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Kenneth Lonergan is not the most prolific of directors, but when he makes a film it tends to have an impact. So it was with his 2000 classic, You Can Count On Me (reviewed by me here) as well as his recent dramatic effort, Manchester By The Sea.

On one level, Manchester is a story about time. Time overlaps, fuses, and conjoins in interesting ways, due to the non-linear way that Lonergan chose to tell his story. Not only does time overlap, but dialog does as well (overlapping dialog apparently being a favorite technique of Lonergan’s). The weaving of non-linear time and very focused, human, simple and in-the-moment scenes, along with overlaying classical music onto the scenes and transitions (extending Lesley Barber’s original score), gives the film a feeling of both the natural chaos of life and, ironically, of refinement. It is the tension between the two – the sublime and the tragically simple and human – that becomes the almost Zen-like framework through which Lonergan tells his story. This particular film probably could have been edited a dozen different ways, even though the outcome could have been essentially the same.  As Lonergan said in an interview, the only way he could perceive the story being told was ‘all at once’.

This was absolutely by design; Manchester likely evolved into a final film in the editing room in a very real way, with substantial shifts and changes occurring at that stage. manchester-coreyLonergan may have even shot the different aspects of the story without being 100 percent sure of how he would ultimately weave them together. He apparently went through several drafts in writing the script, throwing out many scenes, rewriting others, then starting the process again. The result can be at times confusing, but ultimately satisfying as Lonergan and team meld together various threads of a the tragic tale of handyman Lee Chandler (brilliantly played by Casey Affleck) as a pivotal error in his life caused him to lose literally everything, most importantly his two children. The film explores the consequences of that event.

While the story Mr. Lonergan tells is non-linear, the themes are timeless, as is the sea that surrounds the small fishing community where the events take place. The fundamental theme behind the story is one of redemption: how does one redeem oneself after a tragic mistake? Moreover, the film, it seems to me, focuses on the idea of how a person – a man – redeems himself in such a situation through what are essentially very simple actions.

Why would the story necessarily be different for a man than a woman?  I will argue that this story is primarily about the responsibilities that men will often assume, mainly, fixing things in the way that the handyman Lee does. Moreover, the story evokes the necessity an ambiguity of accepting responsibility even where there is no clear ‘blame’ to be had. In the case of Lee, whose error was a simple and yet profound mistake, the question becomes one of context. The context of the mistake is that the character lives in a community that both created the framework of ‘stupid men doing stupid things’ to occur, and then makes it impossible for Lee to rejoin the community and accept their forgiveness – perhaps because there was a collective guilt associated with the deaths of Lee’s children because the tragedy took place as a direct result of a ‘boy’s night of fun’ that took place at Lee’s house, in the basement, where the children slept. His daughter’s deaths were, therefore, a communal responsibility.

That said, there is no real indication that, for the most part, the punishment for Lee’s error came from anywhere else than inside his own head. His wife Randi (played poignantly by Michelle Williams) did ultimately leave him, remarry and have another child. While Lee had a similar manchesterbythesea_traileropportunity for another relationship, he didn’t take it. His choice was not to forgive himself and not really to move on, at least not until the end, where he allows another human being into his life – his nephew who experiences his own personal tragedy.

Within the context of a fairly tolerant society (Lee was not accused of manslaughter) Lee slowly finds redemption through the de facto adoption of his brother’s son Patrick (played effectively by Lucas Hedges) after Patrick’s father’s death (Lee’s brother Joe, played stoically by Kyle Chandler) – even though here Lee is also unable to take on full responsibility for that task and does so in a very cautious, meandering way.

In a world defined by competence, Lee’s error was one of fundamental lapse in his generally competent self as evident in a stupid error. So it could be said of mankind in general, for the problems of the world are very much the problems created by men and their activities – with the efforts at ‘fixing’ things creating more problems than the problems themselves. That men have, for the most part, shaped the modern world, Manchester By The Sea suggests that perhaps is their special place to accept responsibility for making it right. The film also suggests this may be no easy task.

An alternative to a male-dominated world is never really explored, but we are left with a gaping hole in the film, the ‘need’ for someone to step in and take control when nobody really wants to. As with You Can Count On Me, there is an palpable absence in the film that can be, on a simplistic level, defined as God. Or perhaps it is, in this city of fisherman, the Jesus who never shows up, referring to the biblical Jesus who chose to recruit his disciples from among fisherman. On another level, this absence can be defined as the loss of love, or the ability to love one’s self, and to treat one’s self and others with respect.

The self-hatred evident with Lee would, in another era, be fodder for the redemptive role of religion. In this film, the cross is taken on by the individual, who must in a sense take on the role of the Christ in order to find redemption; there is, apparently, no other way for a modern man do so, or so it would seem.  The film lacks any sense of a communal or individual spirituality, outside of an off-the-cuff (and humorous) allusion to Catholicism and the non-consequential appearance of a lone character randomly on the street (played in a cameo by Lonergan himself) who appears briefly (similar to Lonergan’s role as the priest in You Can Count On Me) to chide Lee about his lack of parenting skills.  As with You Can Count On Me, such advice becomes almost comic relief.

Thus suffering, in Lonergan’s tale, is so deep and pervasive that the superficial balm of religion and/or of God can do little to provide comfort. Lee’s mistake, taken as a metaphor for the modern human, puts the only hope for salvation clearly in the hands of mankind itself, and perhaps even more specifically with men themselves, loath as they are nowadays to accept that there may be a sort of universal male attitude problem and inability to mature, particularly in the US, the country that has spread its influence quite effectively in the world, and where the fruits of that influence are a mixed bag, to say the least.

As for the story of Manchester By The Sea, the most moving moment is where Randi forgives Lee. It is in Randi’s forgiveness that the film ultimately speaks to reconciliation and the kind of catharsis that makes for great drama, although again Lee is unable to accept MBTS_3869.CR2Randi’s forgiveness as he can apparently not forgive himself.

At the end of the day, perhaps Manchester By The Sea seems to strike a chord with audiences because it portrays the perceived impossibility of our current world situation, where human beings have created their own hell through their own numerous errors in judgment, and have to somehow either fix it or sink with their own doomed ship.  With the (male defined) world order clearly at risk, and the rise of scapegoating populism, it seems that the forgiveness displayed by Lee’s wife Randi is the only real hope for humanity.

Is this the ‘prescription’ given by Lonergan and Manchester By The Sea? Probably not, as I’m sure Mr. Lonergan would deny the film is in any way prescriptive in nature or perhaps not even recognize some of the comments that I’ve made about his film as being part of his intended result. But still, this is my takeaway and my advice from viewing Manchester By The Sea. For without forgiveness and love – and quietly accepting individual responsibility for our behavior without complaint or expectation of reward – without these qualities, there is only a never ending cycle of hatred and blame.

Don Thompson is a producer, filmmaker and playwright.

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Warning: there are potential spoilers in this review.

We’re living in a transitional time, as evident in the upheaval of Presidential Politics in 2016. To a great extent, Hell or High Water, directed by Scottish director David Mackensie, reflects current trends that can trace themselves back most recently to the financial crisis of 2008, but even further to the Iraq War and further still to the dawn of Reaganomics in the early 80’s.

That the American Dream is not working out for everyone has always been the case, particularly for minorities. It seems, however, that this reality has reached an amplified level of desperation for non-minorities as well – specifically the working white poor – and thus is finding its way more actively into our films and our politics. Hell or High Water, with its desperate White Male protagonist Toby hohw2Howard (played with rugged sensitivity by Chris Pine) who tries to outsmart a Banking system that seems intent on manipulating, cheating and throwing him under the proverbial bus (all legally) becomes the perfect anti-hero for today’s political and social realities. Toby, along with his self-destructive and yet self-sacrificing brother Tanner (played ferociously by Ben Foster), paint a pure picture of the moral morass the United States currently finds itself in.

