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Running Scared: a Movie Review that Devolves into Politics

From what do we run?


That is the thesis of Running Scared.

The movie takes place in a stylized rendition of New Jersey and tells of one night’s combat between the Italian Mafia, the Russian Mafia, crooked cops, and the people caught in between. Our protagonist, and the man who does the vast majority of the running, is Joey, a low-level tough tasked with disposing of a gun used to kill a dirty cop.

Things do not go well and therein adventure lies.

Or perhaps not. While the gore and the cinematography and the music all drew me in—and have over half a dozen viewings—what really interests me are the psychological adventures of many of the characters. Consider:

Joey turns out to be an undercover cop. He presents a hard edge, but as his wife puts it, “I didn’t marry an evil man.” He pleads with his wife at the end of the film, when it seems he is on death’s door, that he was always “the real Joey.” There is a disconnect between the person he presents and the person he is.

His Russia neighbor, Anzor, beats his wife and abuses her child; and in turn gets shot by said child (precipitating the running of the film). Yet we learn from that selfsame wife that he saved her, still pregnant, from being killed by his uncle for not having the child aborted. The price for this was being ostracized from the family. Now a decade later he has devolved into drugs and paranoia, yet underneath the grime there is a man who is deeply, almost pathologically devoted to John Wayne and the cowboy ethos. He ends the movie refusing to kill the boy who shot him and dying for his honor. Another double life.

Teresa, Joey’s wife, finds herself looking for Anzor’s kid Oleg (himself running after shooting his guardian), and discovers that he has been stolen by a married couple who kidnap, film, and desecrate children. She saves his life, along with 2 other children, and kills the deranged couple with no hesitation. As she puts it to Joey, “I have never seen true evil until tonight.” Another example of an inner reservoir of strength not readily apparent at the beginning of the film.

As a final example, we have Lester the pimp. He finds himself beat up a few times but ultimately in possession of the gun everyone is trying to find (the one Oleg used to shoot Anzor). In confronting Oleg and Joey at the end of the film, Lester blurts out “Say hello to my little friend,” before shooting Joey in the side. What does this evince but a man running from his own sense of inadequacy and lack of real power?

This movie has been criticized for a lack of character development. I submit that good stories need not possess character arcs as such, wherein someone learns something and becomes “a better person.” Rather, a story like this benefits from an arc of discovery on the part of the audience. These people are presented to us fully formed, and as such each is his own enigma at the start of the movie; with each reaction and every bit of information they share, we learn more about who they are.

Doesn’t that seem more psychologically realistic than a 3 act story where clear lessons are learned and growing happens as a matter of course? Most people do not change beyond a certain point. Their characters are set by years of social development mixed with genetic predisposition and a little trauma thrown in for good measure. By the time adulthood is reached, I contend, most people stop developing. Instead, they grapple with the world using the tools they find themselves possessing and go from there.

Growth can happen, does happen, needn’t happen. It is not guaranteed. Some characters, like Joey, are just good guys caught up in something that is unraveling in their hands, fighting the good fight but facing defeat at every turn. Others, Anzor for example, degenerate from a childhood ideal but retain that core somewhere—rarely called upon but there nonetheless. As his wife says, “He’s not a killer.” She was right. He was a junky with a quixotic sense of right and wrong.

I love this movie because of these psychological depths. I love this movie because we are privy to developed characters dealing with situations they were never prepared for, situations that don’t yield growth so much as truth: their real selves are exposed in the light of trauma, and we get to see what each of them are made of.

I am reminded of Lord of the Flies, a book I cannot get out of my head of late. The lord of the title is a totem left by a group of boys surviving on a desert island, a pig’s head impaled upon a stick and stuck in the ground. It is there as a ward against an unknown beast that stalks them as they hunt and play and devolve. In reality, of course, the beast is no external monster: it is the savage in each of the little children, and they pay for their lack of insight with the deaths of at least 3 of their number.

This reminds me of something a little more contemporary: Mr. Trump. Having watched his rise in popularity, having caught his speeches, researched his claims, and dug into his various positions, I have come to two realizations.

First, he has no substantial political platform. Over the past six months, he has changed positions on every single issue on which he has given an opinion. There is no need to give proof of this here. Those who realize this never supported him, and those who do not will not be swayed by anything  I say here.

His lack of any semblance of a platform led me to my second realization: his is the candidacy of the flies; it is his head that so many of us wish to hold up against the beasts of the night; his talking points that buzz around and die like the flies that dance around the pig’s head, deafening us to their void-speech. We support him because we are afraid of the savagery within every human breast. We support him because he presents himself as a fighter and a champion against that savagery.

We support him because we don’t think he would run from what scares us, not realizing that because his internal man is so radically different from the external, that he is a coward that presents as a brawler, he would be at the head of the race and beat us all into the abyss.

We do not realize that he is a product of our fear, not a champion against it. His popularity is the result of looking for solutions through broken glasses. He is the destroyer of civilization, not its savoir.

I suppose the logical thing is to ask towards what ought we run? Or put more politically, whom should we look to as our champion?

What ought we look for in a leader? Someone who gets things done, who doesn’t bullshit, who respects the law (or doesn’t, if he’s breaking it for something you support), who reverences the Constitution (or recognizes it as a fallible human document), who will defend our country (but does that mean preemptive action or just diplomacy), who will invigorate the economy (whose economy)…

We live in a federated republic. That means our leaders have the impossible job both of responding to the general will and tempering the extremes of popular opinion for the sake of compromise, stability, order (control, if you like). It is an impossible task because what some see as a mandate from the people others take to be mob violence against political minorities, or just the loudest minority getting their way by acclamation.  It is a job I do not envy.

