Slave to the Source

Doug Liman’s “The Edge of Tomorrow” is probably the most most fun I’ve had at a movie in a long time.

Using a not-too-original high-concept that mirrors (as many many many  many writers have already noted) Harold Ramis’ “Groundhog Day,” Liman — and Tom Cruise, who really is irreplaceable in this movie — has created a big, noisy blockbuster thing that is actually worth everyone’s time. That isn’t easy to do, and it isn’t the first time Liman’s done it.

In the film, Tom Cruise’s character, Lt. Col. Bill Cage, is unexpectedly gifted with the power to relive the same day every time he dies. He gets this power by something to do with alien blood, but it really isn’t important. After finding out that Cage is, as Bill Murray’s character put it in “Groundhog Day” “an immortal,” Emily Blunt’s character, the big shot Rita Vrataski, decides to use his power to the military’s advantage. They train and learn the tactics of the alien invaders, known as “mimics” and of course dabble in a love side plot.

All of this is fair and good, but the film would not have worked had the filmmakers not embraced the potential for lightheartedness that the plot brings. Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt have great chemistry and there are some A-grade sight gags (watching Tom Cruise try to waddle away from the conflict in on of those clunky battle suits may be my favorite moment of the film).

Another aspect of the film that struck me, like it did Jon Stewart and probably many other reviewers, is how much this film reminded me of a video game. Not just because of the aesthetics, which really do look like they came straight out of the mind of an Activision developer, but because the premise forces Cage to live like a video game character. Every time he screws up, he just starts the level over until he learns how to get past the next obstacle. There’s even a final boss they are working toward (the “Omega,” which is basically like a hive queen.)

So they’ve finally done it. They’ve finally done a good job turning a video game into a movie. Only the source material isn’t a game, but a novel. It’s the approach, the feel that is influenced by the gaming world. Not the story.

I’ve noticed a similar trend among another genre of films. Having recently watched both “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”  and “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” I’m beginning to believe that studios — likely influenced by the new wave of Marvel Studios productions — are becoming less interesting in adapting comics into movies, and more keen to the idea of turning movies into comics.

You see, the thing about comic books is that there are a lot of them, and most of them really aren’t that great. Comics are serial stories, meaning their ultimate goal is to convince the reader to buy another issue, and then never stop having issues for the reader to buy. Because of this, most comic threads morph into confusing stories with too many characters and more than enough false melodrama. To combat this, standard practice in the comic book industry is to periodically hit the restart button, which hey often do by using other dimensions/planets etc. They just wipe everything clean. Also because of this, the best stories in comics typically (but not always) come out of shorter self-contained story arcs that serve as special issues. While the true definition of a graphic novel is actually just that, a novel that uses the storytelling techniques of a comic book, many of these special runs in comics get compiled and sold as, essentially, graphic novels.

For most of the history of comic book movies, the idea has been to replicate the graphic novel idea. Tell gripping self-contained stories, largely focused on character development and resolving whatever conflict is at hand. Depending on the film, maybe even tease toward the next movie. It was an approach that worked well: Essentially taking the best of what comics had to offer and then try and translate it to the medium of film.

In fact, graphic novels, or the shorter story arcs that typically packed more narrative power, were often inspired by film to begin with. Take Jeph Loeb’s “The Long Halloween.” TLH was a 13-issue series that served as a major influence to Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” but it itself was inspired by, among other things, “The Godfather.” By focusing on the cinematic aspects of what comics had to offer, comic book film adaptations were always playing principally by the rules of cinema, just as TLH took story elements from film and adapted them to comic panels.

Now, flash forward to 2014, and it seams every film based on a comic is almost nothing more than a big expensive set up for the nex movie. Kind of like a comic. The truth is, as far as Marvel Studios and Sony and 20th Century Fox are concerned, there will never be an end to X-Men movies, or Spider-Man movies. There certainly will not be an end to Avengers tie-ins.

Why are they doing it this way? Because even if the films are kind of lousy, by providing major tie-ins and cliff-hanger endings (and after credits sequences) there will always be enough people who want to see the next one. It’s the same basic strategy of monthly comics: It doesn’t have to be great, just give them a reason to keep reading.

