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Critical Strike: “Daybreakers” and the Power of the Genre-Generic Trope January 25, 2010

Posted by arcanyx in Uncategorized.
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My attitude as I began watching Daybreakers was, as with all hyper-advertised vampire films, dubious with regards to its potential quality. It was, then, a pleasant surprise to find it to be a surprisingly well-crafted film, with impressive cinematography and imagery, good acting, non-infurinating dialogue and a healthy dose of creativity in its formation of the film’s world.

However, this realization would come only after experiencing the whole of the film; as of a few seconds into the film, I was filled with disappointment and a strong desire to simply leave the theater. To explain why, bear with me as I attempt to recreate the opening credits of the film through prose:

Silence. Blood red letters, thankfully absent of any blood-like effect to them, fade in slowly at different points across the screen with the expected text detailing studio, director, and the like. An interesting, palpable tension develops. It is all shattered when the view changes to that of a bat flying directly toward the camera, accompanied by a screech so loud and intrusive that it was almost painful to hear.

To me, this was perhaps one of the worst moments of the film, as a nice feeling of suspense was destroyed by this cheap horror trick. But the entire audience, at least somewhat familiar with the “scary image/loud noise” film trope, must have immediately come to similar conclusions:

Daybreakers = horror film.

It is unfortunate, then, that Daybreakers has practically no horror offerings aside from repeated usage of this same sad little trope throughout the film.

Daybreakers, if it had to be classified, would perhaps best be described as a thriller. However, this would play down its greatest strength: the crafting of a reasonably interesting and believable narrative in a highly interesting world, which puts it far, far ahead of its chronological Hollywood peers. In fact, there are a number of thought-provoking insights in Daybreakers, transmitted chiefly through its crafting of a vampiric utopia on the verge of collapse due to a lack of blood supply from the dwindling human population.

The problem is that the film’s creators seemed hell-bent on cramming Daybreakers into a pre-existing film genre, to the point where they cannot even decide which genre that is.

Let’s take a quick look at the use of tropes in the film, and the genres they typically serve as markers for.

Horror: excessively loud screeching, strange obsession with bats flying toward the camera (despite their having no plot relevance whatsoever), a few moments of “turning the corner blindly” suspense that feel, at best, forced and out-of-place.

Action: a few excessive scenes involving driving stakes, arrows, and wooden bullets into legions of hostile vampires, which luckily cause the vampires to explode dramatically -_-

War: a particular slow-motion “soldier-realizing-his-orders-are-wrong” moment that is beyond painful to watch.

Let me be clear: I am not against the use of tropes. In fact, good use of tropes is a key element in clever filmmaking, even if the tropes themselves are cheesy and tired. Tropes are among the most powerful tools in a filmmaker’s repertoire primarily because of the familiarity the audience is expected to have with them. They become able to say a great deal with a small expenditure of visual and temporal capital, which are precious resources for a filmmaker. The problem with the use of tropes in Daybreakers is that they are both cheesy and extremely inappropriate, as it is not a horror, action, or war film by any means.

Even more damning, these tropes are not just a few fleeting moments in Daybreakers. Almost all of the tropes repeat over and over through the film, getting steadily more and more banal. There is a scene near the end of the film – the part where the film should be furthering its narrative impetus at all costs – crafted for no other purpose that having a bat fly towards the camera with a shriek. Literally. Nothing at all happens in this scene except that. Nothing. A full minute is wasted on enacting a trope from the wrong genre.

The confusion that this causes is more than a little relevant. Upon leaving the theater, I was unable to point out any large structural errors in the film; it succeeded (often admirably) on all the traditional metrics of film quality. However, the presence of these tropes, these out-of-place, awkward moments where the film loses everything that makes it interesting and becomes a generic product, often painfully so. Unfortunately, this poor trope usage casts a pall (no pun intended) over the whole film, bringing the entire product’s quality down without directly attacking aspects such as character, story, cinematography, and the like.

It is nothing more than poor craftmanship, which is made even worse due to its juxtaposition with the above-average craftmanship of the rest of the film. While I cannot speak to this as a fact, it felt to me like an overzealous producer wanted to make the film more “accessible” to wide audiences through the insertion of familiar tropes. Regardless of the truth of this, the very fact that the thought came to the mind of a viewer is a devastating strike against the film. Perhaps the only good thing that can be garnered from this bumbling example of filmcrafting is the impressive power that tropes wield, even when they are detracting from a film rather than strengthening it.

Critical Conclusion – If you can stand excessively loud noises and are looking to experience an interesting, visually impressive world, by all means watch Daybreakers. However, if you are unable to selectively excise the really bad moments from films, this film will infuriate you and is probably not worth spending your money on.

