Monthly Archives: July 2010

Memento, Batman, and Beyond: Notes on Christopher Nolan

With this Friday’s release of Inception, director Christopher Nolan will add one more entry to his increasingly compelling oeuvre. To celebrate this blessed event, and Nolan’s status as one of the most intriguing directors now working in mainstream American cinema, I’m participating in the Christopher Nolan Blogothon at Things That Don’t Suck. I’ve seen three of Nolan’s films – Memento (previously written about here), The Prestige, and The Dark Knight – and found much to recommend all three (as well as some common faults), all of which makes Inception easily my most-anticipated wide-release film of the summer. So here, in somewhat piecemeal form, is my take on the career of Christopher Nolan. (Also note that given the nature of Nolan’s films, this piece is almost entirely spoilers.)

1. “John G. raped and murdered my wife.”

Khan once said that revenge is a dish best served cold. This doesn’t hold true for Nolan’s protagonists, who crave immediacy in their payback: for them, it’s the hotter the dish, the better. Memento‘s Leonard Shelby wants to wipe out the semi-mythical “John G.” as soon (and, perhaps, as often) as he can, willfully altering his own “evidence” to expedite the consummation of his bloodlust. Angier and Borden in The Prestige let other motivations like love and professional success take a back seat to revenge, until both men are consumed by their own labyrinthine, continent-spanning death traps. And Batman, of course, is on a quest for revenge so storied and complex that it has transformed into a nocturnal heroism, as he projects his response to his own familial tragedy onto the criminal class worldwide.

With his brother Jonathan, Nolan has built these criss-crossing stories of stimulus and response, cause and effect, the two of which are often confused. Obfuscation abounds on every level of his films, whether diegetically embedded in the film’s subject matter (Leonard’s brain injury, The Prestige‘s stage trickery, Batman and the Joker’s exchanged illusions1) or in the Nolan bros.’ layered and intentionally duplicitous screenplays. These tendencies prevent us from ever answering the question “Who started it?” and strand us on a morally relative battleground. All we really have is the knowledge that a woman (Leonard’s wife, Angier’s wife, Rachel Dawes) died, and the characters’ subjective assertions that the guilty party must be punished. Should Batman have saved Rachel instead? What knot did Borden use? Is John G. to blame for his wife’s death, or is it Leonard himself? Unable to obtain satisfactory answers, Nolan’s anti-heroes toss aside the questions and get revenge.

2. “How about a magic trick?”

Even after the rest of the film would seem to have dispelled its mystery, I still love the contextless opening image of The Prestige: dozens of top hats lying in a field. Whether or not you know the image’s real place in the film, it produces, like the whole of Memento, a sense of being temporarily thrown off-balance and forced as a viewer to ask yourself, like Leonard Shelby, “Now, where was I?” As Nolan’s stories grind on inexorably, even mechanically, it becomes easy for us and the characters to lose track of where we are amidst the dense twists and turns of the narrative. But like a dove out of a handkerchief, some resolution emerges from the story’s logic, usually with a disconcertingly fatalistic thrust. Leonard, for example, trustingly follows his tattoos’ guidance, but the audience doesn’t learn until the end/beginning that he’d predestined his own beginning/end all along. And all it takes is an explosion and a pep talk for the Joker to turn Harvey Dent from a White Knight to the monstrous Two-Face.

Thus, it’s their own pathological obsessions that, when coupled with a myopic unawareness of the broader picture, undo these flawed men. As the Joker says with reference to the cops and criminals of Gotham City, “they’re schemers… schemers trying to control their little worlds.” The Joker and Memento‘s Teddy can see beyond themselves, and sink their teeth into the protagonists’ drives and delusions. Angier and Borden attempt to pull similar tricks on each other, but are too caught up in their own fixations to realize the pointlessness of their mutual grudge (and both end up paying for it). Between their slippery subjectivities, the inevitability of their characters’ fates, and the bitterness of their finales, Nolan’s films mark him as one of the most consistent latter-day masters of neo-noir.

3. “Do you know how I got these scars?”

Nolan’s greatest triumph has been his ability to carry these predilections over into giant-budget superhero filmmaking. In a genre where anonymity is king, where authors in print and film are expected to defer creatively to the characters’ ongoing sagas, Nolan turned out an unusually personal and unexpectedly great work. For all its obvious blemishes and political superficiality, The Dark Knight is still an impressive example of an intimate story told on an epic scale. Rather than letting them be a hindrance or become the substance of the film2, Nolan plays with all the trappings of the superhero lifestyle, either in a light action-movie way or by working them into dramatic conceits (like the hero/archenemy rivalry). He also directs performances that are subtle variations on broad archetypes – embattled Dark Knight, incorruptible White Knight, paternal butler (with some riffing on Michael Caine’s 1970s screen persona), culminating in Heath Ledger’s villain-to-end-all-villains.

