Trilogy of Terror: Shaun of the Dead (2004)

So! Trilogy of Terror, a new series that I’ll do each October, in which I take an in-depth look at three related horror films in the run-up to Halloween. They could be films in the same series, films by the same director, films with a common theme, or any relationship, really.

I’m kicking it off this year with Edgar Wright’s Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy. (The Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy, for non-Americans.)

While only Shaun of the Dead is rooted in outright horror, both Hot Fuzz and The World’s End have horror-specific elements among their defining traits, so I’d argue that they qualify as well. Especially since all three films can be easily linked together to form one grander (if not necessarily cohesive) statement…but that’s probably a discussion for later.

I was surprised the first time I watched Shaun of the Dead. I remember seeing advertisements for it and…not being interested, really. I was a big fan of British comedy, but I hadn’t yet seen Spaced (which laid the groundwork for this film) so I missed out on the excitement that I would have otherwise felt.

To me, it just looked silly. There’s nothing wrong with silly, but there’s nothing rare about it either. Dumb comedies were — and continue to be — in ready supply, especially here in America. Importing another felt unnecessary. Seeking it out specifically felt absurd.

But then friends started to recommend it, particularly once it arrived on DVD. I figured that meant it was decently funny. Later on another friend — an independent film-maker that I respect greatly — recommended it, and I realized that it might also be good.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

That’s what I wasn’t prepared for…a genuinely good film underneath the gore and the silliness. Indeed, I’m sure that that’s what most viewers weren’t prepared for.

Great jokes are always welcome, but you expect to find those in a film that bills itself as a comedy. That’s where they belong. They’re why people turn to comedies in the first place.

But great acting, great directing, great film-making…those are less common. Shaun of the Dead gave us all of that instead of what could have been — and what I expected to be — some disposable bit of gory pap.

Watching it for the first time, I was impressed. 11 years later, I’m even more impressed. Shaun of the Dead is a nearly perfect movie in my estimation. It’s funny, it’s insightful, it’s well-made, and it’s confident. There are new layers and details that reveal themselves every time I watch it, and I’ve seen it at least a couple dozen times by now. Every element works, and they work so well that I’m still finding new intricacies a decade down the line.

But what is it? Is it a horror film? A romantic comedy? A parody? Yes, it is. And it’s a lot of other things, too.

Shaun of the Dead shouldn’t succeed the way it does. It really shouldn’t. It has too many things happening at once. It’s tonally all over the map. It mixes high social commentary with low slapstick and expects them both to land. It should be a mess.

But it knows that.

And that’s kind of the point.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

The film, ostensibly, centers on an ill-equipped man attempting to lead a group of survivors through the zombie apocalypse. The film also happens to be about that man getting his relationships in order, sorting his life out, and finding his place in the world. They’re two plotlines that aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but for a comedy that’s a pretty daring blend, especially since neither plot seems especially tailored to humor.

Which is probably why Shaun of the Dead works so well. It’s a comedy, but not mindlessly so. It thinks its way through — and deeper into — its complications, because it has to. It sets itself an unenviable goal of spanning genres and delivering its impact on multiple fronts, so it had no choice but to be brainy about it. These things don’t just work together on their own; if they work, it’s because some group of artists worked together to make it work.

The film focuses on character and thematic resonance as though it were a drama. And while it has a slew of unforgettably funny moments, it’s also always — unfailingly — sincere. It’s a work of love, filled with respect and admiration for its source material, and an impressive ability to outdo itself, to keep layering, to dream up a great scene and then present it in some way that makes it better.

Which is what struck me the first time: the construction of the film. The way Shaun’s morning routine is urgently edited into a series of quick cuts, like an action montage. The way the sun rises on our passed-out hero like a floodlight snapping on. The way the aftermath of a fatal car wreck plays out in the background, behind an otherwise quiet scene of two friends reconnecting.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

Wright doesn’t shoot the movie like a comedy. He shoots it like a horror film, a drama, an action movie, and like almost anything but a comedy. Which, obviously, makes it funnier.

There’s great humor to be found in someone who takes himself seriously while saying and doing ridiculous things. In Shaun of the Dead, that’s a role knowingly filled by the director himself.

What’s great about that, and why this movie has staying power, is the fact that it allows you, in the audience, to do things other than laugh.

Even great comedies sometimes suffer from the fact that there needs to be space between the jokes, but the ones that take themselves seriously — and allow themselves to be serious not in spite of but in addition to the jokes — have an opportunity to fill that space creatively.

That’s where characters explore their own dynamics. That’s where themes emerge and the echoing of lines and scene composition pays off. That’s where, to put it flatly, we’re allowed to care about what is happening.

And that’s the ace up Shaun of the Dead‘s sleeve: it makes its audience care.

It’s a great trick, and by no means an easy one to pull off. Reel them in with the promise of hilarious knockabout zombie gore, and break their hearts as two men find their friendship threatened by the responsibilities of adulthood.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

It shouldn’t work, but it does…and it works because Wright and Pegg are in full command of their material. They know how they want the audience to react, and when, and they know exactly how to trigger it.

That’s why Spaced is a necessary part of this film’s pedigree. It goes deeper than seeing familiar faces and names plastered all over the film; it shares that show’s artistic DNA.

Wright directed Spaced in his own inimitable, inventive way, elevating a sitcom about two flatmates to levels of genuine visual art. And Pegg — who co-wrote and starred in both that show and this film — took a set of caricatures and allowed them to evolve into a group of rich human beings with a web of complex relationships between them.