With this particular drama (and this film certainly rises to the level of drama), there is an attempt to explore not only conflict but also what the ancient Greeks would label stasis, or civil strife. This in turn evokes homeostasis – or the tendency to seek balance and stability. We find that balance here in the Texas Ranger Hamilton, played brilliantly by Jeff Bridges, as he attempts both to jbfind justice, remind us that we are a nation and community of laws, but in the end tries to empathize and understand what motivated Toby and his brother to rob a string of banks when apparently they (or so he thought) didn’t really need the money.

We see in Ranger Hamilton an essentially fair-minded individual that gives us hope that stability and the rule of law will indeed prevail, even while the clever are allowed to profit. The clever being seen in both the Banking system and in Toby, who out-wits everyone, and in effect uses his own brother as fodder for the system, even as Toby sacrifices himself for his own (seemingly unappreciative) family.

His brother Tanner was the primordial warrior, needing essentially an enemy to fight in order to give him purpose. While unstated, his brother could have easily been a suicidal Iraq war veteran, although the writer (Black List winner Taylor Sheridan) sought not to expand his themes into that territory. One can only ponder the level of social commentary the film could have leveled on US society should Sheridan have taken that path.

Warriors often wreak damage on the innocent, and Tanner is no exception, made painfully evident to Ranger Hamilton when Tanner kills his partner, mixed Native American officer Ranger Alberto tannergunParker (played humbly by Gil Birmingham).  Hamilton’s response becomes a tete-a-tete of revenge-based politics and war, with one side aiming to get revenge on the other in (what seems to many) an endless series of escalations. In the case of Tanner, the war fortunately ends with his death. In real life, such deaths are usually only the catalyst for more atrocities.

That a Native American descendant would be Tanner’s central victim is no small matter, and also prescient, given the current situation with Native Americans and the Dakota Access pipeline. As Tanner exclaimed , he was a ‘The King of the Plains’ and felt he ‘was a Comanche’ (as told nativechildat the Casino to a Native American customer whom threatened him). As such, Tanner too is a sacrificial warrior, with Hamilton (same last name as a US Founding Father!) doing the deed.

It is no small coincidence for this film that among the primary ideas that Founding Father Alexander Hamilton (the guy on the ten dollar bill) sought to defend were private property and the need for Central Banking. It is this property and land, says Ranger Alberto in the best speech in the film, that the White Man is inevitably bound to lose to the Bankers, just as did the Native Americans did to their conquerors. It was apt then, that Ranger Hamilton be the Banker’s defender in this film.

That civilization uses its warriors as sacrificial lambs in order to maintain social stability is a repeated theme in war films, or films of warriors fighting for some sort of local or community justice, and seen in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.  Interestingly, the The Magnificent Seven (based on the Seven Samurai) is also having a remake finding itself to the screen. These morally ambiguous stories, where the anti-heroes find themselves fighting ssamuaricorruption for a seemingly unappreciative and/or apathetic society, seem to making their way back to theaters.

Another example of such a film (there are many) that comes to mind would be Michael Mann’s Thief, starring James Caan, where the thief desperately seeks normalcy, only to find that normalcy is an impossibility and a pipe dream. So it is for Toby’s brother Tanner who displays the same kind of self-destructive criminality as found in James Caan’s character in Thief.

As for Hell or High Water, this moral ambiguity is shown as the anti-hero brothers fight against a corrupt system because the brothers did in fact need the money, and the whole scheme was a way to turn the tables on the unfair (either corrupt or borderline corrupt) dealings of their local bank.  Specifically, corruption in the guise of unfair reverse mortgage on their property, a property that Toby had been deeded to by his recently deceased mother and that Toby had found out was sitting on top of a lucrative oil patch.

Hell or High Water also echoes back to a film franchise set during prior transitional political times. During the 70’s, just before Reagan, we had another series of films that one might call reactionary and emblematic of the politics of the time: the Dirty Harry series. Here the steely eyed San Francisco Cop (played iconically by Clint Eastwood) was going to lay the law down on the various threats to the White Man’s dominance of the United States: people of color, immigrants, and other assorted misfits and low lifes.

We can watch closely for a Dirty Harry re-do, with perhaps Donald Trump being the producer.  It may have a limited audience, as Clint Eastwood recently dubbed the millennial generation ‘the Pussy Generation’.

On television, the 70’s had All In The Family (starring Carroll O’Connor), which made fun of conservative politics, but in an oblique way that allowed conservatives themselves to join in on the fun. Hell or High Water, with its social justice meme combined with essentially conservative, libertarian sentiments, uses a similar methodology – allowing the left and right to come together under the same entertainment roof.

Reactionary sensibilities aside, some potentially worthwhile and quintessentially American values are on display in Hell or High Water: those of property ownership, essential fairness and decency, having our children do better than us, financial independence, and rugged individualism are all on display in Hell or High Water.

The film, while on one level a tale of a revolutionary sticking it to the Man, is on the other hand a revelation of human folly. For at the end of the day, the oil that is pumped out of the ground on Toby’s land (now deeded to his Children) may lead to the death of his children’s hope for a future. In clinging to the illusions of past fossil-fuel driven prosperity, Toby may not allow his children the freedom to explore alternatives. This is perhaps the real, off-screen tragedy of Hell or High Water. But then, according to some, we can continue to pump that oil forever, and with no consequence.

But back to Dirty Harry. My sense is that demographics and the preferences of young people have so shifted since the times of Dirty Harry that we will not find a shift in politics to a modern-era Reagan – or certainly not under Donald Trump, who at least for now is trailing at the polls. In today’s harry_callahanworld, the desperate, angry White Male may  have indeed found his match with immigrants, minorities, Soccer Moms and Hillary Clinton, and the resulting resolution may indeed need to be one of peaceful co-existence, or else all these angry White Men can only hope to go down in flames in a sort of nation-wide Waco, Texas confrontation (which occurred under Bill Clinton’s tenure). Let’s hope that’s not the case.

As an interesting side note, Hillary Clinton is the first woman mentioned in this essay.

Don Thompson is an essayist, producer and playwright.

(IndieWire) Summer is chugging along at the specialty box office.

Another acclaimed Sundance 2016 entry, Ira Sachs’ “Little Men” (Magnolia), showed a credible opening in New York and Los Angeles, as two of last week’s Park City 2016 premieres, “Indignation” (Roadside Attractions) and “Gleason” (Open Road), expanded this weekend to varying results.

Read more here...

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Spoiler Alert: some story elements are revealed in this essay.

The word revenant means ‘one who has returned from the dead or from a long absence’.  In the case of Alejandro Iñárritu’s film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and written by Iñárritu with Mark Smith, it is DiCaprio’s true-to-history character of Hugh Glass that returns in order to take therevenatrevenge on the man who killed his son. So the story of The Revenant is one of nature and revenge, and nothing more.

That’s the simple part.

The not so simple part is actually analyzing this multi-layered film as a drama that transcends the revenge label to unveil a meditation on the relative nature of good and evil. As such The Revenant speaks to a modern audience who has in many ways lost the meaning of the word drama. The Revenant reintroduces film-goers to this recently problematic word as it explores the primal meaning of the human experience and attempts to strip bare civilized man (I say man because it is a film very much about men) to reveal what lies beneath.

Dramatists, artists and mystics, for the most part, seek to have us question the idea of absolute good and evil and hint at a common humanity that transcends our differences. The alternative is not really drama but more aptly labeled melodrama – what we are typically given in the name of drama.

