chabonsby

Words and such.

Month: June, 2012

Civitas interruptus

I’ve recently been reading Power: A New Social Analysis, which I instantly adore, even with its obvious and noted flaws. Russell’s ambition is admirable, and his writing, as ever, is masterful. I don’t wish to review a book I’ve barely started, but I wanted to share a particularly compelling passage, which comes near the end of an early chapter on the tendency of most to either lead or follow:

I have spoken hitherto of those who command and those who obey, but there is a third type, namely, those who withdraw. There are men who have the courage to refuse submission without having the imperiousness that causes the wish to command. Such men do not fit readily into the social structure, and in one way or another they seek a refuge where they can enjoy a more or less solitary freedom. At times, men with this temperament have been of great historical importance; the early Christians and the American pioneers represent two species of the genus. Sometimes the refuge is mental, sometimes physical; sometimes it demands the complete solitude of a hermitage, sometimes the social solitude of a monastery. Among mental refugees are those who belong to obscure sects, those whose interests are absorbed by innocent fads, and those who occupy themselves with recondite and unimportant forms of erudition. Among physical refugees are men who seek the frontier of civilisation, and such explorers as Bates, the ‘naturalist on the Amazon’, who lived happily for fifteen years without other society than the Indians. Something of the hermit’s temper is an essential element in many forms of excellence, since it enables men to resist the lure of popularity, to pursue important work in spite of general indifference or hostility, and to arrive at opinions which are opposed to prevalent errors. Of those who withdraw, some are not genuinely indifferent to power, but only unable to obtain it by the usual methods. Such men may become saints or heresiarchs, founders of monastic orders or of new schools in art or literature. They attach to themselves as disciples people who combine a love of submission with an impulse to revolt; the latter prevents orthodoxy, while the former leads to uncritical adoption of the new tenets. Tolstoy and his followers illustrate this pattern. The genuine solitary is quite different. A perfect example of this type is the melancholy Jacques, who shares exile with the good Duke because it is exile; and afterwards remains in the forest with the bad Duke rather than return to Court. Many American pioneers, after suffering long hardship and privation, sold their farms and moved further West as soon as civilisation caught up with them. For men of this temperament, the world affords fewer and fewer opportunities. Some drift into crime, some into a morose and anti-social philosophy. Too much contact with their fellow-men produces misanthropy, which, when solitude is unattainable, turns naturally towards violence

It would, I think, be fair to suggest that I have some familiarity with this feeling, and I’ve never seen it so artfully explained.

Droning on about prudence

It would be fair to say America’s so-called ‘drone warfare’ has been a huge issue in recent weeks, and indeed recent months and years if you’ve been paying attention. Its higher than ever profile has seen debate about the efficacy and ethics of such attacks become fiercer than ever. In as much as I’m not instinctively opposed to either American power or killing one’s enemies, I’m typically conflicted about the use of air power in this way. Indeed, my first thought is always to remember that this is merely another manifestation of the USA’s long-standing obsession with air power. The whole ‘drone’ angle is a pointless distraction, in part because the presence of a pilot makes no difference ethically, and in part because UAVs aren’t ‘drones’. The ethical issues remain rooted in the use of air-power itself, America’s traditional fetish for it, and the cowardice that lies behind it.

It is neither the efficacy nor the ethics which most concern me here, instead it is the decision-making behind the ‘program’ which worries me most. This may seem callous in the face of hundreds of dead civilians and the considerable potential for blowback, but, as some of the Obama administration’s more cogent critics have noted, the implications for the future of the American presidency could be much more damaging in the long-run. The growing power of the President over foreign affairs has been a widely-recognised trend for a very long time, and never moreso than with the dramatic escalation of that power during the Bush administration. Whilst this tendency has been slowed during Obama’s first term, the extent to which he has taken direct control over the so-called drone programs is right up there with the worst of Bush’s moves to centralise power. Whilst Obama will do much less immediate damage with this power than Bush wrought with his, the fact remains that he has, effectively, appointed himself, and therefore the Presidency, and therefore any and all of his successors, the position of judge, jury and executioner. As cliché as that sounds, there really isn’t any better way of expressing it. Obama clearly trusts his own judgement on the matter of which of America’s enemies should be targeted for assassination, but could he place that faith in Michelle Bachman or Rick Perry? In essence, that is what his direct control over the assassination program implies, he has set a precedent which, much as any Presidential assumption of power, could have terrible consequences for the future of the republic.