Next Time: Bayonetta and fan service delirium – positive force or disgusting flaw?

Critical Miss: The “Avatar” Debacle — A Dangerous, Empty Precedent January 9, 2010

Posted by arcanyx in Uncategorized.
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To put it simply:

As a film, Avatar sucks.

There are a lot of positive statements that can be made about Avatar. It succeeds as a visual work, as entertainment, perhaps even as a cultural entity.

But there is no way around it: practically every non-visual aspect of Avatar is just trashy, tired, poorly-executed science fiction.

Sci-Fi, Racism, and the White Savior

There is a problem with a huge film like Avatar inserting itself into the sci-fi genre: it brings said genre to a large audience that is mostly not indoctrinated. This leads, of course, to a certain amount of “dazzle” that even a casual consumer of sci-fi would not find in the film.

I want to be extremely clear on this front. There is absolutely nothing fresh, exciting, innovative, or even particularly well-executed about Avatar‘s sci-fi elements.

I have heard multiple people say that the film was deep because it contained a colonization allegory.

Guess what? So has every other film about space exploration. Practically every episode of Star Trek contains Avatar’s allegorical structure — and most execute it far better.

Again, I want to be clear: there is no requirement that someone be well-versed in a genre to enjoy a film of that genre. I myself am no sci-fi expert — merely an occasional consumer. However, the shallow and insulting nature of Avatar’s narrative should be clear to anyone willing to look beneath its impressive visuals.

First, the knee-jerk comparison of the colonization in Avatar to American colonization is incorrect. The driving force behind the subjugation of the Native Americans was land — the invaders in Avatar are seeking resources. As such, it is much more akin to gold harvesting in the Congo or the tragedy surrounding so-called African “blood diamonds”.

Second, James Cameron deals with this allegory in a heavy-handed, inelegant, and wholly whitewashed manor. The film’s ultimate message, without a doubt, is that the only person that can save tribal peoples from the white menace is the white man himself. The thinly-veiled racism in this “White Savior” construction should be obvious — it removes all agency from the tribal people in the film, a weakness the already-weak plot and characters cannot bear. Cameron’s deification of white people — remember, every non-white alpha character, including Michelle Rodriguez’ character, is summarily smitten by Cameron’s whitewashed hand.

Beyond the unbearable whiteness of the film, Cameron simply fails to personalize the allegory in any way. The tribal people are all “perfectly” tribal — they are made incapable of any kind of learning or communication of any kind. They are fleshed out as impulsive, savage creatures unable to be educated or reasoned with, resulting in the explosive ending of the film. Not a single Na’vi even seems to show an interest in learning from an obviously advanced group of people — further emphasizing tribal inferiority and the need for the White Savior. The invaders, on the other hand, play their role in an equally stereotypical fashion. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence, these “bad whites” refuse to accord any respect to the tribal people, making the conflict feel forced and absurd. In this way, Cameron manages to demean both groups of people to the point of irrelevance.

Much more can be said on this topic, but in the interest of keeping this post of a reasonable length, I will leave it at this — Cameron manages to take a tried-and-true allegory and fails miserably to develop it. This could possibly be overlooked in the face competent characterization — unfortunately, this is an even greater weakness of the film.

Hire A Writer Next Time

Avatar‘s character development is nothing short of embarrassing. Each character seems taken directly out of sci-fi stereotype-land and not allowed to develop in any kind of interesting or surprising way.

The disillusioned soldier, the empathetic scientist, the warrior woman, the corrupt corporate official, the bloodthirsty general.

That’s the cast, and they never do a single thing to escape these descriptors. At no point in the film does a single character do something unexpected. Each stereotype develops to its predictable end. Disillusioned Soldier finds something to believe in. Empathetic Scientist becomes a martyr. Warrior Woman submits to the patriarchy. Corrupt Official has everything taken away. Bloodthirsty General gets killed off-screen.

At one point, it seems like the film actually desired to delve deeper into Disillusioned Soldier’s loss of his grip on reality, which was an interesting direction for the character to take. However, the subject is mentioned and then quickly made irrelevant because Bloodthirsty General is on the warpath.

Speaking of Bloodthirsty General — the primary villain in the film — there is not even a single moment in the film devoted to characterizing him at all. He is less developed than most B-movie sci-fi villains, and is less of a character than a nearly-unkillable-for-no-good-reason conflict automaton. I couldn’t even bring myself to dislike him, and found myself laughing at his incredible ability to dodge death through bloodthirst alone.

Beneath its gorgeous veneer, Avatar contains nothing more than a poorly-executed, tired story reeking of racism. But what of the veneer?

