Monday, March 5, 2012

Ambiguity: Let me tell you something…

…about 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. In this very subjective piece of writing on this piece of film, I am going to tell you 2001 or so things about this film. Of course, that is an exaggeration. My curiosity with this film budded because I noticed one thing about it: the American Film Institute claimed it to be the no. 1 science fiction film (up to 2008 that is). This was something which I felt was not quite the case in my opinion. But why should I care, particularly since this is about opinions and it is the AFI’s opinion that 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is as such - except that opinion is the one with authoritative weight. Therefore, I take it with a grain of salt. Thus, I studied the film in the second time of my viewing it.

The first thing which came through my mind is that unless humanity is smarter than what I take it to be, that 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is renown as much as it is for having great special effects for 1968. This is the central point of the film really. It is an expose of technical skill, such as what films like BLADE RUNNER (1982) and very much so AVATAR (2009)*. That was what this film won an Academy Award for. Even Kubrick’s directing makes this the center piece. All of the long shots of the different things done by the special effects technicians and artists are the way they are because it holds the same amazement that seeing a dance or a ballet done with inhuman perfection does (and both would have been filmed in the same manner, no doubt). It is a SFX exhibit.

Unlike AVATAR (2009) and very much like BLADE RUNNER (1982) though, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY has an abstract story with a theme, with the ambiguitous ending mixing in with the ambiguity making the film quite an idiosyncratic piece. Again, most of it is because of the ending, which can have so many interpretations. I personally have not read any studies on the film itself, therefore these are my opinions. Case in point, when the theatrical poster said that 2001 was about "exploration" (among other things), it was not lying just to get butts into theatre seats.

The film is about the different great scientific milestones we have and haven’t (but might) experience. The beginning part, dubbed "The Dawn of Man" is the beginning of this. For the most part, people who do not understand this part of the film (meaning specifically the parts of the ape-like creatures, not the part which takes place in the future once man has achieved space travel) do not have an understanding of one of the most basic (if not the most) piece of plot structuring - it is all about one group fighting against another group for territory. When it comes to Earth-oriented organisms, any different species with intelligent cause cannot consume the same resources (or at least the same source for the resources). One football team vs. another, college students vs. a can of liquid Satan, monkeys vs. monkeys. One monkey discovers that you can use bones as a smashing tool and gets to have an upper hand against his peers.

The second part of the film (post-bone throwing in the air) is when the second great discovery (after the thought of simple machines was planted) - intelligent life other than man out in the universe. The second part shows this only to keep the proposed theme alive. It is worth mentioning that the main human character in this section is doing something which will comes to matter latter on (in a metaphysical way) - not spending his birthday with his daughter. Something quite sad, especially since the daughter seems to not even be ten years old. Quite a cold thing to do.

Part three follows the main character of Dave. Sixteen months after having found the Black Monolith on the Moon, they decide to go up and check things out. The main point of drama in the piece is Dave having to disconnect the memory system of HAL - a seemingly flawless computer system who has intelligence and life beyond what even its creators are aware of. The thing to notice though is that Dave basically killed HAL. A common thing that happens when one turns off a computer device (or at least it used to be a commonplace happening) is that computer loose their memory. If HAL was to have been rebooted, chances are he would cease to be the same spirited HAL that we saw threaten Dave.

In killing HAL, a consistent theme comes out with each new "major" discovery the film covers - each times man makes a new discovery, it comes at the price of an organism loosing its life. A monkey beats another to death with a bone, showing a creature with new intelligence killing a creature of a lesser IQ. For finding the monolith on the Moon only to follow it’s signal to the planet Jupiter, HAL lost his life to a human - the creature of less intelligence killing a being of higher intelligence. Also to note, HAL’s death really is as bad as what Kubrick makes it. HAL is truly alive, particularly when it came to his actions such as killing off the rest of the crew save Dave. He passed judgment, a judgment most likely done through the assumption that while Earth has been already basically destroyed by humans, he could prevent the same event from happening on Jupiter.

Worth mention though is how cold Dave seems to be compared to HAL. The actor for Dave shows minimal emotion, not unlike HAL. However, when it comes to the voice, HAL is much more vibrant in his vocal styles than what Dave is. HAL also seems to be not one who is totally cold when it comes to killing someone either, seeing that after Dave says for the umpteenth time "Do you read me, HAL?", HAL responds. In all of HAL’s pleading, Dave does not answer. Dave only answers when it is a question not relating to what he is doing - unbooting HAL. This follows commonplace along with the death of the monkey at the beginning and the missing of the daughter’s birthday - for man to make scientific progress, he has to be cold. This reminds me of a source of conflict within the film AKIRA (1988) in which a General and a Scientist have a bit of a disagreement, in that the scientist will be willing to sacrifice lives for scientific conquest while the general doesn’t care for that conquest as long as the population is unharmed and if danger is looming in the future, the experiment being conducted for the betterment of science is to be terminated. In a science class, you learn that there is a variation of the experimental method in which if something seems morally wrong, you only look for coincidences and claim it to be a theory (this is used for things like seeing the correlation between smokers and lung cancer). The thing is though that a good bit of scientists do not totally share that kind of humanity, with the lack of religion’s power being a source (most of humanity’s morals came from religious sources, which was at one time mandatory to learn. But since it has lost it’s influence as a major question answering institution, morals are separated into the humanities. And unless you take a class on them in high school or you just naturally grow sympathetic feelings, you lack that humanity).

