Hidden Figures (2016) – slice

In the end, they are looking at–and trying to solve–the same problem.

Theodore Melfi’s film about three trailblazers in NASA is expectedly conventional. It has beginning, rising tension, emotional chords and ending almost exactly as you would expect from a film like this. It starts within the system and stays in the system. And it still is satisfying.

Some may attribute this cinematic satisfaction to the subject itself; the underdog coming to dominate, or the underprivileged blasting off to success (pun intended) in the sea instituional prejudices, are all too familiar sujects of a good Hollywood drama film. Hollywood, from the start, may have been a deeply racist system, but one cannot deny that it is also a system that knows how to make sure a subject like this to be, well, satisfactory. The tools are beyond doubt effective.

It has all the failures that radicals will point out: has a white male boss that solves the big problem, has an all-American white guy who happens to be really nice regardless of what skin colour his conversation partner has, not really focusing the problem on wide scope, etc, and that’s one way of looking at the film.

What impresses me the most the films acknowledgement of the institutional side of the problem. There are racists/sexists in the film, yes. However, you very rarely see open and intentional hatred against blacks or women. Most of people do what they do not because they are openly racists/sexists and have a willful resentment towards these groups, but because of the deep entrenched ideology they themselves may participate but did not create, therefore stays ignorant about.

The subject of this film then is so befitting. It’s about women achieving something for the first time in their society to help the society achieve something for the first time. The film emphasises on the idea of “first” as an all-American concept. First space travel, first black woman to be an engineer, first judge to allow that black woman to be an engineer for the first time so that the first orbital space travel can end in success, and the list goes on and on. Even the main dramatic dilemma strikes when America is not first. The film simpifies the bipolar political order of Cold War into a race with two contestants, where “difference” only denotes being behind.

It is an effective setup in this context because it ultimately incorporates that concept into the idea of fighting institutional racism and sexism. It focuses on the idea of “first” rather than “change”–by doing so, the film argues the destined course of history, that this is bound to happen. Just as America should be “first” in space race because that is the destined course of history, the eradication of racism and sexism is something that will happen as a part of natural progress. It will not mean a “change” in direction, but a step forward. The question is then, who will be the first to do so.

It is an interesting paradox: prejudices are institutionally-rooted, but it is also institutionally destined those prejedices be eradicated. The film understands that the problems of racism and sexism can only be fixed by acknowledging the institutional entrenchment of those ideals, but it also recognizes that the institution functions better in achieving its manifest destiny by eradicating those institutional problems within itself. Therefore, one may argue the film precisely highlights the importance of internal reform within the institution, instead of a change forced by an external pressure. There is only one direction an institution can progress: being better by being “first,” and not changing to something entirely different.

And this attitude on the problem shifts the perspective of the issue quite effectively. The problem is not really about explicit racism; it’s about implicit racism that is normalized, and how that affects the marginalized. Take the bathroom problem the film shows repeatedly: it means a lot to Katherine, having to run basically a mile in heels just to get to a bathroom. And once changed, it does not mean a lot of difference to those who were initially privileged, but it does to people who weren’t. If anything, it opens up new doors for both the previously underprivileged and the originally privileged (Kirsten Dunst’s character saves her white female computers from being let go from their job by reconciling with her African American colleague–in now-desegregated bathroom).

After the change, really, the life doesn’t change much for white people in the film. The most racist “villain” of the film comes to naturally accept his African American colleague. To him, it’s not really how he becomes suddenly anti-racist, aware of his wrongdoings and feels guilty about them–instead, he just adjusts the new normal, which really just feels like a natural progression of his institution, just like the introduction of IBM. For America and NASA, their chief enemy remains the Russians. America is America, and really, America without racism/sexism is just a more effective America; it is not new America, at least in the eyes of initially privileged.

