Man Yells At Cloud

The last month has been exhausting.  At work, it’s felt like I’ve been skipping from one crisis to the next, and while all external indicators suggest that I’ve been handling things as well as can be expected, it’s definitely left me feeling pretty wrung out.  I’ve noticed the stress mostly in the ways that I’ve been disinterested in my usual creative hobbies.  What I thought was going to be a month off from blogging turned into two months (maybe more; even as I’ve been percolating this post I’ve been unsure if there’s anything else I want to record at the moment), and after a relatively intense bout of drawing practice I’ve slowed down considerably.  I’ve lacked bandwidth to do much with my leisure time besides reading and watching TV (and I’ve read and watched some good stuff lately), but the usual drive to sort my thoughts out and put them somewhere other than my head hasn’t been there.  Even now that I’ve sat down to collect myself, it’s a struggle to figure out where all this is going.  It’s like the usual font of opinions has turned into little more than a shapeless burble.  There’s more impulse than plan at work in this update.

In the midst of the work exhaustion, I’ve found myself coping with a general feeling of grumpiness about things outside my immediate sphere.  The news is bad, and the parts of Twitter that I pay attention to vacillate between two extreme poles of mania and anxiety over things that I can’t bring myself to care deeply about.  I know that stories matter, and everyone needs to be able to see themselves in the stories they consume, but I feel a profound lack of patience with the roller coaster of emotions that others experience quite loudly in their online presences.  Maybe my reticence has been not just about mental exhaustion but also a sense that it’s patently ridiculous to shout into a void that’s made up of everyone else’s cries for validation.  I don’t think I can rightly call it a feeling of depression; I just feel irritated by the anxieties of the larger world.

When I was a few years younger, I think I would have found that general expression of irritation at others’ anxieties alarming simply due to a fear that it signals chronic empathy fatigue.  Education work demands a lot of emotional labor, and the professional burnout that can ensue from being asked to care about others so much is a real concern.  I suspect that I used to have a rather inflexible feature of my worldview which treated empathy as a static thing.  Whatever empathy you had existed on a spectrum, and how often and strongly it manifested in your decision-making process wasn’t something that changed much.  I think about that now and realize it’s a terribly flawed model, especially for someone who’s been working in education for nearly a decade.  More broadly, I also see that it’s a mean model.  When you think that people cannot become more empathetic, you surrender the hope that they can be persuaded to care about more and greater things.  Now I think I am inclined to consider that we are all just in various states of exhaustion.  Some folks externalize their exhaustion, insisting on letting others know about their need regardless of the bond they may or may not have with one another; others turn inward and shut themselves away even from folks who want and need to hear from them.

Empathetic meditations aside, I’ve been thinking more about my relationship with various online spaces, and I’m turning ever more cynical about the value of social media in general.  The biggest platforms reward the worst kind of antisocial behavior, and I have no patience for it.  I just want space to share the things I like, and I am bad at asking for attention.  Also I’m tired, but that’s probably more cyclical than anything.

Anyway, here’s a thing I drew; I think it turned out pretty well.

Image

Random Bits

  • Better Call Saul is a hard show to watch in this cultural moment, but the more I think on it the more I adore Jimmy McGill as a character.  The exploration of how he processes his grief in the fourth season feels very resonant to me, which I think is a weird thing for me to say.
  • Midsommar and Hereditary are both extremely good movies, but I never want to see Hereditary again.  Midsommar is one of those horror movies that has an extremely happy ending if you take the right perspective.
  • I heard the news the other day about a big summer crossover event in the X-Men books, and my first thought was “I do not want to be on the line for fifteen issues spread across a bunch of series I’ve already decided not to follow.”  It might be the purest emotion I’ve felt since I started reading monthly books last summer.
  • I’ve been reading David Foster Wallace’s essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and while I can see his talent as a writer, I get continuously hung up on his general sense of meanness about his subjects when he doesn’t obviously admire them.  Also, I can’t help but wonder if he was aware how gross he sounded when he repeatedly described women he found attractive as part of his scene setting.
  • Steven Universe is a treasure and a delight and the ending of the series is extremely okay.

Against Nostalgia (Part 2)

Despite being the worst of the original trilogy of Indiana Jones, Temple of Doom was the one that I remember watching the most as a kid.  As an adult I could construct a complicated rationale for this about my relative levels of comfort with face melting, heart ripping, and rapid desiccation of a live body (these movies are gruesome), but the reality is probably more simple: I could never find the Raiders of the Lost Ark video in my parents’ house when I was a kid, so Temple of Doom was my first exposure to the colonialist action hero.  Still, you’d think that the heart scene would be the most iconic thing I remember about Temple of Doom, but it isn’t; the bridge scene is.

There’s a moment in the course of the escape from the Thuggee cult where Indy and his companions find themselves trapped on a rope bridge between two groups of cultists.  One of them steps forward to confront the hero with pair of swords that he wields with expert menace.  Smugly, Indy reaches for his holster to realize that he’s long since lost the pistol he normally carries.  Another solution will have to be found.  It’s a weird moment that follows a series of beats that don’t make sense in the context of story.  So many things have happened since Indy was last fully prepared for action with his standard adventurer’s gear that it’s ridiculous he’d suddenly think, “Oh, I’ll just use my gun now.”  If you’re a person who has seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, you get the meta joke that Spielberg and Lucas decided to make here: Indy, when previously confronted with a dangerous assailant who is obviously better versed in some kind of hand-to-hand combat during that earlier adventure, decided to take the most expedient route to victory, and here he can’t pull the same maneuver even though he’d like to.  The reason it’s a meta joke and not a plausible character beat is that Temple of Doom is set five years before Raiders of the Lost Ark.  That earlier success hasn’t happened yet, so it’s bizarre that Indy acts like he knows the solution to this absurd problem and then is bewildered to find it won’t work this time.  The audience, if they’ve seen the first movie, can find the moment delightful, but they have to do some extra labor that should have been on the filmmakers in order to get a comprehensible reading of the character off the chronological order of events.

In short, Indy going for his gun and comically failing to have it is a bit of pure fan service.  It’s silly and nonsensical and even inconsequential in comparison to many of Temple of Doom‘s other sins (or even the litany of problems with the concept of Indiana Jones in general), but it acts as a moment of prioritizing audience delight over building a meaningful and coherent story.  Its foundation is the idea that folks will get a kick out of the filmmakers nudging them and whispering, “Remember that bit you liked in the last movie?  Here it is again with a twist!”  It’s fine in small doses, but overindulgence just leaves you with an empty feeling after the fact, like stuffing your face with Christmas cookies and getting caught up in a sugar fugue.

Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker poster.jpg

The Rise of Skywalker Theatrical Poster (Image credit: Wikipedia)

That’s pretty much the entirety of The Rise of Skywalker.  If you were to take the hundred and fifty minute runtime and chunk it up into individual thirty second nuggets, any one of them alone might be delightful.  Instead, we get to reenact the bit from The Simpsons where Ned-Flanders-as-the-devil tries to punish Homer with endless donuts.  Your mileage may vary as to whether you are Homer or someone who doesn’t have an unlimited appetite for sweet treats.  I, for one, said with all seriousness this past week, “Please don’t offer me anymore cake,” so you can guess how I feel about this last Star War in general terms.

I have spent the intervening weeks between seeing The Rise of Skywalker and working on this post thinking and on and off about what irks me so much about the film.  I can’t say it makes me angry precisely; the Discourse of Star Wars has become largely tiresome in the last few years; it’s just not fun to discuss the creative choices being made with these movies, largely because people take it so seriously.  I’m guilty of this myself (see the first part of this series); that doesn’t mean I find conversations about storytelling choices boring in general (quite the contrary), but I think I’m reaching a point in my life where I’m learning to let go of the more toxic aspects of enthusiastic fandom.  Stories are absolutely important to a person’s sense of identity, and the corporatization of a particular mythology doesn’t make it any less impactful for the people who see vital reflections in it; however, I’m just not there with Star Wars anymore, and I suspect a large part of that jading is the fandom itself.  I was so irritated with the negative response to The Last Jedi two years ago because it promised so much potential for new kinds of stories in the Star Wars movies wrapped up in a very simple theme: The Force is for everyone.  It was such an invitation!

Two years later, I’m still in love with the ideas and execution of The Last Jedi as a movie and as an entry in the flagship series of the Star Wars mythos.  It grapples with a lot of the complexities that are supposed to be present in warfare.  The Resistance is justified in its fight against the First Order (because they’re Nazis, and you always fight against Nazis), but there is no glory in the application of violence to achieve a worthy goal.  People suffer, families are ripped apart, and it’s typically the most morally bankrupt who stand to make the most profit from any kind of armed conflict.  Balanced against that very frank look at the guts of warfare that hero narratives so often gloss over is this extended meditation on interconnection as the very stuff of the Force; Rose Tico’s observation that hope lies in saving what we love instead of destroying what we hate reflects back what Luke has been banging his head trying to explain to Rey in the grumpiest way possible perfectly.  Anyone can participate in this grand thing, and the way we do that is seeking out things to love.

At this point, I think it’s gradually seeped into the general consciousness that Disney as a profit seeking entity decided to change course from all these radical reimaginings of what the Star Wars universe could be about because they feared the backlash against The Last Jedi impacting their bottom line with the final episode of their trilogy.  Sort of secondary to that big idea is the understanding that Star Wars has become a cultural touchstone which is predisposed to turning into a battleground for our ongoing culture wars.  Folks across the political spectrum want to be able to lay claim to it because there’s cultural cachet attached that can steer broader popular sentiment.  I’m fully aware that this phenomenon is one of the driving reasons I adore The Last Jedi and feel generally apathetic towards Rise of Skywalker before we even get into issues of story structure and plotting.  I could easily rant about the regression of this movie’s politics from radical inclusivity to another played out story about genetic destiny and uncritical cheerleading about war.  That stuff’s all there, and it irritates me if I think too hard about it.  What’s more interesting to discuss is the impetus for these changes in sentiment.

It comes back to nostalgia.

Nostalgia is an inherently conservative force in the makeup of the human condition.  It’s the feeling that we chase when we realize that things have gotten more complicated than we would like them to be; it’s an effective way to soothe anxiety about the ever changing state of the universe around us.  There’s comfort to be had in memory.  When William F Buckley coined his infamous characterization of conservatism as someone standing athwart history and shouting stop, he was directly appealing to nostalgia and suggesting that there might be a way to actually achieve the feeling it promises to people who pursue it.  It’s the core thing that drives people who hoard power to stomp on people who demand that power be shared among everyone.  It’s an obsession with rule by the old order reduced to the pettiness of small slights.

In The Rise of Skywalker, Rey finds herself confronted with her lineage: Emperor Palpatine is her grandfather, and for vague reasons this is a major catalyst for her temptation to submit to the Dark Side of the Force.  The intended subtext is that there’s something about the Palpatine family that is inherently predisposed to rage and passion and fear; apparently genetics matter way more than upbringing and social support systems in this version of Star Wars.  In the end, Rey rejects this proposition in favor of choosing the heritage of the Jedi (whom Rise of Skywalker seems to go out of its way to venerate following the serious interrogation that Luke and Yoda did of the tradition in the last movie) and as a cookie for saving the galaxy, she’s given permission by Luke and Leia’s ghosts to claim membership in the Skywalker clan.  Honestly, it’s a dumb, empty plot resolution that only feels emotionally significant because we already know and like most of the Skywalker family.  You can honestly say the same thing for probably ninety percent of the beats in the rest of the movie.  So little about this last adventure is built on new thought or even just realistic character sketching.  It’s nostalgia all the way down.  When Lando shows up to assist the heroes, you go, “Hey, it’s Lando!” and then you move on to a chase scene without actually spending any time with who Lando has become (because there’s been no consideration of how Lando might change after Return of the Jedi).  When Luke shows up as a Force ghost to deliver a pep talk to Rey in her darkest moment (or what passes for a darkest moment) and then raises his old X-Wing out of the ocean so she has a ship to fly to confront Palpatine, you say, “Hey, Luke’s doing a Yoda!” without pondering how he must feel literally resurrecting the symbol of his hotshot glory days so this girl he barely knows can go off to maybe get herself killed in an ill-advised solo mission (Abrams only seems capable of echoing heroic moments from the original trilogy, never the bits about how stupid and rash Luke was at the end of The Empire Strikes Back).  When Chewbacca gets the medal during the final celebration you feel satisfied that that error in the first movie has finally been rectified (never mind that we have no idea what Chewbacca and Lando actually did to warrant that kind of recognition).  The Rise of Skywalker is just a greatest hits compilation that doesn’t actually care about its central characters beyond their capacity to play ersatz versions of the old heroes, and it’s all fueled by the bet that nostalgia is the moneymaker.

