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Skyfall and a Continuation of the Looper Phenomenon

A quick note:  When I write about movies they are not reviews.  I am not telling you go or don’t.  They are just my thoughts and usually have spoilers and may assume you too have seen the film.  This one is more stream of consciousness and has not been proofread.

Skyfall and a Continuation of the Looper Phenomenon

 

Over the last couple of decades James Bond has had a strange time of it.  Global politics has changed drastically and having a charming imperial spy dotting around the world solving problems is getting to be a much harder story to tell in a world in which “blowback” is becoming a concept of common currency.  So they have recast him.  The stories are smaller and more personal.  As of late the dynamic between Bond and M is falling soundly in the unstable cop genre.  It may has well have been called Lethal Weapon England Edition.  Perhaps this is not the worst strategy.  There is probably no more consistently profitable formula in film.  And they do it fairly well.  Daniel Criag and Judi Dench are super overqualified to pull off these sorts of rolls.

 

Another shift was the location character of the film.  Historically the villain’s lair has often been one of the best characters of the films giving depth and scale to the evil that is being fought.  We encounter the lair early in the film but it never becomes central.  Instead Bond’s own Scottish childhood home becomes the only true location character of the film.  It is a stately dilapidated manor in a valley that looks like it has seen its better days.  (I’m gonna skip the obvious post-colonial conversation here.)  The most interesting part about this is the fact that that we are being given background for Bond.  This is the most significant character change yet.  Bond never talked about his past.  In fact for many of us he had no past he is a constant character that never dies but just changes form (a little like Dr. Who- perhaps these eternal characters with changing faces is a Brit thing).  Now, suddenly, he is an orphan child from a wealthy family with a stately manner outside the city trying to make his family legacy proud even if it means blowing up the family manor.  Oh yeah, I hear those Batman movies have been doing quite well lately.  Everyone likes the shallow pop psychology of traumatic childhood events effecting characters in the here and now.

 

In the end I don’t have that much of a problem with the Batmanization of Bond because it was done fairly well.  Perhaps the thing that bugged me most was the new Q.  He is a young computer hacker kid who joked when he gave Bond no gadgets. They insinuate that it is all computers now and that kind of espionage is a thing of the past.  Of course there is some truth to this and in all reality half of Bond’s assignments would be handled by drones now.  Unfortunately it takes two important elements out of the film. First it removes a tangible visual element.  Instead of seeing bond use a gadget to foil his opponents we are given the same MacGuffin laptops that every other film has now.  How many times have we seen the two best hackers anywhere doing battle?  They sit and type or click or do other frantic things while the other one outsmarts them. But the viewer is not expected to know what is really going on because it is purely a plot device. We all know that computer hackers exist and that we don’t understand what they do. One can have a pretty successful career in Hollywood if they have a decent hackers expression.  It is so much cheaper and easier than coming up with gadgets.  Especially because of the second thing it takes away from the film.  Bond has always been clever.  How often does he use a gadget in a manor that was not expected when it was handed to him?  This resourcefulness is so much of what defined him and set him apart from a normal cop.  Letting this go was a mistake.  Also there is no reason to let it go.  There are dozens of new cutting edge inventions that have come into existence lately but not yet to the masses.  Last year a company developed an invisibility cloak for shits sake!  And a dozen different magazines put out a list of best inventions of the year.  There have been a lot of interesting ones and a non-lazy writer could sit with the list for a few hours and come up with some way for Bond to use one and use it unconventionally.  All of this is lazy and it leads to us watching movies of computers with suspenseful status bars as something good or bad uploads or downloads maybe in time.  In the future communication will be faster and all these scenes will date these movies into a distinct period.  People will have to explain it to their children.  It has been done and done very well at times going back to War Games but that came out 30 years ago now.  It’s kinda getting boring after the 500,000th time.

 

In the end though the new Q’s snarky statement about gadgets is the same kinda statement that I discussed in the earlier Looper article.  It is a statement that shuns its own genre and pretends to replace it with a higher degree of realism but in the end just detracts from the character and the interest of the film in general.