I think that’s one of the chief reasons it works in this specific context, because the film understands that bringing about institutional change can really mean no change at all to people who are not affected by it. Sticking to conventional Hollywood system to expose systematic problems, ironically, works, because of this. While it will surely give audiences who are women of colour a reason to be proud of their identity, but in the end, I don’t think this is a film for them; instead, it’s a film for normal Americans who are not affected by everyday institutional prejudices–telling them, “no, the world is not going to end if we change it, in fact, it will barely change for you.” Radicals will argue that is not enough–and in some areas, they are absolutely right–but then again, it’s a film about a part of human history where the most memorable moment is signified with “one, small step.”


Moana (2016) – slice

The Hero of Men. Oh the irony.
The Hero of Men. Oh the irony.

After the landmark release of Frozen (2013), and this year’s lauded Zootopia (2016), Disney’s latest revisionist effort does not shy away from the company’s recent political expression as well. Directed by the legends of first Disney Renaissance (Ron Clements and John Musker who directed Aladdin and Little Mermaid), Moana boasts the traditionalist story that is expected from those who helmed the film, with a sense of modern liberal philosophy that is now familiar with the company’s house style. However, the film is not a backward compromise; rather, its restructuring of the traditional formula surprisingly suggests a relatively radical revision not found in the company’s previous entries.

One of the biggest factors that makes the current Disney Revival different from the first Renaissance in 90s is the political awareness. For years Disney has been an easy target for feminist critics–and with good reason too, with their traditionalist, damsel-in-distress portrayal of princesses, with gender roles divided into the classic Mulveyian binary of active male and passive female. Sleeping Beauty (1959) is their most glaring offense in this area, which they did show some effort to revise it in their re-interpretation of the text in Maleficent (2012). It is not to say that 90s Renaissance lacked any sense of revisionist agenda–Mulan (1998) suggests an active, fighting heroine that saves the day at the end with her own wits and might. However, Mulan‘s gender dynamic is a controversial one in the end: the female gains a voice and ability to act through her male facade. Therefore, it follows the much-debated concept of gender-reversal, something that has been criticized to have questionable effectiveness in capturing the idea of gender struggle on screen.

In that sense, from Tangled (2010)’s moderate yet still determined portrayal of the female protagonist to the rejection of spotlighting heteronormal romantic relationship in favour of focusing on familial bond in Frozen, the Disney Revival films seems to delve into the root of the problem: instead of highlighting the female presence within the traditional gender binary, the films attempt to restructure the gender binary altogether. This is most evident in Frozen, where it directly self-critiques some of the Disney traditions under this philosophy.

Moana, coming from that perspective, is an interesting one. It is made by the two who started, led and saw the end of the Disney Renaissance (Little Mermaid to Treasure Planet, both of which Clements and Musker directed). Most of the directors and co-directors in the current Revival era have made their first directoral debut durng this very era, with an exception of Chris Buck, who directed Tarzan (1999) before helming Frozen with Jennifer Lee. In that sense, Moana seems like a throwback (they are also a lot older than the new generation of Disney directors, and even older than John Lasseter)–and it feels like one too, with its general narrative structure closely following the traditional mould. It is within this context Moana rebuilds the traditional Disney gender dynamic with perhaps the company’s most daring agenda yet in mind.

It is not the titular heroine’s portrayal that is interesting; Moana is actually rather simillar to Disney’s now-staple female heroine–an active, independent subject whose actions are gender-free, with a hint of direct self-criticism (“I’m not a princess!” she repeats numerous times in the film). Instead, the film’s true revisionist spotlight goes to Maui’s portrayal.