At the risk of bumbling into overwrought doomsaying, I find myself growing more and more fearful of the broader pop culture trend towards nostalgic storytelling.  We’re living through some incredibly bad and volatile times, and the impulse to curl up with stories founded on past glories makes total sense.  A lot of comfort is needed.  What I fear is the general stagnation of mass storytelling in response to these needs.  Part of this is rooted in the growing anxiety that our modern mythologies are slowly being rounded up under a single creative umbrella that has no impetus to allow for experimentation and innovation.  The people who stand to make the most money are always the ones who have the fewest qualms about ignoring any kind of principles or ideals, whether those are related to how you tell a story or what ideas you give dignity.  It’s clearly how we’ve gotten two decades of JJ Abrams wandering into established intellectual properties and shouting a bunch while throwing old bits around like so much confetti.  Indy’s going to be reaching for that missing pistol forevermore.

Against Nostalgia (Part 1)

I wrote this essay nearly two years ago in response to both the final chapter of the Life Is Strange series (the first one with Chloe and Max and Rachel) and the release of The Last Jedi.  I had held off on publishing it because I thought I might sell it, but I was naive about the way that freelance writing tends to work.  It’s one of the things I’m most proud of writing, and after having seen The Rise of Skywalker I find myself revisiting the ideas I explored here.

These days, I’m hard pressed to explain what video games I like.  When the subject of gaming inevitably comes up with my students, it’s always a difficult dance of trying to give a comprehensive picture of what I enjoy; my tastes run in cycles through various action-adventure titles to more narratively focused experiences to sometimes just wanting to play a button masher.  About the only solid pieces of information I can give to students are that I don’t do multiplayer games, and I’m typically turned off by traditional first person shooters. It feels like this automatically rules out ninety percent of the games that my students like to play as subjects I can authoritatively discuss, and yet it’s inevitable that I’ll have kids say, “You should play [hot new game of this quarter],” because the desire to connect with someone over a shared interest forever seems to outweigh considerations of personal taste or ability.  It’s hard to convey the idea that things get more complex as you mature, and simple answers become more and more inadequate for simple questions. This is why when the question is asked, “what sort of games do you like?” I flounder for a succinct answer before throwing up my hands and saying, “I like lots of stuff, but the last time I loved a game was Life is Strange.”

It’s not unusual for me to play a game and have thoughts about it; a big part of the fun for me involves turning over things for a while after I’ve finished experiencing them.  With Life is Strange, it went beyond the normal mulling over; I spent the better part of a month picking apart the game because it gave me feelings.  You know, not just the typical reaction to a story that’s well crafted enough to make you sympathize with its characters but something that evokes a sense of wistfulness that never really comes back in the same way twice.  It’s a game that, among a lot of other things, is about nostalgia and the ineffable sadness that springs from understanding you simply can’t recreate an original experience perfectly. Max Caulfield learns, regardless of what final choice the player makes about Chloe Price’s fate, that there is no going back; her superpower is being able to perfectly relive memories, except she can’t decontextualize them from what she knows about the future.  Even she can’t scratch the itch that nostalgia always leaves as it skitters through our brains. Life is Strange says, quite emphatically, that we’re collectively doomed to chase imperfect facsimiles of cherished past experiences.

Image

Star Wars is not Life is Strange.  It begins with a nobody farm kid discovering he’s heir to a powerful legacy and growing into the power that legacy offers through a series of victories and defeats (but mostly victories).  The scale of the story is massive, the stakes the political future of a galaxy. This is high melodrama we’re dealing with, all fit neatly into a very well trodden story structure. Star Wars is big and flashy and exciting while also being comfortable in a way that can be difficult to explain.  Over the course of the original story arc, following Luke Skywalker from farmboy to Jedi Knight and liberator of the galaxy, the audience gets invited into a classic power fantasy.  There are no moments of small feeling or sitting with slight discomfort or teasing out the nuance of a few exchanged words. Emotions are big and, for the most part, pure. Audiences loved it to such an extent that now all you have to do to call up those thoughts and emotions is mention Star Wars.

Following Life is Strange, Square Enix decided they wanted to publish a prequel.  Life is Strange: Before the Storm has the unenviable task of going back in time to tell us the story that brings Chloe to where she is when she first barges into the bathroom at Blackwell Academy looking to settle a debt with Nathan Prescott.  It introduces us to Rachel Amber, the girl who has left such an indelible impression on everyone in Arcadia Bay with her absence in Life is Strange that her presence could only be a disappointment (and yet it somehow isn’t).  In the predestined frame of tragic death awaiting one or both of these girls, Before the Storm dares to push relentlessly towards the happiness that they so richly deserve regardless of the personal cost.  In a lot of ways it succeeds, although like all prequels this story suffers from knowing what comes next. That the developers felt the need to add a stinger after the game’s final credits reminding you what’s in store for Chloe and Rachel in Life is Strange underlines this fact grossly.  A story that should be about two queer girls finding happiness despite everything being set against them is marred in ways that can’t be avoided because you can’t change what’s past.

Fans of Star Wars have grappled with this problem of prequels for two decades now; a story that they loved got more added to it, but it was done in a way that failed to meet their expectations.  While George Lucas was off chasing his own nostalgia for the movies and serials he grew up with while playing with modern filmmaking technology, the audience was waiting for their nostalgia for Star Wars to be satisfied.  If we can set aside the objective quality of the Prequel Trilogy, what we’re left with is both a creator and his audience discovering in a very rude way the incompatibility of their nostalgias.  Lucas couldn’t recreate the magic of the first movie, so he didn’t try, and fans revolted. Nostalgia became a catalyst for toxicity in the fandom. Anyone who was even vaguely aware of Star Wars fans in the ‘00s knew that a vocal portion of them were bitterly angry with Lucas for failing to deliver on their preferred vision.

Before the Storm, with its push to break new ground in a story about memory, couldn’t be the last word for Chloe and Max.  Nostalgia trips aren’t complete without some return to original form, and there’s too much inversion in the prequel for it to stand alone as a satisfying reprise of what Life is Strange captured; Max and Rachel, eternal foils in Chloe’s mind, have to be put back in their original roles as the respective presence and absence that pull her character in opposite directions.  To close out our time with these characters, we get the bonus episode “Farewell” which serves as a prequel to the entire series.

The whole episode is an extended exercise in fan service and nostalgia for the dynamics that fans of the series loved about Life is Strange.  Max is a little unsure of herself, and Chloe is full of enthusiasm and joy that covers some deep pain about being a social outcast.  The original voice actors (absent from Before the Storm because of a voice actors’ strike that happened during the game’s production) reprise their roles.  The soundtrack reverts from the hard rock that Chloe prefers to the more melancholy folk and indie tracks associated with Max’s perspective.  The side quest is once again Max’s ongoing search for the perfect photo ops. As a player you are supposed to nostalgia trip hard, and for the most part the episode succeeds at getting you there.  The pain and poignancy of the episode revolves entirely around moments of foreshadowing to which Chloe and Max are oblivious while the player absorbs all the tragic import.  Family plans that will be dashed mingle with Max’s ever present misgivings about how she can stay in touch when she’s moving so far away to continually pull the player’s emotional strings.  We get it; this is a last moment of unmitigated happiness for Chloe and Max before the universe starts to punish them for existing. We so appreciate being reminded of all the stuff that these characters suffer while we were growing to love them.

