Sunday, April 27, 2008

I will play for you Forest Funk

I took another short hiatus to focus on other things here, but I've returned at last to write what will probably be the last post of April here. (Maybe I'll fit another one in before we hit May, no guarantees.) Still trying to finish that novel, after all. There's still a good ways to go. Progress always tends to go slower than I intend, but it's still coming along.

Anyway, I'm not inspired enough to prattle on about any particular aspect of life at the moment - hopefully the last entry did well enough for the month anyway - so this time around? This Jackass Talks Movies! Part Zwei.

If last time's ultra-obscure Woody Allen tribute wasn't strange enough for you, prepare to have your socks and/or perhaps your wooden clogs knocked off by this one. (Assuming you're some sort of incredibly dated, irrelevant European stereotype, anyway. You don't see too many people like that wandering around these days.)

This time, I feel it's worth drawing your attention to the Japanese 2005 surrealist comedy film, Naisu no Mori: The First Contact, better known in the west as Funky Forest: The First Contact. The film is an essential 150 minute tour de force of its genre, written and directed by Katsuhito Ishii (Cha no Aji/The Taste of Tea, another surrealist comedy, and Samehada Otoko to Momojiri Onna/Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, an extremely '70s-themed yakuza getaway comedy.), Hajime Ishimine, and Shunichiro Miki. The film enjoyed a brief stint at New York's ImaginAsian Theater back in early March, then finally saw release on DVD here in North America.

The film itself is broken up into a series of loosely-connected vignettes with little in the way of a core story - like many vignette-oriented art house films - focusing on various characters and the extremely absurdly funny situations they get themselves into. What there is of a plot that comes together is a focus on a sort of "couple that is not quite a couple" - Takefumi and Notti (Nocchi) - played by Ryo Kase and Erika Nishikado. Takefumi is a young English teacher, and Notti is his girlfriend and former student (Who doesn't seem to be too much younger than himself, presumably in a later grade or a graduate by then. It's never explained, nor is it important to the plot.). The two of them laze around together at - presumably - Takefumi's house and have meandering conversations that ultimately lead into their discussing dreams they've had. (All the while, Takefumi plays dance music in the background, having a turntable in his living room and apparently working as a DJ as well.) Only two fairly long vignettes seem to explicitly be their dreams, but it could be believably implicit that the rest of the film that the rest of the vignettes that make up the rest of the film are dreams as well. Dreams seem to play a central part in the story, after all, as we look at this couple and see how their dreams reflect on their lives and relationships. They don't appear in all of the other vignettes, but they're participants in some of them, making it unclear whether they are dreams or actual surreal real life events.

The rest of this post is pretty much spoilers (It had to be, at least, because I wanted to really go over all the strangeness this film entails.), so if you've got your interest piqued by what you've read already, you may not want to read on, in the interest of leaving the majority of the film's content a surprise. But if you want a good second opinion without much in the way of spoilers, a fellow westerner who gets it, by all means check out this review at Cinema Strikes Back.

The film begins with a surreal, fairly clear dream in this microscopic cell structure like space, where Takefumi sits inside a sperm-like spaceship of sorts watching a couple of manzai comedians perform their act on a television screen. Then we see a recurring little girl daydream about her own odd little science fiction-esque persona in that same space, increasing and decreasing the speeds at which little spheres orbit one another and eventually shooting a little robot nearby with lasers from her eyes. After being introduced to Takefumi and Notti, we watch another ongoing vignette series unfold - Guitar Brother - initially introduced as the story of three brothers unpopular with women. The middle brother, Masaru (Played the the always-great Tadanobu Asano, who's frequently described as a cross between Johnny Depp and Toshiro Mifune. He's turned memorable performances in films such as Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Last Life in the Universe (A personal favorite, which I'll be writing on later), Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi, and Katsuhito Ishii's previous films, The Taste of Tea and Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl.), looks rather unkempt, grows his hair out long, and plays the guitar in hopes of getting women with it. He is often seen with his younger brother, Masao, who is a rather rotund white western kid who speaks relatively limited Japanese and never indicates that he speaks any English, instead simply awkwardly interacting with his older brother and irritating him, while sitting around and eating candy bars. (Seemingly particularly partial to Snickers, as it's the only kind mentioned by name in the film.) Why Masao is white and the dynamics of the family are never explained, but in its execution, the humor of his presence works well. Their older brother - whose name I've missed, unfortunately - spends his time in another room practicing an odd dance to an enka song of sorts, also in hopes of making himself attractive to women through this. (The men of Funky Forest tend to draw odd conclusions about what would make women want them, to much comic effect.)

The elder brother later goes on a short trip to a ryokan/inn with hot springs, where he meets a trio of women, who we see several vignettes revolving around - the "babbling hot spring vixens." They chatter amongst themselves, telling one odd story or another (Introducing one of the film's recurring jokes, references to these mysterious "Piko-riko aliens" that nobody has actually seen, and only mentioning Takefumi in passing, one of them saying he was a friend of hers who'd encountered them.). Over time, their stories become more and more pointless and in one calling one another on telling an utterly pointless story and a fairly violent pillow fight erupting in which they all screamed at one another for telling stories with no purpose, causing the hotel staff to rush in and pull them apart. (All of this done in an extremely absurd fashion.) Within this story arc of sorts, the elder brother from the Guitar Brother vignettes invites them to a "gokon"/singles picnic of sorts to help himself, his brother, and their friends meet women. Somewhere in there, we see a scene featuring Notti running through a park and lying down to take a nap, a little black dog - which could have been a scottish or cairn terrier - looking at her.