My vote, such as it is, will go to Bernie Sanders.

I don’t agree with everything he says. I am suspicious that we will be able to get enough money by taxing the billionaires and corporations to pay for what he wants to do (although does it really matter if the government technically has enough money, because it doesn’t seem to…); I tend to think free trade does more good than harm (but perhaps the agreements we have in place are better for businesses than their employees); I appreciate his stance on gun control that there needs to be compromise between urban and rural citizens.

I am not convinced that healthcare and education are universal human rights, but then again I remain unconvinced that rights are really a thing at all, except within a cultural context. If enough people are convinced that everyone should be able to speak their mind within reason, then suddenly we have that right; if enough people think that basic healthcare (however defined) is required by all, then suddenly it becomes a right. I do think that, in the ideal, basic healthcare and higher education have the potential for civic utility and should thus be taken seriously as ideas. This assumes the healthcare is not extraneous and the education useful and meaningful, but if we take those assumptions as granted, then there is a real conversation that must needs be had.

Regardless, Sanders has several things going for him that I find compelling. I think he is a good citizen, well spoken. Unlike Trump or Clinton, Sanders comes across as a man trying to do his best for the national community rather than merely for himself. Trump’s campaign is about the Brand; Clinton’s is about the Legacy; only Sanders cares about the Union.

He also strikes me as the most rational candidate, in how he presents himself, how he converses with others, how he interviews. I get the impression that I could sit down and have an actual conversation with him, dialogue about the issues, and have him actually hear me.

I also admire his consistency, not so much on various issues but in his efforts towards doing real civic good. I don’t care if this or that position of his has or has not changed over his political career; I care that for the duration, he has striven towards the public good. Trump, the developer of casinos, thinks only of his private aggrandizement. Clinton, the head of a decades old political machine, is just as selfish.

So, I submit that Sanders is the man to vote for. If you disagree with his policies, there are two things to keep in mind. The first is that he has come to his opinions after, I think, real consideration for their public worth. The second is that our political system was built such that no branch has all the power. As Sanders himself has stated, without Congress behind him, he will be able to accomplish very little. If enough people want his reforms to pass, it will happen with the approval of the legislature. If not, then he will have a difficult four years. Either way, compromise is inevitable; the tempering of his platform is inevitable. There is no such thing as a perfect candidate, no one with whom you will agree 100%. But there is such a thing as a candidate with a “good brain,” to quite Trump, such a thing as a candidate willing to put the Union above himself, such a thing as a civically-minded politician. I think such men deserve to be elected. If reason is against them on an issue, they can be swayed. If money or power tempt them away from the public good, they have the fortitude to at least put up resistance.

There is no shame in electing a man for his virtue. That, as Montesquieu was so fond of reminding us, is the well-spring from which Republics flow.

The Liberation Narrative: Django: Unchained and Spartacus Compared

Django: Unchained has been criticized, not without merit, as being more a white man’s black vengeance movie, rather than simply a black vengeance movie. The black characters require the white characters in order to gain their freedom. They require them in order to reap vengeance for the wrongs and injustices committed against blacks by whites. In a word, it is less a movie about black empowerment and more a movie about white guilt. Whites perpetrated the injustice of slavery, and whites therefore are required in order to achieve rectification.

Having seen it for the first time since it was in theaters, I got to thinking; how accurate is this claim? what does that say about American slavery and how it is viewed today? Indeed, is such a criticism really something we ought to be critical about at all? To answer these questions, I decided to come at it indirectly by first looking at another movie centered around a narrative of slavery and liberation: Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus.

Spartacus is a Greek slave brought up in bondage, trained as a gladiator, and who, for a few short years, led an army of liberated slaves through a series of astounding, if ultimately futile, victories against not a few Roman legions. It is a classic story and a classic film. One man, fueled by a zealous desire to claim his birthright, leads rabble against professionals, comes to grips with them manfully and successfully, almost outwits his opponents–only to be betrayed at the last moment. Trapped in southern Italy, he and his men are cut down by the combined arms of several Roman legions. He is captured, although his identity is never established with certitude. He is crucified with the survivors of his rebellion, one of thousands of broken exemplars, warnings to Rome’s myriads of enchained subjects of the terrible price to be paid for insurrection. He is a martyr for the cause of liberty, and his sweeping narrative is both suitably tragic and inspiring.

Django, on the other hand, is very much a personal narrative, not something on the grand scale. There is no talk of the end of slavery, there is no mass rebellion against the established Order; there is only one black man, his burning desire to free his enslaved wife, and a German bounty hunter. This German, Dr. King Shultz, gives Django the ability to fulfill his lover’s quest by freeing him, training him in the art of killing, and setting in motion a chain of events that leads to the eventual freedom of the two chief black characters–at the expense of his own Teutonic existence, alas.

So the whole of Spartacus is a sprawling historical epic pontificating, nay yearning for the death and burial of a most brutal human institution (“2000 years before it finally would die” as the opening narrator puts it). It allows a slave to drag himself up from slavery by the brawn of his own lashed back. Django, so this comparison suggests, is a narrow romance set in the Antebellum South, wherein a helpless black man is plucked by his white angel in the dead of winter, warmed by his thirst for vengeance, his love for his wife; and sharpened to a ferocious point by the tutelage of his Germanic liberator. The former film treats the slave as an equal albiet subjugated person, able to grasp at his freedom with his own hands, to fight for it with his own strength and ingenuity. The latter film sees the slave as perhaps equal philosophically, but certainly unable to make any use of his possible freedom without the aid of a charitable white character, deigning to get his hands dirty in the aid of those less fortunate.

(How nice of him.)