Shaun of the Dead may have been born of one episode’s fantasy sequence (in which Pegg’s character fights back a group of zombies), but the show’s real echoes are felt throughout the presentation of the film, and the script behind it. It informs the film’s entire creative process, and its agenda.

It’s no surprise that the cast is padded out (in both major and minor parts) with Spaced alums; these are people who already knew what Wright and Pegg would need from them, and would have some idea of how the film would ultimately work. Which is good, because it would be pretty easy for an unfamiliar actor to read the scene in which the group bludgeons a zombie to death to the beat of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” and get the wrong idea about how to pitch his performance.

Wright and Pegg’s masterful character work flows throughout the Trilogy, with an emphasis less on change than on the process of discovering who you already are. There’s still a kind of growth — and an important kind of growth — at play in each of the three films, but these are mainly voyages of self-discovery.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

When taken as a whole, the Trilogy doesn’t present a definitive “right” kind of person to be. That’s a convenient topic to discuss here, in the first film, as Shaun’s housemates foreshadow Pegg’s later roles, and provide a basic template for understanding them.

When we meet him, Shaun is caught in the middle between Ed and Pete, played by Nick Frost and Peter Serafinowicz respectively…both of whom are Spaced actors as well. Ed is slovenly, crude, and unapologetically aimless. He lacks all ambition and refuses to grow up. On the other hand, he’s there for Shaun when Liz breaks his heart, and does everything he can to hold his friend together. He’s loyal.

Pete, by contrast, is responsible and driven, interested in living a stable and secure life. He takes his career seriously and cares about the way he’s perceived. He’s also, however, humorless, and puts his own needs above other people’s feelings.

Pegg plays Shaun as being directly in the middle, frustrated with both of them, but envious of them as well. He tries to rise to his managerial duties at work and keep the survivors together later like Pete would, but he’s perfectly content to spend his life playing video games and hitting the pub with Ed.

Each of his housemates represents a possible direction for Shaun to take, but direction means commitment. And, as exemplified by his failing relationship with Liz, commitment is not one of Shaun’s strong points.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

Instead of becoming more like either of them, he keeps to the middle path. He veers closer to neither Pete nor Ed; he remains Shaun. And while it seems a bit odd from a character-arc perspective that a man who opened the film in the undefined middle ground remains in the middle ground at the end, there’s still growth that has occurred: the middle ground is now defined. Shaun knows it, and understands it, and — most importantly — is comfortable with it.

He didn’t pull himself together and solve everything, but neither did he fall apart and lose everything. He’s not the kind of person who will — or can — do either. He’s the kind of person that can make it through an ordeal, but he’ll do so in neither triumph nor defeat.

There’s a reason he replies three times to Yvonne (Jessica Stevenson, another familiar Spaced face and that show’s co-writer) that he’s “surviving.” It’s a contextual joke within the film, but also a reminder of where Shaun is, and always will be: the middle. He’ll neither succeed nor fail; he’ll survive.

He exists in the band between the two extremes. When the film opens, it upsets and disappoints him that he can’t commit to either direction. By the end he still can’t commit, but he realizes that that’s okay. That’s who he is. And he’s comfortable with that.

We don’t see a different version of Shaun at the end of the film; we just see one that’s come to terms with who he already is.

Pegg plays the other two extremes in the films to follow. Nicholas Angel of Hot Fuzz is a humorless professional in the vein of Pete, and Gary King of The World’s End is an aimless eternal youth in Ed’s tradition.

Shaun of the Dead might see our hero staying just where he is, but the rest of the Trilogy explores the other possibilities. We get no definitive answer and all definitive answers, which is part of why the films function so well together.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

Shaun of the Dead arrived at the front end of a resurgence of interest in zombies. While the image of the shambling corpse has been around for centuries, and was standardized back in 1968 by George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, zombies by and large had lost their cultural cachet.

Shaun of the Dead helped to usher in an undead renaissance that continues to this day. It arrived on the scene in essentially the same wave that brought us 28 Days Later (2002), Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide (2003), and the first issues of the Walking Dead comic series (2003). These and Shaun all constitute legitimate cultural juggernauts that, in their own ways, each helped bring the monster back to life.

Horror icons and monster types throughout history have reflected the fears of the time that birthed them. Werewolves are easy to see as fears of pubescence, of males growing up too quickly to have control over their basest impulses. Dracula was a wealthy, powerful foreigner who seduced and sullied our women. And Frankenstein’s monster was reflective of a fear of advances in modern science…a “where will it end?” hysteria that later recurred in the mad scientist / giant monster movies of the 1950s, when nuclear paranoia was not coincidentally at the forefront of public consciousness.

So what is it about zombies that made them so appealing to audiences of the early 2000s? What is it that makes them so appealing still? What social fears of uniformity, of unstoppable viruses, of mob mentality are we articulating through these mindless hordes?

It’s a question that I find fascinating.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

I find it even more fascinating that the real danger in zombie media — almost always, going right back to Romero’s original film — comes from other survivors.

Are zombies actually what we fear? Or do we fear how the danger will change us? Do we fear how quickly and easily we will become the villains? How simply our best laid plans — dealing with Philip, picking up mom and Liz, holing up and waiting for all of this to blow over — will turn, in an instant, to a blueprint of our own destruction?

