I’m Too Sexy for This City

The cast members of Sex and the City

Women in Black

How can there be a Sex and the City movie set in the Middle East?

No, I haven’t seen Sex and the City 2, so perhaps this is all stemming from ignorance. But it doesn’t seem like the most tasteful thing ever to plop Carrie et al down in the middle of glittery Abu Dhabi, a center of Saudi-Amero bling and excess, throwing the ladies on camels as a crass counterpoint to the wars raging in the Middle East and Central Asia right before Memorial Day weekend.

But really it makes perfect sense.

Ella Taylor breaks it down (hilariously) in the Village Voice: this whole thang is old, stale, moldy, musty, no-so-fresh ladies! And a full K-12 education cycle since Season 1 of these high heeled asphalt-clomping ponies, young women clad in cowboy boots and hotpants stumbling down the streets are a teeth-grindingly frequent sight, flung from all parts of the United States onto the chewing-gum speckled streets of NYC by the Nielsen-viewing group-sized handful.

I remember when the antics of Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda were risque, fringe, decidedly for the cable set, what with all the sexing they did in the aforementioned city. Now they’re re-run on TBS with the graphic bits edited out to make room for the Special K with Chocolate commercials, anyway.

Now it’s mainstream embraced, at least not balked at anyway, the flagrant sex talk and upper class relationship problem-having, dress-wearing that costs the same as the per capita income of Haiti…-ness.

Maybe it was the fact that these sexy ladies’ city got vulnerable right before the show’s fourth season, so that their lily white urban adventures took on a faint tinge of patriotism in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks.

Maybe it was the charm of the equine-featured Sarah Jessica Parker, choosing an empowered and creative, but not really sincere, feminine, but not really feminist third way, and even sporting a dress-up tutu on the opening credits that appealed to a 21st century career woman running on empty.

Or maybe it’s just the clothes – like a series of living, talking, sexing Barbie and Friends for grown ups.

I guess what is underneath all the diamond-encrusted brunch plates is the simple tale of the value of friendship, which is a great thing and worth celebrating, most definitely. But this portrait of the four women at the center of the city at the center of this civilization is bleak at best.

(Yeah, I said it.)

Push/Precious and The Hurt Lockdown

The Hurt Locker wins Best Picture at the 2010 Oscars

Put the hurtin' on Best Picture: The Hurt Locker

I am experiencing delayed-onset Oscar Fever via disjointed YouTube clips due to the Cablevision flap – or whatever it was that interrupted the ABC signal on its way to my rabbit ears and sturdy little DTV digital converter box, where it could have slid down the series of wires and flickered onto my screen in I guess pixels now!  showing me a bunch of people in gowns and black suits, wearing diamonds, weilding gold statues.

Hollywood’s biggest night.  The Oscars.

I have pretty much caught up – the beginning musical number with Neil Patrick Harris was really (can I say this?) gay (I think that that’s what Antonio Banderas was mouthing when the camera showed him). There was what is now being called a Kanye West/Taylor Swift power struggle over the acceptance speech for Best Documentary Short.  Well, hopefully this will get more people to watch the film, Music by Prudence, which I am looking forward to watching – hopefully this behind the scenes drama will get it to Blockbuster!

By the way: how crazy is it that you can now “Kanye West” somebody – which means a racially tense grabbing of the spotlight on a live awards telecast.  It should mean also to make a radical statement on a disaster-relief telethon (too bad nobody really Kanye Wested any of the Haiti events, frankly, because the IMF and the World Bank and thus the United States DO NOT Care About Haitian People.)

Mo’Nique also won big in the category of Best Supporting Actress for Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. When I saw her stirring acceptance speech I immediately thought about MY FRIENDS that I sat around with when we were fourteen and talked about how we were going to become famous.  Yay Mo’Nique!

In her wardrobe, speech and backstage chat, Mo’Nique referenced Hattie McDaniel – the first African American woman to win the award for her performance in Gone With the Wind.  “She is on my mind tonight,” Mo’Nique told the press backstage after her win, “And she should be on your minds as well.”

And how.  Gone With the Wind is an indelible part of Hollywood legend and iconography.  Though nowhere near as flagrant as the hate-mongering Birth of a Nation (itself still celebrated as a feat of early cinema), Gone With the Wind – like all movies – and definitely Awards shows serve like time-capsules of how the situation is on the ground: play the role of Mammy onscreen, win an Academy Award for it.  So now we have only the fourth African American woman to win the award, and she plays a mom that has turned on her own children, three generations after Hattie McDaniel and so many other women played an exaggerated Mammy to white children who are pampered like Vivian Leigh – the servant to a child.

So then we had The Blind Side with Sandra Bullock, who plays the matriarch of a Taco Bell franchise-owning millionaire clan who take in a young African American man who later goes on to play in the NFL (based on a true story!).  After breaking on the scene sixteen years ago in Speed, Bullock’s bus finally pulled up (screeched to a halt?!) when she won Best Actress for The Blind Side Sunday night. (Clooney barely clapped when they showed the clip from the film as a Best Picture nomination, but who can blame him? It featured what Mos Def might call “corny color jokes” – yikes).  She dedicated her Oscar to the mothers who take in babies with no place else to go, presumably including African American and Latin American, Asian babies who have impoverished mothers or mothers who won’t take care of them.  Hattie McDaniel, you’re on my mind.

