Something To Do With Free Will

Time Bandits is, like many, many stories, concerned with the struggle of good against evil. Evil of course loses because good is right, true, honourable, and backed with superior firepower.

But the question arises: Why does evil even exist in the first place?

I mean, given that good's calling all the shots, why does evil exist?

In Terry Gilliam's extraordinarly bleak world (even if it is rather droll and amusing) the answer (from the mouth of the Supreme Being himself) is, "Something to do with free will, I think." The comedy of Time Bandits is sort of recursive -- it keeps undercutting itself, until there's practically nothing left for it to stand on. I've tried to analyze this film about four times now, and each time gotten to a point where the film denies the thoughts I'm having about it, and I have to give up on that line of reasoning.

Time Bandits doesn't want to give us anything to take seriously. It wants to tear away the importance of EVERYTHING, in a gleeful, giggling disregard for authority. Even its own.

"Something to do with free will."

The movie resists the urge to make any statements, to support any point of view, even one of tolerance for any point of view. EVERYTHING is flawed, it seems to be saying, EVERYTHING is a waste of time, EVERYTHING is suspect and unworthy of regard.

Except, maybe, for courage.

Kevin, our young hero, never gives way to cowardice, and he inspires his diminutive friends to the same heights. When he gives up himself so that the others can rally help, he's manifesting the one principle that it seems Time Bandits won't attack. And Sean Connery's friendly grin at the end of the picture promises that for those of us who are willing to take on onerous tasks, face danger and work for the common good, get to um...

Be firemen! Yay!

And live forever, apparently, which isn't so bad. Especially when you're on the side with superior firepower.

Life With An Action Hero

It probably wasn't Guy Ritchie's plan, but Snatch turns out to be a pretty interesting take on what life is like when you run into an action hero.

Destructive, frightening and painful.

Mickey the bare-knuckle champion is the action hero of this piece, with Turkish and Tommy the hapless witnesses to his action story. Mickey never makes a misstep. He wins every bet, every fight, and when wrongs are done to him he delivers retribution. He is as unstoppable as the Terminator or Rambo.

But he's not the center of this little story. No, sir. Snatch is much more interested in what it's like being in the wake of this whirlwind of will. And it's not inspiring or life-affirming. Turkish and Tommy are, if they're affected at all (it's not exactly clear), left embittered and angry once Mickey roars off with his incomprehensible friends.

They do get a reward, eventually, but that's pure luck. Or rather, that's the just working-out of the universe Snatch describes: a universe where everyone pretty much gets what's coming to them.

Sort of like Josie And The Pussycats (THERE'S a leap for you), only in the case of Snatch no higher power is posited, guiding things. Things just work out because... well, they just do. The really violent people (even if we kind of like them) die violent deaths, the sort-of-bad-guys-but-not-really-hard-enough-and-kind-of-softies-besides get arrested but we know they won't suffer too much, and our heroes, in the end stumble onto a bit of payback.

And it's all very satisfying, isn't it? The story does keep things moving along quickly enough, no kidding (okay, maybe here's a follow-up to the great Hong Kong movies of the 80's and 90's), and it twists and turns with sufficient lightness. and as noted above, delivers to each of the characters an appropriate fate.

Except the dog. I think the dog gets off pretty easy.

The rawest scene in the whole film is, I find, the card game Turkish and Tommy and Gorgeous George play, as Tommy is fretting about what's about to happen. And for every scenario he comes up with Turkish replies, "We get murdered before we leave the building. And I expect we get fed to the pigs." When Turkish finally does lose his temper with Tommy and snarls, "It's not as though we've got a choice, is it?" he is giving voice to the worst fear and frustration we all feel. That we have no choice, that we are powerless to impact the wild swings of fate, the enmity of evil and the malice of our fellow folks. That we are helpless.

This despair is countered by Mickey, who creates his own fate and cares nothing for those he rolls over on the way. Mickey does not feel powerless. He is not frustrated. He acts to change things, to redress injustice. He is freedom and will incarnate, existing entirely outside the rules of society that constrain the rest of us. Turkish and Tommy rush to find him after all has fallen apart, but there's no trace of him. They cannot join him, and they cannot compel him. They can't even catch up with him.

But there and then, right at the moment of failure, Turkish and Tommy are confronted with potential disaster when the cops start asking questions. Turkish has a moment of inspiration as a new element (left by Mickey's people) enters the scene. So maybe it's not all accepting the vagaries of fate and resigning oneself to helplessness. Maybe in the throat of a squeaky dog, there's hope. And maybe an action hero CAN inspire, and not even in a hokey, simplistic sort of fashion, neither.

Or maybe Guy Ritchie just wants to encourage people to look after their dogs better. Hard to say.

Making It Up As I Go

Indiana Jones is a failure.

Well, he is in Raiders of the Lost Ark, at least, and I think that's why it's the only one of the three films I like at all. Having said that, I like Raiders a lot. I think just about everyone does. Raiders is a movie that has passed beyond entertainment to become a fixture of our culture, like Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles.

Which is why it's so strange that it never even crossed my mind that Indiana Jones fails at nearly everything he tries to do. He fails to keep the Ark from the Nazis, he fails to rescue Marian (a couple of times), he fails to better the smirking, oily Belloc. It is literally only the grace of God that puts the Ark in the hands of the "good guys" -- that, and Indy's willingness to submit to what is superior to him.

Belloc has to see what's inside the Ark. Indy doesn't always know that he has to stay clear of it (we can say his scholarly zeal overwhelms him), but when the Bad Things start happening, he's willing to close his eyes and be the obedient mortal who dares not risk the Big Guy's wrath.

But as an action hero, Indy is singularly ineffective. For every triumph (defending Marian at the bar, getting the truck away from the Nazis, finding the Ark in the first place), he gets his smugness handed back to him with a failure. Even at the final confrontation, when he has the bazooka trained on the Ark, his bluff is called by Belloc, and he puts the weapon down. Again, a failure.

Who made this guy a hero?

Well, he is awfully dogged, you have to give him that. Nothing seems to deter the guy very much. And he's sure a lucky SOB.

