Archive for the ‘Hollywood’ Category

Don Juan Comes to Hollywood

March 8, 2015

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Carlos Castaneda

When I was writing my review of Maps to the Stars, I was intrigued to learn that the screenwriter, Bruce Wagner, was a disciple of Carlos Castaneda. In case you don’t know, Castaneda was the author of a series of books that were hugely popular in the 1970’s. In them, Castaneda claimed that he had had a series of encounters with a Yaqui sorcerer named Don Juan. This shaman introduced Castaneda to a “separate reality”, in which he could talk to animals and fly through the air. These books were eventually exposed as a hoax, yet they continue to be sold as “non-fiction” to this day. I felt a personal connection here, because I read the Don Juan books when I was in high school, and for a time I came under their spell, so to speak. However, I eventually came to the conclusion that they were basically bullshit. Yet I still vividly recall some some episodes and bits of conversation from them. I actually remember them more fondly than The Lord of the Rings, which I read at roughly the same time.

The debunking of the Don Juan books didn’t hurt Castaneda though. He went on to a lucrative career as a self-help guru. (Contrast this with how James Frey got beat up for embroidering some details of his life.) Castaneda went on to found an organization called Cleargreen, which teaches something called “Tensegrity”. And what is Tensegrity? Cleargreen’s website explains:

    Tensegrity® is the modern version of the navigator’s way—practices and principles that support finding and traveling a path with heart—that don Juan Matus taught his four students: Carlos Castaneda, Florinda Donner-Grau, Taisha Abelar and Carol Tiggs. Don Juan was a Yaqui Indian seer and a leader of a group of men and women seers whose lineage begins in Mexico of ancient times.

And I’m sure the men and women seers of ancient Mexico used trademarks whenever they could.

But let’s get back to Bruce Wagner. According to Salon, Wagner once had the following role in Cleargreen:

    A major player in promoting Tensegrity was Wagner, whose fifth novel, “The Chrysanthemum Palace,” was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner prize (his sixth, “Memorial,” was recently released by Simon and Schuster). Wagner hadn’t yet published his first novel when he approached Castaneda in 1988 with the hope of filming the don Juan books. Within a few years, according to Jennings and Wallace, he became part of the inner circle. He was given the sorceric name Lorenzo Drake — Enzo for short. As the group began to emerge from the shadows, holding seminars in high school auditoriums and on college campuses, Wagner, tall, bald and usually dressed in black, would, according to Geuter and Wallace, act as a sort of bouncer, removing those who asked unwanted questions.

From bouncer to novelist. An interesting career path.

In Maps to the Stars, several characters recite a poem by Paul Eluard entitled ‘Liberty’. The poem begins this way:

    On my notebooks from school
    On my desk and the trees
    On the sand on the snow
    I write your name

    On every page read
    On all the white sheets
    Stone blood paper or ash
    I write your name

The name is ‘Liberty’. At the end of the film, two of the characters recite this poem just before they commit suicide. The implication here is that they see death as a release from the prison of their lives. What bothers me about this is that when Castaneda died, several of his female disciples, including the three women mentioned on the Cleargreen website, disappeared. Some people believe they may have committed suicide. (You can read about this in the article I linked to above.)

At the end of Castaneda’s book Tales of Power, Don Juan urges Castaneda to jump off a cliff, in order to show that he has finally become a sorcerer. I’ve noticed that a recurring motif in Hollywood films that I’ve watched in recent years is someone jumping off a building in order to prove a point. The most recent example of this is in Birdman. (This also occurs in The Matrix.) Castaneda reportedly frequented Hollywood parties, and he no doubt discussed some of his ideas with people at these gatherings.

The fact that someone like Castaneda may have had an influence on popular films is a sobering thought.

Maps to the Stars

March 2, 2015

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David Cronenberg has a reputation for making dark and disturbing films. His most recent work, Maps to the Stars, based on a screenplay by Bruce Wagner, will certainly not disappoint in that regard. Set in contemporary Los Angeles, it is the most unflattering depiction of Hollywood that I have seen since Robert Altman’s The Player. It suggests that the culture of Hollywood encourages narcissism and selfishness, as well as reckless and self-destructive behavior.