By the end of the first half of the film, we return to Takefumi and his dream, watching a long, incredibly surreal series of events play out on a beach. He wakes up on the sand when an old, rundown car shines its headlights on him. A punk appears dressed as a demon and dances around him with a gun, then returns to the car and begins to play music. Notti appears in a monster costume, which she unzips to show her face, then sits down on a throne of sorts on a hill overlooking the beach and commands Takefumi to show her his dance moves. The punk plays a variety of music and pairs Takefumi up with all sorts of other dancers - both people in strange costumes and even animated characters - while Notti continued to tell him to dance, dissatisfied with his performances. Takefumi, on the other hand, responds by telling her to show him her feelings, his dream reflecting anxiety he feels about their relationship, while in voiceover, the viewer has already learned that while Notti likes him, she hasn't fallen in love with him yet.

Following Takefumi's dream, we see Notti talk about having had a dream herself, and the film has a three minute intermission.

When the plot resumes, we're introduced to an entirely new set of vignettes.

Throughout the second half, we see these aptly titled vignettes called "HOME ROOM!!!!!!!!!" that focus on various students conducting home room in place of the teacher at the beginning of class (Including Rinko Kikuchi, who received plenty of deserved acclaim for her performance in Babel, and also had a role in The Taste of Tea.), with hilarious and often obscenity shouting-filled results.

A high school girl is tricked into one of the weirdest comedy bits conceivable, in which one of the comedians who draws her in dresses up in a furry costume of sorts that seems to be sealed to his skin and asks her to pull the tail in the front. His partner explains to her that they're serving the Piko-riko aliens, and she agrees to help them by sticking a little tube with a phallic end into her navel, which allows the partner to reach into this box with a distinctly anus-like opening, from which he proceeds to remove a very short (Though not a little person, simply scaled down by camera effects) sushi chef, and reveal to the girl that she'd just participated in a comedy routine.

Another class assembles with very strange looking aliens being played like musical instruments after a great deal of build-up with the utterly bizarre creatures - all of which seemed to have human faces, making them look like genetic experiments gone horribly wrong.

Masaru teaches a girl some sort of sport with at tennis racket at a school gym, which involves a mutated middle-aged man who could be controlled through a weird fleshy bulb that dropped - presumably from his rear- through a hole in a chair to squirt fluids from his freakishly large and long nipples (I wasn't kidding when I said this was a weird movie.) while the girl swung at them with her tennis racket. He then produced these strange mutant creatures from his pants that she'd have to hit out of the air, one of which latched onto her underarm and spawned a mandragora-like creature with a human face that Takefumi called the school doctor to help with. The doctor proceeded to yell at the mandragora of sorts and generally berate and belittle it while it weakly argued in its defense, while eventually stealing his personal stamp (A seal that Japanese people generally have to act as their signature of sorts when signing for things.), hidden within its phallic abdomen after making it squirt a lot of a weird white fluid. (There is no shortage of bizarre metaphorical sexual images in this film, either.) After humiliating the mandragora enough, it was finally removed.

We see Masaru again later working in observing animators drawing cuts for an anime production created by a dog - the same little black dog seen before - who was able to do his job in having an assistant who could read his mind.

Towards the end, live action protesters are seen demanding a raise in an animated world, in which an anime parody story of sorts plays out between a number of crudely animated characters seeking to track down and beat up a new transfer student. Presumably the story the animators were working on before, as it featured the same dog in question.

We finally see the singles picnic unfold, with the Guitar Brother siblings there, along with the angry teachers from HOME ROOM!!!!!!!!!! and several other minor characters from throughout the film. Notti is seen jogging past them. And none of the invited women show up, leading one of the guys to show off his dance moves in encouragement from the others.

After that, we see Notti's dream at last, wherein she's wearing an odd furry costume covering everything but her face and playing a violin in the middle of a forest. The sound she makes begins to change as three alien girls with mixing equipment built into the forest itself around her play with the sound she's making, filling the forest with music, which seems to send them into a state of blissful ecstasy. A young boy records the music, and a wanderer on a pilgrimage stops to listen. When the music ends, the girls and boy all turn to streaks of color which return to a ship in space. Upon the scene's ending, we see one more brief scene between the young couple, and the film ends.

All of this was written doing entirely on memory and what few resources I could find on the overall layout of everything in the film, so I may have the order of things slightly wrong, and perhaps forgotten to include some things as well.

Given the odd fluidity to the random, dreamy, non-linear plot, it is frankly near-impossible to discern how many real people may have been involved in the film's overall story, whether we were witnessing many characters' dreams, or if it revolved entirely around Takefumi and Notti - who admittedly, had the strongest part of the story beyond merely producing laughter, given the subtle tension between them and interesting dynamic of their characters when on screen together - or if their dreams were the only dreams, and the rest of the film was simply random silliness.

A warning to westerners, again (As though it were really needed now, if you read the rest of this.) - the film's sense of humor is very out there. To the point at which for the most part, it hasn't been well-received by western audiences as a whole, simply because you need to effectively cultivate an appreciation of Japanese humor - to be able to "get" it, even to this sort of extreme - in order to be able to fully enjoy Funky Forest. If you lack this, to you, the film may be nothing more than two and a half hours of "What the fuck am I watching!? What is going on!? Ow, my brain!"

There is some meaningful content, a few more serious undertones in some of the plots and statements about life itself and the world around us (As absurdist cinema tends to seek to reflect in the very absurdity that defines it.), but if you can't deal with the eccentric sense of humor through which the film carries itself (The last scene of the film simply amounting to the aforementioned couple that isn't quite a couple, Takefumi and Notti, dancing outside in the fall leaves to a rather meaningless gibberish song Notti begins singing, playing on the word "lie," "uso" (As in telling a lie.), and the end credits rolling at the end of their dance.), you'll likely miss out on these things.