We come now to the third and final part. After a nice bit of exhibiting what computers can do with film via the Stargate sequence**, we see the very ambiguitous ending. In a very European-looking house, Dave sees older versions of himself who are looking at older versions of themselves who are looking at older versions of themselves. This part of the film is totally metaphorical and might not be at all reality. A character that dwelled in the parts of the film that were reality is now being used as a complete allegory. Dave stands for the whole of humanity (the whole cast stands for the whole of humanity at any given point n the film). Dave stands for humanity when they make scientific conquest. Dave looking at himself is like humanity looking at itself and their domain in a new way once a scientific discovery is made only to try to predict and forecast the future of humanity, only that once humanity has gone on long enough (bed-ridden elder Dave), a scientific discovery is made (the black monolith) that shakes the foundations of our understanding to the point that we see almost everything new (the fetal Dave that we see in the bubble at the end). This was true when the idea of a heliocentric was discovered in the times when geocentrism was the commonly accepted truth when institutions like the Roman Catholic Church reigned supreme. This is something reflected in the film PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987), directed by John Carpenter (who, using a phrase coined by Ridley Scott, is the true "John Ford of the science fiction genre"). The quote, said by actor Victor Wong, goes a little something like this:

"From Job’s friends insisting that the good are rewarded, and the wicked punished [a reference to a Bible story] to the scientists of the 1930’s proving, to their horror, a theorem that not everything can be proved, we have sought to impose order onto the Universe. But we have discovered something quite shocking - there is order to the universe, but it is not at all what we had in mind."

In a nut shell, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is a film about man’s exploring of science, weather it be depicting the actual act of it or showing a metaphor in which depicts humanity’s cycle when it comes to making scientific discoveries. This is a theme which is very interesting in which it is a science fiction film commenting on the scientific process, a part of human society often ignored by science fiction cinema save for the Elden theme that "Scientists shouldn’t play God" (a theme implemented in stories such as FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and turned on it’s head by PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)). It is a study of man’s intellectual side, not his animalistic side or where the two meet.

This has been a nice chat. I hope you learned something.

*James Cameron is one of the worst science fiction directors working today. His films show are action films passed off as science fiction (ALIENS (1986)) or are unoriginal (TERMINATOR (1984)) copying a couple of adapted works by Harlan Ellison, TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY (1991) being derivative of BLADE RUNNER (1982), and AVATAR (2009) imitating the story of films like DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990) ). While good at pushing the limits of the medium technically, he cannot push the limits story-telling wise.

**Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin being the worst working in the genre, creating terrible works like STARGATE (1990), INDEPENDENCE DAY (1994), and GODZILLA (1998), which define the difference between thoughtful Science fiction cinema and brainless sci-fi cinema which has a bad effect on it’s audiences and even destroyed one of the greatest science fiction films of all time, GODZILLA (1954).

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Tarantino and his "Fanboy Clap Trap"

One of the most controversial aspects of Quentin Tarantino’s repertoire is his reliance on cultural references (mainly popular contemporary culture). This has been a complaint in which those who hold it are in the minority. While not to say that their complaint isn’t illegitimate, there are two angles to this aspect which make it that the judgment of "good" or "bad" both right, all depending on 1.) The Age of the Audience and 2.) The Role the References play within the work. This piece will analyze the evolution of the pop culture references in Tarantino’s film and see the different experienced a younger or cinematically inexperienced viewer might have versus an older or more experienced film viewer.

As of this writing, Tarantino’s directed and written works are of six bodies. This is quite clearly 1992’s RESERVOIR DOGS, 1994’s PULP FICTION, 1997’s JACKIE BROWN, 2003/2004’s KILL BILL, 2007’s GRINDHOUSE, and 2009’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. The evolution of the pop culture references seemed to develop positively with each new film, showing a growing sophistication paralleled by the higher budget of each new project.

RESERVOIR DOGS is a film which shall be graded with disregard to claims that it is a remake of the film CITY OF FIRE (which isn’t so much of the case, it is a rehash of the film’s last 20 minutes more than a remake). Below is a list of the references that RESERVOIR DOGS makes to different pop culture icons.