Why is Ledger’s Joker so compelling? Is it the sloppiness of his makeup, the griminess of his hair, or how the costume design somehow makes his cartoonish purple suit believable? Is it his voice, which sounds like Bugs Bunny3 doing an impersonation of Daffy Duck, or how he can dart from Groucho-style one-liners to threats of mass murder without taking a breath? Is it his proudly anarchic, amoral ethos, his unwillingness to commit to a single back story, or is it how Ledger has so knowingly incorporated these multitudes into his cheap vaudevillian persona? Whatever it is, he’s the class of criminal that Nolan’s Gotham deserves, because he’s the missing link in the director’s dark vision of humanity. In my review of Memento, I described Carrie-Anne Moss’s Natalie as “damaged [and] secretly predatory.” This, I think, gets at what unites these three films: portrayal of individuals as the sums of their damages, as an accumulation of scars tissue4 and conditioned responses. All of which makes Nolan a perfect match for Batman.

4. “Don’t trust his lies.”

This brings us to Nolan’s future, which starts on Friday. It feels so right that Inception‘s characters will hazard into the geography of the mind, since that’s the terrain that Nolan’s been circling around all these years, albeit more metaphorically. His films, by and large, explore the distortions imposed by fallen men onto their own realities, and that space between perception and truth. From the looks of the trailer, Inception will see Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, and others (!!!) entering that space and working around those distortions. With that cast, that premise, and the directorial prowess behind it, this is one journey I’ll be shelling out $8 to take. And you know I’ll be taking notes to see what Inception adds to my understanding of Nolan’s style.

Thankfully, as well, Nolan’s future will continue in July 2012 with the release of the as-yet-untitled Batman 3. Whether it’s in the form of comic-book operas or ambitious stand-alone projects, I hope we hear a lot from Christopher (and Jonathan) Nolan in coming years. Many of the trends I’ve cited, like the nonstop obfuscation and the mechanical natures of his scripts, can negatively impact the finished films, but at his best – as, I’d say, represented by Memento‘s hard-boiled cunning and The Dark Knight‘s action-packed grandeur – Nolan has directed some of the smartest, most exciting commercial cinema of the 21st century. So, thanks to Bryce at Things That Don’t Suck for providing an excuse to write this piece, and now I turn it over to you, dear reader. Am I ridiculously overrating Nolan’s work? (Maybe.) What am I missing? Penny for your thoughts.

1By which I’m referring to the multiple Batmen, the decoy Batmobile, Gordon’s faked death, the Joker’s constant lies and disguises, and the minions-as-hostages ploy during the climactic showdown.

2Cf. Joel Schumacher’s 1998 anti-opus that enabled Nolan’s entrance to the franchise.

3While mentioning Bugs, I must also mention Ledger’s Looney Tunes-style cross-dressing turn as a hot nurse – an interlude I spent marveling at how convincingly (and attractively) he pulled the outfit off.

4And since superhero comics are intensely melodramatic, psychological wounds are always externalized, as with Two-Face and the Joker, the latter of whom has only his face as a record of his past. As Gordon asks, “What’s he hiding under that makeup?”

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Perfectly Cromulent Analysis: Homer’s Enemy

Here, at last, is the long-delayed June entry in the “Perfectly Cromulent Analysis” series. The episode comes from late in season 8, toward the end of The Simpsons‘ golden era, but I feel that it stands among the classics, if only for its deconstructive audacity. I like my comedy black, and “Homer’s Enemy” is about as black as they come; it’s a conceptually extreme episode and a departure from any of the usual The Simpsons storylines. But it also gave the show’s writers and producers a unique opportunity to expose the dark underbelly of the show’s premise. Although the show had gone dark before, this was basically the Simpsons equivalent of Jimmy Stewart’s performance in Vertigo, as it briefly granted the public a harrowing glimpse into the hidden evils of an American institution.

The Simpsons is, after all, a sitcom about an average American family’s wacky misadventures. We’re meant to see ourselves, our friends, and our families in Homer, Marge, Bart, and Lisa; we’re supposed to identify with them through all their follies and confusions. “Homer’s Enemy” toys with these built-up sympathies as the starting point of its bleak satire. Everybody, after all, loves Homer. He’s the show’s heart – not despite the fact that he’s an incompetent fool, but because of it and the everyman/everydad status it grants him. So we’re inherently biased against this episode’s titular intruder: who would ever want to be Homer’s enemy, and what would they be doing in Springfield? The answer, we learn, is that he’s suffering.