Looper

So, a while back I wrote this after seeing the film Looper in the theater.  I never really did anything with it so I thought I would share it here.  I might continue to use this as a forum for this kinda thing.  Obviously I have not been posting concertos every day.  The logistics of it is just not possible at this point in my life.  I do however play everyday and have a bunch of other music stuff that I could probably post easily- I will look into that.

Some thoughts on Looper

(Warning spoilers.)

“Sometimes at night the darkness and silence weighs on me. Peace frightens me. Perhaps I fear it most of all. I feel it’s only a facade, hiding the face of hell.”  -Says Steiner to Marcello on the balcony.  These famous lines from La Dolce Vita work flawlessly for foreshadowing and character color but perhaps they stick out most because they are specifically instructive to the audience.  The delivery is masterful.  Not just by the actors but by Fellini.  He puts them in the shadows of that very decadence.  He uses a complicated syncopation of withheld eye contact and creates a series of odd angles to make us feel as if we are on that balcony and Steiner is our friend whispering intimations to us. And it works; it gives us the sensation that we are being granted precious access to meaning by a trusted old friend. The statement also asks us as the viewer to expect more from the film, to look deeper, to dig beneath the facade of decadence and party talk to what is concealed beneath which is of course complex and interesting.

 

Comparing this classic scene in a classic film to a contemporary high-budget genre film is clearly a little misguided.  Although Looper is not attempting anything as ambitious as Fellini’s masterwork, but at least twice Rian Johnson invokes the character to character/audience voice to strange ends.  The first time it is the character of Jeff Daniel’s a mob boss from the future, Abe. He speaks to Joseph Gorden-Levitt’s character Joe about his attire, “You know, well, you don’t know. The movies that you’re dressing like are just copying other movies. It’s Goddamn twentieth century affectations. Do something new, huh? Put a glowing thing around your neck, or use rubberized…just be new.”  The line is perfectly delivered by Daniels but any time a character starts talking about how films work in culture it is unavoidable to feel the lessons are meant to be instantly applied to the film at hand.  The effect is that it immediately draws us out of the moment and starts making us look at costumes and art design of the whole piece.  So what do we see as we pan out onto Johnson’s world 50 years from now?  A world that is strikingly more similar that than different.  We do from time to time see a dramatic pointed skyline of what must be Wichita Kansas to give us a since of population growth. There is the occasional flying motorcycle or piece of hovering farm equipment but most of the shots from the film could be right now.  Most of the costumes would not get a second glance on the streets of many a city today.  So what is Johnson uttering to us from the side of his mouth?  He is saying that this is not that kind of sci-fi film.  That this is not a sci-fi film about its genre but it is about character and a story in which those characters will define the story.

 

Perhaps the other instructional moment for the audience speaks more directly to the point of ignoring the trappings of the genre.  Both the young (Joseph Gorden-Levitt) and the old versions of Joe (Bruce Willis) sit at a diner talking.  Young Joe starts asking questions about his actions and the space-time continuum to which old Joe responds, “I don’t wanna talk about time travel shit. Cause if we start talking about it, then we’re gonna be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws. It doesn’t matter.”  Johnson talked about that line in a recent interview, “Yeah, I hope it’s speaking to audience, and to a certain degree speaking for the audience, too. Hopefully that’s where the audience’s head is at when we get to that point.”[i]  This point in the film works as a splitting point.  Much of the audience does go with him and as a big budget movie about a man having an existential crisis with himself the film works fairly well.  It is however the moment he starts to loose people who believe sci-fi to be an important medium[ii].  It seems Johnson, or perhaps studio pressures, made the decision that this demographic is not that important and in the short term they are probably correct.  The film has done well at the box office but it is these sorts of fans who decide if a movie is a classic and has multiple-viewing potential.  And the blogs of these dorks have uber problems with how the time-space continuum was handled[iii]; let alone that there was not a whole lot of cool future stuff for them to talk about.  Sure, some hard-science types will tell you that it is moot because backwards time travel is impossible. I am not sure that science has completely closed the book on it other than to say that it is pretty darn unlikely.  At any rate there are a zillion time travel stories out there and the important thing is that they follow their own rules.  Even cheesy flicks like Hot Tub Time Machine get it right- it is not that hard to play by rules you write yourself.  Looper failed in this capacity and every sci-fi dork knows it.  He could have asked the same questions of his characters and stayed within the lines or he could have had some disclaimer line along the way such as a character questioning if this is a universe that can exist.  Instead the problem is just ignored except for this bit of dialogue that essentially asks us to ignore the problem.

