Category Archives: Guest Writers

Who Is the Next Jackie Chan — By Friends of the Blog

Jackie Chan Legend of Drunken Master

I went out and asked various writers a loaded question: Who is the next Jackie Chan? It’s tricky because, like Charlie Chaplin, Gene Kelly, or the Highlander, there can be only one. His skills are too unique to duplicate. I was just as interested in what Jackie Chan means to different viewers, and who might best embody those meanings going forward. Without further ado:

STEPHEN CHOW
by Simon Scher

Who is the next Jackie Chan? To answer this we must first ask, who was the last Jackie Chan? When he first burst onto the international stage, his high-flying kung fu action and peerless speed were instantly compared to the father of international martial arts media, Bruce Lee. Chan did not hit the big time until after the death of Lee. So it would be hard to identify the next Jackie Chan until he too passes on or stops making amazing martial arts movies.

It has been said that Jet Li or Jason Scott Lee would fill the role, but though they are amazing martial artists with comparable skill and speed to both Chan and Bruce Lee, Jackie is still holding his spot while Jet and Jason are moving past their prime. I do not doubt that there will be another in the succession of Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan, but I do not believe he has yet made an appearance on the silver screen.

There are a number of young, talented Chinese Wushu stars simmering in the Hong Kong cinematic forge just waiting to make their way into Western cinema – perhaps it will be one of them. A strong but doubtful case can be made for Tony Jaa, but I don’t think he has the range or mass appeal to fill the slot. It will have to be a martial artist with range, language skills, and something innovative that takes the genre to a new level and in a different direction as both Bruce and Jackie did. If I had to pick somebody to pin my hopes on I would name Stephen Chow for his innovative approach to martial arts cinema, his amazing skills, and his sense of comedic and dramatic timing.

Simon Scher runs Northampton Martial Arts in Northampton, Massachusetts. He is a regular contributor to Black Belt Magazine, the biggest martial arts movie buff I know, and holds a sixth-degree black belt in Taekwondo.

JEEJA YANIN
by Himura Sachiko

Having already shot one of the best martial arts sequences in recent history, Jeeja Yanin is my pick. I enjoy her work because her background is in Taekwondo, very close to my training, but she is choreographed in Muay Thai films. As a technician, she is perfect. Her kicks are some of the most complete I have ever seen. She over-rotates every one of them, which adds power, but she does so without losing control, balance, or speed.

Her style is a controlled lack of control, which speaks of true mastery and reminds me of Jackie Chan’s abilities. He was so perfect he could afford to be imperfect. Yanin also has Chan’s streak for the kooky, striking poses and involving dance in some of her roles. Ever since I first saw her in Chocolate, she has been my idol in my own training. She is also no stranger to insane stunt scenes.

My single worry is that she’s taking time off to have a baby. It is a wonderful decision and I congratulate her on starting a family, but time off has never helped a martial arts star grow. The man who laid the groundwork for her in Thai cinema, Tony Jaa, took time away and came back a shade of his former self, making films to cash in on his name but without the remaining skills to match.

Himura Sachiko is a business owner living in Osaka, Japan. She has a black belt in Shotokan Karate.

IKO UWAIS
by Justine Baron

Jackie Chan is a martial arts legend who has graced the screen for over 50 years. Chan has managed to stand out from other martial artists by adopting his own style of light hearted comedy mixed with martial arts. He took roles like that of Wong Fei-Hung in Drunken Master, Dragon Ma in Project A, and Chan Ka Kui in the Police Story movies, to name a few of my personal favorites. He was, and still is, the quintessential example of an entertainer.

His first really successful English-speaking role was that of Keung in Rumble in the Bronx, which was a Hong Kong-made movie that was filmed in the U.S. with the intent of introducing him to Western audiences. This is where a lot of Americans, including myself, became familiarized with the man who would become a huge star outside of his home country, China. Rumble in the Bronx is actually the first movie of Chan’s that I’ve ever seen.

Not only that, but Jackie Chan was the first martial artist I’ve ever seen period. I was only about 7-years-old at the time and didn’t know who other martial artists like Bruce Lee were and, to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have cared at that age. Jackie Chan was fun to watch. He was funny, talented, and charismatic – all the qualities that would appeal to a younger, as well as older, generation. I further enjoyed watching him in other Hollywood movies like Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon. Now that I’m older, though, I prefer a lot of his Hong Kong films to his American ones. He has made over 100 films in his career. As I continue to discover more and more of his movies, I just become more impressed with his performances and the stunts that he can pull off. Jackie Chan was the man who introduced me to martial arts and, because of him, I have loved martial arts movies of all kinds ever since.

I think it goes without saying that there will never be another like Jackie Chan, and maybe that’s a good thing. However, there is one other martial artist who has really caught my eye in the past few years, and that is the up-and-coming Indonesian actor Iko Uwais from The Raid movies. This guy has impressed me so much with his abilities to not only choreograph amazing fight scenes and perform his own stunts, but also to execute the choreography so perfectly, I oftentimes find myself rewinding scenes and watching them again because I can’t believe what I’m seeing. This guy has been practicing Pencak Silat since he was 10-years-old, competing in tournaments and winning titles. No doubt the intensity of his fight scenes is partly due to the amazing style of the director who discovered him back in 2007, Gareth Evans. Together, they make movies with some of the most skillful, hard hitting action I’ve ever seen. They have managed to completely alter my taste in action movies.

That’s not to say there aren’t other martial artists and martial arts movies that I absolutely love, but it’s the work of Iko Uwais that has really stuck with me in recent years. Even after the success of movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – which I did enjoy – that shows how wire fu can be used beautifully, artistically, and performed almost like a ballet, I still prefer the wireless, raw, bloody, bone-crunching action given to us by Uwais. Call me weird, it’s OK. In my opinion, there’s already a ton of violence in movies in general, so if you’re going to watch a blood bath, why not enjoy a talented guy who can turn that into a well-choreographed blood bath? I am hoping that he will continue to make amazing martial arts movies for years to come, and be able to keep taking martial arts films to the next level.

He may not have the same kind of appeal as Jackie Chan, and that’s OK. In my opinion, he’s great at what he does, and that’s enough for me to wish that he has a long-lived, successful career.

Justine Baron sometimes works as a freelance production assistant on films and commercials. She has a passion for movies, and she puts her B.A. in English and Film to use by writing about movies in her free time at Justine’s Movie Blog.

YAYAN RUHIAN
by Vanessa Tottle

Leave it to me to pick the bad guy, but Yayan Ruhian is my favorite martial artist to watch. I’ve seen three of his films now, including the two Raid movies, all Indonesian movies directed by Gareth Huw Evans. It’s not odd to work with the same director over and over again; most martial arts stars stick with one until they have the cachet to control their image working in unfamiliar environments.

Yayan also choreographed those films, with Iko Uwais. In The Raid, Yayan plays the enforcer Mad Dog. He fights as if killing someone is a religious experience, an addiction of the soul. He is powerful. In The Raid 2, he plays the assassin Prakoso. He may as well be called Stray Dog. Murder is the only trade he knows, the only thing he’s good at. He is desperate and sad. In both, he brings an animal quality I’ve never seen before. He throws himself into fights with reckless abandon. He sometimes feels a step away from losing all control.

In both, he possesses a dramatic quality not always seen in action movies. This is what martial arts stars will need to display in the future. It’s not enough to just be a Jackie Chan anymore (except for Jackie Chan, of course). Or, for that matter, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone. Those days of rooting for actors and never knowing the characters’ name are over. You must be able to play a character inside a story now. While many martial artists can impress us in their action scenes, we will only remember those who impress us in quiet, emotional scenes as well.

It’s fitting that our next Jackie Chan might be an expert at playing villains, like a Silat master Gary Oldman. We live in a time of villains, of religious addict mad dogs and sad, stray dogs under thumb who know nothing else. The next Jackie Chan will speak to his time the way Chan did to his, and Yayan Ruhian speaks to this time in a way that terrifies and intrigues me.

Vanessa Tottle is earning her Ph.D. in vertebrate paleontology. She writes often for this site, and holds a black belt in Krav Maga.

NO ONE
by Chris Braak

Jackie Chan sat at the crossroads of a very particular combination of cultural factors – as a direct successor to Bruce Lee, whose influence helped change Hong Kong cinema from one that relied on elaborate special effects to one that focused much more on physical virtuosity; as an actor he sort of “broke through” in the U.S. in the 80s and 90s, when the kind of star-powered action vehicle was still going strong; and as a product of the Beijing Opera School, which taught a very performance-focused form of kung fu. And I’m not sure that this combination exists right now; American cinema is bifurcated between low-budget, very “acting” films and high-budget, elaborate-effects heavy movies, neither of which are geared to showcase (nor do they particularly require) the kind of virtuosity that Jackie Chan brought to his movies.