A big winner was the Iraq war film The Hurt Locker, with screenwriter [embedded Playboy journalist] Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow winning statues, as well the film itself taking home the Best Picture trophy, which it will proudly display on its video rental boxes.  When the triumphant cast and crew took the stage, co-stars Jeremy Renner, Brian Geraghty and Anthony Mackie hugged one another like brothers in combat as they celebrated like bros in a manner that recalled the scene in the movie in which they celebrate surviving an unexpected standoff with faceless Iraqi insurgents after they stumble upon Ralph Fiennes and a bunch of British special forces who are mysteriously dressed like Iraqis (Agent provacateurs? In the movie’s most interesting moment, we wonder).

Celebrated for giving audiences all of the taste of the Iraq war with none of the getting dirty or shot up or messed up or “politics,” The Hurt Locker is the story of a bomb-diffusing Army unit’s three members, as they count down the days until they can go home.  And then [SPOILER ALERT] one of them gets home, takes one look at his little baby son and wife that played on Lost and turns right back around to the war.  Enlisting.  Again.

Like so many people in the Army were forced to do through in the real world through the policy of “stop loss.”  In December 2009, Army Specialist Marc Hall was jailed in Liberty County, Georgia for refusing to re-deploy to Iraq after being stop lossed – oh, and spitting an angry hip-hop song about it didn’t help him stay out of jail either.  Read more about Marc Hall here.

Maybe we should have followed Serget JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) home instead – it didn’t seem to sit well with him what had gone on the past couple years.  But unfortunately, his character isn’t as fleshed out as it could have been in the writing, even as Mackie embodies the tense  manner of his occupation within the occupation as a man of color, making the movie that much more interesting.

But Staff Sergent William James is the hero of the movie, maybe named after the Varieties of Religious Experience guy, as being in the Iraq war is his form of religion, apparently, or as the opening quote hints bleakly, context-lessly, his drug.  Wait a minute: he does help the Iraqi people through diffusing the bombs that are being set off in their midst.  That are meant for him.  An important thing to do.  His character, interestingly enough, is never directly shown killing anyone.  Not so for his co-unit people Sergent Sanborn and Specialist Owen Eldridge who do kill, left and right.  James actually tenderly coaches Sanborn through sniping the “insurgent” Iraqis who hole up  in an isolated stone fort in the middle of the desert.

Whoa so the best we can do in this war is tread water harm-wise like James, get an adrenaline rush and make a few buddies?  Does that make sense to do?

Oh, and another thing about Staff Sergent James: His methods are unorthodox.  He’s crazy. Renner’s male bonding scenes with Mackie and Geraghty feel put on, like acting class exercises where he plays the coolest guy in the room.  But this crazy bastard might be just what we need.  Sort of like a metaphor for Bush’s and now Obama’s war?  It’s kind of gross.

Following the blueprint of – as journalist John Pilger puts it Hollywood’s “pity the invader Vietnam war tragedies,” but dialing down the Army-is-absurdity of its predecessors (though did anyone else catch a weird Chaplin Tappan character reference to Catch 22?)  – this is tragedy lite – the kind of movie you make when the war is still going on.  What is the word for that?  Propaganda?

More Asians depicted most centrally as children (see Tropic Thunder): the Iraqi character with the most lines is a young boy who is sadistically murdered by the ghostly insurgents – who are these people intent on tearing their country apart?  At least in David O. Russell’s superior Three Kings we got the “What’s the matter with Michael Jackson?” scene with Mark Walhberg forced to guzzle crude oil.

But nope, in The Hurt Locker, all the tragedy lies with the Americans.  We don’t get to see the people whose country is being occupied.  It’s a desert cypher, as incomprehensible as Japan to Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation.  It’s as though the U.S. has the lockdown on feeling of hurt from this war, and with more than one million Iraqis dead since 2003 – how can that possibly be true?

February is the coldest month?

February u got 2 wait 4 the bus

It’s more than half over, but a belated welcome to February.

February, as you probably know, according to McDonald’s commercials and school programs is Black History Month, as opposed apparently to the eleven other White History Months, or wait, Hispanic Heritage Month in October, but not Indigenous Heritage Month, so diez y media meses for European American point of view.  But are some schools and programs in New York City trying to turn that around for the next generation?

February is the shortest month at 28 days, except when it’s one longer and it’s 29, and it’s still the shortest month.  This phenomenon has inspired a movie with that one chica and some I think English guy I don’t know called Leap Year that I have seen advertised with an appealing shade of green that sets off her red hair of that famous person.  When it is 28 days, it’s the same length as the cycle of the moon, incidentally.

My mom’s birthday is in February (happy birthday mom!)

I’ve heard that February is the coldest month; perhaps, because the winter has been so long at that point – 4 months of cold in the deciduous forests of the North Central-East Northern hemisphere, like New York, Wisconsin, etc.  But I think February’s close proximity to Spring has a sense of “this can’t go on forever” that we, as a society might need to experience fully at this point.

