Tag Archives: Cyberpunk

Our Better Angels, Our Gifted Children: The Robots Are Coming to Get Us

Automata Antonio Banderas

by Gabriel Valdez

“I have asked myself that many times as I have struggled to be more human. Until I realized: it is the struggle itself that is most important. We must strive to be more than we are, Lal. It does not matter that we will never reach our ultimate goal. The effort yields its own rewards.”

– Data, “The Offspring,” Star Trek: The Next Generation

HBO just ordered Westworld to series. Based on the 1973 film of the same name, it will focus on an Old West theme park in which all the actors are robots with the artificial intelligence required to play their parts. At a point, they malfunction and rebel. Along with JJ Abrams, Jonathan Nolan (brother to director Christopher and co-writer on Interstellar) is serving in a production role, but it’s not the only series he has with HBO.

His Foundation series, based on Isaac Asimov’s series of novels, will soon join it. This is exciting news: HBO has signed Darren Aronofsky (Noah) to develop Margaret Atwood’s bleak pre- and post-apocalypse MaddAddam trilogy, director David Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) to adapt BBC’s Utopia, and rumors have swirled around Peter Dinklage leading the sci-fi/supernatural thriller about a dwarf private eye, Beasts of Valhalla.

That’s no less than 5 science-fiction projects HBO is developing. They’re becoming the SyFy channel we always wanted.

There’s something else happening, however, and not just at HBO. Westworld and Foundation are part of it, but so are upcoming films like Gabe Ibanez’s Automata, Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie, and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina.

Robots are settling in. They’re coming to get us. And I couldn’t be more thankful.

I still want a TARS

See, robots used to be the bad guys. I’m sure they will be in Westworld (that’s the whole plot), but it’s HBO – we’ll have sympathetic robots trying to do the right thing (Evan Rachel Wood plays an AI discovering that she’s artificial for the first time) and getting screwed over for it, and we’ll have dastardly evil ones (Ed Harris is picking up the Yul Brynner role, for instance) being, well, dastardly and evil. The humans (Anthony Hopkins, Miranda Otto) look to be the real terror.

In Foundation, however? In the novels, robots are generally good, helpful, self-sacrificing for their human brethren.

In Automata, we treat a society of robots like refuse, much the same way we treat third-world countries as we sap their resources. In Chappie, a childlike robot learns to care, to sacrifice…to be human. The humans abuse and fight over it. Ex Machina is a film that asks a man (or is he?) to choose between trusting a robot and a human being.

Look at Big Hero 6 and Interstellar, or last year’s Her. Baymax, TARS, and Samantha are well-meaning artificial intelligences full of personality, there to aid humanity. In Big Hero 6, Baymax is a friend to Hiro, who draws Hiro back from a dark moment in the film’s most heartfelt scene. In Interstellar, TARS is the most beautifully selfless character of the year. In Her, we are given an AI with the capability for love.

Big Hero 6 hairy baby

Gone are the days where a robot was our nemesis, when our fear of losing jobs to technology made us believe in Hal and Terminators and the android in Alien. Now we have something much worse – drones – and we’ve lost those jobs because of human decisions. We are ourselves a species that lead double-lives, the real and the one on the screen in front of you as you read this. We are psychologically, if not physically, cyborgs. Is that bad? Is that good? We have yet to figure it out very well – the evolution is still happening.

What do robots become if we’re psychologically closer to them now than ever before, as we look around a brilliantly interconnected world and see for the first time the true scope of how inhuman humans can be?

The tide has turned. We think the opposite now – robots in fiction don’t threaten the loss of our humanity. We’re doing a fine job of that ourselves. Instead, they represent searching for something better in ourselves. All these robots strive for something in common, as Data on The Next Generation once yearned for: to become more human. The few that don’t have already reached a human ideal – like Baymax and TARS, that of helping unconditionally. They each treasure being human seemingly more than we do, not to survive but to survive rightly.

They are no longer a projection of fear of the “other,” like the aliens in our science-fiction. They aren’t a paranoia about technology. Now, they harken back to what Isaac Asimov originally imagined: the next logical extension of an idealized human race. The only problem is that the human race isn’t holding up that “idealized” end of the bargain.

It’s not a robot’s strength or their speed that we envy in fiction, not their inability to suffer hunger or sleeplessness. It’s how beautifully they see the world in that moment of self-awareness. That’s the capability we envy most, the fairy tale of seeing with fresh eyes what we’ve come to view with cynicism and doubt.

