Category Archives: Criticism

Dark City

It should not be too much of a surprise that Alex Proyas is turning to literary adaptations and moving away from sci-fi. He is currently in pre-production from Paradise Lost, an action movie based on John Milton’s Christian epic poem dramatizing the war between God and Lucifer. Later he’ll be directing Dracula: Year Zero that seems to about the historical and mythological origins of the first vampire. The Greek director’s 90s output (The Crow, Dark City) was informed by classical and religious texts coated with slick and anachronistic sets – a style similar to Terry Gilliam’s, if less dependent on occasional Monty Python humour.

Critics and fans have had a lot to say about Dark City (1998), a neo noir science fiction film about John Murdoch, an amnesia-stricken citizen of a world run by soulless aliens called ” Strangers”.  Here are some of the ideas being thrown around:

Plato’s Cave

Theologian Gerard Loughlin explains the popular theory that Murdoch’s journey is an allegory of Plato’s Cave.  See his book Alien Sex: The Body and Desire in Cinema and Theology (pages 46-8) for the full passage.

In the time before the story of the film opens, Murdoch is like most of the city’s other inhabitants, prisoners who do not know they are prisoners in a city that is the projection of the ‘strangers’ […] Each night at midnight, the city stops. It is then that the strangers transform the city through their collective and mechanically augmented will power, raising and lowering city blocks, rearranging roads and rail tracks, and changing the memories of the city’s inhabitants.

Proyas adds the inconstancy of identity to Plato’s story: everyone’s memory is everyone’s memory, swapped and shared collectively every 24 hours. Loughlin continues:

Murdoch’s journey out of the city-cave is assisted by Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), producing the memory cocktails that are nightly administered to the city’s sleeping inhabitants. Like Socrates to Glaucon, Shreber carefully explains to Murdoch the means by which the shadows are cast. In order to learn the secret of the city, Murdoch does not ascend above it, but it led beneath it, into its bowels. Nor is he simply the prisoner become Glaucon, he is a Glaucon who comes to realize that Socrates’ tale of an upper, more real world, is itself a shadow, a forgery.

(Glaucon is the one listening to Socrates tell his allegory, as documented by Plato in his The Republic) Instead of being given an educational role, it seems that by the end of Dark City Murdoch has simply replaced the Strangers. He pretties up the place, but it’s still a fantasy, now his own fantasy. Blinding sunlight has washed out the darkness and water has filled the deep space void that surrounds the city – but is his life any more “real” than it was before, or his soul more permanent?

In this way the film has a conventional ‘happy ending’, that is nevertheless disturbing, since John Murdoch’s newly enlightened world exists only as he wills it, based on childhood memories that are themselves illusions, without originals within the city-cave.

Protein Structure and Plato

Gnostic Knowledge

Keoni Chavez of Screened.com wrote about Dark City, Inception, The Matrix, and Christian Gnosticism, the belief  that a being called a ‘demiurge’ created the material world, an illusion in the path of true divine illumination and salvation. You can see where this is going:

In each of these films, there is a baseline universe that is hidden to those without the proper knowledge of how to access it. In Dark City, control is achieved through “tuning”, a way to influence matter through the power of the mind. In The Matrix, the running computer simulation that informs the title of the movie is so convincing that special effort must be made to overcome the illusion and see the world for what it truly is. In Inception things are a little reversed: reality is fine, but through proper training, one’s dreams can be shaped into worlds as real-seeming as anything.

Even if normal, continuous reality is unattainable (as in Dark City), the hero’s task is to find other planes of reality or other planes of being. Murdoch has to escape from the trap of the memories he holds to be his own. In that sense he has to lose himself, transcend the individual to come to an understanding of the city’s collective consciousness. Not surprisingly, he draws closer to the Strangers’ “hive mind”, where there is no individual soul or memory but a shared pool of knowledge – memory in a communist state.

God as Everything

A blogger I used to follow had a fascinating idea about the ultimate point of human existence, and, while this may sound outlandish and unrelated t0 Dark City, think of it as an extension of Proyas’ explorations of knowledge and reality:

A rock is a rock, but it also embodies the concept of ‘rock’. For ease of visualization, a concept can be regarded as a singular point in some vast hypothetical space. There are millions of these conceptual points in the human consciousness.

But, the writer reminds us, human consciousness changes and grows through time. Gravity was not a known concept five hundred years ago, yet it existed outside the space of human knowledge:

Now if one were to consider all of these concept-points that exist but are not yet perceived, the night sky fills up with countless more stars […] Now we visualize what appears to be the sum total of all knowledge.

Spinoza believed God to be the sum total of physical laws that described the universe, and the writer comes to a similar conclusion:

I argue that this sum total of all conceptual points and connections is God […] If all of these conceptual points were to be perceived by one consciousness there would still be one unknown concept: nothing. This consciousness would not be able to perceive the concept of nothing, because to completely understand nothing you must know no-thing. The remedy to this problem is simple, however. Create a machine that accumulates knowledge, then delete everything in this conscious network. The aforementioned machine can then re-accumulate all knowledge into a conscious network again.