What is most tragic about Obama assuming the role of assassin-in-chief, as his critics put it, is that it is such a classic error in statesmanship and one which Obama should have known to avoid. It seems clear to me that the main reason Obama has taken such direct control of the assassination program, with all the dangerous implications of that, is because he feels such great moral responsibility for the actions he, as commander-in-chief, must directly order. Many scoffed at the lines in the New York Times piece referencing Obama’s study of just war theory, but everything we know about him suggests that he takes these things very seriously. Indeed, we know this, in no small part, because of his repeatedly stated passion for the works and wisdom of Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr, however, would recognise the folly in Obama’s actions, and the fundamental tragedy in putting what might be deemed the obviously moral course ahead of the prudent, and therefore truly moral, action. I find myself surprised, disappointed even, to see a supposed pupil of Niebuhr make this mistake, because it is such a perfect example of the tragic irony which Niebuhr warned against. In seeking to sate his own sense of right and wrong, Obama has pushed America a little bit further along a very dangerous path. In other words, he’d be best served not by reading Augustine and Aquinas, but by reacquainting himself with his own nation’s finest theologian.

Promethean ineptitude

As many spoilers as the trailers. Lots, in other words.

There was a portentous name in Prometheus‘ opening credits. Unfortunately my sense was of vague recognition rather than the more appropriate dread. Much later I had an epiphany as to the script’s ironically impalpable progenitor, but I would still have said then that I had found the film to be a tolerable enough experience. Then it ended, and there was discussion, and then there was ranting. The following is, by and large, based on that…elucidation.

My initially accepting response had some merit. Most obviously there was Michael Fassbender’s typically intense and intensely captivating performance as the android David. Every single review that has been or ever will be written will place this performance front and centre, and it’s such a shame that the film itself did not do the same. I was in love from the moment we saw how David had created his look and mannerisms, and it was sad, and sadly typical, that that potentially enthralling aspect went nowhere. Everyone knows that Fassbender is the outstanding actor of his generation, and while David was very prominent in the film, there could have been so much more. Instead much of his arc is incoherent, and often flirts with resembling nothing so much as an undergraduate rewriting of Blade Runner. I would like to say this was symptomatic of Prometheus as a whole, but frankly no other aspect of the film had as much promise.

The other focus of positive reviews has been Prometheus‘ stunning good looks. Indeed these visuals, especially the opening Malickian landscapes, waterfalls and double helices, reminded me of my initial desire to see Prometheus in IMAX. Irritatingly, this wasn’t an option in two dimensions, and I’ve no interest in the third. The film was a visual treat regardless of scene size, both for those landscapes and for the Gigertechture to be found on planet LV223. Sadly, a nod to the original designer of Alien provides a perfect moment to begin listing Prometheus‘ flaws, but first I should say there was one aspect of the design work that worked. Whilst it could be seen as a huge cop-out, an insult even, to have a new design for the much-anticipated Space Jockeys supplant the original classic, I enjoyed their image as a perfected, yet otherworldly, humanity, even if they brought to mind the long-forgotten 1990s BBC mini-series Invasion: Earth.


Not quite as wasted as Fassbender.

More than anything else, this film was a waste. A waste of potential, a waste of ideas, a waste of talent, a waste of money and a waste of time. Worst of all, it is a waste of Alien. Ridley Scott likes to insist his film merely shares ‘strands of Alien‘s DNA’. Prometheus, however, has made it abundantly clear that Ridley Scott knows nothing about DNA, and apparently very little about his most iconic work, to which this is very definitely a prequel. Indeed this is probably the film’s greatest frustration, for any number of reasons. Prometheus felt not unlike its producers, having written a screenplay for an overt prequel to Alien, had realised roughly half an hour before entering production that they couldn’t get the rights. It is an entirely clumsy collection of nods and winks to the themes and symbols of the 1979 classic. None more clumsily handled than perhaps Alien‘s most (in)famous metaphor. Famously deconstructed by Professor Moffat, the chestburster as foetus motif has been run into the ground over the decades. However even the relative subtlety of Alien Resurrection was beyond the writers of Prometheus, and so now we have an alien be literally ejaculated into a woman’s literal uterus, and then removed by a little caesarian section. I don’t have the words to express my contempt for this, even if it provided the film’s best scene, and it inspired me to ask out loud if every generation gets the Alien film it deserves.


Okay, nobody deserved that.