And yet, what is most striking to me is that Spartacus loses. Indeed, the status quo is restored, the slaves remain as such, and that’s pretty much the end of it. Historically, slavery was never seriously questioned until the late 18th century. It was taken as a given, a necessary economic brutality, or most grotesquely (from our perspective) as a fact of Nature. Look up Aristotle’s defense of slavery. It is difficult to stomach. The film admits this sad fact from the beginning. The narrator, as mentioned, laments that the true death of slavery would have to wait two millennia. From the onset, then, Spartacus is a tale of defeat. Spartacus, like Troy’s Hector, is the man we root for and the man fated to lose.

So, Spartacus loses. Does Django do any better? Within the bounds of the narrative, yes. He gets the girl, kills pretty much every evildoer in site, and the movie ends in triumph. But in a larger sense, he still exists in a world very much in a hostile disposition towards his race. The events of Django happen a half decade before the Civil War. How fruitful will his New Life be, even with papers authenticating both his and his wife’s freedom? Consider. In the North there is no slavery, but there is still a social stigma attached to being of African descent. Emancipation is nearly ten years off; Jim Crow a generation or two from casting blacks again into the role of helot and outcast; and Civil Rights a century from bursting forth at long last. So does not Django really end on the same downer as that of Spartacus? Is not the status quo in both films equally unassailable?

I am compelled to answer in the definitely negative. The rebellion of Spartacus was overwhelmed by a world that did not even consider the possibility of slavery being an evil. Go ahead and watch that movie again; I don’t think there is a single Roman character that actually sides with Spartacus on moral grounds. A few help him out of practical or political reasons, but no one seems interested in the gospel of equality. Rousseau is not even a sparkle on the horizon. Historically, again, no one questioned the institution of slavery until very recently. Enter Django’s German liberator: Dr. King Schultz. He begins by purchasing Django, purely for the benefit of the slave’s knowledge of a few wanted men the bounty hunter is pursuing. He expresses no love of slavery but of necessity must keep Django in bondage, he says, so as to guarantee the latter’s aid. When the deed is done and the bounties are dead, Schultz frees Django and partners up with him, “Killin’ white folks for money.” Upon hearing Django’s story of his lost wife Broomhilda (not Brunhilda), the Doctor is compelled (what German would pass an opportunity to aid a real life Siegfried?) to help Django get his lady love back. He meets his end when he opts to shoot in the chest the sadistic planter who owns Broomhilda, rather than shake hands with him. “I could not resist,” he says, smiling, before he himself is cut in half.

Embodied in this German is the idea of Hope, and indeed of Progress. Yes, Django is a “white man’s black vengeance” flick, but in the American context it could not, and indeed ought not be any other way. Schultz is a white man, part (whether he likes it or not) of the established social order. This white man, however, recognizes the evils inherent in the institution of slavery, and does everything in his power to help a single individual rise to take on the burden of liberty manfully, and who dies for what he now professes to be the Truth of things. He is the domineering majority’s shame at its hypocrisy and brutality; he is it looking inwards at itself, realizing that something must needs be done; he is the first inklings of that Action, that Progress. He is the Hope that America might, one day, earn its birthright of freedom by allowing equal opportunity and equality under the law to all its citizens.

Embodying those noble things, he makes Django a quintessentially American narrative of slave liberation. America is in a somewhat unique position viz. slavery. It was founded as a nation upon the soil of liberty, and yet sowed stones in that fertile field by retaining the antique (but industrially vicious) institution of slavery. Much of its economy relied upon cheap, reliable slave labor. And many of its leaders owned dozens if not hundreds of these unfree men. This led to moral outrage on the part of some–for the first time in history. It also led to painfully concocted scientific theories of racial hierarchy on the part of those seeking to defend slavery in the wake of Equality’s philosophic victory. Civil war, decades of black inequality despite their liberation, the Civil Rights movement, and our current climate of white guilt followed in their turn.

The point is, America criticized itself for owning slaves. It fought itself over that issue, cloaked as it was in the language of union and states rights. It freed its slaves in law, but kept them in social chains. And so, with stops and trammels that are shameful in their own way, it slowly integrated its slave population into the often unwilling majority. That is something that to my knowledge is without historical precedent. Egypt did not free its slaves. Sparta did not free its helots. Rome did not break down the institution of Latifundia, its great landed estates that relied on the labor of the unfree. Spain continued to reap the benefits of slave labor in Latin America until those colonies liberated themselves.

It is true that France abolished slavery in its Caribbean possessions, then reinstated it, then abolished it, then reinstated it, again and again as its government shifted hands. It is also true that England outlawed the slave trade in 1807 and backed its words with the guns of its uncontested navy. But these laws affected the colonies of these two great empires, rather than their national soil. Slavery as an institution never took root in the patria of either France or England. Only in America were slaves an integral part of domestic life. Only in America was that institution for the first time seriously questioned, weakened, and ultimately, after the slow triumph of the Civil Rights movement, abolished. Other counties went through, or are still reeling from, similar social processes, notably Brazil; but it was in the United States of America that, without precedent, such a process of liberation began.

Django embodies that American historical development. Schultz is the majority trying to make amends for its sins against Equality. Django is the minority taking the reins of its destiny into its own hands after it has first been taught how to be free. After all, it seems reasonable to assert that being brought up a slave habituates a man to a different mode of thinking and action than does a liberal upbringing. This must be broken and replaced. This education is the responsibility of the liberators, so as to make good and equal citizens of those it once held in chains. That is integration. Blacks need not “act like whites,” whatever that really means, but they should have the same economic, intellectual, legal opportunities as their former masters. We all must be educated so as to be responsible citizens.