And, the final argument (one that would make an excellent premise for an Alex Proyas movie):

I further argue that this machine that re-accumulates knowledge is what has come to be known as life. Our universe is its operating environment.

Shoulda seen the crowd we got together for the séance last weekend.

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Twisted Endings

French Canadian cinema tends to produce at least one or two critical darlings a year that do well at the Quebec box office while winning awards at festivals around the world. One of these films, Incendies is doing well, at least by modest Canadian standards. Dennis Villeneuve’s drama swept the Genies (Canadian film awards) and even got an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film. The Toronto Film Festival has been screening it at the Lightbox almost daily for a couple of months, a pretty good indication of Incendies‘ warm reception, if not its financial success.

Worth noting is that Villeneuve is not tackling nationalistic subject matter. He’s not making Paschendaele or Score: A Hockey Musical. He’s not even discussing events taking place in Canada like he did in Polytechnique, his last feature. Incendies is based on Canadian-Lebanese writer Wajdi Mouawad’s play about a brother and sister uncovering their mother’s involvement in the Lebanese civil war. The story begins in Montreal where Nawal Marwan slips into a coma, leaving only a cryptic letter pointing her children homeward. It’s a detective story but not a very talky one. Villeneuve loves his long steadicam shots and orchestrates scene with an eye for visuals, not an ear for the dialogue, which is precise, Spartan or dull, depending on your sensibilities.

Two wrongs make a right, right? Hockey is losing its grip on young people across Canada; the musical has been a dying genre since MGM lost its mind after 1960. How could this go wrong?

So while Incendies is not about Canada, it touches on what is often referred to as “the immigrant experience”; a pretty empty and patronizing phrase that suggests there’s a unifying truth behind the disparate backstories of the hundreds of thousands of newcomers that start new lives in Canada. At the opening of the film Marwan’s children know next to nothing of their cultural and biological heritage. Her daughter Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) tries to step into her mother’s shoes by travelling to her homeland. Though I hope most Canadian immigrants are not escaping from lives as horrible as Marwan’s, there is something in this movie that speaks to the confusing process of discovering the skeletons in your parents’ closets and the disorientation the children of immigrants go through when coming across unexpected secrets, like a missed step in the dark.

But let’s not turn this into a Canadian public service announcement: Incendies‘ main focus is the desperate struggle between Muslims and Christians in Lebanon from 1975-1990. French Canadian company micro_scope co-produced with France’s TS Productions and Phi Group.  Until the film’s very end, Marwan’s flashbacks are astoundingly realistic.

The Spoiler of What Spoiled the Story

Marwan spends much of the film searching for the illegitimate child her brothers gave to an orphanage. After the murder of her uncle’s family, Marwan becomes an assassin for the Muslim faction (I think) and assassinates the Christian warlord responsible (I think he’s from the South Lebanese Army).  She is taken to one of the notorious Khiam prisons in the south of Lebanon, where a professional torturer named Abou Tarek tries to break her spirit by raping her. In a self-consciously shocking plot twist, it turns out her child was taken from the orphanage to become a sniper for the regional militias, eventually becoming a feared torturer and rapist.

Is he called Abou Tarek? It seems I keep talking a lot about King Oedipus in this blog, but this time Villeneuve leaves me no option. It turns out that Marwan was raped by her own son and her twin children’s step-brother is also their father. As if this were not enough, Incendies concludes by Marwan speaking beyond the grave to her children – including Tarek, who is now a bus cleaner in Montreal. In her letters she stresses the enduring love she feels for them, no matter how they turned out, and while the tone is supposed to be redemptive and even heart-warming, my insides remained cold and queasy. This would be, I think, the equivalent of Sophocles writing an epilogue in which Oedipus smiles and reflects on the happy memories (bar incest) he has of his mother/wife Jocasta.

"We'll always have Thebes."

I don’t think I’m alone in finding the ending unwelcome.

Christopher Bell of IndieWIRE:

 The result is so overly-shocking that the real surprise is the audacity of the filmmaker to commit to such a thing—to reference an early capsule review of ours, it’s more or less lifted from a soap opera.

Mark Holcomb of The Village Voice: (again with the soap-opera comparison)

Nawal’s travails are more in the vein of a Latin American soap opera than Greek tragedy, and Jeanne and Simon’s climactic, genuinely god-awful discovery plays like artistic sleight-of-hand rather than the profoundly tautological revelation it aspires to be.

Liam Lacey of The Globe and Mail:

The conclusion of Incendies feels more ingenious than convincing. It’s designed by the artist as puppet-master for worthy didactic reasons. The problem becomes awkwardly obvious in the final flurry of voice-over letters that conclude the film in an unearned shower of healing and reconciliation.

In drama, less if often more, especially if your story includes civilians being burnt alive in buses and children hiding from snipers in urban rubble. Incendies is genuine and forceful until it reveals the emotional manipulation that remains effectively screen behind any resonant work of art.

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Talking to Liam Lacey

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. You can also find this interview on The Varsity website. If you like this, subscribe on the right!