Maps to the Stars has several plot lines that eventually converge. Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) is a young woman just arrived in Los Angeles. She becomes romantically involved with Jerome (Robert Pattinson), an aspiring actor and writer. Benjie (Evan Bird) is a child actor who starred in a popular movie but then developed a substance abuse problem. He is now making a comeback by appearing in a sequel. His mother, Cristina (Olivia Williams), is a driving force behind his career. Havana (Julianne Moore) is a well-known movie actress. Her mother, Clarice (Sarah Gadon) was also in movies. Havana is trying to get a role in a film that is a remake of a film her mother was in. She begins seeing Clarice’s ghost. She has therapy sessions with a self-help guru, Stafford (John Cusack), who happens to be Benjie’s father. Agatha gets a job working as a personal assistant for Havana. It is eventually revealed that Agatha is actually Benjie’s sister. Seven years earlier, she burned down the family’s house and almost killed Benjie during a psychotic episode. She was put in an asylum, but has now been released. Stafford has never forgiven her, and he is determined to keep her away from the rest of his family.

This film’s critique of Hollywood is intertwined with a grimly fatalistic story about incest, madness, and ghosts. (The supernatural elements may be due to the fact that the screenwriter is a disciple of Carlos Castaneda. I will have something to say about Castaneda in a future post.) These elements somewhat blunt its social criticism. However, the most striking thing about this movie is its lack of sympathy for its characters (although one feels a bit sorry for Agatha at times). Almost all of them come to bad ends. It doesn’t hold out any possibility that people can overcome their illusions or morally improve or escape their past. It ultimately feels suffocating.

Forrest Gump and the Manufacturing of Innocence

September 7, 2014

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It’s been 20 years since Forrest Gump was released. This anniversary is being celebrated with a week-long IMAX release. I guess this is a good enough excuse to write something that I’ve long been wanting to write.

When Forrest Gump first came out, it mostly received ecstatic reviews (with a few naysayers here and there). I went to see it fully expecting to enjoy it. The early scenes seemed promising. I liked Sally Fields as Forrest Gump’s mother. She quickly disappeared, however. After about half an hour, I started glancing at my watch, wondering how much longer this thing would go on. I was watching stick figure characters who were doing things that were neither believable nor interesting. When the film finally ended, I left the theater feeling numb, as if I had just sat through a really long and really dull lecture.

So, what gives? Why did this mediocre film win such rave reviews? And why was it so hugely popular? (Those Bubbagump Shrimp hats were far and away the most annoying fashion item of the 1990’s.) This is something that I have thought about from time to time. I think that one of the significant things about this film is the fact that Gump is depicted as morally pure. There isn’t a mean-spirited bone in his body. He even manages to make it through the Vietnam War without killing anyone. (Although he somehow wins the Medal of Honor.)

But what’s really striking about this film is its racial angle. Gump is depicted as being not the least bit racist, despite the fact that he grows up in the Deep South during the time of Jim Crow. (We are also explicitly told that he is named after Nathan Bedford-Forrest, the founder of the Klu Klux Klan.) He is nice to almost all the black people he meets. (Interestingly, the only black person Gump doesn’t like is a Black Panther.) When Gump is in the Army, he meets a black soldier named Bubba, who talks non-stop about the different ways to cook shrimp. We’re expected to believe that Gump somehow forms a deep emotional bond with this self-absorbed monomaniac. Bubba is killed in the war, and after Gump leaves the army, he buys a shrimp boat and calls his business “Bubbagump Shrimp”. The film then has one of its moments of “whimsy”. A hurricane destroys all the shrimp boats except for Gump’s. This gives Gump a monopoly on the shrimp business that makes him wealthy. (This film’s makers expect us to see it as a good thing that a whole bunch of people were impoverished so Gump could get rich.) Gump then gives a bunch of money to Bubba’s mother, who works as a maid. She retires and buys a nice house, where she is waited upon by a maid. The film implies that this is a form of justice. (Although not for the woman who has to wait on Bubba’s mother.)