And so we are brought to the most direct use of the Alien heritage. Noomi Rapace’s horrifically traumatising and physically devastating surgery is quickly forgotten, to the extent that it is not even mentioned, beyond hints of quite understandable post-partum trauma, until right at the end. A Jockey which, sharing ethnicity with Michael Myers, had decides to live down to that example, runs into Rapace’s now-fully grown chest burster whilst hunting its mother. Said creature has become an enormous bundle of CGI tentacles, and eventually overpowers and penetrates the Space Jockey, but not before making us all appreciate the decline of creature design in films. All of this is to set up the final, insultingly unsubtle scene: Just so we’re absolutely clear that this is an Alien film, we are provided with a stinger in which a fully grown xenomorph variant bursts from the Space Jockey’s chest. Fully grown, presumably, because the audience wasn’t trusted to remember one of the most famous scenes in cinema history. This take on perhaps the most legendary creature design ever was seemingly developed by forcing a four year old to watch Alien 3 and then handing him a blue crayon. Attempting to rationalise this abominable imitator afterwards, all I could think to do was compare it to cheap Chinese knock-offs of Pokemon.


In other words…

At this moment I feel compelled to suggest a rule for the production of new Alien films. Either exclusively use Giger’s original designs, hire him to work on your film, or don’t make a fucking Alien film.

Enough, however, about how this is a poor Alien film: Prometheus is a poor film on its own merits. Its flaws are mostly congenital, and few films can cope with an utterly inept screenplay. The film was clearly intended as an intelligent meditation on the biggest questions there are, with a nice coating of sci-fi horror. It could hardly have missed these goals more spectacularly. The attempt to combine a maelstrom of themes and classic sci-fi and horror tropes predictably miscarries, and the result is wildly incoherent in tone and quality. This might be deemed a brave if foolhardy attempt, were it not for the patent lack of care involved. The writers simply lack craft, and the attempt to tackle so much at once suggests not bravery but recklessness and a desire to confuse the audience into awe. The screenplay is simply terrible on a technical level, in a way which is glaringly obvious even to an amateur. Prometheus‘ writing is so inept that one could teach a module on how not to write a screenplay with the film as the entire syllabus.

Everybody loves a plot hole, and Prometheus provides an abudance. I’ve read a few online discussions of the film and so far most have eventually descended into extensive and laboured justifications for huge logical gaps. The first, and my first moment of unease, came with the Prometheus’ arrival. Almost literally nothing here coheres, but the fact that the ship accidentally stumbles upon the most important place on the planet is most absurd, and isn’t redeemed by the great observation that ‘God doesn’t build in straight lines’. Indeed God doesn’t (much), but our ‘engineers’ do. They make up for this sequential geography with some rather non-Euclidean thinking.

You see they’ve visited many burgeoning civilisations in our distant past and have left us with a map: clear directions to what we are lead to expect is their homeworld. Except, of course, the map they’d laced the world with pointed, for some reason, to an ancient biological weapons factory (cheers, captain exposition), which had later been used to develop a weapon intended to visit death upon their creations. This is especially disappointing because the most initially compelling aspect of the film was the issue of why the Jockeys had left so tantalising an invitation across human history. Unfortunately this element of the screenplay, as with so many others, was designed to get us from A to B, and once there was put out of mind.

The plot may never have been redeemed by a late twist, but our heroes were, in the form of the sudden and previously unmentioned existence of other ships. This was bad enough in terms of massively complicating the situation on the planet and undermining much of the plot, not to mention lazily providing a sudden and jarringly hopeful ending. The bigger oddity, however, is that Jockey Myers ignores these escape options upon crashing, and instead makes an implausibly hasty bee-line (at the speed of plot) for Shaw’s downed escape pod, conveniently housing a face-hugger designed, presumably, for the giant, poster-adorning head. Indeed, ‘convenient’ is our watch word. Things do not happen for logical reasons, nor do characters act in believable ways, instead everything happens to the convenience of the story, for example:

-The captain abandons monitoring the abandoned crew members, conveniently leaving them completely isolated.
-The captain leaves his ship so that Theron and Fassbender can carry out their side mission unmonitored.
-Charlie’s illness takes hold just in time to prevent a proper investigation of the remains of the two corpses.
-The crew’s biologist finds an alien corpse to be so uninteresting that he prefers to walk off in the other direction.
-The crewmember who was in charge of mapping the complex gets lost.
-The most advanced medical technology in history is gendered, purely so as to provide a ‘cryptic’ clue as to Weyland’s presence on-board.
-Said financier is aboard his own mission in secret.
-Everyone is perfectly willing to remove their helmets in a quite literally alien environment, even after said environment has been shown to be incredibly dangerous.
-The black goo has no distinct properties, instead functioning in whatever way the writers need it to function at any one time.
-And many, many more.