To be fair, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” was actually quite good. In fact, it was possibly one of the best X-Men movies up to this point. But that is only the case for two reasons: Bryan Singer is a great director who understands how to make a great X-Men movie (but not a great Superman movie) and the X-Men franchise already had a built-in storyline that would allow 20th Century fox to play with the franchise and basically ruin it, only to be virtually rebooted with little difficulty.

But even though Singer managed to pull the whole thing off, the idea that they will continue on with “X-Men: Apocalypse” only feeds into my suspicion that these studios are taking their strategy points from the comics industry. With DOFP, the X-Men timeline has been mangled and plot-holes abound (actually, some of the biggest continuity holes came about because of “First Class,” but DOFP only deepens them) so the trick here is how Singer and company will be able to dig themselves out of some these problems.

I’m far less optimistic, however, of the future of Spider-Man on film than the X-Men. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” was not just a terrible film, it was a terrible setup to whatever atrocities Sony has planned for the future, which from the looks of it will be a Sinister Six film (or, more likely, films). ASM2 seemed to embody the notion that quality doesn’t matter when you know quantity is on your side.

So even though “The Edge of Tomorrow” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past” made good by adapting to the techniques of their source material (or, in the case of EOT, more like source inspiration) I’d be willing to bet they will prove to be the exception to the rule. The best films are those that know what the strengths and weaknesses of cinema are, and play to those. “The Godfather” isn’t great because it reminds you of reading a novel. It’s great because the filmmaker knows how to make movies, and he did it well.

War Stories

 

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. – Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

I believe that war is a concept I will never really understand. Tactics, motivations, rationale  — all of these are puzzles to me. Which, I suppose, is why I am so drawn to literature that views war as the ultimate expression of human irrationality.

Just a few weeks ago, I read Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” which is a series of interconnected short stories that explore the minds of Vietnam War soldiers. Twenty short stories that in the end equal a great whole. Though he insists in the introduction that the stories are all made up, I was convinced while reading it that they — the characters, at least — had to be real. They were too complicated, too gray, for me to believe anyone had made them up out of whole cloth.

After a little digging, I learned that the stories were indeed semi-autobiographical.

“The Things They Carried” paints war to be an ugly mosaic of death, fear, selfishness, coming of age,  heroism and vulnerability. Unlike your standard mosaic, however, war seems confused and vulgar when considered as a whole. It’s in the details of O’Brien’s stories that we see the broader picture. From a distance selfishness seems corrupt and ugly. Up close, at least in the context of war, it only seems human. Natural. The stories are so personal I began to relate to things that I have not only never endured, but never even imagined until reading these stories.

Take the story “Speaking of Courage” for example. “Speaking of Courage” in my opinion is the most emotionally gripping story in the collection. It describes the frustrated mental state of a Vietnam War vet, having returned to his small hometown with nothing to do but drive around  a lake, imagining conversations with his father. It’s an emotional place I’ve certainly never been (needless to say, I’ve never seen one of my comrades drown in a river of feces) but reading that story made me feel as though it were part of my own psychological journey. O’Brien’s book injects these stories into your bloodstream. They become impossible to remove.

Another striking element of “The Things They Carried” is O’Brien’s ability to find poetry in the obscene. I couldn’t help but think of Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line,” while reading “Carried.” I don’t know if there is a higher compliment I could possibly give any book on the subject of war.

In Malick’s film, World War II soldiers struggle to maintain a sense of purpose as their world is consumed by violence. Like O’Brien’s men, they find comfort — sometimes even God — in the nature that surrounds them. One of O’Brien’s stories, titled “Church,” even confronts faith head-on as his soldiers talk about God and religion in an abandoned building used for church services. As Private Witt, the (main) protagonist of “The Thin Red Line” says, these men have all seen another world. One without war. Any chance they get to stop and talk about the peaceful things of life — love, God, family — only make the violence harder.

These stories help me appreciate something I don’t understand — war — by spelling it out in terms I can comprehend: War is the presence of everything. Everything good, bad and in-between. And there is plenty of in-between. War will probably forever be a puzzle to me, and the thought that it isn’t a puzzle to some other people worries me a bit.