The clear subtext of this film is that Gump absolves us of our sins. (The film critic, Gene Siskel, once called this movie “a healing balm”.) We’ve had 500 years of racism, but it’s OK, because Gump was nice to Bubba’s mom. Two million Vietnamese were killed in the war, but, hey, at least Gump didn’t kill any of them!

Forrest Gump promotes a notion of American “innocence” that helped to create the cultural climate in this country that made the invasion of Iraq possible.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

December 14, 2013

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the second installment of the films based on Joanne Collins’s young adult novels. Although I found it entertaining, I did not like it as much as the first film in the series. (You can read my review of that movie here. I will discuss the reasons for this below.

Catching Fire picks up where the previous film left off. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) returns to her home district after the game. She and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are about to go on a victory tour of the various districts. She meets with President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who warns her that she had better do as she is told, or there will be dire consequences. During the tour, it becomes clear to Katniss that she has become a symbol of resistance to the people. This is clear to the government as well. Snow’s henchman, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) devises a scheme to solve this problem. They will make Katniss fight another Hunger Game, in which she will be made to kill people who have helped her. The aim is to disillusion people who see her as a heroine.

This is where I start to have a problem with this movie. When Katniss arrives at the Hunger Game, the government immediately tries to kill her, sending poisonous fog and giant babbon-like creatures at her, before she has a chance to kill anyone. It seems to me that the makers of this film were more concerned about having a lot of action than they were about maintaining narrative logic. Which is a problem with a lot of Hollywood movies.

The posters for this film feature the line: “Remember who the enemy is.” The line in the movie is actually “Remember who the real enemy is.” It occurs twice: Haymish (Woody Harrelson) says it to Katniss just before the Hunger Game, and a character whom Katniss mistakenly believes has betrayed her says it just before the film’s climactic scene. The word “real” is the most important word in the sentence. The Hunger Games create false enemies, when the real enemy is the government. The Hunger Games is a metaphor for how our society creates false enemies to distract us from our real enemy. This is why the story has had such a strong resonance with many people.

Gravity

October 15, 2013

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Alfonso Cuarón’s Outer Space adventure film, Gravity, is thoroughly entertaining and the best Hollywood movie I’ve seen since Looper.

One of the reasons this movie succeeds so well is its simplicity. It’s basically about Sandra Bullock falling out of the sky. The problem with many Hollywood movies nowadays is that they end up getting lost in their own needlessly convoluted stories. One of the things I hated about The Dark Knight Rises (and there were many things I hated about this movie) was the fact that it was filled with all sorts of pointless subplots. There is, for example, a seemingly interminable sequence in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt tries to rescue an orphanage. I remember thinking, “Why the hell do I have to watch this when all I really want to see is Anne Hathaway in her Catwoman outfit?” The best of the Terminator films is the first one, which is basically just Arnold Schwarzenegger destroying things. In the later films we get Arnold doing dialogue. Not fun.

Gravity deals with the theme of an individual struggling to survive in a relentlessly hostile environment, a theme that has been dealt with by writers such as Coleridge, Poe, Melville, and London. It is a theme that touches the very core of our existence.

American Beauty

May 11, 2013

The 1999 film, American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes from a script by Alan Ball, is unusual for a Hollywood film, in that it deals with philosophical issues, in particular: the questions of what is freedom, is it possible for an individual to be truly free, and what is beauty.

Lester (Kevin Spacey), works for an advertising company in a job he hates. He is emotionally estranged from his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), and from his daugher, Jane (Thora Birch). Lester becomes infatuated with Jane’s friend, Angela (Mena Suvari), which repulses Jane. Meanwhile, she becomes involved with her next-door neighbor, Ricky (Wes Bentley), whose father, Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) is a retired Marine colonel. One night, Lester meets Ricky at a party where the latter is working for a catering service. Ricky invites Lester outside to smoke a joint with him. When they are discovered by Ricky’s boss, Ricky tells him he is quitting. Ricky’s audacity impresses Lester, and it inspires him to change his life. He later gives a sarcastic memo to his boss, who fires him. This sets off a chain of events that result in Lester being killed.