The star-powered vehicles are largely a thing of the past as well. It seems like Tom Cruise is maybe the last Hollywood star trying to work this way, and his movies aren’t doing so well; even the lower-budget martial arts stars are either abandoning that kind of movie (Jason Statham, for example, just doesn’t seem interested in them right now) or never quite made it with American audiences (David Belle is in his forties, now, and past his prime; Tony Jaa never seemed to catch on, and seriously I did my part, I saw Ong Bak in the theaters; who else? Stephen Chow seems to have abandoned the martial-arts-star movie.)

The kinds of actors who are working now as martial arts stars in the U.S. are either second-string, low profile guys (like Scott Adkins) or they’re old.

So where would the new crop of actors come from? Well, the thing is that there is nothing like the Beijing Opera School in the U.S. or any of the Anglophone nations where we get our actors (England, Australia, Canada). Nothing. And while that doesn’t mean we couldn’t get Asian actors with the kind of background in both performance and spinning flip-kicks if we wanted, it does govern the kind of movies that actors are drawn to, and thus the kind of movies that get made, and I think this is going to crowd out the virtuoso-martial artist movie, and therefore crowd out the virtuoso martial artists.

Furthermore, we’ve got to accept that American movies don’t select for virtuosity. “Martial arts” provides the background for a lot of actors’ workout routines, sure, but those are exactly what they sound like: workout routines. They’re about building big muscles and washboard abs, not developing that kind of grace and agility that only being sold to the Beijing Opera when you’re 12 years old and spending your formative years leaping over tables and whacked with bamboo sticks can provide. This is both limiting, in terms of what those actors are going to do onscreen, and also antithetical to the essential nature of kung fu: “cosmetic” kung fu is not kung fu at all.

In my opinion, we’re not in a place right now in American cinema that’s got room for a new Jackie Chan. I think we might be ripe for it, definitely I would be in favor of a new wave of popular, virtuoso martial arts movies; I expect they’re going to have to come from somewhere other than the U.S., though, and I don’t see anything quite like that on the horizon.

Chris Braak is a writer at Threat Quality Press. He practices Hung Gar style kung fu. His new play, Empress of the Moon: The Lives of Aphra Behn, will open at the Capital Fringe Festival in Washington, D.C. in July.

NO ONE…WAIT, NO, SOMEONE!
by Carter Churchfield

Many people name martial artists like Jet Li, to which I respond NOOOOO! You are missing the point if you consider actors like him. Jackie Chan is comedic, his predecessors were Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, not Bruce Lee. One of his contemporaries was Chris Farley. People are so blown away with Jackie Chan’s agility and physicality that they don’t make the connection that he is doing slapstick comedy. The Question becomes who is doing advanced slapstick these days, and I can’t think of anyone on this side of the pond. That’s my two cents.

[After asking Carter if there was anyone popularizing martial arts films the way Jackie Chan did as a director, she did add the following. -Gabe]

How about the Wachowskis? Sci-fi/kung fu crossovers weren’t common until after The Matrix.

Carter Churchfield is a tour guide/jack of all trades/international mercenary who is a horror aficionado/famed pigeon wrestler/diamond smuggler. She doesn’t know it, but it’s a high school performance of hers that got me interested in theatre and filmmaking in the first place.

GINA CARANO
by S. L. Fevre

12-1-1 record in professional Muay Thai. 7-1 record in MMA (undefeated against fighters who didn’t get suspended for steroids). Here’s her debut. All 38 seconds of it. Arguably the best stand-up fighter MMA’s had, man or woman. One of the only actors who began her career as a competitive fighter. When she was filming a fight scene for Haywire, Michael Fassbender slammed her head into a wall too hard. She retaliated by breaking a vase over his million dollar face. (He told MTV he could tell it was coming a second before it happened, and that’s when he knew it would be a great fight scene.)

Cause I’ve met cats who hit harder than actors like Chris Pine and Zoe Saldana and there’s a plague of mainstream actors who think a few weeks of training make them look like secret agents. Carano’s knocked people out and she’s been knocked out. When she kicks someone in the head, I can believe she just gave them a concussion.

S. L. Fevre is an actress, model, and martial arts movie fan who lives in California. She kickboxes for fitness.

MICHAEL JAI WHITE
by Kyle Price-Livingston

With the concurrent rise of superhero movies and Mixed Martial Arts, audience expectations for martial arts films have changed. Where once we looked for grace, speed, and agility, we now seek bone-shattering strength and brutality. The Jackie Chan of the future will need to demonstrate a mean uppercut, a working knowledge of submission holds and the self-confidence necessary to wear tights without embarrassment.

There is, to my mind, only one actor who can currently pull that off: Michael Jai White. At 46, White is perhaps a bit old to be considered “the next” anything, but he works consistently, looks the part, and even plays the Jackie Chan role in Skin Trade, an upcoming film which is basically a photo-negative of Rush Hour. He is, at the very least, the prototype for the next generation of martial arts stars.

All you need to know about Kyle Price-Livingston is that he’s the sort of guy who – when he posts about giving a chipmunk CPR – you think about it for a second, consider to whom it happened, and figure, “Yeah, that’s reasonable.”

ZHANG ZIYI
by Gabe Valdez

Insofar as his unique physical performance and comedic presence, there is no next Jackie Chan. It’s a ludicrous question, which is why all these fantastic writers have been so game in answering it. To me, the next Jackie Chan is someone with demonstrated box office appeal who uses his extent of unique training to bridge cultural gaps, to make social commentary on his own culture, and to further popularize martial arts films by making people look at them in a way they never have before. Having been baptized in fight choreography against the icons of the previous generation only helps his credibility.

There is only one answer for me: Zhang Ziyi. Proven box office, name appeal in the East and West. Like Jackie Chan, she was trained from youth in a separate field from martial arts (dance) that lends her a quality that’s unique from every other martial arts actor on film. As anyone who’s seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; House of Flying Daggers; or The Grandmaster can attest, she has a dramatic ability most actors – martial arts or otherwise – can only dream of. She’s worked with directors Zhang Yimou, Ang Lee, and Wong Kar Wai in films that have revolutionized the operatic approach to kung fu cinema, and are simultaneously very popular in China and yet incredibly subversive in their themes.

And you can’t beat her resume – fight scenes opposite Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun FatTony Leung, Maggie Cheung, and alongside Takeshi Kaneshiro. She’s also starred in a movie with Jackie Chan (and if you ask me, Brett Ratner’s biggest mistake as a director has nothing to do with X-Men 3 and everything to do with giving us a Zhang Ziyi-Chris Tucker fight scene instead of a Zhang Ziyi-Jackie Chan fight scene in Rush Hour 2).

Most importantly, she can communicate a scene dramatically through her movement quality in a way no other actor has demonstrated. This has made directors change how kung fu is filmed.

Gabe Valdez writes the movie blog you’re currently reading. It’s read in over 90 countries and has featured more than 20 different writers. I hold a black belt in Taekwondo and analyze fight choreography regularly. I’ve most recently written on zen philosophy in Jackie Chan’s choreography and the mythical choreography in Troy and Serenity.

E3 Reactions — Elizabeth Tobey’s Top 3

The Division

by Elizabeth Tobey

For the first time in five years, I didn’t personally attend E3. While part of me was sad about missing out on such a usually huge event for me work-wise, the rest of me giggled with glee that I didn’t have to worry about trailers and appointments and booths and how I’m a germaphobe and detest shaking hundreds of hands.

Watching E3 purely as a spectator, with no proverbial horse in the game, was a breath of fresh air. It is, however, impossible for me to shed my (fairly cynical) perspective of the industry when I sit down to write about three trailers that stood out to me during the event. It’s so easy to critique negatively when you are sitting on the sidelines, but I know that every demo that went to E3 came with the baggage of long nights and perhaps some frantically couriered thumb drives with last-minute edits.

I’m going to start off by cheating a little bit and talk about the same game for my first two trailers. See, I have a problem with trailers that I can tell are fake: they either have gameplay I’m fairly certain was made just for the demo and therefore might never make it to the real game (so often it doesn’t) or somehow the dialogue is so forced and fake that I actually cringe when I hear it. Case in point is the gameplay trailer for The Division:

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud Ubisoft for showing off so much gameplay and I think it shows the game very well, but for god’s sake, people, gamers don’t talk like that to each other. When you are cooperating with your friend, you speak like a normal person and not in character. This doesn’t make me feel like I’m playing with my friends – it keeps making me realize this is a carefully scripted demo read by the devs to hit on the Key Marketing Initiatives for E3.

