The familiarity of 1917

1917 feels familiar. Its set pieces, the rising and falling tension, the long moving shots are all in many ways evocative of Dunkirk. Even its famous conceit, appearing as if it were shot in a single take, hearkens back to the pitch perfect finale of Children of Men. 

The film is a technical achievement, no doubt, and it hits all the right notes, but I don’t feel the notes. I don’t feel them because I’ve heard them so many times before. I heard them in Dunkirk. I heard them in Children of Men. I heard them in Call of Duty. I heard them in Medal of Honor.

I don’t blame the film for my muted response. It does the best it can, but because the territory it explores is as well-trodden as the muddy trenches our protagonists walk through, it cannot help but feel like a song we’ve heard before. There was one conclusion for me at the end of the film: the cinematic language and thematic territory of war films have been so thoroughly explored that there might not be much left that is truly new.

Maybe there is some new paradigm out there, some new way of portraying the horrors of war, that we have not seen yet. It’s impossible to say for sure. The other question would be this: is there value then, in retreading old ground? Even if the visual language we use in new war films closely resemble war films of the past, is there value in them, in showing new generations the costs of war? In these uncertain times, it certainly feels like there is.

Rian Johnson’s Knives Out but set in Singapore

Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc – Educated overseas. Tries to use Singlish when talking to others but sounds like a Mediacorp actor instead.

Ana de Armas as Marta Cabrera – The Filipino maid who does all the real work and tolerates the vaguely racist things she overhears. Under-eats at mealtime because she’s afraid she’ll look too comfortable.

Jamie Lee Curtis as Linda Drysdale – Tells you how many calories is in that pineapple tart you’re eating without you asking. Gives you your angbao only after talking to you about Herbalife.

Michael Shannon as Walter Thrombey – Votes opposition because he thinks the PAP doesn’t help the poor. Only donates to charity when the President’s Star Charity Show is on. Gives very generous angbaos to the maid. Talks to her in bastardized Tagalog even though she’s fluent at English.

Chris Evans as Ransom – “You’ve seen my videos so you know I’m an internet millionaire”

Don Johnson as Richard Drysdale – Complains about there being too many foreign workers but his company is entirely dependent on them. Gives his employees angbaos containing coins. Wears reflective Oakley sunglasses even when it isn’t sunny.

Toni Collette as Joni Thrombey – Bigwig in the local arts scene. All her artist friends are exclusively Chinese and she hasn’t noticed.

Katherine Langford as Megan “Meg” Thrombey – Rails against capitalism on Facebook. Says she donates her angbaos to charity. She doesn’t.

Jaeden Martell as Jacob Thrombey – Talks to no one at family gatherings. Thinks videogames are getting too political. Likes anime but keeps it a secret.

Contagion and Information

David Fincher has always been known as a director who is interested in *information*. Panic Room’s introductory one take shot, where the camera flies through the house so your awareness of the space, and how elements in the space relate to each other is a classical example of this. Another director who shares this fascination with information is Steven Soderbergh, though he’s less known for this. Ocean 8 and its sequels constantly hint at their inevitable twists, ever so slyly suggesting the possibility of being able to predict the twist, but of course you can’t. 

Contagion, on the other hand, hides nothing. Released in 2011, Contagion depicts the outbreak of a global epidemic and the breakdown of social order as panic, fear and death set in. The film, stylistically, feels almost minimalist. All information known to its characters is known to you, and the information is presented concretely without embellishment. It’s incredible how documentary-like the entire film is. Nothing about the film feels excessively embellished or unrealistic. Soderbergh has complete faith that you will find its subject matter, a global epidemic and the resulting social decay, inherently interesting. 

And it is. This is not a character drama, per se. There are characters and they are vividly portrayed with their own fears and anxieties, but there is no real protagonist and the film frequently shows them to us with a detached eye. The central focus is not the characters. They are, like the symptoms of a disease, indicators of the failing organs of societal infrastructure. The characters, and their manifold positions throughout the world and society, allows us a comprehensive systemic understanding of how the epidemic erodes order. 

