Archive for January, 2011

The Social Network

January 12, 2011

The National Society of Film Critics picked The Social Network as the best film of 2010, so I felt obligated to go see it. I didn’t think a movie about rich, nerdy college students could possibly be that good. It is based on the true story of the founding of Facebook.

The film begins in 2003 when Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is an undergraduate student at Harvard. A computer stunt that crashes the school’s computer system makes him a notorious man on campus. The Winklevoss brothers (both played by Armie Hammer) hire him to build a social network site for Harvard students. Zuckerberg takes the idea and runs with it – but without the Winklevoss brothers. He gets his friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), to put up the money to start his new business. Zuckerberg calls his new social networking site “The Facebook”, and Saverin becomes its CFO. Zuckerberg eventually meets Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the founder of Napster. Parker becomes Zuckerberg’s Mephistopheles, helping him to aggressively expand Facebook. He and Zuckerberg conspire to force Saverin out of the company. The film is mainly told through flashbacks during discovery meetings for lawsuits brought by the Winklevoss brothers and by Saverin against Zuckerberg. The film has a “money can’t buy happiness” ending.

Zuckerberg comes off as not really a bad person, just self-absorbed and insensitive. There is an implied irony in the fact that a man with poor social skills creates the world’s most successful social networking site. Since the film is a fictionalized account, I don’t know whether or not it fairly represents any of the people involved. The acting is pretty good though. Eisenberg is believably geeky as Zuckerberg. Timberlake exudes a devilish charm as Parker.

I found The Social Network funny and entertaining, but I do not think that it is a better film than A Prophet or Winter’s Bone. I can only guess that film critics like to watch movies that portray rich people as back-stabbing assholes. So it appears that film critics do have class consciousness.

The Tuscon Shootings

January 11, 2011

The information that has come out about Jared Lee Loughner indicates that he is simply mentally disturbed. Aside from some vague anti-government notions, he doesn’t seem to have any clear political ideology. A story that he was connected to a white supremacist group now appears to be baseless. He was angry at Giffords because she was dismissive towards him at an earlier meeting. Of course, the reason she was dismissive was because he was saying things that made no sense.

The only real conclusion we can draw from Loughner’s case is that our society doesn’t know how to deal with people who are mentally ill. People knew that Loughner was disturbed, but they didn’t know what to do about it. (Similarly, people knew that Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, was mentally ill, but they didn’t know what to do about it.) Pima Community College told Loughner that he had to get a psychiatric examination before he could take more classes. Loughner responded simply by not taking more classes.

Every now and then one hears a story about police officers shooting somebody who is mentally ill. The police always claim that they acted in “self-defense”, but it is often clear that they simply didn’t know what else to do besides start shooting.

I don’t know what to do about this problem, but it is one we need to think about.

The Woman in the Dunes

January 7, 2011

The Woman in the Dunes is a 1964 film directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, with a screenplay by Kōbō Abe, based on his own novel. Junpei Niki (Eiji Okada) is an amateur entomologist who is collecting insects in dunes near the sea. He misses his bus back to town, so he asks some people from a nearby village if there is a place where he can spend the night. They take him to a pit with a house at the bottom of it. They tell him the woman who lives there (Kyoko Kishida) will put him up for the night. Junpei doesn’t find anything strange or suspicious about this. He climbs down a rope ladder into the pit. He learns that the woman (we’re never told her name) digs sand, which is then hauled up with a rope. The villagers sell the sand. The next morning, he finds that the villagers have pulled up the ladder. They want him to remain in the pit and dig sand with the woman. He refuses to dig and demands that they let him go. The villagers withhold water from him for several days until he finally gives in.

Junpei and the woman develop a sexual relationship. (I can’t really call it a romance, especially since he never asks her what her name is.) Junpei escapes from the pit, but he gets stuck in quicksand and the villagers capture him. Months go by and Junpei becomes resigned to his situation. One day he asks the villagers if he can be allowed to leave the pit for a half hour at a time, so he can look at the sea. They tell him they will let him do it on one condition: that he and the woman have sex in front of them. The woman is revolted by this idea. Junpei, however, is so debased at this point that he tries to rape her – but he is unable to go through with it.

Later Junpei discovers a way to draw water from the sand. He feels immensely pleased with himself. The discovery gives him a sense of self-respect in his humiliating situation. One day, the woman becomes ill. Junpei displays genuine concern for her. He persuades the villagers to take her to a doctor. They lift her out of the pit with a rope. When they are done with this, they forget to pull up the rope ladder. Junpei climbs out of the pit. He walks along the beach for a while, and then he climbs back into the pit. He gazes admiringly at his water trap. He tells himself that he will one day tell the villagers about this discovery, then he will escape. The film ends with a shot of a police bulletin saying that Junpei has been missing for seven years.

The message of this film is that we don’t try to free ourselves because we take consolation in petty achievements. I think there is some truth in this idea. An office worker prides himself on getting the corner office, instead of trying to get rid of the capitalist system that exploits him.

This film is beautifully done. There are many shots of shifting sand. I never before realized that sand can move in surprisingly complex and interesting ways. The sex scenes are subtly erotic and tastefully done.