That being said, The Division absolutely nailed it with their cinematic trailer:

I don’t even really like cinematic trailers as representations of gameplay because – while they are great mood pieces and often artworks in their own right – they are CG, usually made by an outside agency, and so often the gritty mood of the piece (I’m looking at you, Dead Island cinematic trailer) does not carry in the slightest to the final game. That makes you even more disappointed in the end product than if you’d never seen the cinematic piece in the first place. But this trailer? I want to be a good guy (not the kind of good guy that when you think about it is actually a psychopath) and this trailer sells me on the desolation and the hope of the world they are creating.

Saving the best for last, The Crew continues to blow my fucking socks off. This year’s trailer, “Coast to Coast,” wins a special place in my heart not just because it used in-game footage that I felt was realistic and representative of the actual experience, but because it brought together the thrill of driving cars and made me absolutely giddy to do it online with my friends. The sheer scale of this game makes me want to play it right now thankyouverymuch – I have bought into everything this game promised and it’s a Day One purchase for me. The best part about me loving this trailer and game? I played it last PAX Prime and I was TERRIBLE at it. It was embarrassing. But that doesn’t matter. I need to play it, even if I’m the derpy pre-order Z4 that always gets smashed up, because that’s what friends are for and The Crew makes me believe that completely.

Elizabeth Tobey has been a Senior Manager of Interactive Marketing at Bioshock developer 2K and the Director of Global Communications at Defiance developer Trion Worlds. She is currently the Director of Marketing at Smule. You can read her thoughts on the gaming industry and other topics here.

E3 Reactions – Forrest Walker’s Top 3

Zelda E3 2014

by Forrest Walker

It’s 2014 and Japanese video games are irrelevant. That’s the current byline, at least, and it seems to be increasingly true in a global sense. Consoles are dying in Japan, developers are going under, and even the once-mighty Capcom has scaled back to just a few retreads a year. Japanese publishers now fund western development houses, and Japanese developers are starting to worry that the hubbub about lack of innovation in Japan might just be true. It’s a strange time for the Japanese game industry, but not as strange as the trailers and announcements coming from the Far East this E3. What’s happening in Japan right now, and how much does it matter?

The biggest splash made by a Japanese trailer was probably a look into the new Zelda game for Wii U, a trailer consisting mostly of Eiji Aonuma of Nintendo sitting in a white room and talking about Legend of Zelda. More business proposal than trailer, this video sparked a thousand articles. The reason? The rock that is Nintendo changed the formula. Aonuma outlined the difficulty of making the world of Zelda feel open, expansive and free, something that Nintendo has struggled with since the onset of 3D graphics in Ocarina of Time. Now, that’s changed.

Whether hardware upgrades or simply in-house ethos is the primary factor, Link has jumped on board a train that’s been rolling through America for a decade: the sandbox. Zelda is now an open world, a place where a boy and his horse can run to the furthest mountain, meet bizarre creatures, and choose to do the water temple first…or last. Japan is tired of being left in the dust.

Hideo Kojima and Konami, on the other hand, are throwing their franchise into the dust face-first. Adding onto a previous trailer, E3 gave us a real look at the gameplay of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. After a brutal, cinematic look at the often-agonizing world of Metal Gear, Punished Snake rides into the hills of Afghanistan to sneak and snipe his way toward his goals. After a long, strange decade of games since Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Kojima has returned not only to the protagonist of that game, but to the fundamentals of what made it an aficionado’s choice. Phantom Pain seems to have it all: bizarre enemies; intricate faces; a confusing, dark story; meticulous historical detail; and infinite ways to confuse and murder your enemies.

In leaping into an open world sandbox, much like Zelda, another Japanese developer is taking something uniquely western in game design and using it to emphasize what’s unique about their franchise. In this case, the myriad of combat options in Metal Gear align with a vast possibility of transportation and destination. If you love the cinematic, intense world of Kojima, this game has the most exciting trailer of the season.

Of course, no talk about Japanese auteurs would be complete without bringing up the Andy Warhol of the video game universe. Goichi Suda, aka Suda51, and his Grasshopper Manufacture are at it again. Every year he releases another oddball entry into the world of pulp video games, a subsection of gaming he’s more or less invented himself. They’re not all good games, and they’re not all fun games, but they’re always bizarre, interesting, and worthy of critical analysis…despite usually appearing to be a vapid murder simulator.

Suda51’s Let It Die premiered at this E3, and the trailer featured more live action than gameplay footage. By all appearances, Suda51 is biting Bethesda’s Fallout style and is making some kind of a western RPG in which you try to murder each other brutally. It’s dark, gritty, and probably going right for the throat of western gaming culture, something Grasshopper Manufacture has seemingly declared a loving war on. For the other two examples, going western is a new, risky move. For Grasshopper, doing something they’ve never done before is just Thursday.

The new Battlefield, the new Halo game(s), Mass Effect 4, these are all bigger news in America. How relevant is Japan now? Not very, and that’s why these trailers are so important. Japan has been sliding for a decade, and the climb back up is long and treacherous. Nintendo and Konami have been reluctant to start that climb, but are finally, barely starting. Could this mark a change in the industry? An ascent of Japan? I don’t know and neither does anyone else, but at least Japan is willing to give it a shot, and that’s big news.

Forrest Walker is a native Texan who was raised on a steady diet of Sega consoles and Japanese RPGs. If he could only get good at an online game, he’d be all set.

E3 Reactions — Eden O’Nuallain’s Top 3

Ori art

by Eden O’Nuallain

What does the word “gamer” even mean anymore? It used to mean a teenage boy with acne ousted by social isolation into a windowless basement, like a cross between Steve Urkel and Buffalo Bill. Now, I ride the bus every day with a dozen people who are glued to their phones. In a strange reversal, experienced gamers are now the elitists who wouldn’t waste a minute, let alone days of their lives, on Candy Crush and Flappy Bird.

I don’t have the time I used to have to play Tomb Raider and Team Fortress. I like games that are like a cake now. Every little slice is a complete experience. Not being able to complete a level in one sitting isn’t a task in frustration. These are the games I can jump into and out of at a moment’s notice, but unlike Candy Crush and Flappy Bird, I can still enjoy a real story and experience progress beyond a level number. This means 2-D games. Art is at a premium in 2-D games, so they have to tell their stories very efficiently. I don’t believe they can get away with adding as much filler as first person games like Call of Duty do. Players would lose their patience too quickly. Stories are told via environments instead of narrators.

Inside is from PlayDead Games, the makers of Limbo, a deep, dark, depressing game that nonetheless incorporated the hilarious macabre of Edward Gorey. Their next game looks stern and powerful, but wacky and irreverent, too. Part Terry Gilliam and part Guillermo Del Toro perhaps?

Ori and the Blind Forest came out of nowhere, but after two minutes I know it’s an experience I must have. Sometimes these games can be like a chance to live inside moving artwork. I can just feel the breeze on my face, and I’ll dream of those flowers lighting up in the night.

My game of the show is Valiant Hearts: The Great War. 2-D platformers were pretty dead until the indie game boom revived the style a few years ago. 2-D engines were the only kind that were affordable. Smart developers like Epic Games and CryTek have followed suit: their latest 3-D engines are incredibly affordable. Both companies are taking their profits off a release’s back-end; they know it will result in a similarly much-needed injection of originality and increased appeal in first-person gaming.

2-D has become so mainstream again that Ubisoft, one of the biggest, baddest developers out there, has started designing indie-feeling platformers focused on individual visions and unique art styles. Valiant Hearts: The Great War has a retro-cutout, handcrafted style that gives it the innocent energy and excitement of a child’s diorama. Combine that with a story about war and lost friends and I wonder if games are going the route of superhero movies: previously childish things banished to the Buffalo Urkels of the world, but that artists are suddenly figuring out how to fold complex social commentary into on a massive, irresistible scale.

Eden O’Nuallain is a financial ghostwriter and freelance editor. Her script notes are as vicious as she is right about them. She encourages everyone to commemorate our new LGBT History Month by learning about your local organizations, sharing them online (you never know who’s reading), and volunteering some time with them.

“Tropico” — Lana Del Rey’s Old Testament, part three

Tropico p2 alternate

A few days ago, three writers sat down on Skype and had a conversation about singer Lana Del Rey’s Tropico, a short film that riffs on the Bible. Watch Tropico here.

In Part One, we talked about Lana Del Rey’s “Body Electric” and our culture’s treatment of celebrity as religion. In Part Two, we talked about Walt Whitman, Lana Del Rey’s “Gods and Monsters,” and what might be our forms of worship and sin in such a religion.