If we really are the danger — if we as people are the horror movie icon of our own generation — then that explains why there’s never been much interest in crafting a definitive, canonical origin story for zombies. Unlike the Wolfman, Dracula, or Frankenstein’s monster, there’s no one answer as to where they came from, how they behave, or how to deal with them.

Each of those three examples have seen variants through the years, but that’s just what they are: variants. In zombie media there’s nothing but variants.

They could be the result of voodoo, viruses, or radiation. They could be slow and lumbering or fast and ruthless. They could overwhelm you or outlast you. They could be mindless, or they could be corrupted shades of the people you loved.

Shaun of the Dead, wisely I think, doesn’t give us a definitive origin for its threat, which is a clue that zombies are not the important thing here; the story — no matter how big or dangerous or relentless the horde — comes from the characters…how they interact, what they decide to do, how their relationships grow and change.

This is a vagueness that both Hot Fuzz and The World’s End abandoned, opting instead for definite answers, and in those cases I think that it distracts from the power of each film…but we’ll talk about that in the coming weeks.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

One thing Wright and Pegg introduce here that does carry through the entire trilogy (together and separately, as it occurs in both the direction and the dialogue) is the concept of echo.

There’s an often-mocked film clip of George Lucas describing the prequel trilogy as being “like poetry.” It rhymes, he says. (And we all know what it rhymes with.) But that’s actually a good way of describing the films that constitute The Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy.

These do rhyme, both in ways that have overt payoffs (Ed’s “cock it” exclamation later becoming firearm advice) and in ways that simply connect disparate moments in artful ways (“What do you mean, do something?”).

At its best this repetition enhances the comedy, but even at its “worst” (a usage of the word that definitely requires quotation marks) it instills in the viewer a feeling of artistic purpose.

Sometimes there’s not much more to the echo than cleverness for the sake of cleverness, but that’s an important reassurance when your film relies on cleverness. It’s a way of cluing your audience in to the fact that it’s worth paying attention. That this is a film that will try to give you a little more. That if you treat what you’re watching with respect, you’ll it in return.

The echoes help to define Shaun as the confident piece that it is. It doesn’t seek to dazzle and distract so much as it does try to suck you into its universe, and erect boundaries between itself and any other horror comedy you’ve seen. While it slips into and out of outright parody territory (see Shaun and Ed singing “White Lines” with a howling silhouette), its foundation is laid firmly upon the complex workings and frustrations of adult friendship. Of group dynamics. Of basic humanity, and how it falters when social convention is violated.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

In short, it’s always real. That’s why the death of Shaun’s mother hits the way it does. That’s why Shaun and Liz leaving Ed feels genuinely sad. That’s why David being torn apart by zombies feels unfair, no matter how much of a shit he was.

These things hurt because they are the result of one genre encroaching on another…the horror triumphing over the comedy…the zombies forcing their way into our stronghold.

Which is evidence, if we need it at this point, that the zombies aren’t the important part of this film. They’re an obstacle. A problem unfolding in the background. A periodic danger that must be dealt with, unquestionably at inopportune times.

Like the later Her, Shaun of the Dead crafts a world in which something astounding and impossible happens, and then focuses all of our attention on how a small handful of characters deal with ancillary issues.

The zombies are just a method of advancing the plot…a way of forcing Shaun into action.

They’re symbolic of the world closing in on him, forcing him to do something…and that’s necessary, because Shaun is the kind of person who will choose inaction every time that inaction remains an option.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

It might take zombies invading his house to get him off his ass. And once he is off his ass he might realize that he enjoys sitting on his ass and slide right back into that.

But that’s okay. Because at least now he knows. He knows who he is. He had to lose a lot along the way to arrive at that conclusion, and it might be a conclusion he expected from the start, but that was still his journey.

A human journey.

A journey that ends in neither tragedy nor triumph, but with a man understanding, for the first time, that he’s okay with who he already is.

It’s horror, it’s comedy, it’s romance, it’s action, it’s drama, it’s social commentary, and it’s none of these.

It’s Shaun of the Dead, and for most of the world it was a promising and exciting glimpse of a strong, witty, intelligent new film maker.

If we classify Shaun of the Dead as a horror film — and I would, without question — I think it’s one of the best. I’d place it alongside The Shining and Psycho in terms of raw quality. The fact that it’s a comedy doesn’t diminish is impact; if anything, it allows it to resonate in unexpected ways in these savvier and less sincere times. It’s a horror film that appeals with good reason to the audiences of today, and one that has clearly learned from yesterday’s best.

We only had to wait three years for Wright and Pegg’s followup, but the moment it arrived people were already arguing about which film was better. The lack of a clear consensus speaks volumes about how great both films were.

Which do I prefer? You’ll find out next week, when we talk about Hot Fuzz.

Cut. Print. Review. The Theory of Everything (2014)

Philip’s Note: let me know your thoughts on this one! This is a piece by friend and reader (and film buff) David Savage. I’ll be more than happy to provide a platform for his writing and musings if you enjoy it, so leave a comment and let me know what you think. For now, take it away, David…

The Theory of Everything

How does one film encompass a person’s life? Specifically, what approach is best suited? A narrative film is traditionally expected to be two hours long, so a lot of ground in a biopic (biographical picture) will either be skipped, glossed over, or shortened as possible. One example a film will take is combining several characters into one or even eliminating characters.

Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski understand that. Their screenplay for The People vs. Larry Flynt takes the titular character’s two lawyers in real life and combine them into one played by Edward Norton. Bela Lugosi’s wife Hope Lininger, whom he was married to after his recovery to a Demerol addiction, wasn’t mentioned in their Ed Wood screenplay. Mr. Alexander and Mr. Kraszewski understand that it’s not necessarily about how accurate the film is about the truth but about making the film interesting to an audience; to treat the subject matter as if no one doesn’t know who they are or why their story is being told.

It’s why it’s incredibly sad to say that James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything not only fails as a narrative film but also fails at portraying Stephen Hawking’s life as interesting.

A question is raised right off the bat. Was Stephen Hawking’s life interesting? If not his entire life, what about a specific part of his life?

The film goes with the latter, beginning in 1963 at Cambridge University with his courtship of of Jane Wilde, developing ALS, and concluding with the separation of the Hawkings and Stephen refusing knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II. During the 123 minute running time, Stephen Hawking’s condition worsens to the point of losing the ability to move and speak, but he continues his research in physics, culminating in the release of his pinnacle book, A Brief History of Time.

Stephen Hawking was, as told to us by Anthony McCarten’s screenplay, a genius. But therein lies an unfortunate misstep the film takes: we’re told why the subject matter is brilliant or important, but never are we shown his brilliance. I think of how The Aviator, directed by the impeccable Martin Scorsese, handled Howard Hughes’ brilliance and his OCD taking over his sanity. Through the making of Hughes’ Hell’s Angels, testing the H-1 Racer, his purchase of TWA, and his life depending on the success of the Hercules aircraft, we are shown rather than told through Robert Richardson’s Oscar winning cinematography and Thelma Schoonmaker’s Oscar winning film editing how important these events are. Because it feels important to the characters and the world they’re inhibiting, it feels important to us.

One character meets Stephen Hawking for the first time and then says he’s the most brilliant man she has ever met, in spite of the previous scene offering anything to back up her assessment. Once again, we’re being told rather than being shown. The Theory of Everything makes a logical error in both dumbing down Prof. Hawking’s teachings through poorly done exposition and not once making it feel important to the characters; it takes a step back to the love story.

Since the film doesn’t care for Prof. Hawking’s finding and would rather tell you that he’s brilliant and just move on, how does the love story fare? Abysmally. Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde fall in love because…because.

The film fails at even presenting us a reason why they fall in love other than they’re pretty and she cries. Yes, Felicity Jones is a beautiful woman and a talented actress, but she’s given nothing to do except stand there and exist. Eddie Redmayne, who won the Oscar for Best Actor for this performance, fares slightly better. The Tony award winner shows his total commitment to the physicality of the role that does recall element’s of Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar winning turn in My Left Foot.

However, the major flaw in Redmayne’s performance is that he fails at making Stephen Hawking a compelling character to watch. It doesn’t feel like we’re watching a real person we can sympathize with but an object that we are meant to feel for just because he’s handsome and he has a horrible disease. To do this with a subject matter as brilliant as Stephen Hawking is unforgivable.

Another important character to mention is Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox), a widower that Jane meets at a church and begins to have feelings for him. The film delves into the possibility that they have an affair but never reveals if they did or didn’t, taking this whole escapade into Three’s Company territory. Later on, Stephen begins to have feelings for his caretaker, who is never treated as a person but as a cheap excuse for the Hawkings to separate and for Jane and Jonathan to become a cute couple again as light beams through the church, which feels cloy and manipulative, rather than heartwarming and touching.

The film makes a poor attempt to go into a debate on the existence of God; Jane had a strong Christian faith while Stephen was an atheist. These scenes ring very false due to how poorly developed the characters are. Once again, we are told what they believe in instead of feeling it. It’s an interesting subject matter for the film to dive into. The idea of an existence of a higher power and the relationship it has with scientific discoveries. Can they both coexist together? Once again, the film cares very little for a good debate and rather focuses on the E! True Hollywood Story account on the marriage of the Hawkings.

Film is a visual medium and in the case of The Theory of Everything, Benoit Delhomme’s cinematography utterly fails. Many scenes alternate between blue, red, yellow, and orange filters without any rhyme or reason. One scene utilized a green filter that made Jane Wilde look like the Hulk. Using filters just for the sake of using them doesn’t make for a unique filmgoing experience but one of utter frustration. It culminates in the laziness of the recurring motif of home videos of the Hawking family. The execution is quite laughable to the point that stretches of the film is dedicate to white people frolicking in the forest.

I go back to Martin Scorsese and how he utilized the home footage motif for Raging Bull. He uses the footage of Jake La Motta, his wife, and his brother and cross cuts it with Jake La Motta’s successful boxing career; we understand clearly how important La Motta’s family and career is to him and how ultimately, both cannot successfully exist together. James Marsh, who directed two wonderful documentaries Man on Wire and Project Nim, has shown in his award winning career how important it is to successfully match images to information. And yet he is hopelessly lost in his transition back into narrative filmmaking.

Ultimately, it comes back to the question of whether a person’s life (or one particular aspect) is worthy of a narrative film. I think of Fruitvale Station, which portrays the last day of Oscar Grant III in an 85 minute film. Oscar Grant III is not as important of a figure as Stephen Hawking, but the film does a brilliant job of inviting you into Oscar’s life and his family and when the tragic events occur, you feel it hit like a ton of bricks. It comes down to execution and how one wisely can convey a real life person’s to be relatable. In the case of The Theory of Everything, it feels as if I’m in a poorly taught college class being lectured on the importance of Stephen Hawking but never feeling why he was important.