That’s what makes Contagion incredibly fascinating. It’s a film that’s not about individuals or personal narratives. It’s a film about systems. It’s a film about infrastructures. It’s a linear medium depicting non-linear dynamics and mechanisms. 

(Wait that’s supposed to be what videogames are good at!)

Jojo Rabbit’s Cardinal Sin (and why it’s a good thing)

[Spoilers for Jojo Rabbit]

Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit does the one thing you shouldn’t do when depicting Nazis: make them sympathetic. On the surface this might seem like a deplorable artistic choice – the idea that a Nazi, the universal villain, is somehow worthy of understanding and sympathy. What Jojo Rabbit does though, is the precarious balancing act of delineating between the ideology and the individual.

In Jojo Rabbit, as in real life, there is no doubt whatsoever that the Nazi ideology is heinous and morally grotesque. This statement alone is uncontroversial, but Jojo Rabbit shows us this by perceiving this ideology through the eyes of a child. The figurative vilification and demonization of Jews is taken at face value by our protagonist Jojo, and he believes Jews to be literal monsters. Like the antisemitism of the Nazis, Jojo’s perception of Jews is both absurd and self-contradictory. Similarly, like the actual Hitler, Jojo’s Hitler is a farcical daddy figure for a fragile consciousness.

Yet Jojo, like many of the characters in the film, is not undeserving of sympathy and understanding despite their identification with and adherence to the Nazi regime. Jojo is a child – his naivety is a given and to be excused. His mother is a lone individual – her means of rebellion have to be personal and private. Sam Rockwell’s Captain Klenzendorf is a disgraced soldier, longing for the glory of battle. He is unconcerned with the underlying ideology of the Nazis, evidenced by his small acts of disobedience helping Jojo evade arrest and capture. For him, the Nazis are a means to glory. This does not reduce his culpability for the crimes of the regime (he is implied to be shot as the allies roll into town), but this understanding of his underlying motivations is paramount to our understanding of the allure of fascism.

The tragedy in Jojo Rabbit is not just the death of Jojo’s mother, but the implied death of Captain Klenzendorf. Given the circumstances, there is no denying he deserves some form of justice, but the film asks: sure, his actions embody evil, but did his heart? Were he born American, would he not have joined the army, seeking to liberate Germany, and thus be branded a hero and given the glory he so desired? Under the Nazis, he became both victim and victimizer. His sin was not malice. His sin was a lack of courage, a failure to rebel.

Jojo Rabbit assumes the evil of fascism to be self-evident. Instead, it wishes to consciously interrogate it and how people can be swept up by it, whether in Klenzendorf’s desire for glory or Jojo’s desire for a father figure. It follows in the tradition of Mel Brooks’ films and cleverly avoids the mistake of making its satire serious, which frequently results in the satire being taken at face value by the targets of satire. In Jojo Rabbit, humour reveals tragedy, it reveals truth.

Peter Parker the Neoliberal

[Spoilers for Spiderman: Homecoming and Spiderman: Far From Home]

There’s something slightly disappointing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe Spiderman films. In Homecoming, Toomes/Vulture is a salvager who finds his small business failing as Tony Stark and the government roll in to take over the salvaging operations that were previously his job. Dejected by being forced out by a megacorporation and a government, he resorts to illegally selling alien weaponry to criminals.

Beck/Mysterio goes through a similar arc in Far From Home. Beck was an engineer working under Stark who was fired, with the technology he created remaining with Stark and his company. Angered by this, he leads a team of disgruntled former Stark employees into manufacturing a plot to make Beck appear like a hero.

The villains are unified by the cause of their turn to evil: an injustice wrought upon them by a figure of the elite. They are working class/middle class figures oppressed by the cooperation of the government and a megacorporation. However, rather than presenting these antagonists in a sympathetic light, the films choose to perceive them within a binary: they have chosen to be evil, and so are evil, not to mention that our hero who stops them, Spiderman, is funded and equipped and mentored by Tony Stark, the reason for their oppression.