This Trojan Horse agenda of the dramatist, artist and mystic – this request for us to question our simple and absolute morality – is at the heart of The Revenant. Yet, at the same time, the film portrays the tendency to seek absolutes in a relative world to be at the heart of the human experience, rising from the tendency to hate what brings us pain and to love what brings us pleasure. However, this film reveals, like any good drama will, that this primal human motive in no way shape or form delineates absolute good and evil, which is shown to be a chimera, changeable, relative, and completely dependent on your point of view.

To the Arikara tribe, the Americans are the enemy. To the Pawnee tribe, the French are the enemy.  To the lone Pawnee, the American Hugh Glass is a friend. To Hugh Glass, Fitzgerald is an enemy. To Fitzgerald, Hugh Glass who betrayed his deal with him is the enemy. To the Europeans, the lone Pawnee is an enemy. To the Americans, the Indians in general are the enemy. To the daughter of the Arikara leader, the character of Glass is a hero. To the American Captain, the child-man Bridger is revealed as a hero.  To the Grizzly Bear protecting her cubs and almost killing Hugh Glass, Glass himself is the enemy – and she is in many ways, in her primal protective mode, creating the entire dramatic context of the story.

Who then is the enemy, what then is this evil? Is it really mankind, imposing its will on pristine nature?

‘I leave the revenge to the Creator’, advises the lone Pawnee man to Glass, and Glass echoes this to Fitzgerald later in the story. The film, in conclusion, indicates it is better for human beings not to judge. This, indicates The Revenant, is the wiser path. That said, nature may not be without her own form of judgement.

As I watched The Revenant two other filmmakers came to my mind: Terrence Malick and P.T. Anderson, and more specifically Malick’s The Tree of Life and The New World and Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.  Reviews written by myself for Tree of Life and There Will Be Blood can be found here and here.

Misha Petrick has also compared Andrei Tarkovsky‘s visual style to The Revenant in a split screen video here, and Iñárritu himself suggested that Tarkovsky has had a deep influence on him. I have not seen all of Tarkovsky’s films but found the visual comparison compelling. In interviews, Iñárritu also mentions Herzog, Kurosawa, and others as influences on The Revenant.

That said, Malick’s The Tree of Life and The New World also seem to me to be visual predecessors to The Revenant. Tree of Life and The New World, like Revenant, had a love affair between nature and the camera (in the case of The Revenant, an entirely new camera technology used to brilliant effect by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who also shot The Tree of Life). Regardless, the result is art: the stillness of nature and its pristine framework forms the backdrop for men’s selfish machinations.

Nature, and particularly water, factor heavily in The Revenant as forces of both destruction and renewal. Many of the scenes of Revenant are directly or indirectly associated with streams or rivers. The dual nature of water, as both a destructive and redemptive force, are key to the evolution of the story.  So too in Tree of Life did the river become a redemptive force as the young boy Jack seeks to wash his sins away with the nightgown scene. The water cleanses, renews, and washes away the old in favor of the new.

As in The Tree of LifeThe Revenant shows that humankind’s social reality exists only within the context of a wider nature that is in many ways cold and without mercy. If mercy exists anywhere, The Revenant  shows it to be in the small, individual human gesture, such as when Bridger offers food to the Indian woman or leaves the canteen with Glass with the labyrinth-like design etched on it. The key difference between The Tree of Life and The Revenant is that while the former posits that compassionate choice may exist outside of the individual human and arise out of nature itself, The Revenant  more closely associates any potential compassion with the human realm; thus Tree of Life more directly supports the view that there is some sort of proto-rational, pre-human intelligence that leads us to choose compassion. For The Revenant, the creator God is reflected as a cold and judgmental nature, a nature that is essentially detached unless that detachment is altered by human will.

Tree of Life also suggests a detached universe reflected in the primordial expression of space and time that ultimately seeks a compassionate viewpoint when individual sentience (even animal sentience) arises. To Malick, as expressed in Tree of Life, this detachment could come in the way of an errant asteroid, also hinted at in The Revenant as the meteor flies overhead and lands somewhere in the distance. Both films posit that humanity lives within a certain folly in its obsession with the petty concerns of profit and loss, of pleasure and pain. That is, unless you’re a human being, in which case these petty human considerations are of life and death importance, and the meteor passing overhead is only a brief reminder of potential destruction and judgement from above, quickly forgotten as the next distraction takes hold of one’s consciousness and edges a person such as Fitzgerald in The Revenant to salvage the pelts, get the money, and pave one’s proverbial path to Texas.

It is in the mud that humanity must apparently sludge through in order to find redemption, and receive a glimpse of love and happiness.

What then is this love? Where shall it be found? Does love really present itself only when the proper choices are made, and when mankind turns away from hatred and realizes that nature (or God?) does not really judge us at all, that this too is a concept laid upon a pristine reality by the human mind?

These thoughts and questions meander through my own mind when reflecting back on The Revenant.

As for P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood I am reminded that blood, like water, is a primal force as it is in The Revenant. Blood is, it seems, the sacrifice required for growth in this world. So is Hugh Glass ‘reborn’ from the blood and guts from the ‘womb’ of the Horse, just as much as he is almost killed by the bloody attack from the Bear. Nature both gives and takes life, and blood and violence is required. The ‘fall’ into the womb of the horse therevenant3(like a lower realm of hell in Dante’s Inferno) also rebirths Glass into the more hate-filled and obsessive purpose of revenge, whereas prior he had primarily been motivated by the desire to live and breath. It is only the mercy of women, along with restraint in judging Fitzgerald, that eventually leads Glass back to human love.

For P.T. Anderson, violence is also justified, for it makes way for the new. In There Will Be Blood Anderson seems to promote the necessary bloodletting of the weak by the powerful, as the weak would have humanity forever acquiescing and accepting ‘the will of God/Nature’ and suffer needlessly as a result. This luddite thinking must be removed for progress to occur, or so goes the modern myth. Nature and others must be sacrificed, often violently, in the name of human progress, even if that progress ultimately destroys what it sought to merely dominate.

To D.D Lewis’s character Daniel Plainview, the protagonist of There Will Be Blood, those that seek a bloodless world are naïve and stripping mankind of the very force that gives it life and propels humanity forward. Thus Heaven or ‘spirit’, should they exist, are simply bloodless realities that the weak perennially and naively seek in order to escape what cannot be escaped from, the primal force of cold nature that doesn’t give a damn about them.

To the materialist, the ‘spiritual’ scenes in The Revenant of Glass vis-à-vis his wife are but mirages, hallucinations and mad meanderings. To the spiritual, they are visions of a greater, alternative world that transcends the perennial, bloody savagery of human life – no matter how hidden, sublimated, air brushed and ‘oh my goshed’ out of existence it is in our modern era – a savagery that buttresses the material world in its quest for food and shelter. The spiritual person replies that even if such realities are created by a hallucinatory mind, what makes them any less real than the hallucinations therevenant2of money and profit, of the shimmering hope of getting some land in Texas to settle down, as was the hope of the materialist Fitzgerald, a man who mocked God? His hope too, ultimately, was a chimera, a mirage, and a pipe dream. So too might be the very notion of human progress.

Whether ‘real’ or ‘imaginary’ (with human beings the two often meld) it seems that human beings need a purpose.

It seems to me that human beings need a purpose in order to keep moving forward materially, artistically, or even spiritually. Without a purpose, whether that be revenge or love, heaven or hell, family or friends, profit or art, people cannot be adequately called human. Perhaps the problem with most of us is that we tend to let others define our purpose, rather than choose it for ourselves.

For the character of Hugh Glass in The Revenant, he very much chose his purpose by reacting to circumstances in a certain way.

For 20th Century Fox, an American Studio that put their stamp on an epic, big budget dramatic feature telling a human story that is not a super-hero movie or cartoonish blockbuster – and not gone to their ‘independent’ subsidiary to do so – perhaps that is another return from a long absence, another revenant of sorts. Time will tell.

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Don Thompson is a producer, playwright and essayist.

