Saturday, July 28, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: Hostel (2005)

I was at the Toronto Film Festival the same year that director Eli Roth brought Hostel there. In fact, we appeared on the same TV program (Saturday Night at the Movies) to discuss our mutual fondness for an American horror movie classic, The Bad Seed, but our paths never actually crossed. Now that I've finally seen Hostel, I wish we had met. I want the guy's autograph...

Frankly, I didn't expect to appreciate Roth's hit movie so much; or to find that Hostel is such a brilliantly-directed and cleverly-realized film. I'm not particularly enamored with the "gorno" or "torture porn" sub-genre in horror, but I suppose I should have realized that those media-imposed labels (like most labels) serve only to demean the thing categorized. So I'll put my money where my mouth is (better late than never, I guess): Hostel is the best horror movie of the 21st century so far. Hands down.

Presented by Quentin Tarantino and written and directed by Eli Roth (who previously directed the harrowing Cabin Fever; which I liked but didn't love...), Hostel is the story of two wayward American youths, Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson), as they debauch themselves on a vice-is-nice vacation across the European continent. They gleefully smoke pot in Amsterdam, and Paxton engages in group sex with hookers. It's a European decadence tour, with Icelandic buddy Oli, ("The King of the Swing") along for the ride. I
n general the appetites on display here are...endless.

So endless, in fact, that Paxton, Josh and Oli are duped into visiting an out-of-the-way Hostel in Slovakia where the women are said to "love" Americans. Yep, these supermodel-type ladies simply hear an American accent and immediately drop trou. Or so the myth goes. The men, naturally, are intrigued (translation: thinking with their dicks...), and hop a train for Slovakia.

What Josh and Paxton discover in Slovakia, however, in the best tradition of the horror genre, is not paradise, but damnation, a "wrong turn"-type dead-end. All too soon, they descend into an underworld that euphemistically could be termed Hell, a torture-for-profit business named Elite Hunting run by callous locals. There, the world's rich and powerful pay big money to torture, maim and murder their fellow man. The lure, especially for Americans (who fetch a high price as victims...) is the promise (and deliverance) of sex. In particular, Josh and Pax are seduced by Natalya and Svetlana, two Eastern European beauties who easily lead the wayward boys to the "Art Show," the isolated torture factory where furnaces are always burning (burning up human body parts, that is...)

I don't believe a horror movie can truly be great (or classic) unless it is transgressive, meaning that it shatters some barrier or screen taboo. Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre shattered one of the great screen taboos: the belief that movies - even genre flicks - should always feature a level of decorum or distance. Hooper's initiative ripped that sweet idea right out from under unsuspecting audiences with a kick-ass, unconventional narrative that I nickname "no learning." Characters faced Leatherface and died horribly; and then it was time for the next victim to do the same thing...with no traditional advancement of the plot on the horizon.

In its own way, Hostel is equally (if more subtly) ground-breaking, because it smacks viewers in the face with a realization that we like to steadfastly ignore in our everyday lives. We lost decorum long ago; so that's not it. No, Hostel - released in 2005 - explicitly bursts the bubble of American superiority (in a time that American military is also looking not-so-superior, mired down in the Middle East). Yet we still believe (and Hollywood has also led us to believe...) that we "amuricans" are invincible; the chosen ones. We're the shining city on the hill; it's morning in America; I'll always believe in a place called Hope. And on and on. We have mythologized ourselves to such an alarming degree that many of us live in denial of the fact that death - for most people in the world - is still an everyday occurrence. Just because we have Starbucks and I-Phones doesn't mean that we're immortal. We think we are above the rest of the world when in fact, we are connected to it.

Above, I wrote that the audience learns this powerful lesson along with the characters, and how Eli Roth impresses (and transgresses...) is by showing us the horror of torture, by visually landing us - his viewership - in his evil torture chair. Despite all the cries from moral guardians of how twisted and perverse this movie is, you will notice (I hope...) that Roth never (not one bleeding time...) adopts the point of view of the killer or torturer. On the contrary, when he turns to the subjective first person shot it is always from the perspective of the person being tortured. In other words, we are seeing through the eyes of the person suffering; not the person causing the suffering. This fact alone should serve to defend the film against cries that it is immoral, or somehow engendering blood lust. Quite the opposite: this movie asks you to sympathize with those who are treated so horribly. To give us a real world example: Hostel asks us what it must be like to be in Guantanamo Bay; or in Abu-Ghraib: without hope, terrified, lost.