As the episode opens, we’re immediately introduced to Frank Grimes through Kent Brockman’s human interest series “Kent’s People.” It’s fitting that Grimes is initially mediated through television. He’s the type of hard-luck case whom we normal Americans prefer to view from afar, pitying him for a few seconds rather than dealing with him on an everyday basis. Mr. Burns, typically, has just such a low attention span; he admires Grimes just long enough to hire him, but has a new hero he wants for executive vice president the next day (in this case, a baby-rescuing dog). The TV-suckled populace is a harsh mistress, Burns included, as Grimes learns through experience.

Burns’ caprices set the episode in motion, as he has Smithers deposit Grimes in Sector 7G. There, he must coexist with characters we know and love – Homer, Lenny (“I’m Lenny!”), and Carl – and share in their workaday sitcom lives. Except Grimes doesn’t want to be on a sitcom. He just wants to work and get paid. Homer’s slip-ups, which are normally fodder for the show’s straightforward humor, become grievances to fuel Grimes’ indignation. As he’s forced to endure Homer’s vices, from everyday rudeness (calling Grimes by demeaning nicknames, eating his special dietetic lunch) to life-endangering incompetence, we’re drawn further into his rapid psychic collapse, which is heralded by increasingly menacing musical cues.

After Homer’s stupidity nearly costs Grimes his job, the tension between them mounts and Grimes declares himself Homer’s enemy. But Homer, never one to take an interpersonal confrontation at face value (see: Flanders, Ned), continues his plight to win Grimes over. While ruminating on this development at Moe’s, Homer refers to himself as “the most beloved man in Springfield,” a line that perhaps too bluntly digs at the show’s Capra-derived paradigm of small-town life. In order to retain this supposed status, Homer plans a surprise lobster dinner for Grimes, before which he insists that every family member be “perfect.” But it’s just this perfection that launches Grimes into a tirade about how Homer is “what’s wrong with America.”

The rest of the episode proceeds along two courses: Homer’s childlike delusion that Grimes will like him if he acts professional vs. Grimes’ obsessive plotting to expose Homer for the fraud he is. But when Homer is applauded for receiving first prize in a children’s model-building contest, Grimes descends into an appropriately cartoonish breakdown with the refrain “…because I’m Homer Simpson.” The plant employees stare on in confusion as Grimes trades in his discipline for a scathing parody of Homer’s gluttony and sloth; the rampage concludes with Grimes grabbing high-voltage wires and dying before his coworkers’ eyes. This scene is followed directly by Grimes’ funeral, at which Homer literally gets the last laugh by falling asleep and yelling, “Change the channel, Marge!” Fittingly, an episode that began with a TV program about Grimes’ life ends with Homer trying to channel-surf past his death.

The episode is devilishly written and executed, as it’s intended to pull viewers simultaneously in two directions. Do we sympathize with our familiar protagonists, or with this anguished outsider? Grimes’ argument against Homer is faultless and self-evident, after all; his rants could be recitations from The Simpsons‘ show bible. But as Grimes tries to cope with Homer’s formula of ignorance yielding success, as he vainly pleads his case to those around him, he traces out an absurdist choice: either love Homer, or go mad and die. Grimes, with his Dickensian background and built-in work ethic, can only do the latter. The show’s recurring characters (like its viewers) have learned to do the former, turning Springfield into a dystopia worthy of The Twilight Zone‘s “It’s a Good Life.”

A quick anatomy of the man who would be Grimey: he’s plain and business-oriented, a mix of Michael Douglas’s psychotic D-Fens from Falling Down and the pathetic losers played by William H. Macy, like Fargo‘s Jerry Lundegaard. Voice actor Hank Azaria masterfully incorporates elements of both into his performance, emanating a hard-edged professionalism that soon devolves into a mess of disbelieving sighs and exasperated sputters. Azaria’s voice gives the episode momentum, mapping out the tragic arc of Grimes’ short career, and the animation complements this by making Grimes all straight lines and eyebrows opposite Homer’s sumptuous curves.

Ultimately, Grimes is not only Homer’s enemy, but his antithesis. Homer is the baby boomer poster boy, blindly coasting along on his unearned privilege while good fortune falls into his lap. (This good fortune is, of course, the show’s status quo, and hence can never be taken away.) Grimes, meanwhile, puts his situation like this: “I’ve had to work hard every day of my life, and what do I have to show for it? This briefcase, and this haircut!” Sic transit Horatio Alger; being the “self-made man” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. While Homer is a creature of boundless good will, Grimes’ difficult life has made him fidgety, aggressive, and self-righteous. Their disparate environments have divided them both economically and emotionally, and these circumstances have doomed Grimes’ irate legacy to be buried under Homer’s boorish clowning.