Mostly these are example of characters being excessively stupid to advance the plot, almost the worst kind of lazy writing. Unfortunately, that last example actually is worse, and is a perfect encapsulation of the hackery of Prometheus‘ writers. The black goo is essentially a metaphor for the entire screenplay, it is a literal plot device.


Oh right, Damon Lindelof, of course.

Beyond these mere conveniences and contrivances, however, there are the moments which transcend plot-holes and lazy writing, and suggest nothing so much as a writer with anterograde amnesia. Elements, themes, characters and even whole scenes are routinely forgotten, falling off the Promethean band-wagon, never to be referenced again. My personal favourite saw the two men left behind return to what would best be described as the giant head room (GHR). Having spent all his preceding scenes reeling in utmost terror at the slightest provocation, including indulging in some genre savy flight from an ominous bleep, Milburn’s response to a snake-like alien is, obviously, to talk about how cute it is and attempt to pet it, with inevitably horrible results. The scene almost read as a parody of similar ‘coochie coochie AH!!!’ moments in a million and one horror films. Amusing, no doubt, but utterly jarring.

Indeed the GHR serves as an alternate reality of sorts, with any event occurring there seeming not to exist in the film’s universe. Its primary function is to intrigue and disturb us, with various hints as to the film’s heritage. These include an egg/crystal type object on a dais at the rear of the room, which inspires comically obnoxious ‘scientist’ Charlie to proclaim the GHR a tomb. The egg is never mentioned again, nor is Charlie’s bold claim. So it is with a chilling mural, which forms an utterly unmistakable image.


Boo!

The significance of this mural is illusory, and it is soon invalidated by the development of the Digimon xenomorph. The mural begins to change, perhaps decaying in response to its first exposure to the elements in millenia, and suddenly a deadly storm occurs, which the film appears to imply is a direct result of our heroes’ tampering, but this connection is never mentioned again. Finally, a fun quandry to round out our time in the GHR. The crew are drawn to the room by a hologram depicting several space jockeys retreating to the GHR, and sealing themselves, their deadly egg-vases and their unfortunate colleague’s severed head in a perfectly sterile environment. So where are they two thousand years later?


Prometheus, thankfully, lacks Arctic wildlife mysteries.

The undisputed heavyweight champion of Promethean screenwriting ineptitude (with the possible exception of Theron’s parentage) is a scene which I can only presume was written and shot so the trailer could be made to give the appearance of action horror. One of our earlier isolated chaps, presumably the geologist who got black plot device all over his face, suddenly and inexplicably reappears in front of the Prometheus, in a deformed state. Logically enough he is allowed onto the ship, where he proceeds to murder a large part of the crew, none of whom had been seen before. The scene is completely devoid of any build-up or explanation, and is then, quite literally, never mentioned again during the film, despite its massive implications. This is an attractive film with some great performances, and I have no problem with people enjoying films which are badly written, but let’s be clear: Prometheus has an objectively terrible screenplay.


IN SPACE!

It was only much later, whilst watching the film’s denouement with increasing bemusement that I remembered Damon Lindelof and his rap sheet. There really could be no more accurate and telling description of this film than the statement that it is an Alien prequel by one of the writers from Lost. However we can not, sadly, excuse the midwife that brought Prometheus into this world. Ridley Scott is a powerful director, he is responsible for everything about this movie, and unfortunately it would appear that Scott, for all his technical expertise, was completely on-board with Lindelof’s ridiculous hackery. In defense of this claim I present just the one piece of evidence. A central plot point is that our creators decided to destroy us, and this decision is said to date back 2000 years. That dating instantly puts one in mind of the obvious events of two millenia ago, and, yes, that was intended:

‘If you look at it as an “our children are misbehaving down there” scenario, there are moments where it looks like we’ve gone out of control, running around with armor and skirts, which of course would be the Roman Empire. And they were given a long run. A thousand years before their disintegration actually started to happen. And you can say, “Lets’ send down one more of our emissaries to see if he can stop it. Guess what? They crucified him.’


The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts your brain.

When David asked his creator’s creator an impenetrable question, we can easily see him, and his eager companions, as audience proxies, asking for an explanation for all the incoherent jumble which made up their lives and our film-going experience. Jockey Myers’ response is to mutely destroy the askers and prove to them that there are no answers, things happen ‘because they can’, life doesn’t make sense. It’s just about possible that was the point of the film, the incoherence was deliberate, and Lindelof is a subversive genius. However it seems rather more likely that, as the disappointed and dying Wayland puts it: ‘There is nothing’.