The first such P.O.V. shot involves Josh awakening in the torture chamber. He is wearing a hood (shades of Abu-Ghraib indeed...) and can see only through a small round eye slit. The majority of the frame is blacked out, save for a small iris, where he can make out his torturer approaching. Later, Roth adopts the P.O.V. shot again when Paxton is captured at the factory. It is thus our hands we see scraping the walls of the factory; our feet we see dragging the floor. Excepting 3-D, and until virtual reality becomes available, this is as close visually as viewers can get to going through the horrific experience endured by these characters. What Roth is doing here is intentional and important: he is revealing that Americans - if they foolishly venture out of their delusional bubble - might awake to the reality of "blowback," the notion that our government's policy (in this case the suspension of those "quaint" Geneva Conventions) might have made the world a much less safe place. In other words, the message of the film is that you reap what you sow.

But the second element of transgression is the explanation behind the torture we see here. I hark back to Chain Saw again: the taboo shattered there was cannibalism. The Sawyer family was eating people. In Hostel, the transgression (human-on-human torture) is not motivated by twisted psychology, sexual domination, nor cannibalism, but rather an American value we have exported to the rest of the world like a religion: capitalism. (Ask yourself: who would Jesus torture?) The evil committed in Hostel is done in the name of the market, free enterprise and the pursuit of the almighty dollar. It's done to make the locals rich and nothing more. I remember in Chain Saw how it was shocking and horrific that the cannibals didn't even want to have sex with their victims. Sally Hardesty offered herself to the clan and they rejected her outright. To the cannibals she was merely ingredients for dinner.

There's that same sort of alarming, inhuman distance on display in Hostel. Only here, the value of the characters, their worth, is in what money they can draw. Josh begs his torturer to stop, noting that he will "pay" him. The torturer responds, horribly, by informing Josh that he's the one who is paying. So Josh is not an ingredient in a stew, he is a mere commodity to be bought and sold...and used (or abused) as the highest bidder sees fit. His life, his dreams of becoming a writer are unimportant because the market has dictated that his highest worth is as torture fodder. It is a terror just as powerful as Leatherface's. Whether we are ingredients or a commodity, we have been devalued as human beings in a most horrific way. "You can pay to do anything," one character is explicitly told in the film; a statement that reveals the triumph of capitalism and the American way.

What seems so frightening in both cases is the notion of running into a person who doesn't share our human values; one who is a sociopath and doesn't care if he snuffs out life; or one who murders innocent people to achieve an ideological goal. But what is so compelling about Hostel is the fricking irony. The irony that Josh and Paxton have run into callous killers who have learned the exported lessons of America too well. And those lessons are 1.) let the market decide, and 2.) torture is okay when push comes to shove. We have exported these values (just like our Big Macs) to the rest of the world in the Bush era, and it should come as a surprise to no one that the rest of the world is starting to get the message.

On a more basic "scare" level, a horror movie is effective when viewers are able to put themselves in the place of the lead character and sympathize with what they go through; usually some kind of universal human fear. Jaws is scary because we've all been in the ocean, and so we understand the fear of sharks. Psycho is scary because everybody showers. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is terrifying because ultimately, we all have to go to sleep. I submit that Hostel is frightening because it captures some universal human feeling of powerlessness. The characters in the film are strapped down to a chair, bound and gagged, and unable to move or escape. This is an ancillary fear to being buried alive, I suppose: the notion that you are trapped, immobile and at the mercy of someone else. In Hostel, this fear is palpable and carefully exploited. It's not that there's nowhere to run; it's that there's no way to run.

A great horror movie should be reflexive as well as transgressive, and Hostel fits that bill too. Midway through the film, while in search of the missing Oli, Josh and Paxton visit a torture museum...a shrine to the arcane tools that, across our history, have maimed, wounded and killed people. The question this visit raises is: why, as human beings do we tend to be fascinated with devices like these? By inference then, Roth is also asking his viewership, why do we like movies such as Hostel? What draws us in? What element of the human psyche craves this darkness, and relishes the act of causing others pain (or the voyeurism of seeing pain inflicted on others?) I have my answers (and they involve catharsis, primarily), but Hostel addresses this issue in an oblique and interesting way.

The film is reflexive in other ways. It relates directly to horror film history in that Josh and Paxton stay in room 237 of the hostel; which is the "evil" room number from Stanley Kubrick's 1980 masterpiece, The Shining, (which also charted the dark, twisted recesses of the human mind). On a more global, political level, the film clearly has soaked up the Zeitgeist of this miserable, post-911/"War on Terror" age. For instance, when Paxton scores with Svetlana and sees that the virginal (and sexually ambivalent) Josh has done so with Netalya, he enthusiastically states "Mission Accomplished," a direct reference to President Bush's premature announcement from the deck of an aircraft carrier of the end of major combat operations in Iraq. The comment means the same thing in both contexts. Both Paxton and Bush believed they had won the day; unaware that they had actually met their Waterloo.