When writing this article, I came upon a wonderful point about the film. A user by the name of Shiva The God of Death on the Awards Watch forums made five astute points that the film failed to go into concerning the marriage of the Hawkings:

1. What was it life for a one-in-hundred million genius to be married to someone who (despite being quite intelligent) can’t possibly compare to him in the IQ department, and can’t understand his work beyond the basics?

2. Why was she so attracted to him in the first place, apart from his intelligence?

3. When a deeply religious person is married to an outspoken atheist, how does it work? Did he respect her beliefs? Did she believe that she’s heaven-bound, but her husband isn’t?

4. What kind of emotions are involved in having a child when you’ve been told you’ll be dead before his kid is a toddler? What made them decide to have children under those circumstances?

5. How do you maintain a friendly relationship with someone after you’ve spent years as his caretaker, and you’ve turned away someone you had feelings for, and then he dumps you for his nurse?

If the film was more focused in the handling of the story with a mature hand, these points would’ve been more properly addressed. As is, we have a poorly done biopic that would rather manipulate the audiences to tears rather than transcend the material. At the end of the film, Stephen Hawking looks at his three children with Jane by his side and says, “Look what we made.” The funny part is that the children in this film have been given no more than five words of dialogue. They are soulless.

Somos las Bolas

Speaking of Fiction Into Film…in 2007 a young film student named Andrew Edmark asked if he could adapt one of my short stories. I told him no, absolutely not, but he did it anyway, and we’ve been locked in a vicious legal battle ever since.

It’s a story called Somos las Bolas, which I thought was pretty good, and he turned it into a short film. Recently, for whatever reason, he felt compelled to assemble a “Director’s Cut” and upload it to YouTube.

Since I wrote the source material I’m not going to run my mouth too much. If you like it, great. If you don’t, that’s great too. At some point I intend to make a collection of my short fiction available for a free download here, but I’ve run into a technical problem doing that, so that’s a story for another day.

The complete film is above. I haven’t watched it yet.

Somos las Bolas

Guest Post: Eyeing Up ‘Net Privacy

The Simpsons, Thomas Pynchon

The following is a great article on artistic discussions of the deep web, online privacy, social responsibility, and more, courtesy of UK-based reader Patrick Massey. I found this fascinating, worrying, and enlightening in equal parts, and I hope you experience some mix of those three things as well. Take it away, Patrick.

A “Marco Polo” of the contemporary public sphere: “Internet” and “privacy.” The two phenomena are often yoked together in the news: the various problems of data access (who should be denied it? Whose data should be sacrosanct? What justifies access sub rosa?) swap pre-eminence in public consciousness as the Big Three of ‘net privacy–Snowden, Assange, Manning–swap the limelight. (In this essay, “‘net” refers to both the readily accessible surface Web, typically but carelessly referred to as “the Internet,” hence my coining an alternative term— and the Deep Web, the Internet’s large, largely criminal underbelly.)

In this essay, I want to consider how, not the news, but contemporary visual culture (i.e. screen and theatre of 2013/4) visualizes and/or fails to visualize ‘net privacy. I hope to address familiar issues of ‘net privacy via less familiar co-ordinates. Of course, William Gibson and other genre authors have been addressing cyber-issues, crafting cyber-aesthetics for years; but here I’m thinking of a) the real world ‘net in b) mainstream works of c) the last two years.

SCREEN MEDIA, and The ‘Net/Screen Problem

Documentaries aside (though cf. Terms and Conditions May Apply, Citizen Four), Internet privacy is surprisingly scantly treated in ‘13/4 screen culture. The two so bracketed, ‘net-oriented films I remember most readily–Her and Transcendence–privilege online addiction and a deus ex machina Johnny Depp over issues of ‘net privacy. Even Assange bio The Fifth Estate is more reportage, a primer on its subject and Wikileaks, than a meditation on abstractions or themes (and even then, Assange’s relationship to the media is privileged over ‘net privacy).

In mainstream C21 cinema in sum, ‘net privacy is principally a means to emotive ends. In Hard Candy, Chatroom, and Trust, the abuse of ‘net privacy does not itself merit attention–rather, it enables plot-wise the kidnaps et al that define and rather pre-occupy those thrillers. Even in the Catfish franchise [’10 film + current MTV series], any interrogation of ‘net privacy abuse is suborned to affect: to first terror (“who are these people?”), then horror (“look at those people!”). Although Catfish et al can be, indeed have been starting-points for discussing ‘net privacy, that discussion doesn’t happen in the films themselves.

Such scanty treatment of ‘net privacy on screen owes not only, I think, to auteurs’ simply “not having got round to it”, but also to a fundamental, broader disjunction between the ‘net and screen media. The ‘net does not readily lend itself to concrete visualization. One must get figurative, experimental; but screen media tend towards “meatspatial” settings— realities, however fantastical or futuristic. Consider Star Trek’s holodeck: always a real-world milieu, often Earth-historical, never a Tron-scape. Consider too the recent backdoor pilot for CSI Cyber: introducing a series oriented around the Deep Web, yet resorting latterly to “Female (Early 20s)” showing hard copy evidence of her online chat-room ignominy to meatspatial paparazzi in a meatspatial VEGAS: EXT.

