’t enough for them, it signaled that something in our society truly was truly amiss.

What made (makes) Stewart and Colbert work is that their politics worked as comedy first, politics second. Yes, Jon Stewart spent sixteen years cheerleading for his (our) team, but neither he nor we could help the fact that Republicans gave him so much good material. Unassailably progressive though they might be, they were comedians first. They had just enough reverence that they could dial down the comedy when it was appropriate.

On their least funny day, Matt Stone and Trey Parker are funnier than either Stewart or Colbert are on their best. South Park is, in my opinion, the funniest TV show ever aired. It's almost beyond question. Nevertheless, if you’re willing to sacrifice everything to a joke, your show can’t help but be nihilism central. It’s extremely seductive logic to say that every pretension is worth puncturing, every aspiration is worth making fun of. In a cosmic sense, perhaps they’re exactly right, but when you’ve decided to make fun of every single attitude that demonstrates dissatisfaction with the larger world, you create two enormous problems.

The first is that, by definition, if you make fun of everyone with aspirations, you become a powerful agent for anyone who wants to preserve the status quo. Furthermore, now that Parker and Stone have made a 20-year career upholding the status quo so lucratively, it stands to reason that they don’t just want to preserve the status quo; they’re deeply, deeply in love with it. The tasteless 'wrongness' of South Park is offset, and perhaps made palatable, by a bizarre wholesomeness - a deep love of and nostalgia for childhood in Middle America, where the screwedupness of everyday life is something accepted and often celebrated. Against the constant barrage of dirty jokes are gentle musical numbers and a deep trust in the wisdom of children (who with their unfiltered bullshit detectors always see through the messes their parents create). There are many moments when South Park can seem like the bizarrely wholesome spawn of Satan and The Waltons.  

Along with that wholesomeness comes a searing anger about how badly their way of life is under threat from coastal liberals and their trendy politically correct notions; and that leads us to the second, in some ways still larger, problem. By deciding that every aspiration that defies common sense is equally worthy of puncturing, the show becomes little more than a needle looking for bubbles to puncture. Whatever one’s opinion of South Park’s obviously libertarian politics, it’s still pretty obvious to most people that as a TV show, great as South Park still is, it never quite rose to the level of The Simpsons during its best years, or Seinfeld, or Cheers, or even Arrested Development. South Park offers laughter and not a little intelligence. Watching it can also be one of the most unpleasant experiences on television.

In a way that those other shows never quite were, South Park is truly merciless - usually in great ways, but sometimes in bad ones too. When Isaac Hayes quit because they made fun of Scientology, they could have spared Isaac Hayes the public hard feelings, since his involvement probably went a long way to getting them on the air in the first place. Instead, they went as far out of their way as humanly conceivable to publicly humiliate him. South Park raises immaturity to an artform, and because they do, they miss out on a lot of deeper ways in which they can be subversive and more exciting.

Nevertheless, in some ways, South Park is more miraculous than any of those shows. Seinfeld, a show about nothing and minutiae, would never have known what tone to take in an America changed by 9/11. Even the often brutal satire of The Simpsons, at its best the greatest show that ever was or will be, was still too gentle for the harshness of the 21st century, and 14 years later, the show still hasn’t recovered. Arrested Development was never allowed to blossom properly. We never saw what they could do with 6 or 7 consecutive seasons, let alone 19…

Among situation comedies, South Park stands absolutely alone - a 19 year old comedy which people with a brain still watch. No other show adapted so well to so many eras, and no other show could adapt so well, for the simple fact that South Park has one trump card no other show has. 

South Park has one or two kinds of jokes that they do extraordinarily well, and they simply do them over, and over, and over again. It’s a testament to how well they do it that after nearly 20 years, the joke stays this funny. Nevertheless, it would not surprise me if, when we go back to South Park episodes the age of sixty, these jokes are nowhere near as funny as we currently still think they are.