There’s something quite unfortunate about this. Spiderman was always the ‘Friendly Neighbourhood Spiderman’. Unlike Batman or Iron Man or any other superhero for that matter, who outside of their roles as superheroes are also figures of great social or financial status. Peter Parker is just a student from a working class background, raised by a single guardian. He is the superhero of the working class.

The MCU films have distorted this symbolism. He is emblematic of the ideology of meritocracy: his talents are deserving of further development so an elite figure swoops in and funds and mentors him. Through this distortion of the character along with the demonization of the working class antagonists, the MCU Spiderman films now become an expression of neoliberal ideology: working class people should just man up and adapt. If you’re not as talented as Spiderman you do not deserve socioeconomic opportunities. Attempts to fight perceived injustice will be met with force.

Into The Spiderverse understands the working class roots of Spiderman. It is not the ‘renegade working class’ who pose a true societal wide danger. The ones who can truly harm society at large are those with access to wealth and resources: the rich and elite.

Disney and our Copyrighted Culture

This week saw the release of a new trailer for the X-Men film The New Mutants, slated for release this year. The film had finished production in 2017, but was delayed till 2020 as a consequence of the Fox-Disney merger. Evidently, Disney wanted to fit the film around their monolithic film release schedule and to evaluate if it could fit within the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon.  The New Mutants features several young up and coming actors who would presumably have gotten significant boosts to their careers as a consequence of this film. Instead they had to watch it languish in purgatorial stasis due circumstances out of their control.

This of course is not the first instance of troubles associated with Disney’s monopoly on the film business. The future of the MCU Spiderman films, maybe even the Spiderverse films, seemed to be in jeopardy when it emerged that Disney were unhappy with the prior licensing arrangement with Sony, details of which are frankly too tedious for me to bother to repeat.  All of which could have ironically been avoided had the copyright to the Spiderman character been transferred to the public domain, which would have happened years ago naturally if not for the numerous extensions to the copyright period signed into law by the US government after consistent and aggressive lobbying by the Disney corporation.

The coexistence of the MCU Spiderman and Spiderverse films serves as an excellence counter argument to the belief in the necessity for such outrageously long copyright periods. If Spiderman were in the public domain, there’s be no need for the licensing agreement between Sony and Disney. Both studios would be free to develop their own versions of Spiderman, executing on their own unique visions for the character.  It would also not be just Sony and Disney who would have the freedom. So would you, or me, or anyone else for that matter. There are countless diverse interpretations of Spiderman or any other pop culture character out there in the world in the form of fanfiction or fanart, none of which can be commercialised by their creators for fear of angering the corporate powers-that-be. 

Imagine if we had that freedom. Imagine how much richer the world could be if artists and creators could contribute to the world’s cultural melting pot and support themselves financially while doing so.  Long copyright periods serve largely to allow mega corporations to continue to consolidate and monopolize intellectual property and the businesses they operate in. After all, these businesses live long after their creators die and can sustain themselves for indefinite periods through the enormity of wealth they control.

If we want a richer culture, then the elements of our shared culture must be allowed to blend. Locking away these worlds and characters is locking away parts of our collective consciousness. 

Rian Johnson: The Great Subverter

(Some spoilers for Brick and Star Wars: The Last Jedi)

Rian Johnson understands character archetypes really well. That’s evident in the ensemble cast of Knives Out, which feature characters reminiscent of the British landed gentry types in classic Agatha Christie works, but yet are very American and contemporary, in their personas, perspectives, and beliefs.

This similar understanding of archetypes is demonstrated in Brick, a neo-noir detective mystery but based in and around a high school, with classic detective mystery archetypes now transplanted onto high school personalities and cliques. This transplanting of archetypes reveals a great deal about the underlying characters. In Brick, The Pin is a local drug dealer, but he dresses like a Mafia don, and looks ridiculous as a consequence. The pretense of hierarchical roles in high school culture is laid bare.