The film makes clear the emptiness of Lester’s life. His efforts to reach out to his wife and daughter both fail. Yet his attempt to break out of his stifling life is deeply flawed from the very beginning. He despises the corruption and dishonesty of the company he works for, yet he blackmails his boss into giving him a generous severance package. He criticizes Carolyn for being materialistic, yet the first thing he does with his severance money is buy a Camaro. Indeed, Lester’s behavior merely becomes more cynical after he rejects his empty life. In a sense he moves from one type of imprisonment to another. However, when Lester tries to seduce Angela, he suddenly realizes that he can’t go through with it. It is at this point that Lester is finally finds peace with himself.

More problematic is the film’s treatment of the concept of beauty. In one scene, Ricky tells Jane how he once saw the body of a dead woman. He says: “When you see something like that, it’s like God is looking right at you, just for a second. And if you’re careful, you can look right back.” Jane asks: “And what do you see?” Ricky: “Beauty.” (The producers reportedly wanted to cut this scene, but Ball refused.) Later, after Lester is killed, Ricky gazes at his body in rapt fascination. This association of beauty with death is questionable in my opinion. I’m told that Ball had originally wanted to end the film with Ricky and Jane being wrongly accused of killing Lester, but the producers talked him out of it. This ending would have at least given some irony to Ricky’s talk about beauty. There is however a scene in which Ricky shows Jane a video he made of a plastic bag blowing around in the wind, which suggests that his idea of beauty is actually something that transcends life.

American Beauty is one of the most remarkable American films of the past twenty years.

Django Unchained

April 30, 2013

When Django Unchained came out, I heard many negative things about it, so I decided to wait until it came out on DVD. I now regret waiting so long to see it, for I found it thoroughly entertaining. What one has to understand about this movie is that it is not about slavery, it is about Spaghetti Westerns. Tarantino makes movies about movies. This may be incestuous, but nonetheless Tarantino is very good at it.

Django (Jamie Foxx) is rescued from slavers by a bounty hunter named King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz needs Django to help him identify some wanted men. Schultz eventually takes Django on as his partner. Django persuades Schultz to help him rescue his wife, Hildy (Kerry Washington) from a slave owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DaCaprio), whose plantation is called Candieland.

The first half of the film is mostly a typical Western, but when Django and Schultz approach Candie, the film begins to take on a surreal quality. It is as though Django Unchained wants us to see slavery as something unnatural. The film goes too far however, when we learn that Candie’s shuffling slave housekeeper, Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) is the real brains behind Candieland. A common plot device in genre films is to have the character the audience least suspects turn out to be the real villain, but this struck me as a bit much.

The reviews I read gave me the impression that every other line in this film contains the n-word. I was surprised to find that this is not the case. Yes, the n-word is used, but considering the time and place in which the story takes place, no more so than one would expect. What actually did bother me was the use of the n-word in Pulp Fiction, which struck me as gratuitous.

Some dim-witted liberals have criticized this film because of its violence, making the unproven argument that violent movies and TV programs cause people to be violent. Tarantino has rightly rejected these arguments. Japanese pop culture is filled with images of violence, yet Japan has one of the lowest rates of violent crime in the world. How do these liberals explain this? Violence is the result of material conditions in society.

Django Unchained clearly is not a realistic depiction of slavery, but has Hollywood ever tried to portray it realistically? (Gone with the Wind obviously doesn’t qualify.) There have been a number of films that tried to portray the Nazi concentration camps in a realistic manner. (Pontecorvo’s Kapò is one title that comes immediately to mind.) Yet slavery is apparently considered too painful a topic, perhaps because we are still in many ways living with the consequences of that awful institution.