That trump card should be obvious - it’s the notion that every idea in America deserves to be made fun of to the fullest, most pulverizing extent to which the law allows. Week after week, South Park finds new sacred cows (no pun intended) to satirize. Inevitably, when you’ve sent up hundreds upon hundreds of pervasive ideas in American life, there will be something within that collection that every person disagrees with to a rage-inspiring extent. Even so, we all deserve our turn on the chopping block, and it’s all too easy to say that everything deserves to be made fun of when it isn’t your ox that’s being gored. So long as American life churns out new trends, there will be an endless amount of grist for South Park’s mill.

This is what makes South fantastically funny, it’s also the reason South Park has never been more than fantastically funny. South Park is one of the last cultural bastions of ‘Can Do American Optimism,’ it’s one of the few cultural products in America that still takes it as a given that the world’s problems can be solved by nothing but good old-fashioned common sense. But after the financial crisis in 2008, it’s plainly clear that our reliance on Common Sense very nearly brought the country to ruin. Our country can’t even agree upon what common sense is.

South Park has no real agenda beyond giving a nationally televised middle finger to anybody who tells us what we should care about. This would not be a problem if South Park didn’t want to be taken seriously. But in spite of its protestations to the contrary, the show clearly, clearly, CLEARLY wants to be taken very, very, VERY SERIOUSLY...

Far more than The Daily Show and its ilk, South Park takes pride in thinking independently and not sparing its audience conclusions that many people in its fan base would find incredibly objectionable. Over the years South Park compared Stem Cell research to Frankenstein (“Manbearpig”) it wrote off Wikileaks as a force corrosive to our privacy as TMZ and Twitter, it heavily implied that second-hand smoking is not something anyone should be concerned by, it conducted a debate about the Iraq War by making it seem as though characters representing both sides had equally legitimate points and grievances.

It’s a testament to how funny South Park truly was that it could have gotten so many things wrong (many more than just what’s above), and still be amazingly funny so often. If The Daily Show got it wrong half so often as South Park has, people would have tuned out long ago because The Daily Show is much more beholden to its political content. Unlike The Daily Show or Colbert, South Park not particularly beholden to any political movement. And yet, its their very lack of political commitment that makes South Park incredibly dogmatic in its anti-dogma.

For all the complexities of South Park’s many attempts to explain our political climate, the animating message can boil down to “everything would be fine if you all weren’t so busy trying to fuck it up.” Behind South Park’s facade of pulling no punches, it pulls the biggest punch of them all: “for all our ridiculousness,” it seems to say, “we’re all reasonable, rational people, and if we simply sit down and talk to one another, we can work out our differences.”

It’s a very late-20th century attitude to 21st century problems. In a manner which Stewart and Colbert never were, their attitude is a relic from an age when liberals and conservatives had roughly equal amounts of power and seemed equally irrational. In the era of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, there is something about South Park’s worldview that seems not only naive, but increasingly dinosaur-like.

After watching season 19, it’s impossible to not think that Stone and Parker know this. There was something valedictory about this whole run, as though the world they love has become so distant from them that the show no longer has a reason to exist except as a megaphone from which they can preach.

It’s not the worst reason to keep a show going. I agree with well over 50% of what they say, and comedians as gifted as they will always find every potential laugh - even if the ground is nowhere near as fertile as it once was.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Rocco and His Brothers: When Facebook Posts Become Blogging Again

