Category Archives: Lagging the Popgeist

Lagging the Popgeist: Paranoia (2013)

Post-crash cinema includes a few notable efforts to get to the root of the latest crisis of capitalism by exploring its human dimensions. Given its status as an abstract logic, ontological principle, or centerless system, global capitalism’s fundamental unrepresentability requires a framework that can provide some measure of proportion. Perhaps the most familiar method of introducing this necessary scale is to focus on characters caught up in the machinations of profit and exchange. Unfortunately, such a tactic usually results in a narrative which reiterates the thesis that our problems stem not from structure but from individual malfeasance– thus granting capital a false alibi. The gambit of post-crash films is to explore that which is inhuman by attending to the human and in doing so to effectively cede the possibility of showing capital in its totality.

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Lagging the Popgeist: Pacific Rim (2013)

As a general but far from inviolate rule PG-13 films, often action genre blockbusters, are written with 12 year boys in mind. Pacific Rim tends to follow this convention, featuring stock characters, awesome visuals, and a formulaic plot that predictably offers the barest gesture at psychological interiority in its undeveloped themes of intimacy and loss. Rather than recapitulate that narrative structure, it might be more interesting to focus on a handful of related signs that should be interpreted as speaking to the desires and anxieties of Pacific Rim‘s intended audience. For example, the character of Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), an attractive and damaged orphan raised by the film’s dominant (though not sole) father figure, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). In semiotic terms, Mori’s hair style speaks volumes about the nature of early adolescent male heterosexuality– a fraught topic to be sure, but one mobilized in the most innocent, perhaps even prudish, fashion. The touch of blue coloring Mori sports indicates a personality that is not entirely bound by the traditional sense of modesty western audiences have been led to believe via a charged orientalist discourse that women of Asian descent share.

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Lagging the Popgeist: Submarino (Denmark 2010)

As you’d expect from an alumnus of Dogme 95, Thomas Vinterberg’s Submarino employs light deftly as a means of emphasizing dramatic content. There are several remarkable scenes– an improvised baptism, for example, and shots of a man in the grip of addiction– where set lighting is key to the audience’s response. Notably, however, Vinterberg has chosen not to adhere to Dogme 95’s purist admonition to use only natural light sources as he did in 1998’s Celebration. As a result, this aspect of the mise en scene is textured by contrasts: the saturated flash of television sets in an electronics store window counterpoints a pale grey afternoon sky or the sickly fluorescence of a pub men’s room.

Submarino‘s story is fairly unsparing: two brothers raised by an alcoholic mother briefly encounter each other as adults after years apart. The eldest, Nick, has just been released from prison, while his younger brother (who is referred to only as “Nick’s brother” or “Martin’s father”) struggles to manage a heroin addiction as he raises a son. A quiet foreboding accumulates as the plot advances (and regresses), one that made me think of Requiem for a Dream. Indeed, if there is an obvious criticism to be made of the film at the level of content, it is that Submarino‘s characters suffer far too much. The parallel with Aronofsky’s Requiem— especially one of the physical forms this suffering takes– seems more of a repetition than a correspondence. This echo could be down to the source material, a novel by Jacob Bengtsson that has yet to be translated into English. Not to be cryptic, but once you’ve seen both films you’ll see what I mean.

Still, Vinterberg offers the surviving characters a shot at redemption. And if he does so quietly, almost tacitly, the final sequences of Submarino lighten a burden the audience has been compelled to share.

Bullhead (2011)

I’ll probably use this Belgian film for HUM415 during summer session. Not only does it address the core subject matter of the course– what, at this point, I”m calling “crime and system”– but it dramatizes in a very compelling way the relationship between masculinity and the male body. Briefly, Jacky, a Flemish rancher, uses illegal bovine growth hormone (BGH) to maximize the mass of his beef cattle. He becomes entangled with elements of the so-called hormone mafia, who have taken control of this market of the shadow economy in the aftermath of the EU’s ban on BGH. An undercover police officer is murdered. Other police agencies begin to surveil Jacky. Yet behind these crime-thriller developments is a terrible, life-altering event that occurred when Jacky was a boy.

Formally, Bullhead is innovative without being smug or flashy. The use of camera tilt, tracking, back-lighting, and narrative analepsis emphasize the anguish of Jacky’s loss, deepening the film’s human dimensions, even as it propels the story.  Fantastic cinema. It’s streaming on netflix so maybe check it out.

