Category Archives: Movies

A beast with many eyes

On Friday night (actually, very early Saturday morning), I dreamed that I was watching TV and saw an image of what I interpreted as being a whale with many eyes, though I only saw its face. It was blue in color, with a row of eyes on the left and a row of eyes on the right — perhaps eight eyes in all. It also had feelers on the sides of its mouth like a catfish. I dreamed that, after seeing this, I got on Wikipedia to do some research, trying to find out if whales with many eyes actually existed. I found information about a particular gene (with a Latin-sounding name which I no longer remember), rare but not unheard of (comparable to albinism), which manifests sometimes in whales and other animals and causes them to have several pairs of eyes. Now that I knew the name of the gene, I ran a Google image search on it and found several pictures of animals with it — several blue whales, killer whales, and other cetaceans, as well as a couple of tigers. As I did this online research, I had the feeling that I had learned about this gene once before but had forgotten about it. My reaction was, “Oh, yeah, that’s right. That gene.”

So much for the dream.

*

On Saturday evening, I watched the DVD of the film “47 Ronin” — a fantasified version of the Japanese historical incident, with monsters, demons, a fox-spirit “witch,” and Keanu Reeves thrown in.

In an early scene in the movie, Reeves and a group of samurai are chasing down some sort of giant beast — think qilin-meets-gigantelope. For most of the sequence we don’t get a clear view of its face, but then it stops, turns to face Reeves, and opens its eyes — of which we now discover for the first time that it has six. Here is a screenshot:

47ronin-beast

This image jolted me with a shock of recognition. Aside from the fur, horns, and nostrils, it looks exactly like the many-eyed “whale” I saw in my dream.

This is one of the clearest instances of apparent dream-precognition I’ve experienced yet. The dream even correctly portrayed the beast as being something I saw on TV. And after watching the movie, I did go online (using Wikipedia and Google image search, among other resources) to try to find out whether the beast was based on some actual Japanese legend — but that’s something I chose to do after experiencing both the dream and the movie and recognizing the connection between them, so it can’t really be counted as a “fulfillment” of the dream.

*

I enjoyed “47 Ronin,” by the way, despite the uniformly negative reviews it has been getting from critics. It undeniably has its awful aspects, the most obvious of which is the concept itself. Imagine if a Chinese studio made a King Arthur movie in which Lancelot had some made-up Chinese sidekick who was actually Guinevere’s true love and the greatest knight of them all — and in which the rest of the cast, all British, had to speak their lines in Chinese — and you’ll get some idea of how ridiculous and even insulting this movie must seem to the Japanese. (Also, the 47 ronin actually lived in the 18th century — more Queen Anne than King Arthur — far too recent for monsters, demons, and other fantasy elements to be appropriate.) I also admit to groaning when the fox-spirit unaccountably transformed into a dragon — which looked like the seraphic Chinese/Japanese variety but behaved like the evil fire-breathing Western version.

I’m not Japanese, though, and have no particular attachment to the original story they were butchering, so I was able to enjoy the movie on its own terms. It was visually engaging, and I thought it did a good job of communicating the stern, stoical samurai spirit (or, at any rate, what this relatively uninformed Westerner imagines to have been the stern, stoical samurai spirit).

One of the most provocative aspects of the movie, to me, was the portrayal of the tengu — forest-dwelling bird-demons of Japanese folklore — as Buddhists.  Not as bird-demons who also happen to be Buddhists, mind you, but as Buddhists plain and simple. Although they do look very slightly different from humans (no ears, strange nostrils), their religion is their chief distinguishing characteristic. They’re still demons, to be sure — cold, cruel, nihilistic, and possessed of magical powers — but their demonic nature is portrayed as being part and parcel of their Buddhism. I thought it was a pretty gutsy move to literally demonize a major world religion other than Christianity, but oddly the filmmakers don’t seem to be getting any flak for it. Although Buddhism obviously has its good aspects like any other religion, it does certainly have a very strong current of inhuman/anti-human “demonic” nihilism running through it — something that becomes more obvious to me the more practicing Buddhists I meet — and I thought the portrayal of the tengu was brilliant and rang true. Since the samurai ethos can also seem superficially cold and inhuman, the tengu provided a very effective contrast which helped bring out the essentially human, noble nature of bushido.