Science-fiction once used robots as the next step of evolution for a human civilization that had overcome its petty squabbles. They were the reward for our curiosity and cooperation, allowing us to stretch that curiosity even further into the universe. Now, science-fiction views them as a correction, an improvement. They don’t yearn to be like us anymore. We sit in the theater and yearn to follow their selfless example. Or at least, we should.

They now hold a perspective we deeply miss, that which once believed curiosity and cooperation really could win out. They can’t be here to help us extend our curiosity if we’ve given up on curiosity itself. Instead, they’re here to be the last shreds of our human conscience.

So I say let the robots come and get us. Maybe they can teach us something. If we won’t struggle to be human anymore, somebody ought to.

Wednesday Collective — Ghost in the Cruise

This week, we’re talking about Ghost in the Shell, Tom Cruise, singing cowboys, the X-Men, Steven Soderbergh, and Indiana Jones. We’ve focused some Wednesday Collectives lately about specific interests, so we’re playing some catch-up – we’ll have even more articles in tomorrow’s Thursday’s Child.

ARTICLE OF THE WEEK
There is No Ghost in the Shell
LogosSteve

The thing about science-fiction is that the world catches up to it in short order. We may not have the spaceships of early 90s Star Trek, for instance, but we’ve certainly surpassed their clunky data devices and equaled their communication abilities. Star Wars movies made 15 years ago present us with dated, impractical visions of technology (oddly enough, the 30-year old films still feel more futuristic).

In the 80s, cyberpunk sprang to the fore of science-fiction. If nothing else, it was a reaction to Reaganism and the growing power of the corporation. Yet the subgenre’s originator, William Gibson, left his own genre a decade ago, saying that reality had caught up, and it was a far more insidious one than he could have imagined.

So it’s impressive that an anime film made 20 years ago looks like a grim vision of the future and asks us questions we’re still at the beginning stages of contemplating. Above is a staggeringly complete video essay on the questions about the soul, human consciousness, and the increasingly cybernetic nature of our lives that Ghost in the Shell raises.

The Fall of Tom Cruise
Amy Nicholson

Tom Cruise

I can’t understand people’s reasoning behind hating Tom Cruise. He stood on a couch at Oprah’s behest and he has a crazy religion. You know, unlike all those perfectly reasonable religions the rest of us have.

I know people who hate Tom Cruise but will geek out over Mel Gibson being in The Expendables, or who will gladly sit down for a Roman Polanski or Woody Allen movie. I know people who hate Tom Cruise who get upset when I turn off a Michael Jackson song.

Yes, he’s kind of crazy and his personality caused Katie Holmes to leave, but to lump him as somehow worse than that bunch and less deserving of our viewership based purely on personality is mind-boggling to me. He started out dirt poor. There are countless examples of his going out of his way and taking big financial risks to help directors and stars just getting their start. Directors come away saying he’s a workaholic on-set. Cast and crew come away saying he’s generous with his time, and pitches in with menial on-set tasks that other actors won’t. When he sues tabloids, he’s always given the entire proceeds to charity. Why don’t those things hold value?

Amy Nicholson answers a few of these questions for me in painting a picture of Cruise’s infamous Oprah appearance. Nobody could have known how badly timed it was – YouTube was a week old, Perez Hilton and Huffington Post just a month. It was a perfect storm of the Internet’s as-yet-untested viral tabloid ability and a breakdown in PR.

Her article also reminds us of Cruise’s early years, spent turning down tens of millions of dollars in action franchises so that he could instead play second fiddle roles to actors like Dustin Hoffman and Paul Newman, and work with directors like Ridley Scott and Oliver Stone.

I hope there comes a time when we’re able to remember Cruise as one of our most iconic movie actors, and not for an Oprah interview that – by the way – her attending audience that day was cheering. Well, until they got home and checked their e-mail, that is.

“Hollywood’s First Black Singing Cowboy”
Dennis McLellan

Herb Jeffries

I’m not one to run obituaries. If someone dies, I don’t need a recap – I’d rather celebrate their life by discussing one of their films, or by sharing how their work affected me personally.

That said, history is riddled with important figures who we leave forgotten. Herb Jeffries is one of those figures. Before Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef took apart the Western there were straight-laced cowboys played by Gregory Peck and John Wayne. But before they saddled up, cowboys merrily sang their hearts out. In an age of crooning, white cowboys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, Jeffries was the premier black one. He provided a counter during an age when African-American heroes were simply not seen on-screen.

