Monthly Archives: March 2011

Sci-Fi Going Corporate?

Greg Nolfi’s The Adjustment Bureau is maybe best described as sci-fi-lite. It raises issues of free will, fate, and the conflict between personal happiness and professional success, only to reconcile the contradictions nicely. It should not come as a surprise that Matt Damon’s character David Norris leans towards love over career at the pivotal moment, but there’s still food for thought.

Nolfi’s ideas and representations are interesting partly because they aren’t particularly original. In Bureau life is run by angels dressed in three piece suits and fedora’s, bland professionals who are more conscientious than decidedly evil or good.

Terrence Stamp in all his eurovillain greatness

Look at the man above. He’s Thompson, an “agent”, one of the men trying to stop Norris from pursuing Elise Selas (Emily Blunt). At the most basic level, Thompson is Agent Smith(s) from the Wachowski’s The Matrix (1999), the fabric-weaving Fraternity from Bekmambetov’s Wanted (2008), and Conducter 71 in Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946). They are the referees of our world, challenging our existential desires to be in control of our actions, our futures. Adjustment Bureau most closely resembles Life and Death, where David Niven’s character (David Niven = David Norris maybe?) fights a legal battle with heaven to stay on earth with the woman he loves. In both films angels are dutiful subjects of an enormous and puzzling bureaucracy, slightly Kafkaesque but not overwhelmingly good or evil. Pressburger reinvented heaven in 20th century terms: reception desks and log books for the recently deceased, secular courts, and the same human propensity for clerical error and inefficiency.

Hugo Weaving to the power of x

Why does Fate tend to look like an investment analyst or Wall street banker? It’s remarkable that Nolfi and the Wachowskis went for such a commonplace look (though the Bureau‘s agents could be referencing Mad Men) considering how fantastic their powers are. You have to wonder if agents always dressed like this or simply imitate the dress codes of the elite of each generation. In Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946) the Conductor where’s the elite clothing of his society, the French nobility during the Enlightenment.

Christopher Nolan thought along similar lines when conceiving Inception. A.O. Scott of The New York Times was right to observe how “pedestrian” the content of the dreams were. The subconscious, which could have taken any form, was conceived as men in suits in armoured SUVs, shooting at each other. More Fleming than Freud.

In the New Yorker David Denby complained that the dreams did not look like dreams but “different kinds of action movies jammed together“. Like Nolan, Nolfi is clever without being too original: he continually refers back to our common cultural understanding of what looks cool and assured. There’s less time spent reflecting on choice, destiny, etc  in Adjustment Bureau than running around Manhattan, some of it to the Britpop nostalgia of Richard Ashcroft songs. That’s fine  because Nolfi succeeds in making an enjoyable experience. He has no mandate to be thought-provoking.

You could nail Inception and The Matrix for not fully pursuing the interesting philosophical and existential questions they raise, but you would miss the real point of their type of science fiction. Some films are meant to be enjoyed as fast-paced and easily digestible thrillers.

In the post-Star Wars age, I don’t think science fiction is going to be nearly as visually inventive or removed from our symbols and styles. Even our superhero movies have taken a more realistic turn. Superman and Spiderman are out (for the time being); Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are in love with technology and commercial intrigue; Ironman is a love song to rascally capitalism.

Expect more men in suits, less Bladerunner or Brazil-ian dystopia. While the dilemmas will remain as interesting, the environments will probably become familiar and sleek, the villains more like executives at Goldman Sachs.

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Eden of Exploitation

Although I wouldn’t call the adventures of Americans making B-movies in the Philippines a dry subject, Machete Maidens Unleashed! is a joyride of a documentary, breezing through talking heads and endless clips of guns, girls, and gore with one adoring and one ironic eye to exploitation films. Writer/director Mark Hartley is quickly establishing himself as the top archivist of cinematic trash, chronicling Ozploitation (Australian genre filmmaking) in Not Quite Hollywood (2008).

Turning his gaze two dozen degrees northward, Hartley starts in the mid 1960s, when the domestic Filipino film industry was churning out over 350 titles a year. Kane W. Lyn, an American G.I. who had made the tropical islands his home, partnered with director Eddie Romero to attract overseas investment. The country had everything you could want for economical production: cheap labour, dense jungles, and available exotic women. Lyn and Romero sold horror flick after horror flick to American drive-in audiences with what critic Mark Holcomb calls the requisite three B’s: Blood, Breasts, and Beasts.

After cult producer/director Roger Corman saw one such masterpiece, Beast of the Yellow Night, he visited the Philippines and his New World Productions oversaw a decade of astonishing qualitative, if not quantitative, output. Notable for mediocre film history was the desperate-women-in-prison genre, which Corman updated in Big Doll House (1971), Pam Grier’s breakout role.

In interviews Grier and her co-stars suggest the girls-gone-wild film empowered women in cinema, giving black actors roles they would not have found in the Hollywood system. I find this a stretch, a moment when Hartley is looking too hard for a redemptive angle. Did Women in Cages and The Big Bird Cage pave the road for Ripley in Alien? Maybe, but turning abused objects into gun-spraying killers is a pretty limited arc for feminist liberation. As director John Landis says: “They took control. But they’ll show you their tits!”

Well, at least Hartley shows both sides of the argument. What he tends to hurry over is the mutually exclusive relationship Corman had with the country’s brutal dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. New World was truly exploitation filmmaking, using reckless stuntmen happy to get five pesos even if it meant breaking limbs. Marcos volunteered the use of his army, especially ironic in films like The Hot Box (1972 – one of Jonathan Demme’s first) sporting revolutionary, anti-fascist messages.

But apart from an unnecessary sequence on Apocalypse Now’s troubled shoot (better see Hearts of Darkness: Apocalypse Now for the full story) the doc sticks to its trashy subject, capturing a unique moment in place and time before multiplexes and Star Wars. Now our bad taste comes in big budgets too.

You can also find this article at The Varsity, the student newspaper at the University of Toronto.

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