So, Django is a more heartening slave narrative because it is a success. It is a success because someone within the machinery of enslavement actually realizes the evil of the institution and tries to do something about it. And in doing something about it, that white “liberator” embodies the American experiment in the enfranchisement and integration of its former slave population, a process fraught with difficulty, with setback, with brutality, with inhumanity, but ultimately, with a degree of kindness, of duty, of self-appraisal that is almost without historical precedent.

Would that Livy could have been so critical of Rome as Lincoln was of America!

Conan the Barbarian and the Nature of Fatherhood

Conan the Barbarian, released in 1982 and responsible for launching the film career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, is best remembered for a few things: the beautiful, dashing score (embodying the whole notion of “high adventure”), the impressive battle scenes (practical effects at their finest), and the hammy, campy, sometimes legitimately good acting. Watching it for the 25th time this past weekend, however, I thought it about time that I present one more facet of this 80s gem worthy of our attention and our memory: the primary theme of the film, namely fatherhood.

That a film like this, with all its hammy camp, snake orgies, and blood could have a theme at all is probably not so outlandish. Even the worst films grope at something, however unintentionally or awkwardly. This film does not trip over its theme accidentally; it does not shove it down your throat like a xenomorph embryo; no, Conan the Barbarian takes up a topic, deals with it consistently throughout the film, and leaves the viewer, hopefully, contemplating what they saw.

Since this is a movie rarely thought of, to my knowledge, in academic or thematic terms, I find myself compelled to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that fatherhood, if it is not the only theme of the movie, is at least the predominant one. Criticism, like history, requires evidence. Essays that present assertions without giving evidence from the text are dross. I must do the academically honest thing, therefore, and evince my thesis. To do so requires an outline of the movie, highlighting thematic evidence as it comes up. Once done, we can spend some time and assess what, if anything, the movie is trying to do with its main theme. (Hint: think Nietzsche and Rousseau).

There are, far as I can see, five salient points in the movie that support fatherhood as the chief topic of import.

1. The opening credits. Have you ever actually watched them? It’s so much more than a badass montage of a man forging a sword. It is a montage of Conan’s father forging a sword. Hmm, interesting. Conan’s father, and especially the sword he makes, come up again and again as the film progresses. Already we have in our minds the making of something, the idea of creation and formation.

1a. The first words spoken are those of Conan’s chronicler. While not a father in the strictest sense of the word, the chronicler, as historian, forges the identity of his subject for posterity–for good or ill. Thus the historian, like the blacksmith, participates in an act of creation, a definite corollary to the movie’s notion of fatherhood.

2. The first dialogue consists of Conan and his father. What are they talking about? Myths regarding the creation of the world, about how the gods left “the enigma of steel” on the battlefield, where men found it, “Not gods, not giants, just men.” Then he tells Conan: “You can’t trust anything in this world, not men, not women, not beasts; [points to sword he just made] this you can trust.” The father talking about how the world was created, and about the nature of steel–something he just forged; and he’s talking to his son, something else he created (or was at least integral to the process thereof).

Hey! Here’s a clip! (Listen to that music!)

3. So Conan’s village gets annihilated by mysterious raiders; Conan (still a child) is sold into slavery and set to work at a mill which he must turn. This toil forges him into the Platonic ideal of Brawn that we see for the rest of the film. Eventually he is taken in by a different master (presumably when the economic utility of the mill in which he labored declined), who proceeds first to use Conan as a brute gladiator, and then to provide him with martial training, sexual companionship (no homo), and wealth. Conan fights with much distinction, but after a while, his master feels that Conan is like a “dog that has been kept too long,” and thus resolves to free him one night (probably while drunk, woops!). Conan thrust back into a liberal world he hasn’t known in 20 years. This master of Conan’s is something of a surrogate father.  He takes Conan under his domination, teaches him, has him trained, and then frees him. He had a profound influence on Conan’s development.

4. After finding a sword in a tomb, sexing a witch, and befriending a thief, Conan attempts to track down the people who destroyed his village. Their standard is that of snakes, so he goes from town to town asking about such creatures. Again and again, he is pointed towards the towers of the snake cult of Set, who worship the sorcerer Thulsa Doom. After getting high, Conan and the thief decide to scale one of these towers and see what all the fuss is about. What they find is verification that this snake cult is indeed the people who slaughtered his village; an adventurous woman who quickly becomes Conan’s love interest; so much money that he parties himself into a stupor, and eventually an audience with the local ruler, King Osric “the Usurper” (ah, to have such a surname!). Obviously the king is honkin’ pissed that these thieves broke into one of Set’s sacred towers, right? Nope! Like Julian the Apostate vis-a-vis Christianity, Osric is no fan of this particular cult: “Snakes, in my beautiful city!” It turns out that the king’s daughter has fallen under this serpent spell. He wants Conan and pals, as the only guys around to stand up to this cult, to infiltrate Thulsa Doom’s mountain of power  and rescue his daughter. He then pours jewels into their hands, promising much more, “Enough to become kings yourselves.” And here’s the crux: Osric goes on to say that  “There comes a time when the gold ceases to shine, when the jewel ceases to sparkle, when the throne room becomes a prison, and all that is left is a father’s love for his child.” Wow, powerful stuff, huh? Seems that way to me, especially coming from a movie as apparently silly and vapid as something with barbarian in its title, and naked people painted on the posters (but really, how badass was that poster, you know the one I’m talking about).

It’s this one. This is the one you should be thinking of. Obvs.

The entire reason Conan meets the leader of the cult, the whole impetus for his quest to confront Thulsa Doom, is set in motion by another father and his love for his child. He sets Conan back upon the quest for revenge, derailed after his successful tower heist.