It's hard to justify the plot of Raiders. There's a lot of whoppers in here, the whole thing with the submarine only the most obvious. But somehow we forgive it all those sillinesses. Why is that? Why does this film get such a tolerant reception but the other ones (which don't seem, on the surface, to be much sillier) get reviled (by me, at least)?

Part of it is that only Raiders, of all the films, takes Indy on any sort of journey. Indy suffers in this film. He goes down far enough that he's almost willing (when provoked, at least) to commit simultaneous murder and suicide. That's a dark place Indy's in when he confronts Belloc in the Cairo cafe. None of the other films take Indy that far down.

Marian is also the only woman in these films who's actually a fit partner for Indy, and we all know it. Marian's great. She scrambles, looks for alternatives, and doesn't put up with Indy's crap. She's not completely immune to his charm, but then neither are we. I think the scene that most illuminates the difference between this film and the inferior follow-ups is the bedroom scene on the boat, as Marian attempts to treat her beat-up champion.

"Dammit, is there anywhere that it doesn't hurt?"


Indy's hilarious surliness, and slow melting to Marian's love, is a wonderful thing to behold, and it's impossible to imagine such a scene in either of the following films.

There are limits to Indy in this film, human limits, and in the end, it is the things that Indy is NOT willing to do, the heights he refuses to scale, the mysteries he keeps hidden to himself, that save the day.

"Know your limits" seems to be what this film is telling us, but at the same time it's saying, "Never give up." Reminds me of the Stockdale Paradox from the book Good To Great -- in order to survive you must simultaneous be completely realistic in assessing your chances (without exaggerating your own abilities) AND have complete faith in your own eventual success. Indy manages this. He knows the things that he dare not meddle with (when the chips are down, at least), but he never ever doubts his ability to come through.

As he says, so famously and so appropriately, "I'm making this up as I go." That's faith.

Lifting Us Up Where We Belong

Henry Higgins may have found no answer to his eternal question, "Why can't a woman be more like a man?" but Tsui Hark has, and it seems his answer is, "Because she's already smarter, braver and more interesting than him anyway."

Peking Opera Blues, a six-hour epic compressed into 100 minutes, is one of the more glorious celebrations of feminine power cinema has given us. I hardly know what to say about it, however. There's just so MUCH stuffed into this film that it's hard to know where to start. Every five minutes I find myself thinking, "Oh yeah, this part! This part is great!"

But I have to try and control my enthusiasm in order to try and say something coherent about this picture. I guess.

But it's so hard. There's so much. So let's talk about that. About HOW MUCH there is in this wonderful, wonderful movie. There's romance (sort of). There's sinister evil. There's wild action sequences. There's suspense-filled tension. There's comedy of all descriptions. Heroic sacrifices, quick-witted ploys, bonehead mistakes, bonecrunching falls, touching heartfelt reunions, greed, love, duty, honour...

This movie epitomizes nearly everything I love about Hong Kong cinema of the pre-takeover days, most especially that stuffed-full-of-stuff-edness quality that these movies seem to have. Nobody seems able to stuff their movies so full of STUFF like this, not even the same Hong Kong filmmakers anymore. I don't know why that is.

They remind me of a quality Italo Calvino mentions in his Six Memos: lightness. Peking Opera Blues seems to dance along, a few feet above the ground, never getting dragged down into any of its many, many plot threads. Nothing ever gets completely resolved, it seems, none of the relationships get "sorted out", and by the time you get to the end, you're not exactly sure WHAT just happened. But it moves with such light-footed grace, and changes direction so effortlessly, that you're swept along and satisfied despite yourself.

It's as though the PLOT of the movie were in a kung-fu movie, and spends the show leaping and spinning and cartwheeling around every possible obstruction with consummate grace and skill. And I'm a sucker for grace and skill. It's why I prefer fight scenes featuring incredibly gifted performers doing incredibly difficult things over fight scenes featuring computer-generated images. And Peking Opera Blues delivers many of the same sort of thrills, only embodied in the narrative itself rather than any of the performers.

It's a masterful display of storytelling ingenuity, and it delights me beyond measure. And though it certainly celebrates the strength and cleverness of its heroines, through the effortless levitation of its plot it celebrates all that is clever and graceful in our world.

And ultimately, I think that's why we watch clever and graceful things: because lightness gives us joy. It elevates us.

Designed By Intelligence

This is more funny than I have words to express:

A Letter On Intelligent Design

Hee. It's enough to give you faith in the human species again.


Now Out Of Sight is a movie full of the joy of life. It seems to actually GLOW.

Interesting that the movie starts showing us the outcome of the one big decision Jack is faced with. It's that decision this whole film turns on, Jack's refusal to play by the rules that say he's just like everyone else. Eventually the story spirals back to this moment, but right there at the start of the film, freeze-framed in Soderbergh's lens, we see Jack reject it all, and out of that rejection comes everything else about this film.

The freeze-frame features strongly, markedly in this film, as if it were trying to tell us that you CAN capture moments, sometimes. You can hold a moment when it strikes. Maybe not forever, but for a while.

Like Jack and Karen calling a "timeout" so that they can just savour the beauty of the connection they've developed. They both know it can't last, but that doesn't mean they have to pretend it doesn't exist.

Out Of Sight is full of people who do things they can recognize as being, um, suboptimal (like Jack sticking with Buddy, the guy who tips his own sister as to where they are, or Karen dating a married guy), but we don't dislike them as a result. On the contrary, their foibles make them that much more endearing, and gets us all the more engrossed in what's happening to them.

That's not to say we don't admire these characters. Jack's breezy charm and Karen's fiery determination are sterling qualities, to be sure. But this story is far more driven by what the characters FAIL at than what they SUCCEED at. Jack could have had a job, right there at the top of the story, an easy, if not particularly prestigious, job, at a company where he's friends with the boss. But no. And Karen gives up her chance to make the big bust in that hotel lobby when all she had to do was speak into the walkie-talkie.

Why do they fail? That's kind of an important question in this picture, since those failures are so central to the story. Is there a common thread linking those failures? It seems like we could get away with attributing Jack's failure to pride; his pride is too great to allow him to let himself be demeaned and so he rejects the job. But is pride at work when Karen lets Jack go? Kind of, actually. She's just been burned by big Mr. FBI, put in her place, and by letting him get away she gives herself the chance to be the hero later on. So that's kind of pride.