All that said, the cast is wonderful and everyone fits their part well. (There's no shortage of attractive, talented women, either.) The direction is superb, giving the viewer all sorts of interesting and well orchestrated images, both surreal and beautiful. And the music, which plays an important part in the film as it plays out, is infectious and serves each scene well. Beyond its relative - and relative is putting it lightly - inaccessibility to the average western moviegoer in terms of content, Funky Forest is a surreal, hilarious, and supremely enjoyable film.

Don't go into Funky Forest expecting a full coherent linear plot where everything connects and makes sense. It's very far out there as art house films go, and it sheds the traditional conventions of cinema we've come to expect in many regards. If you have the patience to sit through a film that long in fully knowing that it has no real full story that it's trying to tell you, and enough of an appreciation of Japanese humor, by all means, give Funky Forest a chance. It'll have you in stitches practically the entire time, when it isn't making your jaw drop at some of the unexpected and almost-shocking pseudo-sexual images it throws at you for the sake of humor. Rather than try to make sense of it all - life itself rarely makes sense either, after all - just turn off your brain and immerse yourself in the world of Funky Forest. Accept everything you see for what it is, and everything's even funnier. The movie's an even bigger trip than Richard Linklater's Waking Life, the best example I've got for you of a western film that attempts something similarly surreal. (Though Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep borders on that with its surreal and half-nonsensical dreams as well.)

Friday, April 18, 2008

How to Age Gracelessly

Milestone hurrah! Or some other exclamation of pseudo-jubilation. This post makes the 50 in Spiral Reverie total now. Never thought I'd make it this far, did you? Hoped and dreamed that I would give this whole "blorging" thing up, eh? Too bad. I'm never going away. Not even if you pay me. (Note: If you pay me, it might help.) Anyway, it feels like an accomplishment in and of itself to me, having found this much to babble about here and there, now and then, since the blog formally launched in early July last year. At this rate, you can expect me to hit post 100 by... roughly early February 2009. Let the salivation in fear and trepidation begin. (Or anticipation, I suppose, should you somehow actually enjoy these ramblings. Somehow.)

So here we are, mid-April. Everything is covered in yellow and it's an entirely miserable time of year for me. My allergies are running at an all time high, like a runaway freight train powered by economic anxiety and also probably some coal too because dirty energy's getting to be cool again these days, or so the far right's claiming. (Next thing we know, the black lung will be a fashion statement! Or maybe not. Maybe.) As the northern hemisphere revives from winter (Not that we had much of one, as usual. And it's been spring for a good while now anyway - we're slowly making that painful transition into summer here now, otherwise known as the season that ate EVERYTHING.), the birds burst into rapturous song and flowers explode into colorful bloom, blasting anything and everything with pollen. And though we've seen some nice - and much needed - rain here and there, it hasn't been enough to stave off that dreaded yellow flowery taint creeping across the country and making those of us allergic to it wish we were dead. (And generally hope that we can find some medication that'll help without making us too tired or screwing up our sleep too much. Three cheers for pharmaceuticals.)

Of course, like any season, spring brings birthdays. People get to enjoy tacking extra digits onto their age, pointing to the calendar, and loudly exclaiming "NOW I'M THIS MANY!" This stops being remotely cute or amusing by the time you hit puberty, and you will be beaten with extreme prejudice if you insist upon continuing this behavior pattern. What are you, six!?

Many significant individuals were born around this time of the year. Like Conan O'Brien, host of Late Night - and soon taking over the Tonight Show when Jay Leno steps down in 2009 - whose birthday is today. And the ghost of Hitler, who ages on sunday - otherwise recognized as the infamous "4/20" on which the world's potheads celebrate the attempted extermination of the Jews, homosexuals, and other individuals who make the world a more interesting and varied place by smoking all the pot they can and trying to make contact with the ghost of Jerry Garcia. Some day, you guys, someday. (And this year it's also an excuse for G4 to give me a reason to watch it once again with the special episode of Code Monkeys they made for it, given the frequency of drug humor on the show. Now they just need to get some official season 2 announcements out already. It's rather nice having new episodes of entirely scripted dramas and comedies to watch again, post-strike. The Office, Scrubs, Reaper, and Battlestar Galactica are keeping me entertained, anyway, aside from the usual Daily Show, Colbert, and Conan.)

Of course, with all this horrible pollen making me miserable and all these other key birthdays popping up, I suppose it's somewhat worth noting that I age-up, as it were, this coming Saturday. What better time to age and be reminded of how much life's been passing me by, after all? I'll finally be stumbling into my mid-twenties - though granted, the earliest of the mid-twenties years - and as you can tell, I couldn't be more pleased.

Aging has its upsides and its downsides. On one hand, it makes it easier to dismiss the youthful follies of the past, to laugh at my own stupid decisions and mistakes and think to myself, "Hey, look how much I've grown since then! I wouldn't even consider something that stupid now!" Then it usually hits me about a second and a half later that I don't have any room to talk now anyway. (No one putting so much into such a hopeless unrequited love novel project like this has any right to think themselves anything but a fool, let's face it.)