5. The remaining bits of fatherhood in this film all come from the chief antagonist, Thulsa Doom.

5a. The first is when Conan goes off alone to Doom’s mountain fortress (his lover, Valeria, did not want to go at all–preferring the warmth of their love to the fires of vengeance or something, whatevs), meets a wizard–his future chronicler–and gets captured. Conan rails against Doom for destroying his father, his village, his people. Doom responds that Conan “Broke into my house, stole my property, and killed my pet–and that is what grieves me the most…Thorgrim (his underling) raised it from birth.” (Another reference to fatherhood and development). It is at this point that Thulsa Doom comments, almost in passing, on the drive he instilled in Conan by decimating his village, regretting only that Conan wasted this gift, “Look at the strength of your body…such a waste…” In punishment, he crucifies Conan, so that Conan might contemplate his own failures. He also talks about the riddle of steel, the answer of that enigma being simply that flesh is stronger: “What is steel, compared to the hand that wields it?” And is not the entire movie about the forging of the flesh, ie the idea of fatherhood and the raising/development of a child?

5b. The second time Doom involves himself in the theme of fatherhood is when he and his forces attack Conan, in retaliation for Conan’s surviving his crucifixion, raiding the mountain of power, and stealing back King Osric’s daughter. The attack is repulsed, but before retreating, Doom attempts one final assault. Osric’s daughter is screaming and pleading with Doom not to abandon her. In response, Doom readies an enchanted snake arrow and fires it at his erstwhile worshiper. Realizing her imminent death, she yells out in desperation for her father. The thief blocks the arrow with his shield, Thulsa Doom flees, and Osric’s daughter is his follower no more. It is worth noting here that one of Doom’s lieutenants (Rexor, a high priest) wielded the sword that Conan’s father forged at the beginning of the movie. In the process of killing him, Conan cleaves the sword in half. That’s probably not significant at all. OH WAIT! It definitely is. Keep that in mind when we finally address what this movie is trying to tell us.

5c. The third and final instance involving Thulsa Doom is at the very end of the film. Conan interrupts Doom’s “Let’s go take over the world and cleanse it” speech by coming up behind the sorcerer. Whirling around, Doom stops Conan in his tracks with an entrancing stare and begins to pontificate to Conan. He focuses on the fact that he bequeathed upon the barbarian all that Conan has, his strength, his skill, his drive–all by burning his village and killing his family. His speech is summed up with one line: “I am the well-spring from which you flow,” he says. He even goes so far as to claim himself as Conan’s father: “For who is your father if it not me?” It is at this point that Conan blinks out of the trance, decapitates Thulsa Doom with his father’s broken blade (which disperses the cultists), burns down the mountain of power, returns the king’s daughter, and consigns himself to a series of lackluster sequels and slipshod reboots.


In sum, we have images of forging, myths of creation, three separate potential father figures for Conan, an aggrieved father in the form of King Osric, and references to “the riddle of steel” brought up at the beginning by Conan’s father, regarding metallurgy, and answered later on by Thulsa Doom, in terms of flesh, not steel.

What are we to make of all this? Is the movie actually trying to say something about the nature of fatherhood and the influence of fathers, about the definition of a father and what makes a father in the first place, etc? Let’s see if I can’t venture an interpretation, over and above merely pointing out that the theme itself is pervasive (which hopefully is obvious at this point).

Let me start by pointing out that at the very beginning, before the credits even start, the movie throws upon the screen a quote from Nietzsche, the controversial German philosopher: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” We must, then take the whole movie with that in mind. Next, let’s keep in mind the idea of steel and the act of forging something. This whole movie is about the molding, the forming of one man: Conan. To that end, he is provided with love and security from his father, pain and purpose from Thulsa Doom, and training from his gladiatorial master. Each of these men adds a different layer to the finely forged blade that Conan becomes by the end of the film, a man “Destined to become king by his own hand,” as a witch remarks. Indeed, we ought wonder at the fact that a poor slave boy could rise to such a status as to warrant his own chronicler! The whole movie is a forge, and each father of Conan’s a different bellows, helping heat or cool this flesh that is more powerful than any steel, yielding a man powerful, confident, and strong (although apparently not as cunning as the Conan from the Howard books. C’est la vie).

This, however, brings up an interesting point: to what degree does Conan will his own development? It seems that he has no “will to power” of his very own; he is not so much an active force making his own destiny, but rather a reactive one, bending and thrashing in response to various influences–ie individual father figures. It appears that this movie would have us believe Conan’s character and actions were determined by outside forces and not by his own hand. At the very least, the movie seems to be indicating that his development into manhood was out of his control (a fair assertion); but that perhaps he gains volition after the death of his final father, Thulsa Doom. Let’s remember, he shatters his father’s sword, wielded by an opponent, and then uses it to kill Thulsa Doom. That states pretty powerfully that Conan has vanquished his childhood, buried the past, and attained the freedom to will himself, to be active rather than reactive. Given the reference at the beginning of the movie to Nietzsche, this reading of the evidence does not strike me as far-fetched in the least.

Conan the Barbarian, in closing, is more than mere hack and slash, more than incredible music, and more than campy acting; it is a film that delves into the influence of fathers, into the nature of education, and into the development of character. Is it the Emile of the modern age? No, but it certainly holds its own. And there are a lot more naked women…and wild blueberries

Aliens, a Review

I read a rather interesting article over at Ars Technica the other week, detailing why the term “xenomorph” is not the actual technical term for the aliens found in the Alien Franchise. The basic argument was as follows:

1. Aliens was, first and foremost, a satire of the Vietnam War, specifically the arrogance and bravado with which the American military ham-fisted its way into combat against the Viet Cong.

2. The term xenomorph is used by the marine commander in response to a query from one of his men. He has little combat experience, wants to shut up the upstart private, and so throws about a term that literally means “alien form,” hoping this will make it seem like he knows what he is talking about.