Tamara Drewe

January 5, 2011

Tamara Drewe is a British comedy directed by Stephen Frears, with a screenplay by Moira Buffini, based on a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds. The film opens at a writers’ colony in Dorset. It is run by Beth Hardiment (Tamsin Greig), who is married to a philandering crime novelist, Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam). The lodgers include an American academic, Glen McCreavy (Bill Camp), who is writing a book about Thomas Hardy. Beth is assisted around her farm by a handyman, Andy Cobb (Luke Evans). When Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton), a comely young woman sporting a recently surgically shortened nose, moves into the farmhouse next door, Andy (her erstwhile boyfriend) and the lecherous Nicholas both take notice. However, Tamara launches into a romance with a rock star, Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper). This draws the attention of two bratty teenagers, Jody and Casey (Jessica Barden and Charlotte Christie), who are obsessed with Sergeant. Their attempts to intrude into the lives of Ben and Tamara set off a chain of events that have consequences for the other characters that are both comic and tragic.

Tamara Drewe is a thoroughly delightful comedy. There is a light-heartedness about it that is just wonderful. Even when, towards the end, the tone of the film suddenly turns serious, there is still a feeling of joie de vivre about it. It never sinks into melodrama, the way The Kids Are All Right does. The acting is uniformly good. I especially liked Roger Allam and Tamsin Grieg. Allam does a very good job of conveying his character’s smug cynicism and complacency. Grieg makes the long-suffering wife very real and sympathetic.

There is a touch of class consciousness in the film, in that Andy’s family was forced to sell the house that Tamara now lives in. More than once Andy refers to himself as a “peasant”. Perhaps not coincidentally, he is the most level-headed character in the film. Having experienced poverty, he has fewer illusions than the other characters do.

I highly recommend this film.

So Long, Arnold

January 4, 2011


Arnold the Mighty, fearless defender of wealth and privilege.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s term as Governor of California has ended. He leaves that state the same way he found it, mired in a budget crisis. Schwarzenegger could always have solved that crisis by raising the income tax rate on the richest one percent of Californians, but he steadfastly refused, on principle, to do such a thing. You may recall that several years ago there was a lot of talk of Arnold running for president. There was talk of amending the Constitution so that someone born outside the U.S. could become president. That’s all gone now. Arnold sacrificed his political career just so the richest people in California wouldn’t have to pay higher taxes.

What a guy.

You may recall that Arnold was elected as part of the recall of Governor Gray Davis. Peter Camejo ran as the Green Party candidate in that election. He ran on a solidly left-wing platform, and he actually received a fair amount of attention from the media, something virtually unheard of for a left-wing candidate in the U.S. A strong showing by Camejo would have sent a powerful message. However, some on the left started screaming that Schwarzenegger is a fascist – which he isn’t – and that was enough to stampede people back into the Democratic Party’s fold. So leftists wasted their votes trying to save the sorry ass of the corrupt and incompetent Davis. Once again, we see the self-defeating effect of the “lesser evil” argument.

Arnold’s successor is Jerry Brown, on whom Alexander Cockburn has a man-crush. In his inaugural address, Brown said, “The year ahead will require courage and sacrifice.” I assume he means courage and sacrifice on the part of the working class. Isn’t that always the way it is?

Now Arnold can go back to doing what he does best, which is appearing in action movies. Note that I said “appearing” and not “acting”. This is a guy who gets paid millions of dollars just to show up for film shoots. A lot of working class people voted for Arnold, yet it was too much to hope that someone with his background would have any sympathy or understanding for people who actually work for a living.

When Stan Tookie Williams was facing execution, Arnold could have done the courageous thing and commuted his sentence, but Mr. Action Hero is actually a coward. Another example of the gap between reality and dreams in Hollywood.

Inception

January 2, 2011

I finally got around to seeing Inception. I recently learned that there is a cinema near where I live where you can see a movie that’s been out for a while for a $1.25. So expect some belated movie reviews in the future.

Dominick Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an industrial spy who enters people’s dreams in order to get information from them. He is hired by a businessman, Saito (Ken Watanabe), to implant an idea into the head of a rival businessman by entering his dreams. Cobb employs a team of people to help him with his plan, but the success of his endeavor is threatened by Mal (Marion Cotillard), Cobb’s subconscious representation of his deceased wife, whom he is accused of having murdered. (Trust me, it will make sense when you see the movie.)

I found Inception entertaining, even though it runs into the same problem that the Matrix movies ran into, which is that it is hard to really care about what is happening when you know that it’s a dream. This especially becomes a problem towards the end, when the action starts to get confusing.

The basic idea in Inception is similar to that of a Japanes anime film, Paprika, which was directed by the late Satoshi Kon. There is a sense of wonder in Paprika that is lacking in Inception. This is because the latter is more concerned with being an action film than with exploring the possibilities of entering people’s dreams.

Inception is one of a number of Hollywood films that take it for granted that governments and trans-national corporations are corrupt. Although it’s nice to see these films acknowledge this, they present this idea in a casual manner that is likely to engender cynicism rather than anger. What’s more, in Inception we are expected to believe that a billionaire can, with just one phone call, immediately negate an arrest warrant for murder. This is in keeping with the conspiracist view of the world, which holds that George W. Bush could, with one phone call, get people to blow up the World Trade Center. Fortunately we have Wikileaks to remind us that the world isn’t that simple.