I should also touch on the episode’s B plot, in which Bart buys an abandoned factory for $1 and screws around in it with Milhouse until it collapses. While it’s certainly much lighter than the rest of the episode, as it focuses on how an uninhibited 10-year-old would behave in an adult situation (namely, by throwing typewriters into barrels of industrial waste), it nonetheless contains some ironic echoes to Grimes’ storyline. As he first gazes up at his property, Bart quips, “Looks like my years of hard work have finally paid off,” (a sarcastic line which would no doubt make Grimes apoplectic) and the subplot’s real pay-off arrives during the failed dinner party, as Grimes is angrily listing Homer’s undeserved luxuries: “A dream house! Two cars! A beautiful wife! A son who owns a factory!” What seemed like a frivolous side story is recontextualized as an especially infuriating piece of Homer’s American dream.

Granted, this was and is a divisive episode among fans. To some, it’s too mean-spirited, while others view Homer’s behavior as symptomatic of his gradual infantilization. Both claims certainly have some credence, but unlike later episodes – which take Homer’s selfish idiocy for granted, and revel in it – “Homer’s Enemy” regards it self-consciously as a source of humor and as an ugly blight on the face of Springfield. Yes, Grimes’ death is played for laughs, and this is exceptionally dark, but the uneasy laughter it elicits is the point of the episode. Above all, this episode remains controversial because it’s a new and unpleasant perspective on the Simpson family.

“Homer’s Enemy” calls to mind the work of Luis Buñuel, in how it inverts right and wrong, punishments and rewards, with bleakly funny consequences. Through Frank Grimes’ eyes, perhaps the Casa de Simpson could be the site of a uniquely American Exterminating Angel. Most fundamentally, though, it’s about skewing the show’s preexisting satire by introducing a human being with a “real world” mentality to the madness of Springfield. As fans of The Simpsons, after all, we’re not too different from Frank Grimes – educated, rational adults living in the real world. We may laugh along with Homer & co.’s weekly exploits, but this episode shows what would happen if we too had four fingers and yellow skin, if we too tried to live alongside the cultural monolith that is Homer Simpson. It would destroy us.

So there’s my take on one of the thornier episodes in Simpsons history. Are you a fan of “Homer’s Enemy,” or are you put off by its painful resolution? Also, what episode should I hit for July: “Bart Sells His Soul,” or “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer“? Another episode altogether? Comment and let me know your preference.

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This post is for Britni

Tonight, I read a piece of vile, victim-blaming apologist bullshit in regards to something that happened to Britni. Britni is someone that I admire. I enjoy her blog a LOT. I look up to her brash, unapologetic sass and her cute sense of style and how she’s not afraid to call out a rape culture for what it is. Britni is not afraid to talk about when she is sexually assaulted or raped; she is giving a strong voice and face to sexual assault survivors everywhere and for that she is one of my heroes.  Britni gets a lot of shit heaped on her. And it makes me sad.

If I tell you no, stop. It doesn’t matter if I’ve said yes to 1, 2, and 3, if I say no to 4, you fucking stop. That’s called consent.

If I am wearing a piece of clothing that bears a fair amount of skin and I get sexually assaulted don’t you fucking dare blame it on what I was wearing. That is called victim blaming.

If I get raped in the dead of night while walking home from the bar by a group of men, don’t you fucking dare blame me for being out in the middle of the night after drinking. That is called rape apology.

How about we as a fucking society start blaming THE RAPISTS AND MOLESTERS for their own fucking actions? We always want the victim to take responsibility for their actions; why not the fucking criminal in the matter? I’ve quoted this before and I’ll quote it again, from Shakesville:

Quite literally, the only thing a person can do to avoid being raped is never be in the same room as a rapist. Since they don’t announce themselves or wear signs or glow purple, that’s not a very reasonable expectation, is it?

Enough victim blaming. Enough.

I’m sick of seeing rapes and sexual assaults being used as ammo as to why female sexuality is the thing that is so damned dangerous rather than all the rapists out there who are doing the goddamn raping. I’m sick of it. Britni doesn’t deserve to be blamed for her sexual assaults. When Britni felt uncomfortable with the situation she tried to leave as quickly as possible and then she was further violated; but it’s still her fault for not making enough of a scene. Because you know, making a scene always stops them in their tracks. Fuck that noise. Fuck that rape apologist bullshit. STFU, rape apologists.