There's plenty of less than wonderful things about tacking that extra year onto the old age bulletin board (I'm sure you all have one of these too, or at least an enchanted abacus that counts down the number of years until your demise. I don't know what I'd do without mine.) as well. Aging tends to warrant reflection on one's life. And looking back, high school sucked, college was fascinating and educational, but nothing spectacular, nothing like people make college out to be. (But then, according to pop culture, all you do is get drunk and high and "get yo fuck on" or whatever people are saying these days. I did none of these things, the former two not interesting me, personally, having plenty of fun with friends while sober, and the latter largely a matter of a lack of meeting and connecting with anybody of the opposite sex with any level to things beyond simple, enjoyable platonic friendship. I'd say the unrequited love thing played a part, but that only really hit me hard about halfway in - I thought I was over her for a long time, after all - and I simply never met anybody I found myself particularly attracted to. For all that cheesy INFP "emotional sensitivity" I deal with, I have a hard time really being attracted to anybody beyond noticing someone, thinking "Hey, she's kinda cute," and leaving it at that.) Now I've been a graduate for about four months, and I've been out of classes for nearly a year, having finished all my academic requirements for graduation up last May. Time does have a way of flying. Not unlike the toasters on that old Windows 3.1 screensaver. (Admit it, you were waiting for someone to drop that reference on the "blarghosphere." ... See what I did there? How witty "blargosphere" is? It's okay to like it.)

Post-graduate life is kind of sad, reflecting on where many people my own age are in their lives. I know, you aren't supposed to look at other people's lives and compare them to your own - you have to find your own way, walk your own path instead of trying to follow the beaten road and be like everybody else. But it's still hard not to laugh at myself at this point. I'm going into my mid twenties, and after graduating, I just moved back home. (Doesn't help that the job market is a mess as the economy continues to collapse and I'd be miserable in most jobs anyway, the way I function on many levels. Not too easy out there in that thar "real world" when you're an awkward introvert who doesn't have much in the way of job skills - and a BA isn't worth much of anything in the professional world these days anyway. I'd lose my mind in a corporate office, and most things are either too externally oriented or reliant upon people skills to do anything but drain the life out of me. And thus, I've kept my focus on my novel and am hoping to make it into a grad school Creative Writing program in New England starting in January - with any luck, getting this first novel published and my writing career launched over the remainder of this year and picking up a higher-level degree.) With the circle of friends I socialized with having largely disbanded by the end of college - I was practically entirely shut out, only really hearing from friends on the occasion I'd run into them on campus or at one of the club events they ran, like game nights, since I always kept to the periphery anyway - and now we're all scattered about. I'm back home in Raleigh, others are still out in Charlotte, finishing school and figuring out what they want to do next, while others yet - the ones I usually hung out with most - are scattering across the globe, mostly to Asia - Japan and China in particular. So this isolation I've been dealing with for about two years now? Not exactly a blast, though I can't complain too much, considering that parting ways with friends is just part of the whole "growing up" thing that comes with post-college life. Doesn't make it any less fun, though. Haven't I done enough of this "coming of age" crap already!? I already know life sucks! (This intentionally over the top sophomoric outburst brought to you by McDonald's: Fight off sadness with morbid obesity and adult diabetes!)

Despite that I know I'm still living my own life, obviously, and not anybody else's - rather than taking their way, I'm trying this whole serious dedicating-one's-life-to-writing thing, after all, which is full of its own difficulties, like any other life (Unless you're filthy stinking rich and have a talking gorilla butler. In which case, I hope you get hit by a bus.) - it's hard not to have some misgivings. This, of course, can largely be blamed on that I've made the mistake of reading a recent discussion thread on post-college life on the forums. As you can imagine, it makes adult life in general look depressing. So many people get sucked into this depressing void of simply getting up, going to work, maybe going to the gym, coming home and eating some dinner, watching some TV, playing a game for a bit, or messing around on the internet, then sleep and repeat, day in and day out. This is the kind of hollow, hellish 9-5 trap the very thought of being sucked into utterly terrifies me. I couldn't see really wanting to continue my own life if that's all I had. I'm not exactly a ray of sunshine to begin with, and a life like that would quickly beat me down until I had no motivation left to speak of. And even many of these people have things to enjoy for it that I sure as hell don't. Their own place, for instance, which I'm hoping to manage one way or another in grad school, actual money, which I hope to at least make a small amount of my first novel, and such. Not to mention relationships - usually, people seem to cut the "let's just sleep together and devalue intimacy as much as possible" crap commonplace in high school and college and start really pursuing serious relationships by then. By my age, it's not exactly uncommon for people to have had at least several serious relationships. It's kind of depressing getting to this point in your life and seeing how many of your peers are getting married when you still haven't been in a relationship with anybody who actually liked you, frankly.

Your teenage years are made out to be something incredible, as you only live them once - mine weren't. Those were actually pretty terrible years for me. Same with the early twenties and college in general, go wild, you're only young once! - not for me! And by one's mid-twenties, in leading a life like this, it's hard not to suddenly start becoming more acutely aware of your age and feel like you've missed out on a hell of a lot that you won't get like everybody else seems to during those glorious late teens/early twenties, and even resent the people those sorts of things seemed to come to easily a bit. (Even though a number of those things were matters I had no actual interest in, and still don't. Though getting out of here and having a relationship that isn't terrible for once would be pretty fantastic. My expectations are low enough as is, as ambitiously high as I'm aiming with this unrequited love novel gesture - I can't expect success, though. I've never had that kind of luck, after all. Especially the kind to back up a long shot like this.) In reading a thread like that on people's normal experiences in post-college life, though, it was rather easy to realize how much you've missed and haven't come close to what people enjoy now at your age. If we had a basement, it might be time for me to move down there and roll a 1d20 saving throw vs. failing at life. (Yes, the D&D joke was necessary.)

And so, it's spring. Everything's been coated by a tidal wave of pollen, and it's a relatively hellish time of the year to celebrate aging. I need to move up north already.