Ultimately, “Farewell” chooses to end in the same spirit as Before the Storm‘s main story: with a gut punch that only hurts because it’s powered by the memory of something that can’t be reclaimed.  If you step away from the investment in the characters for even a moment, it immediately becomes apparent that this story was structured to maximize the emotional manipulation of the player.  Of course the day Max tells Chloe she’s moving away is the same day Chloe’s father dies.  This can’t just be a bittersweet story about friendship promising to endure despite unseen rough waters; it also has to remind us of Life is Strange‘s worst impulses towards traumatizing characters just because it can.  A straightforward reading of the entire series is that the universe hates Chloe Price; the cynical reality is that the developers, who created that universe, don’t hate Chloe so much as see her as a vehicle for delivering measured doses of trauma porn.  They created a character that many players of the game love, and then they exploit that emotional connection to induce sadness in players, the vast majority of whom simply do not have the well of related experiences to be anything but voyeurs.  It’s a cruel trick, but this is a story about nostalgia, and the only way nostalgia can be enjoyed is to not notice its cruelty.

I remember feeling cautiously optimistic about the news that Lucasfilm had sold the rights to Star Wars to Disney.  This was a soulless corporate juggernaut taking over a beloved film series, but at least it was a soulless corporate juggernaut that knew how to make an entertaining movie.  Along came The Force Awakens, and fans were treated to the nostalgia trip they had been craving but George Lucas hadn’t delivered.  It was off, though. Some fans felt like too much was similar (the desert planet, the nobody discovering their heritage, the third iteration on the Death Star) while some (mostly white, male) fans felt things were too different.  Nostalgia found itself in direct conflict with the impetus to do something new. Still, the muddled response to The Force Awakens (after all the initial ecstasy of having a new Star Wars movie that wasn’t terrible wore off) pales in comparison to the anger that The Last Jedi elicited from certain nostalgic fans.

Star Wars The Last Jedi.jpg

Theatrical release poster for The Last Jedi. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

The extremely vocal faction of Star Wars fans who have railed against The Last Jedi are fundamentally upset because they were presented with a story that puts nostalgia in its place as something that’s fleeting and unhealthy to dwell in; they wanted Luke and Leia and Han to remain unchanged despite thirty intervening years.  Their vitriol against a story that dared to make characters change in the same way that people change is entirely fueled by disappointment that their nostalgia wasn’t satisfied. They missed the fact that Han is mostly unchanged when he boards the Millennium Falcon in The Force Awakens: he’s returned to his original state as a shiftless smuggler just trying to stay ahead of the people he owes, and the result of this enforced stasis is that he has an estranged son who ultimately kills him.  Luke, in contrast, is totally disillusioned with the past; he’s seen the havoc that sort of reverie can wreak, and he completely dismisses the glory days as unsuitable for dealing with the present. The legend of Luke Skywalker is an illusion that’s only good for a distraction.  The new Star Wars trilogy, as far as it’s gone, says quite emphatically that enshrining the past over adapting to the present will cause heartache.  Nostalgia indulged uncritically on a massive enough scale will turn from a small cruelty into a large hatred.

And of course nostalgia is cruel.  The promise of a return to something simpler and more pure and joyful is so incredibly seductive as we grow more complicated and uncertain and jaded by our experience of the world, but it inevitably disappoints.  You can’t go back, and the longer it takes you to come to terms with that fact, the more nostalgia twists the knife. We become Max, caught between an irreclaimable past and a painful, destructive present that we didn’t really have a hand in making but we do have a responsibility to help make bearable.  

The confounding thing about this position is just how frequently we seem to get trapped in it.  Yes, the wistfulness and the reverie are appealing, but they also hurt.  The big question seems to be whether the pain associated with nostalgia gets directed inward towards the person experiencing it or outward towards others.  Neither direction seems especially healthy, and it leaves one wondering why we continue to collectively indulge in nostalgia at all. We seem to be addicted to this thing that we’re only capable of weaponizing in order to torture each other in our endless interaction with story.  It feels untenable, but in the long run it probably won’t change in any meaningful way; people are remarkably stubborn when it comes to holding on to the past.

So I Just Saw Velvet Buzzsaw

The first thing that I need to establish is that I don’t think Velvet Buzzsaw is a particularly good movie.  The characters are all broad caricatures of stereotypes that we associate with the high art world, from the snooty critic with the boxy glasses to the flighty genius who just can’t make anything worthwhile since he got sober.  Everyone is blandly terrible at best and deeply unlikable at worst.  Beyond that, the horror elements are more goofy than scary, and the driving force behind all the spooky stuff that happens is remarkably cliche (a man with a long history of mental illness and abuse wants all of his art destroyed after his death because it contains the totality of his tortured existence, and when that obviously doesn’t happen, people start dying).  There’s very little on offer here that’s genuinely good horror or even remotely interesting character work.

And despite all of those flaws, I rather unabashedly love this movie.

I think that the fun of the movie comes in its total capitulation to the stereotypes of its subject.  We expect a story about vapid, self-obsessed people backbiting each other in pursuit of rather callow goals all camouflaged by the perception of prestige that working in the realm of high art confers.  As outsiders we not-so-secretly suspect that all this modern art stuff is mostly just nonsense used as an excuse for absurdly rich people to play status games while an underclass of creative leeches take their cut as facilitators to the grand lie, and Velvet Buzzsaw is happy to confirm all those suspicions.  The only place where it suggests a certain sincerity is in its portrayal of the artists who get commodified by this community themselves.  They might be flighty and a little obtuse in the ways they communicate their ideas, but they have a purity of vision that this film at least proposes isn’t tainted by baser motivations like trying to turn a profit.  It’s a charmingly misguided assertion given the long history of artists making art specifically to get paid, but the horror premise wouldn’t work if you allow a complex idea like artistic vision being able to coexist with trying to make money off a desirable skill to inhabit the viewer’s mind.  It’s much more thematically resonant if all artists have no interest in profit instead of just the one at the center of the story whose work is exploited.  Still, these flaws in the core premise can be forgiven because there’s such a total commitment to it in the film’s execution.

