Saturday, October 31, 2015

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies is a film which salutes competence, canniness and experience, and as such it leave the two young Americans caught out in Russia and East Germany, out in the cold. Tom Hanks’ James Donovan is a newbie spy, but it turns out his genius in negotiating insurance—where he reframes an incident where a multiple number of victims might potentially each file a claim against his client so that it's justifiably only one claim against him—is perfect training for negotiating an exchange of spies, where he also brazenly and successfully insists that there aren’t two deals on the table but rather only one: two young Americans for their one caught senior Russian spy. The film begins with showing off Donovan's competence, and we are meant to remember it later when gets over the brief initial hump of feeling a bit unprepared for his new undertaking. It also begins by showing off the senior Russian spy’s: when the CIA have barged into his apartment and surrounded him—when the game is up—he dazzles by nonchalantly figuring out means by which still openly displayed, acquired top secret information can still be disposed of. Specifically, he merges the paper the information is on in with a cloth the agents have agreed to let him use to tamp down his painting, thereby saturating it with enough paint that it is unreadable and likely undiscoverable.

We remember how the Russian spy reacted, how he ultimately fulfilled any mandate required of a spy after being caught, how, however much his country may not have deserved his loyalty they nonetheless had themselves quite the agent, when we attend to how the Americans comport themselves when they were caught. One of them was supposed to destroy his plane, if possible, and for sure kill himself if ever caught by the Russians. And however much Spielberg may think he’s encouraging our being in this young man’s favour by showing how valiantly he attempts to press the spy plane’s self-destruct button after it’s hit by a missile, we think more rather on how, unlike the Russian, he just plain failed to do what he was supposed to—twice: it’s passed over, but clearly he didn’t prick himself with his cyanide-laced needle either. The other young American is shown gallantly returning into East Germany, even as the wall is almost constructed, to retrieve his girlfriend. But his effort, upon return to the wall, to talk his way through the guards involves him explaining to them that he’s ostensibly of no concern … because he’s an American who’s only been staying in Soviet-controlled Germany to do PhD studies on Communist economics. As they seize the Phd thesis he carries in his sack, he says something to the effect of “wait, that’s my only copy” … and we’re thinking he might rather ought to have tried dropping the whole damn thing in the mud and leaving it behind some while ago—some version of what the Russian spy would have done—rather than risk being caught out and have to appeal this ignorantly and clumsily for empathy.

The way the film prejudices youth (there’s another notable incident, involving a young Russian spy that is made, owing to his naivety, to be Donovan's patsy) as somehow guilty just for being those who can so easily be caught out, reminded me a bit of Casablanca, where the young couple Rick rescues from resorting to measures that’ll taint and even destroy their marriage, exist mostly as means by which Rick himself can be inflated in our eyes—what a good guy! To be naive and innocent, in an environment where there are one thousand and one clues that this is the last thing you can afford to be, actually disavows one of empathy: means you’ve earned your fate, and are probably supposed to be ruined and perish. The film, then, does not quite remind me of its era—the late 1950s. For the years where the smart-talking lawyer or savvy ad-men seemed the ultimate embodiment of an era were about to close down very quickly, and be replaced with an era of dramatic experimentation and social change where it is to your advantage to be young and obvious about it. 

Rather, it reminds me of today, where if you’re going about life thinking that it is endlessly forgiving of missteps or experimentation, you’re impossibly naive: for evidence everywhere suggests it isn’t. Post something on the internet, it’ll be dug up by bosses, landlords, future lovers, be sure, so it had better be banal or reflect widely shared tastes or opinions. Get a few mediocre grades in school, you’ll never recover and be exempted from all the prize colleges, so go for the sure thing and don’t experiment. Say something averse about your government, the NSA will take note of it—so take care you don’t seem in any other way an alien, or they’ll be down your door. You had better be careful, and if you’re not, it’s your fault because it’s been this way for so many years it’s beginning to seem like it’s always been, and you should really have known.

