It has been hypothesized that people need a healthy ratio of dreams to memories to avoid big black holes of depression and inactivity, that it’s better to skew close to 2:1 (or at least, 1.5:1 or – well, you get the idea…) One of the sad things about getting old is realizing that you maybe spend a lot of time telling the exact same stories. This happens to me, at least; like any young moron, I have unfailingly noticed other people doing it, and silently promised myself I wouldn’t make the same mistake. And yet, here we are.

Anyway, dateline, Seattle, summer 2006: a throng of young cineastes, wiseasses, and wiseass cineastes is snaking down an entire city block near the University of Washington, outside the now-defunct-as-we-knew-it Neptune Theater. The Seattle International Film Festival is hosting a midnight “secret screening” of a mystery film, and around 11:20 or so word has begun to spread that it could be Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly.

I have the keys to my parents’ car and fuck-all to do with myself. I had bought a ticket long before anybody had any inkling that this was the movie, but being a consummate Dickhead I’m especially excited. “What’s this gonna be about?”, a friend asks. I wasn’t yet a smoker, but this is where I would’ve blown a huge cloud out of my mouth and especially savored my position of expertise. “Oh, well, the book is about a government conspiracy to get people hooked on drugs so it can, then, get them hooked on privatized treatment drugs….”

A few minutes later, a van with loudspeakers rolls up and a “street crew” flops out, handing out free t-shirts and 20-ounce cans of Monster energy drinks. If I had gotten over myself enough to take one for free then, perhaps I wouldn’t be purchasing them now.


One of the pleasures of the Godzilla franchise is its depiction of an intergovernmental organization known as G-FORCE. Its purpose, servile to the United Nations, is to develop combat procedures and weaponry in the event of another giant monster attack – probably an alluring notion to Japanese directors in a time of voluntary de-militarization. It allows for love triangles, time travel and psychic rapprochement with Godzilla himself, but it also paints a candy-corn daguerrotype of military power as we have come to consider it onscreen since 1945. It bears lingering traces of the cockpit-cams in Star Wars films, but also flirts with James Bond storylines, 007 himself being a consolation prize for the decline of the British Empire.

The most prismatic is M.O.G.E.R.A. (Mobile Operation Godzilla Expert Robot Aero-Type), a bird-beaked steel colossus that can break itself into different types of tactical vehicles: a boat, a drill, a spaceship. Piloted by a colorful crew of matinee 20somethings, it’s as vast and potentially destructive as the evil it was designed to deter – an unintentionally hilarious stand-in for war itself in the aftermath of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (For the curious: it was built by G-Force following the failure in 1992 of their weaponized Mechagodzilla.)

The new also-silly action film Act of Valor, which I reviewed for The L Magazine a few weeks ago, is about the opposite: proof that war can be cheap, lightweight and deadly effective. Part of the deal for ticket-buyers is that the movie’s heroes are the real deal; the plot concerns a tight-knit team of Navy SEALs, portrayed by real Navy SEALs. They appear without their names in the credits, which is another way of saying there’s no particular evidence that they are really on active duty, but implicating any skepticism on the viewer’s part in a bigger challenge to said viewer’s loyalty or patriotism. I had a few ideas I wanted to embellish upon in light of the recent spotlight thrown upon on Special Forces operations, especially after the raid in January that freed two nonprofit workers – one Danish, one American – held hostage by Somali pirates.

Act of Valor is a type of propaganda that plays on both personal and national aspirations, drawing a line of reverence between an average-joe viewer and the finely honed killing machines beefcaking it up on the screen. The aim of war movies since the dawn of cinema has been to bring soldiers and joes closer together as types, simultaneously reaffirming the state’s right to demand blood from its citizens and the citizens’ rights to have their sacrifices recognized. This idea was especially prevalent during World War II, when America’s economic recovery went hand in hand with its suppositions of moral superiority for taking a stance against the German, Italian and Japanese armies. But for reasons probably related to blossoming social mores and the end of the draft, the idea of the everyman recruit stuck around until the Reagan Administration.