Take Robert Kagan’s essay in this month’s New Repubic, “The Allure of Normalcy.” As someone who enjoys American history and appreciates insightful context for current events, Kegan’s essay was a delight to read. Kegan, a highly influential Neo-Con (Jeb Bush, for example, has listed one of his books as a recent favorite, leading many to speculate that he’s getting more serious about this being president thing) sees the role of the united states as one of a referee. He’s not the only one; As he points out in in his essay most presidents of the twentieth century  have viewed our foreign policy engagements as balancing acts. For good or for ill, the U.S. has kept the world afloat with our methods for the last 50 plus years. I really don’t disagree with him on this.

He makes a good case, and he is a fantastic writer. If I were prepping for a debate, his explanation of American foreign policy would likely come to good use:

When a nation uses its power to shape a world order, rather than merely for self-defense or conquest, the tenuousness of solutions is even more pronounced. Military actions for world order preservation are almost by definition limited both in scope and objectives. World order maintenance requires operating in the gray areas between victory and defeat.

He doesn’t just make use of military  force sound understandable but essential. He argues well the legacy of American military intervention. But after reading “The Things They Carried,” it is suddenly harder to see the world as Kegan does. War, in O’Brien’s stories, is about men and women. People who die or suffer PTSD or lose limbs or struggle with guilt for the rest of their lives for things they did in rice patties during an hour of desperation. “The world ‘as it is’ is a dangerous and often brutal place,” and virtuous military actions are needed to maintain hope, Kegan reminds his readers. But it is hard not to feel that American military interventions, though well intentioned, often increase that danger and add to the brutality.

Which leads me to Bowe Bergdahl. What am I to make of his confusing, contradictory story? To some, he somehow symbolizes a foreign policy defeat. Proof that we are no longer maintaining the peaceful order of the world. We have lost our touch.

But isn’t he nothing more than a reminder of what Tim O’Brien wrote about War almost 25 years ago?

“If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.”

No matter how this all plays out, we should at least feel comfort that it’s a bold reflection of the truth of war, not just some war story.

Are We There

Sharon-Van-Etten-Are-We-There

I first heard Sharon Van Etten when she opened for The National at last year’s Twilight Concert Series in Salt Lake City. She was easily the best opening act I had ever seen.

Her albums “Tramp” (2012) and “Because I Was in Love” (2009) quickly became an essential part of my musical rotation. Like music often does, “Tramp” became the soundtrack of a season. Her voice and words have now played in the background of some of the most heartbreaking moments of my life. Her rhythms managed to both ease and intensify my sorrow. “Tramp” and Beck’s “Morning Phase” were perfect music for a very imperfect time.

I didn’t need another album from her; like Paul Simon’s “Surprise,” The National’s “High Violet”, Arcade Fire’s “Funeral” and a slew of other albums in my life, “Tramp” has entered the dark corridors of my subconscious. When I hear “Give Out” or “All I Can” or “I’m Wrong,” I will forever think of empty dark hospitals. It’s easiest to revisit these things through music. In fact, I believe there is even some science to back that up. Because of that album, I will never forget some of the things I’ve felt over the past few months. Hard things. Things I’d rather like to forget. Luckily, she won’t let me.

Sharon Van Etten owes me nothing more.

To my surprise, however, she released her fourth full-length album this year. Listening to it helps me separate what I initially loved about her songwriting from the memories she helped create. I loved the tenderness and the rage and the lack of irony. She takes her emotions seriously, drawing a stark contrast from the self-loathing synth-pop that has consumed most of the alternative scene these days.

Everything that I love most about Van Etten’s sound is present on “Are We There.” In some ways it’s a better album than “Tramp,” but with an artist like Van Etten there’s no use in ranking her music. She is essentially singing one song, over and over, forcing you to feel it clearer with each new verse. “I love you but I’m lost,” she sings seven tracks into “Are We There,” rephrasing something she and other musicians have sung for a millennia: Human relationships are hard, and sometimes even terrible. But they’re all we have.