Not sure I'm super happy with that explanation, though. Are these characters then defined by their pride? Not sure the rest of the film supports that notion.

The "timeout" has to feature strongly in any discussion of this film. It's the moment where all the time dilation comes down to the minute, to the second, where every other shot freezes some gesture. They put aside the things that separate them and celebrate the things that unite them. Union is not something that either of these characters finds easily, nor is trust something they give easily. And they've both been burned, while we were watching. Maybe there is something of pride in their coming together, a refusal to accept the tawdry sameness and regulation the world wants us all to resign ourselves to. Maybe what they recognize in each other is how they can elevate each other out of the roles society compels them to fulfill.

Me, a sucker for that shit? Never.

Wise Words

From Steven Erickson:

Civilization after civilization, it is the same. The world falls to tyranny with a whisper. The frightened are ever keen to bow to a perceived necessity, in the belief that necessity forces conformity, conformity a certain stability. In a world shaped into conformity, disssidents stand out, are easily branded and dealt with. There is no multitude of perspectives, no dialogue. The victim assumes the face of the tyrant, self-righteous and intransigent, and wars breed like vermin. And people die.


Destiny is a lie. Destiny is a justification for atrocity. It is the means by which murderers armour themselves against reprimand. It is a word intended to stand in place of ethics, denying all moral context.

Quoted for truth.

Can't Be Happy All The Time

Why is Ninja Scroll such an agressively dreary film? Why can't I stay awake long enough to actually watch the bloody thing?

I mean, it's got cartoon action, cartoon gore, cartoon sex -- I oughta be all over this sucker. But instead it plods along, plot point following plot point, without any sense of heart or joy or thrill to it. Dull dull dull.

This is the first film in this little odyssey that I just can't come up with positive things to talk about. Does it have anything interesting to say? Anything at all to say?

I think the most interesting point in the entire film is when Kagero reports to the Chamberlain about the disastrous mission to the plague village. The Chamberlain is shown having, let us say, workmanlike sex with some unnamed woman. While the woman squeals and groans, the (extremely large) Chamberlain looks thoughtful and bored, speaking with Kagero (who's just been raped) in an official-sounding voice that carries no hint that he's drilling this girl with sufficient force to knock the wind the out of her.

Why is this done this way? Why have this character be portrayed in this fashion? Is it pure titilliation?

Well, probably yes, but I'm going to bravely soldier on and see what I can glean from this, the only thing about this film that attracts my interest just at the moment.

We've just come from the sequence in which Kagero is raped, a sequence considerably more explicit than this one. This sequence is notable more for the sound -- the girl shrieking in pleasure as the Chamberlain plugs her -- that for any visual explicitness (we mostly just see the participant's faces, and the Chamberlain looks like he's reviewing legal documents rather than looking down at his lover). Coming as it does on the heels of an explicit rape sequence, the noise of the frantic woman, combined with the quiet sterness of the Chamberlain and Kagero's angry-looking (it's hard to tell what any of the characters are feeling from one moment to the next because the animation's so bad, but she LOOKS kind of grumpy (but then I'm known for my fondness for grumpy women, so perhaps I'm reading more into it than there really is)), the whole combines to be sort of a "Aren't things tough for Kagero" kind of scene.

If she played by the rules, she might be that nameless squealing woman, enjoying herself in sensory pleasure. But instead she wants to play with the boys, and she pays a price. Of course we find out later just how steep a price she's paid, but at this moment, all we see is one woman, a woman who suffers, watching another woman get her freak on, and there's something vaguely troubling about it. Maybe because the second woman's cries of pleasure come close to sounding like cries of pain, and now we're wondering if we're watching yet another rape.

Ninja Scroll maybe does have something interesting to say, after all, on the subject of pleasure. Pleasure is something that must be put aside by those who wish to make a difference. Even among the bad guys, there is bickering and feuding over the subject of sex. There aren't any happy characters in Ninja Scroll, nor is there any sign of happiness, and maybe that's what makes it dull for me. What do these characters have to lose? What are they fighting for? Personal vendettas, apparently, and the advancement of the whatever-it-is clan that Kagero and the Chamberlain belong to.

Without some kind of happiness, or at least the promise or memory of it, a story doesn't have much oomph to it. All the sacrifice and struggle and tension ought to drive things either towards or away from some sense of goodness, stability, strength or joy. Without that, it's just fireworks going off overhead: pretty enough, but hardly profound. And showing that source or destination of the journey is in many ways the HARD part of storytelling -- how do you show what the characters have to lose (or gain) without falling into cliche? Tolstoy said something (maybe it wasn't Tolstoy, doesn't matter) that all happy families are alike, but all miserable families are unique in their misery. If that were true, it would be impossible to avoid cliche when showing happiness; but I don't think it is. I just think it's hard to do well.

Ninja Scroll doesn't even try; and I think that's why I find it so dull.

Spreading One's Wings

Why do I love My Fair Lady so much? I mean, I LOVE this movie. Actually, it's not even really the movie I love; I fell in love with the songs and the stories long before I ever saw the movie. My mother had the original Broadway cast recording on vinyl (Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle) and I listened that disk nearly into nothingness. The brutal struggle between Eliza and Henry has always captivated me.

Partly because of its starkness. The war between the sexes has rarely been illustrated so nakedly, so savagely, so honestly. Both characters enrapture me: Henry with his complacent self-assurance and Eliza with her take-no-prisoners drive to better herself.

But also because I'm a sucker for musicals, and it was early on in this viewing that I realised why that is. When Eliza crosses Convent Garden after being scorned by Henry, and walks in among her fellow lower-class sufferers, she starts in on "Wouldn't It Be Loverly". And they all join her.

Who wouldn't want to live in a world with such a powerful sense of community, where all one has to do is break out into song and suddenly is surrounded by dozens of compatriots who lend their enthusiasm to your efforts, all in key and on the beat!

I think this is one of the great joys of the musical -- it takes us into a world where we can imagine a community consisting not only of the people around us, but the world itself. Invisible orchestras explode in glorious accompaniment, total strangers know all the steps and there's always a spotlight on you as you take your bows. The musical sequence is, among other things, an assertion of community, and thus, identity. Eliza's first song in the film grounds her in her "natural" community, shows us how rich a source of comfort it is for her. She BELONGS here, or at least, she could.