Star Trek, Holodeck

I might suggest three reasons for this disjunction. First, the chokehold of corporate network funding and the likelier non-profitability of experimentalism [versus the realism that characterizes the “New Golden Age” of television]; the desire to fully exploit and justify investment in physical sets; and third (and still more tentatively proffered), the Internet’s being TV and film’s unheimlich, uncanny counterpart, perhaps frustrating the interrogation of the former by the latter… Heady stuff. But the bottom line for us is: if the Internet in sum cannot find a screen aesthetic, what hope for its clandestine, its even less readily visualized cyberspaces? And what hope consequently for addressing ‘net privacy?

Happily, ‘net privacy has been better visualized in theatre of ‘13/4— a medium naturally more amenable to the figurative and the experimental.

THEATRE, and Romancing the ‘Net

In The Net Effect, Thomas Streeter posits romanticism as a key co-ordinate in ‘net studies. He primarily argues that neoliberal forces propagate a romantic individualist idea of computing, and that “capital R” Romanticism can help us understand the social meaning of computers.

With this precedent in mind, I turn to ‘net privacy in theatre of ‘13/4. All the plays I’m going to consider deal with perversions, criminal iterations of ‘net privacy. But none less than Keats was ‘half in love with death’; and however perverse their content gets, these plays evince, if not a Romantic aesthetic per se, then something sufficiently akin that I’m going to draw formal Romantic parallels and beg your indulgence.

Jen Haley’s The Nether deals with online pederasty in a private “Hideaway” [Haley’s device]. In fashioning the Hideaway, Haley eschews a complementarily grimy, abject aesthetic for irony: it is an archetypal country estate, with trees, gazebo, and fishing-pond. Notwithstanding its nominally Victorian context, a Romantic aesthetic— Blakeian innocence, a “Lakeland Poetic” idealizing of Nature— surely underpins a milieu that presents like this:

The Nether, The Hideaway

Blakeian also is Iris, the Hideaway’s resident, white-clad sprite–and “willing” victim of virtual child abuse. Innocent prima facie, but horribly au fait with abhorrent experience (“Perhaps you’d like to use the axe first”): Iris embodies the disjunction that hinges Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. Note finally how, according to its creator, “it’d upset a balance” in the Hideaway to suggest that Iris could grow older: anyone whose mind went to the Romantic organic conception of nature, give yourself a mark.

Price’s Teh [sic] Internet is Serious Business is a reportage piece about the respective rise and fall of the “hacktivist” groups Anonymous and LulzSec. Its dominant aesthetic is anarchic: a ball pit abuts the stage, from and around which emerge Socially Awkward Penguin and other costumed memes. Bright lights, Harlem Shake: you get the drift. At first sight, privacy is not the word here. But Price also depicts hackers’ private forums— and here, the staging tends towards lyricism. Computer code is recited as poetry (cf. Chandra’s recent equivalence of the two, if intrigued); databyte flow, enacted as dance. Here, literarily and physically, is a lyricism where elsewhere is jouissance: thus is privacy “Romanticized” (cf. Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Dvorak’s New World Symphony…).

James Graham’s Privacy tacks otherwise to Haley and Price. Graham’s is a synoptic approach to ‘net privacy, a condemnation of illiberal governmental/corporate/ security state malpractice as regards ostensibly password-protected public data. Such factuality is not the Romantic way, likewise Privacy’s format: a hybrid of verbatim enactments of his [The Writer’s] interviews with real British Establishment figures (Shami Chakrabarti, anyone? Well, Google her sometime); lectures; and fourth-wall—breaking audience participation. For good measure, Privacy rides roughshod over the Romantic exaltation of the subject: an array of thumbprints is the default [screen] backdrop, and the “subject” of the audience participation (having given prior permission) has her real-world online footprint, herself by proxy dissected onstage.

Privacy, James Graham

Despite all this, Privacy retains a double pertinence. First, it acts as a counter-proof: as its core is non-Romantic, so Privacy does not depict privacy itself [cf. Haley’s Hideaway, Price’s hackers’ forums] but exposes, is an exposé of its absence. Second, its aesthetic rather taps into the “other end” of Romanticism, where rapturous apostrophes fade into disquiet, into sublimity: the awesome dimensions of Big Data, the staging [that screen, those magnified thumbprints] vis-à-vis the actors and the script’s analytical impulse.

So: 2 1/2 proofs and a counter-proof, we might say, of a relationship between ‘net privacy and a quasi-Romantic aesthetic. My humble explanation: that the ‘net (especially the Deep Web) remains so broadly un-comprehended, its depth so untapped, as to inspire from us what “the naked countenance of Earth” [Shelley] inspired from the Romantics.

PYNCHON: A Quick Nota Bene

In another world, where space and time were as playthings, I’d fully discuss Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge: the only “literary” fictional novel that readily comes to mind that not only foreground ‘net privacy as a theme, but actually figures it as a distinct, visualized cyberspace–DeepArcher; conceived of as a ‘grand-scale motel for the afflicted’, for Pynchon’s kindred preterite [cf. Gravity’s Rainbow, or Google judiciously]; variously iterated as train concourse, desert, and galactic Void; and ultimately a Purgatory for leads, lovers, and 9/11 victims all encountered (and killed off) in the narrative. (On a complementary note for that latter point: Kabbalistic imagery and lexis is deployed in descriptions of the Void). Would I could share my MA dissertation with you all; but I’ll highlight simply this: doing what even screen media cannot (at least easily), and in keeping with his typical trickster mode, Pynchon visualizes ‘net privacy chimerically; that one cannot identify a definitive DA-scape is the whole point. A nicely postmodern note, I hope, on which to finish considering contemporary cultural visualizations of the ‘net.