Reservoir Dogs:
2. Charlie Chan
3. John Holmes/Charles Bronson
4. Durring break fast scene - two songs mentioned via K-Billy super sounds of the 70's
6. Love grows where my rose marry goes
7. Doesn't everyone want to be wanted (Partridge Family)
8. Inspired DePalma sequence
9. Doris Day
10. Stuck in the middle with you
11. Fire scarecrow
12. Pam Grier/Christie love
13. Marvel super heroes (the thing from fantastic 4)
14. Marlon Brando
15. Don Ripples
16. Silver surfer poster
17. Aunt francis/betty white

References used just for describing petty things or general conversation. When they mention that Joe looks like THE THING, it is less significant than the telling of Mia being a tv pilot actress. None of the "Fanboy claptrap" has anything real to do with the plot. It all has to do with the characters. Describing the characters or letting us be able to associate with these characters - not just on an emotional level like some other films may do (like GOODFELLAS’s Henry Hill, who’s emotional twists and turns is what supposed to make him relatable), but to know that they know the same culture as us. It is a good place to start and it does great to make characters the audience will like (not necessarily great characters).

PULP FICTION, since it is following RESERVOIR DOGS, is just by nature going to have some of the same attributes as it’s predecessor. To many, PULP FICTION was not just the best film of the 1990’s but also a landmark film of all film history for taking what it actually is - pulpy fiction - and turning something seen as dirty into art. Here is a list of the references made in the film.

1. Tony rocky horror - just for joke
2. Explanation of a pilot
3. Bible verse - sony chiba
4. Burger stuff
5. What the TV Show is
6. Jack Rabbit slims - almost as if these people live in the past rather the present.
7. A good bunch of the things in the film (such as Walken being a Vietnam vet (Deer Hunter), Butch deciding to be Zatoichi, ect.)
8. maxi pad
9. Burbank studios
10. Guns of the navarone
11. Kane in kung fu
12. Arnold - green acres
13. Fonzie

As with RESRVOIR DOGS, it is the case in that a good bit of the references made in the film is indeed just for conversation. It is that same culture aspect which helps the characters be more relatable to the audience via culture and not just their predicaments. However, with PULP FICTION Tarantino does decide to take a step foreword. With the explanation of the television pilot, it works with the RD dynamic but also is an important part of the development of the character of Mia Wallace and helps Vincent be able to communicate.

But when we get into things like the Biblical speech Jules recites before popping caps into people’s asses (which is a reference to Sonny Chiba), we actually then go into the character development of Jules and Vincent. Jules ends up having a spiritual enlightenment while Vincent doesn’t (and ends up ironically dieing latter, maybe because of his lack of change). It helps comment on how Jules decides to deal with the problem of having the two lovers try to rob the restaurant.

We also have here a prototype of something which will be continued with Kill Bill, and that is the continuation of characters. This isn’t talking about weather Butch wants to go in as Leatherface or Zatoichi when trying to save Marcellus, rather it is Walken. Sure, enough then though the character dies at the end of the film, Christopher Walken did play a Vietnam Vet in THE DEER HUNTER, and it is almost as if Walken’s character is in an alternate reality, having to speak to Butch.

Other little bits of stuff - such as the Burbank Studios plug is just there in order to give the audience (or at least the parts of the audience which knows the area) where the characters are.

Jackie Brown is what many would love to call Quentin Tarantino’s most "mature" film, in that the fan boy claptrap (which doesn’t seem to be all that bad of a thing thus far) is at the current minimum of six. Of course, a good bit of that comes from the fact that this is an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard book. Here is a list of the references:

Jackie Brown
1. Use of the music which is not original and copying of the beginning shot from THE GRADUATE
2. The killer - kung fu film reference
3. New york under cover
4. Biggun -lotf
5. Johny cochran
6. Delphonics - mechanism to help the romantic sub plot

With the exception of the beginning (which is either a decide to put us back and remember an older time in American cinema or as some critics have mentioned, is just a great study of Pam Grier’s face) the little un plut, the Johnny Cochran plus, everything here serves a purpose. The mentioning of THE KILLER by Ordel isn’t just the making of small talk, but rather also the illustration of one of the aspects of the gun market. The use of the Delphonics is a device which works in order to help progress the romantic relationship between Max Cherry and Jackie Brown. Of course a couple is going to share some of the stuff that they have passions about. In fact, the use of the music does have some contextual worth, with Ordel noticing the music playing in Max’s car the night of his death being (or should have been) and indicator of which side Max took.

KILL BILL is maybe the most complex film to talk about from this aspect. One thing which makes this job easier is that the need to list all of the pop culture references is not there. So many different books and articles on blogs and such have gone over and act as check lists for a bunch of the stuff here.

So, what can we make of this stuff?