But it is never in Eliza's character to accept what is given to her. She's a goer, Eliza is, and despite all Henry's protestations that HE is responsible for all that happens, that HE created her himself, the truth is that it is Eliza who comes to him with her dream of escaping where she belongs. She drives the movie, her dreams and her belief that she can transform herself.

And what does Eliza transform herself into? Although the standard view is that the movie drastically "romanticizes" Shaw's original play Pygmalion?, the truth is more complex than it first seems. Shaw sends Eliza off to a well-established fate, providing a stable scenario with which to end things. My Fair Lady recognizes that the struggle between Eliza and Henry is far more entertaining and satisfying (especially to the participants) than any stable state could ever be. Are they lovers? Roomates? Spouses? Their relationship is impossible to define, rooted as it is in the constant tug of war between their towering personalities.

My Fair Lady is about more than the battle of the sexes. Seen more broadly, this frothy musical offers us a lesson in something eternal and resolutely human: the struggle we all go through in learning to accept and understand that which is not us. The medium chosen is a gender-based struggle, but what both Eliza and Henry discover is that there is more to the world than what they themselves are comfortable with, and that learning to live in that state of flux, where you have to simultaneously fight to retain your sense of self, and open oneself up to that which is outside of the self, is where we feel most alive, where we are most engaged with ourselves and the world around us.

"Where the devil are my slippers?"

Henry signifies that he accepts Eliza's gauntlet, and we know the battle will continue. I like to imagine them growing old together, still squabbling, still challenging each other and disagreeing. And hurting one another, because unless we are willing to be hurt, to be crushed even, we aren't really taking any chances. And if we aren't taking a chance, we're not growing.

Henry and Eliza are at their best when they are together, and what I think I love most about My Fair Lady is how it lets them be together without needing to wrap a ribbon and slot their relationship into a socially-accepted descriptor. We're all at our best when we aren't settling for other people's definitions.

Very Disappointed

Ladyhawke's moment of truth (see the discussion on Go, below) comes, I think, when Philippe says to the monk Imperius, "Every happy moment in my life has come from lying." It's a throwaway line (as moment-of-truth lines often are), but it highlights how important lies are to all of us.

Philippe carries on a running conversation with God about this very subject. He protests that God is confusing him and preventing him from learning moral lessons. But learn he does. By the end of the film he is putting himself in harm's way to help his friend Navarre without thinking, Navarre's rather serious threats notwithstanding.

He could have let the wolf drown. Nobody would have blamed him. And he would have been free of all obligations.

But he can't. Maybe it's all the talking with God. Maybe it's Isobeau's beauty. Maybe it's Navarre's great big sword. Maybe it's just because he is us and we couldn't bear watching ourselves fail to help out in such a situation.

Because, of course, that's exactly the purpose Philippe serves in this story -- he is us. Identification, anyone? We identify with Philippe, with his sarcastic recognition of the absurdity of not only his predictament but the entire world he inhabits. And that makes the whole story platable to an audience unused to the fantastic. If Philippe can accept it, we can shrug and say, "Okay, wolf, hawk, man, woman, got it."

But the problem with a character like Philippe is that he can't JUST comment on the fantastic nature of the story. He ends up questioning the very structure of the tale he finds himself caught up in: "I would like to think there's some higher meaning in this. It certainly would reflect well on you." When we hear that we of course laugh because it's such a presumptious thing for such a character to say, but also because we know perfectly that there IS a higher meaning in all this: the entire world created for this film exists solely to illustrate that "higher purpose" -- the story of Navarre and Isobeau.

Or is that it? Because you know, Navarre doesn't, like, learn much. Nor does Isobeau. They're more like a setting, a backdrop, really. A symbol of the division that exists in this world, that must be brought together and reunited before there can be peace and happiness. So maybe the "higher purpose" Philippe is hoping to see manifests within himself, as he finds the ability to make sacrifices on another's behalf. Not for any reward, and not because he's being forced to. Because the world isn't right and unless (to steal a few lines from Dr. Seuss) "UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get any better. It's not."

I guess fundamentally, what's at the heart of Ladyhawke is the assertion that when you witness injustice and disruption, you become tasked with the responsibility to do something about it. Philippe doesn't get taught this lesson; God turns out to be a pretty bad instructor for our young hero. But he cannot turn away from the wrong he witnesses. He might insist that it's not his problem, a young man with prospects like his, but the truth of that statement cannot bring him happiness. Only the lie that he must help can do that.

It's Okay, They're Weasels

A lot of Chinese people die in John Woo's The Killer. It's not the most extreme example of his frantic cinema of bloody death (that title probably goes to A Better Tomorrow II) but there's no question a lot of Chinese people are filmed getting killed, their bodies bursting apart in slow-motion.

Most of these people die because of a lack of trust. The characters in John Woo's world are pretty straightforwardly divided; there are those who keep their word, and those who do not. Those who do not are forever scheming to destroy those who do, to blot out all evidence of honesty and honour, as though the mere existence of such traits made their own position untenable.

There's a saying Chris gave me once when I was complaining about a message board that had gotten overrun by annoying Internet goofs: "The munchkins always win."

Indeed. I adapted that to a more general phrasing:

The weasels always win.

It seems depressing and hopeless, and in a sense it is. Once the weasels get in, once they start spreading their cowardly, selfish practices around, the fight is over.

The weasels get into Hong Kong in The Killer. Young Johnny Weng distrusts everyone around him, and he amasses power and wealth as a result. And destroys everything our heroes care about in the process. By the end of the film, there is nothing left for the heroes to preserve but their own dignity and self-worth, and even that is in danger of falling apart.

But the film is too vibrant, too spasmodically energetic to allow a reading of hopelessness. Too many people die in the course of this fable for it to simply breathe a quiet sigh and collapse into entropy. Woo gives the struggle by the heroes to fend off the weasels too much weight, too much glamour and sex appeal for that. In the end, the bad guys are overcome, their schemes undone by the willingness of the heroes to pay any price, to inflict any amount of death, in order to stand for what they believe in.