 

I bring these things up not just to point out the shortsightedness of ignoring the hardcore sci-fi fans and their ability to make or break a film’s classic status (and thus its final bottom line).  The thing that separates Johnson’s instructive language from Fellini’s is what it instructs the audience to do.  Fellini asks us to look deeper; Johnson asks us to not look deeper.  I also think this might be a dawn of a slippery slope.  If you can cut the art department’s budget in half with one line of dialogue and still have a hit what stops them from other such ploys.   Don’t get me wrong- choosing to skip things can be a perfectly valid choice such as in Dogville which functions perfectly well with mere outlines for sets. But if you are going to make that decision-make it; be bold and don’t have snarky half-apologetic lines.  Lines spoken sideways to the audience that pretend to apologize but just come off as cynical and absently dismissive of a lot of great films that have come before.  In the end Looper will not be remembered as one of those films, in fact it probably will not be remembered much at all.  This is almost a shame because it was close to being a great film.  Joe was well played by both actors and the high sci-fi concept of the film did allow strange questions to be asked such as would you kill a few innocent children if you knew one was a supernatural Hitler?  But these sort of fun questions can really only be asked within sci-fi, for which either Johnson or the studio seems to have little respect.  It probably rippled out from the original pitch that probably went something like; “It starts as a high concept sci-fi film but turns into a think piece with great characters.”  The problem is that the characters are just okay and if you do much thinking at all the whole thing falls apart.  In the end Looper tells us that it is about character and storytelling while cynically whispering out of the side of its mouth, “sci-fi is not important.”

 

 

[i] IFC, 9-27-12 http://www.ifc.com/fix/2012/09/looper-rian-johnson-interview

[ii] Science Fiction is important.  I doubt you could get any great writer or filmmaker of the last 40 years to say otherwise.  As science eclipses religion in the role of explaining the universe around us our human need for narrative does not diminish.  Sci-fi has proven pivotal in this role as well as flushing out and exploring the sociological and ethical effects of new or future technologies.  It gets pooped on a lot and some people seem to feel its defining elements are merely surface level affectation and are interchangeable with affectations of other genres.  Even works that are fundamentally interested in stylistic elements can have interesting effects on our culture.  There are people who dress straight out of steam punk graphic novels, which then goes on to affect the general discourse of fashion.  Of course many of the best of the medium use great stylistic elements to bring the audience deeper into a world where they can define the elements and explore them fully.  Where would films like Brazil or even A New Hope be without amazing art direction?

[iii] Okay, so this is a footnote because a lot of folks already know what I am talking about.  But at the end of the film the Old Joe chases people into a field with a gun.  He is about to fire when Young Joe stops him by committing suicide at which point Old Joe disappears.  The problem is that everyone else is still in the field and there is still the wreckage from an accident he caused.  If the reset is instant then all of the factors need to be reset and none of them should be in the field.  There are several ways to deal with this.  The fading probabilities method- i.e. Back to the Future.  Or spaghetti time like Doctor Who where the Universe has a lag time and things get pulled apart slowly.  Or skip a narration that seeks to have authority; 12 Monkeys is in part so successful because we follow a protagonist that is unclear on the rules and his sanity is suffering from it.  He does not use any of these, which begs the question- who the hell chased them out there into that field.

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