Crash

April 10, 2013

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I recently learned through the Internet that some people are still seething over the fact that the 2006 Best Picture Oscar went to Crash instead of Brokeback Mountain. (Crash also won for Best Original Screenplay that year.) I missed Crash when it came out, but since I wasn’t all that impressed by Brokeback Mountain, I was curious to know why people though it was better than Crash, so I recently watched the latter film.

Crash is set in current day Los Angeles, and it tells the intertwined stories of a group of characters. These include: a black police detective, a Latina police detective, a racist white cop and his partner, a white district attorney and his wife, a black TV director and his wife, a Mexican locksmith and his daughter, an Iranian shopkeeper and his daughther, an Asian man involved in human trafficking, a black health care worker, and two black carjackers, one of whom spouts black nationalist rhetoric. The racial or ethnic identities of these characters are important, because this film is about the problem of racism.

This film is essentially a series of improbable coincidences that take place over a period of forty-eight hours. To take the most egregious example, the racist white cop and his partner pull over the black TV director and his wife as the latter are driving home. During the stop, the white racist cop sexually molests the wife. The next day, the racist white cop arrives at the scene of an accident. A woman is trapped in an overturned car. The racist white cop goes to rescue her, and – you guessed it – the woman turns out to be the same woman he molested the night before. What makes this scene offensive is that it seems to imply that being a racist and sexist pig doesn’t necessarily make you a bed person.

Coincidences do happen, but when a film presents us with one coincidence after another, it strains credulity. Furthermore, it’s lazy writing. Writers usually only resort to coincidences when they need to find some way to move the story along.

Another problem with this film is ham-handedness. Almost every conversation in it involves race in some way. When, for example, the Latina detective and the black detective have an argument after having had sex, she accuses him of having stereotyped ideas about Hispanics. In the world of Crash, people can’t even have a lovers’ quarrel without prejudice becoming the issue. Yes, racism is a problem in our society, but that doesn’t mean that people talk about it twenty-four hours a day.

There is also a problem of basic honesty. The black detective and the Latina detective are assigned to investigate an incident in which a white cop shot a black cop. The white cop claims that he acted in self-defense. Although it is unclear as to what exactly happened, the white district attorney pressures the black detective into filing a charge of murder against the white cop, because there is an election coming up and the district attorney wants to secure the black vote. Does anyone actually believe that this would happen in real life? District attorneys tend to be protective of the police, and (at least in L.A.) they don’t give a damn about the black vote. This part of the film is clearly inspired by an actual incident in which a white LAPD officer shot and killed a black LAPD officer. The white officer was acquitted of all wrong-doing.

Crash has a 75% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, meaning that most critics liked it. It appears that people overpraised Crash because it deals with the issue of racism, just as people overpraised Brokeback Mountain because it deals with the issue of homophobia. There’s an old saying among artists that “good intentions are not enough”. Someone need to explain this to critics.

2013 Academy Awards

February 26, 2013

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The Academy Awards has become an annual ritual second only to the Super Bowl in its importance. Of equal significance is the wave of complaints that follow each telecast. There is always a great gnashing of teeth over the tacky dance numbers, the inept hosts, the comedy bits that fell flat, the overlong acceptance speeches, and the corny “tributes”. Yet every year the complainers watch. Perhaps it’s because the show speaks to our deeply ambivalent feelings towards the entertainment-industrial complex. (It must also be admitted that there is more than a bit of jealousy and envy in all this carping.)

This year’s show provided plenty of fuel for its critics, beginning with the Academy’s bizarre decision to make Seth MacFarlane the host. The director of Ted has been rightly criticized for his juvenile sense of humor, but I feel that I should point out that MacFarlane didn’t invent bad taste. I remember the 1987 Oscars – excuse me, I mean the 59th Academy Awards. They showed a clip from Platoon, in which American soldiers are shown clearing out a Vietnamese village. This immediately segued into a musical number with Bernadette Peters. This was perhaps the most tasteless ting I have ever seen on television.