Maui is the epitome of masculine potrayal. So much so that he is voiced by none other than The Rock himself, whose on-ring and on-screen prsona is closely associated with arrogant–almost comical–masculinity. He obsesses over the concept of traditional heroism, being loved by the people as their saviour, as well as the very tool that makes him a hero. The film’s comic representation of masculinity naturally leads to Maui’s inner insecurities: no Disney male hero, or hero-like character, has been this gender-consciously inscure. He’s a man who is defined by his powers that he himself identifies as gender-originated masculinity, and this obsession to his identity lays foundation of his dual character. This is revealed in a far more glaring light by the film’s juxtaposition with him and Tamatoa during the “Shiny” musical segment: Maui is a man who lost his (ultimately imagined) manhood, while Tamatoa is the one who prides upon his created manhood (his golden shell), and the fight between the two reveals the fruitlessness and the inherently comical nature of the battle of male prides.

His magical fishhook is then the best symbolic example of his insecurities. It makes him do all his feats that he boasts as the male hero, and more importantly, he is notably insecure without it. His identity, at least initially, feeds upon the power that makes him the male hero–which means that his masculine insecurities that come from the lack of such power are that much relevant to his characterization.

It was his insecurity that brought chaos to the world of Moana, and his realization and acknowledgement of that insecurity that brings order back to it. The symbol of his insecurity, the fishhook, is destroyed, then reborn and given back to him by the mother figure of the film; by doing so, the film crudely recognizes the falsehood of male masculinity, and reframes what he thought as his source of male masculinity as a matenal gift–something that originates from a female entity. Considering his insecurities were born from the lack of maternal guidance, this turn of events is appropriately ironic.

If previous Disney Revival films focused on building an interesting, independent, active and (relatively) gender-neutral female heroines, Moana looks to revise the other end of the spectrum. No other Disney Revival film has so thoroughly critiqued and broken down the concept of masculine insecurity and imagined manhood as Moana. Even better is that Moana does not seek to confuse young boys who are being raised in the gender-defined society; instead, the film renders comic these potentially-charged questions (especially with the help of Maui’s tattoos), and naturally lead them to the better alternative. This is where the film’s traditional narrative structure shines. Maui adopts the classic arrogant-then-enlightened hero development, similar to the directors’ Renaissance film Hercules (1997). The film merely adds gender-charged symbols throughout his development, and while some would find it insufficient, it is definitely effective.

Slow West (2015) – slice

Little house on the prairie, soon to be shattered.
Little house on the prairie, soon to be shattered.

John Maclean’s Slow West might as well be titled “Anti-West,” because the film is designed consciously with that concept in mind. In fact, the film makes it quite clear right from the start: two white men chase a Native American, a scenario not too dissimilar to a standard Western, yet they are confronted by a kid whom they cannot identify easily (the man bluntly asks “white or Indian?”) because he is essentially outside of the usual ethnic binary of the genre (despite being white). Then the white man is killed by another white man, who then coerces the kid into his custody. Such setup essentially regionalises the white race–the cultural concept which Westerns were most contributory to its formulation–into subsections. Right from the start, the film upsets the ethnic expectations of a typical Western genre, and it nevers stops.

The most admirable thing that Slow West does is how brutely yet also satisfyingly it breaks the generic mould of one of the Hollywood’s oldest genres. If Leone twisted the genre with his Spaghetti Westerns, and Tarantino merely placed the genre within his own cinematic world, Maclean takes the generic mould and obsessively goes against it. Usually, such approach comes with severe problems: going against the established norm for the sake of going against it is bound to trap the style in the reactionary cycle. But Slow West instead really slows down for its anti-Western concepts to float around and make its own meanings and interactions. It not only breaks the mould, but also shows us how beautiful the “other way” can be. It sets the frontier in a familiar yet fresh perspective.

I’m not just talking about the warm colour palettes (though certainly that is one of its strong suits); by upsetting the usual binaries (white/natives, civilization/frontier, female/male, law/outlaw) the film boasts a colourful cast of characters and episodes that are not about the narrative arc, but the contemplation on what frontier is. There are so many immigrants here–Scottish, Germans, blacks from French Caribbean, Asian, and even an assimilated Native who can be said to have re-immigrated to their own land–but none of them are represented by their colour, but what they do.