Since then, imaging has begun to play on more personalized notions of what constitutes a soldier’s personality – indeed, military culture at large. When it comes to the armed forces, Indiewood and Hollywood features alike are imbued with a breathless respect for form, thoroughness, precision – in a word, organization. Delivered in sweeping helicopter shots and procedural monologues, our new moral equivalence comes from a worship of authority, whether it’s a missile tracking system, or a brotherly code of conduct. War becomes less a force of national influence, and more a backdrop for ritualistic subcultures and fantasy tales of derring-do, spun around members of a shit-talking, guild-like work community. The films of Michael Bay – particularly The Rock and the Transformers films – constitute a steady thread of big-box outsider admiration for the zealotry and hardheadedness of fantasy-world military personnel, stirred in with delirious fantasies of widespread death, mayhem and conspiracy.

Today, Tom Hanks is making a movie about Richard Phillips, held hostage by Somali pirates in April 2009 and saved in a Naval Special Operations raid. He broke contract with Kathryn Bigelow as they were prepping a South American action thriller; now she and journalist / Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal have elected instead to dramatize the Team Six raid in Pakistan that killed Osama Bin Laden. Rather than hair-raising numbers of troops, there is instead a fecund, popular image ripped from the worst 80s actioners but somehow made real: a nimble unit of elites who can strike anywhere, at any time. It is the best-possible salvo on a wounded military conscience, the perfect wedding of human and technological merit.

For the first Bush and Clinton presidencies, a policy-decisive SEAL strike was among more fanciful notions (i.e. a full-scale war with Iraq), theoretically feasible but by no means a sure bet. Clinton’s miniaturized struggles in Haiti and Somalia, coming off of larger Bush victories in Panama and Kuwait, rescaled the value of American life in the eyes of voters; the White House abandoned its Somalia adventure immediately after photos broke of the naked corpse of U.S. Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. (Clinton preferred cruise missiles anyway, building off of the massive CENTCOM established by the Reagan Administration, burnished by bases in Oman, Qatar and Bahrain – prizes from the first Gulf War.)

So for George W. Bush’s policy planners, the political will for small strikes was simply not there. But following 9/11, funding expanded into subsidiary DEA, FBI and CIA projects under different designations and monikers, a broader surge in funding for extra-territorial activity supervised by any official organs of U.S. Law. Connectivity exploded among the agencies, alongside a much more-balleyhooed beefing-up of the Department of Defense, which politics-wise has only become disputable within Congress in the last two or three years. Obama’s foreign policy bona fides benefit from his ability to position the Navy as the zenith of our military power, whereas Bush would have been viewed as picking favorites had he shifted praise so specifically from grunt recruits to specialized units.

The summer after the Bin Laden raid, a Team Six helicopter containing 38 people – 25 of whom were with Special Operations – was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade, the worst loss of life sustained by U.S. forces in Afghanistan since combat began in 2001. Semi-uncomfortably, the helicopter itself was mourned like a war hero, on account of the Special Forces’ rigidly enforced anonymity. Less than a year later, Admiral McRaven is arguing, maybe accurately, that operations like Team Six offer a better bang-for-your-buck than the U.S. would deserve right now, were it not for their clear-eyed planning and execution. The idea is that symmetrical combat will never begin, thanks to policy tweaks executed one raid at a time.

The legal proceedings that could hamper such an action don’t, because raids like those in Somalia or Pakistan are over before they’ve been noticed by our would-be host governments. And yes: the possibility of a Navy SEAL attack on Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony was bundled with this week’s sensationally ignorant advocacy campaign launched by Invisible Children. The idea that elites from private American companies can build grassroots support to somehow, with the blessed restorative balm of social media, “petition” the Executive Branch to plop U.S. armed forces down on sovereign territory and blow somebody’s brains out without anything approximating due process points to something worse than a mass embrace of the anti-internationalism that liberals disdained coming from the Bush Administration. Albeit doomed, it nonetheless suggests a compulsive binary voting attitude, an American Idol-ization of our worst foreign policy temptations and secrets.