While I would be totally content with a farce about the art world, which is very much how the film’s first half plays out (there are plots and subplots revolving around different gallery owners vying to be the exclusive dealers of works by livings artists, a museum curator on the verge of hitting the big time as the art equivalent of a personal shopper for some unseen wealthy patron who doesn’t actually know anything about art themselves, and gallery assistants working their various side hustles until they can score a real opportunity that’s entirely dependent on the whims of the aforementioned capricious gallery owners), this is still a horror movie, and like any good piece of horror there’s usually some morality tale buried beneath the copious amounts of blood and paint.  Appropriately enough for the subject, the theme that Velvet Buzzsaw settles on is the question of art’s purpose.  The core transgression is the discovery and decision to sell the artwork of our ghost, Vetril Dease, after his sudden death in obscurity.  Dease spent his life using his art to exorcise the demons of his past, and he makes it clear that his final wishes are for his entire oeuvre to be burned.  One of the struggling gallery assistants who lives in the same apartment building as Dease, Josephina, chooses to use his paintings as leverage to establish her own reputation as a serious dealer in the art scene, but she rapidly gets co-opted by her boss, Rhodora.  From there, all the people in Josephina and Rhodora’s orbits get caught up in ever escalating acts of vengeance targeting anyone who has profited from Dease’s work.  The moral becomes starkly clear late in the third act as Josephina, growing ever more terrified by the string of deaths that happen in proximity to Dease’s art, argues with Damrish, an up-and-coming artist who has abandoned Rhodora’s gallery to return to his roots with a local art collective.  “What’s the point of art if nobody sees it?” she demands, completely baffled that Damrish would choose a smaller platform for his work than what Rhodora’s gallery offers.  Immediately following this exchange, Josephina suffers her own close encounter with hostile artwork.

Damrish, if you’re curious, survives completely unscathed as someone who simply appreciates Dease’s work without trying to use it for his own gain.

The film’s moral appears in sharp relief; art is a thing done for the gratification of the artist first, and if they choose to share it with others then that is a gift.  The people who make their livings running the distribution infrastructure connected with the creation of art are little more than parasites deserving of contempt for debasing a more noble endeavor.  It’s an incredibly facile conclusion if you stop for even a moment to consider how distribution and publication are necessary companion industries for any artist who might want to, y’know, make a living with their art, but the basic idea that art is a thing we do to satisfy ourselves sticks in my head.  All the absurdly terrible decisions this movie makes with its story sort of fall away in the face of the realization that someone conceived of this bizarre treatise on the nobility of art and then went through all the work to get Netflix to bankroll its production.  The question of the film’s own self awareness turns into an endlessly fascinating ourobouros that I’ve been turning over for a couple weeks now with no clear conclusion to be reached.  All I know at this point is that I had way more fun watching Velvet Buzzsaw than I expected to, and for that I am glad it’s a piece of art that exists.

Also, this happens.

So I Just Saw John Wick

I feel like I’m slightly behind the times with this one (it’s only been, what, five years since this movie came out?), but part of my initial glut of movie watching that I used to kick off my extended staycation (ugh, that really is a terrible portmanteau, isn’t it?) involved checking out this actioner seeing as Entertainment has decided that we are having a collective moment regarding Keanu Reeves.  There’s only a bit of cynicism wrapped up in that; I genuinely enjoy most of the movies I’ve seen Reeves in, and lots of folks whose taste I generally jive with say that the John Wick series is a thoroughly satisfying thing, so I’m down with the guy’s sudden memetic resurgence.  It’s only the smallest tinge of I-see-what’s-happening that flavors this very successful PR campaign on behalf of an actor who is doing his comeback thing as he moves into his late-career phase.

But that’s all meta stuff that doesn’t really have much of a bearing on the fact of this movie.  Let’s talk about it.

John Wick Poster

Nothing personal, except for all of it. (Image credit: IMDb)

The fundamental thing to understand about John Wick is that it is a viscerally simple story.  A grieving man is robbed and his dog, the last gift from his deceased wife, is killed by the crooks who are just looking to boost his very nice classic car.  This grieving man, with his dead wife and newly dead dog, happens to be a retired hitman, one of the best in the industry in fact.  Armed with his rage and his grief, he sets out to kill the guy who killed his dog and anyone who would try to stop him from doing this very straightforward task.

That’s the whole story.  Blood simple, right?

Typically, I would have something to say about the tiredness of the dead wife trope; women have been dying to make men feel things in stories for as long as we’ve had stories.  Instead, I think I’d rather acknowledge it as a problematic part of the story, although it’s tweaked in ways that change the focus and mitigate some of the most egregious elements typical to the trope.  First, John’s wife isn’t murdered or raped or victimized by the bad guys in any way.  She just dies of cancer.  It sucks.  They were happy together, and then she got sick, and now she’s gone.  This isn’t a story that reinforces any narratives about gender roles or the idea that women must function as the property of men; it’s just something that happens.  Second, the bad guy killing John’s dog shifts the loss from a person to more abstract ideas of healing and connection to the deceased (and also the dog, but we all know that killing dogs in movies is a deeply upsetting thing for most folks, so there’s no real need to discuss that further).  John is trying to move on with his life, and the dog is his wife’s way of helping him with that transition.  He loses a lot more than a pet; he finds himself being dragged back into a world he already escaped at great cost.  This one careless mobster who wanted a fancy ride robs John of the next stage of his life.

Built around that emotional core is a very straightforward action flick.  Guns and cars are the dominant visual motifs (John is very good at both), and each sequence is highly engaging in the ways that it communicates John’s resolute character in his mission.  At one point early in the movie, the head of the Russian mob family John is taking down describes him as a man of absolute focus.  It’s a good bit, but it only makes explicit what is obvious from the moment John picks up a gun and starts his quest.  Injuries are of minimal concern beyond the way they impede his ability to act in the moment; the primary point of this extended exercise in violence is to underscore an act of supreme will, and it works phenomenally.

In typical action movie style, the emotional reality of what’s happening outside of John’s grief is largely ignored.  This is a very morally compromised world we’re inhabiting, and everyone is aware of it, but they give no thought to those questions.  Instead, every character responds to the scenario with a highly detached, matter-of-fact attitude.  Guys who know John take for granted what’s going to happen and commit to their job of either aiding or hindering him with total professionalism.  As John tears through waves and waves of mobsters we get regular reminders that they’re fighting him just because their boss told them they had to.  Even the mob boss treats defending his son (the perpetrator of the heinous crime) as more a business obligation than something founded in emotional considerations.  The result of this aggressive commitment to detachment is the sense that this whole sordid affair is just a particular variation on the retired old-timer returning to visit their workplace.  It’s a quirky approach to an organized crime story, but it really works in the context of John’s emotional journey.