February is home to Groundhog Day, Valentine’s Day and President’s Day.  Superstition, Romantic Love and Patriotism all together under one moon shadow.

And it’s been snowing for us North Central-East North Americans – lots of snow – white, packing like the cotton in asprin bottles under your feet, reflecting sun and/or chilling in big packages of coold on corners as you walk by.

What does it make you think of?  Leave a comment:

Avatar

You may have won the last 500 years, but you’ll never colonize Space!!!

by Lauren Pabst

Just as District 9 indicated that there are enough realistic big-budget blockbuster movies about the horrors of apartheid in South Africa, there are apparently enough realistic big-budget blockbuster movies about the American genocide, according to Avatar.  Just kidding.  I know the value of a sci-fi satire as well as anybody.  But these are actual historical events, the repercussions of which persist today and are largely unrecognized by the cultural mainstream that Cameron is playing with, so heavy on the “real 3D” and CGI and lite on the story and context.

I would love to see a realistic epic historical blockbuster movie about people of color battling invaders and oppressors.  Hollywood does epic European versus European very well (see Braveheart) but notably Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto faded to black just before Jaguar Paw and his folks’ impending struggle against the arriving Europeans; the villians in that flick were Mayans.  Danny Glover’s plans to create an epic film about the Haitian Revolution and Toussaint L’Overture have been stalled more than a decade, as financing has been a real problem.

Cameron’s recycling a trusty myth that’s been kicking around the U.S. from James Fenimore Cooper to Dances With Wolves (as many others have pointed out, including David Brooks in the New York Times) of white man goes Native and finds his soul in the indigenous culture, which he then goes on to not only be accepted into, but to master, exemplify and then lead to (SPOILER ALERT) victory.  In Avatar, anyway.  Stay tuned for the real updated score for the Black people of South Africa and the original people of the Americas on your nightly news.  Oh, wait…

Akin to the fishiness pointed out by comedian Paul Mooney of a couple blockbusters of the early 2000’s [“First you had The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise.  Then you had The Mexican starring Brad Pitt”], like authorities terming Zapotec Mexicans aliens for setting foot in Arizona, the indigenous people of Avatar also happen to be aliens.  Writer, director and producer Cameron tells a story of plundering land and attempting to destroy a people who were living in harmony with nature in the name of a outrageously coveted mineral (actually called “unobtanium”) – IN SPACE.

But wait a minute.  Leaving aside the Dances With Wolves plotline, isn’t there value to the themes of Avatar?  What about the kids – they’re hearing the lessons of live in harmony with nature, don’t take what you don’t need, honor your ancestors and (ahem) paint with all the glow-in-the-dark colors of the wind.  The story that emerges has many touching moments, as the Na’vi culture (aesthetically like a glow-in-the-dark combination of Lakota and Masai – only the people are massive, catlike and blue) believes that all energy is enduring and that they can communicate with their ancestors through nature – cool, right?  It’s not often that you hear those sentiments expressed on the screen – big or small.

And the $500 million spectacle that unfolds on the screen is not to believed.  Thanks to the “real 3D” that I saw it in, even things like the foreground edges of desks seemed real enough to touch.

But the creation of an indigenous culture from whole cloth by Cameron is a little weird.  Though the Na’vi are grounded in nature, there is also something subtly high tech about them – their natural world glows neon like a Tokyo nightclub and they can “upload and download” ancestral memories from fiber-optic trees and communicate with animals by literally plugging in their long braids (as emphatically pointed out by Sigourney Weaver’s scientist, still game to tromp around a space ship in cargo shorts and an undershirt).  Also, when hero Jake Sully’s Na’vi avatar appears, they don’t seem to question how a “sky person” could inhabit the body of one of their own, but then are horrified when he turns out to be an avatar.  This is just one part of the eerie blue pall of condescension that Cameron casts over the people of his imagination.

And there is even precendent for Cameron allegedly co-opting the artistic expression of people of color before.  A lawsuit filed by African American author Sophia Stewart claims that Terminator 2 is lifted from her sci-fi epic novel The Third Eye.  Stewart’s lawsuit also names The Matrix creators the Wachowski brothers.  According to Stewart, in her book, the young boy character of Terminator 2 grows up to become the Neo character of the events of The Matrix (which in The Third Eye is a deeper allegory of slavery and colonization than appears in that film, also produced by Terminator and Avatar studio Fox).  After a judge ruled that the muti-million dollar lawsuit could go forward, it was thrown out when Stewart failed to appear at a hearing.  (Check out this interview with Stewart for more details.)

Leaving aside all of that, Avatar provides an intriguing parallel universe story of victory of people and nature over colonization and exploitation.  The film has been endorsed by President Evo Morales of Bolivia (after he saw it in his third ever trip to the movies) and condemned by the Vatican, which is offended at the suggestion that nature can replace religion (sort of like they were during the 15th Century).  But $500 million could probably finance five epic historical blockbusters of actual battles between indigenous people and colonizers (lite on the CGI, heavy on the story and context).  Which ones would you like to see?

