Saturday, July 29, 2017

Terminator 2 Judgement Day: Film Platypus

Works of Art endure for a reason. Even when aspects of them become out outdated, (say as in the case of the Iliad, composition-in-performance goes out of fashion) the power of the story shines through. That's a rare thing for a genre that is as dependent on up-to-date technology as a Science Fiction Film. The story, the message, has to be uniquely powerful to endure once the future becomes the present or special effects take another leap forward. I spent some time this week on a sci-fi film that has endured, even though 1997 has come and gone: Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

My reasons for picking T2 were three-fold: 1. I hadn't seen it in over ten years, 2. It's a James Cameron film that fits in with my Save the Cat homework, 3. the film had a powerful impact on me when I was a teenager and I wanted to see how it held up. The edition of the film I viewed was the extended cut. While I get the impression that Cameron prefers the theatrical version for aesthetic reasons, I wanted to get as full an idea of the story as possible. Having watched the special features, I understand why Cameron chose to cut the film down for theater audiences, but I prefer the greater depth of the extended cut. Those things said, let's move on to six things I think make T2 a winner:

1. A score that sounds like the coming of Armageddon.
2. A 90s era sense, born out of the fall of Communism, that the future is not inevitably bad and that human choices can still have meaning in a technological age because technology is morally neutral -we may have the bomb, but having it does not mean we have to use it.
3. Linda Hamilton is allowed to be strong, ugly, and unhinged -and she sells it. This gives the movie a sense of seriousness that it desperately needs to keep from derailing into absurdity.
4. Arnold sell the machine-as-a-machine while making us care about him. He helps us believe that the human ability to learn can counterbalance our will-to-death.
5. The movie is filled with powerful images: The Bomb hitting L.A., Jon teaching the Terminator to give a high-5, Sarah carving "no-fate" into the table, Sarah's near murder of Dyson, Dyson's heroic death, and Jon and Sarah's dream-like first meetings with the T-800.
6. Like Aliens, T2 is about creating a family in the wake of loss. Boomers get to identify with Sarah Conner trying to put her life back together while Millennials are Jon Conner living in an uncertain world with overbearing parents who are terrified that they will fail if mommy isn't there.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Blair Witch Project: Film Platypus

My Save the Cat homework continues, this time branching out into films within the broader horror genre. Where I began with Alien, a 70s horror classic, I decided to move on to the late 90s with The Blair Witch Project.

My first introduction to The Blair Witch Project, appropriately enough, was a student film advertising Biola University's Saddie Hawkins week: The Babs Witch Project. I particularly liked the on campus tie-ins in the spirit of the original: hanging stick figures outside the cafeteria. Anyhow, I regret to say that in spite of spending six years hanging out with film majors, I never saw the original. So here I am now, yet again, a day late and a dollar short. It's a happy coincidence however, since I now know more about Film and legend tripping.

Preface aside, there are three things about The Blair Witch Project that I appreciated and think helped to sell this rather unorthodox film:

1. Nostalgia -The film is set in 1994 and was released in 1999. That's just enough time for a young person to develop a golden haze around teenage and college years. It removes the viewers one step from the experience (and hopefully shutting down thoughts like "how stupid are these guys?") while simultaneously tapping into all sorts of teenage folklore and experience. How many of us, after all, went into the woods for a good scare? There's also the added practical benefit of being able to deny the doomed trio of characters cell phones and a GPS.

2. Ambiguity - If, as Lovecraft said, the most primal human emotion is fear and the most primal fear is fear of the unknown, then a healthy dose of Ambiguity is a must for any horror film. The Blair Witch Project has this in spades from the way that the shaky camera work keeps us from ever really seeing what the characters are seeing, the indistinct nature of the threat (is it the 1700s witch, the 1800s cult, the 1940s serial killer, the 1970s cult, rednecks, or a homicidal member of their own group?), and the final question of what happened to the three film students.

3. Human Drama - The driving force behind The Blair Witch Project is neither gore nor ghosts but the human relations between the three characters. What we are watching is not so much a horror story as a revelation of how average young adults can react under pressure with disastrous consequences. The real horror is the horror of Aristotle's Poetics: humans like ourselves coming to a horrific end when their every day faults combine with the right circumstances.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Alien Vs. Aliens: Film Platypus

This summer has been a film summer as much as it has been anything else. That is due in large part to kicking things off with a read through the unofficial screenplay bible Save the Cat. While I was casting about for a means to better digest its principles, I noticed that another Alien prequel had landed and so my Save the Cat homework for the next few months was set. In order to prepare for Alien Covenant, I would work through three other movies in the franchise and an assortment of related films. You can find my assessment of Prometheus here.