Considering, though, that I haven't really had a birthday celebration (To the point at which my birthday was nothing more than just another day in recent years, with a slightly depressing tone to it.) since I turned 18 back in 2002, shortly before high school graduation, this Saturday should be interesting, if not a little surreal for me. (Though I did spend my birthday evening last year at a rather high budget student theatrical performance of The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, which was an interesting way to spend it. Even if I just bought my ticket and went for extra credit in my theater class that semester.) In the least, I'm sure I'll appreciate the whole cake-and-presents thing more than ever. I probably won't be able to enjoy it many more times before it simply becomes and stays just another unremarkable day of the year, after all. Very little in life lasts, so you've got to enjoy what you can while you can.

For soon, we shall be dead.

(Now that's how you end a blog post on aging. Right? Right? High five, anybody?)

Saturday, April 12, 2008

This Educational Experience brought to you by Corporate America

This one probably won't be too long, but with the personal concern it draws, there was no not writing on this subject.

Everything in this world is a commodity, there is nothing that lacks monetary value. Health care, food, seal pelts, first love, you, I, education. We're all commodities - walking, talking crates full of crap to slap a price tag on, to buy and sell until you're frothing at the mouth on some internet forum about how Ron Paul should be president - all of us. At least, this is what the hardcore libertarians would have us believe. Pretty crazy, right? Stripping all real meaning out of life and society and dumbing us down until we're nothing but commodities, products unto ourselves, and life is nothing more than a series of sales and purchases. Property rights are #1! These philosophies are essentially advocating a life of shallow materialism and nothing more. The market dictates what is right and wrong - the market dictates everything that matters, all that you see and seem. Bow down and worship at the altar of free market capitalism. Read Ayn Rand and accept Objectivism as your personal M.O. in this world, and look down your nose at anybody who disagrees with this approach to life - they just don't understand. (Somewhere along the way, you're also going to have to pretend that the market actually cares about individuals, and that it isn't going to essentially cannibalize the lower classes while favoring the wealthy and giving corporations near-absolute control in society. If your opinions and views don't conform with what the free market dictates - you're wrong.)

Fortunately, most people aren't quite that bad. (Rand's philosophy of glorifying selfishness, greed, and general self-absorption as admirable traits - beloved as it is by libertarians, with how much it has in common with their politics - has a hard time catching on, as much as its message could potentially thrive in modern America, in large part thanks to the fact that she was an incredibly bad writer. I may not even be published yet - and looking at all the garbage that gets published every year, publishing isn't a definite barometer of quality of writing - or particularly overconfident or egotistical in regards to my writing (As much as this satirically intended comment is going to make it seem otherwise - if I had more faith in people's ability to pick up on satire when they read it, I wouldn't feel the need for this disclaimer in the midst of this over-long parenthetical aside.), I can say with confidence that even I can write more interesting and compelling stories than Rand. My interests don't lie in writing brain-numbing two-dimensional literary rants with flat characters and plotlines conceived solely to push an entirely hollow philosophy - that effectively serves to glorify some of the worst traits people often possess - through strawman arguments and a simple "I'm right, everyone else is wrong" approach. It's intellectually and humanistically disingenuous, after all - not to mention downright insulting to anybody you're trying to sell on your philosophy as an adult capable of thinking for themselves.)

And as such, people like Ron Paul, though worshiped by half the internet, are mocked by the rest. You won't win friends by trying to argue that we're all commodities - especially when historically, this is something we as a species tend to strongly disagree with these days, slavery not exactly being looked well upon historically (Except by white supremacists, anyway, and theirs is not a perspective that holds any positive value in the modern world.) - nor trying to argue that rights we tend to appreciate should be commodified as well. (It's hard to take a political group seriously when you've seen its members trying to seriously argue against the FDA on the grounds that "We should have the right to eat whatever we want, no matter how unhealthy! Let the market decide which foods are manufactured in unsanitary conditions and which medications will kill us!" When the right to clog your arteries with trans-fats is a concern, your politics are not exactly relevant to the real world the rest of us live in. Especially considering that if asked, most people would no doubt say they'd prefer to eat healthier to begin with, so long as the food tasted good. I'm not entirely sure what it is that gives extreme conservatives the fetish you see here and there for attacking public health.) Health care should not be about money (If you ask the average American whether they'd like inexpensive to free, quality health care without bringing up that dirty, dirty word "socialism" that the right likes to associate with the "evils" of the world," you'd get pretty much the same response from everybody. Medical bills are a leading cause of bankruptcy for a reason, after all.), public education should not be privatized and commodified either (Education is a right, and absolutely necessary in order to maintain a true, modern society - a society which does not value education and intelligence is doomed to fall. To make education a privilege is to cultivate a society where intelligence is vilified - and intellectualism is looked down on far too often here in America as is, thanks to the right (See: the entire Bush/Gore election) - and ultimately create a society that cannot sustain itself in a meaningful fashion. A populace to be manipulated.), and the environment is not a commodity either - you can harvest all those natural resources you want, but they're all limited, and the more you do, the more you strip away at the core of our planet in the sole interest of corporate profits. These politics and this philosophy tie well into the typical conservative stance of "If you care about the environment, you're a dirty socialist hippie and destroying our nation." Something we see broadly between both the libertarians and Republicans - despite the libertarians' efforts to often paint themselves as socially liberal and economically conservative, Ron Paul himself is basically an extreme Republican who's only popular because he wants to pull out of Iraq. (After all, why vote for a candidate who'd at least try to start undoing some of the Bush administration's damage in addition to withdrawing from the Middle East - where our "surge" has failed, and it is impossible to achieve the "victory" the administration continues to insist that we can, with the military outright kowtowing to far right interests, politicized as it has become, taboo as I know it is to say of the military - when you can just vote for an anti-war Republican? He's a doctor!)