We stopped at Lana Del Rey’s inclusion of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” which takes place as she and several strippers arrive at a party for businessmen. As things get going, Shaun Ross bursts in with his gang, and robs them blind to “Howl.”

Vanessa: “Howl” is a call to throw out the old system. It’s a call for revolt. She knows what Shaun Ross is about to do. She’s not victimized here, she’s taking something back from that system. At the end of “Gods and Monsters,” he’s eating the apple like there’s no tomorrow. We cut to her during the robbery looking straight at us.

Gabe: So she’s in on it, that was my takeaway, too. She throws away one of the wallets during the John Wayne monologue later. It doesn’t make sense if she isn’t.

Vanessa: They don’t get to the rapture at the end without throwing out the old system. They have to take action against it.

Gabe: Cause the expected reading would be that the robbery is just a further descent into sin.

Cleopatra: That’s what I think.

Vanessa: Mary sings along to “Gods and Monsters.” John Wayne cocks his rifle right before.

Cleopatra: But Mary cries afterward.

Vanessa: At their sin or what they’re forced to do to overcome their punishment? It goes, “And so, from being created in his likeness to being banished for wanting to be too much like him, we were cast out, and the Garden of Eden transformed into the Garden of Evil.” It says the system’s got to be kicked over.

Gabe: Jesus doesn’t look too happy. You keep saying the system. What system?

Vanessa: Celebrity as religion. Everything’s celebritized now – your Izzy Black article – Wall Street bankers are the new gangster film, and The Godfather and Goodfellas are movies about worshiping the criminals who normalize it. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese doesn’t judge the piece of shit. He overwhelms you with him.

Cleopatra: So she’s saying reject criminals by being a criminal?

Vanessa: You don’t have to like it.

Cleopatra: People in those movies end up dead and arrested.

Gabe: Not all of them.

Vanessa: Yeah, but they’re gods until then. They’re treated as the ultimate realization of the American dream – people who start out small and buck the system to end up the new tyrants.

Gabe: Cycles of oligarchy. And a lot of times, it’s the peons who get killed and arrested, while the kingpins keep on rolling.

Cleopatra: But then it’s endorsing exactly what it’s criticizing.

Vanessa: Don’t take the mugging scene literally. It’s a call to change things. It’s not a call to go out and rob people.

Tropico lost faith

Gabe: Did you notice in that scene, in the hotel room where they give the party, that celebrities are looking down on the whole thing from the paintings on the walls?

Vanessa: No.

Gabe: It’s a constant throughline. You know, I’ve been raring to talk about William Gibson ever since we hit on the celebrity-as-religion idea. He’s the novelist who wrote Neuromancer and had a big hand in inventing cyberpunk as a genre. One of my big papers my last year of college was about what I called neo-feudalism, how corporation-states are making nations obsolete and essentially turning them into vassals. Point is, Gibson gave up writing cyberpunk because he said the dystopian future he had envisioned wasn’t nearly as bad as the real state of things. He had two novels post-cyberpunk that really struck my imagination. The first is Pattern Recognition. He envisions a film that gets released in clips randomly online. People can’t tell if the actors are real or CG. People can’t decide what it’s about. People can’t track down who made it. A trend analyst is hired to track its maker down, and there’s some action and espionage because it’s Gibson, but I swear to god, it plays as a brief history of the contemplation of God.

Cleopatra: I read it; I liked it.

Gabe: And then he wrote Spook Country, in which people start to create pieces of art – and some are subtle and great and some are looming and garish – but as long as you can log onto the server, you can put on glasses and see L.A. as re-imagined by, essentially, modders. You can hop onto one server and walk around the city, really physically walk around, and see great sculptures coming out of the water, or you can hop onto a different server and walk around the city and see celebrities in the exact spot in which they died – and it anticipated Oculus Rift and Google Glass and all these other innovations in how we’re about to start looking at the world, but it was also about this way in which we start to use celebrity in these artificial niche cultures to create alternate visual languages and knowledge bases to understand the world. It reminds me of a sort of return to our most basic Animist religions, where belief was based on a mountain having a certain meaning and a river having a certain spirit, and those meanings and spirits translated something important about a culture. And suddenly, we have these thousands of little niche languages, many of them becoming visually based so that we’re beginning to talk in themes and we give a movie a certain meaning or a piece of fashion a certain spirit – not literally, but effectually – and those meanings, well they translate something important onto the next collector, onto the next translator. You see it on Flickr and Tumblr and all these users who become popular cultural translators – and not just translators, I think as critics we can aspire to be those translators – but the meta-collectors of art who are creating those meanings. I posted an article on cyberpunk a few months ago that began to touch on that.

Vanessa: It sounds like Minecraft. People went through and just recreated all of Denmark on a set of servers, and anyone can log into it and make any changes they want, but it’s only up for so long.

Gabe: And then it’s gone?

Vanessa: And then it’s gone.

Gabe: Like a video game sand mandala.

Vanessa: It’s a crude version of what you’re talking about, but it lets people create landscapes, virtual landscapes that carry their own meaning. Right now, it’s for games, but….

Gabe: It’s creating a language, it’s creating a grammar that we’ll pull into tomorrow. The things they did in movies and TV for the first few decades created the same grammar we use today. And maybe visually it’s crude, and Gibson described his version as pretty crude, but conceptually, has anyone ever been able to do anything like that before? I mean, it’s funny, we have all this power taken away and taken away from us, and ideas banned, and people arrested, yet we keep on finding new ways to communicate and organize and translate ideas. And I don’t know, it may be really depressing to be just about anybody these days, but the tools we have to organize and effect change – we’ve never had anything like it before, we just need to figure out how to take those things and apply the history of art and resistance and governance to be able to take full advantage of them, to mature them into even greater usefulness and give them even more presence. And then you get the abolition of net neutrality trying to ruin it, but that’s a whole other tangent. What I’m saying about Lana Del Rey is that, what Spook Country posed as our attribution of cultural meaning onto celebrity as a tool of resistance and subtle change, as something that almost threatens to be the exact counter to neo-feudalism, a sort of visual language of ideas you have to develop fluency in to understand, is already there in Tropico.

Vanessa: Can you put a link in where people can contact their Congresspeople and tell them to keep net neutrality alive? Because everything you just described is gone if companies get to own the Internet.

Gabe: Yes. So I’m with Vanessa. I don’t think there’s a reason to include “Howl” there unless you’re saying things have to change, and we need to take charge, and that what gets us back to “America, Why I Love Her” and gets Lana Del Rey and Shaun Ross to the rapture at the end – they’ve clearly escaped that “Entrance to the Underworld,” that “Paradise lost” through their actions, she’s holding the gun and showing off the results of the money.

Vanessa: Mary’s not praying afterward for their sins, Mary’s praying for their salvation from John Wayne’s punishment, for extraction from a land of “Gods and Monsters” to someplace better.

Gabe: To the kinder God of the New Testament, perhaps?

Cleopatra: Maybe. But then is she saying to embrace celebrity and wealth as salvation? She becomes the new kingpin?

Gabe: But she uses it to extract herself, to change the equation, to leave that land and return to nature and to come closer to that ideal of herself she can never quite reach, to return to Whitman and that Mitchum poem, which was written for John Wayne – and I swear, I never thought I’d cry at a John Wayne monologue.

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Vanessa: It’s everyone’s way of returning to nature. To steal everything out from under the old system. Lana Del Rey gets a baptism back into it.

Cleopatra: So it’s Fight Club.

Gabe: It kind of is, isn’t it? It shares a lot of the same messages, although Fight Club takes on materialism where this, I think, is a much deeper contemplation on religion, celebrity, and resistance.

Cleopatra: Deeper than Fight Club?

Gabe: That would be an absolutely useless argument to have. I’d say they’re very complementary, and seeing one probably makes you understand the other better.

Vanessa: Yes, it’s deeper than Fight Club.

Gabe: The rapture scene takes place to “Bel Air,” which isn’t really about the place so much as Lana Del Rey’s character coming into her own. I think the “Bel Air” reference is something personal to the song.

Vanessa: It’s the last song on Paradise, isn’t it?

Gabe: It is the last song on the EP, yes.

Vanessa: I’ve been thinking about it as her double dissolving. It kind of wanders away into the sunset, you know.

Cleopatra: The film breaks down at the end. The skips and artifacts.

Gabe: Right, there are some skips in the visual and the audio develops background static. As they’re lifted up into the air, the entire video turns to black-and-white fuzz. Combined with Vanessa’s reading – her double dissolves, and the very method of communication that necessitates her double – the film itself – that dissolves, too. What do you think that signifies?

Vanessa: Celebrity is surpassed. If it’s something that’s really only visual.

Gabe: It’s the rapture for celebrity-as-religion?