Transgressive and reflexive, Hostel also impresses because it is never obvious what the film's end game is. These days, pre-release publicity, sneak previews and trailers reveal everything about a movie, but if you knew nothing about Hostel, you wouldn't necessarily know where it is headed. And that means the film boasts the important element of surprise. My wife, Kathryn, was surprised, for instance, by the critique of capitalism and the business angle of the story. She had assumed the torturer was simply going to be a lone wolf psychopath...not a corporate entity. But the point is that Hostel feels legitimately like a travelogue turned sour; an experience unwinding before our eyes. The good location work enhances the subtle feeling of reality, and Roth's unobtrusive but knowing compositions show us what we need to see without actually spelling everything out. There's also a sense of the unpredictable in who lives and who ultimately dies in the film.

An example of the savage cinema, Hostel is gory but not outrageously so (save for the over-the-top and somewhat unsuccessful eyegasm scene...). What makes the film powerful and scary is not just its tapping of a universal fear (of entrapment and immobility) but in its reckoning that our existence is one dominated by random fate. Lives hang in the balance, seemingly decided by a roll of the dice. A door that locks unexpectedly, or a facility for speaking German means the difference between life or death for characters in the film. Hostel also shares something in common with the slasher genre, because vice precedes slice-and-dice. The characters suffer horrible fates after badly misbehaving with drugs and sex. Moral lapses are punished with torture in some instances. Indeed, like the slasher films of the 1980s, one might make a case that there's a very conservative argument at work here. Specifically, early in the film, the boys visit a whorehouse and Josh opens a door only to be rebuffed by the occupants inside. They tell him to get out unless he wants to pay to see what they are doing. At the end of the film, Paxton bursts into a torture dungeon to rescue an Asian girl named Kana, and is told by the torturer to leave unless he wants to pay to see what's going on. "Get your own fucking room! I paid for this!" This line explicitly connects prostitution with torture, and so the argument seems to be that if a culture gets too permissive, it's a slippery slope. One day, it's free sex, the next day murder and torture for profit. Although one can legitimately argue this is merely an extension of the film's critique of capitalism, I think there's a case to be made for the conservative argument too; especially as it has been an important factor in the recent history of horror films.
Some reviewers who object to the film do so on the basis that the characters aren't particularly likable or honorable. I agree that this is the case. Josh and Paxton objectify women to an alarming degree, and as is typical of our culture engage in anti-gay slurs to belittle the manhood of others (everybody they don't like is a faggot). There is constant discussion of "sneepur" (Icelandic for "clit"), pussy, and so forth. However, I would make the case that every bit of this characterization is 100% intentional. The point of Hostel - you reap what you sow - would not be possible without first charting, at least to a degree, American arrogance. Paxton and Josh represent that quality perfectly. They are on tour for selfish reasons (to build some memorable experiences before turning to their careers), they treat women as receptacles, they engage in drugs, and they invite those they don't like to "kiss my American ass." The film involves taking these characters down a notch; introducing them to a larger world outside the bubble of American superiority and safety. Without showing such behavior, this point wouldn't be made. At least not so cogently.
Despite the callow nature of the film's protagonists, I felt for them as their lives turned sour. These two youths had dreams and futures in mind. Paxton tells a story about his youth (and a girl who drowned at Lake Michigan) that explains a lot about him, and Josh is awkward and dorky not in a typical movie way, but in a very real, uncomfortable way. I went to college with guys just like Paxton and Josh. One of my best friends, in fact, looked and sounded and acted exactly like Josh. These characters are recognizable if not deep, and ultimately you come to care that they are imperiled. This doesn't mean that they are a pair of Einsteins; but that's part of the film's message too: the lure here is no deeper than Paxton's Beavis and Butthead-like exclamation "juggs!" when he sees a naked woman in the hostel spa.
Basically, Hostel is far more accomplished than critics gave it credit for being. There's even an economic argument underlying the film (another factor the film shares in common with the trail-blazing Texas Chain Saw Massacre). Remember how in that film, the local slaughterhouse had been closed, leading to mass unemployment in the area, and ultimately to starvation...then cannibalism. In Hostel, the old factory is ruined, of no use, until it is re-purposed in the new global a torture dungeon. The film features many artful long shots revealing the desolation of the landscape; vast, empty industrial fields...where nothing is being manufactured or produced. In a world like this, people do grow desperate. I would never condone torture, but if it were the only major industry of your town (the only way to "put food on our family" as President Bush might turn a phrase), would it be so easy to walk away from?
Roth makes this point in two ways. First, he shows us the "workers" in the torture chamber. There's a lumbering old hunchback whose job it is to cut up the body parts of the dead and throw them into the furnace. Not very nice, but it pays the bills I guess. Secondly, the film's opening sequence reveals a dungeon being hosed clean, while on the soundrack, an unseen worker whistles contentedly. These sequences reveal two things. First, they make it plain that this is a business and that like any business, people work there to get by. Secondly, by showing how torture has become an industry, Roth is able to express the idea that human beings can close down their emotions and do anything, anything, if it's a matter of survival.
I'm not going to argue that Hostel is pleasant to watch. But it is scary, intelligent, occasionally humorous in a macabre way, and highly relevant to the times we live in. It isn't a traditional horror film where the monster is outside humanity. The villain here isn't a Mummy, an alien, a vampire, a werewolf or any of the usual suspects. Why, the villain isn't even a sociopathic human being, a psychotic killer. It's more uncomfortable than that. You see, what makes the film so fascinating to me is that the villain is the system itself. The very American belief that when it comes down to it, absolutely everything is for sale. Even life and death. Paxton and Josh subscribe to this belief themselves, in regards to sex and drugs and anything else their hearts desire at any given moment.
Only one of them lives to regret it.