Warning: Here followeth a depressed rant about our generation.
Last night I went to the Charles Theater for a revival of Spirited Away. The capacity must be nearly a thousand seats, and every seat was filled, at least a hundred people must have been turned away at the box office, and there were even some extra seats installed in the back.
Spirited Away is a good movie. I enjoyed it when I saw it in the theater when it was first released, and I enjoyed it even more last night. But if it's now a classic, it's a classic the way Snow White or Cinderella is - a movie about a frustrated young girl whom everybody comes to love and experiences wonders of a magical world that has nothing better to do than to somehow be at her beckon call. Visually, it's a stunning movie, maybe even a perfect one. Emotionally, it's a movie we all should have outgrown when we were nine.
Twenty-four hours later, I came back to see the 1960 Italian movie: Rocco and his Brothers, in a stunning print. It's a movie about family, poverty, immigration, love, desperation, lust, wrath, forgiveness, and betrayal. In its way it reenacts the most primal mythical stories from Cain and Abel, to Eteocles and Polynices, to Claudius and the Ghost. But it's entirely modern and a remake could just as easily take place with a fictional Latino family in Upper Fells. It's as contemporary as it is eternal.
Rocco and His Brothers is no way a perfect movie, but its imperfections function at such a high level that you see that even when it goes over the top, it shoots for the moon, and perhaps even overshoots. It's historically a missing link - it's a novel on celluloid that goes so far into the raging id of the human psyche that there is never any getting out on the other side the same person you were when you went in. On one side of Rocco stands The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, Il Trovatore, The Grapes of Wrath. On the other side stands The Godfather, Mean Streets, The Last Picture Show, The Deer Hunter and especially Raging Bull.
For this movie that can stand with the best of Coppola and Dostoevsky, there were twenty people in the theater - I made sure to count. I think I spotted an acquaintance a few rows ahead of me, and this person, certainly an intelligent one if it's whom I think it was, cackled hysterically at a few of the more over-the-top scenes. If a hundred other mutual acquaintances were there, three-quarters of them would probably have the same reaction. We've become so ironic that most of us don't feel anything at all - our music is too noisy to have highs or lows, our movies have far more set pieces than characters, and most of the books we read are conceptual fiction about characters who by definition have very little relation to our own lives. This is our society.
We're all still children, and fifty years from now, we'll probably die children.
Have a nice Friday.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

800 Words: Last Tango in Paris - The Stupidest Movie Ever Made

On Monday Night, November 30th, I saw Last Tango in Paris at the Charles Theater Revival Series. It was not only the second time I saw the movie, it was the second time I saw the movie at the Charles, just to make sure that my risible impression from the first time I saw it at the Charles was correct.  

Oh my god was it ever… There are no words for how dumb this movie is. It caused an enormous scandal in the 70’s, because it so blatantly portrayed sex on the screen. Were it made today, it would cause just as large a scandal, because it so blatantly portrays rape. Not only does it portray rape, it portrays a pneumatic nubile girl who enjoys being raped. Marlon Brando is not Marlon Brando in this movie, he’s just an ageing lowlife who with the pure power of his sexual being can ensnare a luminously beautiful young girl. Marlon Brando spends the entire movie with his clothes on, not even so much as a butt cheek - while she spends more than 50% of the movie undressed. Not surprisingly, nobody ever took this actress seriously, Maria Schneider, ever again. She died last year, a justifiably bitter old woman who made a choice when she was in her 20’s when she had no idea how it would color the rest of her career. This is not just the stupidest movie ever made, it also might be the most sexist.

If it were made today, it would be picketed at every theater it played in America, but if the people who picketed it ever stopped to watch it, they would collapse into laughter. I don’t know exactly when it would happen: maybe it would happen when Brando fucks the girl in the ass with the help of a giant stick of butter, maybe it would happen when Marlon Brando responds to questions about his name by screeching like a monkey, but it couldn’t possibly not happen later in the movie when the girl fingers Brando’s asshole while he makes her promise him that she would swallow his vomit.

Fifty years ago, pretentious snuff like this was practically a cottage industry, catering to people who spent their free hours at movie theaters which showed foreign films 12 hours every day. In 1960’s America, foreign films were a hundred times more popular than they are today. Many of these films were the transcendent crown jewels of the artform, and many of these films were the kind of pretentious trash that today make a new generation of film snobs urinate with laughter. How could our parents have ever have fallen for this shit?

The answer is, of course: Sex, Sex, and More Sex.