Socially commodifying politics are not liberal as they paint them, either - they're simply a matter of, once again, the free market!!! Like having that whole right of choice, ladies? You won't get a say anymore if enough loud conservative groups get the public to agree to ban it in your area. (Fun Fact: According to libertarians, local governments should handle everything and the nation should be effectively split into a series of commodified city-states rather than a unified nation where any one thing is universal beyond money. Why agree on universal rights, even if they're controversial, when we can just let locals decide on them? Don't like gays or black people? Get a lobby together and pressure your local government to throw them out! Mmm, that's good free market oppression!) In a commodified society, corporate interests are king. In an obsessively capitalist society (When we aren't even as free market capitalist as we like to pretend - we just like to give tax breaks and extra helping hands to major corporations thanks to groups like the tobacco lobby. Why support improved, more-leftist economic policies mixing aspects of the free market and a controlled economy to help farmers and small businesses while entering trade agreements that benefit the world's poor when we can give badmouth leftist economic ideas while using many of these same ideas in the worst way imaginable - through corrupt trade agreements and giving handouts to the already-massively-successful corporations who don't need them?), with such interests ruling, the interests of the people are marginalized - you get a playing field groomed for a conservative wet dream to flourish. (Except said dreams are not compatible with reality and would lead to widespread poverty and far deeper problems tearing the nation apart from the inside, the likes of which would put even the Great Depression to shame.) Civil rights? Personal freedoms? Unionization/Workers' rights? These are not conservative values. The potential for groups to lobby for local legal gay marriage does not a liberal stance on social values make. And contrary to Randian philosophy and libertarian politics, no, not everything of value in life can be obtained by working hard and making money. (Even if you're working long, abusive hours and the pay is terrible. You should feel lucky to be employed, striking is a communist move! If you don't like your job, find a means to improve your market value so someone else will employ you! ... I feel dead inside after writing that sentence, and I've read enough serious arguments to that end online before as is.)

At any rate, getting to the point, my alma mater the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, is known for making bad, conservative decisions that certainly don't favor the students. (Even in the last month of my final semester in Spring '07, they attempted to get every student they could on campus to install software to scan their computers for mp3s to report directly to the RIAA - essentially telling students, yes, "Do us a favor and turn yourselves in to the RIAA, we're not particularly interested in sticking up for you, and we don't care if you graduate, so hey, bring some lawsuits on yourself!" The majority of the RIAA's targets have been college students who aren't in much of a position to put up a legal defense to their painfully gray-area legal bullying, and UNCC does not particularly care for their students over a corrupt recording industry organization's efforts to attack students, outright assisting them. In addition to this, they allowed the RIAA to begin monitoring the entire student network from then on, annihilating what privacy there was in students' internet connections then, in order to keep an eye for mp3 downloads on the off-chance that they could find someone pirating music, as commonplace as that still is, and as overexaggerated as the RIAA's claims of mp3 piracy-related losses are.) The latest in these decisions amounts to letting the school's curriculum be bought by corporate interests - in this case, specifically, BB&T corp. - with the agreement to push and forcibly incorporate Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged into the curriculum as required reading for students. (Several other universities agreed to the same contemptible deal.) No matter how you look at it, it's entirely academically unethical and a failure in responsibly respecting students' academic freedoms and interests in lieu of being paid to push a specific agenda. Of all the ways a university could look to raise money, this would be amongst the worst. (And UNCC has a history of not exactly using their money all that well, no less. I'd like to be able to look back on my alma mater and have nothing but praise for it like you're expected to, but that would be dishonest of me - the dorms were veritable ratholes, and the quality of food on campus was abysmal. I could go to a cafeteria in my freshman year, back when Sodexho still ran the dining services in 2002-2003, and actually not feel sick after eating there. Later in 2003, from then on, they switched over to Chartwells (No doubt in a costcutting move, they don't exactly have a glowing reputation across the country.), at which point, there were no more meals in the cafeteria that would make one think "I'm glad I ate that." The only welcomed additions to dining in the remainder of my time there were sushi on campus and this small Chinese place in the Student Activity Center, where I ended up getting lunches from regularly. UNCC does not have a track record, though, of making decisions in the interests of the student body - not in their health, in the switch to Chartwells and the stink students raised over that, not in their living conditions, considering how bad the dorms were, and sure as hell not their rights either, looking at their interactions with the RIAA. This Ayn Rand decision is yet another in a long line of fuck-yous they've handed down to their students. That said, as much as the UNCC administration and handling of things disgusts me, I can't tear down every aspect of the school - there's a lot of good programs, interesting courses, and respectable professors there, so while the administration has earned naught but my ire, I do look back on my five years there thinking positively in regards to having taken many worthwhile and interesting courses and learned from many professors I think well of.)