2a. Xenomorph is therefore not the formal name for these creatures, in the way that homo sapiens is the formal name for a human being.

3. Despite their ignorance regarding the aliens in question (the existence of which they doubt until mere minutes before contact), the marines brandish their massive, state of the art weapons–as if these will help them against an enemy far more deadly than they realize.

Pictured: Unpreparedness, Ineptitude, Arrogance, and Bravado (with Ripley kinda in the background).

4. The subsequent, and rather easy, slaughter of the majority of the soldiers in the space of mere moments highlights the simple fact that they were woefully unprepared, indeed cavalier in their approach to an admittedly unknown enemy.

5. Given its role in the satire, the term xenomorph should not be the term we use to describe the aliens, as it was only a device to highlight the ignorance of the Military, and their attempt to cover it up with jargon.

Having rewatched Aliens, I certainly agree that the movie, more than anything else, is a satire of the American involvement in Vietnam. Even though the military won nearly all its battles, the perception was that they were inept, arrogant, and outclassed.

Aliens is a wonderful example of that perception (inaccurate as far as the actual war goes, but then what we think is happening is at least as influential as what is actually happening, huh?); but I still felt a lingering sense that something about that article was wrong, that it was missing something. After some thought, I came to the conclusion that xenomorph is a term we should very much use, rather than something we should shy away from.

One of the major sources of conflict in that movie is that of corporation vs individual, or profit vs human dignity. The character representing the interests of the corporation that funded the human colony under attack literally tries to have two other characters impregnated by parasites so that they might return to base and be studied for the corporation’s “bio-weapons division.” This, more than greed vs life, highlights our insatiable need to understand the world around us–and how dangerous it can be.

But wait! The only motives ascribed to these company men is that of greed. Yes, but I would argue that scientific curiosity is a kind of greed. Men wish to understand the universe primarily because they wish to exploit it. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake, inquiry purely for the sake of curiosity, rates little compared to inquisitions of the natural world funded by the desire to reap some reward. That pragmatic approach to investigation ushered in the miracles, so called, of modern science. Gone were the idle treatises, little experiments, and philosophic inquiries of the ancient and medieval world, that returned to oblivion when their authors perished. Now, such experiments are done formally, systematically, and in bunches; and, most importantly, they are done to advance some goal, cause, or desire, be it the curing of a disease, the harnessing of atomic energy, or the creation of human flight. Thus, the greed highlighted in Aliens is the undercurrent by which scientific curiosity, and the horrors it unleashes, are allowed to flow.

I would not go so far as to say this is a cautionary tale, like perhaps Cameron’s earlier work The Terminator; it does strike me, though, that there is a little bit of a Lovecraftian feel here. H.P. Lovecraft loved to harp on the notion that the world is malevolent towards man, when it is not indifferent to us (which is most of the time because of how small and insignificant we are in comparison to what is “really” going on all around us).

The same  thing is going on in this movie. In spite of all the impressive space ships, nuclear weaponry, terraforming equipment, and bravado, the humans lose. The human colony is destroyed, massacred. Even though three people (and half an android) escape before the reactor goes critical and the entire thing is vaporized, it is still a loss for the scientific person. The alien, that unknown force in the universe that we wish to study, understand, harness, and control for our own petty purposes, it bested us in all our glory; and only by retreating did we survive.

Yes, yes, the alien hive was destroyed as well. But keep in mind that the source of the eggs that originally infested the people on that world was a “derelict spaceship,” presumably an alien ship hijacked by these parasites, who have given no indication of knowing how to build interstellar ships, and who are shown in Prometheus (the prequel) to be the artificial creation of yet another species (yet another example of the dangers of science guided by greed). This implies that there are other alien colonies out there. They remain: in the darkness where we dare not shine our light.

And so, I think the idea that we ought not refer to the aliens as “xenomorphs” is incorrect. As a symbol of our bravado, our ignorance, our arrogance, and our silent recognition of those things, it encapsulates the very essence of what the aliens represent:

1. The external world, beyond the bounds and understanding of our own reality, more powerful than us, more vicious than us, and–should it take notice of our little species–ready and able to obliterate us.

2. Our deep-seated, almost subconscious understanding that the world is very much bigger than us, and the ever-changing form in which that fear manifests itself. Remember, the alien–the xenomorph, takes on characteristics of whatever host creature it impregnates. So human xenomorphs, predator xenomorphs, etc–they all have different forms. They are ever-changing, ever-adapting, ever-slithering into the nooks and crannies of our most existential nightmares (obscene!)

The movie, in sum, is screaming that we should be afraid of the dark. The xenomorph lurks within it, and within us, haunting the abyss, that pit crawling with the inadequacy of our ability to comprehend, the littleness of our kind, and the vulnerability of our pride.

Good movie, 5/5 stars.

Post Script: here is a video describing the biology of the xenomorph, because it’s actually pretty interesting.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and the Psychology of Kirk

“You haven’t experienced Shakespeare until you’ve read him in the original Klingon.”–Chancellor Gorkon

Um, what did I just hear?

Are we to believe that the Klingons actually wrote Hamlet? Or was the line spoken in jest? Or did the Klingons appropriate Shakespeare as the Nazis tried to do during their flare of power?

So many questions, all flowing from that one line of dialogue! That is the main strength of this movie, the last Star Trek film to see the entire original cast together–one last adventure into the stellar unknown.

The basic plot can be summed up as “the wall came down in space.” It starts with the Klingon moon Praxis exploding (a sci fi Chernobyl), moves on to a diplomatic effort by Kirk, Spock, et al, ending in the Klingon chancellor’s assassination, turns into a bit of a detective story as the Enterprise endeavors to exonerate Kirk and McCoy (who are framed for the murder), and ends with the Federation and Klingon Empire taking the first real steps towards some kind of understanding.