The first thing to acknowledge that two things which would be seen as pop culture references are not. The inclusion of Sonny Chiba’s Hattori Hanzo and Gordon Liu’s Pai Mei are extensions of characters from different franchises. Not pop culture references. It’s executed appropriately, since Sonny Chiba has played Hattori Hanzo for much longer than most actors do with individual characters. Sonny Chiba played Hattori Hanzo in the television series KAGE NO GUNDAM as well as in SHOGUN’S SAMURAI and MAKAI TENSHO. As for Gordon Liu’s Pai Mei, Gordon Liu has had the distinct pleasure of fighting and defeating on three different occasions Pai Mei in three different Shaw Brothers films, EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN, ABOTT FROM SHAOLIN, and CLAN OF THE WHITE LOTUS. No one else is more certified to play the role as Gordon Liu can.

Passed that, the rest of the pop culture references are deliberate. Many reviewers and critics have noted that out of all of the films that Tarantino has made, this is the one which was the most gratuitous with such. The reviewers which labeled this as a negative just show one of the major faults with critics today - they do not keep up with production notes with films. The first thing to consider when reviewing a film is judging it for what it is. If something is meant to be in the film, then one shouldn’t criticize it for it’s inclusions, weather how well it is done. Tarantino does it better than anyone else. When Bill is using Superman to give a psychoanalysis of Beatrix, it is a pop culture reference that adds substance to the film. KILL BILL might be a step back in terms of evolution, but it is a deliberate one and not one which shows Tarantino might be loosing his touch.

To mention DEATH PROOF is to go over the same principles addressed with KILL BILL, therefore redundant.

Here, we are at the latest (till this Christmas) of Tarantino’s films, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. Here is the list of the pop culture references for the film:

1. Hitler Propoganda (unknown specific) - used to flesh out the motivation of landa
2. Heydrich "the hangman" - historical reference for reality
3. The White Hill of piz palu
4. Leni Riefenstahl
6. w.g. pabst
7. max linder
8. lilian harvey
9. vichy (?)
10. Winston Churchil
11. Louis B Mayor
12. David O. Selzenick
13. UFA
14. Hamlet
15. Winnetka (of the Apaches)
16. Matta Hari
17. King Kong
18. Edgar Wallace
19. Ghengis Kahn
20. Marco Polo
21. Briditte Money

With INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, the "Fanboy claptrap" complaint can no longer be used to be applied to Quentin Tarantino. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is Tarantino’s love letter to the cinema. All of the references and such to German filmmakers and their works are to be expected. Therefore, if they are expected to know it, then why call it fan boy claptrap. It is part of these people’s professions to know this kind of stuff. Shoshanna is a theatre owner, Bridgette von Hammersmach is an actress, and Goebbels is a producer and director. The mentioning’s of the Nazi propaganda and Heydrich the Hangman is all that which just fleshes out the point the character Hans Landa has made.

Other Notes

A big aspect of the criticism that Tarantino receives when people attach his fan boy-ish tendencies is that you have to take the viewer into account. Let’s profile a movie critic for a minute. When it comes to the major critics that people actually listen to on a good basis is a critic who is older. The normal to assume is that the elder critic has seen more films than their younger and aspiring counterparts (yes, there are some scenarios which are exceptions but I am talking about the general norm). I know that a favorite filmmaker of mine John Carpenter said that he didn’t care for INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS due to the copying of the music (Carpenter is notorious for being one who scores his own films). The older generations are going to get all of the hints, winks, homaging, rip-offing, and other such things that Tarantino does with his films.

But then lets go to a viewer like myself. Now, when I was 10 years old and I was shown KILL BILL for the first time, I did not get any of the inferences except for obvious ones like STAR TREK or EVEN STEVEN. When I heard the music, I thought it was made for the film and that a lot of it was Tarantino’s creativeness. Now, eventually, you have to come to terms that that isn’t necessarily the case. But, even though you will have to give credit to different people and their works (which are different films), your experience of those items was with Tarantino’s films, when it comes to your emotional bank with films. In the end, that is what matters.

As Scorsese has said, there isn’t one thing which the old masters hasn’t already done. Our job is to improve on it. That is what Tarantino does. He puts his own unique spin on many things. This is a big thing with films like PULP FICTION, KILL BILL, and INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. One also has the old adage from Picaso, "Good artists copy, great artists steal." Which goes great in the argument that Tarantino should use original music. To be technically correct, Tarantino has used original music before. KILL BILL’s second half uses music done by Robert Rodriguez. But then you have those who criticize Tarantino for reusing works from the likes of Ennio Morricone. Skipping the already used reasoning that something which leads a person to another good thing cannot be bad, you got to think that this borrowing of music is something which helps breathe new life into works. Certain pieces of music are used for certain scenes in past movies, but Tarantino finds certain pieces to be idiosyncratic and therefore reuses them, letting the pieces be more of what they ultimately are, fully realizing their potential.