Many critics of Slow West are quick to point out the stylistic inspirations Maclean draws from well-known auteurs–the visual production and cinematic techniques resemble that of centre-obsessed, artifice-loving Wes Anderson, the snappy dialogue and quirky characters from Coen brothers, and the entire attitude towards approaching the Western genre to that of Quentin Tarantino. They all have valid points, but I believe the discussion is missing the point; I don’t believe that these parallels are the foundations of the film, but the foundations of the film encouraged Maclean to adopt such styles. Anderson-like visuals emphasise the artifice of the cinematic West created by a culture that was born long after (if one cannot achieve total realism of the frontier with cinema–The Revenant came close, but only so with aesthetics–why not validate its un-realism with surrealism?), while the Coen-esque characters and Tarantino-esque generic attitude work to further explore its themes of anti-West. The film feeds upon these great Western revisionists, and brings them to a new level of playing field (not necessarily “better” but certainly different).

In that sense, the warm colour palette and the tragimedy story go hand-in-hand. The frontier the old Westerns were set against was not the legendary landmarks that Monument Valley seems to propose; rather, it was a slow-boiling pot of people, with their own stories and goals, settling in a land already populated. The film recognizes this, and that is why the last shot is exactly the opposite of the last shot in The Searchers–instead of the camera capturing a lone gunman wandering back into the frontier through the doorway of a darkly-lit room, the lone gunman comes inside towards the camera, and the home is painted in bright white. It’s a strong, noticeable antithesis. It just understands how to handle that.

Public Enemies (2009) – slice

Public images--digital or film?
Public images–digital or film?

The most immediate, instinctive reaction to watching Mann’s 2009 crime biopic is the image. We are graced–or should we say shunned away–by the decidedly digital look of the film. We audiences, especially cinephiles, have a certain set of expectations for a gangster film set in the old days–from Cagney films to even the recent films like Hillcoat’s Lawless–because the Hollywood, like Western, has extensively used the films as a way for creating a myth within the history. We expect these films to be films because we really can’t imagine any other way.

Mann’s extensive use of digital imagery here–and I don’t mean CGI, but the feel of the image itself–confuses the audience; so much to the point that I kept forgetting that the story itself is an average one, like many of Mann’s other action films. This conflict is such a strong one that it distracts the viewers from actually focusing on the film.

I believe such love-hate style was intentional. Mann has always been into realism at a formal level–his firefight sequences especially in Heat is legendary for providing an unparalleled sense of realism. When other Hollywood movies would tone down the echoes and other noise that interfere with clear sound, Heat left them all in. Here, Mann does the similar thing with digital imagery–all the documentary-like lagging images are left behind, creating a strangely indie-like 30fps feel, instead of the academy standard 24fps.

If the film just used that for the ungraspably vague concept of realism, it would have worked against the film’s initial intentions. But Mann plays arond with the concept of supposed realism and filmic expectations. A film set in the thirties, one can safely assume that cinematographers and lighting directors would do their best to highlight the richness of the era embodied in the mise-en-scene, but Public Enemies clearly ignores that. It does not glamourize the era, and instead, with cinematography that focuses on constant movement rather than carefully orchestrated placements, the film intertextually denies the public imagination.

But Mann does not stop there. He brings what every director brings in when making a joke about filmic images. There are two scenes in movie theatres here, and the first one shows an interesting disjoint between the two method of public image processes. The scene starts as Hoover congratulates young crime stoppers in a public commendation ceremony; it soon turns into a film image within the film, and the strangely smooth 30fps moving images soon slows down to the more recognizable sub-24fps, and zooms out to show the audience’s eyes fixated on the screen. That’s us–the captives of public images–and we comply to its directions, turning our heads right and left. Only John Dillinger disobeys, smiling back at the screen.