The Ayn Rand Institute (Institute of Me! Me! Me! Me! Me!) is playing this deal up as something to be praised - claiming value in Rand's absolutist ethics. The very concept of absolutism in something like ethics is laughable and utterly intellectually dishonest. Absolutism in all its forms amounts to one thing - dumbing down and oversimplifying everything as so to avoid having to think. The "hey, how 'bout that black and white?" take on things. And the field of ethics is absolutely one of the last fields where absolutism has a place. In my final semester, I actually took an ethics course myself - which made me regret not studying philosophy further, I may look into some philosophy courses when I make it into grad school - in which we looked at many, many different types of ethics and philosophies. (And what's more fun than wrapping your brain around Kant's Deontology and defining the categorical imperative on exams?) There were plenty of somewhat-absolutistic philosophies, sure, but they were far more well thought out than Rand's. And many more philosophies properly took all the gray areas in life into account, which made it hard to make any kind of absolute ethical judgment calls - these philosophies, of course, are far more compatible with reality, as life isn't and never will be black and white. Rand's philosophy, however, is so poorly developed and two-dimensional strawman argument-centric that it's practically a mockery of legitimate philosophy. Objectivism is in and of itself a philosophy that thrives on glorifying the worst in humanity. It figures that only now when the libertarians are louder than ever on the internet - when again, it isn't the average person whom free-market capitalism works in favor of - and with Rand's books' sales slumping even more than ever (Rightly so.) that corporations would seek to wedge Rand's self-righteous anti-free thought (When Rand speaks of "rational" thought, she tends to mean "this is how I frame my way of thinking - think like me or you're wrong.") literary masturbation into public education. Some schools get it, given Yale professor Harold Bloom's (Not even so astute, given how obvious it is) observation that Rand "could not write her way out of a paper bag." Not to mention that - as I've harped on many times here - her ideas were far too shallow to build a course around. (Let alone a real, meaningful philosophy. Objectivism is just a means by which selfish, self-interested individuals can rationalize their behavior without feeling guilty. Real altruism is almost unheard of in this world, but as little faith in humanity as I have - most of us at least have some capacity for caring for others over ourselves. This is a trait that should never stop being valued.)

BB&T should be publicly criticized, and universities reprimanded for this. To set this precedent in commodifying education, these schools' academic integrity itself is undermined, and it's a blatant betrayal of the student body. (Again, in no way the first time at UNCC.) It's bad literature, it's bad philosophy, and it holds no real academic value. There's no meaningful discussion stirred up by Rand's ideas - just the same old argument of selfishness versus generosity, "I want to feel good about looking out for number one" versus "I'd rather put others over myself and care about people." A fundamental argument of human nature, but by no means one we need to be debating in our schools - the day we start seeing self-absorption praised or accepted as a potentially good quality, we're in trouble. And with this precedent set in higher education, it's always certainly possible that we'll start seeing Rand's "literature" pushed into public education as well - to be read by far more impressionable teenagers who in many cases may not technically be capable of reasoning enough to know better than to believe in Rand's, to be vulgar, bullshit. (The human brain doesn't really reach its full development capacity until the early twenties, after all. It would essentially be proselytizing the youth in many cases.)

Of course, this is by no means the first and in no way the only incident we're seeing of corporate interests pushing themselves on schools. However, this stands out in that it's an attempt at pushing in moral and ethical propaganda on the students, as opposed to merely making them use one piece of software or another, or study one thing or another they focus on.

In short, not cool, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, not cool. Year after year, you continue to sell out your academic and intellectual integrity. You want to be #3 in North Carolina, behind Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill, so desperately? Fucking over your students and pulling stunts like this will not accomplish this. All you will do is damage your own reputation and integrity while making alumni like myself ashamed to be associated. Corporate interests are not student interests. As long as corporate interests remain a major priority to you guys up there on top, you will not be a respectable university. Either students come first, or they aren't a real priority at all. There's a reason people go to college, after all. (Hint: It's not just about getting stupid-drunk every night, banging a few loose people and starting a VD collection, then dropping out like the media plays it up as. Many of us do actually value our educations and want to learn. Letting a corporation set a curriculum is anti-education.) Having had plenty of good professors at UNCC, I have just enough faith in them that at least a few of them, I'd hope, would inform their students about why they're being forced to read Ayn Rand, and ultimately help to tear Objectivism apart in the classroom.

Unfortunately, when we're seeing schools stoop to things like this for money - public universities, no less - it says something again about where education is in our country, as public services go.

Hey, it ended up being longer than I thought. Fancy that. Once you get me going on a political tangent, it's hard to shut me up. (Here's hoping the rant didn't make any of your brains bleed.)

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Life like Frames in a Film Reel

Is this blog dead!?

NO! It's just sleeping. Or it was, anyway. Novel-writing and all that. I've run out of steam, motivation, and topics to write on in regards to my usual content in here, which you all know and love. (As reflected by the few of you who remember this place exists, haha.)

Basically, this is gonna be a short one, just to get warmed up again for blogging more in April. And with that, I'm introducing a new subject. This is a pretty all-purpose personal writer-guy blog anyway, so I figure I can get away with adding whatever sorts of new content I feel like - and besides, some of it might be of interest to more readers or something, as well. Can't just write about life and love and such all the time - especially when I haven't had enough topics to write on in that regard anyway, lacking in inspiration as I have been.

So rather than boring you all with another retarded comedy piece (I'm sure I'll come up with something to that capacity later this month anyway.), I hereby introduce This Jackass Talks Movies! Yes, I know what you're thinking (As I always say, in all my predictability) - whaddaya mean movie-talk!? This guy knows nothing! Very Socratic of you. But you remember what they did to Socrates in the end - and it had nothing to do with puppies. Think before you speak when facing my horrific oppressive regime here in relatively-unread-blog-country. (Where the law requires the wearing of bowler hats and at least three monocles at all times.) I've taken a few film courses in my time and turned into a pretty huge independent/art house and foreign film junkie in the past half-decade or so anyway, and I figure I may as well start a regular-ish feature for content focusing on another hobby I'm good at talking about - one that'd probably be more accessible to the average internet-goer. (I've kind of avoided blogging too heavily on video games largely to avoid driving off the disinterested, admittedly, while I try to blog about those - when I do - from an angle non-gamers could read and understand, at least. It can be a pretty insulated hobby, practically a subculture unto itself on the internets.)

I would've given it a more focused name - like maybe "Movies You've Never Heard Of!" - but that sounds kind of pretentious anyway. And I'm sure I'll run out of movies nobody's heard of to talk about after a while.