Cleopatra: Maybe it says we’re all raised up in the end. If we all get 15 minutes, celebrity becomes obsolete.

Gabe: I handn’t thought of it that way.

Vanessa: It moves beyond the need for religion. I thought her throwing the pearls away looks a lot like throwing rosary beads away. Not like she’s throwing religion away, but that pearls are the rosary beads of celebrity, so she’s throwing that away.

Gabe: And then it all goes to fuzz, and the mode of communicating celebrity is done.

Cleopatra: Cue “Where Is My Mind?”

Vanessa: So our rapture is losing the double we create for ourselves.

Gabe: Or is it throwing out the system that idealizes the double? Gibson might say the meaning we assign to doubles is an evolution of language and religion itself.

Vanessa: Yeah, that’s why you’re on Facebook so much and I can’t stand it.

Gabe: They both have the same goals, the same message. She does use her double, as a stripper, to be able to revolt, and Shaun Ross uses a mask. They have to play the roles in order to take advantage of them.

Vanessa: Stop making points. We’re done.

Gabe: I think it’s too big a problem for Lana Del Rey or William Gibson or Fight Club to solve on their own. But all together-

Cleopatra: With our powers combined!

Gabe: That’s right, we’re going to end this with a Captain Planet reference.

Vanessa: If it works with the theme.

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A brief message from Gabe
Thank you so much for reading this series. It’s an experiment and we’re all glad it’s resonated with others so far.

We all agreed that Tropico has an incredible amount to say about celebrity-as-religion, about socio-economics, about the false exaggerations we create of ourselves in a world of social media, about activism, and about the role of artists in shoving culture forward when governments become too stagnant to do so. Some of the most peaceful and effective coups in history are the artistic ones. We may disagree on certain other messages, but we all left thinking Tropico packs more meaning into its 27 minutes than most movies can into two hours. It’s absolutely worth picking apart and analyzing, and carrying forward as a movie that’s symbolic of this very crucial moment in our history, that can both speak on it and react to it.

We never thought that was a possibility when we first sat down to watch it. We thought we’d be one-upping each other’s jokes about this crazy, ridiculous video Lana Del Rey did. But this film took us all apart, it made us each weep at different points, and it spoke to something incredibly complicated, so universal and so timely that it became deeply personal for each of us. This isn’t just a good film or a great one, it’s an important one that knows what it’s doing, what message it wants to send, and can resonate with you for weeks after if you give it a chance. Thank you for reading. This won’t be the last thing we have to say about music videos or about the work of Lana Del Rey.

“Tropico” — Lana Del Rey’s Old Testament, part two

Tropico p2 lead

by Cleopatra Parnell, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez

A few days ago, three writers sat down on Skype and had a conversation about singer Lana Del Rey’s Tropico, a short film that riffs on the Bible. Watch Tropico here.

This is the second part of our conversation. Read Part One here. Let’s dive right in:

Gabe: So far we’ve covered one song. There are still three poems and two songs to get through.

Cleopatra: Can I just say how much I like the part when Lana Del Rey bites the apple? Marilyn Monroe screams and Elvis does a kung fu move. That’s the best part.

Gabe: You guys like John Wayne and Elvis way more than I do. I think it’s interesting that she shifts right from the song “Body Electric” to the Whitman poem, but Whitman is absolutely not my forte.

Cleopatra: He based a whole bunch of poetry on the Bible. A lot of it supports ideas in it, but in a lot of it he rejects the Bible, too.

[Here’s an excellent article in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review on that topic.]

Gabe: On what grounds?

Cleopatra: Whitman said that people’s own souls should be their spiritual connection to God. He was anti-authority. He talked about people coming to their own beliefs about God and the universe, and how they should find an understanding of the universe through themselves instead of through what somebody else tells them.

Gabe: It’s like the Gospel of Thomas – “The kingdom of God is within you and all around you. It is not within buildings of wood or stone. Split a piece of wood and you will find me. Look beneath a stone and I am there.”

Tropico mid 1

Cleopatra: Where is that?

Gabe: Thomas is one of the Gnostic gospels. It’s one of several gospels the Catholic Church never accepted as canon. There are various arguments about why. Some are faith-based, some aren’t, but one of the major ones is that it quotes Jesus as saying houses of worship were bunk and people who tell you how to worship shouldn’t be trusted. You should find your own path to worship through experiencing nature and hard work. I won’t get into the politics of it-

Vanessa: Too late.

Gabe: But if it were ever accepted into the Bible, it would basically acknowledge that Jesus told people not to go to Church or listen to priests, because it would make them further from God. There are arguments for its inclusion and against, but let’s get back to Whitman and “I Sing the Body Electric.” Obviously, Lana Del Rey isn’t comparing Whitman’s views with going to a strip club.

Vanessa: Are you sure? Whitman was fired when Leaves of Grass was published.

Cleopatra: It was criticized for being indecent. A lot of people burned it.

Gabe: So what’s Lana Del Rey saying here?

Vanessa: Like I said, it links to the position men are taught to put women into because of what the Garden of Eden story says.

Gabe: You don’t agree.

Cleopatra: Maybe the strip club is just another house of wood and stone, but it’s not the Church’s house. It’s the new one we’ve built.

Gabe: The same thing the Church allegedly does to Thomas by rejecting him and building a central authority out from Jesus?

Cleopatra: With celebrity standing in for religion.

Gabe: So we’ve taken what Whitman said and, essentially, rejected him the same way the Church rejected Thomas. We’ve sort of bastardized his teachings to suit the powerful. That finds a way to marry your two interpretations, doesn’t it?

Vanessa: I like where it’s going.

Tropico connection

Gabe: So we have Eve put into a specific place in which men are trained to treat her a certain way, and we have Whitman being recited over this montage that runs counter to the meaning of the poem – and the store – Shaun Ross, the guy who plays Adam – he’s trapped in this cashier job at a mini-mart, in another house of brick and- sorry, wood and stone. Here you have the two people who commit sin, not against God necessarily – maybe it’s not a retelling of original sin. It’s a telling of our sin against Whitman and the idea of America – there’s the John Mitchum poem later, “America, Why I Love Her,” that leads up to Lana Del Rey’s rapture scene at the end. If these celebrities have become our religious icons, maybe the sin we’ve committed is against that early notion of the American ideal.

Cleopatra: I can’t really see Whitman and John Wayne in bed together.

Vanessa: I bet Whitman could imagine it.

Gabe: OK, but – look, Lana Del Rey’s obviously saying that our religion is celebrity, but she’s also saying that we’ve committed an original sin in that religion, too, that of – to go back to Warhol – that the purpose of each of our lives is to become celebrities, that that’s how we emulate our religious icons – we seek to be like them, and being like them is being beautiful and exaggerating our image.

Vanessa: Which means Facebook and Twitter are two more houses of wood and stone.

Gabe: Right, it’s the damn Richard Marshall article all over again. We’re haunted by the double we create to represent ourselves, and with Whitman involved, how do we find our own personal understanding of God if we’re busy replacing who we are as a person with that exaggerated double?

Cleopatra: We’ve sinned against Whitman. The house of worship is the strip club-

Gabe: It’s designed to make you feel like a celebrity, to practice making the body a commodity instead of something holy-

Cleopatra: -and the mini mart.

Tropico commodity religion

Gabe: “In the land of gods and monsters, I was an angel.” That’s how the next song begins.

Vanessa: There’s a place where it goes “I was an angel looking to get fucked hard.” The only way for her to achieve emotional reaction or catharsis is through sexual affirmation. And earlier in the song she says fame- the feeling of fame is something sex stirs up, and that it’s a medicine. “You got that medicine I need, fame, liquor, love, give it to me slowly.”

Gabe: Then it goes “Like a groupie, incognito, posing as a real singer, life imitates art.” It’s autobiographical, but it plays into the Warhol universe she’s posed as the reality of the film. She specifically says, “God’s dead. I said, ‘Baby that’s alright with me.’ No one’s gonna take my soul away, I’m living like Jim Morrison. Headed towards a fucked up holiday.” The double’s taken over.

Cleopatra: And “innocence lost” is the refrain.

Gabe: So this middle section – and I had this whole bit ready to go about tribalism in the Bible, but I’m pretty sure we just sent that interpretation right out the window. The middle section is all about refining that original sin, that sin against John Wayne and Whitman and all the ideas we once thought the American dream represented.

Vanessa: I like your Book of Thomas- Gospel of Thomas reference.

Gabe: This is all really depressing stuff, right?

Cleopatra: She gets through it in the end. They both do. There’s a rapture scene.

Gabe: During the return to nature.

Cleopatra: And they each embrace themselves.