Perhaps the only aspect of the movie that strikes me as irredeemably goofy is the Russian mobsters’ insistence on translating Baba Yaga as “the Boogeyman.”  I think Baba Yaga as a concept has sufficiently penetrated the popular consciousness that we could just leave John’s professional nickname at that without giving a facile faux translation that erases all the delightfully horrific connotations of a wild old woman who lives in the forest and eats people with her iron teeth.  Like, I get the cultural equivalency that the writer aimed for with Boogeyman, but it’s a different enough folk figure that the use of a sort of similar Russian character is just jarring.  But whatever, that’s just me.

So I Just Saw The Matrix Trilogy

It’s been well over a decade since I spent any time with the Wachowskis’ seminal film and its sequels.  So much of the last twenty years of their work feels like it’s in an entirely different category from all the stuff relating to Neo and Trinity and Morpheus.  Somehow in my mind I thought of The Matrix as this mostly sleek sci-fi actioner with just a little bit of grit for atmosphere and a huge dose of philosophical daydreaming to appear smarter than it really was.  It was what the Wachowskis do best but constrained in a way that forced them to avoid the indulgences of their later, more bombastic work.

Back in college, I think I had one of those pop-philosophy books that feature a series of essays 101ing various philosophical schools of thought using examples from pop culture about The Matrix (I definitely had one about Star Wars).  Being a too-smart kid fresh out of high school and hungry to learn about everything that might offer a larger view of the world who was also a colossal nerd, I couldn’t resist that sort of stuff.  This was likely in the fall of 2003; The Matrix Reloaded had come out that spring (I remember going to see it with a bunch of other seniors after we had finished our finals and got dismissed from school early one day), and everyone was sitting in suspense waiting for Revolutions to follow.  We were all high on the thrill of being in the middle of the story, somewhat gutted that the second movie had ended on such a cliffhanger.  I was young; I hadn’t yet become accustomed to the rhythm of blockbuster movie franchises.

The Matrix Poster.jpg

This one holds up. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

I rewatched The Matrix on the day my mother died.  Having been awoken early in the morning without the possibility of getting back to sleep or having the wherewithal to function at work, I stayed home and put on the first thing I found on Netflix.  Gunsplosions and faux cerebral dialogue seemed like the perfect way to pass a couple hours while I waited for something to happen.  It was a good choice.

The first movie still holds up extremely well twenty years later.  It’s a quintessential ’90s movie; everything feels grungy and poorly lit outside of those brief moments of respite in the Nebuchadnezzar‘s training programs (the only moments where the palette’s allowed to be full color instead of green or blue tinted, if slightly over saturated).  Neo whiles away his existence in front of a black screen with green code, the ubiquitous ’90s visual for 1337 hAx0rz.  The special effects are breathtakingly analog, and those iconic bullet time panoramas encapsulate a cinematic technique that was never going to catch on with the impending advent of digital animation.  Rage Against the Machine’s brand of ultra aggressive anti-establishment punk sums up the movie’s ethos as our hero declares his intent to free our minds and flies into the sky.  It’s all so earnest, which is maybe a quality better explained by the directors than the time period.

The Matrix Reloaded is a different beast.  Something shifted in pop culture between 1999 and 2003 that didn’t have anything to do with school shootings or terrorist attacks.  It’s an aesthetic shift; all the design sensibilities of the first movie are still present in the costuming and the set pieces, but a gloss has been added that erases all the world’s texture.  Everyone is always at the peak of style no matter the circumstances; we’re never going to get a scene like the one of Morpheus drugged and gagging on the smell of his own sweat.  Smith has transformed from a creepy program who revels in using humans’ own physicality to underscore how fragile they are to a virus only concerned with exploiting the mind.  The body, a constant shackle that everyone struggles to escape, or at least tame, in the first movie, is now an afterthought.  We’re all neurons here.  The ’90s grunge has been replaced with EDM; the big reveal is that the Resistance is still part of the system.  Assimilation is unavoidable regardless of your personal preference for cultural expression.  If not for Neo’s stubborn individuality in the face of overwhelming conformity, this would be a cynical story.  Fifteen years later, it’s hard to swallow the Great Man theory at the core of the plot; we now live in a world where systems feel too big to topple by individual action, and the people who do appear as singular forces unto themselves are typically better cast as villains.  I don’t care that Neo has broken the equation by creating a free radical in Smith; I want to hear about Zion’s collective struggle and that one Councilor’s ramblings about the unavoidable symbiosis between people and machines.

The Matrix Revolutions is not a great movie.  It’s clear when you watch this finale that when writing a sequel to The Matrix the Wachowskis had a lot of ideas for spectacle that they couldn’t bear to cut, and because they were printing money for the studio, they got the green light to make two movies instead of one.  Revolutions is essentially the third act of the story begun in Reloaded with a lot of padding to justify a two hour run time.  As I watched this one, I kept checking to see how far I had to go until the ending, because I remembered the broad strokes (Neo has to go to the Machine City, Smith tries to kill him in the physical world, Neo is blinded, Trinity dies getting him there, Neo enters the Matrix and has a last fight with Smith before giving in and infecting Smith’s own virus so that the system stabilizes and the machines agree to peace with Zion) but wasn’t sure how all that could take two hours.  What I forgot was that there’s an hour long sequence in the middle of the movie that focuses entirely on the battle to defend Zion.  On its own, it’s a perfectly fine war story with a few good emotional beats for tertiary characters.  My craving for a plot where people pull together to fight for something they believe in is satisfied with all of this stuff.  It’s just so incredibly divorced from the rest of the movie outside of the reminder that Neo is Zion’s only hope of survival.  There’s an element of the ending of Return of the King to the whole thing.  What it’s lacking is the philosophizing and larger thematic meditations that ooze from every part of Reloaded.  If you trim down a few of the action scenes in Reloaded (the chase sequence is fun but really doesn’t need to go on for half an hour) and excise the majority of the defense of Zion along with a few filler bits from Revolutions, you could probably get an edit of the two movies together that’s pretty tight at around two and a half hours.

Overall, I think the Matrix movies hold up.  The original is easily the best of the set, again mostly because it doesn’t suffer from the glut of resources that the Wachowskis received after its success to keep the franchise going.  Reloaded and Revolutions are best viewed as a single story that’s heavily front loaded with interesting character drama and intellectual experiments with a very saggy back half.  If you have the time, watch them together and plan to occupy yourself with something else while the middle of Revolutions runs.  Be prepared for bombast in the classical Wachowski style at all times.