Friday, July 27, 2007

STAR WARS BLOGGING: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (Part I)

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I began blogging the Star Wars movies as a sort of experiment. Obviously, there's been a huge interruption since I blogged Attack of the Clones. But now it's time. Onto Episode III. To recap, over a year ago, while undergoing a family health crisis, my wife and I undertook the task of watching all six Star Wars films in sequential order, meaning 1 to 6, from The Phantom Menace to Return of the Jedi. My goal in this experiment was to gaze at all the Star Wars films with an unjaundiced, objective eye.

In other words, I didn't want to carry my dislike of CGI or anger with Lucas over "Greedo shoots first" (in the 1997 edition of A New Hope) into this deliberate retrospective. Instead, I wanted to see what the films genuinely offered, free of "expectations." I wanted to be open to the saga and its epic tapestry, not limited by own pre-conceptions as a critic and fan. If that's possible.

Here's what I saw: At the risk of angering the faithful, those whose hearts have burned with a love of the original trilogy for nearly 30 years, I discovered - to my utter astonishment - that all six Star Wars films are of roughly equivalent quality. Special effects had advanced, but in general, all the films are remarkably good, and despite the approximately fifteen year span separating the Originals from the Prequels, they all feel distinctly of "a piece." There's thematic and stylistic consistency. This was a revelation to me, because my knee jerk reaction had been that the prequels kinda sucked...

By way of a comparison, consider the variability of the Star Trek films. Now I love Star Trek even more than Star Wars, but those movies? Whew! You've got your outstanding ones (Wrath of Khan, The Undiscovered Country), your controversial ones (Star Trek: The Motion Picture), your mainstream, popular ones (The Voyage Home, First Contact) and you've got the ones that disappointed the hell out of you but which you love anyway (The Final Frontier, Generations, Insurrection). And then you've got the one that is absolute crap (Nemesis) and you can't redeem no matter how hard you try. However, no matter which Star Trek films you ultimately prefer, and I enjoy watching all of them from time to time, one can't really believably make the claim that in toto, they're of "a piece." Each has a different look, tone and feel than the previous installment. Even on a production level this is true: remember how the bridge of the Klingon bird of prey changed from Search to Spock to Voyage Home?

But Star Wars is, I believe, determinedly different. As much as I'm a Trekker (and boy am I a Trekker!), the Star Wars films are more consistent internally from chapter to chapter and that makes them, I believe, intrinsically artistic and worthy of study. Also, viewing George Lucas's saga this time, I was struck by how the director subtly employs production design to make thematic points, particularly in his rendering of the Galactic Republic as a 1930s art-deco America, before the march of fascism in Europe and World War II. The Phantom Menace and the early films evidence this amazing "golden age" feeling, and one quite at odds with the grim, gray, utilitarian world of a dominant tyrannical Empire that we see in A New Hope. If you're not looking for this change, your first instinct will be to complain that the prequels don't look precisely like the original. Well that's right, they don't. Because the galaxy has "evolved" or devolved after the turbulent political changes, but the consistency is there because we can chart that change. What's new and gleaming in the prequels is trashed, old, mottled and scarred in the Original Trilogy. The world of "beautiful" spaceships has given way to the world of utilitarian ones; there is no place for art (or creativity or individuality) in the lock-step world of the Empire. Reflective silver surfaces have given way to flat battleship gray.

As I wrote above, I have delayed writing this post for some time. Why? Because I feel that my reading of the film, though authentic and I believe accurate, will anger some people. You see, I've come to the conclusion that of the sixth films, Revenge of the Sith is not only my favorite Star Wars film, it's also the best -- and the one that speaks most clearly about the ultimate themes of the film series. Yep, and that includes The Empire Strikes Back. So I wanted to take my time and explain why I feel this way, not just dash off a quick, easy review. Also, what I conclude about Revenge of the Sith today will anger some readers because I see it very much in terms of political conditions today. If that bothers you, please read no further.