Let me know:

From the archives (2003!) Film Review: Phone Booth: Please hang up and try again later

Colin Farrell on phone, in booth, under seige

(Did anybody see Phone Booth? I did!)

by Lauren Pabst

originally printed in the BU Daily Free Press Muse Arts + Entertainment section

In the tradition of one-location suspense films that are inordinately proud of their one location (such as Speed), comes Phone Booth — a movie that manages to create a moderate climate of suspense while operating entirely within the confines of a gimmick.

Colin Farrell plays Stu Shepard, a slimey publicist who is targeted by a mad sniper (voiced by the smooth, threatening baritone of Kiefer Sutherland) from within Manhattan’s last free-standing phone booth, located in Times Square. The events escalate and Stu soon finds himself trapped by both the sniper and the police, as a murder suspect.

A premise like this one does not create a large amount of mystery about what’s likely to happen, and the surprise is that somehow the film does not feel quite as predictable as it should. If the concept is gimmicky, director Joel Schumacher milks it for all it’s worth, transforming the titular glass enclosure into a creepy aquarium-like setting for the main character’s emotional, sweat-drenched trial by long-range fire.

Phone Booth’s fast pace editing and variety of shots — methodical circling, zigzagging zooms and slow-mo’ swooping around the booth and its limited immediate area — keep things frenetic but snappy and holds the audience on a MTV/ Matrix/ Fight Club-style visual adrenaline rush.

The film’s pace reflects its 10-day shoot, Schumacher said in a recent interview with the Muse. “Everything about the film was chaotic,” he said, laughing. “The first day of shooting I was panicky. I thought people would walk out.” Despite his initial fears, Schumacher soon found relevance in the film’s attempted true-life voyeuristic aspect, he said.

“I wanted it to feel for you the way it does — when you turn on the news, what’s happening right then,” he said. “If you turned on the news and they were saying that there was a guy in a phone booth and they think he had killed somebody and he wouldn’t get off the phone, you would watch. We all would.”

For someone trapped in a phone booth, Stu certainly draws a crowd — including a trio of disgruntled prostitutes, led by an amusing Paula Jai Parker, and the more reserved women in his life, Kelly (Rhada Mitchell) and Pam (Katie Holmes), who take turns looking puzzled and distressed. Forrest Whitaker is rather levelheaded as the top cop assigned to defuse the booth debacle. Sutherland’s sniper sounds sinister and somewhat reminiscent of that other mystery caller from Scream, but with more creepy calm and unsolicited psychoanalysis to offer his captive.

Like his character, though, Farrell fittingly garners all the attention. He does right by the mediocre script, accepting the perplexing attempts at witticisms as vestiges of his loser character instead of leaving them as clichè moments for the hero/bad-guy banter highlight reel. Farrell’s emphatic performance out-paces the rest of the film, and, at times, it almost feels like a one-man acting exercise with creative editing.

“Colin Farrell was my first choice, but no one would let me do it with him because he was unknown.” (The filming took place in 2000). This casting problem was the reason for one of the film’s three postponements, Schumacher explained. “First the film was postponed because of Sept. 11th because it’s set in New York, then until after Minority Report came out because then Colin would have a bigger profile.”

The sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C. area pushed back the October 2002 release date another six months, he said. For Schumacher, there was no way the film could have disregarded the events of last fall. “You can’t put movies above humanity.”

Though Phone Booth impressively renders the basic scenario of its gimmick, it remains un-ambitious in developing the story’s other angles. The film begins cleverly, with a bass-boosted montage of the state of the phone usage of modern man. However, by the end, there exists a bit too much sketchy emotional candor from the characters and blatant disregard of most all of the intricacies of the situation that rob the film of its possible depth. For all its tension building, via cool split screen tricks, the film only succeeds in hammering home pulse-pounding, crash-zooming irrelevance.

More than Meets the Eye

Megan Fox and Shia LeBoeuf running from an explosion in Transformers 2

Did you leave the webcam on?

by Lauren Pabst, Contextual Healing

Many of this Summer’s blockbuster fantasy movies pit humans against machines, even as Americans find our government on the robotic side of the real thing in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Part I

i, Autobot

“I got you a webcam so we can chat 24/7” says a college-bound Shia LaBeouf, ever so cooly, to love interest Megan Fox via cell phone early on in the trailer for Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, which opens today in theaters nationwide.

“Sounds cute, I can’t wait,” Fox replies cutely, flatly.

This little digital commercial is slipped prominently into the promo, just before clips of car chases and robot behemoths firebombing aircraft carriers, walking all over famous landmarks (Brooklyn Bridge! Pyramids of Giza!), busting up freeways and placing our visually pleasing heroes into jeopardy.

The flirty little exchange fits perfectly with the overall tone of Transformers, a fantasy action adventure based on the animated series from the 1980s, in which two squads of alien robots – one good, one evil – duke it out on battlefield Earth.

Though LeBoeuf and company will spend most of the movie along with the good Autobots fighting the evil Deceptecons, this little suggestive exchange aimed at the teenaged, digital device-consuming, YouTubing generation puts all of that robot-blasting in context. Technology (of the type that rumbles out of a tractor-trailer disguise to snatch your car off the highway) can be the enemy… but (in real life, now) before anything else, it is our trusted sidekick – our little digital friend. It’s what allows us to keep in touch with our sexy girl/boyfriends.