 

Lucy, the latest action sci-fi thriller from director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element), takes on some fertile new thematic territory even as it builds on past films and ideas taken from neuroscience, the New Age movement, theoretical physics, and Eastern mysticism. I felt compelled to write about Lucy because of my unique background and familiarity with some of the ideas Besson is likely influenced by. I’m pretty sure most other reviewers will not be making quite the same connections that I will set forth here, so you might find what’s laid out below an interesting (if lucyunusual and eclectic) read.

In a statement about Lucy, Besson mentions that the film is primarily influenced by his own film The Professional, as well as Christopher Nolan’s Inception, and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. That statement can be found here and seems intended to help market the film. What I’d like to do here is open up the discussion about Lucy to some additional areas the filmmaker (to my knowledge) hasn’t mentioned. Bear in mind we may never know the full extent of what influenced Besson.

First, I think the film’s exploration of the question “what if we used 100% of our brain’s capability?” should be understood in the context of the human potential movement, which itself is an amorphous, multi-faceted phenomena. From the standpoint of  mainstream, Cineplex-targeted film making, this subject rarely gets the air time seen with Lucy. More on that in a bit.

I read one discouraged reviewer, who felt the film might get an opening weekend bump from the fact it stars Scarlett Johansson, was easily marketable from an action-film standpoint, and was directed by a filmmaker of some renown. However, lousy word of mouth, this same reviewer argued, would soon sink the ship. We’ll have to see if he’s right.  I have a little more faith in people and in the potential for Lucy to reach a very wide audience; but then I tend to be an optimist. Notably, The Fifth Element was no favorite of the critics, but went on to cult film status and endless repeats on cable.

One reason I’m an optimist is that Lucy seems similar in ambition to What the Bleep Do We Know – the docu-fiction created by William Arntz – a film that showed that there is a pent-up audience for this kind of material. What The Bleep went on to influence (or be corrected by, depending on your perspective) the TV Series Through the Wormhole Hole with Morgan Freeman, and of course Morgan Freeman ends up playing the college professor Samuel Norman in Lucy, expounding human potential ideas in much the same way that the various scientists did in What the Bleep.

The idea that ‘everything comes from nothing’ (Lucy’s ultimate enlightenment) is a concept that might seem unique to Lucy but in fact traces its roots to quantum physics. My introduction to this idea came through a ground-breaking book titled The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra, a work that became well-known during the 1970’s and was one of the first books (that I know of) to link mysticism and physics. That book inspired my film Clouds.

Moreover, the Buddhist philosophy of ‘emptiness’ and the mystical idea of the ‘light body’ are also in line with Lucy’s final enlightenment experience. You can read more about the Buddhist light (or ‘rainbow’) body experience here — the phenomena is also described at length in David Wilcock’s book The Source Field Investigations.

Now the human potential movement can be roughly divided into at least two main camps: the humanists (or one might say spiritual humanists, which I describe in another blog here) and the trans-humanists. Both believe human beings must evolve in order for the planet to survive. The former offers a human-based and/or spiritual resolution to human evolution, the latter a scientific and technological answer.

Besson is certainly laying out the argument in this film that evolution is indeed required for survival: the question will become whose kind of evolution this is. The film, to me, sides mostly with the trans-humanists and thus the corporate and scientific answer to the problem of human evolution. The main reason that corporations in general support a trans-humanist agenda is that it can be commodified, sold, patented and owned. In a nutshell, it is profitable.

The trans-humanists will argue that human evolution must at this point require scientific enhancement and an ‘upgrade’, technologically driven, of the human genome. This ‘upgrade’ (or variations thereof) would again be corporate owned and patented. To many Christians, trans-humanism, secular humanism or any other stripe of humanism is a bad thing because you shouldn’t put mankind before God.

I take somewhat of a wider, more tolerant, view of the humanism(s) and their outlook(s). Traditional humanists (again, some of whom would be more aptly called spiritual humanists) have a rich tradition of self-help and self-improvement, ranging from the practical to the esoteric.  Some of this practical advice springs from the Christian culture itself. We have as examples Dale Carnegie’s classic best-selling book How To Win Friends And Influence People, and the more recent The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren. While Johansson’s Lucy obviously never read either of those books, please bear with me.

There is also a long tradition of Indian and Eastern mysticism which uses its own form of ‘upgrade technology’ in the form of esoteric meditation techniques.  I’ll use as an example the Kriya Yoga techniques of Paramahansa Yogananda, as passed down through a lineage of teachers coming out of India and (if you believe) traces its roots back thousands of years. The explicitly stated goal of Kriya Yoga is to accelerate human evolution.

Interestingly, one of Steve Jobs’ favorite books was Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. If ever there was a proponent of human evolution, it was Jobs.

Similarly, the Tamil Siddha tradition seeks to evolve human consciousness through the practice of certain mantras that, according to the practitioners, create the ‘siddha powers’ that are evident (in some ways) in the character of Lucy. Super human powers are also, of course, very much on display in film via the super hero genre, so that is no great news. Also, themes of scientifically induced enhanced brain capacity have been explored in other films such as Limitless.

What is news is that there may indeed eventually be an actual technological link to enhance human capability that will make the synthetic cocktail ingested accidentally by Lucy a very real (albeit expensive) option for some people — likely the rich who would rather evolve while sun-bathing on a yacht than while sitting in some cave meditating. Genetic screening and therapies are already a reality; rest assured the upgrade cocktail that expands IQ, memory, longevity, virility, etc. is not far behind. (An interesting article regarding genetic modification and extended lifespans can be found here.)

However, as explored in Lucy, another impact of such a cocktail could be an incredibly expanded awareness, tantamount to the mystical goals of omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence as laid out by the Tamil Siddhas. Admittedly, one can easily dismiss the whole notion of this brand of human potential as a myth, whether generated by science or yogic methods.

Proponents of yogic mysticism, however, apparently have great faith in their practices, are notably democratic and would like the entirety of humanity to evolve, not just the wealthy who can afford an expensive genetic cocktail and have zero faith in any kind of spirituality. A spirituality that might inspire, among other supposedly bad ideas, wide-spread compassion (generally propagated by mystics) that could discourage our world leader’s penchant for starting a war every five minutes and/or negatively impact one’s stock portfolio.

Yeah, give me Lucy, sexy Lucy, guns a blazing, butt swiveling, making those bad Asians impotent in front of our very eyes – now there’s some marketing potential for you.

That said, Besson slips in some very subtle story telling prowess to assure me with Lucy that he hasn’t bailed out on the love and goodness he was propagating with The Fifth Element. While Lucy comes to a much more clinical enlightenment than did Leeloo (played by Milla Jovovich) in The Fifth Element, she does, over the course of the story, stop resorting to violence. Lucy immobilizes her adversaries toward the end – she does not kill them. Ultimately she transcends the enemy. Besson, albeit in a fairly subtle way, reminds us that ultimately evolution = compassion.

At the end of the film, per Professor Norman’s wise suggestion, Lucy decides to pass on whatever knowledge she gained. It was apparently this wisdom she lacked, even with all of her new-found powers. In short, even God (or the Goddess) may need a teacher.

I am reminded of another story that shows us how compassion should go hand in hand with scientifically enhanced human evolution: a 1963 Outer Limits episode titled The Sixth Finger starring David McCallum. A YouTube link to the final few minutes of that poignant episode is here or you can find the entire episode on Hulu here.

This is how the narrator sums up the scientist’s attempt to accelerate human intelligence  in The Sixth Finger — words that could just as well be applied to Lucy:

“An experiment too soon, too swift, and yet, may we not still hope to discover a method by which within one generation the whole human race could be rendered intelligent, beyond hatred or revenge or the desire for power? Is that not after all the ultimate goal of evolution?”