Ah Jong and Inspector Li and good old Sidney believe in something. They believe a man stands by his word, and all the violence they pour out on the world around them is guided by that faith. In contrast to them stands Johnny, out to acquire money and power by any means. All of these are violent people who kill without remorse, who accept casualties in their war, but whereas Johnny is trying to create something that doesn't exist, our heroes are trying to preserve something they value. Something that exists only in themselves.

Johnny is the external desire, the need for status and comfort. Ah Jong, Li and Sidney are the internal desire, the desire to BE a certain kind of person, regardless of the external conditions. When Sidney goes to Johnny to get Ah Jong's money, he doesn't do so because the money is important; Ah Jong himself says it doesn't matter. He goes because if he doesn't, he becomes a weasel.

The weasels always win, it's true. But you don't have to become one. John Woo's great films (of which The Killer is, I believe, one) show us that we can be lions, even in a world overrun by the weasels. We may not change anything in the world, but if we stand our ground and deliver courage and honesty, we can retain our pride, and maybe even help others, those who have lost faith, learn to stand against the weasels.

Not because you can defeat them, because you can't. But you CAN refuse to be defeated, and that's even more important.

Rooms With A View Also In The Running

I had a very pleasant afternoon with Andrew Luther of Vanishing Goblin press, publishers of (among other things) the excellent collection Rooms With A View (in which I have a couple of pieces) is being submitted for an ENnie as well. So that means I have two products that are being submitted as potential nominees.

Hurrah! I hope I won't have to be disappointed AND triumphant at the same time. That sounds complicated.

Hurrah For Totalitarianism!

Na na na, na na na na, na na na, na na na yeah yeah yeah yeah...

Possibly the most transgressive quality of Josie and the Pussycats (which being a comedy, MUST be transgressive (see below)) is the complete failure of the heroes to actually accomplish anything at all except to get accidentally manipulated into being famous.

They aren't smart enough to figure out what's going on, and so completely fail to put a stop to the schemes of the notional "bad guys". The world has not been made safe for teenagers at the end of the film. Our heroes remain clueless. Even Val, the "smart one".

Josie and the Pussycats posits a hostile, malevolent world in which the powers that be are aggressively (and successfully) crushing freedom and beauty and emotion. When our plucky heroines DO realise what's going on, they simply fall prey to a larger scheme (one that we, the audience, receive a privileged insight on), and remain completely under the control of the system anyway.

But that's sort of a comforting notion, isn't it?

Even if the world is ruled by malevolent powers that are out to get us, at least it's ruled by SOMEBODY. At least there's a MEANING. At least we're fulfilling some sort of purpose, and all our fussing and bothering isn't just some kind of spiritual Brownian motion.

Josie and her friends, of course, don't worry much about that sort of thing. And the film does manage to feel triumphant in the end, even if the world remains in the grip of evil forces. At least the girls are friends again, and at least Alan M and Josie figure their thing out, and at least the concert audience cheers like mad.

You know, if your friends like you, and that cutie you're dreaming about likes you, and everyone in the world likes you, maybe it doesn't matter so much what's really going on. Maybe we shouldn't be worrying about global poverty, or the horrors of war, or the growth of totalitarianism. Maybe we should just rock out with some mindless pop tunes.

Na na na, na na na na...


My book HOT PURSUIT: The Definitive d20 Guide to Chases has been submitted for nomination for an ENnie Award, one of the most prestigious (er, only) awards in online RPG publishing.

Obviously this is very exciting for me. HOT PURSUIT was huge amounts of fun to write and the response to it has been very gratifying. Should it get nominated, prepare for much giddiness.

Cross your fingers! Bribe the judges!

Made For Use, But Not Yours

The most charming moments in Brad Bird's lovely childhood fable, The Iron Giant, come when the Giant behaves like a pet or a toy. When he peers through the dark forest at Hogarth's retreating car, or sits patiently in the barn, we get a warm fuzzy feeling in our bellies, like everything's going to be okay.

But Brad Bird is too clever to relax with that sort of feeling. And part of what makes The Iron Giant so compelling is the graceful way in which he transforms the Giant from an innocent plaything to a steadily more powerful, and at last terrifyingly so, being.

Hogarth's words, upon learning what he has stumbled upon are: "My own giant robot! I am the luckiest kid in America!"

And in a way he is the luckiest kid, but the Giant doesn't belong to him. And Hogarth's journey, rendered almost effortless, is to travel from owner to friend, from one who commands to one who shares. The Giant gains more and more independence as the film goes on. His fateful cannonball is an announcement of his ability to simultaneously fulfill both Hogarth's desires and his own sense of humour and whimsy, and Hogarth responds with joy at seeing his "toy" begin to transform into the friend he doesn't seem to have.

Hogarth is fundamentally wrong about the nature of the Giant. It isn't a toy put in place for him to make use of. What exactly it is is never made very clear, but that doesn't matter: what matters is that it isn't what Hogarth thinks it is.

We like to imagine that the world was made to supply us with assorted things, and we're often very very good at(and very sneaky about) basing many of our feelings and decisions on that imagination. Something bad happens and we feel slighted. Something good happens and we feel vindicated. Neither, most likely, had anything to do with our actual worth, and yet it's very difficult for us to remember that. It's a scary world that doesn't pay ANY attention to our "deservingness", that doesn't reward or punish according to any code or standard.

Hogarth learns that, however. He learns that despite what he wishes were so, the Giant wasn't put here for his entertainment, nor even to cure his loneliness. That learning is painful and scary (as learning always is), but here comes the magic ingredient once again: love. It is Hogarth's unselfish love for his gigantic friend that makes it possible not only for him to recognize that the Giant's purpose isn't contained within his own needs, but also allows the Giant to discover that its purpose is not contained within the limits of its design. What it was made to be is not what it must be.

That which is alive bursts through the boundaries placed upon it. In a discussion this morning with Blake and Barbara and Jill on education, the idea came up that you cannot come up with a set of categories that you could coherently describe all people completely with, because what's important about people is precisely the sort of thing that doesn't fit into anyone's categories.

A robot ought to fit into categories; it's constructed. Designed with a purpose. It OUGHT to be more straightjacketed, more restricted, more oppressed and trapped and unable to change than any human ever could be. But by beginning to value not what it was made for but what it has to give, and what others have to give it, the Giant resists all those forces dragging it into darkness and becomes a hero.

