First up, the boring part of the review: Blade Runner 2049 is amazing and you should go see it. It is a very good heir to the original Blade Runner, if only because it compels you to think about the original in a new way. Even down to basic questions like: ‘Could the original Blade Runner be made today?’ ‘How do we feel about the legal/political/social questions of the original movie today?’ and ‘Should we think more closely about the genre of film that seems to be defined by multiplicity of versions?’
It is a beautiful movie that somehow matches sophomoric and boring questions about authenticity with much more difficult questions about technology and sexuality. The movie is closer in substance to the original theatrical cut of Blade Runner than to the Final Cut: there’s very little ambiguity about the content of the movie, and the movie does a lot (too much for my tastes) to make it really, really clear where we’re up to in the story. I would have been happy with many of the movie’s questions to remain unresolved. In a sense, even the biggest questions from the plot don’t really need an answer. I look forward to watching a dozen edits of this movie over the next three decades.
For those of you who unwisely avoid spoilers, here is where you should stop. I want to discuss a few scenes in particular, and why some of the criticism about the film’s sexual and racial aspects are unwarranted.
It’s a well-known dance. The government announces a new national security policy, then the media and the usual human rights organisations breathlessly inform us that this is Orwellian, Kafkaesque, and the last piece of evidence we need to support their preferred policy option (usually some Bill of Rights or a Federal Independent Commission Against Corruption). After a few days, we go back to normal when a Kardashian posts a ‘problematic’ selfie to Instagram or something similarly edifying.
Why does the debate happen like this?
‘Every child deserves a mum and a dad.’ ‘Every child has a right to their biological parents.’ ‘What about the children?’ ‘What about the rights of the child?’
I kept hearing this rhetoric repeated again and again by the No campaign. Biological family was inalienable, a birthright with which the State should not interfere, an entitlement beyond the reach of social engineering.
Even as a conservative myself, I find this position a bit basic. It’s certainly not historically how our society has operated. For all the dodgy studies trying to convince us that there is something essential that a person gets through a relationship with a biological mother and biological father, there is the obvious preference that people have stability and certainty. People will love each other and bring children into their family units; it would be preferable that this unit be as stable as possible regardless of the gendered accidents of the people involved.
Australia has not had the greatest history of protecting families. Even recently, rules have changed on family visas making it harder to reunite families in Australia.
But perhaps the worst example of this attitude towards families was the genocidal attack on Australia’s Indigenous culture through what would become known as the Stolen Generations. For all this rhetoric about the need to preserve family units, we should expect that the loudest voices behind the No campaign are also the most outspoken about the atrocity of forcibly destroying family units.
Media portrayals of terrorism are racially loaded. There’s no doubt about it. But the way in which it is racially loaded is not immediately apparent, and a lot of the hot takes in the media today following the shooting in Vegas shows that people can be far too hasty in their presentation of issues.
Put simply, the problem is not the use of language to describe events, but the difference in prominence of events.
About ten years ago, Mick Garris put together an anthology show for Showtime called Masters of Horror. I’m currently going through a phase of thinking through how the tropes of horror films can influence our intuitions about legal things, thus I’m watching a lot of horror movies. While researching the background to one movie, I came across notes to this anthology series curated by Garris. Helpfully, it is streaming on Stan.
So you’re given the opportunity to curate 26 short horror movies of about 60 minutes each. How many of them do you think you’d allocate to female writer/director teams?
If you answered ‘None of them’, then you’d at least be consistent with Masters of Horror. In fairness to Garris, he then produced a third series (called Fear Itself) and that at least included one female director.
What is weird about this is the way that the vast majority of the anthology series spends a lot of time talking about women, either as victims or as monsters. In the case of a lesbian, both (‘Sick Girl’, produced as a horror-comedy).
This is one of the problem with our current cultural gatekeepers. Australia has a vibrant horror scene that is largely dominated by female writers and directors, and yet there’s no obvious pathway for mainstream audiences to come into contact with their work.
It’s not just market failure: it is a deeper structural problem about how Australians perform their culture. It is also a failure to invest in our own stories in the hope that North Americans would invest in our arts scene (see, for example, why so many science fiction and fantasy shows were shot in Australia and New Zealand, but we have a moribund local science fiction and fantasy industry; see also how the Commonwealth Government has invested in bringing blockbuster films to Australia at taxpayer expense but radically underfunds both local cultural production and local exhibition).
This loops me back to the start. Because very few people are given the opportunity to curate 26 short films, we keep squandering resources on the same people who are responsible for the current state of the culture industry. It also means that we keep seeing the repetition of old problems — particularly the lack of diversity in storytelling. More worrying (from my perspective) is that this approach has drastically reduced the gene pool of those who are responsible for the production and reproduction of cultural norms (such as the ones that generate intuitions about legal issues).