Britni, this post is written entirely for you. For you and in defense of you. Because you don’t deserve that bullshit and even though you’re strong, sometimes everyone needs people standing behind them, giving them support. <3

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“CORBIS!”: William Shatner in The Devil’s Rain

First things first: the title The Devil’s Rain (1975) refers not to the torrential downpours that begin and end this film, but to an all-important chalice of lost souls. This may not be logical, but who wants logic when you can have Ernest Borgnine as a satanic goat god? This is a movie with more than enough overacting guest stars and gooey zombie flesh to make up for its lack of sense. And with Satanist high priest Anton LaVey credited as “technical advisor,” why settle for anything less?

I’ve taken on the challenge of reviewing The Devil’s Rain for She Blogged By Night‘s Shatnerthon, which is currently in full swing. William Shatner does indeed appear in this movie, but alas, like Ida Lupino and John Travolta, he spends most of his time moaning satanic chants and not having any eyes. Thankfully, though, the first half-hour is devoted to Shatner’s face-off with the bug-eyed, devil-worshipping Borgnine. You may know Borgnine from his Oscar-winning title role in Marty, or as the storyteller grandpa in Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders. These associations make his scenery-chomping performance as Jonathan Corbis all the more delightful.

As Satan’s envoy on earth, Corbis has apparently been capturing souls and sometimes turning into a goat-man for about three hundred years. When our story starts, he decides he wants a magic book back from Shatner’s family, the Prestons. And when his parents gets turned into eyeless satanic zombies, Shatner gets pissed, so after a few cries of “CORBIS!” in the grand Shatner tradition, he heads out to the ghost town of Red Stone, home of the local satanic church. There, he and Corbis pit their faiths against each other… and Shatner quickly loses. He’s mobbed by zombies and prepared as a sacrificial vessel.

The rest of the film is about Shatner’s brother, played by Tom Skerritt of Alien fame, as he and his psychic wife attempt to rescue the family from Corbis’s clutches. Eddie Albert tags along as Dr. Richards, apparently an expert on satanic rituals, and one by one they get kidnapped by Corbis’s minions until it’s up to Shatner’s possessed, nonverbal body to thwart the devil’s plans. As you can probably tell, the word for this movie is “ridiculous.” Its director, Ronald Fuest, was also behind the Dr. Phibes movies, which had some astonishing horror set-pieces and the divinely campy presence of Vincent Price.

The Devil’s Rain, meanwhile, barely has any sets at all. Most of the movie takes place inside either in an empty saloon, an empty church, or the empty streets of Red Stone (which, so you know, is actually “Enotsder” spelled backward). From the looks of it, most of the film’s budget was spent on dry ice and melting flesh, since the climax has so much viscous gore that Sam Raimi would balk at the excess. Zombie faces drip off of zombie heads as if someone left a cake out in the rain. However, at least this redeems the countless scenes of monotonous chanting accompanied by dissonant organic music. If LaVey’s participation meant that the film accurately represented satanic rites, then those rites must be boring.

In addition to these droning, drawn-out rites, the film has several scenes that attempt to provide context for the Corbis/Preston revenge saga. All they really do, however, is further confuse matters. Through the psychic wife’s sepia-tone visions, we witness Borgnine and Shatner in the 1680s, dressed as pilgrims and calling each other “thee.” In this era, Shatner is “Martin Fife,” whose wife betrays their coven, resulting in a mass witch-burning. (Of course, in 17th century New England, that was the consequence of most actions.)

OK, so this explains Corbis’s grudge against the Prestons (they’re descendants of Fife, who passed down Corbis’s book-o’-souls), but then why does Corbis want to reincarnate Fife in Shatner’s body? And why does he constantly switch back and forth between goat and human forms? WHY?? Like I said, logic is scarce, and the film ends with a would-be ironic twist that makes every plot hole before it seem reasonable. But nobody watches The Devil’s Rain for a coherent storyline. It’s to see Borgnine and Shatner hamming it up as if their lives depended on it, praying and counter-praying. You can see Shatner screaming like hell when an amulet around his neck turns into a snake, or when he’s bound and offered up as a sacrifice.

He also does some yelling as great as anything from Star Trek: “CORBIS! GODDAMN YOU!” He may only be a supporting player here, but he steals the whole first act of the film, and Skerritt’s such a poor substitute that the latter two-thirds lag as a result. (Interestingly, Shatner and Skerritt had co-starred the previous year in Big Bad Mama, playing Angie Dickinson’s partners in crime/sex. There, the positions are reversed: Skerritt’s the emotive one, while Shatner’s just a pedigreed, horny parasite.) But for that opening showdown, as well as the literally face-melting finale, in the name of Satan I beseech thee to check out The Devil’s Rain.