Since many of the summer blockbusters deal with the fantasy theme of man versus machine, it seems an appropriate time to take a look at our everyday relationship to robots. While Terminator: Salvation imagines malevolent killer robots programmed by an evil, autonomous, human-hunting computer program the Transformers series offers two sides of the coin – there are evil Deceptecons, but there are also helpful, righteous Autobots. And through our shared righteousness, humanity is on the side of the Autobots.

The friendship of Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky and Optimus Prime in Transformers is one more entry in the lovable-robot canon of American cinema. As evidenced by last summer’s WALL-E, as well as R2D2 and C3PO from Star Wars, Haley Joel Osment in A.I., Johnny 5 and the little guy from Batteries Not Included, the friendly robot is well established in our pop-culture consciousness. And let’s face it, friendly robots populate our life – from our trusty cell phone to our colorful, cute iPod, our indispensable laptop computer, our efficient microwave oven, and yes the webcam that allows us to chat with our significant other “24/7.”  Robots today provide unparalleled amounts of stimulation – mentally and in some cases even physically.

But in the Summer of 2009, the theme of man vs. machine is too significant and evocative for us to ignore. Certain other real-life battles are playing out right now, around the world. And like the heroic Autobots, we owe it to ourselves to transform a bit – our point of view, that is. There is definitely more than meets the eye.

Part II

“I’ll Be Back”

The Terminator was the 1984 action movie hit, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a humanoid killer robot from the year 2029, sent back in time to the Reagan era to kill the mother of the as-yet unborn John Connor. Connor would grow up to lead a rebellion against the evil machines that would take over Earth – an Air Force computer program called Skynet had become self-aware somewhere around the turn of the 21st Century, and was now bent on destroying the human race.

In Terminator 2 (1991), Schwarzenegger was back, this time as a benevolent bodyguard-bot, reprogrammed by the future John Connor and sent back to 1995 to protect his mom and his young self.

Now, twenty-five years after the original, there is a new Terminator movie, the actor who embodied the original killing machine has been “reprogrammed” yet again as the Governor of California, and Terminator-like killer robots zoom around blowing up people. But just like Arnold, these robots work for us.

I felt a bit of cognitive dissonance watching the new Terminator: Salvation in a half-full darkened, cold theater on a hot June afternoon. The scenes of the nightmarish Terminator robots hunting the brave humans of the Resistance were for us images to eat popcorn to, while the real thing is taking place half a world away.

The machines formerly known as Predator Drones are unmanned flying vehicles capable of bombing targets in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq with Hellfire missiles as they are operated remotely by pilots in an air-conditioned room on an Army base in places like Nevada. The U.S. Defense Department first admitted to arming these unmanned drones on October 25, 2002; they previously had been known to be used only for surveillance purposes.

The first intended targets of these Predator Drones were suspected al-Qaeda members. The drones have since been used in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. From just a handful seven years ago, the U.S. now has over 5,300 drones in operation – some as small as insects. Aerial drones also patrol the U.S.-Mexico border in the name of surveillance – these are currently unarmed.

In the words of one senior Bush administration official, as quoted by P.W. Singer, author of Wired for War, “The unmanning of war plays to our strength. The thing that scares people is our technology.”

Leaving aside the question of fear, the use of killer drone technology in the nebulous, seemingly unending “War on Terror” has many furious.

There has been an outcry by civilians in Pakistan, where over 250 people have been killed by the drones over the past year. A popular hit song in Pakistan last summer, as Singer explained on the TV and radio program Democracy Now! had lyrics charging that Americans look at them as insects. There are outspoken critics of the drones within the U.S. Defense establishment like David Kilcullen, an architect of General Petreus’ Iraq war surge, who claims that the unmanned robot killers are serving to further infuriate and radicalize the population of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq creating new enemies of the U.S. with each strike.

Some decry the attacks as a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty, and point to their illegitimacy, due to the fact that the U.S. has not declared war on Pakistan. But the U.S.’ position is that the authorization of the use of force grated after the attacks of September 11, 2001 applies to all nations, if there are any suspected anti-American militants within their borders. But the use of the unmanned drones has provided the U.S. with a way to launch attacks, while avoiding an overt on-the-ground invasion of Pakistan. Recently, according to Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations, the motive waters have been muddied, as the drone attacks in Pakistan have not focused on al Qaeda operatives, but members of the network led by Baitullah Mehsud – opponents of the Zardari government with an alleged role in the assassination of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

All those who wondered if the drone attacks would end with the changing of the administrations didn’t have to wait long for their answer. In the early hours of January 23th 2009, three days after President Obama took office, a drone struck two targets in Pakistan’s tribal Waziristan region. Fifteen people suspected of being supporters of the Taliban and their families were killed, including three children.

In the tribal regions of Pakistan can be found people living a rural, non-urbanized or globalized, traditional lifestyle. Three days earlier, in his inaugural speech, President Obama had referred to tribes:

“…because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”

Do the “lines of tribe” have to dissolve for people to live in peace? That is a loaded statement to make when we consider the context of American treatment of the indigenous tribes of our own country. In fact, the U.S. government carried out one of the first instances of “ethnic cleansing” of an area with the Cherokee Removal Act of 1838, which culminated with a forced march of civilians known now as the Trail of Tears. In fact, Adolf Hitler studied the U.S. treatment of Native Americans (which reads more like a dark library than a “dark chapter”- see the recent PBS series “We Shall Remain”) and admired it as a model of genocide.