Gabe: They get away from the emulation and being haunted by their false self-images and finally get a chance to have that personal understanding of the universe. And we haven’t even talked about how she uses Ginsberg’s “Howl” or the mugging scene. I think we’re all treading lightly around that one.

Vanessa: I had a good idea for that.

Gabe: I’m beginning to lean toward Tropico being one of the best half-hours of film I’ve seen in my life.

Cleopatra: Yeah.

Vanessa: Agreed.

Gabe: So what about “Howl?”

Once again, watch Tropico here. The third part of this conversation will be posted on Tuesday, May 6.

“Tropico” — Lana Del Rey’s Old Testament, part one

Tropico

by Cleopatra Parnell, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez

A few days ago, three writers sat down on Skype and had a conversation about Lana Del Rey’s Tropico, a 27-minute musical film that riffs on the Bible. Watch Tropico on YouTube here. Here’s what those writers had to say:

Gabe: The Daily Beast called this “so bad it might be good.” Billboard called it “daring…a work of overflowing, era-traversing passion.” What three words would you use to describe it?

Vanessa: Lots of tits.

Gabe: Is that really how you want to start the article?

Vanessa: Yes.

Gabe: Using more than three words?

Vanessa: It’s pretentious. It’s not my kind of movie. It gave me epilepsy. But it was pretty brilliant anyway. I love the idea of John Wayne as God.

Gabe: To clarify for readers, Tropico opens with John Wayne creating the universe. He’s accompanied by Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Jesus, and a unicorn. Lana Del Rey plays Eve, and model Shaun Ross is Adam.

Cleopatra: It uses Andy Warhol’s idea of celebrity replacing God.

Tropico 1

Vanessa: Regurgitated images we place onto God. How Jesus looks like Kenny Loggins for Americans. If the real Jesus walked into an airport, the TSA would strip-search him.

Gabe: Do you mean John Wayne is a stand-in for God, or that for Lana Del Rey’s character, he is God? I think he represents a set of values that were important in Del Rey’s cultural upbringing. And he stands in for how any celebrity – Kardashian, Bieber, LeBron – becomes the moral standard we start using to make decisions.

Vanessa: Is there a difference? If we’re raised by the TV and YouTube, and “Mother is the name for God on the lips and hearts of all children,” the result is that God or whatever you believe in for a higher power gets replaced by celebrity.

Gabe: Is that a Crow reference? “Mother is the name for God…”

Vanessa: Thackeray.

Cleopatra: You don’t mean just for image. Like it assimilates the whole meaning.

Vanessa: Religious meaning? That’s what I’m saying – there’s no daylight. That’s what she’s saying. You posted a few days ago about Lana Del Rey being some weird dark mirror for the American dream.

Gabe: The Richard Marshall article. Her persona for Born to Die [her first album] is basically a ghost that’s constantly haunting her, sort of replacing her personality, yeah. It’s a perfect article. It’s perfect.

Tropico 2

Vanessa: That’s the same ghost that’s replacing all our personalities. We get…we get reflected, a reflection of ourselves, and especially with Facebook and Twitter and all these things we can use to portray an image of ourselves that’s exaggerated-

Gabe: That’s more perfect and more celebritized, yeah. I mean, do you think, in that way, we’re trying to pose ourselves as gods? Celebrity becomes God, then if we become celebrity, we become God-

Vanessa: Not for ourselves. Maybe for ourselves, but mostly for someone else. It’s an emulation of God. It’s what we’re taught. You airbrush the crap out of these beautiful people for the purpose of making them into Gods, and if we’re supposed to emulate our religious icons, and our religion is celebrity, then we need to be beautiful, too.

Cleopatra: That takes sexism to a whole other level. I just got depressed.

Gabe: So it’s religiously reinforced for celebrity and follower, and our Church is Facebook and our apostles are TMZ?

Cleopatra: Facebook’s more like Babel.

Gabe: I know you want to talk about the bikini, but to go back to Richard Marshall for a minute – he compares Born to Die to Inland Empire and Mulholland Drive. Those are avant garde films by David Lynch, in which – theoretically, the main characters are stuck in limbos. OK, if our religion is celebrity and our form of worship is social networking and seeking to celebritize ourselves, does Born to Die say that we’re stuck in a limbo pursuing the American Dream, seeking to become gods?

Vanessa: Absolutely.

Cleopatra: An image that isn’t there. I don’t see how you could say anything else.

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Gabe: The leaf bikini.

Vanessa: The leaf bikini. The fucking leaf bikini is everything, that’s just everything the movie’s about.

Gabe: The one Lana Del Rey wears in John Wayne’s Garden of Eden. And we talked about this before, but specifically how it cuts to her life as a stripper. We go from Garden of Eden bikini to stripper bikini.

Vanessa: The Garden of Eden one is more revealing. It’s sexier, and the Garden of Eden story in the Book of Genesis is one that punishes and subjugates women at the end. It sexualizes subjugation. Makes it hot. Not that it can’t be as a choice by two adults, but doesn’t Genesis make it a requirement? Not just socially, like the man runs the house. God lays that all out. Sexually. Subjugation and painful childbirth are Eve’s punishments. If childbirth is an oppression and sex is required for childbirth, then sex should be oppressive. That’s what the Bible says to a lot of people. Lana Del Rey equates Eve to a fucking stripper, and it’s right.

Cleopatra: I read that as her falling from Paradise into sin.

Vanessa: It is, but even as Eve, she’s sexualized – that’s the important part. Eve is always sexualized. And I want to say that stripper is a viable choice. I’m not saying all strippers are sinful people.

Gabe: You’re saying that Tropico uses it as shorthand for sin.

Vanessa: No, I don’t think so. Tropico uses it as shorthand for the male – I don’t want to say tendency or the need. It uses strippers as shorthand for the training we give males to oppress and be violent. Strippers aren’t naturally sinful, whatever “sin” is supposed to mean, but they let men play out their fantasy to- I’m losing my thought.

Gabe: To oppress and dominate?

Vanessa: That’s Biblically justified, and one component of what she’s saying.

Cleopatra: I agree with the idea, like what you have to say about the subject, but I disagree that’s what Lana Del Rey’s saying here.

Gabe: You think it’s a more natural fall into sin? More straightforward, narratively?

Cleopatra: I think that her becoming a stripper is her, yeah, falling out of the Garden of Eden. She copes however she can. She struggles and goes through sin so she can come out the other side.

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Vanessa: It’s the same thing. Her punishment could be working in a coal mine, but it’s not. It’s – I want to be careful here because I don’t want to judge a whole profession that a lot of people work.

Gabe: Just say, “In the film.” It’s what I do all the time. Blame the film.

Vanessa: In the film, she has to perform in a sexually submissive manner. Her struggle is her relationship and the gang tensions, but it’s also this sexually debased place John Wayne puts her into.

Cleopatra: But John Wayne shakes his head-

Gabe: When she bites the apple. What I find interesting is that she also plays Mary, mother of Jesus. Is that a reflection of the perfection and lack of sin that she can’t get back to? An ideal of what she was in the past?

Vanessa: Yeah. That or a judge, but like a soft judge. Someone who’s impossible to measure up to. The idea of what women are supposed to be.

Gabe: Fetishized as both a saint and a whore, you mean?

Vanessa: Yes.

Cleopatra: It’s struggle. It’s not what John Wayne, or God, puts her into. It’s what she has to undergo.

Vanessa: But it’s the society that looks up to John Wayne, or God – they’re all shooting guns in the air, they all look tough like him – it’s their idea of how to emulate God that says women belong in that place.

Gabe: I like both perspectives because yours is a very Old Testament interpretation and Cleopatra’s is a very New Testament interpretation of what Eve does and goes through, and there’s a point at which Tropico shifts from Old Testament to New Testament. It’s just that we may disagree where that point is…

Once again, you can watch Tropico here. The second part of this conversation will be posted on Thursday, May 1.

Say Hello to Editorialist Vanessa Tottle

Vanessa blog pic

by Gabriel Valdez

I’ve had trouble discussing the blog lately. I never know whether to say “I” or “we.” My plan here’s always been to expand the role this blog plays, and to one day move to a full-service film site. That requires gathering a family of writers who look at criticism not just as a way to judge movies, but as a way to connect with readers on the same emotional, analytical, and socially conscious levels that films often use to tell their stories.

Two weeks back, Vanessa Tottle wrote one of the best articles I’ve hosted on the site, a scathing rebuke of sexism in Hollywood that resulted in several people coming forward to inform the both of us that sexism doesn’t exist anymore. Good to know; that was fast.

Several weeks ago, she wrote on her favorite film of 2013 in three beautiful paragraphs that brought tears to my eyes.