As for Lucy, after initially losing her sense of empathy, her shift back toward compassion is a little less spelled out. So it may be up to me, the humble reviewer, to let you in on it. Even though Luc Besson may believe greed jeopardizes the human race, he has not jumped ship on the altruists! Lucy does eventually evolve toward non-violence. Amen.

Actually I’m sure many of you will get this point from the film itself, but in case not I feel compelled to remind you.

Still, it’s the males in the film – notably the Caucasians and the Asians (a hint at WW III?) – that in the end keep killing each other like rats on a sinking ship. This may be why the Dalai Lama says that the next step in human evolution is up to the women – notably women of the West.

He  is probably right.

Finally, let’s not let the irony of Lucy escape us. Whether through science or yogic mysticism, humans will evolve, and probably in ways unforeseen by the unenlightened, gun for hire scientists and capitalists seeking profit. In other words, nature is not without her trickery. She will eventually get us where we need to be, by whatever means possible.

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Don Thompson is a producer, playwright and essayist. He has edited/authored two anthologies of essays: Your Life Is A Movie and  A World Without War, both available from Del Sol Press.

We at nextPix have always felt that socially relevant media would become more and more necessary and important as we moved into the new century. Issues of global economics, the environment, poverty, oppression – along with countless other pressing social problems – would be front and center in a new media age that focused on common human values. A Place at the Table, which I had the privilege of seeing at a recent screening in San Francisco, is an example of how this continues to hold true and demonstrates the significant shape socially relevant media can take.placeattable

Produced by Participant, the most well-known progenitor of socially conscious media, A Place at the Table chronicles an extremely important issue in this country: hunger in the midst of apparent plenty. Directed by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush and featuring the celebrity clout of Jeff Bridges, the film delves into a paradoxical reality in America today: how we as a nation can be under and/or malnourished and yet, ironically, extremely efficient at producing vast quantities of food. The basic syndrome is known as ‘food insecurity’, and over 50 million Americans – one in four children – fall into the category of not knowing where their next meal is coming from.

The questions the film asks include: what kind of food do we produce, who consumes the worst of it, and how and why does this happen? Toward this end, the film a) conveys the problem, b) frames the debate and c) offers solutions. All three are done effectively, although in my own opinion some of the solutions explored in the film could have been expanded and elaborated on in a fashion that could reconcile the ‘left/right’ way the issue was sometimes framed.

According to A Place at the Table, a perhaps unintended but nonetheless  unholy alliance has formed between subsidized agribusiness, private food banks, charitable institutions, bad or gutted federal policy and, by implication, a health care industry that profits from a high quantity of diabetic, obese and otherwise sick people neatly provided to them by a dysfunctional system. We get quite a clear picture of who benefits from the current situation: large corporations.

The issue is fundamentally one of priorities and money: we subsidize the production of a few staple crops that get force-fed at the low (cost) spectrum of the food chain to the poor, who then can’t afford better food, and become trapped in a vicious poverty cycle that starts with being ill-fed, particularly as children. The result is kids who often can’t learn and grow up to be sick adults. To put it differently, we feed poor children foods that either buttress or in some cases create developmental challenges that keep them in endless rounds of poverty, lack of opportunity, illness and hopelessness that nonetheless keeps the large food and (by implication) health care providers and pharmaceuticals happy.

The film frames the debate by stating that the problem was, at one point, solved (during the 70’s) by visionary bi-partisan legislation starting with the Nixon administration. These visionary food programs, including an expansion of school lunch programs and adding a breakfast equivalent, were subsequently gutted during the 1980’s and replaced by private (often ‘faith-based’) food banks and charities that rely heavily on the excess production of the producers of cheap processed foods, and subsequently used to stuff the  poor with their so-called generosity. While these efforts are (sometimes) well-intended, the message is clear: food banks ran by churches and other private institutions are not providing the kind of foods that poor children need to thrive, but instead give them an unending diet of chips, cookies, cakes and – to put it bluntly all the foods the educated middle class (whether left or right) tries to avoid.

The film’s point couldn’t be more clear. We are slowly killing a certain segment of our population and that, illogical as this may seem to large corporations,  is not in the best interest of our country over the long-term. Further, much of our current policy seems to have a certain hint of insanity to it. It is the result of a focus on the profit motive outside of other considerations that (used to be) the purview of common sense and rationality of mature (mostly male) leaders,  a type of wisdom and sense of social responsibility that does not seem to be a prerequisite for entry into some of the corporate boardrooms of the mega companies that create many of the foods we consume. Perhaps that can change.

The film lays out the debate in a bi-partisan way, and is an equal opportunity identifier of legislative stupidity and policy myopia.  However, it is mostly the Republican right, from Reagan forward, that gets the brunt of the blame for the current situation. To be sure, the solutions offered could  be a little more broad-based;  the film seemed (at least to me) to say ‘let’s re-institute the laws of 30 years ago’. I’m not sure that’s the best solution. For one, as the film notes we already have an extensive infrastructure of privately operated food banks in this country. Why don’t we influence those organizations to provide the best foods to the poor instead of just blaming them for the problem? Perhaps the food banks could work with farmer’s markets, for example, well-known for producing great food (although with short shelf life) and also becoming very wide-spread. It does appear that some ‘outside of the box’ thinking is already occurring  — at the preview screening I attended, a spokesperson for Plum Organics stated they were committed to providing high quality, nutritious (and probably processed with a relatively long shelf life) foods to children through a program they would set up.

Another obvious fact is that people are simply not paid enough money for their work. This fact is becoming (fortunately) more widely known: we do not compensate our lowest paid workers what they should be relative to the productivity increases we have seen as society over the past 30 years. Rather, those gains have been channeled (mostly) to investors. In short, we need higher minimum wages – much higher than we see today. And if a company cannot afford these wages, we need to create basic income mechanisms that make sure people are functioning at an acceptable economic level; based on current studies, that would translate to over $20 an hour for a full-time worker.

While the film may not have explored the full swath of solutions available (perhaps perceiving some of them as being political non-starters in these days of sequestration), this does not undermine the extremely important message it conveys regarding the ‘syndrome’ of hunger and food insecurity in a nation that is supposedly the richest in the world. I urge everyone who reads this blog to see the film: you will be changed and educated as a result.

More information about the film and what you can do to get involved can be found here.

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D.R. Thompson is an award-winning filmmaker, playwright and essayist. His latest book of essays, A WORLD WITHOUT WAR, is now available from Del Sol Press. You can email Thompson at info@nextpix.com and visit nextpix at www.nextpix.com.

Cloud Atlas, directed by Tom Tykwer in collaboration with Lana and Andy Wachowski, is a convention-breaking experiment that lays bare both the promise and perils of cinematic experimentation. While the film is somewhat avant garde, it is simultaneously mainstream in the use of certain techniques – particularly revenge-based violence — as it attempts to reach  a wide audience. That said, the film effectively targets a generational, racial, and values-based constituency that is likely to change the mainstream cultural and cinematic landscape.

In many ways, the film reflects the evolving demographics and values seen in the United States today. It inverts the racial roles of Black and White, chronicling the decline of the white tribe over a period of several hundred years, alongside the ascendancy of a consumerist and nihilistic Asia within the context of a multi-racial era that puts the person of color front and center as the dominant factor of any future world. This reflects a growing perception (and reality) of shifting demographics that was in many ways evident in the recent Presidential election. While 15 years ago political pundits spoke of a permanent conservative majority in the U.S. – because ‘the country is inherently conservative’ – today such talk rings false. Looking back, the events of 9/11 may be seen as last attempt of the Anglo-alliance (Britain, U.S. and Australia) to maintain dominance through its wars of choice. Rather than project strength, however, the wars portended a profound shift, as they ultimately revealed cracks and limitations of a post WW-II hegemony that no longer holds. Rather, what holds is the new global and interdependent world structure that has no clear dominant force. Cloud Atlas reflects this reality.