This is the first film I’ve ever seen which featured the division of Germany into East and West, where it didn’t inspire nightmares of being the hapless person who found himself trying for the West just after the wall was finally in place and was no longer an option—aaarrrgh! if only I’d gotten there a half hour before! The reason I think is that you have a vision of the drastic difference in the kind of life that would unfold for one if one actually made it across to the West—all that freedom and ever-accruing self-development—and it’s almost impossible to imagine one handling just now, so the possibility of being stuck in the East would actually be a bit easing. Caught out in the West would involve a life of truly unlimited potential, but would also involve incurring the sense of abandonment one experiences when, via your own self-attendance and independent growth, your parents see everything you’re up to as massively disrespectful affronts and turn away from you. In the 60s, youth could do it, somehow, for all the social change they fought for left them strangers to the generation before them—mommy and daddy would never adjust, never understand—and they never as a result of this just fell back into line: instead, they incurred the abandonment depression and let them go, buried the Depression and War past and made a new and glorious future for themselves. But now, lacking the benefit of following the kind of massively sacrificial period that enfranchises an extended follow-up period of youthful play and entitlement, that would be way too big a thing to try and manage. No God, no natural law, no strong current, no way of things, no evolutionary principle, is with us.

And with it just being us, being out into the future, with our parents shutting themselves to us, and no large and menacing state apparatus to interject them into, would mean having to fight a perpetual sense of rejection and abandonment that would stop us, even if we know the world we were leaving behind the very opposite of Eden. What we never admit about this NSA/Orwellian world is that it’s an environment we curse but are psychologically invested in maintaining. For behaving as if we are being watched, curtailing our life in recognition of its power, means communicating that we accept its adverse presence as nevertheless a certainty … and feel thereby that our parents will stick with us, even as they look over us, way, way into our adult lives, like omnipresent elves on the shelves. We may live our lives in an East German kind of fear before the intrusive parental state, but we’ll never feel forlorn its interest in us, which means our evading a much more apocalyptic sort of fright. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs

The film begins with 50s footage of the futurist Arthur C. Clarke predicting that at one point what were then only gigantic, takes-a-warehouse-to-fit-one computers would become so small that every home would have one. It’s clear he’s envisioning big things from out of the this titanic diminution in scale, but from our vantage point, with him speaking as one coifed in 50s “grey flannel suit” style, speaking within 50s big corporation society, we might not be so sure he is. If everyone has a personal computer at home, but only in home offices, where their routine seems about the same as it would if they’d commuted to work at General Electric, or Proctor and Gamble, or IBM, or whatever — what change, really? If it enables everyone to be a work drone in corporate culture, subsumed as a distinct person to the greatness of one’s company, regardless of where one lives in New York or in some remote rural hell, how empowering, really? Giving everyone easy access to the kind of computing that once required a military budget to acquire, and a similar largess to house and power, would be revolutionary only if advances in technology were accompanied with advances in what kind of person, exactly, we would collectively allow each person to become. Allow someone, whether at work or at home, to fully self-actualize, and then, yeah, making it so that each one has gone a toolkit that can keep up with their inventiveness, and then some, could readily be the thing that makes a spark of inspiration go supernova. 

The creators of Steve Jobs—by which I mean mostly the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, whose influence on the film is primary—clearly are under the delusion that their film demonstrates that Steve Jobs was the genius who enabled an era where 60s rebellious individualism was finally met with technological advances that could enable even the most remote and or trapped person to transcend their situational difficulties and blossom. They clearly believe he stopped the like of IBM and Microsoft from having such unchallenged success, it would curdle the undeveloped artist in everyone—what right have you to be doing art on a machine and operating system so reminiscent of business and military and government that it would consider any such both childish play and an irresponsible waste of resources? Thanks to Jobs, the movie creators are under the delusion they are conveying, each one of the empowered artistic individuals associated with the Apple brand — the likes of Dylan, Einstein, Joan Baez, John Lennon—could have more rightful peers than one would think possible, as what looked like would be a machine age that inflated only the tech geek and business school graduate gets taken over sufficiently to be just as much one where the artist in you gets empowered. 