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Huge

I’m not afraid…I just think everything you stand for is crap. –Will from Huge

Inspired by this post on Happy Bodies, I just watched the first episode of the ABC Family’s new show, Huge. And I can’t even express all the emotions I experienced. Before the opening was even over I was bursting with happiness; this show starts with a fat strip-tease. Yes. Nikki Blonsky, in defiance of the camp doctor, strips off her clothes to reveal her bathing suit beneath. This show is, in fact, huge. It’s hard to even explain what it’s like seeing a cast that is 99% fat people. All throughout the episode, I kept thinking to myself Look at all these people who look like me. And I just wanted to cry. I wanted to bawl until there were no tears left. I did cry a few times. Because I relate so much to the main character, Will. I know how it feels to be the only one who is  “down with my fat” in a group full of people who aren’t as big as me but are full of so much more insecurity and self-loathing. Will is a sarcastic wise-ass who would rather sell candy and dish out insults than share her feelings. I really hope that this doesn’t eventually lead to some I-really-wanted-to-change-all-along-and-was-being-all-hard-just-to-keep-that-from-showing scenario because that will totes kill some of the character for me. But for now, her character rocks and I have never felt so close to a TV character before in my life. She looks like me. She talks like me. She acts like me. She thinks like me.

She isn’t buying any of the shit they’re trying to feed her. The show does a very good job of pointing out how that kind of ‘fat camp’ lifestyle doesn’t really work: in the very beginning, Becca says that she lost weight the previous year but gained most of it back. When things get ‘too serious’ in the form of bulimia, the camp opts to send one of the girls home instead of trying to help her get healthy, which is what the camp is supposed to be about (perhaps that would be a little much to expect from a camp but I feel that a camp about weight management should have counselors prepared to deal with things like eating disorders; I don’t know if this is a reflection of real-life weight-loss camps since I’ve never been to one). Amber, the resident not-fat-but-doesn’t-see-how-GORGE-her-body-is girl, is obsessed with losing weight as opposed to being healthy (as Will bluntly points out during a circle of sharing therapy session).

And Amber. Let’s talk about Amber for a second. Portrayed by the very gorgeous Hayley Hasselhoff, Amber is the thinnest girl at Camp Victory; she is tall, blond, pretty, and pretty much average sized, with ample curves. Everyone knows a girl like this. A girl who has one of the most beautiful bodies you’ve ever seen in your life; a girl who is nowhere close to fat; a girl who cannot see her body for the beautiful thing it is. The kind of girl who is so frustrating to be around because she obsesses over a tiny roll of flesh while your stomach hangs round and full. Amber plasters the wall above her bed with ‘thinspiration’, photos of tight, toned bodies from magazines. Amber embodies every beautiful average sized girl you’ve ever known who tortures herself with aspirations of bodies that are unatainable. The show captured this perfectly for me and I felt such pain for Amber because I see so many of my friends in her; I know this girl well and I know what she is going through.

Another amazing thing that is portrayed in this show: fat people expressing desire. And people expressing desire for a fat person! OMG!? You do not see this on TV. I am a fat person in love with a thin person. Relationships like mine are not rare. But I cannot remember the last time a television show entertaining the idea that someone within the ideal image might desire someone outside of it. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen something showing the idea of fat people possibly desiring other fat people. The show touches on both of these thing, these very real scenarios that HAPPEN ALL THE TIME IN LIFE. And it’s absolutely beautiful.

This show is a big deal. I see myself in this show. The world is looking at me when they watch this show. There have been many, many times in my life where I’ve wanted to scream out “This is what my body looks like and I am not ashamed!” And I feel the character Will is helping me yell it. The kids on this show feel real. They feel like real young people who feel lost and confused and ashamed inside their bodies. They don’t know how to reconcile the way their bodies look with a world that doesn’t want them to look the way they are. Will stands against that. She is not ashamed.

“They want us to be ashamed of our bodies. Well, I refuse to.”

Preach on, sister. Preach the fuck on. I have a lot of hope for this show. I’m going to continue watching it and I hope it lives up to the very real potential it has. And now, as a show of solidarity, here I am in my new, adorable swimsuit side-by-side with Will:

P.S. I just found out that Happy Bodies is having an Open Forum about Huge! Go join the conversation!