So I Just Saw Us

Look, if you haven’t seen Us by now you probably aren’t the kind of person who’s interested in seeing it anyway.  It’s a highly suspenseful horror movie that relies very little on gore or jump scares to keep you engaged and anxious.  The performances are all stellar (I am happy that Lupita Nyong’o has been making bank doing supporting roles in Disney-owned blockbusters the last few years, but she’s a vision as Adelaide/Red and she needs to be the lead in a lot more projects), and the comic relief is applied with an incredibly light touch, giving the audience opportunities to chuckle at just the right moments.  It’s a fantastic movie, and I can’t recommend it highly enough; it’s precisely the kind of horror that I genuinely enjoy as opposed to much of the dreck that’s typically served up in movies.

Us Poster

Theatrical release poster for Us. (Image credit: IMDb)

For everyone else, let’s discuss some stuff; there will be spoilers about Us because all the meaty bits are buried deep in the third act.

The core thing that keeps occurring to me when I think about Us is the way it plays with the concept of American identity and our complicity in the great capitalist/colonialist/white supremacist project of enriching the lives for a select few in the overclass while everyone else has to struggle for a meager semblance of the same type of life.  Pick a hegemonic -ism, and you will find both beneficiaries and scapegoats tied up together in tension with the ones on top too oblivious to notice how they hurt and the ones below too powerless to do anything but scream for relief.  The central fear of Us is that the ones below will eventually rebel violently, and there will be no survivors.  It creeps up on the audience as a surprise revealed in the final third of the story, but the fear is there, buried in the premise of doppelgangers suddenly appearing to terrorize a comfortable middle class family in their home.  Fear of home invasion is a core component in the American formula for selling the security industry and all its accouterments.

“Our way of life is valuable and worth protecting from those people out there who would take it from us.”

“Protect the homeland.”

“They hate us because of our freedom.”

It’s easy to see how Us skewers these impulses.  The wrench in the works comes in the form of the twist about Adelaide and Red.  In the closing moments of the film, it’s revealed that Adelaide, the woman who has spent the entire movie fighting desperately to protect her family, is actually from the tunnels herself.  Red is actually the original Adelaide who was abducted and left trapped in her doppelganger‘s place.  It’s a classic trope in horror stories about doubles that the one who survived is actually the story’s monster.  Where things become complicated here is the realization that the switch happened long before the moment of catharsis.  Adelaide has been legitimately invested in protecting her family; it’s just that her family was established in a monstrous way.  Even if Adelaide didn’t understand Red’s plan until the very end, she was aware the whole time of the conditions that precipitated its development and execution.  As a child, she took her chance to escape, but it was at the cost of another victim.  Maybe she can’t be considered fully culpable in this decision, but there’s a deeply unsettling horror in the realization that she knew what was happening and did nothing until the moment of crisis.  I think despite this after-the-fact horror, we’re supposed to generally find Adelaide sympathetic.  It’s the realization of that sympathy that indicts us all over again.

So I Just Saw Solo: A Star Wars Story

The first thought I had when I heard that the Han Solo movie was coming out in May was that it must not be very good if Disney was interrupting the Christmas release schedule it had maintained for the previous three Star Wars movies.  The second thought was an observation from this old cinema deconstruction/serial killer fiction series that some friends introduced me to many years ago (if you’ve heard of Mr. Plinkett, then congratulations on your internet literacy; have some pizza rolls to celebrate) which went like this: all other blunders of the prequel trilogy aside, at least there was no attempt to shoehorn Han Solo into a story that really didn’t need a character like him, especially a precocious child version like the prequels’ timeline would have demanded.  Better to keep Han as a character who comes on stage fully formed instead of tinkering with an origin story.

Needless to say, I didn’t see Solo when it was in theaters.

Solo: A Star Wars Story Poster

Promotional poster for Solo. (Image credit: IMDb)

Instead, I waited until it came to Netflix and passed a lazy holiday afternoon enjoying some low stakes adventure fare.  I didn’t have any real expectations for the movie, so I was surprised to find that I actually enjoyed it a lot.  If you approach this film with the understanding that there is no good reason for it to exist besides “Disney wants to keep milking Star Wars” then you can expect to have a good time.  The character beats of Han’s arc mostly work, and the set pieces are individually really fun.  There’s lots of stuff that harks back to the space western feel of the first Star Wars (Han and his first crew of misfits literally rob a train while wearing heavy dusters and twirling their blasters on their fingers) without getting bogged down in any of the melodrama of the Jedi stuff that preoccupies both the prequels and the new trilogy.  This is a straightforward story about how a scoundrel becomes a scoundrel, and while every beat in that journey feels like gratuitous fan service, every beat in the story feels like gratuitous fan service.  I mean, the big emotional moment of the movie (after the action sequence that really should have been the climax instead of just the end of the second act) revolves around Han shooting first, and at the same time that I was groaning about how obvious it was I was also laughing at such a succinct encapsulation of where this character is supposed to be when the credits roll.

For all the fun that it brings with it, Solo is not a perfect film.  There are some pacing issues, particularly with the final act, that could have been better handled.  I’m annoyed with the trend in recent blockbusters to have a perfectly serviceable climax with an obvious resolution point at the end of the middle act followed by an additional half hour of stuff that, no matter its self contained quality as a story, always feels tacked on.  In Solo, we see Han and crew pull off a successful heist capped with Han piloting the Millennium Falcon through extremely dangerous space (successfully completing the infamous Kessel Run in twelve parsecs); this would be a great place to end it as Han and Chewbacca have established themselves as figures in the galactic underworld who have a slightly heroic streak, but instead we get a third act where Han’s love interest whom everyone who knows Star Wars understands will in no way be with him by the movie’s end does some betrayal stuff and there’s a convoluted triple cross involving Han inadvertently using his earnings from the heist to jump start the Rebellion (ugh).  It’s too much in too little time, and the only thing I wonder about the whole decision to go with this ending is that there might not have been much confidence that Solo would warrant a sequel (I guess that was actually pretty good forecasting) and so the character needed to land much closer to where he is when he shows up in the cantina than the still relatively idealistic kid who makes that big score on Kessel.

It’s a shame about the lack of a sequel too, because for all the pacing missteps with the ending, there are a lot of story hooks that I would love to see followed up on.  Maybe I just need to read more Star Wars comics.

So I Just Saw The Favourite

Between the trailer for Us and watching The Favourite this weekend, I’m not sure I can handle anymore rabbits.