So anyway, after that lengthy, rambling pre-amble, let me get at it. This post is about the "politics" of the Star Wars saga, particularly this film. I'll get to other aspects of the film in the days ahead. (I have too many thoughts about this film, and this saga, to confine them to one post. Sorry!)

Revenge of the Sith finds the Galactic Republic embroiled in a Civil War with Separatists. Indeed, "War" is the very first word that appears in the film (on that famous yellow crawl...). Chancellor Palpatine (in office long past his term...) has been captured by the Separatists, and after an incredible space battle, Jedi Knights Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker board the craft of General Grievous and Count Dooku to rescue him. During the mission, Anakin slips towards the Dark Side by letting his vengeance get the better of him (an act of murder urged on by Palpatine).

Meanwhile, Amidala reveals that she is with child, and this revelation terrifies Anakin, for he has been experiencing terrible visions (like the one about his mother, in Attack of the Clones.) He fears that Amidala will die in childbirth and feels impotent to prevent this grim fate. Angry and feeling powerless Anakin seeks out the tutelage of Palpatine, who tells him that there are ways to save Amidala, if only he explores the Dark Side of the Force.

Eventually, feeling he has no option, Anakin succumbs. He betrays the Jedi Order but in doing so, no longer remains the man that Amidala loved. On opposite sides of the war now, Obi Wan and Anakin duel, and Obi Wan wins, leaving a hobbled, burned Anakin to die on the side of a volcano. While the Galaxy slips into darkness and an Empire is born, Amidala dies of a broken heart after giving birth to the twins, Luke and Leia. Anakin survives, but is now more machine than man, locked into a mechanical suit - a cage - and re-named Darth Vader.

In 1755, Benjamin Franklin wrote "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." To me, that is the essential idea at the heart of Revenge of the Sith, both in terms of the Republic, and on a more personal level, Anakin himself. And, in the tradition of all great art, it is a message that relates directly to the time we live in.

What has happened in the Republic? Well, to face a "grave and gathering" threat (the Separatist movement), the Senate has voted for the creation of a "standing" clone army to fight evil renegade Count Dooku. In one thousand years of life (and presumably having vanquished other threats), the Republic has not required such an army, but rather has been safeguarded by the noble protectors of peace, The Jedi Knight. The first chip away at individual liberty in the Republic thus occurs when the Senate sacrifices the principles it has honored for so long, and puts a huge military force under the control of one man, the Chancellor. Then, by appealing to the Senate's sense of patriotism, the Chancellor is given further "Emergency Powers." He remains in office well past his appointed term, and then - claiming an assassination attempt - alters the structure of the Republic in the name of security. Now, he tells the Senate to "thunderous applause," it shall be a strong and safe Empire...but committed to peace. This is how, as Amidala says, democracies die.

There are a number of interesting factors about this set-up that relate directly to America in the last several years (the time the prequels were made and released). The first thing to consider is this: we saw in Phantom Menace exactly how an Emperor began his ascent, chipping away at democracy a piece at a time. A Dark Lord and his allies, using the technicalities of the law removed the Supreme Chancellor (Valorum) from office, consequently gaining power for themselves. They did so by claiming that the Senate's bureaucracy had swelled to unmanageable and non-functional levels (i.e. they want small, effective government) and that Valorum himself was a weak man beset by scandal. The antidote was a self-described "strong leader," someone who could rally the Senate and get it to work again - someone like, say, Palpatine. In other words, a man was chosen to replace a flawed leader, a man who could restore "honor and dignity" to the Republic.

In real world terms, this is precisely like the Republican-led House of Representatives impeaching President Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1999, and then having George W. Bush - a cowboy-like "maverick" from Texas - running on a conservative platform (meaning he would cut through the red tape of bureaucracy). Tellingly, he promised indeed to "restore honor and dignity" to high office. Now, I know people may quibble with this assessment since it casts one party in a "good" light and the other "dark," but this is unquestionably what happened in American politics circa 1999-2001. One party attempted to bring down a leader of the other party, and then in the next election, beat the party in authority by promising strength, honor, and security and highlighting the malfeasance of the former head of state. If Clinton had been a Republican and the impeachment managers in the House of Representatives were democrats, I'd be making exactly same argument, only with parties flipped. I'm not trying to be partisan, here. Really, stay with me.

Now consider what Americans have said is "okay" to in the name of preserving their safety and security since the attacks of 2001. In the days following the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed a sweeping bill called the Patriot Act, which among other things, gave the U.S. government new powers to peek into the private lives of Americans without even necessarily alerting the watched that it was happening. The U.S. government has now asserted, in the name of national security, that is has the right to wiretap Americans without first getting a court order to do so. The War on Terror - an endless war (or at least longer than World War II...) has been the excuse for this. The legal argument for this seizing of power is called the "Unitary Executive."