Critics occupy an odd and often awkward position between the audience and the artist, playing both observer and judge to the latest cultural output. Asking the right questions – and adjusting your idea of objectivity from text to text – is a fine line to walk. The Globe and Mail’s Liam Lacey returns again and again to Goerthe’s criteria: “what is trying to do? Does it do it? Does it matter? The last question is obviously the most tricky.”

It’s refreshing to dissect the dissector, to ask questions to the person with the job of anticipating our questions. Lacey is candid and unpretentious, able to see the merits of Hobo With A Shotgun and the shortcomings of Abbas Koriastami’s arty Certified Copy. He pauses to stare at the table before readying his words and then begins anew, hand moving across the surface. The spiked sprout of white Beckettian hair above his forehead and the red-rimmed glasses complete the image of slightly hip thoughtfulness.

“We’re not academics, we’re not in the business of scholarship. There’s an evaluative aspect of our job. When it boils down to it, we say whether something is good or not.” Nevertheless, he looks up to thinkers he calls “heroic critics”. “When I came to U of T, Frye and McLuhan were still here. They were social philosophers who made the role of the critic more attractive. They were creative critics.”

Lacey took only one film course – Bart Testa was his TA – when he did his English BA. In 1979 Testa helped him land a job as a rock critic at the Globe, a position he held until 1993 when the late, great Jay Scott passed away. Rick Groen took over and Lacey helped pick up the slack. Now they divide the reviews between them, and Lacey readily admits “it’s an ongoing learning curve.”

Neither is it a job that needs an obvious set of skills or knowledge. “You could spend a lot of time learning Japanese cinema, or even Japanese cinema from the 50s, but that doesn’t have much to do with your day-to-day job. You have your 3-5 stories thrown at you week-to-week on a regular basis.” In the early 90s he was given the genre pictures, the leftovers other critics didn’t want to take. That type of art is a whole different animal from the (self-)important art film, and takes a different set of tools to pass judgment.

“I don’t know what my standards are sometimes,” laughs Lacey. An unsure critic is often the best kind of critic. “Standards shift from film to film. There’s no cookie cutter model or moral grid that I use. I’m reviewing Certified Copy, and it’s interesting but less substantial than Koriastami’s Iranian work. Hobo With a Shotgun is a well-done spoof of a genre film. Jason Eisner, the director, has a great eye for the subject, the editing, the humour.”

David Pike, The Varsity

If going against critical consensus has consequences, Lacey shrugs them off. “You can give a negative review of a film well-regarded by elite critics. But if I dismiss Copy, it’s not going to ruin my life. I’ll get called bad names. It’s easy to get away with being anti-highbrow.”

Lacey’s influences include the usual suspects: Andrew Sarris, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Pauline Kael, David Kehr, David Bordwell (“always very useful”), Jay Scott and music guru Robert Christga of the The Village Voice. He quotes his colleague Rick Groen: “It’s true everyone’s a critic, but a critic isn’t everyone.” However, the internet has arguably made a critic out of everyone with an IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes account.

“You used to have to read the local critic to know what was good. I think the gatekeeper role is over. You don’t have authority anymore just because you have the job. It’s more honest, in a way.” There’s an ambivalence in his voice, as if the future holds both good and bad.

“There used to be a hierarchy in journalism. Some newspapers would publish the consumer report, basically an unambiguous judgement. Other were entertaining in themselves, taking the art at a distance and try to look at it in terms of wider cultural forces.” Publishers are leaning to the report. “They want smaller pieces with more evaluative statements.”

I mention how the print version Globe is starting to like a website. “The big push is to work graphics and charts into the text, but this isn’t the same as actual critical discourse. The film enthusiast doesn’t lose out; the internet can take you to some very sophisticated criticism. You’re not trapped in IMDB forums. But we’re not, I think, moving in a high-end direction.”

As to the state of film-making itself, Lacey has a nuanced outlook. “There’s something interesting happening. Hollywood cut back from around 160 to 148 films a year. Emphasis is more on tentpoles and sequels and all of this would seem to counter the idea of making medium-sized dramas and art films. But Black Swan, True Grit, The King’s Speech – each made over $100 million. So audiences are looking for alternatives.” This may actually be because of changes in media distribution. “When there’s a glut of alternatives, people might be looking for something smarter. The internet could be producing a smarter, more discerning consumer.”

If North Americans are flocking to see dramas, why aren’t Canadians going to see Canadian films? “The problem is the thinking that box office is the same as profit. Passchendaele made four million but it had a twenty million dollar budget. That’s an abject failure by any objective evaluation, but people called ‘high performing’. I would like to see the Canadian industry operate like it did in the 90s, when we scored at international festivals with cheaper art films and didn’t go for pseudo-commercial projects like Score.”

When asked about his favourite period he says French historical films from the 40s and 50s are a continuing revelation. “Melville, Renoir – I keep going back to them. You see lost skills, lost methods of acting, of filming a scene.” He smiles, maybe coming to the node of what criticism means for him. “I think the hardest part is telling myself that one film is never exactly the same as the other. It’s a question of sharing that experience with the reader, to try and get different people to see different films.”

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