“Are We There” continues the earnest crescendos of “Tramp,” but this time she plays with their strength. Songs such as “Break Me” or “Tarifa” fade in and out of passion, reminding you that maintaining an emotion is hard work. But sometimes, like with the throbbing “You Know Me Well,” Van Etten  keeps up the pace, voice shaking with her trademark strength-through-weakness vulnerability. Once the song is over, you wonder if listening to it might be more tiring than actually playing in the band.

It’s always refreshing to hear music that has no place in a dance hall. The only neon lights that are worthy of “Are We There” are in the lettering of a Walgreens. When you’ve pulled over into a pharmacy parking lot to gather your thoughts on a late night drive, this is the music that will play, whether it be on your stereo or simply in the back of your mind.

It’s only a matter of time before “Every Time the Sun Comes Up” plays during a particularly emotional episode of Parenthood. That’s when the world will fall in love with her. And They can certainly have her. She’s already given me everything I needed from her. This album, the rest of her career, these are all bonuses for me.

Bonus: As it so happens, Sharon did a song with The National. It might be one of my favorite songs of all time.

 

A little less Jimmy Carter, a little more Dwight Eisenhower

The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart had an interesting piece yesterday on Obama’s foreign policy strategy.

“He’s Like Ike,” the headline declares, drawing from the president’s Wednesday speech at West Point to argue that Obama’s approach to foreign policy is grounded in the ideals of a once misunderstood president who has gained favor with historians in the past couple decades. “Eisenhower,” he wrote, “spent much of his presidency arguing against critics who claimed that the United States needed to spend more on defense, or intervene more militarily.” Just like Obama.

It’s a pretty compelling read. And he does a great job of situating the president’s (perceived) mindset in a time and place that echoes that of Eisenhower.

“For Obama … Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan are not aberrations. They reveal a recurring pattern of American hubris … Eisenhower’s problem was that his foreign policy was not heroic. He was content, in Obama’s words, to ‘hit singles.’ He had, after all, seen more than enough bloodstained heroism on the beaches and meadows of Europe.”

As The New Republic’s David Greenberg wrote in a review of the 2012 Ike Biography, “Eisenhower in War and Peace,” by Jean Edward Smith,“Vietnam put a new glow on Eisenhower’s diplomatic realism, as Iraq would a generation later.”

But what’s interesting about the Ike comparison by Beinart is that it doesn’t seem to be an even-handed “for good or for ill, Obama is like Eisenhower” approach. Beinart doesn’t really seem to engage with any of the possible downsides of an Ike-like foreign policy. It’s basically “Obama’s a dove, like Ike, and that’s great.”

But as Greenberg pointed out in his review,

“It is true that Ike deserves better than the condescension he once endured, but all this cheerleading for his presidency also serves him ill. Worse, the new Ikeophilia reinforces a regrettable popular attitude toward presidential power—an overwrought fear of executive activism, a naïvely roseate view of Eisenhower’s hallmark traits of realism and restraint, and an unwarranted tolerance of high-level deception.”

How much of that “Ikeophilia” spills over into Beinart’s comparison? It seems like his focus is primarily on the hawk vs. dove debate, but the issues of “unwarranted tolerance of high-level deception” are certainly legacies that are worth being part of this discussion.

Read “He’s Like Ike” at The Atlantic. 

Scrambling For Things That Matter

I am disgusted and frightened that when I hear about mass murders I immediately compare them to previous incidents and think, “well, at least it wasn’t as bad as the last one.”

They are all bad. They are all tragic, heartbreaking, and confusing.

Some of us think the conversation in the confusion is counterproductive. I disagree. I think the confusion is necessary.  We are confused because we don’t know how to stop this from happening. This time, there is a quantifiable element of hostile misogyny and bitterness. There’s also mental illness, entitlement, and rage. There is the ever pervasiveness of America’s gun culture. And so that’s what we talk about.

#YesAllWomen sparked a much needed conversation about our deeply rooted sexism. Critics claim that the timing isn’t right for this conversation, and bringing it up in the wake of a tragedy is exploitation.