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Goat-killing American Jedi

In the whole history of film, roughly how many movies do you think have been made which feature a former Special Forces operator who repeatedly refers to himself as a Jedi Warrior, boasts about his amazing powers of situational awareness and, in a pivotal scene in the film, kills a goat? And what are the chances that, having chosen two DVDs more or less at random from the video rental place, I would end up watching both of them on the same weekend?

In The Men Who Stare at Goats, George Clooney plays a “psychic spy” named Lyn Cassady, who introduces himself to Ewan McGregor’s character this way:

Lyn: Let me ask you something. What color were the chairs in the hotel bar? You were in there for hours. What color were the chairs?

Bob: Green.

Lyn: Beige. How many lights are there in this room? A Super Soldier wouldn’t have to look. He would just know.

Bob: A Super Soldier?

Lyn: A Jedi Warrior. He would know where all the lights were. He could walk through a room and he could tell you how many power outlets there were. People are walking around with their eyes closed. At Level One, we were trained to instantly absorb all details.

Bob: What’s, uh, what’s a Jedi Warrior?

Lyn: You’re looking at one.

Bob: You’re a Jedi Warrior?

Lyn: That’s correct.

Bob: I don’t… I don’t know what that means.

Lyn: I’m Sergeant First Class Lyn Cassady, Special Forces, retired. In the eighties, I was trained at Fort Bragg under a secret initiative codenamed “Project Jedi.” The objective of the project was to create Super Soldiers.

As part of his Jedi training, Lyn was supposed to try to kill a goat just by looking at it — which he did.

Lyn: Hooper and Holtz wanted me to do an experiment. They wanted me to stop the heart of a goat. What had the goat ever done to me? It was completely against the way of the Jedi. I was just gonna pretend to try, so that they can see it wouldn’t work and they can forget about it. Then, as I sat there I felt this pulse inside me. I couldn’t stop it. Maybe deep down inside, some dark part of me wanted to see if I could do it? . . . That was it. I’d used my powers for evil and it’s as if I brought a curse on us all. It’s like that poem where the guy kills the seagull and they make him wear it around his neck. Every night I would dream about that goat, it’s mouth opening and closing without making a sound.

Bob: The silence of the goats.

Lyn: I finished my tour and I quit. I walked out. I never went back.

Vn has never seen any of the Star Wars movies, so after the movie I had to explain to her what a Jedi was. So it was pretty weird when, the next day, we were watching a completely unrelated movie and the Jedi Warriors turned up again. This time it was A Perfect Getaway, in a dialogue between Nick (Timothy Olyphant) and Cliff (Steve Zahn):

Cliff: So, you were, like, Special Ops. What were you? Seals? Rangers?

Nick: Officially, I’m only allowed to say that I’ve been a sworn officer participating in a tactical phase of certain missions that would make most men want to crawl up and hide inside their own assholes.

Cliff: And unofficially?

Nick: I’m a goddamn American Jedi.

Later, Nick and Cliff are looking out into the jungle, having heard some sounds.

Nick: Probably just a goat. There’s a lot of them in these valleys.

Cliff: I haven’t seen any goats.

Nick: I don’t expect you would, Cliff. Your situational awareness kind of sucks. That’s not a knock. You’re a screenwriter. I’m a Jedi. That’s just different paths we chose.

* * *

Cliff: Just so I know whether or not to be offended, define “situational awareness.”

Nick: What’s the first thing you do when you step onto a plane? Maybe you have a sip of that fine champagne? You do fly in first class, right?

Cliff: I put away my shit, like everyone else.