The Dangerous Visual Precedent

If there is any value to Avatar at all, it is its obvious technological mastery. Through its visuals, the film does successfully flesh out a vibrant, lush world, even though it fails to tell any kind of interesting or relevant story within that world.

But for a moment, look beyond the pretty colors and the realism of the Na’vi.

Is there anything truly beautiful about Avatar‘s visuals?

Impressive, yes. Stimulating, without a doubt. But beautiful? I can’t see it.

Visual beauty is inextricably tied in with empathetic resonance. Without the presence of an involving plot, interesting characters, or some kind of poignant theme or message, impressive visuals are merely technological masturbation, void of purpose and power.

I found shots of George Clooney’s painfully-spartan apartment in Up In The Air to be far more beautiful, haunting, and impacting than every prismatic insect and glowing flora and blue humanoid in Avatar combined.

Avatar is pretty. It is not beautiful.

However, the film’s success — and the critics’ willingness to overlook all of the film’s obvious flaws because of these overwhelming visuals — creates a kind of impending disaster for the Hollywood film industry. It threatens to exalt technological improvements over the basic storytelling machinations that make films relevant to audiences in the first place. This is something that the already-weak showings from Hollywood could not possibly bear.

A Glimmer in the Rough

However, I do think Avatar is relevant in an interesting meta-critical sense, particularly in how film critics — normally obsessed with story and character above all — have given the film good reviews while in the same breath panning its weakness in those fields. It reads to an unsurprising truth about our culture and, perhaps, humanity overall: the veneer is what really counts. Internal beauty is nice, but with enough external glamour even the greatest internal flaws can be forgiven. It reveals how ultimately untrue the societal myth of “what’s inside is what really counts” is.

On a truly positive side, the visuals are fantastic. So fantastic, in fact, that after even the most vehement criticism of this horrible film, I have to recommend that everyone see it for themselves. In fact, the greatest artistry I found in the film was the extremely subtle, elegant use of 3-D technology, it appearing almost exclusively in the “human” areas and rarely in the “native” areas, creating a sort of implication about the invasiveness of technology that was far more significant than anything else the film have to offer.

Recommendation: Watch it in 3-D, enjoy the awe-inspiring 2.5 hours of entertainment, and go watch one of the many excellent works of true sci-fi to get the bad taste of racism out of your mouth. I recommend Solaris.

Next Time: Daybreakers and the corruptive power of the horror movie trope.

Critical Blow: “Up In The Air”, A Futurism Opus January 4, 2010

Posted by arcanyx in Uncategorized.
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(Note: Spoilers ahead.)

Yesterday I had the pleasure of watching Jason Reitman’s Up In The Air, a George Clooney-centric film about the harrowing life of a man who travels around the United States to fire people for large companies. There is little to be said about the surface quality of the film; it boasts pristine cinematography, poignant performances and brilliant, witty writing. What interests me most about this film is not related to its cinematic qualities, but its substantive themes regarding reproductive futurism, human connection, and the rigors of aging.

No Job, No Future

With regards to these themes, it is absolutely uncanny how on-point Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (a work that I happened to read just a few months ago) is in formulating a critical reading of Up In The Air. In No Future, Edelman espouses the idea that reproductive futurism, or the societal imperative for its members to enter reproductive relationships and continue the species, is constructed around a self-propagating narrative that holds no essential truth or veracity. While this is but one of many arguments Edelman makes in No Future — and a vast simplification of this argument, at that — the concept is absolutely essential to understanding the immensely powerful statement Up In The Airmakes about the futurist narrative.

In the film, Ryan Bingham (Clooney) at first appears to a paragon of anti-futurist thought. He travels constantly without significant human connection of any kind, leaning on corporate symbols of loyalty (frequent flyer miles, preferred flier benefits, and the like) for comfort. In addition to his regular job, he occasionally delivers a distinctly anti-futurist motivational talk (“What’s In Your Backpack?”) where he advocates discarding all non-essential objects and relationships in an effort to move faster; as he says, “when we move slow, we die faster”. The film presents this speech as Bingham’s validity-argument for his own lifestyle, implying a sense of arrogance and disdain for those burdened by families, material belongings, and the like — all of which are the most basic tropes of the futurist narrative.

Of course, not all is well for the anti-futurist. A new employee at his company, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) introduces a method of terminating employees via video conference, effectively eliminating the need for him to travel. This distresses Bingham, ostensibly because he enjoys his routine — however, keeping his anti-futurist convictions in mind, it is clear that “grounding” him will make him unable to lead a lifestyle through which he can avoid being grasped by the tendrils of the futurist narrative. When he attacks the Keener’s ability to truly understand the process she is updating, his superiors attach her to his last voyage around the country to teach her the ropes.