Review: Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice, Sauncho and Doc

Let’s get this out of the way right now: I love Inherent Vice. The novel, I mean. I’ve read it at least six times at this point…possibly more. It’s by no means my favorite Pynchon, but when it was announced that for the first time ever the reclusive author allowed someone to adapt one of his works, I had to admit this was a good choice.

Inherent Vice, the novel, has a clear beginning, a clear ending, and a relatively clear journey between those terminal points. That’s more than you could say for almost anything else the man’s ever written. The fact that it also has a relatively small roster of important characters (again…a Pynchon rarity) and relies heavily on overt comedy makes it seem like the perfect Pynchon to bring to the screen.

I’ve now seen the film. In fact, I saw it with Paul Thomas Anderson in attendance, as he graced the humble Denver branch of the Alamo Drafthouse with his presence. I thought he might provide some insight into the film, or at least give me something that would make for a good story.

Instead he stood up to speak before the film, mumbled what sounded like a flat joke at the theater owner’s expense, and then seemed to lose all confidence. He interrupted himself in the middle of a sentence and said something to the effect of, “I don’t feel like talking. Let’s just watch the movie.”

Nervous laughter. Some shuffling. But, yeah, he was gone. I thought he made his way back to his seat, but when the houselights came up at the end of the film he wasn’t there, so I have no idea if he even stuck around after that.

And, you know, that’s okay. I’m not entitled to any special knowledge by virtue of getting a ticket to this particular showing. Hell, anything he might have said would have colored my impressions of the film I hadn’t yet seen. So my enthusiasm wasn’t dampened. I hope he wasn’t having as lousy a night as it seemed like he was, but other than that, I was completely focused on seeing, for the first time, my favorite author’s words come to life on the big screen.

If anything, that’s actually my complaint.

Or the closest thing I have to a complaint.

There’s too much Pynchon in this film. When adapting it’s not uncommon to strive for fidelity to the source material, but I don’t really see the point. The film should be good on its own merits, and if that means it needs to deviate from the plot, characterization, themes, or anything else that worked perfectly well in the book, that’s fine. Anderson seems — for much of the film at least…read on — to want to be as true to the text as possible, and I think that hampers where it can go, and what it can achieve.

A pleasant surprise hit me early in the movie: this was Pynchon’s dialogue. Not dialogue adapted from Pynchon’s dialogue, but Pynchon’s actual dialogue. And I felt supremely vindicated, as one common complaint from readers is that his dialogue isn’t natural…that he has a tin ear for it. I can’t bring myself to agree with that at all…and Inherent Vice, the movie, should put that criticism to rest. Reading it, yes, it might seem a bit artificial, but that’s because Pynchon doesn’t adhere to textual speech patterns; he adheres to human speech patterns. Hearing skilled actors delivering the same words demonstrates the impact they can have, at least once you tune in to their frequency and stop expecting them to tune into yours.

But it was followed by a much less pleasant surprise: this was Pynchon’s narration. Not scenes adapted from Pynchon’s narration, but Pynchon’s actual narration. And it was overkill. The film by no means needed a narrator. Granted, the writing was solid, but it wasn’t written to be spoken over images of exactly what it’s describing. It renders itself redundant. We see that Doc is distraught, and we’re told that Doc is distraught. It provides an unfair barrier between us in the audience and Joaquin Phoenix playing the character, as though the film itself doesn’t trust his performance.

Now Inherent Vice has one hell of a difficult mystery at its core, and I could understand the desire to keep the narration if Anderson felt that it would help his audience to understand what was going on. But it’s not the mystery that gets narrated…it’s the emotion. The motive. The inner conflict. You know…all the stuff that actors get paid to portray without words. And I found the inclusion of so much narration to be a clumsy and distracting decision.

It’s nice, I guess, that the narration was provided by Shasta Fay Hepworth, a character in the film, but what we see of Shasta doesn’t really convince me that she thinks or speaks like Thomas Pynchon writes. It seems as though Doc might be narrating this entire thing in his head with Shasta’s voice, but I just don’t see the value as making up for the effort.

This does lead to a really nice moment toward the end of the film, however, when Doc asks Shasta what the phrase “inherent vice” means. She replies that she doesn’t know. The narrator version of Shasta then defines it for him, and for us…which is a cutesy touch, but isn’t nearly enough to justify the inclusion of the narration overall.

So, there. Now that I’ve got my big complaint out of the way, I can talk about what I liked…and there’s a lot of it.

For starters, Katherine Waterston as Shasta Fay. She not only looked the part…but she was Shasta Fay. She embodied that character deeply and flawlessly…so much so that it was painful to watch. She was an absolutely perfect casting choice, and I can’t imagine any other actor — at any point in time — would have handled it better.

Shasta opens the film by informing Doc — private eye, hippie, and her ex-lover — of a plot to kidnap her current beau, real-estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann. As in the book, Doc follows up on this lead and investigates other cases along the way…each of which seems to feed right back into Wolfmann’s disappearance.