Interviewing Lauren Shuler Donner
Diane Panosian

XMen lead

Lauren Shuler Donner is one of Hollywood’s most successful producers, famed for being the woman responsible for getting X-Men onto the screen and, by extension, making the comic book movie genre viable.

I like this interview because it’s short, to the point, and all about Shuler Donner’s development process. Many producers toe the studio line and keep everyone on-schedule. There’s nothing wrong with that, but she’s known as a very hands-on producer. Her strength is her adaptability – she’s one of the few executives who regularly talks about viewing a project from the perspectives and needs of writers, directors, and actors. She gives some good advice about how to produce to the strengths of each of these jobs.

Steven Soderbergh is Terrible at Retirement
Alex Suskind

Soderberghing

Steven Soderbergh retired from filmmaking because it was becoming nearly impossible to fund his style of modestly-budgeted narrative-heavy filmmaking. Nevermind that 15 of his 18 theatrically released films were profitable – even domestic underperformers like The Girlfriend Experience and Che made money for their studios because Soderbergh abandoned blanket overseas distributorship in favor of nuanced, sometimes individually-designed releasing contracts in foreign countries.

The thing about Soderbergh is that he can’t keep still. He’s recut two classic movies while developing and directing TV series The Knick with Clive Owen for Cinemax. He’s directed off-Broadway while starting an import business for Bolivian liquor…I know, it sounds like I’m just making up new David Mamet plots now, but Soderbergh’s a weird cat. I said a long time ago that if TV was smart, they would capitalize on the studio system’s failure by investing to keep Soderbergh employed behind the small-screen. It looks like they’re doing exactly that.

Fortune, Glory, and Evil Indiana Jones
Quint

Temple of Doom

I feel a bit dirty linking to a website like Ain’t It Cool News, but I really did enjoy this personal essay about Quint’s watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as a kid. I like folding personal experiences into these kinds of essays – artistic analysis is nothing without being honest about how our own personal biases fit into them – and it makes me think of Temple of Doom in a light I hadn’t considered before now.

SHORT FILM OF THE WEEK
“More”
dir. Mark Osborne

Vanessa ran a short film a few weeks ago and I liked the idea. We’re going to try closing each week’s Wednesday Collective with a short film of the week. I’ll start with one of my favorites – a stop-motion animation from Mark Osborne called “More.” It was nominated for an Oscar and won best short at Sundance way back in 1999, when I was just a 16-year old twinkle in a college admission department’s eye. Ah, those were the days. The awful, awful days. “More” remains one of the most moving and effective short films I’ve seen.

“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.

Tropico 5

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.

Tropico 6

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.

Cyberpunk Masterpiece — “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

Captain Military Industrialism 2

I always liked Captain America the best. It wasn’t his patriotism or the super-soldier serum, or even the impenetrable shield that did it. It was the fact that he’s the only superhero in Marvel’s canon who started out willing to sacrifice himself to do the right thing. He didn’t bother with the frat boy antics of Iron Man and Thor, or the rage issues of The Hulk. Captain America’s superheroics aren’t sources of egomania or painstaking angst; they’re a moral opportunity. He never needed to grow up into his role like those others; he was waiting for his role to grow up into him.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is Marvel’s best movie to-date by a huge margin. In fact, I think it’s going to be in the discussion as one of the best films of 2014. Instead of being a superhero movie, it’s a tense, man on the run, 70’s-style spy thriller. It just happens to have superheroes on the run, which means all those midnight meetings in abandoned parking garages are turned into car chases and aerial dogfights that wreck entire city blocks.

Finding himself at odds with SHIELD, the international agency in charge of all things superheroic and alien, Captain America (Chris Evans) is joined by The Avengers teammate Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and newcomer Falcon (Anthony Mackie). Each of the heroes gets his or her own action scene – even SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). These sequences are intense while being more down to earth than the Captain’s previous outings.

Captain Falcon Punch

Captain America: The Winter Soldier opens with the Captain making a friend, Sam. It’s not something Captain America does easily, but Sam runs a VA group for soldiers having trouble re-adjusting to normal life. I’m sure you’ve heard the statistic that the United States spends more on our military than the next 10 countries combined spend on theirs. Yet, after they come home, it can take years for veterans to receive crucial benefits that sometimes mean the difference between sanity and agony, survival and death. Captain America promises he’ll visit Sam at the VA, and he does. In fact, he makes a couple of hospital visits that will surprise you. Later, he’s introduced to three multi-billion dollar, sub-orbital supercarriers capable of annihilating millions of lives at the touch of a button.