What could I be starting with? None other than Van Flesher, Randy Mack, and Zack Ordynans' Burning Annie. Given that it was released on 2004, never saw much theatrical distribution to speak of, isn't exactly easily found everywhere on DVD, and still has less than 200 votes on the IMDB (And a total star score that really isn't a good indicator of its quality, as a result of their rather unbalanced mean calculated scoring system.) four years after being made, I'd say it qualifies pretty well as a film most people have never heard of. Of course, to get a bit more of a glance at it, you may want to view the trailer.

In its essence, the film itself is a love poem to Woody Allen films. Gary Lundy leads the relatively small to no-name cast (Which works to the film's benefit, as it can when a less-identifiable cast of genuine talent is assembled - it can make a cast even more believable as their characters. Something many big Hollywood celebrities can't pull off in films, especially their own vehicles - but then, a great many stars in Hollywood aren't exactly good actors, per se.), pretty much only identifiable before (To me at least) from a small supporting role in Donnie Darko. He plays Max, a fairly traditional sort of Woody Allen archetype brought to a modern college setting (Though exactly how modern is a little hard to discern. I'm under the impression that it was set sometime in the late '90s, given that the N64 was the video game console of choice for the group of friends the film focuses on, and an NES and SNES are visible in the background in their suite as well.), hopeless and cynical as you'd expect. He hangs out with his friends whom he shares a suite with in the dorm (The film itself actually filmed on a real West Virginia college campus and providing a far better and more realistic portrayal of college than most.), has his own college radio show at the dead of the night that nobody listens to, and little faith in humanity, love, and himself. Practically raised on Woody Allen films, he says, and hooked on Annie Hall, he has, as they put it, "a love-hate relationship with love and hate."

As the film progresses, Max attempts a relationship with a friend, Beth, and watches it crash and burn quickly, leaving them to attempt to salvage their friendship with the occasional conversation. Max doesn't know how to let his own guard down, facing a constant clash within himself between his outer defensive smartass that plays everything off with a witty remark or crack of some sort or another and his true, unguarded self - who isn't actually a bad person, just someone afraid to let his guard down and be hurt. He'd rather play video hockey and watch Annie Hall than really live in the moment - something I can admittedly relate to greatly - in his life. After the collapse with Beth, Max meets another young woman, Julie - played well both as a believable person and Woody Allen style character by Sara Downing - who listened to his radio show on Beth's recommendation. The two cross paths several times on campus as time passes and Max watches his friends fall in and out of relationships, sitting back and making cynical comments all the while. The two eventually begin a fumbling relationship while he and his friends speculate that watching Annie Hall was a curse on their relationships, and noticing similarities between Julie and the character of Annie herself - making Max all the more insecure and uncertain of what he feels and wants.

The rest of the film, not to be spoiled, plays out in fairly traditional Woody Allen fashion - realistically, in this case, anyway - and enjoyably, overall. Everyone in their cast plays their roles well, some characters not getting fleshed out quite as much as one would like, but all avoiding being completely two-dimensional archetypes. (Save for bit characters, anyway, like a stoner and unpleasant frat boy that appear in a fairly early scene.) The soundtrack - pretty much all artists I didn't recognize - doesn't particularly stand out, but it complements the film well, working as a believable accompaniment to a modern college film. (They probably recognized that they would've been stretching it, had they gone so far in their homage to using a primarily jazz soundtrack, as Allen's films tend to.) The film itself is undeniably low budget - in watching where the camera goes and what it does and the quality of the cinematography itself, it's very obvious that they didn't have much to work with in the way of funding. That said, it doesn't take away from the film, either. Many classic Woody Allen shots and techniques - including very frequent breaking of the fourth wall to have characters view others' fuck-ups they weren't there to witness firsthand and comment, stepping right out of scenes, and talking directly to the viewers in monologue - are well integrated, and some Allen-esque color-tinting at times goes a long way in contributing to the visual feel of the film. The visuals wouldn't grab you anyway, though, being set at a real college, without any of the bells and whistles Hollywood tries to hang on college locales - there's certainly no faulting Burning Annie for its honesty there.

The real star of the film, though, is its script. Consistently biting and witty, it would definitely make Woody Allen proud. (And for the sake of the filmmakers, one can only hope he'd at least hear about it sometime, considering how few people seem to be aware of the existence of this movie. I lucked out with that Hollywood Video used movie bin. You never know what kind of gold you'll find there.) There's a lot of great fourth-wall breaking moments, social commentary, and pop culture references. (From several scenes spent with the characters sitting around playing N64 games and talking Kevin Smith movies, and even one such scene discussing how pop culture references are a cheap move in cinema, and how that if there lives were a movie, it would be downright terrible.) There's some real emotional resonance there, though it isn't hugely deep - it focuses on being more honest about relationships than warming or breaking the viewer's heart, and makes plenty of good points about love and relationships in college - and Lundy certainly plays a sympathetic, likable protagonist in Max. The film's conclusion won't blow you away or enlighten you, but it'll leave you with a satisfied feeling, having just viewed a worthwhile film with a smart, funny script. And all-in-all, it's the script first and foremost that makes Burning Annie worth seeing.

In short, if you're a Woody Allen fan, make a point of seeing Burning Annie. It shouldn't be too hard to find online, and considering its obscurity and the amount of talent involved in the film - while not without its flaws, it's a very well crafted Woody Allen style comedy/drama - it's certainly well worth seeing. These guys deserve more attention, and I certainly hope they get more chances to continue making indie art house flicks like this. It certainly beats out the average Hollywood dreck any day.

And thus, that concludes the first of my little cinema talk posts. Hopefully it was interesting enough, as I'm going to continue to focus on highlighting obscure films first and foremost, just for the sake of some more interesting content here and giving these movies the attention they deserve. There's a lot of good movies out there that just never get noticed.