And in that final, shattering moment, the Giant smiles and whispers to itself what it at last understands it has become: "Superman."

Did You Get The Memo?

The Downing Street Memo, that is.

A Kick In The Teeth

Comedy must be transgressive. It must cross borders we would never dare to. That's what makes us laugh -- that moment of terror when a taboo is violated, and immediately that taboo is turned into silliness.

Cary Grant threatening to kick a woman in the teeth crosses borders, alright.

His Girl Friday rampages across the conventions of romantic love, giggling at its own cleverness and moving far too fast to ever sink into its own depths.

This is a good thing. Comedy does not require study or introspection. The ultimate transgression is to refuse to take seriously the most profound matters -- which is why so many great jokes revolve around death or love. His Girl Friday takes on both with gleeful abandon.

It does it in the context of two couples, both kept apart. Hildy and Walter, separated by their own pride and stubborness and blindness, and Earl and Molly, separated by cell bars and the gossip of the press. But where Hildy's and Walter's pain is a springboard for laughs, Molly and Earl are the straight men. They aren't witty or ambitious or good-looking, but (or perhaps and therefore) their love for each other is as simple and pure as such a thing can be. It's not even romantic love but simply the compassion of one person for another.

And when tragedy strikes Molly, all the newspapermen can do is lean out the window and watch. But there is no laughter n the audience at that moment. Tragedy of course strikes Hildy and Walter unrelentingly, but it's always funny tragedy, ridiculous, never given the seriousness we're more properly told it deserves. And by contrasting their farcical melodrama with the tragedy of Molly and Earl, this film sets us up to wonder about the relationship between pain and humour.

Great comedy always shows us pain. It's by taking pain and mocking it, twisting it into foolishness, that we create humour, which is why the greatest comedy is always the blackest. It's the truest. And the truest moments in His Girl Friday come when the pain between Hildy and Walter is at its highest, and the story refuses to let us share it with them. Every time poor Bruce calls with another story of how he's been duped, every time Hildy tells Walter how poorly he treated her, every time Walter throws her devotion back in her face, we get another laugh. And yet again we're denied the "tragic" release of commiseration, and instead offered the "comic" release of wit.

Famous quote from Mel Brooks: "Tragedy is when I walk into an open sewer and die. Comedy is when YOU walk into an open sewer and die."

Another Steph and Core theory: Stories ask their audience to either identify with the protagonist or sympathise with them -- either you want to be them, or you understand them. Stories that offer only identification don't have much to offer people who have already looked within themselves and faced their darker corners. Stories that offer sympathy are always relevant, for we are always needing to acquire more understanding about our fellow folks.

Comedy is by its nature a creator of sympathetic stories. Nobody wants to BE Walter or Hildy, but we certainly understand them.

And when Cary Grant tells that woman off, we kind of admire him, too.

Magic Carpet Ride

At a point just about half-way through Go, a beat-up Ford roars out of a parkade onto the main drag of Las Vegas, just as Steppenwolf bursts into

Well, you don't know what
We can find
Why don't you come with me little girl
On a magic carpet ride

It's a pivotal moment in the film, and I can't help but salute the film-makers for accomplishing it. Suddenly this teen melodrama turns into an action movie, only it's not REALLY an action movie because, come on, Magic Carpet Ride? That's not an action movie sound cue.

It's one of my favourite sound cues of all time. It's an "Awwww yeah," moment, where everyone in the audience grins and nods, recognizing not just the song but the emotion it's telling us to feel. Our characters aren't in danger. Nothing too terrible is going to happen here. The big tension isn't "Will they survive?" -- it's "How is this all going to work out to achieve the happy ending I know perfectly well is on its way?"

Go lives in the same cinematic neighborhood as Snatch and all those other modern melodramas of the type invented by Quentin Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs. But where Dogs creates tension out of real suffering and danger, Go constructs all its tension on top of a froth of silliness and social awkwardness.

The Vegas sequence, with thugs and car chases and flying bullets, would seem out of place and confusing to the audience were the director not so careful to make sure everything is clear. And that sound cue accomplishes the task admirably.

There's a theory (that Steph and I made up) that every movie contains somewhere (usually in the third quarter of the picture) a statement that baldly declaims the key to the film. In Reservoir Dogs this comes when the undercover cop is in the diner with his partner, describing the bank robbers, and the partner stops him and says, "Hey, these are the bad guys. They're not your friends. Don't ever forget that." That's the statement of the film -- good guys and bad guys can't be friends.

Reservoir Dogs as a platonic Romeo and Juliet. Hm.

In Go, which doesn't have any sort of a point to make and isn't more than an inch and a half deep, that moment is maybe the explosion onto the Vegas strip to the thundering guitar of Steppenwolf.

You don't know what you'll find, but you might as well come along on this magic carpet ride. That's all Go is: a ride through an exotic, exhilarating landscape, not going anywhere, just going. Not changing or growing or learning or anything like that. Just going.

In the end, the character who arguably undergoes the nearest thing to a transformation, poor forgotten Mannie, grins and asks, "What are we doing for New Years?"

Nothing's changed, and we're just going to keep on keeping on. Why wouldn't we? The ride is so much fun.

Like A Story Of Love

Only you.

Fallen Angels, by Wong Kar-Wai, is hard to NOT see as a love song to a Hong Kong that was, in 1995, on the verge of disappearing.

Love thunders throughout this film, changing, healing, destroying, torturing, amusing and frightening. Every character in the picture is profoundly altered by love. Kiwu's father smiles. Blondie gives up her own chance at happiness. Charlie goes on a rampage. And at the sweltering center of it all pants the killer's agent, desperate and longing and beautiful and in utter, exquisite agony.

Steph brought up the notion that Wong's films are about characters caught in a rut who are freed from that trap by love's power, and so that thought was in my head as I watched. I don't think you have to look very hard to see it, though. One by one, all his characters encounter love full-bore, and either embrace it or try to avoid it. Nobody is unchanged.

He blows apart the conventions he sets up so effortlessly you forget they even ARE conventions. The beautiful girl who keeps her emotions at a distance -- surely she will come to realise how she feels about him and thus find the courage to speak to him? The wild young man, stricken mute by a pineapple -- won't we see him recover the ability to speak once he's made his peace with his father? The ultra-cool killer must certainly learn to take responsibility for his own decisions, mustn't he?