Whatever Obama meant by that, the drone attacks have had a major affect on the tribal areas: The Sunday Times of the UK reported in April that up to 1 million civilians have fled the tribal regions of Pakistan to try to avoid these drone attacks, as well bombings by the Pakistani army.

What are the advantages of deploying advanced technology against people? Steven Cohen of the Foreign Policy study program at the Brookings Institute defends the drones on the basis of their being a surgical-like warfare application. “What they do is allow any country that possesses them to pinpoint without much collateral damage,” Cohen says. “The drone, in essence, while it conjures up images of a mechanical monster is in fact far more effective and more humane than dropping tons of bombs on an area.”

How accurate the drones are, however, has been called into serious question. According to the Times of Pakistan, there have been 60 drone attacks by the United States on the tribal regions of Pakistan between January 14th, 2006 and April 8th, 2009. Horrifyingly, the Times reports, of these 60 attacks, only ten hit their intended targets, killing 14 alleged al-Qaeda leaders. An estimated 687 Pakistani civilians were killed in the drone attacks; unintended casualties, the aforementioned “collateral damage” (incidentally, also the title of an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie from 2002).

However, most of the people who will sit in multiplexes this summer watching Christian Bale’s John Connor fight the evil Skynet computer system and its robotic minions, or Shia LaBeouf and the gallant Autobots battle the evil alien robotic Decepticons, blissfully unaware or only muddily informed of the real-world drone attacks, will find themselves cheering on American humans as they face malevolent robots. In the blockbuster movies, like Terminator and Transformers, our (American) heroes are tasked with the burden of being the representatives of humanity that fight against the cold, brutality of an unfeeling robot programmed to murder cooly, indiscriminately.

The irony is so blatant that it would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

Some are very aware of what the drones are doing, namely, their operators – many of them 18 and 19 year-olds literally assigned to this post because of their Playstation skills. As with their colleagues deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, the drone pilots –working on Army bases in the U.S. – though they may never physically experience the battlefield, have been known to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to the jarring nature of their work. According to an August, 2008 story by the Associated Press, “Remote control warriors suffer war stress,” the pilots must guide the drones back to the attack site after the damage has been done, using the drones’ built-in surveillance equipment to gather high-resolution imagery of the casualties. Unlike Air Force pilots who can drop tons of bombs and never face the consequences of their work, the drone pilots cannot avoid seeing the dead bodies their mission has resulted in. A mission that resembles nothing so much as a live video game – with deadly real results.

Like a lot of action movies these days, Terminator: Salvation plays just a bit like a recruiting film for the Army. Set in a nightmare scape of 2018 (whoa! not much time, gang), it’s a watery by-the-numbers adventure where the carbon-based good guys scamper around the Western deserts (hmm) of a post-Apocalyptic United States wearing the official Resistance long olive trench coats oddly reminiscent of another time.

From a character’s pointed obsession with earning the right to wear the natty coats of the Resistance and an uncomfortable parable of redemption and self-sacrifice, Terminator Salvation is a embarrassingly earnest, bleak blow-up affair. Christian Bale’s John Connor (the fully grown charismatic alterna-leader within the corrupt bureaucracy of the Resistance) is brooding and glum. There’s little of the fantasy-rebel glee that characterized the earlier entries in the series, or the first Star Wars movies.

Then there’s the journey of Marcus Wright (Australian actor Sam Worthington), which makes up most of the film, a death row inmate from 2003 (he has committed some vague murders, never really explained) who, after having donated his body to science, emerges fully alive in the sand shitstorm of ’18 as a robot-human hybrid. Connor and company must decide whether the G.I. Joe-looking Wright can be trusted. For his part, Wright proves his loyalty to the human side via heroic self-sacrifice (a theme of the Terminator movies, to be sure, but one made more queasy given Worthington’s striking resemblance to an uber-soldier from one of those Army of One commercials).

In the midst of it all, the movie also offers a small vignette of resistance that could have been written by Sophocles; a bit of American Empire Greek Tragedy-style catharsis:

Connor refuses to follow the orders of the Rebellion’s leaders when they tell him to blow up Skynet’s command central, where thousands of human prisoners are kept. In the movie, it is the fact that he is unwilling to destroy innocent people (AKA collateral damage) that makes Connor a great leader. But what happens next is remarkable. The soldiers of the Resistance, inspired by Connor, actually refuses to follow the orders to bomb Skynet. Not so far-fetched, according to the conclusions of the 2005 documentary Sir No Sir, which retraces a large-scale resistance and its spread throughout the entire armed forces, during the Vietnam war. Connor is then able to save the human hostages, by engaging in the heroic hand-to-hand (or in this case, hand to bot) personal combat most highly prized by action movies.

In Terminator: Salvation, it almost seems like the plot has been designed as a rebellion lightning rod for an impressionable audience. Rebellion is painted in fantastical terms, awesome and escapist within the Hollywood-devised movie scenario. For much of the audience, the movie may be more relevant than the goings-on in the War on Terror. the real robot war being waged in our name, instead of merely identifying with fake cinematic versions.