Unsurprisingly, Keener represents a person that, while as competent and intelligent as Bingham, has bought entirely into the futurist narrative — she has a boyfriend that she followed to Nebraska after college, a fantasy of being married by 25, and an incredulous reaction to Bingham’s assertions that he desires neither marriage nor children. In this, Bingham and Keener lock into the classic futurist struggle — Keener the reproductive futurist, deifying the idea of the metaphorical Child, and Bingham the sinthome, an identity that can be roughly described as those opposing futurism.

Bingham is no stranger to opposition to his anti-futurism; his two sisters often attempt to bring him into the futurist fold with techniques of guilt. He has resisted before; this time, however, a new factor comes into the fold: a woman, Alex (Vera Farmiga), who describes herself as “[Bingham] with a vagina”.  They connect immediately, but it takes great persuasion on Keener’s part to convince Bingham to pursue his involvement with Alex any further than airport hookups.

This decision on Bingham’s part takes place at a particularly interesting moment for a futurist reading of the film; at an extraordinarily important conference where he is giving his “Backpack” speech to a huge crowd, he suddenly flees the stage in order to pursue Alex. There is no more obvious rejection of his anti-futurist ways; in that moment, he has become a full believer in the futurist narrative. Of course, when he goes to Alex’s home in Chicago, he finds that she is, of course, married with kids. Bingham’s devastation comes not so much through his loss of Alex as a reproductive partner — he does not linger over her for long, if at all — but moreso in the destruction of the futurist foundation that always supported his anti-futurism. In other words, Bingham, like many hyper-modern anti-futurists, allows himself to be so vehemently anti-futurist chiefly because he assumes the futurist narrative will be there to absorb him if he ever becomes unsatisfied with anti-futurism. In this moment, in the revelation of the instability, self-propagating, self-interested and fabricated nature of the reproductive narrative, Bingham has his whole support system destroyed.

In many ways, there is nothing novel about this storyline, having been done hundreds (if not thousands) of times before. However, the utter depth of Bingham’s anti-futurism at the beginning of the film, combined with the insidious manner in which he is convinced of the truth and supremacy of the futurist narrative and his immediate disillusionment the moment he converts to it brings a different message out than mere disappointment. It is an attack aimed directly at the insidious nature of the futurist narrative, if not the assumed supremacy of the narrative itself.

A Future for the Anti-Futurist?

This is not the end for Bingham; set adrift in limbo between complying futurist and vehement anti-futurist, he struggles with what to do with his life. Ultimately, he decides that his corporate loyalty is insufficient to satisfy him, and attempts to share some of the contents of his “backpack” with others rather than hoard them. The film ends with a feel-good moment for Keener, but the last montage of the film — a series of people the viewer previously saw distressed over being fired, but now asserting the comfort that their families gave them after being let go — brings the message back to futurism.

What are we to take away from the film? In this, it is relevant to mention that perhaps the greatest criticism levied at Edelman by critics of No Future is the inapplicability of his theories. His points are difficult to dispute, even his eventual statement that all people eventually become subjects of the sinthome — however, he struggles to find an application, as he casts the sinthome as inherently opposed to all politics and (obviously) reproduction, which essentially makes them self-ostracized exiles of conventional society.

The beauty of Up In The Air, however, is that I feel it provides a possible compromise between the futurist and the anti-futurist. Bingham, at the end of the film, has not sworn off his anti-futurist ways — however, he has been clearly disenfranchised towards becoming a participant in the narrative as well. He ends the film as existing on the fringe between the two disciplines, fueling the reproductive futurists with his own resources while not himself becoming involved. While this may be perceived as a “lonely” or “depressing” lifestyle, in the context of the film (as well as Bingham’s own lack of depression) it is something of a triumph; Bingham has experienced being an acolyte of both sides of the coin and, in his own rebellion, has decided to inhabit a relatively unexplored — and oft-disdained — gray area between them.

I wonder what Edelman would say to this usage of his work; he comes across as extraordinarily adamant about rejecting futurism, despite the lack of a “how” or “why”, so perhaps he would see Bingham as a weak figure, a failure. On the other hand, perhaps seeing his own theories so deeply suffused in a gorgeous work of cinema would give him some pleasure.

Recommendation: Must-see. Far from being overly depressing or frivolous,Up In The Air inhabits that rare space in film where an enjoyable experience is married (no pun intended) to a surprisingly deep, artistic message. And, of course, if Bingham’s plights resonates with you, I would also recommend giving Lee Edelman’s No Future a read.