So here’s the deal: The Favourite is a historical piece about the relationship between Queen Anne; her close friend Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough; and Sarah’s younger cousin Abigail Hill who has lost her noble status due to her father’s indiscretions and comes to the Queen’s estate looking to beg Sarah for a job on account of their family ties.  Anne is a relatively ineffectual queen whom Sarah manipulates in order to act as the de facto ruler while she tries to advance her own interests at court and effectively prosecute an ongoing war with France.  Abigail’s ambition to regain her station as a lady in court leads her to devise a number of machinations intended to draw Anne’s favor away from Sarah and place it on herself.  It’s a story all about palace intrigues and women screwing each other in the interest of attaining power; Anne and Sarah are secret lovers, and Abigail’s accidental discovery of this fact grants her the leverage necessary to begin scheming against her cousin.  Along the way there’s extensive meditation on the deeply weird decadence that the ultra rich engage in, especially in a time when living a life of leisure meant being somewhat bored half the time.

The Favourite Poster

Theatrical poster for The Favourite. (Image credit: IMDb)

Seriously, have you ever thought about the dichotomy between soul crushing drudgery and abundant boredom that seems to characterize the split between the upper and lower classes before?  I think the rich are as weird as they are because they have too much time to not do anything of genuine value while the servant class that supports them has to spend virtually all of their time doing work that yields no creative satisfaction or interest.  In the time period of this film (the early 1700s), we see the ruling class engaging in such absurd pastimes as racing ducks, racing lobsters (and then eating them), and throwing oranges at naked men in wigs as some kind of party game.  To be sure, there are some ahistorical liberties taken with this film (I’m pretty sure no one in the early 18th century English court was voguing to Baroque chamber music), but the sheer absurdity of some of these entertainments feel of a piece with the way that the idle rich continue to this day to come up with ever more creative ways to while away their time because they can’t be bothered with doing something of value like the rest of us mugs.

Anyway.

What’s most fascinating about this film (which goes very, very dark by the time of its third act, although you can see the hints of manic cruelty in the opening scenes when Abigail, fresh off a crowded carriage where a man was openly masturbating in front of her, is tricked into presenting herself to her cousin while covered in stinking mud by one of the servants) is the way that the power dynamics among the three central women constantly shift so that in any given scene the character you find most sympathetic will shift dramatically.  At first Abigail, who has fallen down on her luck, seems the hero as she arrives at court and uses her knowledge of herb lore to make a poultice that helps sooth the pain in Anne’s leg after her gout flares up, while Sarah seems to be a cruel woman who enjoys the power she’s afforded by her close relationship with the queen; Anne seems like a mostly pitiful naif whose affections are entirely subject to the influence of her advisers.  As fortunes shift, we get the sense that Abigail is far less sympathetic than initially thought, while Sarah’s cruel treatment of Anne appears to serve a larger, if not noble then at least more wide ranging, purpose.  By the end of it all, Anne, who seems mostly to be a pawn in Sarah and Abigail’s private war, asserts her own power as the queen, reminding both women that their power plays are meaningless without her support.

Underscoring all the cruelty of the film’s central figures is the relentlessly indifferent backdrop of 18th century England.  The courtiers are all highly untrustworthy (Mr. Harley, who heads up the Whigs as loyal opposition to the Tory government that Anne supports at the film’s beginning, is especially conniving) with their own agendas while the servants and commoners that appear are just as coarse and apathetic to casual cruelty as their employers (the woman in charge of the kitchen notes with more annoyance than anything when Abigail is marched down and stripped in the kitchen to be beaten for acting without Sarah’s permission that if the footman plans to rape her he had best do it in the barn instead of near the food).  This is a world where everyone is largely lacking in virtue; even Anne, who again appears to be the most naive person in the small world of court, is volatile and liable to rain abuse down on the nearest servant at a moment’s notice in order to try to alleviate whatever affliction suddenly pains her.

On the whole, I have to say that The Favourite isn’t exactly a pleasant movie to watch.  It starts off with enough audacity to draw you in as a somewhat grotesque meditation on the depravity of decadence framed around a young woman’s attempt to improve her lot, but the early moments of levity give way pretty rapidly to an extremely dark story about the complex motivations behind relationships that set their foundations on a mixture of mistrust, need, and genuine affection.

So I Just Saw Cloud Atlas Again

I don’t think this is a particularly bold statement to make in 2018: The Wachowski sisters are filmmakers whose body of work has become more enjoyable as the world has slipped further into fascism.  From The Matrix onward, they have never been especially subtle or nuanced storytellers, but they excel at a type of earnest rhetorical stance that feels desperately necessary as cynicism becomes the dominant mood of everyday reality.  It’s no wonder that Speed Racer, a movie that was panned when it came out in 2008, has achieved a cult status a decade later; the conditions just weren’t right for that level of wide-eyed wonderment and live-action cartoonishness (this was the same year that everyone flocked to the first Iron Man, in which a rich dude gets blown up by his own weapons and builds himself a suit of power armor from a box of scraps; it’s a totally different kind of live-action cartoonishness, I swear).

After that particular endeavor, the Wachowskis turned their attention to an adaptation of a sprawling literary novel which I have never read, Cloud Atlas.  This was an ambitious project; they assembled an all-star cast to play multiple roles in six interlocking stories that span probably five hundred years.  I remember the first time I saw this movie (which I wrote about way back when in this post), I spent most of the nearly three hour run time just puzzling over how all the plots fit together.  On this second viewing (yeah, I’ve only seen Cloud Atlas twice now, which feels a little weird) I had a better grasp of what was going on, so I spent more time paying attention to the little hooks and callbacks that are sprinkled through all the stories that help link everything thematically.

The big through line, which I think I noticed on the first viewing (although perhaps only dimly), is the Wachowskis’ preoccupation with the intersectional nature of oppression; each story explores a different dimension of marginalization including racism, homophobia, ageism, class warfare, and geographic bias (the plot set in the 1970s is hard for me to classify, although it certainly has connections to racism and classism).  None of the stories is especially subtle in its presented moral: slavery is evil, homophobia ruins lives, rich people act amorally to preserve their bottom lines, we are collectively horrible to our elders, universal rights for workers is a net positive for all of society, people living in geographic isolation lead lives as rich and complex as any more socially connected person can.  The Wachowskis love to explore themes centered on social justice in their work, and in Cloud Atlas they lay in this utter barrage of triumphant moments where the underdogs succeed or at least offer up real resistance in the face of the status quo.  Back in the Obama years, when a lot of folks (myself included) weren’t paying that much attention to the ways that marginalized groups get repeatedly thrown under the bus, these sorts of moments often felt grating and unnecessary.  When things that you care about in the world seem to be going fine, reminders that everything is not fine can be irritating.  In the present era, reminders that things are not okay, especially when they’re paired with propositions about a moral direction and a hopeful outline, feel more comfortable and reassuring.  You could say that the morality play is making a comeback, and the Wachowskis have a knack for presenting these big, broad stories that revel in that tradition.

Given all this, I wonder if it’s time to take another look at all their other notable work.