This brings up a question: why even bother with musical numbers? Why not just hand out the awards? I guess because the awards are not so much about excellence as they are about hype. The movie industry must be to made to seem more important than it is, and the awards must be made to seem to have more meaning than they do. So the organizers of this year’s awards must have been so pleased with themselves when they persuaded Michelle Obama to announce the winner of the Best Picture award. A further step in the merger of Hollywood and the government, which began with the election of Ronald Reagan (Barack Obama’s hero) to the White House. And it was very fitting, too, considering that the picture that won it is an exercise in historical falsification that glorifies the C.I.A.

The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb

October 24, 2012


These can perhaps be regarded as typical of German movie poster art of the 1950’s.


It was left to the Italians to show them how to do it right.

By the late 1950’s, Fritz Lang’s Hollywood movie career had come to end. There were no more studio executives left for him to piss off. It was at this time that the German film producer, Artur Brauner, approached Lang and suggested he do a remake of his silent film The Indian Tomb, (which had been completed without Lang’s supervision). Lang agreed, and the resulting work was released as two films: The Tiger of Eschnapu and The Indian Tomb. They were two of the last three films that Lang made before he retired due to failing eyesight.

Lang regarded film as a visual art form rather than as a form of literature, so he had no reservations about using “genre” subject matter: science fiction, detective stories or, in the case of these two films, Orientalist fantasy. In this respect, he is similar to such contemporary directors as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron. Unlike them, however, Lang’s films are never coy or campy. He always treats his subject matter seriously and with respect. For that reason, I consider Lang’s work to be artistically superior to that of these other directors.

From the moment one begins watching The Tiger of Eschnapur, one can see right away that this is an example of what the late Edward Said called “Orientalism”. More than once some character mentions that Europeans can never really understand India. (It doesn’t help that most of the Indian roles are played by Europeans in brown face.) This “Mysterious Orient” nonsense was, of course, used to justify Western imperialism. (The “clash of civilizations” is a more sophisticated, contemporary version of this argument.) This film is based on a 1918 novel written by Lang’s former wife, Thea von Harbou, who wrote the silly story for Metropolis and who later joined the Nazi party (although, interestingly, she secretly married an Indian man). One can, however, enjoy these films on their own terms without worrying about the politics of it. It is simply a remnant from a defunct way of looking at the world.

Harold Barger (Paul Hubschmid) is a German architect who has been hired by Chandra (Walter Reyer), the maharajah of Eschnapur, to design public buildings for his kingdom. On his way to Chandra’s palace, Harold meets Seetha (Debra Paget), a temple dancer with whom the maharajah has fallen in love. The carry out a secret affair, which Chandra eventually discovers. Chandra throws Harold into a pit with a man-eating tiger, but Harold manages to kill it. (The tiger is obviously fake. Don’t worry, no animals were harmed in the making of this film.) Chandra then tells Harold that he has until sunrise to leave Eschnapur. Harold, however, has an assignation with Seetha in a temple, and the two of them flee into the desert. There, they are overcome by the heat and dust. Harold deliriously shoots at the sun just before he collapses. A message then flashes across the screen promising that we can see the miraculous rescue of the lovers in the sequel, which will be “more grandiose” than the first film.

The Indian Tomb is, indeed, more grandiose. Seetha and Harold are rescued by a caravan. Shortly afterwards, however, they are captured by Chandra’s soldiers. True love eventually wins out, though not without a lot of people getting killed in the process.

These are not among Lang’s best films, but they are nonetheless entertaining movies to watch. Lang directed them in a beautiful manner, although he clearly had to deal with a limited budget. Some of the sets and costumes are not quite convincing. And some of the special effects are embarrassing, such as the fakest looking cobra you will ever see. On the other hand, Debra Paget gives not one, but two, erotic dances. Paget, an American, was, like Lang, a refugee from Hollywood. She had refused to abide by the rules of the studio system, so she was blacklisted. She had to go to Europe to find work. I’m told that in her later years Paget became a born-again Christian, and she had her own religiously themed TV show. I wonder if she ever discussed temple dancing on her show.