The story itself is decent enough as allegory , although it isn’t anything inspired. But that’s just fine with me. I prefer stories that focus on character. This movie, particularly through dialogue, excels at characterization. This is partly because the movie cheats. Every third line is a quote from Shakespeare, starting with the title–a pull from Hamlet. But that’s ok with me. Shakespeare is worth quoting, and it was really fun to have the Klingon villain quoting Richard II and Julius Caesar while shooting photon torpedoes through the vastness of space.

The movie also benefits from the long history between the individual cast members. They know their characters, and they know the relationships their characters have with each other. So the good dialogue is augmented by the very strong chemistry shared between actors that wear their parts like second skins.

I’ve heard it said of certain Trek films, Insurrection comes to mind, that they’re little more than longer episodes. I’ve always had a hard time figuring out what that meant; but after reflecting on it as I type this, perhaps it has something to do with the status quo. The difficultly with episodic television is that things have to stay more or less the same, so that viewers can jump into a show kinda whenever they want. This is usually achieved through a lack of character development, a lack of long story arcs, and a shallow pool of environments from which stories can be drawn.

Indeed, the strength of the original Star Trek series was not its characters, but its stories. It was very much a Medieval kind of affair, in that sense, for its most memorable episodes were allegories (like, um, basically every Arthurian romance). The episode where they meet aliens that are half black, half white jumps immediately to mind, as does the one where the Enterprise discovers that the Federation’s hated foe the Romulans actually look a lot like their allies, the Vulcans (are they really so different from us, etc?). My understanding is that Gene Roddenberry specifically wrote the show as a way to comment on current social issues. That’s great, but that has the necessary result of having Star Trek resemble the morality plays of the Middle Ages more than the psychological character studies found in Shakespeare, Cervantes, and the writers they inspired.

Isn’t that an interesting juxtaposition? The rigid morality play structure of the Original Series is suddenly brought face to face with the psychological tradition of Shakespeare.

What, then, is the difference between this movie and something like Star Trek Insurrection? How is one somehow a legitimate movie in its own right while the other is somehow more episodic?

To answer that, we must go back to the second Star Trek film, The Wrath of Khan. The directer of that movie, Nicholas Meyer, also directed The Undiscovered Country. Not coincidentally, the themes are very much connected.

The Wrath of Khan deals predominantly with the mid-life crisis of Kirk, and by extension his crew. This is an underlying theme of many of the original six films, but it shows up most strongly in this one and The Undiscovered Country.

Wrath begins with Kirk’s birthday. He is no longer in command of the Enterprise. He feels listless, purposeless, and old. The movie then delves into a life or death struggle between him and Khan, an old enemy, over the Genesis Device, something that can make dead planets live. Subtle, huh? In the end, Kirk discovers his own Genesis Device: the USS Enterprise. He retakes command in a time of crisis, defeats Khan, and even manages to reunite with his estranged ex-wife and son for good measure.

Enter the sixth film. Kirk is set to retire, as are the rest of his crew. This last mission, to facilitate the diplomatic mission that might save the Klingon Empire after the explosion of Praxis, is one he engages in utterly against his will. It goes against the prejudices he has built up against the Klingons over the course of an entire career, culminating in the death of his son at the hands of a Klingon in the third movie.

He spends the film getting over this fear of  change, admitting at the end of the film that he’s going to have to get over his old hatreds. They are obsolete. This acts as both allegory for the end of the Cold War, and as a kind of climax for Kirk’s giant midlife crisis begun during the Wrath of Khan.

In setting down his phaser, so to speak, he is essentially saying, “My term of service has ended. I have done my duty. The old war has ended. I can step down and let the next generation take its place on center stage. Let them face their own challenges.”

Kirk let go of his demons, and in so doing achieved a kind of catharsis. He had one last romp, saved the day one last time, and can now end his career with honor. This goes off the rails a bit later on, when he saves the Enterprise-B from an energy ribbon in the next film, Star Trek: Generations. In so doing, he gets trapped in basically Paradise, gets rescued by his successor Captain Picard (time travel and such), and dies saving his progeny.

Kirk manages to die in the arena, which suits his character much more thoroughly than an uneventful retirement. That’s more McCoy’s bag.

(Aside: The Wrath of Khan provides an interesting foil to Kirk in the form of Khan. The film makes several references to Moby Dick. This is no accident, for Kirk is basically Khan’s white whale. He chases his prey so feverishly that it eventually ends in his death. He could not let go of the past, and thus had no future. His undiscovered country was, like Hamlet’s, death.

Kirk, on the other hand, copes with the past. He grapples with it, wrestles with it, and finally comes to terms with it. Yes, the Klingons killed his son. Yes they’ve been at Cold War for 70 odd years. All that he recognized, and fully, but somehow, unlike Khan, he was able to progress from his hatred into a kind of understanding, that the Klingons weren’t all evil, that the wold was moving on, that all he could do was try and age gracefully, moving out of the way to let the next batch take over. Indeed, he died so that his successor could go on.)

Things do not return to the status quo ante. That is the difference between the Meyer films and, say, Star Trek: Insurrection. Now, I happen to like Insurrection, and in the very best Star Trek tradition, it is an allegory, this time for something like the forced migration in the name of “progress” of the Trail of Tears (or whatever modern equivalent was topical in the late 1990s). That’s great. But that means that the vigor of the thought was put into the structuring of the allegory, not so much on the nuances of character.