But he’s cannot run from it forever. The climactic theatre scene is where the interaction between the real and the imagined real crosses more explicitly than before. Depp’s character, sporting Gable’s signature mustache style, watches Gable’s gangster picture. He smiles, empathising with Gable’s character, that he will have a heroic last stand. Mann foreshadows otherwise–Gable’s world is set in the perfect, imagined diegesis, whereas the decidedly non-filmic images of Depp denies he will have such perfect ending.

There is no dramatic last stand here. He is shot in the back, his last words are just bunch of mumbles that his enemies have to salvage. The subsequent shots are documentary-like: the cameras gather around the dead person, even a bird-eye shot from a helicopter (despite the fact that such transport did not exist at the time), and quick cuts on the ground with people shouting. The conflict of imaginary images and real images create a juxtaposition where the two harbour stark differences. Whereas Mann’s older films are much more melodramatic, Public Enemies has less of that–it’s not to say the film is devoid of any melodrama, but there is certainly lack of glamourization. He achieves this through not by narration (which attempts to sway towards that end of the scale at the end), but through the image itself.

If the constant conflict of images makes it hard to concentrate on the film’s content, the criticims against it is a fair point. However I believe the experiment here is worth noting. The content and the form are in constant conflict, and that lays bare the imagined sealed diegesis into something that exists in an unstable plane of uncertain images. It exposes the falsehood behind the public imagination of gangster genre films. And considering the film is about an anti-hero who was wrongly idolised for his actions, it is rather a precise argument on Mann’s part.

Whiplash (2014) – slice

Master vs. Master
Master vs. Master

Whiplash isn’t just a film about jazz music. It’s a film about genuises, the ugly side of pushing yourself in the domain of art, the monstrous nature of mentorship, and all of that concentrated into a single dose of drug called the struggle for mastery. It’s a film about mastering over something: be it yourself, your master, your student, the art, the band, the obsession, the life.

This film shows in a way an unlikely resemblence to The Master, because it is, like Anderson’s film, essentially a feature-long battle between masters and students on who is the true master. I love the setup: it’s conductor versus drums. In a concert band, the conductor controls how the music gets played, but the drums also dictate how the music goes. The film focuses on this uneasy balance of power. The most memorable scene (chair-flinging scene) is the struggle to establish that power–Simmons’ ruthless conductor uses force to make sure the drums understand he is the ruler on stage. Teller’s drummer, despite holding the most threatening position to that authority, succumbs to the personality of his conductor. This is an ugly struggle and the film does not hesitate to show it visually.

There is of course a certain irony here. The absolute monarch of the band cannot maintain his subject without the help of that one subject who is most likely to undermine his authority. Music is about balance, everyone working together under the same, written plan; without the authority, the band falls apart, but without the band working together, the authority cannot be maintained. The last scene is a perfect, musical way of restoring that balance.

Or is it? The drummer takes the authority in the end. He cues his bandmates while the conductor just moves along. The drummer shows that the conductor, regardless how much he hates him, cannot exist without him. The conductor succumbs to this, and the music is what’s left behind, beating through the end credits.

But I don’t think it’s a personal victory. Of course there is one, the film implies that Teller’s character will have a promising career. But the music–which is the most important point of crossing between the two masters, the two obsessions, the two identities–exists free of those personal triumphs and failures. It is independent of those struggles, and the music, simply, is. From this perspective, the film offers an utopian ending for all–the two ego-centric masters of music turns into slaves of music, obsessed for recreating its perfection. And when that perfection is achieved, it just shows how trivial their personal dramas were.

The Social Network (2010) – slice

Window as a screen–now defined by a mathematical algorithm

The thing about this film is that it is about a very new concept of human society, but it also is an extension of an old one that cinema has always liked in using for narrative drive–interpersonal relationships and drama. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter are in a way a radically new way of communicating something that is surprsingly old. Therefore a film about this new concept’s origin and the drama surrounding needed a necessarily modernised way of telling a its story that is in essence not really that new.