The heroes need to track a villain’s girlfriend. They need to plant a tracking device in her bloodstream. It turns out the only way to get the tracking device into the girlfriend’s bloodstream is to put the trackers inside her vagina. The audience guffaws. Which of the heroes is going to have to stick their finger down her pants?! How incredibly funny! Somebody has to sexually assault the woman to get the tracking device into her blood! Ha ha! It’s funny.
But it did make me wonder why this device would be necessary. What if the target had been male? How would they have tracked him? Are they only able to track women? If they are able to track men, how do they get the device all the way up the urethra? Or do they have an alternative method of getting the tracking device into their bloodstream? If so, why didn’t they use that method on the villain’s girlfriend?
Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a bad film. The only good parts are Elton John shouting ‘Fuck’ at people (‘Fuck you! Fuck off! Fuck this! … the fuck?’) I could watch those bits on loop for two hours and it would be a more satisfying movie that the rest of this train wreck of a movie.
Procrastination, gentle reader, makes me productive in every way except the ways in which I ought to be.
I’m not joking. I have three books that I need to read by tomorrow, an essay with a deadline that is rapidly approaching, a stack of audio that I should edit, I need to clean out my bedroom, and a shortlist of job applications I need to submit… but the weather is inviting, and there’s a nice cafe down the road, and I have three new books that I’d like to pour over, and there are some movies I’d like to watch at the cinema. I want to write short stories and then delete them so that nobody can see how bad they are. I bought some letter paper a few weeks ago, but it’s too large for writing letters, so I might draw on those instead. And I love reading essays. I want to be a better essayist, but I keep succumbing to the self-doubt that I’m dull and turgid. Maybe I’m the only person left who still gets excited by essays. I want to print out old literary essays on cheap pamphlet paper and slip them into friends’ letter boxes, leave them on colleagues’ desks, tuck them into books at the library for complete strangers to discover.
Of course, I’m not actually going to do this because I haven’t completely lost my biscuits yet.
The vast majority of politics — regardless of the side of the fence you are on — is not intellectually serious. I keep wondering why the quality of political debate is so poor, and I keep coming back to pseudo-economic reasoning: the cost of having a good quality conversation is greater than the cost of having a free-for-all, no-holds-barred, scramble.
Facts are a cost. Patience is a cost. Understanding is a cost. Far cheaper to let fly with a bit of bellyfeel and be done with it.
It is commonly noted that a conceit of liberals is that everybody would agree with them if only they had more facts. You are liberal or you are ignorant. I, quite obviously, do not subscribe to that theory (holding, in my heart of hearts, that the more you know, the more conservative you become). But I think that most liberals believe the theory that facts are always on their side, that liberalism is inevitable, and that liberalism is self evidently the natural conclusion of political thought.
I think this is why progressives are bad at politics.
Our society tells us consistently that violence is less shocking than sex. Sex is the real taboo.
And by ‘sex’, I don’t mean rape. Movies are fine with showing violence that happens to involve genitals. While our movies will gleefully wash screens with blood splatter from every newly imagined torture, seeing two people passionately embrace — fluids and all — is squarely in the realm of the pornographic.
The Handmaiden, directed by Park Chan-wook, steps up to the challenge of demonstrating a nuanced, intelligent approach to making sex seem genuinely beautiful and authentic, but violence seem extreme and taboo.
Having just finished the new season of Twin Peaks, I was caught again in a classic question about cinema: what is it about? Being a narrative dork, my instinctive answer is that cinema is about storytelling. Where once we sat around fires and sang each other heroic epics, or passed on ghost stories at the dinner table, now we watch movies or television.
I freely admit that I privilege narrative over other purposes of cinema, but the risk is that I miss other functions of cinema, like the artistry of composition. Perhaps again revealing my biases and predilections, I am quite fine for a short film or digital media piece to contain absolutely no narrative, but just be beautiful, but that’s because short films and digital media isn’t real cinema. Narrative is king.
Twin Peaks invites a challenge to that view. The narrative takes a back seat to the aesthetic and ideas, challenging the audience to overcome its perceived need for closure, coherence, and completeness. But, again, we are in the area of television (or, perhaps, episodic cinema). Is the fascination with Twin Peaks more that it’s quirky in contrast with ‘real’ cinema/television? It’s nice for a treat, but we really want the substantive stuff?
I tried to test this out by looking at two mainstream movies that prioritised aesthetic over substance… but I suspect I chose poorly. What follows, gentle reader, is a blog post that wasn’t what I intended to write when I watched these two films. What follows is the ravings of a man driven half insane by visions that no mortal man should ever see, visions strange and unnatural, visions of demons that haunt the minds of others deep in the void that exists behind their eyes whose incessant chants call to the Old Gods who, not dead, are long in sleep and whom we dare not wake lest they return to the world of men.
I watched The Neon Demon and Jem & the Holograms and I regret it so much.