If you dress sex up in pretentious bullshit, it’s amazing what people will (no pun intended) swallow. Allow me to give just one example: in 1966, Michelangelo Antonioni made Blowup, a snail-paced slow ‘thriller’ which supposedly does triple duty as a chronicle of ‘Swingin’ London’ (which I can believe…), and also as a cinematic investigation into epistemology (the study of what we really know). But the only reason people swallow the philosophic bullshit is because people want to see David Hemmings have a threesome with two teenagers. Cut to 1994, I was twelve years old when I first saw this movie. For the first forty-five minutes, I was bored out of my gourd. Then the threesome happened, and by the end of the movie it was the deepest thing I’d ever seen in my life.

I don’t know if anyone else ever came up with the name for this phenomenon, but my name for it is ‘High Trash.’ High Trash is my short-hand term for vulgarity that gives the appearance of art because of how it’s dressed up. The line between the two can be razor thin, but it’s still fairly easy to tell the difference with just one question - is the primary reason you’re watching this because of the sex and violence, or is it because it has something truly compelling to say?

By this metric, you would have to call all your favorite art into question. I don’t want to spend 5000 words doing that, so let’s simply say that so long as civilization exists, High Trash will always thrive. It’s a virus, though hardly the worst of viruses, that makes a place for itself by feeding off a host of genuine art. Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover arrived within five years of each other, Lolita and The Story of O within just one year each other.

In our own time, think of the two most ‘defining’ TV shows of the last ten years: Mad Men and Game of Thrones. These are two TV shows that have the exact opposite approaches to sex. Mad Men treats sex, and everything else, with severe restraint. Joan Holloway practically redefined sex for the 21st century, but you never see her so much as in a bra - in the entire show, the most reveal you ever see of her is her bare shoulders. Yet Joan Holloway clearly drove men insane in 2010 just as she did in 1960.

Game of Thrones, on the other hand, treats sex like embarrassment of riches. If you can conceive of the act, Game of Thrones might well dramatize it before its run is over. In Game of Thrones, sex is simply part of the furniture, nothing more. Nobody over the age of 17 could possibly find it erotic. It’s just another way in which Game of Thrones hits us all over the head with its blatantness. Shows do not get more trashy than Game of Thrones. Everybody can pretend they watch it for the intricacies of the history of its world, but we all know better, because we all watch it too, and we all know what we really care about. Underneath all the intricacy, all the hundreds of characters, the thousands of years of fake history, Game of Thrones is pure wall-to-wall trash, but it’s the most artful trash you’ll ever see.

Sex on film is a very, very tough thing to do well, because film works best by suggestion. Pornography notwithstanding, nothing on screen can possibly be as erotic to you as the things you can imagine, so a sexualized person with her/his clothes gives a hundred times more prompts to the imagination. Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield at their most clothed inspired a hundred times more teenage wet dreams than any number of Hollywood actresses which later generations saw nude routinely, and this must all the more so be true in the age of ‘youporn.’

There’s a quote I love from George Steiner - “Pornographers subvert this last, vital privacy; they do our imagining for us. They take away the words that were of the night and shout them over the roof-tops, making them hollow.”  

The appeal, and the nightmare, of pornography is that it lets you imagine that sex is perfectly normal. No matter how dirty the porn, because it’s not us doing it, it lets us imagine that these gross urges of ours are far more attractive, more humane, more attainable, cleaner, than they really are. “If people are acting this out for our enjoyment, surely sex is no more dangerous than going to the bathroom.”

Pornography takes all the dark mystery out of sex and makes it into something no less boring and domesticated than a valve we need to release once a day or so (this time pun intended). We don’t see the back stories of the girls who do this work that they probably find incredibly degrading, we don’t see the producers cheat their actors out of the money and probably mistreat the women.