I can understand that perspective, but I also think it’s a weak and problematic response. I don’t really have anything to add to #YesAllWomen because I’m not a woman, and I think the best thing I can do is just listen. I will say this — weeks ago we were criticizing hashtag activism for it’s flippant and naive approach to complex issues. I think that’s true when applied to a specific incident, especially tragedy, like #bringbackourgirls. In this instance, a cause that is more abstract and deep rooted and ongoing, it is inspired.

I am more curious about the collective phenomena of critical discussions that inevitably rises from these attacks. There is always gun control, and the nearly spring-boarded reaction from gun enthusiasts. I think they were almost preemptive this time. There’s mental health, which is an important cause, but complicated in this case because the killer had privileged access to mental healthcare (and how sad that it is a privilege), but even the best therapists and psychologists can’t stop violence where violence is determined. Some people blame media, some people blame video games, and some misguided person blamed Seth Rogan movies (note: if you’re looking for examples of misogyny in Hollywood, you’re looking at the wrong Seth).

I understand the need to seemingly grasp at straws for explanations of horror. Writers need to write, and they think, and then they write what they think, and they participate in the conversation — helpful or not — because it’s what writers do. It’s cynical to say that they need to capitalize on tragedy to get clicks, and I’m completely self aware that by putting my own thoughts into words I am participating in the same process, but there is truth to this cynicism.

Here’s my point.

These things are overwhelming. They are confusing. And we just don’t know what to do about it yet. Or maybe we do, but we’re just not all on board yet. We need to examine our proclivity for degrading women, especially when we have entire industries dedicated to it. We need to do something for the mentally ill. We need to talk about these things, and we need to lose our minds whenever this happens. Because if we refuse to examine our biggest, most glaring flaws, we risk normalizing the terror.

Everyday Robots

Damon-Albarn-Everyday-Robots-Album-Packshot

Damon Albarn, probably most famous for being the cartoonishly british voice of the Gorillaz and the more humble half of the Oasis V. Blur battle of the 90s, has released his first solo album. It is so small and quiet, the only thing that really sticks with you are the voices — both the hypnotic samples he includes and his own iconic croon. Lucky for him, that East London accent is a treasure.

This album doesn’t sound anything like the Gorillaz, so if that’s your thing (your only thing) then this whole album will probably be pretty disappointing. In fact, Albarn replaced any hip-hop sensibility he might have with pure pop melodies. This album seems more like a return to Blur’s softer sensibilities than a follow up to Plastic Beach (or, I guess, The Fall). But even when Blur took it slow, with tracks like End of Century or  Tender, they always swelled into something big:

The songs on Albarn’s solo album, Everyday Robots, do no such thing. Ever. The whole thing is as calm as a gloomy London afternoon (I would guess). The joy comes from finding out what a Brit-Pop pioneer and 90s alt-rock vet like Albarn has to say about pop music in 2014. The answer is not much, but it’s still a joy to hear.

I suspect some might roll their eyes at what Albarn spends most of the album talking about. From the title alone it’s not hard to guess that he is particularly concerned with dehumanization through all the fancy devices we plug in. When Arcade Fire’s Reflektor came out, reviewers liked to complain about how bourgeois “anti-technology screeds” and critiques of social media are, but that critique is stupid. “Don’t sing about one of the most pertinent issues of our time” is a silly way to think about music.

Everyday Robots is short, soft and slightly bizarre. It’s delightful.

Of course, Albarn isn’t the only alt-rock legend to step down from his pioneer pedestal. A lot of the solo projects going on these days are unfairly dismissed as vanity projects. I happen to quite like them. Some of my favorites are Ben Gibbard’s Former Lives, which was apparently recorded over the course of a few years. Some of it using Rock Band.

I also think that Radiohead’s drummer, Philip Selway, has a gem of an album that’s been overlooked, unfortunately. 

Of course, there is also Thom Yorke, whose solo album really isn’t great. But Thom Yorke not being great is still more interesting than most things out there. He also contributed a great song to one of the Twilight soundtracks, which is not available on Spotify, and you have to buy the whole soundtrack to New Moon on iTunes if you want to own it. Luckily, there’s Youtube.