By any other name, a Unitary Executive is an Emperor. Whether it be Hillary Clinton next time around or George W. Bush today, it's a dangerous precedent. The danger is not in ceding authority to a Republican, per se, or a democrat, but rather in centralizing the power of a democracy within one individual, rather than several co-equal branches. To take this out of the realm of Earthly politics (though Lucas has stated explicitly that he wrote Star Wars as a response to the law-breaking and power consolidation he saw during the Nixon Administration), Star Wars is about what occurs when one powerful person (in this case, Palpatine) attempts to scare free people into surrendering their liberties. He succeeds in that quest in Revenge of the Sith. A democracy is transformed into tyranny.

I know people will complain about me equating our current President with the Emperor. I reiterate: if Bill Clinton, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Michael Moore, or friggin Mickey Mouse attempted to subvert the Constitution in the exact same fashion, I would complain as mightily and as loudly. And textually, I really don't know how people can say that Lucas isn't referring to current events with this film.

To wit: on November 6, 2001, George Bush announced to the world: "You are either with us or against us" in this war on terrorism. In May 2005, George Lucas explicitly put the following words into Anakin Skywalker's mouth: "If you're not with me, you're my enemy." And Obi-Wan's rebuttal? "Only a Sith deals in absolutes." To quote George Tenet, this is a slam dunk case. I would argue that there is no other appropriate way to read this remark except as an explicit rebuke of our country's current "black-and-white" thinking.

I know, somebody's going to say, but John - you liberal surrender monkey, don't you think we should fight terror? I bet you love Osama Bin Laden!

To which I would respond, there's nothing "liberal" about believing in the rule of law and an adequate separation of powers in the United States...or in the Galactic Republic. That's a "strict construction" of what the Constitution states. Contrarily, it's the "activist" position to believe that our Constitution permits a "Unitary Executive" who can operate above the law and claim "Executive Privilege" to cover his malfeasance.. But for the metaphor to hold, one has to understand that the Emperor's war on the Separatists is the same as our "War on Terror." And I believe it is. Remember, Count Dooku and Palpatine were in league all along to foster this war. Did that happen in our time, as well?

Consider that Donald Rumsfeld, the previous Secretary of Defense, was President Reagan’s personal emissary to Saddam Hussein former dictator of Iraq, to open diplomatic relations with that country in December of 1983. In 1984, Donald Rumsfeld, again visited with Saddam Hussein of Iraq. His second trip coincided with the release of a United Nations report condemning the dictator for using deadly nerve and mustard gas on Iranian troops. Yet In 2003, Donald Rumseld planned and executed the invasion of Iraq because Hussein had used chemical weapons before and might do so again. Yes, indeed, the dictator had done so during Rumsfeld's previous assignment! How had a "friend" one day become a "foe" on another? So sure, Saddam Hussein was a ruthless dictator. But he was in 1984 too, when the American government happily did business with him. We didn't invade then, did we? So, like Star Wars, there is a "history" of alliance between the Republic's government and the Republic's enemies (the Separatists). Going even further, Osama Bin Laden was our "pal" in the 1980s too, fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and aided and abetted in that endeavor by Reagan's CIA. So while George W. Bush is the "Emperor," I believe, Count Dooku is either Osama Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein: a useful fool who is a friend when we need a friend and an enemy when we need an enemy. In the end, his aggression is simply a cover for one man (and one ideology) to seize power domestically.

What is clever and artistic about this metaphor is not merely that it is timely (and frightening), but that Lucas tells his story not merely in terms of sweeping galactic governments, but in personal, individual terms. Anakin goes through the same journey personally that the Republic citizenry undergoes on a wide scale. Consider that he too is "terrorized," or rather, the victim of a terrible attack. Not necessarily by the Separatists, but by the Sand People on Tatooine. They kill his Mother. That loss hurts him deeply, and he has his revenge against the agents who hurt him. But then Anakin begins experiencing visions that he will also lose his beloved wife. So, like the Republic itself, Anakin willingly exchanges freedom and liberty for safety and security. He surrenders his golden ideals and turns to the Dark Side because he fears more "attacks," he fears the loss of his family. Thus Anakin is a follower. Might as well be a clone.

Anakin is prone to this weakness early, as we can tell from his discussion on Naboo with Amidala in Attack of the Clones; when he notes that a Dictatorship would make things easier, and thus prove preferable to democracy. Indeed it would be easier, which is why some Americans so gladly accept the idea of a Unitary Executive. George Bush, after all, is the man who has explicitly stated "freedom should have limits," and also on no less than three occasions that a dictatorship is simpler than democracy.