In Act of Valor, circumstances are never ethically questionable, but outcomes are riskier – a realist worldview that perfectly matches Obama’s. Filmmakers Scott Waugh & Mike McCoy make no equivocations about the military’s connectivity to the world, mapping out plot destinations on a beeping “radio” or “scanner” themed grid of pixels, like a Sunday night Fox bumper; as commander in chief, Obama uses the same chessboard, made in the Cold War but expansion-packed over twenty years into the Middle East. The implication is that the lethality of U.S. policy is “canned” somehow, bullets tasting the same on any continent. It is simultaneously more daring and less brave; a Team Six deployment is cheap in relative terms to a conventional attack no matter where you play it. They are globally public demonstrations of superiority, literalizing much of the shadow world alluded to but never specifically ID’d by hegemonists, conspiracy theorists and neoconservatives alike.

Dollars to donuts, I’m pretty sure popular support for conventional combat in Afghanistan, Iraq, or pretty much anywhere else is as low as it’s ever been – a disinterest which may eventually create a nasty political rupture between richer and poorer gradients of both parties. This is in no way to suggest that Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz or Powell were taking troop casualties or deaths more seriously in their own planning; the current president’s maneuvers are just the wiser political choice, on account of their leanness and publicity value. If Obama were blowing out birthday candles, he couldn’t wish for a better villain to obliterate than the ruthless, desperate, apolitical small-timers off the coast of Somalia.

Call it “flash & awe”. The government today promises skeptical Americans an alt-military, full of unknowable heroes and streamlined beyond culture’s reach; the virtual avatar of a physically Napoleonic strategy. There is an entire world of troop drawdown speculation in which the president has engaged much more cavalierly in Afghanistan, but those decisions are as low-profile as they’ve ever been. Thanks to Bush’s ever-widening net of military bases, black sites and installations, Obama has managed to score his greatest foreign policy victories yet.

Last February, film critics Glenn Kenny and Richard Brody dueled on Twitter over the authenticity of director Matt Porterfield’s approach to his film Putty Hill, which Kenny found especially unlikely after Porterfield made a dig at Deborah Granik’s Ozarks-set Winter’s Bone. The tweets are no longer available, possibly due to a system upgrade that happened in March. Nevertheless, the argument is more pointed than anything concerning “cultural vegetables“, and the most intriguing takeaway was Brody’s term “cine-necrophilia”, which I interpreted as overripe dedication to classicism. (Just FYI, he was using it as a warning against undue skepticism towards the films of Joe Swanberg – a filmmaker only a Blockbuster manager would consider a colleague of Porterfield’s beyond the fact that both directors make movies inexpensively, and erstwhile.)

The term weighed heavily on my mind while watching Michel Hazanavicius’ new film The Artist. The main character is silent film star George Constantin (Jean Dujardin), who is flat-out ruined by the emergence of talkies; reciprocally, the new technology makes a star of Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), who ends up salvaging, in her own way, Constantin’s career/life. (The two fall in love at first blush, but the relationship isn’t emotionally consummated until her star has replaced his.) Hazanavicius, Dujardin and Bejo collaborated previously on the 60s spy spoof OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, which, for whatever this is worth, yielded a packed house, your narrator included, literally sobbing with laughter at the 2006 Seattle International Film Festival.

As the year winds to a close, The Artist is becoming a right proper darling of many print critics: it’s charming, frequently hilarious, and emotionally generous in all the right places – you know, like only a classic movie can be. But that said, it also cribs mightily from The Canon, and nowhere more obnoxiously than when it reappropriates Bernard Herrmann’s score from Vertigo, for chrissakes. Within the context of the film, the only logic behind such a decision appears to be laziness; Kenny called this out in his blog a few days ago, which really ratcheted up my interest in seeing it. After all, could there be a more brazen example of what Brody was talking about?

There is a strong feeling, particularly among online writers, that Hazanavicius is actually doing worse than all that – that he’s outright cashing in on the idea of silent film while rounding up, erasing the nitty-gritty of the era. As a self-avowed purist, Jonathan Rosenbaum similarly refuses to relinquish ground to the unstoppable juggernaut that is a Weinstein Company release with better-than-usual buzz. Perhaps Hazanavicius doesn’t “get” the movies, and thus can only offer a congenitally unfair portrayal of such. It’s an idea worth tussling with, if not exactly right. (For the record, Singin’ In The Rain, of which this film is an unmistakable mutation, offers an equally nuance-free opinion of the silent era’s Hollywood product.)