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Satire, Americana, and the Death Race

In the opening monologue of Patton, George C. Scott intones, “Americans love a winner, and will not tolerate a loser.” In the year 2000, Americans have found their winner, and his name is Frankenstein. Death Race 2000 is a movie about what Americans love – winners, speed, and violence – and what they’re willing to put up with in order to get it. It’s also a gory, stunt-filled action movie co-starring Sylvester Stallone. So it’s easy to imagine viewers only enjoying the campy, ridiculous surface without catching the surprising profundity that lies beneath.

Death Race 2000 (1975) possesses this strange tension mostly because it was produced by Roger Corman and directed by Paul Bartel, whose later cult classic Eating Raoul I wrote about a while back. Eating Raoul gave a taste of how Bartel and the Corman team could integrate their dark social satire into basic B-movie formulae, and they succeed big time with Death Race. Its silly sci-fi premise is twisted into a giant, layered joke about pompous patriotism and governmental mendacity. And there’s still a whole lot of fast driving.

That premise is pretty well-known, but here it is anyway: since 1980, America’s most popular sporting event has been a transcontinental road race. Five drivers compete to get to New Los Angeles the fastest, and to “score” the most bystanders along the way. In 2000, however, the Army of the Resistance is actively sabotaging the race, so the drivers must reckon both with each other and with rebel booby traps scattered along country roads. Each driver has a navigator in the passenger seat, and a gimmicky theme to their costume and car; this aspect of the film is nicely carried out considering the budget, and it’s clear that even if this were just another dumb B-movie, it’d be an especially imaginative one with a really DIY design aesthetic.

But it’s far from dumb. Many of the ideas aren’t fully realized, sure, but for an ostensibly trashy movie, there’s so much rich ideological terrain. For example, the film just savages the mainstream media, which is complicit in shoving the race down the citizens’ throats. In the government’s scramble to provide breads and circuses as a distraction from economic woes, they have no greater ally than the nation’s television personalities. There’s the yammering, neckerchief-wearing reporter Junior Bruce (played by “The Real Don Steele”), who dishes out constant race-related updates and is more than happy to suppress real news and scapegoat the French if it suits the current administration’s whims. Or the fawning talk show host Grace Pander, who refers to every racer as “a dear friend of mine” and translates every new plot twist into dramatic camera fodder.

They’re both presented as willing lackeys of the beloved “Mr. President,” whose broadcasts from his palace in China are literally nothing but pure spin. Clearly, Bartel and the film’s writers believe that if political leaders want unquestioned authority, then gently taking away freedom of the press is the way to do it. Late in the film, the racers ask a supercilious government agent about the rebels’ role in a colleague’s death, and he replies, “Who mentioned anything about rebels? There are no rebels. Understand?” For a film that’s supposedly about racers knocking down pedestrians, this is a surprisingly subtle method for dealing with dissent, invoking Goebbels’ concept of the “big lie.” Mr. President’s government makes its lies truth through repetition, and the news media gladly volunteer to repeat. (Keep in mind that this was made the same year as All the President’s Men, and only a year after the real-life Watergate revelations.)

But of course, the race isn’t just forced onto a reluctant citizenry. It really is the most popular sporting event, and most Americans are devoted fans cheering on their favorite racers. Like I said, the movie is about what Americans love. They love to be lied to, as long as the lies go down easier than the truth. And, obviously, they love to watch other people commit acts of violence. This is where Frankenstein (David Carradine) comes in. Trained from birth to be the world’s greatest racer, he’s simply that. The film’s opening sequence, in which the racers pull up to the starting line, is intercut with a press conference where a doctor (played by Bartel) announces Frankenstein’s recent “limb transplant,” and every reporter oohs and ahhs at his mangled-and-repaired body.

But this is all more spin. As he reveals to his navigator Annie, his body is totally intact, and all the myths are just that – compiled by the government to build Frankenstein up as the national hero he’s become. It’s like if Chuck Norris “facts” were treated with as much seriousness, by the government and the people, as the official story about 9/11. At moments like this, Death Race 2000 resembles an intentionally frivolous 1984. Frankenstein is the hero, ready for worship, and when he speaks his mind in private, the film’s engaging in some crafty deconstruction of American iconography. It’s like catching the guy who plays Mickey Mouse at Disneyland without his costume’s head on… and then hearing him say that he wore the costume only so he could sabotage Uncle Walt.