This is where 70’s spy thriller meets cyberpunk, science-fiction’s least-happy subgenre. The big question The Winter Soldier asks is that, in an age of targeted drone strikes, warrantless NSA phone-tapping, and supersize militaries with less human supervision, what’s the next step in that progression? There’s a messy intersection where governments and corporations meet, and where the Pentagon meets private military contractors.

Sooner or later, The Winter Soldier suggests, someone’s going to take advantage of that in an ideological fashion. Let’s not be reactionary and say that we’re at that point yet, or that George W. or Obama are those people. Neither one is the stuff of worldwide nightmares, no matter how many Hitler mustaches we can Photoshop into witty Facebook posts.

Captain 3 Days of the Condor

The Winter Soldier has a big, important message that’s worth paying attention to, and it gets there through pulse-pounding action scenes, Marvel’s trademark dose of dry comic wit, and surprisingly good acting. Robert Redford, as villain Alexander Pierce, and Johansson, who’s been getting better opportunities in films like these, stand out.

Some superheroes are escapist fantasies for those who want to be rich and famous, or exercise their anger and vengeance on those they feel deserve it. So are some political positions. I’ll admit it, sometimes those are the heroes I idolize most. Captain America, though? He’s the escapist fantasy for those who want to make the world a better place, who don’t look at that struggle as a battle, but as a decision you make every day when you wake up.

He fights like any superhero does, because an audience demands it. The Winter Soldier suggests the best way of avoiding its cyberpunk allegory of the future isn’t to pick up a gun, however. It’s to offer a helping hand to those who need it. It’s to keep manpower in our military and stomp the brakes on automation. It’s to make secrets public so that we all have a say and not to put power in the hands of the few, or the one. It’s to look at being human, and all of us together a country, as a moral opportunity. So I always liked Captain America the best. I still do.

Captain Inquiry

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is rated PG-13 for violence, gunplay, and action.

Wednesday Collective — Cyberpunk, Women Direct, Britain Whitewashes, and the Sharni Vinson Rule

There are so many articles for this week’s Wednesday Collective that we’re going to split it into two parts: today’s and tomorrow’s, which I’ll dub Thursday’s Child because it will be posted on Thursday and I’m a David Bowie fan.

ARTICLE OF THE WEEK
Cyberpunk Gets Old, Files Reverse Mortgage
Molly Osberg

WedCol cyberpunk lead

Cyberpunk isn’t just a component of my generation’s artistic outlook, it’s half the foundation. The post-industrial, dystopian narrative movement whose bones were laid out in 1979’s Alien and 1982’s Blade Runner finally muscled out in William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer. It’s re-formed the fashion and movie industries of Japan, changed Hollywood, and completely defined the video games industry, but – in recent years – technology has caught up to cyberpunk’s vision of a permanently jacked-in populace leading a real life and an online one. Perhaps more damningly, we’ve caught up to the future it once predicted, one characterized by lawless corporate feudalism and inanimate national goverments.

Molly Osberg writes at The Verge about how Cyberpunk’s evolved from social movement to aesthetic fascination, but also defines how its popular dissemination has clipped its social gravitas. What’s most interesting, and I’m projecting my own views onto this now, is how she touches on some of Gibson’s later obsessions, particularly in Pattern Recognition and Spook Country – a pursuit of iconography that borders on the religious, cultivated and refined by international groups of collectors into a borderless social Animism, forming unique languages of data and image to define views of the world that can only be completely understood by those who comprehend how the data connects.

After all, if the corporation-state is now borderless, and the nation-state has grown useless, it won’t be long before we’ll need a people-state. If Mitt Romney’s right that “Corporations are people, my friend,” then the correlation is that people are becoming less so. Maybe cyberpunk’s not quite done. Maybe we’re mistaking its teenage years, as it finds its footing in a changing world, for its retirement. Maybe its most powerful statements have yet to be made.

Female Filmmakers: Film’s Loss, Television’s Gain
Katie Walsh

Jill Soloway

Some directors have a harder time getting studios and indie investors to faithfully pony up the money for feature films. These directors are colloquially known as “women.” You see, women are considered more of a risk to helm a movie than men. Anyone who could give you a reason why could simultaneously give you a reason why he’s a fearful chauvinist living in a bygone era.