No, The Artist is not a factually accurate depiction of its chosen signature era in film history. But let’s be honest: is Who Framed Roger Rabbit? A lot depends on whether you consider a movie a jumping-off point, or a destination in and of itself. To me, the filmmakers demonstrated enough love, fastidiousness and sparkle to set themselves apart from the pack, the clueless reupholstering of Herrmann’s best score notwithstanding. 99.9% of movies are unintended pastiches of prior, better specimens, so for someone to consciously tackle silent film in 2011 seems an audacious – and deeply romantic – project. One of the miseries of growing older is watching specialized art forms ossify and beg, often pathetically, for cultural currency against so much new bullshit, which is a fancy way of saying: if not perfect, The Artist has probably done more for silent cinema than any other movie this year.

That unfortunately includes Martin Scorsese’s noisy, bombastic, insanely expensive Hugo, which hasn’t encountered a shred of Hazanavicius’ critical resistance. Questions of authenticity of intention, again, drive me to make these comparisons: is it better to brand your film as a pastiche, or as a righteous heir? Is it better to flatter your audience, or yourself? Hugo‘s 3D vistas and schmaltzy screenplay rather forcibly claim a lineage to the original special effects of Georges Méliès (whose life story is rewritten here to sell holiday-time tickets) and yet the film’s preservationist agenda isn’t really questioned. (Think about it: The Artist is actually a silent movie, whereas Scorsese elected to digitally insert his actors into A Trip To The Moon.)

Don’t get me wrong – both pictures more than won me over. But in light of the mini-backlash, I’d say that Hugo is an argument for a better home entertainment system, whereas Hazanavicius has gone out on the further limb artistically: attempting an knowing riff on a classic vocabulary, rather than generically grafting himself to somebody else’s established classics.

(The header is from Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight, a legit masterpiece fictionalizing the friendship between Bud Powell and Francis Paudras; astute viewers may notice the World Trade Center in the frame’s left, even though Round Midnight takes place well before the towers were but a glimmer in some developer’s eye. The movie is packed with tightly controlled medium closeups shot in smoky clubs and dingy apartments, and so this image arrives as a shock in both spacial and anachronistic terms. Nevertheless, it gently reinforces the permanence of the story, which concerns a specific time in jazz history, as well as the elasticity of great art – whatever the circumstances of its production.)

Alt text for the image, e.g. “The Mona Lisa” David Cronenberg’s new movie A Dangerous Method is terrific – tidy, devoid of the maniacal attention-seeking that I found distracting in Eastern Promises, and best of all, unpredictable. And the lion’s share of its spontaneity comes from Keira Knightley’s performance as Sabina Spielrein.

Spielrein was a pioneering female psychologist in the first half of the 20th century, before being persecuted by Nazis; but at 19, she was Carl Jung’s first one-on-one patient. A Russian victim of child abuse, she displayed volatile symptoms of schizophrenic – Jung’s word was “voluptuous” – behavior. His handling of the case turned her life around in a big way, which is to say she got better, enrolled in med school, and also eventually became his lover. For the movie’s first fifteen or so minutes, she’s bonkers – a volatile zombie held hostage by incorrigible feelings of shame and desire. Her early lines  are pitiful yammers and blurts, stoking a mordant fascination for both Jung (Michael Fassbender) and the audience: you can’t look, but you sure can’t look away.

Everyone knows Cronenberg has lost interest in rubber, and spends more energy lately focusing on the human face. At the risk of actually giving a shit about the Oscars, I’d say Knightley is a no-brainer for Best Actress; she made me wince, shudder and squirm from her first appearance, and even as a sophisticated lady-shrink in later years, she looks/talks like her brain might blow out at any moment. Many reviews seem to think that Knightley should settle down a little. To me, her Spielrein isn’t just raving: she’s also incredibly sensitive, malevolent, and confused. (In this movie, as James Ellroy said, “closure is bullshit”.)

Speaking more anecdotally: multiple acquaintances of mine have claimed, without seeing A Dangerous Method, that Knightley is “too pretty” – that phrase specifically – to handle a character like this. For all I know, having a bona fide Hot Chick onboard may have helped Cronenberg get the movie financed, but I suspect this is the type of thinking that makes it hard for movie stars – particularly women – to get legitimately challenging parts. Getting “important” roles still seems fairly easy. The longest takes belong to Knightley, suggesting considerable trust – and fun – between director and actress.