So although the film’s nominally about the race itself, much of the dialogue actually involves Frankenstein’s role as the race’s iconic hero. His name, after all, borrows from real-life horror iconography, but with a messianic twist: like the monster, he’s (said to be) an ugly assemblage of disparate body parts, yet he’s anything but hated. He’s broken anew during every race (he loses limbs, his navigators die), then stitched up by the start of the next one. He’s Christ rising from the tomb, he’s the Fisher King, he’s T.S. Eliot’s Phlebas the Phoenician. Frankenstein, once a hideous murderer from horror fiction, is now the American people’s hope for eternal life.

This theory is given some credence by an oddly powerful scene in the middle of the movie. While taking a break in St. Louis, Frankenstein is confronted by a teenage girl named Laurie, a member of the Lovers of Frankenstein, and they have this exchange:

Laurie: I wanted to meet you, Mr. Frankenstein. I wanted you to know who I am. So it would have meaning.

Frankenstein: I don’t understand. So what would have meaning?

Laurie: We love you, Mr. Frankenstein. I know just saying it doesn’t mean much.

Frankenstein: Why do you love me? Because I kill people?

Laurie: Scoring isn’t killing, Mr. Frankenstein. It’s part of the race. You’re a national hero, and we want you to know, we’re with you 100%. Good night, Mr. Frankenstein.

The next day, as the race continues, Frankenstein and Annie spot Laurie standing in the middle of the road, with a gaggle of other girls on the curb taking pictures. Frankenstein scores her and drives on. Annie asks, “Why did she do that?” and Frankenstein answers, “Show me she loves me.”

This scene speaks so much to the nature of fame and fandom. Everyone may love Frankenstein, but Laurie sacrifices herself to give him additional points. Her sacrifice, accompanied by classical music played on a synthesizer, has an ethereal quality; it proves that even with something as crass, violent, and pointless as the race, someone can find real love and meaning in it. Laurie probably hasn’t known a time without the race, so it’s all she really has to believe in, and her sacrifice lets her enter into Frankenstein’s cycle of death and rebirth. Everyone needs something to believe in, and if necessary, they’ll forge their own belief system out of whatever’s available.

Another testimony to Frankenstein’s symbolic power comes from the reporter Junior at the end of the film, when the race has been declared abolished. He protests, “Sure, [the race] is violent, but that’s the way we love it! Violent, violent, violent! And that’s why we love you!” The race is a political distraction, but it’s more than that. It’s a condensation of all sports and phallic metaphors into one competition and five cars. It’s an American monomyth, played out each year for the same reason as the Super Bowl or the World Series: not to see who wins, but just to see the game. It’s the same channel for aggression as 1984‘s Two Minutes’ Hate.

I don’t want to give the impression that Death Race 2000 is nothing but sophisticated social commentary. It’s still a wacky ’70s B-movie starring David Carradine, with its share of comical dismemberments, crude sex jokes, and amazingly dated fashion statements. But this is the miracle of Corman-trained filmmakers: working with minuscule budgets and restrictive schedules, they could turn out cheap-looking yet intellectually fierce movies. Paul Bartel never quite broke into the mainstream, but I still think he knew what he was doing just as well as Scorsese, Bogdanovich, James Cameron, or any of the other auteurs who started out with Corman. (Also note that Death Race‘s director of photography, Tak Fujimoto, had worked on Terence Malick’s Badlands and would go on to collaborate with Jonathan Demme on numerous films, including Silence of the Lambs.)

So although the film has its share of dumb vulgarity, and occasionally undermines its own intelligence with self-contradictory nonsense, it’s nonetheless a self-consciously over-the-top work of legitimate satire. In many ways, it reminds me of William Klein’s politically volatile superhero spoof Mr. Freedom (1968), though I think Death Race is substantially less pretentious and funnier. It’s a film that’s content to let nuggets of serious wisdom and feeling lie awkwardly cradled between explosions and broad comedy. It ends on just such a peculiarly incongruous note, after the marriage of Annie and “Mr. President Frankenstein,” with a voiceover that sounds like it’s from an anthropological documentary: “Yes, murder was invented even before man began to think. Now, of course, man has become known as the thinking animal…”

This ominous conclusion exemplifies much of what I love about Death Race: how the filmmakers were willing to throw in all kinds of enigmatic tangents that we don’t expect under the auspices of a supposedly bad, cheap movie. After all, like Shakespeare’s wise fools, sometimes cheap movies get away with statements that a blockbuster could never risk. So there’s my defense of Death Race 2000. Do you have any opinions on the film, Paul Bartel, or Corman? Do you love Frankenstein?

[Note: Having just recently written about Splice and It’s Alive, I feel like I’m accidentally documenting Frankenstein‘s influence on horror/sci-fi cinema. Maybe I am.]

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