Movies in February, 2015

  1. The Babadook at the Little, February 4: While it's not my usual style, I was inspired by the positive review by charming (and apparently relatively private—what is this guy's name?) YouTuber Horrible Reviews. It's a film about a woman, Amelia, and her son Samuel—he was born the night his father was killed in a car accident. Clearly this thoroughly disturbed Amelia, and her sudden role as a single mother didn't allow her to take necessary time-off to properly mourn, so those feelings festered within her psyche. As such, she's generally quite unhinged throughout the film and only manages to muster glimmers of normalcy. The Babadook begins in the form of a children's book that horrifies Samuel. The first half of the film is quite tense and terrifying, but the gradual physical and supernatural appearance of the Babadook character tends to seem unbelievable, and as such, tends to spoil the tension. Worst, though, is the incredibly absurd resolution. In the end, the Horrible Reviews' review mirrored my own experience pretty much perfectly—although he favors horror, I was finding the things he liked and disliked about movies seemed agreeable to me, and this first test of that impression appears to confirm that belief.
  2. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night at the Little, February 20: Jenn was excited to see this film once it was described as a "feminist Iranian vampire Western film". It's about a woman who's a vampire trying to keep some semblance of a code-of-ethics for herself. After a little post-film discussion, I guess I could call it a "feminist Iranian vampire Western film," but only if I must shoe-horn it into categories. But I think a better way to look at it is to take your expectations of a film called "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night"—with all its cautionary-tale baggage of helpless women—and gender-flip it so you have a powerful and complex female vampire who preys upon weak-willed men until she's surprised to find herself attracted to one of them. To me, her hesitant capitulation to that situation (and her overall resigned demeanor) seemed to show a deep understanding of the likely outcome from a long-line of past experiences that belie her youthful appearance. It's a very-well made film all around—directing, plot, acting, cinematography, sound-design, and music are all excellent. And I guess it's about a group of people who are, for the most part neither saints nor sinners, but who tend to boldly live on the sinner side of the line. And of them all, the vampire almost seems the most saintly. (And one final note: the Little's projection marred the film with terrible judder, so boo to the Little and boo to digital.)
  3. Red Hollywood at the Dryden, February 21: Having heard of Senator Joseph McCarthy's state-sponsored murders in the 1950's, I was curious to hear the "other" side. Basically this is Thom Andersen's essay highlighting the horrors and failures of the push to rid America of members of the Communist Party. It is a dense and thick film, and I was lacking two important pieces of information: what exactly is communism in that era—and in terms of "members of the Communist Party"—and how did the example film clips act as subversive messages. As such, I spent much of the film trying to articulate my questions, and then to answer them. For instance, I thought "helping people when they were out-of-luck" was a genuinely good trait, so to see it framed as communist propaganda was thoroughly puzzling. Nonetheless, I guess it ended up making me pretty sad as—my beliefs aside—it is well-known that the fleecing of the worker for the benefit of the business owner is celebrated dogma in America, and more prevalent than ever.
  4. Wild at the Cinema, February 28: Sneaking a double-feature in before the wire, there were these two films I thought looked interesting. I heard mixed but overall good things about Wild, but I was immediately put off. As soon as it started, I came up with this synopsis: "a moron tries to walk the Pacific Crest Trail." We're introduced to Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) who shows up to a hotel with a giant backpack and begins to prepare for a 1,100 mile journey. I'm admittedly an extreme planner, so when I see someone attempt something new without so much as asking a single human being for advice, or consulting a book, I'm already not with them. Thankfully, the PCT in the film is the easiest hike in the world. We're told through flashback that despite having the most caring mother in the world (Laura Dern as Bobbi), she was blindsided by some terrible personal events. So this journey is one of personal discovery that, by sheer luck, does not end in the death of the main character. Now to be frank, this is not a terrible movie, it's just that it's, well, mediocre. And since it's supposed to be realistic, the non-realistic moments are glaring. Like how can a Minnesotan not know how to deal with snow?, how are lodges along the way full of people despite an absolutely desolate trail?, or why would a trail guide fail to mention the lack of water up ahead? If you can get into the personal story and don't tend to worry about realism in a realistic movie, then yeah, this would be a very good film for you. I'm betting the book is better.
  5. Cake at the Cinema, February 28: I'm like, "okay, Jennifer Aniston as Claire, a woman in a chronic-pain support group who becomes obsessed with the suicide of a fellow member … yeah, I can get into that". Only again, the non-realisim in the realistic movie gets to me right away. Claire has some unspecified chronic pain, but it's so unspecified that the pain apparently shifts around so she can only lay down when in a car, but can easily sit for in chairs just fine, and she aches and groans in bed, but can get out of bed with only the apparent achiness of an average 45-year-old. And, like Wild, this is a personal journey story, but I will say this and spoil the movie a little: she doesn't go from a quasi-crippled curmudgeon to a happy, healthy hero, so there's that bit of realism. She does grow a bit … I guess … but it's so slow and subtle that I wonder if I wasn't simply mistaken.

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Seeing a Performance of Rossum's Universal Robots at the MuCCC

I went to see Rossum's Universal Robots (R.U.R.) at The Multi-Use Community Cultural Center (MuCCC) (142 Atlantic Ave.) with a group from The Rochester Speculative Literature Association (R-SPEC). When I was in high school, I read the play in English class. It seemed okay back then and I did remember it, but it was amused for my feelings for it all those years ago to bubble back up.