You also wouldn’t know that from the studio’s PR; the trailer seems to be positing Spielrein as a crazy-ass bitch who gets between Freud and Jung’s fraternity. Two popular, officially-circulated promotional stills suggest her as a porcelain-perfect supermodel begging for (here, herehere, here, here, here, here, here herehere), or alternately recovering from (here, here, here) Michael Fassbender. A handful chose to focus more Jung and/or Freud, (here, here, here, here), whose star power is tremendous but who is nevertheless a second-stringer in the movie’s plot. Maybe Sony Pictures Classics is manufacturing “sexy Spielrein” costumes for Halloween 2012?

It’s not that the marketeers should be aggressively broadcasting Knightley’s “ugly” expressions, exactly; studios don’t normally opt to promote the image of a tear-stained leading man either. But then again, her kabuki face is the movie’s most resonant motif; after all, nobody goes to see Transformers for Shia LeBeaouf. Whatever icky, identifiable id the advertisers are downplaying, it’s ironically the spur of Jung and Spielrein’s relationship in the movie. Which is important, because rather than some corny Episode I of psychoanalysis, Cronenberg has made a really touching character drama about Spielrein’s twin trajectories: one as his patient-cum-colleague, the other as the love of his life.

A friend recently sent me an op-ed by historian Walter Russell Mead on the myriad failures of the baby boomer generation, roughly in terms of delivering on the moral promises of the 1960s – in Obama’s words, of making the world a better place for its kids. There is much to chew on, and some fine small points – Mead is killer when it comes to Boomers’ impotent, fantasy-world policies on climate change, for example. He claims that the damage is extensive and all but irreversible, pathetic when juxtaposed against the achievements of the prior Greatest Generation:

What the Boomers as a generation missed (there were, of course and thankfully, many honorable individual exceptions) was the core set of values that every generation must discover to make a successful transition to real adulthood: maturity.  Collectively the Boomers continued to follow ideals they associated with youth and individualism: fulfillment and “creativity” rather than endurance and commitment.  Boomer spouses dropped families because relationships with spouses or children or mortgage payments no longer “fulfilled” them; Boomer society tolerated the most selfish and immature behavior in its public and cultural leaders out of the classically youthful and immature belief that intolerance and hypocrisy are greater sins than the dereliction of duty.  That the greatest and most effective political leader the Baby Boom produced was William Jefferson Clinton tells you all you need to know.

Here he makes a classic historians’ error in looking at vast numbers of different people and assuming they all operated, at any time, on the basis of something resembling a simultaneous free will. His overall argument can’t escape its own aggro-conservatism, suggesting in so many words that another WW2-sized trauma is needed to create a “mature” generation of Americans. Does that sound like a fair deal to you? Whether or not life has been better without such an event is another debate entirely, but if you follow my line of thinking – and if you don’t, please comment below – this seems an almost terrifyingly patriarchal attitude.

Did I miss the script? Fact is, Mead is a boomer himself who fiercely advocated the Iraq War; his disappointment suggests a different, but nevertheless similarly busted-ass, pair of rose-colored glasses. His thesis implicates everyone, but I find it dubious that any generation wouldn’t “miss” Mead’s idyll of maturity, when offered a life of voluntary military service, suburbs, 9-5s, cable television, a reasonably forgiving higher education system, TV dinners, widespread recreational drugs and a cash-crazed juggernaut of an entertainment industry. A rough survey of government policy, 1945-present, actually leaves me with the conspiratorial suspicion that lawmakers actually wanted a less diligent society! Our presumed right to laxness is, in a funny way, what so many pissed-off college graduates worldwide are demanding from their governments as we speak.

This is not to say such a model is, by any means, economically sustainable – but society is prone to learning these things firsthand. At risk of being optimistic, I’ve always felt that the death of American hegemony, particularly in market terms, will create personal, vexing problems, which we will (however pigheadedly) rise to meet. Maybe we’re doing it already; I spend as much time as anybody rolling my eyes at post-68ers who bemoan the passage of their glory days, but the fact that Mead makes no mention of the Occupy movement suggests an allergy to linking the ideals of his generation and mine. I can only read this exclusion as an accidental concession that a potential American conscience runs deeper than Mead wants us to believe.