What the creators actually are doing by referencing all these recent, massively creative and rebellious individuals, is creating not a vision of something massive, complex, and everywhere sprouting—a hippie garden—but a Mount Rushmore that looms over everyone, with room only for one or two more: one of these indisputably being the great visionary, Steve Jobs. What the film thinks of those who’ve grown up under his influence can be seen in its exploration of his daughter, who represents the very first generation who would grow up with personal computers. Early in the film his daughter uses his new MacIntosh computer to make an abstract, featuring, in particular, one “drawn” line that squiggles upwards on a diagonal path. Jobs looks at the picture and is not shown to be drawing on his own fascination with angles and lines to consider what his daughter might be expressing. Instead, he is thinking that she is proof that his dream that a generation could grow up knowing computers as a tool they can use without in part kowtowing to, and as primarily a device for artistic self-expression, is possible—it was the first thing his daughter thought to do with the unknown device. The extent of self-actualization his machines help enable is not as much on his mind as is the possibility that people like her, counting in the eventual millions, will help make a future that is much more pleasant to be amidst. They’ll be agents, in a sense, of gentrification, where the point is not for them to actually be unique—which would bring about the unpleasantness of a highly variegated human landscape—but uniform in a pleasing way: overt bullying by a cold corporate order would have to be lost. You could endeavour to get to know each one individually, and in pretend earnest, but really it’s appropriate to count them together as a conglomerate and see about one the like of a bustling metropolis, full of ostensible “bright, young creative minds,” over a previous landscape that had once threatened monolith cold parental refusal or, with its aesthetic obliviousness, a reflection of one’s own imperfection. His once welfare-dependent, emotionally-astray-mother-raised daughter gets into Harvard, and writes for the Crimson, and you realize just the fact of this was so close to be encapsulated as a perfect development for Jobs, it would allow him to block out if reading his daughter’s writings startled him with the discovery that she was actually idiosyncratic … couldn’t be assumed; would take awhile to know and might prove intelligent but truly abrasive: portends a future that is truly unaccountable. 

He doesn’t in fact read her papers, and it’s likely she couldn’t overcome the giant will of people like him to develop idiosyncratically anyway, and rather just be someone who in being generic Harvard with a preference for Apple products and an abhorrence for imperfection, would please a generation who arose out of every possible sundry place of origin, that their human byproducts removed them of taint of origins. The fact that their children are actually boring, easy to accurately assume, is what this still insecure lot wants: for dull gentry reads as practiced, long-established gentry—long hewn into perfected form, so they’re safe from drawing on anything astray in one’s makeup to shift one from out of one’s class. 

The film argues that Steve Jobs helped bring back 50s uniformity of personality-stifled souls, but in such a way that an ostensibly individualism-touting populace could deny having occurred. Those who rebelled against branding, and were genuine about it—and therefore as I will discuss, truly interesting—created youth who couldn’t or wouldn’t figure out their way out of getting destructive narcissistic satisfaction out of their attachment to brands, likely for fear of being rejected.

But if the film suggests it likes the idea of creating a breadth of progeny that aren’t troubling, that are actually stifled and controlled, and so life, the future, can more readily just be assumed and appear like a classically ordered garden before one’s balcony, for oneself, the film thankfully instructs, the ideal is still to self-actualize enough that you are as interesting as the great leaders you associate with. In this film, Jobs is not shown as someone who of course needed other people to realize his dreams but who were, in total fairness, compared to him actually only the discardable “B” sort of personnel he claims were responsible for the engineering of the Apple II. Rather, each one of them is played by a significant actor and made to be absolutely riveting in their conversations with Jobs. There’s a weight, real gravitas, to each one of them, and one senses at times the film playing at the idea that what truly makes Jobs “great” is in part still our not-entirely-shed human need for human titans, rather than the pure simple fact that if certain people like him hadn’t been born, the future would have been significantly lessened. 