"You don't get everything you want. A dictatorship would be a lot easier," Bush stated as Governor of Texas (Governing Magazine, 7/98). "If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator," Bush said on, December 18, 2000. Finally, there's this: "A dictatorship would be a heck of a lot easier, there's no question about it," Bush was quoted as saying in Business Week, July 30, 2001. Note that all three of these remarks came before Attack of the Clones. Then ponder on just how closely Anakin's remarks in that film mirror these statements. Intentional or not, all these remarks are undeniably creepy: a fond wistfulness espousing the good qualities of tyranny? And didn't September 11, 2001 provide just the excuse to push a democracy towards tyranny? Coincidence or Darth Cheney? You decide.

For all his skills as a pilot and a warrior, Anakin is a weak-minded individual who would rather follow than lead; rather cede individual power and freedom to a dictatorship than make the hard decisions that go hand-in-hand with a democracy. Again - Anakin is a metaphor for the American populace. When attacked, the first thing we do is scream for the government to protect us. We allow the Patriot Act to pass, and don't complain. We allow habeas corpus to be suspended...and we don't complain. We permit the Geneva Conventions to be violated...and we say nothing. We essentially become mindless, quivering "robots,' victims of politically-timed "Terror Alerts." When the government says jump, we automatically respond: "how high?' In other words, we all become Darth Vader: a mechanical shell of our former selves, one now caged. What remains appears humanoid, but functions mechanically and automatically; doing what is ordered.

And when does Darth Vader/Anakin finally reject the Emperor? When his family is threatened...again. When it once more becomes a personal matter for him. He turns on his master not because it is the right thing to do, not for the ideals of democracy, but because he has been ordered to murder his son. I fear this is also true of America. We will not rise up against tyranny until it affects us personally; until we are asked to sacrifice something personal...our families or homes. So the journey of Darth Vader is the journey of us. Anakin/Vader is explicitly a reminder of what happens to citizens when they cease to be rational; when they become so fearful that they trade away liberty for safety. In the end, even those who think they are safe, will suffer under the tyranny (as Return of the Jedi informs us.)

The War on Terror, like the War on the Separatists, we are told by Lucas, is nothing short of a power grab. It happened in Rome "a long time ago" and it almost happened with Nixon in the 1970s. And make no mistake, it is happening now. Ask yourself this question: do you really believe that Bush is consolidating all this governmental power only to leave office in 18 months? Search your feelings, Luke. Do you really believe that Bush has asserted his right as a Unitary Executive only to give it all up (and hand the reins of this massively expanded presidential power over to Hillary Clinton) in 2009? Or will the next terrorist attack be the one that cancels the presidential election and turns a heroic savior, Bush into the ugly Emperor of the Star Wars series? Already we are being set-up for it. Director of Homeland Security Chertoff's gut tells him another attack is coming, and suddenly we're hearing how Al-Qaeda is resurgent. So the only question is: how will you respond when the next terrorist attack comes? Will your fear "consume" you like it consumed Anakin? Or will you take up light saber and join the rebel alliance?

What remains so commendable about Star Wars, and in particular Revenge of the Sith is that George Lucas has given us a story about our times, but he has done so utilizing the language of mythology. There is no "Abu-Ghraib" episode; there is no "post September 11" mentality. There is no obvious metaphor for Islam and sleeper cells (spelled C-Y-L-O-N). On the contrary, Lucas has shown us that a galaxy far, far away holds much in common with what has occurred in human history; and what is happening now. It's all vetted on a symbolic level, not an obvious one.

Consider that the Star Wars films are about - over and over again - man's battle against the "dark side." Unlike many fans who respond to the films on a somewhat superficial level, I don't see that battle necessarily as occurring with light sabers, blasters and spaceships, but rather inside the human soul. First Anakin, then Luke Skywalker is tempted to fall before darkness, to give in to hate and fear. The father does so; the son does not. But the movies repeat these themes (from one trilogy to the next), because that's humanity's constant battle. I can apply that battle to George W. Bush and our War on Terror, and you can see how so much of it fits together, but you can also apply the films to other historical periods and cultures. That's why Star Wars resonates so much on a simple storytelling level. It's not just about "here and now," but rather man's perpetual struggle to fend off despotism. What's really sad (if rewarding artistically..) is that the tale of democracy compromised tracks so clearly and easily with our times.

Next on sw blogging: Fitting the Star Wars series together; how the films connect; and where they don't connect.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Dr. Who: Love & Monsters/Fear Her

And now for something completely different...

"Love and Monsters" is an odd little Doctor Who story, one told from the perspective of a young outsider in London, a strange and off-putting bloke named Elton. He has memories of the Doctor from his childhood, and has set about to make a documentary about the Time Lord with the help of his girlfriend Ursula. As the story progresses, Elton is our intrepid narrator, revealing how he and a group of friends came under the thrall of a nasty absorbothingie alien, and how, eventually, the Doctor showed up to save the day.