We’ve also co-written on the art direction in Curse of the Golden Flower and on the site’s music video series, No Miley Here. Though we’re very good friends, our joint editing process is best described as a cross between Sherman’s march to Atlanta and that scene in Poltergeist when Carol Anne gets sucked into an alternate dimension by the evil spirits in her closet. But it seems to work.

Vanessa will be focusing on film analysis and fiery editorials: pretty much what she does already, but now with a fancy title. A Texan by birth and a Canadian by necessity, she is getting her PhD in vertebrate paleontology with a special focus on geochemistry. She told me to sneak in the phrase “sadistic cladistics” if I could, but you try doing that and still sounding like a reasonable human being afterwards.

Vanessa’s specialty is in horror movies, 80s fantasy, and East Asian film. She also keeps threatening to write about Japanese role-playing games, so you may hear about that soon, too.

Her favorite movies include Jurassic Park, Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, and In the Mood for Love.

Please join me in welcoming the very tenacious Vanessa Tottle as our first official staff editorialist, and in celebrating as this site achieves the first of many goals: beginning the transformation from “I” to “we.”

And she tells me that’s a cheesy ending, so I’m keeping it.

New Life in Misogyny — “Skyfall” and the Bond Reboot

Skyfall collapse

by Russ Schwartz

The message reads, “Think on your sins.” Then MI6 blows up.

The institution is archaic and corrupt, and must be overthrown, says the villain of Skyfall. Yet it wasn’t long ago that the Bond series blew up its own foundations – twice in recent memory. Reinvention, rather than innovation, is the 007 series’ lifeblood, as on each go-round it renounces its formula only to cannibalize it, and then renounces the cannibalization, and so forth. On occasion, it will think on its sins, but not all of them.

Everyone thought it was pretty cool when Daniel Craig, his first time out, said he didn’t give a damn how his martini was made. A decade later, he accepts his perfectly shaken martini, presented to him by the same off-screen angel who throws Indy his hat at the end of Last Crusade. Within the Craig-era Bonds, we’ve seen the agent grow from a parkour ‘n’ poker thug into an assassin who says “England” before the profiler finishes the word “country.”

If Bond has grown into his role within three pictures – enough so for them to re-introduce series staples Moneypenny and Q – what is the next phase of his evolution? None of the other Bonds ever got further: not Connery, who at last wearied of the schtick; nor Moore, who leeringly failed to; nor Brosnan, whose final outing, Die Another Day, was a comic mishmash of everything Bond, a narcissistic, nearly apocalyptic celebration of the series’ continued existence (its momentary bid for relevance being that it pissed off North Korea, in lieu of having Brosnan take on Osama bin Laden).

Skyfall reboot

Until now, though, Bond hasn’t been about evolution, but reboot itself. And so if the current set of handlers, which will again include director Sam Mendes, continue to pursue evolution, eventually they will also pursue death. I have a funny feeling that it will take them two more movies: one to cap the overwhelming success of Skyfall (and maybe pick up the plotline about the Quantum organization), and one to say goodbye. Any change that happens to Bond the man kills 007, and 007 needs to outlive Bond; the way must be open for a fresh reboot.

There are seven movies across the last two Bond runs, and more than half of them – Goldeneye, Die Another Day, Casino Royale, and Skyfall – are principally concerned with the institution of Bond itself. Two of these are reinventions, and two are celebrations. In all cases, little occurs that is not designed to show how the old Bond is new, or how very Bond the proceedings are. The franchise is its own subtext.

You can see a similar pattern in any of Hollywood’s dozens of remakes, reboots, and popular adaptations on offer every year. While the source material varies widely, the filmmakers tend to have the same mix of priorities:

1) To reward the filmgoer for recognizing the characters.
2) To briefly convince the filmgoer that something is changing.
3) To reward the filmgoer for recognizing the brand.

This last one is particularly important here, as the series’ primary concern is finding new ways to configure the Bond brand. That sounds cynical, but I don’t dislike this element. I enjoy being in on the joke when Craig balks at the gun-and-radio toolkit provided by Ben Whishaw’s Q (namely, that Craig’s forebears all received extravagant gizmos to destroy). I remember being 10 and knowing that Super Mario Bros. was a terrible, terrible film, but still not wanting it to end because it had Mario and Luigi in it. (That was not an easy admission to make.) In the Bond series, nearly every moment, every scene, every line of dialogue strives to gratify in this way, even (especially?) in the strongest entries.

Is this self-involvement – a charge usually leveled at Bond himself – the series’ own sin on which to think? Hardly. If writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan are making a statement, it’s that they will not brook betrayal of all things Bond. Old ways will stay the best ways, and James Bond Will Return. But in affirming this, they commit to committing another sin, perhaps in perpetuity.

Berenice Marlohe

Was Pierce Brosnan’s debut in GoldenEye all that long ago? Yes, yes, I know that Spider-Man was back at square one after just a decade, but in Bond years, 1995 is a bat of an eyelash. Part of the campaign to kick the series back into gear for the post-Cold War era involved lip service to the notion that the series was with the times, even if Bond was behind them: the film introduced the first female M (Dame Judi Dench), who in short order took Bond to task for being a chauvinist pig. Of course, that’s the same film that introduced the Russian leg-strangling sex killer Xenia Onatopp, so perhaps M’s own handlers – Eon Productions and director Martin Campbell – were not-so-subtly informing us that Bond is only as behind the times as the films themselves (or that the times aren’t what they think they are, or that Bond simply doesn’t care what the times are).

And that’s where the reboot cycle comes in. Skyfall is meant to refine the Bond formula, and one of its core tactics is to reduce all female characters. It’s a decision, as opposed to a by-product, an oversight, or some other term people use to excuse misogyny. This is the most polished Bond movie ever made, sporting a rock-solid story structure (admittedly cribbed from The Dark Knight), the lush, opulent visuals of cinematographer Roger Deakins, gripping action set pieces, and near-perfect pacing, all in the service of a crusade to refine Bond like a good whiskey; Bond’s country is England, and Skyfall‘s country is Bond. It takes Bond to interesting places, dares us to think he’s slipping, and even manages a strong third act, a rarity for the series. Yet all this careful planning reserves only degradation, dismissal and sadism for the film’s female characters.

Skyfall Severine

Bond is deft enough to sneak onto a boat in Macau and make love to Severine in the shower (because hey, she’s already a lifelong sex slave), but he neglects to sneak off the same way. He casually presents himself to Silva’s thugs, dooming her to die in a shooting competition: Bond aims for the whiskey glass balanced on her head, and Silva (who has seen Bond’s wavering marksmanship scores) simply aims for Severine. Bond’s next line, “Waste of good Scotch,” is meant to throw Silva off, but it’s also the only epitaph Severine gets.

Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) accidentally shoots Bond in the intro, but the act is nearly a term of endearment between them by the end, as they leverage her incompetence – spurred by M’s impatience – into a bit of aggressive foreplay. Perhaps he is allowing her to redeem herself when he hands over his “cutthroat razor” and lets her shave him (good job, darling). But at the end, her flaws in service prompt her to withdraw from field work, deferring to Bond’s paternal suggestion that it “isn’t for everyone.” A scene later, he watches her happily recline to her desk, submissive, the point of entry to the now-male-again M, her sniper rifle removed for good. Not that Moneypenny is new to sexual humiliation (the Brosnan films were progressively meaner to actress Samantha Bond, culminating in her virtual-reality sexual fantasy in Die Another Day), but in the Craig canon, she is a woman who learned her place.

Skyfall Moneypenny

Now, I can think of a few other ways this could have gone. How about having Moneypenny redeem her initial error by helping out in the big fucking shootout with Silva’s guys in London, and getting rewarded with a job closer to M? Heck, if the team absolutely needed to cover all their bases, they could have had her wounded in the process, so she could say something like, “This will do while I’m on the mend.” Q gets to be a hacker now – why not adapt the role of Moneypenny to an intelligence position worthy of the M office? Perhaps this is in store moving forward, but after Skyfall, she is not off to a good start.

Again, these were not accidents in the writing. The movie is concerned with Bond losing his mojo and re-empowering himself, and for him to succeed, women must fail, it seems. All of them do, even M, whose sins (on which she and we are meant to think) are the root of the film. Yes, she can defend why she betrayed Silva, but the film still forces her to pay with degradation, punishment, and death. (A note: When she dies, does it mean Bond has failed her, or that she has paid the price for her ruthlessness? Or has Bond failed to save her from paying the price for her ruthlessness? I must consider.)

Skyfall M

Already mortally wounded, M is threatened with death at Silva’s whim, in a sequence as charged as Severine’s murder is dispassionate. It is the film’s most intimate violence, and in this it threatens to break the Bond world. Silva presses the pistol into her hand and begs her to kill them both with one bullet, suggesting an eerie death-rape only prevented by Bond’s well-aimed throwing knife. She dies peacefully in Bond’s arms, her last words harshly praising a job well done.