Along the way Doc clashes regularly with his law enforcement counterpart, Bigfoot Bjornson, who is played by Josh Brolin in the film’s other perfect casting choice. Brolin could have settled for making Bigfoot a comic boob, and that would have worked perfectly well. Instead he adds layers of sadness to the character deeper than even the book managed. Whereas the novel plays Bigfoot’s acting ambitions for laughs, the film turns them into a kind of ongoing silent tragedy. There’s little sadder than watching him in the background of an episode of Adam-12, with no lines, hoping against hope that somebody, somewhere, will notice him.

I’ll get back to Bigfoot in a moment, as I have a lot more to say, but the film itself manages to be very good without matching the greatness of Waterston’s and Brolin’s performances. Inherent Vice lags behind them, which is frustrating, because those two seem to have drifted into our world from a parallel one in which there exists a better version of this film.

The rest of the casting choices are very good without being revelatory. Martin Short as Dr. Blatnoyd is an expected comic highlight, even though he’s only in around two scenes, and Owen Wilson handles himself quite well as a regretful saxophonist nobody’s supposed to know is still alive.

Benicio del Toro plays the thanklessly efficient part of Doc’s attorney, a substantial part in the book that gets reduced to an unfortunately paltry series of scenes here. I get the feeling more was shot and we’ll see it on the eventual DVD, but for now Sauncho Smilax turns up a handful of times to sit near or walk beside Doc, and that’s a big disappointment. In fact, I’d have recommended cutting the character altogether if his significance was so severely reduced.

That actually leads to another of my concerns: the concern for fidelity leads to a lot of characters making the jump to the screen without really having much to do once they get there. Sauncho is one of them, certainly. So is Tariq Khalil, who sets Doc on the trail of a man named Glen Charlock. Charlock turns up dead, and Khalil I guess just forgets he ever cared, because we never hear from him again. Later we meet Clancy Charlock, Glen’s sister, for no real reason that I could discern, and then she’s gone, too.

Having Doc meet with so many clients who immediately disappear is a bizarre choice. These characters have larger roles in the book, and while I understand that not everything can (or should) be carried over to the screen, it’s disappointing that instead we get a kind of half-measure. “Here,” the film seems to say. “Remember this guy?” We do, yes, but it’s hard to get excited when the film doesn’t do anything with him. In fact, the end credits are filled with character names that we never actually hear in the film. There was such a commitment to getting as much on the screen as possible that it didn’t even matter if there was any significance to them being there.

This is especially problematic in the case of the film’s main villains: Puck Beaverton, and Adrian Prussia. Puck appears several times in the film, but in the book he had his own entire subplot which helped to establish him as a credible — and ruthless — threat, as well as the kind of guy Doc should have nothing to do with. In the film he has a swastika on his face. Is that enough? Maybe. But if that’s all you get, is he even a character?

Prussia is served even more poorly. The main dark force in the book, we meet him very close to the end of the film. There’s no way to complain about this without spoiling it, but let’s just say this is his only scene. The bone-chilling powerhouse in the book — who draws Doc into a climactic and comic shootout that spills out into the streets — is here, and then he’s not. Some small attempt is made to weave him back into the things we’ve already seen, but it’s too little too late. The scariest motherfucker in the novel is a complete non-entity in the film, and he’s not really replaced by anything else. His a walking signifier of all the things missing from the movie. Not just as an adaptation, but as a movie period.

At one point in Doc’s investigations he turns up the fact that Prussia was responsible for the death of Bigfoot’s partner. It sheds a lot of light on Bigfoot’s behavior in both the film and the book, but we last see Bigfoot in the book still following his desperate need for revenge, and it’s so pitiful that we can’t help but feel for him and hate him at the same time.

In the movie…well, that doesn’t happen. It’s replaced by a scene I’m not even sure I can explain. If you watch it, you’ll know what I mean when you get there, whether or not you’ve read the book.

Inherent Vice will probably grow on me. I’m sure I’ll watch it many, many more times. But as of right now, it feels like I’ve seen half of a film. Having read the book means I can fill in some of the blanks, but really what I wanted was a piece of art that could stand on its own merits…even if it had nothing in common with the novel but its name.

I’d have preferred a simplified plot to a rushed one, and a few different characters combined to loads of characters that have little or nothing to do.

The movie gets a lot right. The casting is never less than great. The soundtrack is perfect. The resolution of the dead saxophonist case — one of the very few things in this film that has a resolution — is genuinely sweet. There are excellent comic moments sprinkled throughout, and glimpses of a great film that somehow only managed to be very good.

I think my feelings about the adaptation can be summed up by looking at the ending. I won’t mention any specifics; I just want to say that at the end of the book, there’s a scene that seems irrelevant…and yet, reading it, I knew exactly how we got to that scene, and why. It mattered. At the end of the film there’s a scene that seems very relevant, and yet I couldn’t tell you why we ended up there. It has to matter, because it’s the end of the film, but that’s about all I can say for sure.

It’s worth seeing, I’d say. But it’s not the film it could have been.

Of course, I’m coming at this as a guy who read the book way too many times. Maybe my expectations, despite my best efforts, weren’t properly aligned. To find out, tune in a little later; a friend who’s never read the book but is deeply passionate about film will be providing a second review of Inherent Vice for Noiseless Chatter. I’m curious to see what he’ll have to say, based only on the merits of what was on the screen.

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