Sunday, March 28, 2010

Utopian novels are for optimists

Looking Backward, 2000-1887

So I read this classic utopian novel by Edward Bellamy because it's considered a classic and I tend to enjoy stories set in the future. Silly me for thinking this book would contain a story. Basically, Bellamy used a tiny fragment of a plot idea as an excuse to publish a treatise on how to fix the societal ills of the 19th century.

An upper class socialite of 19th century Boston falls into a hypnotic trance and sleeps for 123 years at which point a 21st century doctor discovers and revives him. Our hero is then taken on a tour and introduced to all the ways in which the future society had fixed all the problems of the past, without strife or fighting as a matter of fact.

This is where Bellamy's imagination runs rampant. Seriously? You're telling me that the owners of large corporations would voluntarily step down just because they recognized that it was for the greater good? People are naturally self-centered and as nice as his ideas sound, Bellamy does not appear to realize that the problems he was trying to fix were caused by selfishness and greed which cannot be wiped out without opposition.

And this is why I've decided not to read anymore utopian novels. I'm too much of a pessimist when it comes to human nature and thus I don't believe that all of the societal repairs found in utopian novels are realistically possible. In order to implement some of these ideas there would need to be force, and where there is force there is resistance. Then you're getting into dystopian civilizations like those of 1984 or A Brave New World, and for some reason the worlds described in those and similar stories seem much more real and much more possible to me.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

12 Monkeys, or Bruce Willis' naked butt.

12 Monkeys directed by Terry Gilliam

Okay, so Bruce's butt does not play that prominent of a role in this movie but it was featured in about 5 more scenes than I tend to prefer. If you do the math that may end up as a negative number but I feel that this accurately portrays my feelings about seeing pasty white Bruce Willis butts on my television screen.

Enough about butts. There also happened to be a movie going on. So this starts out in one of your post-apocalyptic futures where everybody bemoans the way life used to be. Why do so many stories contain this element? Perhaps it is a jab at current society, telling us to stop complaining and enjoy the life that we have. Anyways, so Willis' character, James Cole, is sent back in time to procure a pure sample of a virus that will eventually wipe out humanity. He doesn't need to prevent the plague, it seems to be accepted as an inevitable fact, he just needs to find the virus before it mutates beyond control so that the future scientists can create a cure.

This film explores some interesting ideas, some common to time travel stories and others not so common but inherently tied into time travel. One unique idea, at least an idea that I hadn't encountered much, is the effect of time travel on a person's mental functioning. When first sent back in time Cole is arrested and placed in a mental institution because everything that he says sounds crazy. Matched against the disturbingly realistic insanity portrayed by Brad Pitt, Cole and even the audience start to doubt the validity of this whole traveling from the future story. At one point Cole is even convinced that he's imagining the future that he thinks he's from and admits that he's just plain crazy.

Another idea is the question of causality. Just about every time travel story out there treats this in a different way. Probably because causality can only be studied in the past. Gilliam (or the writers) take causality and really try to blow the viewer's mind attempting to understand the movie in a standard, linear-time point of view. Let me just say this...they succeed. I spent the rest of the night trying to wrap my head around the causes and effects presented in this movie and I started to get dizzy. And this is the kind of movie that I enjoy for some reason.

Anyways, if you watch this movie, make sure that you're holding onto something secure, or that you're wearing a hat because we don't want you crashing or your brains exploding everywhere and making a mess.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Another film from the 50s

North by Northwest directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

So being a Hitchcock film, this is a very famous picture and well-known scenes have been parodied in many different media. I'm a big fan of parodies but what makes a parody funny is recognizing the original material. So to that end, I decided to watch this film.

The great thing about North by Northwest is that it is genuinely a good movie. It's not one of those films that you should watch just so you can understood jokes referencing it (e.g. 2001: A Space Odyssey). North by Northwest has an intriguing plot, snappy dialogue, and non-annoying characters. It also has your typical obviously-fake inside-a-car scenes, but given the filming technology of the time we'll let that slide.

So basically, Cary Grant stars as New York City advertising agent, Roger Thornhill. This is starting to sound extremely boring. Luckily he's mistaken for a spy named George Kaplan, kidnapped to a country chateau and subsequently liquored up and placed in a stolen car rolling towards some ocean cliffs. Luckily, Thornhill sees his peril, corrects the car and subsequently proves that you can drink and drive.

After being arrested and held in jail overnight the police begin investigating and this is where the plot becomes intriguing. Thornhill can't find anything to corroborate his story; even his own mother doesn't believe him, which doesn't seem to surprise him. He must be a terrible advertising agent because his kidnappers don't believe he's not Kaplan and the police don't believe he's not a drunken liar. Thornhill wants to find out who the real Kaplan is and in his investigation he is framed for murder and chased onto a train where he makes numerous (and thinly veiled) sexual innuendos with Eva Marie Saint on the way to Chicago.

If I were to remake this movie the only thing I would change would be a scene early on in the movie. In it, an unintroduced group of people are discussing Thornhill's actions around a table. Basically, this scene explains too much, while isn't necessarily bad but in this case it takes away a lot of the intrigue from the rest of the movie. The plot is still good but without that scene, the audience would be much more engrossed in the mystery and all the more surprised as facts are revealed.

Monday, March 8, 2010

12 Angry Men (or holy crap 1957 was a long time ago!)

12 Angry Men directed by Sidney Lumet

Anytime that anyone has mentioned this movie to me it has been in the context of praise. After finally watching it for myself, I see what they mean. It is quite the compelling story.

Strangely enough, the first thing I noticed was the stark contrast in eras. Sure it was only made back in 1957; that wasn't that long ago right? My parents were both alive at that time. They had television and cars and baseball. It wasn't that different, right?

I think the 60s changed the landscape of American culture more drastically than those of us from younger generations fully realized. Think about it. Back then segregation was still an accepted way of life. The USSR was not only still a country but also a legitimate superpower. Humans had not been in outer space. Routine dress for men was a suit, tie, and hat. New York still had 3 baseball teams.

But there they are, 12 men representing the common people of the day and one of the first things I noticed is that they're all dressed the same. Under their suit coats (which all but one had a dark color) they all wore a white shirt and tie.

Now, I digress. I was going to talk about 12 Angry Men, or should I say 11 angry men because honestly, Henry Fonda's character never really seems to get angry. Nearly the entire movie is shot inside one room as a jury deliberates their verdict. In the preliminary vote Fonda is the only one who votes not guilty. The rest of the movie is spent in argument and discussion as the various characters reason their way through the evidence and their own opinions. I'm not sure how else to describe it. It's really just one of those movie you have to watch.

Fonda's character exemplifies the lesson that I took from this movie. He's even-tempered and doesn't rush to judgment. He's seen the evidence of the trial, he knows that the law states "beyond a reasonable doubt" and he has doubts. He's open-minded, yet unconvinced. I like to think that I could be described in the same way. Perhaps that explains why I liked the movie? I'm not sure, but I'm willing to discuss it.