Nick: Well, when I board a plane, making my way back to the cheap seats, I clock every door. I pace off the distance between those exits and my seat. That plane loses power on takeoff, I can make egress in the dark, totally blind. If the aisle crowds up, I’m going to climb over the back of 36D, guy with that shiny-ass toupee, make the over-the-wing exit. And I know the handle swings down, not up. And I know the door swings in, not out. And I know all that inside of 30 seconds, before they even pop the cork for you up there in Hollywood class.

Some time later, Nick disappears in the jungle for a while and comes back, to everyone’s surprise, carrying a huge goat which he shot, which he and his girlfriend proceed to butcher as if it were a perfectly normal thing to do. Cliff, who had had his doubts about traveling with Nick before, decides that with the goat “these two have graduated to the officially crazy category” and that he needs to get away from them.

So, two movies with nothing in common — except the whole super-observant goat-killing Special Forces “Jedi” thing. A Perfect Getaway was released on August 7, 2009; The Men Who Stare at Goats just three months later, on November 6 — too close together for the one to have been a deliberate homage to the other. Was there just something in the air, or what?

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The Book of Eli: Why Eli?

Vn and I recently watched the film The Book of Eli, and she, not knowing much about the Bible or Christianity, asked me if there was some connection between the biblical Eli and the story in the film. I rattled off what came to mind about Eli, but couldn’t really think of anything that related to the movie. The only connection I could think of was that, just as the biblical Eli knew what his wicked sons were up to but failed to do much of anything to stop them, the Eli in the movie refused to intervene in most of the rapes and murders he witnessed. (“Stay on the path. It’s not your concern.”)

Later, thinking there must be some other connection I was missing, I got a Bible and started skimming 1 Samuel. What I found matches the themes of the film so closely that it is surely what the screenwriter had in mind when he chose that particular moniker for his hero:

And the child Samuel ministered unto the Lord before Eli. And the word of the Lord was precious in those days; there was no open vision.  And it came to pass at that time, when Eli was laid down in his place, and his eyes began to wax dim, that he could not see; . . . (1 Sam. 3:1-2)

Obviously appropriate for a movie about a blind man carefully guarding what is supposedly the only surviving King James Bible in the world. (I say “supposedly” because, though Eli says his Bible is a King James, when he begins dictating the Book of Genesis it’s not quite the same. He says “was hovering” instead of “moved” in describing the Spirit over the waters, for example. Having once myself tried Eli’s project of memorizing the whole Bible, I noticed the discrepancy immediately.)

As for the movie itself, it was a bit of a wash, despite the considerably talent of Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman. The whole post-apocalyptic thing has been done to death and doesn’t make any more sense this time around. (Shoes and drinking water are hard to come by, but sunglasses and high-tech weaponry — including the occasional conveniently book-shaped time bomb — apparently grow on trees.) And although the central theme has a lot of potential, the movie doesn’t really deal with it very well. We never really get a sense of what Carnegie would be able to do if he had a Bible which he isn’t already able to do anyway.

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What I thought about Avatar

I finally went and saw Avatar, and, while it certainly does blow you away with its technical brilliance, I found just about everything else about it frustrating and disappointing.

The biggest disappointment is that, having demonstrated his ability to bring a totally alien world to life, Cameron doesn’t bother to populate it with totally alien aliens. Six legs and spiracles notwithstanding, most of the animals are instantly recognizable as having been based on specific terrestrial genera (Brontotherium, Tapejara, PantheraEquus, etc. — and of course Homo), and sometimes the resemblances get even more precise. The horse-analogues, rather than just being vaguely ungulate-like, specifically call to mind draft horses of the Shire breed, and the human-analogues (if that’s even the right word for something so human in every anatomical detail) are recognizably Nilotic under the blue skin. The alien humans are by far the worst. While the other animals may give the general impression of a Shire horse or a panther, they are still clearly not from earth. The people, though, are — well, people. The USB-cord thing in the hair is about the only thing that would make anyone hesitate to classify the Na’vi as primates, and human primates at that, albeit with atavistic tails. Not only do they lack spiracles, they have eyebrows and breasts and five-toed feet and long hair in the same place humans have long hair, and they smile and laugh and shed tears as an expression of sadness and speak a language with no features that would surprise Noam Chomsky. Talk about convergent evolution! They’re so thoroughly human that we don’t find it even remotely shocking or unsettling when the earth-human protagonist falls in love with one of them.