This is, ultimately, why Last Tango, in all its gross absurdity, still resounds in the mind years after you see it as a unique disaster among all movies. When viewed from the outside, there is nothing in the world so ridiculous as sex. Not even Brando, the most legendary actor in American history, can possibly convey an experience as personal as what sex means to each of us. Sex is an experience so unique to each person that there is no containing it within a camera: pornography that is successful is so because it corresponds to what a person’s image of what sex should be, but the world of sex is something so diverse that nothing has yet been invented that can portray in art the universal nature of the act.

The arts don't do sex particularly well, because nothing in art can be as vivid as sex is. What art does better than anything is death, because death is the fundamental fact of human nature about which we know absolutely nothing - death is an apparent ceasing of sensation, the nature of which we can only have an infinity of guesses with no confirmation. Perhaps closer in complexity to sex is war, and we have certain works that correspond to the nature of war: certainly Tolstoy’s War and Peace conveys the complexity of war, but Tolstoy would never do the same for sex; in fact, he loathed sex and thought it was something so dirty that he wrote a treatise advising the entire world to abstain from it.  In 1998, Steven Spielberg finally conjured what veterans regard as a image of what being in war truly feels like with Saving Private Ryan. Even so, Spielberg is just about the least interested in sex of any filmmaker in the history of the medium, so he’s obviously not the person who would be able to capture sex properly. Goya certainly captured something about war in his portrait of an execution in the Third of May, 1808, you see the stark image of the man about to executed and his terror at his impending mortality - but is that a picture of war or death? The painter of The Nude Maja was certainly no stranger to sex, but it’s hard to imagine that that painting was meant as anything but as commissioned pornography by a nobleman.

No doubt, if you’re going to find sex captured real form, the best place to look is in visual art. Just to give a few examples from memory and a quick google search… Certainly, we get a sense of sex’s dangerous allure in Hieronymous Bosch’s paintings, but Bosch uses sex as a cautionary tale. “As delightful as it seems, think of the horrors that await you in Hell!” Klimt’s fantastically titled “Die Frau und die Selbstbefriedigung” The bliss on the woman’s face does really seem like whatever “Selbstbefriedigung” is, but aside from that, there’s nothing particularly profound about it. Picasso’s famous Demoiselle D’Avignon, is an incredibly powerful picture of brothel workers, and it’s even more powerful if you go to see it in person at MOMA in New York. Nevertheless, while it tells us that sex is a very powerful thing, it tells us very little about what makes it so powerful.

The closest we get to that world-shaking profundity is probably just Courbet’s Origin of the World, which is a picture of a vagina. The point of this painting is not sex, the point is us. It is the place from whence we all came and where we all long to go again. Is it the most profound work of art ever conceived, or just a painted muff with an incredibly clever title?

Perhaps therein lies (again excuse the double ententre) the point. To contain sex like that would be to make it into a kind of domesticated pet, which is the very last thing sex is - perhaps especially now in the modern world. since contraception has unleashed this cosmic urge from most of the considerations of pregnancy.

All the men in the world could be convinced, as we no doubt should be, that a concept in male society like rape culture absolutely exists, that a system not unlike a patriarchy was long ago put into place to keep women from achieving on the same level as men, and that men constantly and subtly perpetrate something not unlike microaggressions onto women. But the power dynamics within sex would not change, because next to death, it is the most powerful force in the world. It existed for billions of years before humans did, and will exist for billions of years after humans cease to exist. Nothing in our lives: modernity, civilization, or suburbia, can prepare us for the power of an urge so primeval. You could get rid of every oppressive superstructure that supposedly turns (or allows) some people to commit acts of evil and you’d still have to deal with the stinking savage urges that well up without warning from the depths of a consciousness that predates animals infinitely less biologically advanced than humans.

So perhaps Last Tango in Paris is not quite so stupid as I think it is. Nobody needs to see human animals at their most caterwauling and lustful, but at least Last Tango makes an effort to portray it in good faith. Perhaps it isn’t quite as bad as I give it credit for being. But even if it isn’t, I don’t want to find out for another ten years...