The film is so interested in the Apple CEO, John Sculley, wants to credit his significance, wants to credit him, for instance, it even plays with denigrating something that might feel as a still-broadly-needed foundation myth by not glossing over the fact that during Jobs’ absence, Sculley and chief engineer, Wozniak, put their resources into a product that really in retrospect comes across as astoundingly visionary: specifically, the Newton—an iPad, but twenty-five years too early. To keep Jobs still seeming singularly necessary and visionary—the sense of them we still overall want—it suggests that with Jobs, Apple would have gotten a modified early iPad that would have enabled people to make use of the product then, rather than only recently. But while we accede to this unlikely vision we don’t forget the film’s play of giving a scandalous amount of credit to those other than Jobs, and that it wanted to do so because as human beings, it is capable of finding them, like it does Kate Winslet’s Joanna Hoffman, Seth Rogen’s Steve Wozniak, Michael Stuhlbarg’s Andy Hertzfeld, very near as interesting.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Martian

The Martian

In Ridey Scott’s Alien, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley was put in a situation where she had to refuse a teammate from coming aboard, and it wasn’t easy for her. She wasn’t someone who just obeys protocol no matter what. And she certainly wasn’t malicious … like Charlize Theron’s character kind of was in Scott’s Alien follow-up, Prometheus, who seemed eager to show she’d be willing to melt a teammate before letting any one of them push her around. Rather, she cared deeply for the person who was afflicted by some kind of unknown parasite; was aware how cold it is to be spurned just at the point where treatment might finally be before one; but refused to alleviate her teammate’s distress by letting the besotted teammate into the ship, for it genuinely being an unwise thing to do. For this, for even not be dissuaded by the captain — who too like everyone else other than Ripley, wanted protocol passed by this time for decency sake, and who was hardly otherwise insensible and foolhardy — she gets the kind of viciously delivered catcalls that could wound anyone not made out of rock. We, the audience, might not even like her much either — in a sense we’ve been out there in the cold along with the rest of the teammates (they’re the ones we’ve been cinematically following, not Ripley inside), and through being let inside without dithering, might have been spared our frayed state being compounded by mirroring their frustration. 

This, to me, was a very adult moment — one of those moments in a film where you hope others experience, for it shows how the right thing to do actually can be very difficult, leave one potentially completely out of favour, and give some sense of the kind of person who would be at a loss without friendship and approbation but who nevertheless could forebear it if necessary. It is unfortunate, then, that in the Martian Scott in a sense tells us that this is exactly the sort of person we shouldn’t want to be — maybe not a villain, but someone interceding in the realization of something humanity now needs, which has priority over any previous protocols devised out of who we once were and what kind of oversight we might once have required. It has priority over the use of authority to prevent a whole crew from putting themselves at genuine risk to possibly save just one other; it has priority over the use authority to keep a crew ignorant when an emotionally heightened situation suggests their not being able to spare themselves for a year-long return trip to Earth, the self-flagellating and vitally important work-impairing torture of knowing they left a teammate behind to very likely die. 

The head of NASA is the immediate relief/gratification-blocker here, and when momentum in effect pushes him aside, we are meant to be gratified and relieved: we’re going to get the outcome we want. Sean Bean’s character is the one who subverts him, informs the crew that their teammate is still alive, and in effect makes possible the desired finish where the abandoners themselves make amends and where space remains a frontier far out enough that independent action gets juiced and central control can get quitted in a hurry (We love that the finish involves a mixture of routine procedure and experimentation and independent judgment — something that had momentarily lapsed once the “martian” stopped improvising on the spot and started just following NASA’s dictates.)  The “Sean Bean” subversion occurs just following a meeting compared to the fateful council meeting in Lord of the the Rings, no less, but the message that comes through isn’t some inverse one where those shepherding humanity from knowledge and empowerment are awry in not sufficiently trusting humanity, it’s not implying that if the Martian’s “philosophy” was interred into Lord of the Rings, Boromir would have been right to have been traitorous and gave humanity knowledge of the ring. But rather that when humanity happens upon something it realizes it really needs, it has to be allowed to happen. 