Which brings me to the second big disappointment: the complete lack of moral tension. The decision to turn against your own people and make war on them has got to be a monumentally difficult one, even when your own people are clearly the bad guys. Every instinct of loyalty and prudence is pulling you in the other direction, and to override those instincts requires heroism. Jake, though, doesn’t seem to wrestle with his choice at all. “How does it feel to betray your own race?” the colonel asks him at the movie’s climax — a question which apparently goes right over Jake’s head. As far as we can tell, he doesn’t feel anything in particular about turning against his species. The discovery that his people are the bad guys and that it is his duty to kill them — which should be at least as wrenching as learning that your father is Darth Vader — makes no discernible emotional impression on him. He doesn’t see “us” and “them” at all, only good guys and bad guys. This is all perhaps very morally admirable, but it comes so easily to him that it’s drained of its heroism. Courage means feeling the temptation to do the wrong thing but doing the right thing anyway; Cameron never manages to convince us that Jake feels the temptation. The same goes for the handful of other humans who join Jake, for whom betrayal is as easy as saying (almost in so many words) “Screw this, I’m switching sides,” and never looking back.

In an early scene Jake thanks his alien love interest for killing some nasty alien predators that were about to have him for lunch, and she rebukes him with, “Don’t thank. You don’t thank for this. This is sad.” I assumed at that point that Cameron was foreshadowing the ending of the film — that when the war had been won and the Na’vi were thanking Jake for helping them kill off the nasty humans who were going to bulldoze their village, he would echo those words back to them. I could hardly have been more wrong. With so many critics complaining about Avatar‘s very predictable plot, I guess I should be happy that Cameron managed to surprise me, but, well — you don’t thank for this. This is sad.

Still, though, when all’s said and done, the special effects were pretty damn cool.

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William John on 9/11 prophecies

William John (see his sites here and here) writes:

William James,

I tried to paste the following in the comments box of your 9/11 blog but was told it held too many characters. When I tried to cut it in half and enter it as two comments I was told it contained illegal characters. So I’m giving up and just sending it to you regularly.

The 1977 movie “Saturday Night Fever” opens with the shot of a bridge in New York City. Behind the bridge, looming above it and dominating the shot, are seen the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The camera holds this shot for quite some time. Finally the camera zooms in on the bridge and finds John Travolta prancing across it. After some exposition in which it is established that Travolta is a working class disco dancing fool, we are taken to the club where the disco dancing occurs. The name of the club is: 2001 Odyssey. Inside the club the large dance floor crowded with gyrating couples is bathed in the harsh glare of flickering red lights which create a fiery ambience fitting for the opening strains of the Trammps’ song “Disco Inferno,” which plays on the soundtrack. It begins with the phrase “Burn, baby, burn” repeated several times. This phrase comes from the ghetto riots of the 1960’s when bystanders shouted it as encouragement to arsonists. It turns out this is quite apt since the lyrics of the song which follow might be said to view 9/11 from the perpetrators perspective. “Two mass fires, yes! One hundred stories high. People gettin’ loose, y’all, gettin’ down on the roof. Do you hear? (The folks are flaming) Folks were screamin’, out of control. It was so entertainin’. When the boogie started to explode I heard somebody say: Burn, baby, burn! Disco inferno! Burn, baby, burn! Burn that mama down! Burnin’! Satisfaction (uhu hu hu) came in the chain reaction (burnin’) I couldn’t get enough, (till I had to self-destroy) so I had to self-destruct (uhu hu hu). The heat was on (burnin’), rising to the top, huh!”