This is one of those "quirky" episodes of a sci-fi series (and you've sometimes seen them on The X-Files and Millennium under the name "Jose Chung..."), when writers and actors loosen the reins a little bit and do something daring if jokey; slightly off-format and somewhat campy. As for this episode itself, I think it would too have benefited from the presence of the late Charles Nelson Reilly. Still, Dr. Who is fortunate it possesses that ever-convenient "elastic" format which creates so much wiggle room, because this doesn't feel quite as off-format as many X-Files "funny" episodes, for instance.

My overall impression of this episode is that it is indeed funny; but not quite so funny as it believes it is. I'd say that roughly 75 percent of the material works out pretty well. There are some laugh-out-loud funny lines, particularly Elton's revelation about his life love with Ursula, but some other moments are honestly cringe-worthy. Early on, for instance, there's a chase involving the Doctor, Rose, an alien, and red and blue buckets. The way it is staged suggests all the inherent wit of a Scooby Doo cartoon. It's a bit over-the-top for my taste, but the episode is redeemed by the framework device: we're seeing all this through Elton's eyes. Thus, it is forgivable (but still not funny.)

In toto, the series emerges unscathed from "Love and Monsters," especially after a final-act "recovered memory" that reveals something new about Elton. I truly enjoyed the bit about how a life intersecting the Doctor's is one filled with both salvation and damnation. Such good touches keep the story from feeling wholly inconsequential. Whereas the design of the monster (an Absorbatrix) leaves something to be desired. As does the silliness of the climax.

Kathryn really loved this episode, and said that it was quirky moments like the ones I've described that make her enjoy the new show so much. As for me, it will likely surprise no one that I'm a bit more of a traditionalist in terms of my taste: I prefer the epic, life-or-death installments to goofy piffles like this. I understand what is being done here; I understand the device (the world seen through the lens of Elton...), but this isn't generally how I like my Dr. Who served up. I didn't hate it; it's interesting.

One more thing: I had to wonder about the final flashback, one that revealed the Doctor's presence in Elton's life at a very young age. You'll notice it was the same Doctor (meaning incarnation Ten, David Tennant). But this is not an adventure we've seen before, was it? (Or did I miss something?) So, where was Rose? And why didn't Elton remember her too? And don't even tell me that this vision comes from Ten's future, because it's clear in the text of the screenplay that the Doctor recognizes Elton; that they've met before.

Okay that's my beef. This episode will never be a favorite, but I do appreciate that the series is stretching it's muscles and attempting something new. I imagine there are quite a few people out there like Kathryn who totally fell in love with "Love and Monsters." I'm not one of them, but to each his own. However, if this new Doctor Who is good at anything (and it is good at many things...), then it should likely be commended for the overall balance of the various episodes. The comical "Love and Monsters" follows an episode about Satan escaping from a black hole after possessing and murdering people.

Good time to lighten up, no?

The next story of the second season, "Fear Her," was another one I feared I would hate as soon as it began. It's the story of a London in the Year 2012 as children begin to disappear off one particular street. The Doctor and Rose investigate the disappearances (and this is very X-Files-ish) and learn that a little girl named Chloe Webber has been "drawing" the missing children. Have they become trapped in her childish pictures?

This is reminiscent of The Twilight Zone too. Suspicion mounts on the street outside (like "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street") and for a while it seems that everybody is at the whim of a monstrous little child, a la "It's a Good Life."

The story takes another twist, however when the Doctor determines that little Chloe Webber has joined with an alien child, an "Isolus," which fears loneliness above all else. Unfortunately, it comes from a very large family (approximately 4 billion-strong...) and so would like to cause many, many more disappearances on Earth (and did I mention the 2012 Olympics are about to start?). Since the idea of the Doctor's loneliness is so much at play this season as both context and sub-text (in "Girl in the Fireplace" and "Doomsday" among other shows), this seems like a pretty nifty and appropriate alien to meet, one who helps explore the Doctor's character. I could, however, do without the evil abusive-father-in-the-closet monster, which reminded me of Cameron's Closet (1989).

I don't like to be reminded of Cameron's Closet - ever. So this was not a good thing. I also don't think the plot point involving the dead abusive father really added anything to the story overall, except to inject a (false) sense of menace that the episode didn't really require. I feared the episode was going to be overly sentimental, but it didn't succumb to the worst maudlin instincts. Again, the episode is good, not great.

Kathryn also loved "Fear Her," but then I fear that my Kathryn has developed quite the crush on this particular Doctor; whom she says she likes now as much as Tom Baker. "He's adorable," she swoons, "he's hot," she enthuses.

*Sigh.* I've lost my wife to a Time Lord...