Ridley Scott inadvertently shows us, not how do to the right but hard thing, like he did in Alien, but how we can seduce people into thinking the easy way is actually difficult and adult — the one to emulate. There’s a lot of talk in this film about people preparing to do things that’ll surely, we are meant to understand, lead to very strong hangovers, harsh repercussions — long-held prize jobs lost, court martials, families abandoned for subsequent years. Scott wants us to fix on the men and women preparing to accept these repercussions as exemplary: they are not so much informed of their likely fates as they are thereby encased as “heroes” as this information settles upon them. Yet it is clearly obvious to anyone not partaking of their narcissism that there is no chance of reprisals, repercussions, incurred guilt for any of them: the public upswell of support for them would balk any such down — would you want to the one who would draw the ire of a united, chanting and cheering U.S.A and China!

There should be, but for most people I’m guessing there probably isn’t, something gruesome in witnessing how after being told how the astronauts would have to incur another couple full years away from their husbands, wives and children, being witness to how the only images subsequently shown of them are of them in fact being readily entertained, apparently thoroughly satiated, by the limited communications they do receive. Apparently everybody is so fulfilled by being involved in this shared mission, all someone has to do is send the occasional space “postcard” — here, images of them doing the like of eating large floating bubbles of water in their gravity-free environment — and damage owing to further years of time away is quelled or even absolved entirely. So clearly does the film want these astronauts absolved of all guilt, the family members had better at least pretend convincingly they are more content than one might expect from their situation. Where otherwise would be their loyalty and pride?

There should be something gruesome as well out of our sensing that we are meant to see the crew as honourable and heroic, no matter how well earned, so that if one of the teammates did serve as the single vote that ostensibly would willy-nilly prevent the ship from turning around and returning to rescue the “martian,” he or she would simply become a gross irritant because he would show this as actually just pretence — that they actually were going to go, regardless if the vote wasn’t unanimous, and were therefore really just staging a ritual to show off how admirably united they were rather than consenting to a vote that dignified individual choice but which could deny a clear majority getting its way. We are meant to think that, like them, we’re those who expect and insist on maturity in our heroes, while being encouraged to be those who’ll only acknowledge results that satisfy our needs, and who shouldn’t fret at all our insisting on remaining free of any jolts arousing from becoming aware of our hypocrisy. 

I’m sure Scott believes that he would know when he himself is partaking of a mob mentality — I’m sure he thinks that probably at all times, he is not like the ugly mobs in Gladiator demanding thrills and blood but rather like the senator in that film who alone remains clear-headed, thinking only of how all this ill-reason is depleting the state of vital reserves. But in my judgment, I wouldn’t trust that he is: for when you’re caught up in a societal wave where achieving something necessary takes precedence over all previous routines — which must be made to happen, regardless — you’re not going to appear to yourself as someone drooling for something base, for quick satiation of some urgent need which would pass leaving you only depleted. You’re going to be in the mood the Martian sees, not only no problem with, but encourages: Damn obstacles, damn protocals — humanity demands that you bring the damn Martian home! 

I’m quite sure the Romans were thinking that after a great man — Marcus Aurelius — was quit from the earth, the empire itself was felt to be at risk unless a rebirth ensued out of gargantuan human sacrifice. For them, each gladiator slain was one step closer to restitution, not one step further into ruin. And the Empire’s food and money could be drained, must be drained, so that the Empire itself could continue to live — something larger was about, and if you couldn’t understand that, couldn’t feel that, you yourself must be an alien! The Empire was at a momentary very great loss: Bring the damned Empire back! 

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