M’s fate rankles me a bit less than those of Severine and Moneypenny because she’s given space to develop and resolve her character in a film that explores her relationship with Bond as boss/mentor/mother. Facing public humiliation in a government hearing, the defense she presents for her work also serves as a defense of the series (with shades of Gary Oldman’s concluding speech in The Dark Knight – and for the record, I think Skyfall‘s version plays better).

Yet I am still confronted by the fact that all three female characters are ultimately forced to submit, in one way or another, and that this defines the role of women in an entry meant to set the series’ priorities in stone. Back to basics, it says; old ways are the best ways.

Skyfall insult to injury

No Miley Here — 2013’s Best Music Videos, #10-1

Fiona Apple lead

by Cleopatra Parnell, Vanessa Tottle, & Gabriel Valdez
special thanks to Hayley Williams

Let’s dive right in, shall we?

#10: “Q.U.E.E.N.” – Janelle Monae feat. Erykah Badu
directed by Alan Ferguson

“It’s hard to stop rebels that time travel.” So begins one of the best performance videos of the year, feeding off the visual history of artists ranging from Paula Abdul to Prince to Kate Bush. It fits into Monae’s continuing ArchAndroid narrative of a future dictatorship rebelled against only by artists, singers, and dancers. In an odd way, Monae’s wacky refraction of today’s protest movements reminds us of the crucial and unique role art has in influencing and shaping our society. Hers might be one of the most influential voices around, if only because the seriousness and urgency of her message is accompanied by so much performance and joy. It makes those moments she chooses to buckle down and teach all the more poignant.

#9: “When That Head Splits” – Esben and the Witch
directed by Rafael Bonilla, Jr.

Watching this makes me feel like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind: “This means something!” Damned if I know what, but it’s touching and sends chills up my spine. The crudity of its creature design belies a painstaking complexity in its stop-motion animation. I’d also note that Esben and the Witch’s Wash the Sins Not Only the Face is one of the most overlooked albums of 2013, and won my coveted “Best Scandinavian Band You’ve Never Heard Of Award.” They’re the very first non-Scandinavians to do that.

#8: “Hot Knife” – Fiona Apple
directed by P. T. Anderson

Welcome to P. T. Anderson’s masterclass on editing and lighting. Anderson (Magnolia, There Will Be Blood) highlights Fiona Apple’s multiple vocal tracks by giving each its own distinct look: the competing backups are profiled in side panels, backlit in high-contrast black-and-white. The central chorus, Apple’s most intense performance, is introduced in a frontlit, black-and-white close-up that anchors us – both in auditory and visual senses – throughout the rest of the video. It evolves later as more vocal layers are added beneath it – we pull away to a medium shot and the coloration becomes deeply oversaturated by the conclusion.

As the song grows more layers, those backup profiles are again introduced, first frontlit and then later in silhouette. This last time they’re given lowlit schemes of muted orange and pale purple that complement – and lead your eye back to – the oversaturation of Apple’s intense performance at the center. With stoic profiles at the edge and emotion anchored to the center, additional layers interrupt where they can. Her pulsing timpani performance keeps pulling back to black-and-white. We end by drawing closer and closer to each performance, creating a visual intensity that reflects the song’s crescendo, until Anderson gives each visual and vocal its own send-off.

Essays could be done on this. Classes should be taught on this. I just launched an exploratory committee to start an experimental college based entirely around analyzing this video.

#7: “Without You” – Lapalux feat. Kerry Leatham
directed by Nick Rutter

Happening in a world that could only be invented by David Lynch, but wasn’t, this is a damning allegory for how we adjust our worlds to fit the expectations of those around us. Whether you view it as living life for someone else or as a metaphor for the treatment of outsiders, Rutter shows us the inevitable outcome of living out the values of others rather than developing our own.

#6: “Sacrilege” – Yeah Yeah Yeahs
directed by Megaforce

We used to burn witches. We used to gang up on those less fortunate and blame them for the ill outcomes of our own bad decisions. We used to make scapegoats of women for the same things that men do. Now we just shame them in the media. Now we just blame their desire for rights to their own bodies for the mythical dissolution of American morals. Now we just block them out of the political process. We still burn witches, but now we just do it real civil-like.

#5: “Collider” – Jon Hopkins
directed by Tom Haines

A dance piece about the psychological impacts of being raped, playing out the sequence a thousand times in your head as attacker, as victim, as bystander. One vicious, searing, heartbreaking, violent, irrecoverable moment. The most important dance piece last year.

#4: “Like a Rolling Stone” – Bob Dylan
directed by Vania Heymann

This interactive video will require you to watch it off-site.

There’s no quantifying this one. An interactive video for a song that came out 49 years ago, which lets you flip from one reality show to the next to see familiar semi-celebrities lip synching their way through the classic rock song. You can sit on one channel the entire time – the shows go on as normal save for the lip synching – or flip constantly.

It allows the user to create narrative links and select the incongruities that speak to them, to assign meaning to the repetitious meaninglessness of reality TV. It redrafts “Like a Rolling Stone” as a blank slate for our own modern habits, and as such becomes a mirror on which to project our own self-criticisms. After the gimmick wears off, all we’re left with is a meditation on Dylan’s original song and the images that have become most recognizable in our own daily lives – images of false comforts and falser narratives on a TV screen.

#3: “Meltdown” – Ghostpoet
directed by Dave Ma

Two continuous shots enjoy one moment of intersection, creating one of the most powerful visual moments in recent memory. The video, combined with Ghostpoet’s hauntingly uncomfortable song about inhabiting a doomed relationship, replicated a moment we’ve all had – one in which we yearn for what we once had, but don’t reach for it because we’re afraid of losing something we know won’t last. It’s a weird artifact of human nature, and possibly the one we repeat the most in our lives.

#2: “You & I” – Local Natives
directed by Daniel Portrait with Kamp Grizzly

We can’t really tell you anything about this video without ruining it. We’ve shown it to about 20 people so far. They’ve each broken down by the end of it, not just crying but sobbing. None of us wants to do some deeper analysis on it. We don’t want to poke something we love so much.

#1: “Afterlife” – Arcade Fire
directed by Emily Kai Bock
(her 3rd appearance on this list)

Dreams are for lost opportunities, for testing out paths not taken, for expressing our fears and pangs of loss. I had a grandmother I never knew, not when I was old enough to form solid memories of her. Every once in a while, some dream-form of my father’s mother takes shape, guides me, reassures me, stands in the way of the things I fear most. Religion might have me believe she’s an angel. Psychology might have me believe she symbolizes some deeper, definable meaning. I believe it doesn’t matter either way. She or my subconscious would give me a clue if it mattered. It doesn’t. I just know what she does and what it means to me. Those personal meanings, those moments in dreams…that’s what Emily Kai Bock captures in “Afterlife.” – Gabriel Valdez

It’s funny because we all chose this as our #2 video. We whittled things down to a top 60. After that, we were blind to each other’s rankings. Cleopatra chose “Meltdown” by Ghostpoet because it was the most challenging. Gabe chose “You & I” by Local Natives because he’s a big sap. I chose “Collider” by Jon Hopkins because I couldn’t stop watching how the dancer translated a narrative of abuse. But we each chose “Afterlife” for our #2 video, and this gave it the best average. I’m happy it did. I’m not close with my family anymore. I was removed by a distant relative. That means “Afterlife” is a fantasy to me, but it’s a really lovely one to have. It makes me yearn for parents and religion other than the ones I had access to. It makes me miss some humbleness of childhood I never got. It’s like being an archaeologist or some sci-fi pioneer, watching another civilization through a membrane. I’m unable to grasp it, but seeing it is fascinating and it makes me angry and it makes me proud. – Vanessa Tottle

I took care of my grandparents for a very long time. I still check in on my grandmother regularly. She tells me stories about a different time when she grew up. I hear a lot about my grandpa, who passed away but was never really with it for the last decade of his life. “Afterlife” is like one of her stories. They’re completely different from my experiences, but sometimes when she talks to me it’s like having my grandpa back. I imagine he’s listening right next to me. When I’m in a hurry and I ask her to stop, I feel bad later on. I feel like I denied my grandpa a chance to sit next to me again and smile at my grandmother’s stories. I imagine he sits next to me when I watch “Afterlife.” I imagine that he understands how much I miss him and that we found a common story we can wordlessly share. – Cleopatra Parnell

Videos #20-11 ran on Thursday, April 10.
Videos #30-21 ran on Tuesday, April 8.