Thus the themes of interdependence of Cloud Atlas  fit neatly with a more global society that no longer needs, taking a Freudian view, the Super Ego of the White Male to define it.  Rather, the subconscious ID prevails; there is no single author (there are three directors), and even he author of the book (David Mitchell) apparently admits he doesn’t understand all of the story’s connections. What results borders on a kind of narrative insanity that could arguably represent the decline of Western storytelling prowess, but in the case of Cloud Atlas we get a well-thought out decline that has a method behinds its madness.

Tom Hanks, our emblematic straight White Male, descends  into a pigeon-speak (and probably illiterate) tribal reality. Moreover, the mix of alternative races and sexual preferences wove into the various stories clearly show the straight White Male as either corrupt or rotting. This is no artistic accident. The arrogant path of the Anglo race, shown in a causal chain into the future, puts it in context and showcases the smallness and transience of any civilization’s desire for permanent anything, including empire. This is not that the ‘White Male’ is the evil villain of the film, far from it. If there is any villain here, it is time itself. But time is also a wise villain, and very democratic.

The filmmakers key off several other cinematic experiments that were also interested in the nature of time, but rarely does this type of film to make it to the suburban cineplex. We can look back to Timecode (director Mike Figgis) and the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu (such as Babel) as well as Paul Haggis’ multi-threaded Crash, for the cinematic roots of Cloud Atlas. The film also throws in a little Quentin Tarantino and Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) for good measure – mostly in attempt to add humor, lighten up the narrative and infuse a dose of violence to ensure their video-game inundated youth audience doesn’t nod off with too much talk of human connectiveness.  Clouds Atlas also provokes comparison to another recent “Big Idea” cinematic experiment: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, whose narrative structure also broadcast the incomprehensible (read unknowable) nature of truth. What is comprehensible is that the thematic glue of both Tree of Life and Cloud Atlas can be summed up in one word: Love.

I opened with the idea that the film is actually somewhat mainstream in its outlook. Let me explain. Large canvas films never seek to alienate too many people for fear of having no one show up at the theater; certainly Cloud Atlas, with a budget of nearly $100 million dollars, must have some constituency that it appeals to – and that is the real experiment of this film. Did it reach and find this constituency? Time may tell, for the film may indeed lose money in the near term.

The constituency is diverse: Gays, Blacks, Asians, Latinos, Buddhists, and disenfranchised Whites and conspiracy theorists. This is the same constituency that was cobbled together for a majority of votes for Barack Obama. This new demographic mix is well understood by the filmmakers, who have an intuitive sense of who they want and need to speak to. Again, we have gone global: there is no cohesive, singular Anglo view, but rather a pastiche that reflects the new global reality.  But beyond the pastiche of, let’s say,  Tarantino’s Kill Bill, the directors try to integrate and reconcile various contradictory views, resulting in a narrative that edges past the post-modern pastiche of a film like Kill Bill and into what philosopher Ken Wilbur calls the ‘integral’ phase of human development. In other words, various views and stories are integrated into a whole that transcends the sum of its parts.

What will be interesting about Cloud Atlas is not whether it makes its money back short-term (such ground breaking films often don’t) but whether it has staying power over a period of years and winds up, over the longer term, proving  to be a successful experiment along the lines of 2001 A Space Odyssey. The critical response to the film has been quite mixed, but again that is true of many such films that experiment with narrative conventions. If the Facebook chatter (where quotes from the film are being pulled and touted by the film’s fans) is any indicator, the film will have a long post-theatrical life and already falls under the umbrella of cult classic. In its current theatrical run, if people see the film multiple times, it might even eventually make a good return for the brave investors who backed it.

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D.R. Thompson is an award-winning filmmaker, playwright and essayist. His latest book of essays, A WORLD WITHOUT WAR, is now available from Del Sol Press. You can email Thompson at info@nextpix.com.

 

Note: if you want to leave the film Prometheus a mystery and not try to figure out the storyline in advance of any sequel, you might not want to read this review. But if like me you feel like trying to figure out the mystery in advance, read on.

According to Greek Mythology, the Titan Prometheus created mankind from clay, stole fire from the Gods and gave it to man, and as a result allowed civilization to progress, but at the same time was punished by the Gods for his transgression. Understanding the Prometheus myth is key to unraveling Ridley Scott’s film (written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof) of the same name.

The film opens with a lone figure of an alien creature, likely on Earth, sacrificing himself in some sense. Exactly why it is not clear– but it appears that he is spreading his genetic imprint on the land – providing the ‘fire’ of his genetic intelligence. Thus the film’s ‘Prometheus’ gives of himself to generate new life –displaying one of the core themes of the film: that sacrifice and destruction are required for creation. Our initial Promethean figure is also somewhat Christ-like in that he is willing to give of himself to bring life to others. This Christ-like sacrifice and the inspiration it invokes will be echoed throughout the film in other ways and through several characters, including the principal character of Elizabeth Shaw (powerfully played by Noomi Repace), who not so coincidentally carries a cross as her talisman.

The crew of the story’s interstellar spacecraft (also named ‘Prometheus’) travels to a distant planet in search of the genetic creators of humanity, whose star maps were discovered in cave paintings by Shaw and partner Charlie Halloway (well-played by Logan Marshall-Green in spite of having some of the film’s worst dialog). As the story unfolds, we find that the race of what Shaw refers to as ‘Engineers’ apparently do not think very well of their errant creation, and intended to return to Earth to destroy the human population. Moreover, something stopped the Engineers from doing so (what we do not know — although many conjecture is was the black ooze that could morph into any ill-conceived intention). Those among the Engineers who sought to wipe out humanity would do so with a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ – the black ooze (interestingly reminiscent of crude oil) through which an ill-intended humanity would morph into their own demise.

It is interesting to note here that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was subtitled ‘A Modern Prometheus.’ For here the unintended consequences of the opening figure’s sacrifice apparently comes into play. Did that being, in ‘seeding’ the Earth genetically, create a sort of Frankenstein race as a result? Is the human race, in fact, a genetic aberration that must be wiped out? Not only in and of itself, but in what it in turn would attempt to create: an inorganic, soulless Superman via robotics? A race that strings up its altruists on crosses and seeks an unnatural immortality in machines?

The violent reaction of the Engineer ‘awakened’ from his hibernating state  — particularly to the robot figure of David — may in fact be explained in this context. Why did the Engineer react so negatively to the robot? My conjecture is that the evolution of humanity into the ‘perfected next step’ of robotics would be seen by the Engineers as misguided.  In other words, the evolution of humanity into a ‘machine man’ (and corollary ‘corporate human’ as reflected in Charlize Theron’s icey portrayal  of Meredith Vickers) might, to these beings, be an aberration, ‘anti-life’ (anti-Christ?) and immoral.

Some have conjectured that the Engineers were destined to return to Earth to destroy humanity because it had killed Christ on the cross (Ridley Scott himself hinted at this).  If this were the case, certainly the Engineers would dislike where humanity was heading in modern times –i.e., toward creating a new race of robot beings with corporate masters, soulless and without flaws. And they probably would disapprove of the ‘immortality’ touted by Mr. Weyland (the industrialist sponsor of the Prometheus mission played in heavy makeup by Guy Pearce) that David apparently possessed, for it was (as symbolized by the decapitation of David) ‘mind separated from body’ – an unnatural, inorganic, non-genetic ‘Frankenstein’ outcome of immortality without soul that was the pre-ordained result of a humanity that would routinely crucify the innocent. Their robot creations also indicated a singular selfishness in Weyland and Company and the inability to accept death as part of life.