Do our Summer blockbusters decontextualize current events, further desensitizing us to the effects of the real robot wars being being waged in our name? That all depends if these images of shadow cinematic rebellion remain entirely divorced from substance.

“If you are listening to this – you are the Resistance” John Connor intones breathily over pirate radio waves.

Ditto that.

Tropic Thunder and Post-Racial Blackface

by Lauren Pabst

 

Robert Downey, Jr. has received an Oscar nomination for appearing in blackface in Tropic Thunder.

The reason that this is acceptable is that Downey, Jr. is not himself wearing blackface. Rather he is playing a character who dons blackface in a ridiculous illustration of Method acting (akin to gaining or losing enormous amounts of weight and other physical transformations undergone for high-profile film roles). You see, this is acceptable because the joke isn’t about blackface. The wearing of blackface is incidental, just another example of actors arrogantly stretching to play characters they don’t resemble.

Okay.

Sounds like a Hollywood inside joke. And, indeed, the entire film Tropic Thunder (written and directed by Ben Stiller, a Hollywood insider from birth) plays like a big inside joke, nudging at an absurd and Machivellian studio system, while at its core, performing exactly to the specifications of banality, violence and cynical lowest-common-denominator humor to earn its own blockbuster status.

The film follows five actors playing actors, who set out to film a movie version of a former Green Beret’s memoir of the Vietnam War (which later turns out to be phony). The actors, whose director is desperate for “authenticity” are dropped into the jungle for some guerrilla-style filmmaking and accidentally find themselves in the middle of a Thai heroin smuggling operation. Body parts fly, Stiller is kidnapped, and hilarity ensues.

It is significant, the way in which the film incorporates blackface into its arsenal of irreverence, which also mocks developmentally disabled people, but in a similar round-about way. Stiller’s character (a Tom Crusie-like Hollywood megastar) has played a developmentally disabled farmhand, referred to several times in the film as a “retard,” which led disability rights groups to call for a boycott of the film. The filmmakers again justify this by explaining that the joke was really on actors who play mentally disabled characters as a ploy to win awards. But still, the image of Stiller, aping a mentally challenged person, decked out in a blond bowl-cut wig and buckteeth.

Like this piece of mockery, blackface is incidental in the film, just a piece of background on which the filmmakers can riff. The comedy playbook they are working from assumes an absolute saturation of its public with the tiresome swamp of that old “political correctness.” Tropic Thunder celebrates an apex of thoughtlessness in the guise of biting satire; but in the end, it’s like an US weekly reader dissing and devouring every page. It’s embarrassingly obsessed with the target of its bile; Hollywood.

The presence of Brandon Jackson, a black actor, seems to have been written in to cool the sting of Downey, Jr.’s meta-minstrel show. Incidentally, Jackson plays Hollywood’s version of a closeted homosexual rap star. But apart from the character’s cringing accessories, (he peddles an energy drink called Booty Sweat, his name is Alpa Chino, he peddles Alpa Chino chinos, etc.) Jackson is given very little to do, other than put Downey, Jr. in his place.

But with Jackson firmly in place, critical acclaim for the post-modern blackface poured in. Stiller and the audacious gang had apparently pulled it off. David Edlestein, in New York magazine: “But there’s a bigger reason the portrait isn’t offensive: As much as Downey sends up the Shafts and Super Flys, he respects the beauty and weight and potency of the archetype. He drops his voice an octave (at least) and what comes out is gorgeous. He really does make a damn fine Negro.”

Are we beginning to see how that nebulous idea of “post-racial” America is functioning in popular culture? Blackface is a punchline, but for a joke not concerning black people, so we are free to sit back and enjoy the fine performance. (That just happens to be in blackface.) Yes, it’s outrageous! But the filmmakers are perfectly aware of how offensive it is! Wait, why aren’t you laughing?

Like on TV’s The Office and Family Guy, it seems that the sheer outrageousness is accepted as the means through which ethnic humor loses its sting. Trespassing in these taboos seems now to equal “edgy” comedy. The problem is that, especially with such a topic as blackface, the historical context is way too significant and relevant today to gloss over in such a thoughtless way.

For a critical and visceral look at the painful importance of the device of blackface (and its modern-day pop cultural offspring), nothing can beat Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000), which not only places the Kafka-esque entertainment industry under a much sharper satirical scalpel than do Stiller et al, but does so with much more style and sensitivity. Bamboozled examines the many different shades in which the idea of blackface (ironclad white control over depiction of black people in entertainment) appears in the entertainment industry – past and present. Though the film was criticized for being didactic and preachy, perhaps Lee simply chose to scream his points in the face of so much deafening mainstream silence on the theme. In dealing with the subject of blackface, Lee is as sincere as Stiller is jaded.

But Tropic Thunder doesn’t just decontextualize blackface. It also paints a nasty coat of irony over a formerly sacrosanct cult of mainstream moviemaking; the “pity the invader” Vietnam War tragedy.

From Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter to Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, there is a long tradition of American G.I.s as tragic heroes in Vietnam War movies, as the macho posturing of John Wayne in World War II movies gave way to a more introspective art form that tried to salve the emotional wounds suffered by the U.S. population in respect to the Vietnam War.

The “pity the invader” trope is examined by investigative journalist John Pilger in the documentary Vietnam: The Last Battle (1995). In this documentary, Pilger returns to Vietnam (from which he did courageous, entirely “unembedded” reporting during the war itself), only to find the neo-liberal economic policies of globalization trying to succeed where bombs and chemical weapons failed.

In Pilger’s words:

“The history of the war has been rewritten by Hollywood, with a series of films that have blended Rambo and self-pity, a potent combination. The message has been sometimes crude and sometimes subtle, but always the same. America made mistakes, but it was really the fault of the Vietnamese for defending their country. In other words, the crusade was flawed, but it was a noble one.”

Hollywood’s depiction of the Vietnam War has always been overwhelmingly one-sided and with Tropic Thunder, even this reverence for the American victims of the war is tossed away. This has resulted in a new generation (in the military is largely made up of a small percentage of the population kept in a perpetual economic draft) tricked into laughing at scenes of death and jungle warfare with the flimsy justification of identifying with the inside jokes of the Hollywood elite. No matter how much Entertainment Tonight or TMz we consume, we are not the insiders. The joke is largely on us.

We have been bamboozled into laughing at war. Perhaps not actual war, but a depiction of war, full of evocative images and symbols full of significance.

For example, a thoroughly retro device is woven through Tropic Thunder: the depiction of the Southeast Asian villains as children. The Thai heroin processing plant is presided over by a stock image of a child soldier, a pint-sized tyrant, complete with beret, scar and cigarette. That the film chooses to go there is very weird, for multiple reasons. The classic 19th Cenutry theme of European colonial literature depicting the strange, non-European people they encounter as backwards children, or in childlike terms (Kipling, Defoe, etc.) is an eerie image to revive in these neo-colonial times.

This is underscored when the heroin gang turns out to be obsessive fans of the Stiller’s character’s developmentally disabled farmhand movie. (They even hit the floor in genuflection when Stiller is revealed as the star of the movie, an embarrassing bit of retro buffoonery). Soft-pedaling, the film still makes the point of intellectual inferiority for the gang even in the movie’s own film-obsessed terms, i.e. they worship the dreck of Hollywood, a strong condemnation indeed from this erudite bunch of filmmakers.

The comedic depiction of child soldiers has to be placed in the context of the Western media’s current obsession with child soldiers in the on-going wars in several African countries. There is a great lack of knowledge in mainstream America of the foundations and details that characterize these conflicts, and indeed, the political situation of African countries in general. The Second Congo War (1998-2003), also known as Africa’s World War, which resulted in over 5 million civilian deaths, is particularly absent from mainstream media’s radar. (To learn more, listen to the excellent radio documentary, “The Ravaging of Africa,” by Canadian journalists Kristin Schwartz and Asad Ismi.)

The Western media does have a relative obsession with child soldiers, as opposed to the context and history of conflicts that have produced them. Decontextualized first person accounts often find their way into the consciousness of Americans without a proper explanation of the conflicts themselves.

Back in Tropic Thunder, Stiller’s character is brainwashed by his captors and in his cracked mental state he begins to yearn to adopt a toddler of the group. Stiller seems to just want to mock the current Hollywood trend of international adoptions. Indeed, international adoptions are problematic, not because people in wealthy countries adopting children from the Global South don’t provide loving homes, but for the simple fact that taking the children of a country suffocated by poverty and instability wrought by colonialism and its new incarnation, globalization, should provide no excuse for the lack of awareness of the extent to which wealthy countries and economic systems still have their collective economic foot on the necks of these “developing” countries.

But Stiller brings up the topic purely for laughs. The film’s action-packed climax sees Stiller being literally stabbed in the back by that same toddler, whom he then flings into a river, much to the delight of the audience at the screening I attended. The child is, of course, seemingly unharmed, and crawls over to a riverbank to pout among the rubble. A toddler sitting alone in the rubble of a Southeast Asian village? This image seems designed to rub out the harrowing pictures of Vietnamese orphans wandering alone in the aftermath of U.S. bombings.

Bombarded though we are by images, we can’t overestimate their enduring power on the screen to desensitize us to reality. Downey, Jr.’s neo-blackface situates the the movie squarely within the queasy belief system of “post-racism,” whereby the presence of a black actor blunts the offensiveness of a white actor in blackface. There is also a “post-war” mentality, represented by a pop cultural yearning for “Hollywood insider” status that allows for laughter at scenes of war. But the U.S. is very far from a post-war nation – it is actively engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (not to mention the sales of arms to numerous other war-torn countries around the world), which employ the same strategy of state-of-the-art weapons technology against people that characterized the U.S.’s war on Vietnam.

The transgressions of Tropic Thunder are symptomatic of this bored and cloistered cultural moment. Pop culture vehicles like this fancy themselves “above the rim” of political correctness, but their ham-fisted irreverence in respect to the weighty, complex topics of racism and war is like delicious sugary salt – gobbled by some, poured into wounds the wounds of others, the world over.