Lagging the Popgeist: From Paris With Love

From Paris With Love (2009)

The title is a warning: From Paris With Love will attempt to compensate for the exhaustion of its ideas by outgunning the facile pleasures of earlier thrillers, most obviously the James Bond franchise. Yet it is only with the arrival of Charlie Wax (John Travolta, who fuses his performances in Pulp Fiction and The Taking of the Pelham 123 in order to recycle them) that it becomes apparent how empty pastiche can be. As the film unravels, the Pulp Fiction reference is revisited, a Training Day theme crops up, elements of District B-13 (an earlier film by director Pierre Morel) come into view– several scenes occur in the multicultural ghettoscape of a postmodern banlieue– in addition to a mishmash of War on Terror motifs: swarthy djellaba-wearing men, women in hijab, even a kind of Al-Qaeda sleeper agent in the form of James Reese’s (Jonathan Rhys-Meyer) erstwhile fiancee.

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Lagging the Popgeist: Miami Ink & 2012

Last Spring in my Pop Culture class we talked a bit about Pop’s analgesic function, the way that even the blandest television, film, and music can act not so much as an opiate for the masses but as a shallow immersion into momentary oblivion. If opium and its derivatives swamp consciousness, provoking strange dreams, Pop-as-ibuprofen affords its audience the luxury of a minor diversion from the pressures of life without demanding a full engagement with the content at hand.

These observations might describe the 2 texts in question perfectly. Miami Ink, for example, begins as edutainment and ends as an infomercial as the boys in South Beach grow progressively richer, the “reality” aspect of the series attenuates to the thinnest of veneers, and the “personal legends” inscribed on the bodies of this week’s cohort of subjects becomes increasingly predictable. There will invariably be a memorial tattoo, a getting clean-from-dope tattoo, a going-to-the-sandbox tattoo, and a battle-with-cancer tattoo. Of the 6 regulars– Yoji, Ami, Darren, Nunez, Garver and Kat– only Garver manages to retain much interest as the kind of person with whom you might actually have a decent conversation. Kat’s too inclined to the California-style laconicism which substitutes “dude” and “awesome” for substantive words. Nunez is– let’s face it– about an inch deep. It seems likely he hasn’t read a book since high school. Darren Brass is a nice guy but unwilling to stir up much controversy, while Ami is so busy making bank he essentially revises the pricklier aspects of his personality out of existence. The interesting thing about Miami Ink is its unblinking devotion to a slightly sexed up version of the American Dream: entrepreneurialism, giving back to the community, and having some well-deserved fun at the end of the day. Unfortunately, the producers at TLC never considered that the actual craft of tattoo artistry might rate sustained attention. Instead, the audience is subjected to a few character-establishing bytes to set up the next ink job and then thrust into another graphics-heavy montage which manages to give only the most glancing familiarity with the series’ locale, Miami.

Sometimes a movie can be judged worthwhile only because it inspires you to re-write it afterwards in your imagination. Such is the case with 2012, a turgid, effects-loaded bit of millenarian porn which visualizes mass death on a scale never recorded in history. That this horrifying scenario of near-total extinction causes not a twinge in those watching it is a testament to CGI’s potential as psychological novocaine. When we see the freeways of LA twist like ribbons in the wind and glass office towers vomit their occupants into space it doesn’t mean much. When St. Peter’s Dome pops off like a bottlecap and rolls across a huge crowd of the terrified faithful we take only a second to register what that might actually mean by imagining a smear of human marmalade across the flagstones. People die at such a volume and rate that their deaths are incidental, crumbs dropped from the main course of seeing world famous landmarks such as Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer or the White House succumb to catastrophic forces. There is, on the other hand, an allegory here somewhere, even if Roland Emmerich appears to have cribbed it from When Worlds Collide. The question, of course, is how people will behave in a moment of unsurpassable crisis, the end of the world as we know it. But all of the carnage, all the volcano eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, ruptured gas lines, and flying plate glass are really only a preface to what should be the subject of the film: the aftermath of a disaster without ratio. The massive arks built to preserve the lives of a few hundred thousand human beings would be a promising setting for a film about humanity in the grip of adversity. Three arks of a few hundred thousand passengers each would provide three potential narratives of how people respond to the obliteration of not only their society but the very earth under their feet. Perhaps in one ark a cabal of elites would decide that resources were too scanty to share, and eject other passengers from the ship in an effort to ensure their own survival. In another ark a communistic experiment in absolute unity of purpose and self-sacrifice might prevail. The survivors on the last ark could conceivably strike land and begin to build a new society on the blasted shore. There are abundant dramatic possibilities here, and Emmerich, obsessed with blowing shit up, follows none of them.