To any defenders of humanity, the ‘perfection’ of the robotic David may be seen as the logical next step of evolution, particularly if such a creature were able to obtain an emotional life and thus a soul. David apparently did develop hatred for Charlie (as his patronizing oppressor and obstacle to his growing love for Elizabeth), and wound up killing him with a genetic concoction that mutated him into a monster. While David’s emotional life was immature and reactionary (even pathological, like some of his human mentors, who would do whatever they could to get what they want), it did show that David’s robot race — and by inference his human creators — perhaps had a potential not seen by the Engineers (or their creators!). For while if a  human cannot physically survive without a body, David could (symbolically ‘transcending’ the body). Ironically, one could argue that David was almost Angelic in his outcome, and not a Frankenstein at all. David, in fact, became Elizabeth’s guide – thus the ‘head guides the heart’ in search of truth, while the heart provides the passion required for survival. A combination of super intelligence and superior passion (compassion?) would indeed be the most formidable survivalist in any Darwinian struggle for dominance. For those interested in dominance and power, the issue of who survives trumps all others.  For the character of Elizabeth Shaw, what leads to the greatest truth is even more important.

And then there is of course the other survivalist: the Alien creature made famous by earlier movies.  Was the final Alien monster creation simply an accident? An unintended consequence of science? It seems so.  And the tragic and unintended consequences of science is again a major theme taken from the Prometheus myth.

Prometheus poses such questions about truth, life, power, sacrifice, creation, death and immortality. The film also portends what may evolve into a very real ethical debate between bio-engineering and robotics regarding the nature of life itself (i.e., can life be only DNA based, or can it be inorganic?). And while the film was pretty derivative and I have some issues with its overall execution (much of it likely due to editing it down to a releasable version and cementing  its ‘prequel’ feel of the Alien movies) I do believe Prometheus opens up a series of questions that lifts it to the level of true science fiction and above the melodramatic ‘cowboys vs. aliens’ that are a mockery of the genre, which at its best forces us to look deeply into questions most often relegated to religion and philosophy.

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D.R. Thompson is a producer and essayist. His latest book of essays, A WORLD WITHOUT WAR, is available from Del Sol Press.

I haven’t waited in line for a movie for quite some time, little less one playing at your local cineplex. The Hunger Games changed all that this weekend. I found myself standing in line with packs of teenage girls (each five or six strong), along with a healthy smattering of adults and young boys — in short, a mélange of humanity that was interested in what will likely become the phenomena of The Hunger Games. The film just filed an opening weekend of $150 million plus – the largest film opening of all time for a non-sequel – 3rd largest for all films in all history – a ‘shocker’ according to imdb. And it has just got started.

Well, you ask, was it a good film?  Let me say this. As a cultural artifact it was one of the most powerful works I’ve seen since the post-Vietnam era, where the likes of Francis Coppola and Apocalypse Now were also lining them up outside the theater. In those days, a serious, topical drama could actually get a place at the mainstream distribution table in the United States and not be crowded out by numerous Vampire knock-offs, low-brow comedies, and ads for the Marine Corps. My favorite one of late is the upcoming  Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. I can imagine studio heads laughing themselves into hysterics how their foisting that one on their teenage audience. And we thought Soviet Russia was creative at re-inventing history.

But back to Hunger Games. Well, you might ask, was the film as artistically satisfying as Apocalypse Now or other ‘important’ films? Not exactly. As a sci-fi film, I would rank Hunger Games on the artistic level of Star Wars and any good James Cameron movie. Some might even question whether Gary Ross was the best choice to direct; after some reflection, my take is that Ross may have indeed been a very good choice, for reasons I’ll get into later. That said, the execution of the film was at times lackluster, particularly in the Wizard of Oz-like scenes at ‘The Capitol,’ where protagonist Katniss Everdeen (played brilliantly by Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (competently portrayed by Josh Hutcherson ) get their training and makeovers in prep for the Games.

Thematically, there’s a lot going on in The Hunger Games, and this is its real strength. The ideas of the film are powerful, multi-tiered and on the level of great satire. Not the funny kind of satire that we think of when we hear the term today, but the satire of Jonathan Swift and Gulliver’s Travels, which during its time was a great social commentary on human nature and the mechanics and folly of Empire. So much of the strength of Hunger Games must go back to the source material, and the author Suzanne Collins, who stated that she got the idea for the books after channel surfing and finding an eerie similarity between the Iraq War coverage and reality TV shows.

As for the books, I have to admit I have not read them, so cannot make a comparison to the film or comment on their literary merit. But again, as for the ideas of the film, and the way the themes were carefully and skillfully weaved together, this in itself is quite an accomplishment. On one level Hunger Games is certainly an anti-war film, and gets into the mechanics of how wars are bought, sold and packaged to a manipulated populace. But because there is no real ‘enemy’ to fight in Hunger Games, but rather the Game is depicted as a ‘punishment’ for ‘past sins’ of the rebellion, we venture into some pretty interesting thematic territory over and above your standard anti-war message. In this sense the film transcends themes of war and dissects how elites control their subjects in modern societies.  As such, Panem’s ‘Capitol’ (the Capital city of the futuristic dystopia of Panem) serves as a proxy for the Pentagon, the Vatican, the US Capitol, Las Vegas, New York, London and Shanghai all rolled into one.

The idea of the war ‘game’ (which the film is modeled after – i.e., a military war game or a reality game show) serves a multi-leveled social device, some stated but most of it unstated and hidden. The stated part is that wars bring unity; the unstated part is that older generations manipulate, coerce and/or draft the young into an effort that they may or may not want to play a part in and certainly have no responsibility in creating. The social drama is played out and serves as a mechanisms for social cohesion for the top 1%, who view war as a spectacle or method of ‘penance’ (debt with interest?) of the ‘bad’ or ‘flawed’ or ‘weak’ people who must depend on them (when in reality the reverse is the case), and coercion to the 99%, who see war as a way to ‘serve with pride’ and/or ‘win the prize’ in the case of economic warfare, gambling and/or winning the lotto. The 99% are also, importantly, motivated by fear and under the boot of an oppressive police state who fascinates them with their power and prestige: hence the word fascism as it arises from fascination with power.

To go a little further with ‘one percent’ theme, in the case of the neo-feudal Panem,  the ‘Capitol’ could just as aptly be named the ‘Capital’ in that it is the requirements of Capitalism that keep it humming and give it purpose. It is a city of aristocrats, costumed appropriately, and all under the gilded elegance of a techno-fascistic state. The dangers of technology and the media manipulation to fuel a story is not new (you can think of The Truman Show) but the way The Hunger Games fits so well into the current social moment, with Occupy Wall Street (and others) again about to hit the streets in protest, makes the film’s context as powerful as its storytelling.

That  repeated motto of the Games ‘may the odds be in your favor’ is of course a pun on ‘may the Gods be in your favor,’ and alludes to a Las Vegas motif, but also to that of the casino capitalism that we’ve all bought into hook line and sinker. Now this is where I’ll veer from the normal purview of the film critic, most of whom will not venture into this thematic territory, or have not pondered it very deeply. For outside of the anti-war and social control elements also mentioned, the film is also a critique on how economics plays so neatly into our media and war spectacles, much the same way they did during the Coliseum of the Roman Empire (with characters aptly named Caeser Flickerman and Seneca Crane).

The casino mentality showcased in The Hunger Games contrasts itself to other means of social organization that are effectively labeled as ‘socialistic’ by many in this country. I often find it amazing how we accept the organization of mega-corporations, give them personhood status, allow them to donate millions to political campaigns, and yet in general call any attempt of working people to unite (or gain common benefit) ‘socialistic.’ I’m sure there will be a commentator or two that will say that Hunger Games has a socialist tinge to it (although others will argue just as strongly the film promotes an Ayn Rand type of rugged individualism).