David Fincher really knows how to use CGI to bring the urbanscape into life–or seal it into a fantasy that seems so real and unreal at the same time. Gone Girl is a perfect example of this: that relationship between two main characters are a web of reality and fantasy they have created based on their expectations, and Fincher’s style of actively using CGI to render something that is already present but not as stylishly, works perfectly to capture that uneasy middle ground where they co-exist.

The Social Network, is a similar case: it’s essentially a legal drama about something that does not exist in reality. The cold landscapes of Havard and decidedly West-coast-looking Silicon Valley scenes are reminder that services such as Facebook and Twitter has changed what reality means to us and what real relationship means to us. The computer screens in this film are actually really intersting because unlike so many other movies, they look like the ones we would see when we open our laptops. On the other hand, the outside world looks much more stylish than what we actually see. That weird reversal represents the shift in our way of viewing our interpersonal relationships, and where they take place now. The visual artificiality of the film, which usually would only mean stylish touch in other films, strikes at the heart of the shift in our society as whole. Before, the computer reality was the a reflection of our reality; in this film, they are reflections of each other, and sometimes the reality actually becomes the reflection, therefore the subtle CGI touches of those shots.

Take the early scene where they write the algorithm for Zuckerburg’s prank site on the window. The function of window, which there are many in film theories, is usually to look outside. The act of writing down an algorithm on that transparent screen, then not only obscures how we look outside, but foreshadows the shift in our view of the reality–it is now defined by the mathematical algorithm of a program that would later grow to mediate real-life relationships.

The brilliant soundtrack, which also reinforces that new world we live in, in the end was only the icing on the cake.

Déjà Vu (2006) – slice

Is “looking” at image-time the first step in controlling them?

What should one think of Déjà Vu? It throws around difficult and morally-charged concepts of time-travel, fate, patriotism and government surveillence of post-9/11 America. In a way, it’s Tony Scott’s crude way of recognizing the American regret of that tragedy (and its aftermath). There are some neat cinematic experiments he does here, especially that past/present chase scene, which I believe–despite its somewhat dumb premise, which in my opinon, doesn’t really matter in most Tony Scott films anyway–works well with his signature quick-cut, rapid-pan style.

I watched this before Lucy, but in retrospect, this is a film that is loosely what Lucy attempts to do except mostly fails: it’s an action vehicle that actually attempts and more often than not roughly succeeds in fusing its subject matter (image and time, Gilles Deleuze must be proud) to the generic principles that the studios and the audience expect from the action auteur.

Of course, as per usual, his preference for constantly-moving entertainment supercedes any meaningful engagement that is deserving of the concepts he touches, and overall becomes a mind-numbing–I’d say in both good ways and bad–thriller that’s more about puzzles than ideas. But it does have some merit; Unlike Lucy, the film simplifies the concept of time into something decidedly linear–looking into past, the time flows linear, and so are the images. Once Washington’s character travels back in time, the image becomes reality that he can temper, ultimately disrupting the flow of time itself. It’s a rudimentary attempt at connecting image and time (therefore making time a visible concept), and furthermore connecting image-time to the regret and temptation to control time and image, but it works more or less while sitting nicely in that limitation of an action flick.

As with Scott’s excellent Unstoppable and Enemy of the State, Scott is always good at infusing cinematic theories into an action movie fundamentals (Unstoppable is a modern example of action-narrative-structure-symbolised-by-train that reaches back to Buster Keaton’s timeless The General, while Enemy of the State is the mother of all image surveillance/voyeurism films in post-Cold War era). It may be a limitation in a way to have those generic “shackles” attached, but at the same time, they do sometimes reinforce his ideas, and sure as hell make them more approachable.

If anyone’s interested, Gavin Hood presents a (lot) more sophisticated poke at similar ideas regarding image in his recent film Eye in the Sky.

Also, I should re-read Gilles Deleuze, and this time try to actually understand what the fuck he’s saying.