When you understand archetypes, you can transplant them to new contexts. You can also subvert them. So it makes sense that the Rian Johnson-directed Star Wars: The Last Jedi did what it did.

(yes this is about star wars yet again)

Rey is the hero in the classic monomyth? Subvert it! She isn’t some prophesied hero, she is some nobody who worked her damnedest to fulfill her potential. Poe Dameron is a swashbuckling modern reincarnation of Indiana Jones and Han Solo? Subvert it! Give him an arc where his heist goes all wrong and he is humbled and learns the cost of his arrogance. Luke Skywalker is a prophesied mystical sage who shall solve everything? Subvert it! He is old and jaded by his past traumas but learns to trust in people, not ancient dogma.

The Last Jedi was the first and only sequel that Johnson directed. Like a rock band’s sophomore album, it was probably not an easy job, making the second and middle entry in a new trilogy part of a larger more expansive transmedia universe. This new trilogy must evolve and redefine the themes and iconography of this universe, and the middle entry doesn’t have a blank canvas to start with, and also can’t finish the painting on the canvas. By subverting the character archetypes that are so deeply buried at the core of the Star Wars films, It laid a groundwork rich with potentiality that moved beyond the retreading of old tropes in The Force Awakens (which was subsequently squandered by The Rise of Skywalker). For Johnson, taking tropes, transplanting them, and subverting them reveals the new.

Star Wars: Time to stop Skywalking

Solo: A Star Wars Story was a perfectly decent movie. It’s a surprisingly fun trek (hey get its an ironic Star Trek reference) through the galaxy hampered by its own misguided desire to feature all the classic Han Solo associated Star Wars iconography. Despite that, the film performed quite poorly at the box office, resulting in a net loss for Disney.

Every single Star Wars film under the Disney umbrella has had something… ‘wrong’ with it. Rogue One had a bland passive protagonist who meanders from plot beat to plot beat. The Force Awakens was ‘A New Hope, but even newer!’. The Last Jedi performed poorly amongst audiences despite being Good Actually™, and The Rise Of Skywalker was a lukewarm bath of meaningless nostalgia that exposes J. J. Abrams’ inability to tell proper a story.

(jfc TROS was a bad film)

Disney should really just stop making Star Wars films. The problem is not really Disney per se, but the audience. There is a fundamental expectation that a Star Wars film concerns itself with a central cast of characters and the iconography associated with them. A Star Wars film is the story of Skywalkers and Solos and Vaders. As a consequence, the films are concerned almost entirely about the characters that serve as the core figures of power and status of the universe. The everyman is not represented, except in the context of said everyman serving roles in the stories of those central figures of power. We thus naturally end up with constant retreads of the same narrative ground with any attempt to branch out beyond that (cough The Last Jedi cough) punished by a nostalgia-obsessed audience.

Which is a massive shame. We’ve already told the Skywalker story decades ago in the original trilogy. Enough of that already. The Star Wars universe is a rich tapestry, steeped in history. Each era in the universe provides a stimulating backdrop for stories of people of diverse backgrounds and experiences, whether it be the political bureaucracies pre-Galactic Empire, or the post-Jedi lawlessness, to the authoritarianism of the Empire.

The Star Wars universe should be handled like the Dungeons and Dragons universe of the BattleTech universe: a setting in which a myriad of stories can be told, but without a central core narrative. This is what is explored by the auxiliary media in the Star Wars universe, be it the animated series The Clone Wars or the videogame Jedi: Fallen Order, or the recent TV series The Mandalorian. These works explore stories of people with their own lives and drama in the backdrop of the Star Wars universe. They are not of dramatic world-changing importance, but still have their own stakes and significance. There is a tonal and thematic wealth and diversity here that cannot possibly be matched by the films. These are the stories of the people in the universe, powerless to change the hegemonic power structures that rule the galaxy, but forced to live and survive within the confines of said power structures.

This is life as it is truly lived in reality. The lives we lead. You. Me. Us. These may not the stories we want, but they are the stories we need.