The play starts off with Helena, the daughter of the president, visits the robot factory with the intention to liberate the robots as if they were human. In this, we are dumped into the misogynistic world of 1920 Czechoslovakia de Karel Capek (despite it being set in some undefined future). It was intolerable. The Helena character is borderline mentally disabled, a staple of female characters written by men who never listened to a woman. (I even recall hating Helena in my high school reading as well.) The robot factory is on an island, and (naturally) exclusively operated by men. Even the robots were almost exclusively men [which you may have noticed didn't change in storytelling until writers realized that robots were not superior to humans, at which they started being female] except for one: a replica of Helena who was "useless as a worker" because of her whimsical ways.

But okay, I grit my teeth and did my best to not be overwhelmed by that central theme.

The story trundles along, revealing the robots to be organic things akin to super-smart, human-looking, genetically modified animals. It's clear that Capek is making a statement about the ideal worker in either a communist or capitalist world: one that works tirelessly, has no internal drive, and that requires virtually nothing in the form of pay. The robots (naturally) revolt and (despite their intelligence and realization of a finite lifespan) kill off all the humans. Except for those in the factory, at least for a while. They enslave the factory operators in an attempt to extract the formula to make more robots. But all is not lost for humanity and its attempt to be a god, for Helena R. (the robot) apparently has a function after all — at least in not-so-subtle implication.

Aside from introducing the word "robot" into the lexicon, I have to say this play offers really nothing else. It combines man's desire to be a god, the oppressed rising up against their oppressors, and an overwhelming dose of "women are only good for housekeeping and making babies." I want to say that an adaptation would be improved by eliminating the misogynistic overtones, but it so central to the plot that it seems an insurmountable task. At least the actors did their best with it and did a fine job with the script-in-hand reading.

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To Live at the Dryden

I went to the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) with my friend Christina to see Huozhe (To Live). She had seen it before (at least the latter 75%) and liked a lot.

It was one of the most beautiful, serene movies I've ever seen. It's about a family that stays together through record-setting turmoil. Or it's about redemption. Or it's about life being change. Or it's a critique of communism. Or it's about luck. Or it's about beauty all the time. Or any combination or all of those things.

But if you're willing to be receptive to it, you'll feel some of those ideas.

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Maira Kalman at RIT

I headed to RIT (One Lomb Memorial Dr., campus map) to see Maira Kalman speak as part of The Caroline Werner Gannett Project. As far as I can tell, she's a respected artist who generally paints with a feeling of childlike innocent observation. The title of her talk was Just Looking — and I understood that to refer to the act of looking without distraction, without thinking, and without judging. Her discussion was very similar to her TED Lecture, "Maira Kalman, the illustrated woman" in case you'd like to see for yourself.

Overall I found her to be charming, witty, and kind-of irritating. She's has a disarming self-defacing kind of demeanor at this lecture — for instance, she referred to her art as "just a side thing", claiming that cleaning is her main task in life. I felt as though she gets a lot of credit for observing the small things in life that go unnoticed by the seeming majority of people. And that group, I think, finds her observations incredibly fascinating. But I, well — not so much. This kind of observation is not particularly new to me, and pretty integral to my way of life.

She also seemed to take great pride in not knowing anything — something I disliked on two levels.

First, I think it's a philosophy that attracts bad communists. By that, I mean that there is a certain kind of person who has little in the way of skills, but who feels entitled to be cared for by others. And by skills, I mean not only job-worthy skills of the day, but basic functional survival skills.

In this day and age, it's somewhat irrelevant, because despite what people who write books about winning say, this is a plentiful age. As such, "survival of the fittest" is not relevant today — we're in the equilibrium between the punctuating of the punctuated equilibrium theory of evolution. It's only during those times of dramatic hardship that hoarding and winning against your neighbor is necessary.

And so these people are not "entitled" but "lucky". True: there is a certain amount of luck to surviving when a volcano erupts and causes a tremendous change in the world's climate, but knowing how to purify water, prepare food, and build reliable shelter are things that would shift your chances of surviving. "Knowing nothing" won't help you nearly as much.

Second, the whole claim to "not knowing" is a lie. She knows full well how to observe, how to paint, how to filter the finest grains of the world — all things that show in her work. I think her point might be that "knowing" is not the be-all, end-all of existence. "Doing" is another significant part of a rewarding life — for "doing" is the only success there is; "not doing" the only failure.

But by focusing on the "not knowing", there is another kind of person who irritates me who embraces that meme: those who argue that knowledge is a folly. They're frequently also lousy communists, but occasionally they're just philosophers who are too deep in the rabbit hole. The basis for their argument is irrefutable: you cannot predict the future. If you can't predict the future, then any knowledge is barely a guess as to what's going to happen — so why try with this whole "knowing" thing at all when it's just a recording of the way things happened before?

It would be a disturbing day indeed if I had a basket of six apples and put three more in, only to find there were now 4,388 apples in the basket. But until that day, there will be nine apples in the basket. So as long as metal conducts electricity, and gravity is pretty much constant, and I can catch a ball, and the Internet does what the Internet did, I'll stick with knowing.

The trick, I think — and my interpretation of Kalman's talk — is to be able to turn it all off. It's a fascinating exercise to see the world not as objects in space, but as strangely behaving colors and shapes. To look at a tree and just see it as a trunk that splits and splits and splits ultimately into tiny twigs is good. To live in that world of wonder all the time … eh, not so much.

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