The 1968 movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” itself is very interesting since it is a supposedly futuristic movie set in the year 9/11 occurred. This movie begins with a couple of packs of Darwinian predecessors to humanity squabbling over a water hole. Under the influence of a monolith planted by unseen extraterrestrials, one of these ape-men invents and murderously employs the first weapon of war. In triumph he throws his bludgeon into the air and it morphs into a commercial passenger spaceship in 2001 headed for the moon where the monolith has now been discovered. We didn’t have commercial space travel in the year 2001, but we did have commercial jetliners and some of these jetliners morphed into weapons on 9/11. Under secrecy and with a phony cover story, the spaceship headed for the monolith is evocative of the pirated jetliners headed for the Twin Towers. Furthermore, as the government official is making his spaceflight to the monolith, he makes a videophone call to his little daughter on Earth who’s birthday he is missing. During this call he asks her what she wants him to bring her as a present. She says, “I want a Bush baby.” “A Bush baby?” her father says. “Yes,” she replies. This too is evocative of 9/11, since President Bush, the son of another President Bush, used it to morph into a war president. I think it’s also suggestive that HAL the computer, when it is being disconnected, sings the song “A Bicycle Built for Two.” It suggests to me that the two movies, “2001” and “Saturday Night Fever,” know that they work in conjunction with each other as far as 9/11 is concerned.

The 1944 film noir movie “Double Indemnity” also teams well with a future movie which references it in terms of 9/11. Fred MacMurray is an insurance investigator who is trying to stage an accidental death for the husband of his paramour so they can collect double indemnity on the insurance. Having already bludgeoned the husband to death, MacMurray then boards a passenger train impersonating him. When he boards the train and hands in his ticket, the porter tells him that his compartment is train 9, section 11. After the porter puts his bags in the compartment and gives him the key, MacMurray goes to the platform on the back of the caboose. When the train slows down at a certain spot, MacMurray is going to jump off. The husband’s dead body is then to be placed at this spot so it looks like he fell off or tried to disembark while the train was moving and smashed his head on the tracks. But there is another man on the platform when MacMurray is trying to do this. Since there can be no witnesses to his nonlethal disembarkation if the plan is to succeed, MacMurray gives this man the key to his compartment and sends him there to get something for him. As he gives the man his key, MacMurray tells him that the compartment is train 9, section 11, just in case we missed it the first time.

This could more easily be dismissed as mere coincidence if it were not for the 1993 movie directed by Carl Reiner titled “Fatal Instinct.” This broad parody of cinematic thrillers, among its tricks, borrows and revises the “Double Indemnity” plot device for its own purposes. The hero is a cop/lawyer (he arrests you, then defends you) who is the unwitting target of a plot by his wife and her paramour to kill him on a train so they can collect triple indemnity on his insurance. The trick, however, is getting him to ride on a train in the first place since his entire family has been killed in various train mishaps, which, of course, explains the insurance policy. So the morning the hero has to leave on an important trip, his wife schemes to block his access to all modes of travel other than the train. His car is in the shop, there are no rental cars available, there’s a bus strike, etc. Finally, he says he’ll just have to take an airplane. “You can’t,” she tells him. “There’s been a terrorist attack at the airport. They flew a plane into the tower and all the runways are closed.”

There is a song written by the actor Hamilton Camp called “Pride of Man” which was recorded by the Quicksilver Messenger Service in the late 1960’s. The third verse of this song goes like this: “Turn around, go back down, back the way you came. Terror is on every side, though our leaders are dismayed. All those who place their faith in fire, in fire their faith shall be repaid. Oh, God, pride of man, broken in the dust again.” Further on, the ending chorus goes like this: “And it shall cause your tower to fall, make of you a pyre of flame. Oh, you who dwell on many waters, rich in treasure, wide in fame. You bow unto your god of gold, your pride of might shall be your shame, for only God can lead his people back unto the earth again. Oh, God, pride of man, broken in the dust again.” When I sing this song I take the liberty of pluralizing the word “tower.”

William John

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