In anticipation of Alien Covenant, I chose to work through the films according to the mythos' chronology. That meant beginning with the most recent of the three, Prometheus. I then moved on to the core of the franchise with Ridley Scott's Alien and Jame Cameron's distinctly different sequel Aliens.

Each of the core films is very much the product of the decade that produced it. Alien is a horror pic that resonates with the pessimism and confusion of the 1970s. Aliens is a sci-fi action flick full of 80s can-do spirit. There's a key genre difference there that shapes each film and it is only by a very clever act of cinematic legerdemain that James Cameron has been able to convince us that they belong to the same universe.

At its core, Alien is a Lovecraftian work that exposes the fragility of human life in the face of an impersonal and often hostile world. The blue color Janes and Joes of the Nostromo find themselves facing Jungian nightmares of the corporate world: the alien and the android. Already bedeviled by racism and sexism, our space truckers must face the fact that they are completely dispensable to the soulless megacorp and indeed are already up for replacement by robots and aliens: the plight of 70s middle America. The megacorp prefers robots and aliens precisely because they are inhuman -or at least "unAmerican" in their utter willingness to execute their functions and relatively low cost of up keep. Ash the android just needs milk while the alien is capable of survival in almost any environment and can reproduce asexually (though it can still brain-rape/oral rape the men and sexually harass the women -workplace equality!), obviating any need for community or home life (a key difference from Cameron's conception of the Alien). In fact, Ash the robot tells us that he respects the "purity" of the alien. Against such forces, the Janes and Joes are helpless. They can fight and die, or they can escape, and hope that someone will pick them up. Ripley ends the film floating in space as a metaphor for her entire class.

A few years, George Lucas, Ronald Reagan, and a massive economic recovery made a big difference in the type of stories Hollywood wanted to tell. Aliens belongs to the new genre of 80s action films and can stand on its own without any knowledge of Alien. In Cameron's world, blue collar Jane and the Vietnam Vets can reclaim their dignity by fighting back against the corporate sellouts, chickenshit officers, and vague fears of foreign domination that plagued them during the last decade. We even find out that robotic automation is nothing to fear in the person of Bishop and that Hispanic immigrants just want to kick ass like the rest of us in the person of Private Vasquez. Rather than run from the impersonal forces that dominate her life, Ripley has to face her fears by becoming both super-mom (Newt replacing her lost daughter) and career woman (new and improved with rocket launcher!). This contrasts with the Alien Queen who is a first merely a baby factory but can evidently drop her ovaries and turn into a raging monster -but not both! Though there's plenty of blood-letting, the forces of the American middle class and the nuclear family prove strong enough to face any threats (especially those posed by giant space cockroach-lizards).

The goal of this piece is not to say that i prefer one to the other -quite the opposite! They two movies are actually so different that they can be enjoyed side by side. The problem comes, of course, when you want to make a third, or a fourth, or a fifth. What genre will your movie be? What story will you tell? One of the core principles of Save the Cat is that audiences want the same old thing -but different! Both Alien and Aliens found ingenious ways to solve that Gordian Knot. Audiences and critics have split on the rest of the films. We'll see what magic Scott has cooked up for us in Alien Covenant.

Friday, July 07, 2017

Beren and Luthien, A Tolkien Retrospective: The Platypus Reads Part CCCXIII

Pastel is the right medium for The Silmarillion even if I haven't figured out how to properly scan it. I suppose that's ok given that Tolkien himself could never settle on the right medium for his massive corpus of myths and legends. Following his father's will, Christopher Tolkien attempted to codify the stories of the Elder Days into a definitive version -a sort of "elven bible" -the published Silmarillion. Over the next forty years, however, Christopher developed his own ideas regarding the presentation of his father's work. As a scholar himself, he chose to bring out groups of fragments as they stood contextualized by a mass of critical apparatus. As a consequence, The History of Middle Earth, and the stand-alone volumes that followed it have garnered many scholarly readers and very few lay ones. For good or ill, it is the choice Christopher has made and his long work is now complete with the final volume: Beren and Luthien.

Beren and Luthien presents no new material, but rather offers a compendium of every version of the tale that Tolkien committed to paper over sixty years of adult life. The reader is invited, with a little help from Christopher, to watch the tale develop and unfold in prose and verse, historical voice and more detailed narration. The final effect is arrestingly beautiful -like reading an actual body of myth. To put it another way, C.S. Lewis once stated that it baffled him how J.R.R. Tolkien could keep whole worlds inside his little head. In Beren and Luthien Christopher Tolkien uses all his professional and personal skill to show us exactly how accurate that statement is.

Beren and Luthien is by Christopher's intent a requiem on two lifetimes of work. It is his father's last word, graven on the tombstone he shares with his wife, and as far as Christopher's work on middle earth, it is now his as well.

There was a man and a woman who loved each other with such love that they changed the mighty world -for a time. Now, all that is left to us is a memory and song.