Regardless, the film’s power is that it displays the potential for a neo-feudal corporate world where the corporate interests of the top 1% are so intertwined with the political elites that they become indistinguishable. Many would argue in fact that we are already there, and Hunger Games is really not just about where we are headed, but rather a first class satire on our current situation, which in many ways is just as de-humanizing as what is depicted in The Hunger Games.

Another important theme in the film is that of ‘wounds.’ For while the film is fairly bloodless and restrained in its depiction of violence, it is quite visual in depicting its results. This may be why Gary Ross was selected as the film’s director, for he is much more of a ‘soft’ portrayer of human realities and emotions than an action film director (Ross’ past credits include Big, Lassie and Seabiscuit). While I personally ponder how Hunger Games might have been a masterpiece with a John Boorman (Deliverance) at the helm, nonetheless the harder edge that Boorman would have given it might have detracted from a certain audience.

This emphasis on wounds and the healing of wounds is both a very feminine and human perspective that shows the consequences of violence in counter-balance to any glorification. I find it ironic that a film such as The Passion of the Christ was much more bloody than Hunger Games, and yet I’m sure that some ‘family friendly’ reviewers of Hunger Games might whole-heartedly endorse their children see The Passion with its much higher level of blood-letting. Not to berate religious reviewers or The Passion (which I believe had a lot of merit) but when you hear criticisms of how Hunger Games is too ‘humanistic’ and that this is a negative connotation, a reviewer such as myself takes note.

I would only ask that the broad range of viewers reflect on what the term humanism actually means.  For I believe that the concept of humanism must evolve to be much more inclusive than we’ve seen in the past; for example, I would call Ben Hur a humanistic film even though it explores many Christian themes, while at the same time labeling more ‘secular’ films such Norma Rae and Thelma and Louise as equally humanistic(A much-needed re-definition of media humanism can be found here).

As for Hunger Games, have other films treaded similar territory before? Certainly. In the realm of science fiction we’ve seen The Running Man, Roller Ball, Death Race 2000, and (as mentioned) The Truman Show, to name a few. But because our current social reality is mapping ever closer to what is depicted in The Hunger Games, and the efforts of  mainstream media are generally focused on keeping people in a cynical and profitable place, that this film (coming notably from a Canadian company, Lionsgate), compounded with the context of the times, becomes ever more powerful because of these elements outside the screen.

And it is those elements outside the theater where the real Hunger Games are being played out. The question is will we do something about inequality? Will social media serve as our own kind of ‘mocking jay’ (Katniss’ emblem and practical means of communicating in the forest) where we use organic forms of communication to outwit the 1% and convince them that we can forge something better? Do films matter enough, or really, do we matter enough, to want to change the fabric of the system to something more equitable? The Powers That Be hope that Hunger Games can serve as a release valve for festering social anger and that people really do feel ultimately powerless to change the system. Others, such as myself, believe that films like Hunger Games, and perhaps others to come (Ron Howard will apparently produce a new version of 1984) can serve to inspire our young people — indeed all of us — to shape a better world.

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D.R. Thompson is an award-winning filmmaker, playwright and essayist. His latest book of essays, A WORLD WITHOUT WAR, is now available from Del Sol Press. You can email Thompson at info@nextpix.com.

If there’s anything true about film it’s that there really are no rules – the only rule is: does it work? This rule is on display very well in The Descendants, Alexander Payne’s adaptation of the Kaui Hart Hemming’s book of the same name. Fortunately, in the case of this film the answer is yes.

That said, a couple of ‘rules’ of scriptwriting are broken with relish. First, ‘don’t overuse narration.’ The film opens with a lengthy ‘tell don’t show’ narration by George Clooney (playing Matthew King) that outlines his current predicament: the fact that his wife is in a coma, he has more responsibility for his children than he can handle, and in tandem has to oversee the sale of his family’s land trust on Kauai to a group of investors — all with the requisite family politics.  It is within this very tragic, real, and hilariously portrayed stew that The Descendants unveils itself.

The second rule even more liberally broken is that characters should have a clear motivation, usually a single overarching motivation that drives them.  Now I’m sure I’ll get a script consultant or two who would disagree with me on this point, but the major breakthrough of this film is that the motivation of George Clooney’s character changes as often as the weather over Princeville, Kauai. He is at once angry, vindictive, forgiving, mature, selfless and victimized, often concurrently.

Interestingly, this film ends up being much better at depicting how human beings actually behave than any reality show out there. Reality shows, for the most part, are fairly well ‘scripted’ by the producers in terms of the myths that they project and the lines of behavior they coach the ‘stars’ to exhibit. The result is often a flawed mirror of behavior in that the situations that the reality stars are placed in are patently false and unrealistic.  In its own beguiling way, The Descendants shows why artists and scripted material remain relevant as they continue to be effective messengers and fulfill the important role of storytellers in society  — i.e.,  artists that communicate to the group in such a way as to maintain social cohesion and/or critique social ills. As such, a fictional reality can often be more ‘real’ than reality itself.

How so?  In but one example, the film shows how our current crop of American children seem to have very little fear of their parents and are often vocal in their opinions aimed at their parents on  subjects (such as masturbation and pornography) that would have been inappropriate twenty years or so. I know if I said such things to my father when I was a kid he would have cold-cocked me in the mouth, much like George Clooney’s wife’s father cold-cocked the insensitive Sid (hilariously played by Nick Krause) for making fun of his wife’s Alzheimer’s. These generational differences are rarely, if ever, depicted in any ‘reality’ show out there, although the Disney Channel might hint at them in an obtuse way. While TV series such as The Cosby Show used to effectively reconcile (although some might say gloss over) generational, class and racial differences, this type of programming has fallen out of vogue.

Because of these well-drawn generational schisms, The Descendants will go down as one of the few modern films in recent memory that deals effectively with these differences and outlines the issues of discipline, permissiveness, bitterness, shallowness,  and, ultimately connectedness that binds not only families, but generations of families that have specific responsibilities to leave their children in as good of shape as their parents left them.  As a kind of inverted Dallas for our modern, liberal age, The Descendants removes the guile, revenge and hatred evident in most generational melodramas and replaces it with humor, pathos and the occasional bruised ego. Finally, a message of spiritual reconciliation trumps all feelings of ill will.

Another ‘issue’ dealt with in The Descendants is one of class, although obliquely. I would draw a comparison here to Jane Austen, whose class-conscious works often were indirectly aimed at creating a feeling of reconciliation between the upper and lower classes (usually through marriage) and to as a result create the sense of a common human bonding and ‘Britishness.’ While George Clooney as Matt is distinctly a member of the 1%, he is also a human being filled with a kaleidoscope of emotions. He is pulled, as most modern Americans are, in a multitude of directions at once, and at the same time trying to live in a way that is consistent with his values.  Showing a ‘one-percenter’ in this light is interesting in this current time of rampant protests. On one hand it is completely accidental, on the other hand it is the kind of humanism that is acceptable to those with money and is (again obliquely) an attempt to create a sense of a common humanity, bound in this case to a land called America.  However, I would say it isn’t accidental in this sense: the one-percent  who own the production companies that make films like The Descendants would find the depiction of the King family very familiar in terms of the broad situation that combines privilege and pain. As such, the content of The Descendants is very much non-threatening to the powers that be, and thus acceptable to all classes.

There are a series of stellar performances in The Descendants — including Mr. Clooney’s — that will likely land the cast several awards in the upcoming season. Along with Clooney, Shailene Woodley (Alexandra), Amara Miller (Scottie) and Nick Krause (Sid)  form a perfect ensemble.  Moreover, the film’s message of class, familial and generational unity and reconciliation will undoubtedly continue to allow it to do quite well at the box office as people cling to the film’s much needed message of forgiveness and hope for the future.  For this the filmmakers and producers deserve our congratulations and every accolade they receive.

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