Well, not exactly.

We never make the peace we think we need to. We never come to the realisations we expect to. Our lives are never like the stories we use to anticipate them -- if they were, we would never need new stories. And we do need stories, but not to predict the future. We need stories to understand our past. Like the old man watching the footage of himself, suddenly happy and full of love for his son, we come to understand (or invent) ourselves by reviewing our memories and turning them into stories. This is a dangerous practice, however. We can come to use our stories to justify self-destructive behaviour.

All Wong's characters begin the film in that exact trap. Kiwu breaks into businesses because he can't afford to start his own. The killer leaves decisions to others because he's lazy. His agent restricts herself to sifting his garbage because she can't get involved with her partner.

The killer refuses to adjust. He won't abandon his justifications, and he cannot move on. Kiwu finds real jobs. His life doesn't seem to get better, and just WHAT does he do to his long-suffering "client" at the end? He can get himself together socially, but romantically he's still stuck. Optimistic, but unable to take action to grow.

But the agent, though still apparently stuck in the same career and kind of work, has grown up. She can work with others or not. She can ask a boy to take her home. She can love, even though she knows there's no guarantees.

Wong Kar-Wai loved his Hong Kong. He loved it enough to believe that, even on the brink of an unknown transformation, it was worth staying with and giving love to. The final shot of the film is of the city's skyline at dawn as the camera comes shooting out of tunnel.

Like Black Orpheus, Fallen Angels shows us how bleak things can be, but it too refuses to give in to despair. Love can't hold back time, and it can't fix all our problems. The closing song says:

All I needed was the love you gave
All I needed for another day
All I ever knew
Only you

Is that true? Is that really all we need? Perched on the back of a stranger's motorbike, roaring through the dark streets without any control, without knowing where we're going or how long the trip will take, maybe it is. But then the song is in the past tense, isn't it? Maybe All I needed was the love you gave is just another story we use to understand what happened to us. All I needed for another day is another justification for not changing. All I ever knew is a memory of beautiful innocence.

Only you

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You need to have some idea of what's going to happen next if you're going to be afraid of what's about to happen. But if you KNOW what's about to happen, it's not scary.

Walking that line is just one of the challenges of making a scary movie.

There's also a line between the grotesque and the absurd, and The Evil Dead certainly thins that line to the point where you need a magnifying glass to see it. The later movies crossed the line and let the absurdity take more and more precedence, and in doing so they became much less interesting films. Sam hasn't made a film as powerful and challenging as The Evil Dead since, and only Spiderman II really shows what this hyperactive, passionate, fearless director is capable of. I have a feeling that Sam's best films lie ahead of him. That he's spent the past 24 years figuring out how to make more movies with the same fury and humour and inventiveness that The Evil Dead shows.

It's STILL scary. I jumped again and again, and there were moments where I was genuinely creeped out. So many elements contribute to that feeling -- the score, the sound, the swooping camera moves (Peter Jackson owes Sam a large debt) and the liberal amounts of spewing gore all generate a freakish, carnival sort of atmosphere where anything is possible -- as long as it's bad.

It's also a goofy film. But it still manages to hold on to its scariness, in spite of the years that have passed and the endless numbers of imitators it has spawned. What makes THIS film stand out from the endless ranks of low-budget quickie horror films?

Well, it's inventive. There's plenty of stuff in this film that you never saw anywhere else. The gore effects, the camerawork, the reverse motion effects, all sorts of stuff is unique to this film.

It also plays the horror perfectly straight. In later films there started to be some winking at the camera, some nudging and sly looks. But The Evil Dead has no pretensions to comedy -- it wants to scare you and it is devoted to that task.

It's also well-structured. The threats are laid out well and there's always a different combination of threats -- while Ash is struggling with one animated friend-corpse, another is beginning to stir. While he's trying to bury his still-reasonably-active deceased girlfriend, his still-extremely-active-not-exactly-deceased-but-not-doing-at-all-well sister is escaping from where she's been imprisoned in the basement.

The differences from the work of George Romero are worthy of comment, I think. Romero's characters are always extremely well-observed, very realistic people. The characters in The Evil Dead are more of a throwback to 50's sci-fi films. You can easily picture Ash at the malt shop, trying to work up the nerve to ask Shelley to the prom.

Of course, Ash's character is central, isn't he? And the film is about his growth. He's spectacularly ineffective for the first two-thirds of the film. He stands by as his friends and family are terrorized and destroyed, unable to take action. This is one of the things that I think contributes to the film's scariness -- we watch Ash screw up time and again, and it's stressful because we're worrying that he is US, that we are as useless and helpless in the face of an uncaring world as he is. And even once he gets his act together and starts defending himself, we worry that it's all too late, and that there's nothing we can do to avoid our inevitable fate.

Which is of course perfectly true. The later films turned Ash into a hero, which renders the stories easier to watch. It's much easier to watch some idealised image of oneself, especially to watch that image succeed against the world. But it isn't nearly as scary as watching something that is maybe a little closer to the truth. And seeing that what waits for us all up in the dark dark woods is not something anyone can defeat.

I Love Dragon Inn

Brigitte Lin's tragic nobility versus Maggie Cheung's spunky charm. It's a feast!

Dragon Inn is one of my favourite movies of all time. Two of the greatest actresses in history square off with wildly different characters in a madcap action film with gruesome dismemberment, high-flying wire action, stripteases and even singing and dancing! It's got it all.

I'll always have a special fondness for this film because it is one of the first Hong Kong films we watched, in Japan. Which meant we watched it in Cantonese with Japanese subtitles. Neither speaking Cantonese nor reading Japanese, it was not perfectly straightforward to follow the story.

And the story of Dragon Inn is pretty convoluted. The first chunk of the film is a great big slab of undigested exposition, and if you don't get that, there's a lot of confusion ahead for you.

We did our level best to keep up with the story, and even invented our own storyline to go with the completely loony action on screen. That captured my imagination so profoundly that I wrote a 130-page screenplay based on our interpretation of the story. Which it turned out was quite a bit different from the actual film, now that we've seen it with English subtitles.