Heinlein novels are very much like this. They’re wonderfully well thought out socio-political thought experiments, rivaling Rousseau in their scope and vision. But, barring a few exceptions, they are not great novels, or even exceptionally good ones. Most do the job, from a psychological perspective. Allegorically, they hit the mark again and again, hammering home a consistent vision of how things are and ought to be; very much like the very best Star Trek episodes–but not, oddly enough, like the very best of those movies: The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country. Allegory plays a part, at least in the latter film, but their strength and charm lies in their focus on character, on psychological nuance, on exploring the motivations that drive men…

Allegory is harder to maintain; the momentum dies more quickly. I think that is why the episodes of Star Trek tend to hold up better than their movie counterparts (and why the better satires are usually shorter). I also think that’s why the best of those films happen to be the most psychological of the bunch (Star Trek: First Contact ditto, ie Picard’s “white whale” obsession with fighting the Borg).

5/5 stars.


Pain and Gain, a Review

Back when it was in theaters, I watched this review of the movie Pain and Gain.

As always, MovieBob has interesting things to say. After watching the movie, I rewatched his review, just to see how my viewing of the film meshed with his interpretation. Why? Well, why do people read commentaries on Plato and then read Plato? Because it’s a place to start.

Michael Bay is no Plato, but his movie is interesting, fun (yes, more fun than the Republic), and thought-provoking nonetheless. I think Bob was correct in identifying a kind of nihilism at the heart of the work, but what exactly that means is something else altogether. Yay for different perspectives.

See, I work in healthcare, specifically the field of mental health. I’ve witnessed thousands of people being told to “think positively,” to try “goal-centered behavior,” to attend AA meetings, to talk to their therapists, doctors, or counselors. Then they leave the hospital and do whatever the fuck they want.

Pain and Gain was agonizing to watch in part because the bull shit spewed by all the main characters echoed the same things we in psychiatry tell people every day. Lugo, the main character, is described by MobieBob as a psychopath, but I think that is doing him a disservice. He is the epitome of what modern psychiatry wants out of people: he is driven, he thinks only positive thoughts, and he sets for himself goals that he then tries to achieve.

There is a whole lot else going on in this movie, but after finishing it,  my mind could not stray from its focus on this rampant positivity, this religion that treats people as if they were merely subatomic particles circling around the universe. How else could we describe people as positive or negative, unless they were simply protons or electrons?

Such pseduo-thought is the kind of vapid, commercial philosophy that only mammoth corporations, in their quest for things like “wellness” could come up with. Except that’s not true, is it? Countries come up with initiatives that are equally ridiculous. Ever watch a fatherhood.gov commercial? Ick. There’s something a little terrifying about the government telling me what my responsibilities as a father are; just as it is a little off-putting for a corporation to be concerned about how well I am feeling.

The obvious question then becomes, what is so unsettling? I think it’s the insincerity of it all. Say what you want about organized religion, but those guys, at their best, have always struck me as sincere people. Indeed, that is what makes things like the Spanish Inquisition so terrifying. They really thought that people who disagreed with the Catholic Church were ignorant of the Truth; they really believed that those who could not be dissuaded of this opinion were an evil influence on the rest of the population; and they really burned people at the stake in the hope of maintaining the salvation of the rest of the people under their care. If you take it for granted that the Catholic Church is the epicenter of Truth, and that as a member of that church it is your responsibility as a priest to save as many people as possible, then it suddenly makes sense why you would imprison a fair number of people, torture some, and kill fewer still. The objective was not slaughter, but salvation.

To my mind, there is at least something noble in the end goal. It is, however, unsettling for a different reason: the utter sincerity of it all. This is what South Park finds so funny about Mormonism. But back to corporations and governments. If religion is unsettling for its sincerity, corporations and governments make me uneasy for quite the opposite reason. Why do corporations want you to be fit and healthy? Not because it might make you a “better person” in some squishy, pseudo-spiritual way, but because you not getting obese and diabetic will save them money. Why do governments prefer decent fathers? Because its their hope that children with good dads won’t become a burden on the state, but instead will become productive members of society, able to adhere to corporate wellness programs and, in so doing, giving them tax revenue.

Corporations, governments, religions, oh my! How did we get so off topic from Pain and Gain? Well, because I think the kinds of people that are bred by the empty, void-philosophies of positivity and wellness end up looking more like the men from that movie than those of, say, Gladiator. There is no “strength and honor,” no greater good here. There is only shallow materialism. They are also the kind of people psychiatry produces, the kind of people who thrive in an “I can eat thou” society.

Is there a point or solution? I doubt it. And so, it seems, does Pain and Gain. Yes, the muscle heads who kidnap and torture the millionaire are caught, their gym is dismantled, and Ed Harris’ honorable detective gets to sit by the dock with his wife and enjoy “the simple things.” But Miami, an “I can eat thou” city if ever there was one, still stands. The millionaire, who the movie goes at great lengths to show us is just as horrible as his assailants, is still around. The lazy, uncaring police department that didn’t give a rat’s ass about the kidnapping/torture until it was embarrassed into action is still very much the same.  The TV infomercial guy spewing his “do-er vs don’t-er” philosophy is still on the air…

The main “scumbags” end up behind bars, but the world in which they inhabit, the world of men eating men, of muscle purely for the sake of muscle, of greed, narcissism, and sociopathy–that’s alive and well.

Or maybe I am wrong to doubt. Maybe Ed Harris’ detective had it right. The System, the World, whatever, might be sickening, depraved, “going to Hell in a hand basket.” What does it matter? As an individual, maybe all I can do is try and enjoy the little things. Maybe all there is to living a decent life is letting others alone and tending my little garden. The inquisitors, psychiatrists, Mormons, and government officials might say otherwise, which just makes me think I am on to something. Maybe Michael Bay was as well.

5/5 stars.