Katie Walsh at Indiewire describes the subsequent migration of women over to television directing. I can’t help but wonder whether limiting themselves to half the talent pool is why the range of viewpoints and styles in mainstream film tends toward repetition, while the range of popular TV narratives has grown braver, stranger, and more extensive. Actually, I can help but wonder, since we already know the answer.

Editing for Chinese Audiences
Shandongxifu

The Karate Kid training

While doing some research for “How China Keeps Bruce Willis Alive” last week, I came across a description by blogger Shandongxifu of how China edited the remake for The Karate Kid. It’s a window into the priorities of the Chinese censorship process, and how filmmakers worked around it to create a completely new narrative.

Britain’s Theatrical Whitewashing
Tony Howard

Adrian Lester in Merlin

Government censorship isn’t the only kind. Pictured above is Adrian Lester in Merlin. He’s an accomplished Shakespearian actor who struggles to land the jobs less accomplished white actors are given. Tony Howard at The New Statesmen pens a scathing article on Lester and other minority actors, who routinely have trouble getting roles on British stage, film, and TV. It reflects a problem that we here in the States still have, but explains how Britain’s centralization of arts funding, as well as their choice to focus on classical repertoire over newer plays, exacerbates the problem to a state of cultural emergency.

Of Charlton Heston & Antonio Banderas
A. E. Larsen

The War Lord

An Historian Goes to the Movies is quickly becoming one of my favorite blogs, a go-to source for investigating the historical accuracy of films set in the past. This week, there’s an engrossing historical analysis on The War Lord, a little-known Medieval movie starring Charlton Heston, and a discussion on why intelligent costume designers consciously choose to include historically inaccurate armors in their historical films, using The 13th Warrior as a case study.

The Future of Chinese and Hong Kong Film
David Bordwell

The White Storm

David Bordwell gives a rundown of the annual Filmart festival in Hong Kong. It’s the single biggest film market in Asia. He sets the scene to make you feel like you’re there before discussing the new system of shared productions between Hong Kong and mainland China. He devotes the bulk of his article, however, to the most exciting new films from one of the most well-established yet fastest-growing film industries in the world.

The Sharni Vinson Rule
Jordan & Eddie

Shani Vinson in Patrick

This review of Australian suspense film Patrick isn’t about the industry or any specific technical craft, but it earns a place this week because it gives me a chance to champion two things:

Firstly, actress Sharni Vinson is something special and I don’t want to miss an opportunity to point people in her direction. She led last year’s You’re Next, which achieved the rare trifecta of being my favorite horror movie, comedy, and mumblecore film of the last several years. This gives rise to the Sharni Vinson Rule – One never needs an excuse to post about Sharni Vinson. In the interest of equality, let’s say it applies to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, too.

Secondly, Jordan & Eddie (The Movie Guys) is my favorite site to learn about Australian filmmaking. Australia has a creative and vibrant filmmaking industry that is too often overlooked. These two tend to see Australian movies 6-12 months before we do here in the States, and they have a particular fondness for my kind of suspense and horror.

SUPER SECRET ARTICLE OF THE WEEK
“Post-Empire Strikes Back”
Lili Anolik

The Canyons

If you’ve made it this far, you’re in for a treat. This would be up near the top, but some of the subject matter is raunchy and I want to be respectful to all of my readership.

Believer Magazine features an excellent story by Lili Anolik on the wreck of a film that was last year’s The Canyons, a movie which accomplished the rare feat of being relentlessly interesting and boring as can be. Anolik interviews controversial novelist and screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis (The Rules of Attraction, American Psycho) and director Paul Schrader (American Gigolo, Adam Resurrected) about a movie that Lindsay Lohan single-handedly pulls from pure dreck to semi-watchable.

Anolik examines a true piece of performance art by Ellis, a post-theatrical movie in which the art on display isn’t the film itself but the cultural commentary housed within the tale of its production. The story of the real movie adaptation of a fictional novel that Ellis’s fictional alter-ego never got around to writing, starring Lindsay Lohan, a male porn star, and controversial director Gus Van Sant as his psychiatrist, is by turns fascinating, hilarious, and chilling. The Canyons may have been terrible, but the performance art of making it may be the best thing Ellis has done yet.