Which I think indicates that Dragon Inn is getting at something elemental. It's funny, but it's never really occured to me to wonder what the movie is about.

I mean, Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung and Donnie Yen. Do you really need more of a reason for a film to exist? But okay, I'm game. What is Dragon Inn about?

Well, on first consideration (I'm pretty much making this up as I go, so hang on), the story revolves around two women's efforts to impose their desires on the world. Maggie, as Jade, wants her independence. She wants to run her little kingdom exactly as she sees fit, without having to kowtow to any external power. Brigitte's Mo-Yan (I can't type that without hearing Tony Leung crying out in anguish, "Mo-Yaaaaaaaaaaaannnnn!!!!") wants to free her country from the tyranny of the eunuch chancellors who run everything. They both end up making big ol' sacrifices, in true HK fashion, but I think you can argue that Mo-Yan's sacrifices (her man, her life) are sacrifices of things OTHER than her driving desire (the freedom of her country), whereas Jade gives up the very thing she spends most of the movie trying to preserve -- the security of her inn, her domain.

Jade discovers a more selfless desire and a willingness to submit to that need; Mo-Yan had that from the start.

But what does that mean? At the end of the film, Jade rides away from her burning inn, and it is definitely our impression that she's not just going to go start up another. She's become a complete person now, she's grown up to occupy the same sort of heroic nature that Mo-Yan and Wai-On display from the very beginning of the film. I think you can argue that the reason she's acquired this nature is from her association with them. She's seen them make sacrifices for each other, and for what they believe in.

So maybe Dragon Inn tells us that striving for our vision of a better world, giving up whatever it takes, including our own lives, in that struggle, is worthwhile. Even if our efforts don't bring about the changes we seek, it is by displaying our heroic nature that we can bring out the heroic nature of people around us.

When Mo-Yan agrees to go along with Wai-On's plan to marry Jade, she reigns in her jealousy and anger and puts her faith in the man she loves. Even when she sees her flute in Jade's belt, though she suffers, she does not waver from her chosen direction. Jade, for all her flirting and sauciness, cannot make Mo-Yan give up.

Nor can she deny that she herself is loved. When the barbarian chef returns to die with her in the inn, Jade perhaps realises that she is responsible to something larger than herself. That unwittingly she has formed a community that she cannot help but be protective of, and her protectiveness gives the lie to her claims of pure self-interest.

Surrounded as she is by examples of people willing to make sacrifices for things outside of themselves, and faced with her own emotional attachment to things outside herself, Jade is able to put aside her petty dreams of independence and seek a more mature role in a larger world that needs her help.

And gets in some sweet fight scenes while she does so.

C is for Crime Story

I can pretty much watch Jackie Chan movies endlessly with no loss of interest. I admit it, I'm a fan.

But even I have to admit that Crime Story is not his most engrossing effort. It's a strange film, produced under apparently difficult circumstances, and in the end it accomplishes not very much, other than to make nobody involved look very good (except for the guy who set up the gag with the car hitting the motorbike -- that's an amazing bit of work).

The insider scoop on the film is that the director wanted to make a searing drama about police corruption and a troubled officer trying to do the right thing. Somebody thought this should be a Jackie Chan film, I guess, which is probably where the trouble started.

Jackie does not portray a troubled cop all that convincingly, and the story goes that he didn't want to do that, anyway, and eventually took the film away from the director to make it his own. The result is a half-hearted attempt at drama, coupled with a half-hearted attempt at a Jackie Chan film. Still, it's interesting.

The Heat rip-off at the opening (right down to the flak jackets the crooks are wearing) is a great example of how things are done in the HK style as opposed to the Hollywood style -- no great expanses of cars getting shot to pieces, no spectacular cinematography, but bone-jarring moments of Jackie getting crushed by moving vehicles, leaping away from explosions and rolling over obstacles.

It's weird seeing Jackie unload on bad guys, and the blood and gore in this sequence is obviously meant to tell us that this is no ordinary Jackie Chan film.

Which is neither good nor bad, inherently. But ultimately this film suffers from a struggle over the kind of story it's trying to tell.

Jackie Chan movies are about the triumph of the individual. About the ability of one person, if they are willing to endure enough suffering and expend enough effort and display enough skill, to change the world. The bumps and bruises that Jackie accumulates during the movie are the pains and troubles we all experience in our lives, and part of the joy of watching Jackie is the feeling that we, too, can overcome the efforts of the world to crush us. His films affirm for us our own importance in the world, and glorify our individual significance.

We may need help, we may fail at times, but ultimately, Jackie is telling us again and again that if we try, we can change our circumstances. And in doing so (in his truly great films, like Drunken Master II), we will transform ourselves.

A movie like Heat is not telling us this. And Crime Story, bless its schizophrenic little heart, isn't exactly sure WHAT it's telling us. An entirely unconvincing (although we can lay a lot of the blame for that lack on the feet of the atrocious dub that Dimension films provides) scene early on with a therapist tries to set up the idea that Jackie is suffering internally for his assorted traumas. This never really goes anywhere, and in a Jackie Chan film, it's probably a bad idea.

Kung-Fu films use external objects to tell their stories. Heroes are beset by external forces that they overcome in order to demonstrate their health, their growth, whatever. You can't just inject an "internal" story into this (I'm calling Crime Story a kung-fu film, here -- deal with it) framework because there's no room for it.

That's not to say you can't have internal growth in your hero. Jackie's Wong Fei-Hong in Drunken Master II transforms spectacularly from the brash young kid in the early train sequence to the composed leader of the angry steel-mill workers at the film's climax. But this transformation is expressed through the fight scenes themselves.

Crime Story isn't nearly so well-constructed, and its efforts to bolt an internal story to a story of representative violence is entirely unsuccessful.

Jackie understands (instinctively or consciously) that action movies aren't ABOUT action -- they USE action to tell their stories. When you attempt to combine story types, you are very likely to simply water down both. You could probably accuse Heat of the same problem, though the performances and the beauty of Mann's film do a lot to offset that issue. But Crime Story has no such ornaments to hide behind, and the fatal divide that tears it apart is much clearer to see. I like it for that reason -- Crime Story isn't a great film; it isn't even a very good film. But sometimes a failure is more interesting to me than a success.